by Sasson Sofer. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 449 pp. $59.95 (c).
Theodor Herzl enjoys a well-deserved reputation for prescience. One of his works, Altneuland, anticipated a characteristic that is vital for understanding contemporary Israeli politics: even though the Jewish state is a new country its politics are not. How old they are is a matter for debate. Whether or not one finds the antecedents of the Israeli political process in the Bible, there can be no doubt that governing after 1948 was in many respects a continuation of processes that became well established during the Mandate period. Among the areas of continuity was ideology. Indeed the emergence of the various Zionist ideologies goes back to the very early days of the Zionist movement. However, until the creation of the Mandate, these ideological positions did not have to be tested against the realities of life in Palestine. The encounters with the real world in Eretz Yisrael between 1920 and 1948 led to substantial changes in the various ideologies, often accompanied by organizational ruptures and mergers, not to mention the solidification of intense antagonisms among many of the protagonists. There were only about 600,000 Jews in Palestine in 1948 and far fewer at the beginning of the Mandate. It is truly amazing that such a small community could generate such variegated and intense ideological positions as the Yishuv did. It is even more amazing that Israel has been able to function politically with any degree of unity in light of that history of multiple divisions. The challenge to diplomats to represent such a country has been a mighty one. Even more difficult has been the task of government leaders, who have had to fashion foreign policies in a coalition environment that has often reflected the intellectually competitive atmosphere of a Zionist Congress.
Sasson Sofer thoroughly examines the ideological varieties during the years before statehood while focusing on the development of a diplomatic tradition. Even though his main interest is foreign policy, his discussion necessarily deals primarily with the meaning of Zionism for the various groups, how they relate to Jewish history, the personalities identified with each of the positions, and the organizational machinations associated with the various groups. His approach differs from that used in other works on Zionist ideology, such as those by Arthur Hertzberg and Shlomo Avineri, in that he does not examine a limited number of thinkers in some depth but rather tries to identify nearly everyone who exercised some ideological leadership and gives at least a brief summary of their ideas. Moreover he incorporates political leaders who were not necessarily innovative ideologically and tries to explain how the various organizational schisms and amalgamations occurred. Thus he has produced a rich ideological history of the Yishuv, one that ends in 1948 despite a concluding chapter in which he attempts to relate his study to the unfolding events of the subsequent 50 years.
The book is certainly a learned analysis of the various positions. Sorer systematically goes through every conceivable ideological position, to the extent that he even offers chapters on such diverse groupings as Lehi, the Communists, the farmers and Sephardi notables, and Canaanites and Semites. Naturally all of the more consequential groups are included as well. The problem is that most of the groups that he identifies have had little if any impact on Israeli diplomacy. Arguably he should have devoted more attention to those groups that have been prominent in government and less to the groups that have not. One gets the impression that Sorer wrote the book that he wanted to write but that the title is not very descriptive. …