Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel, by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi. New York: Olive Branch Press, 1993. v + 220 pages. Bibl. to p. 225. Index to p. 227. $29.95 cloth; $14.95 paper.
The Zionist problematic, according to Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, has been the attempt to alleviate Jewish suffering in Europe by establishing a Jewish state in Palestine, which, in turn, has caused a Palestinian disaster. Original Sins, the book's title, reflects the author's thesis: The first sin occurred when the Europeans perpetrated injustices against the Jews; and the second has been Israel's displacement and victimization of the Palestinians.
Beit-Hallahmi, a psychologist teaching at Haifa University and the author of several books on Israel, offers a bold and courageous analysis of Zionism. Those who expect to read a comprehensive history based on a systematic study must look elsewhere. Rather, this book offers several insights into Zionism's development and its impact on Israeli society and culture, and on world Jewry. As such, the book should be read by those seeking a deeper and more critical understanding of the role of Zionism, presented by an Israeli Jew who is both a participant (a citizen) and an observer (a scholar).
Reflecting on the Zionist enterprise from Theodore Herzl to the Intifada, Beit-Hallahmi examines the origins of Zionism, its relationship to the diaspora, its role vis-a-vis religion, and its effect on the Palestinians. He is at his best when analyzing Zionism and Israeli identity. Zionism's most triumphant achievement is its successful creation of an indigenous culture, emphasizing the unique Israeli experience through art, cinema, language, literature, and new social norms. Affirmation of the emergent Israeli culture, however, was predicated upon the rejection of diaspora values and experience. Early Zionists argued that the diaspora represented "passivity, cowardice and subservience" (p. 120). Hence, the traditional image of the Jew, living amidst a gentile world, was totally repudiated and replaced by a new Hebrew culture emphasizing activism, heroism, and sovereignty.
Since Jewish existence in the diaspora, replete with pogroms, hatred, and discrimination, epitomized Jewish powerlessness, the Zionists turned to the Bible in search of heroes, symbols, and a new national mythology. As the author correctly notes, "Zionism claimed a direct continuity with the ancient vestiges of Jewish sovereignty and with the tragic rebellions against the Romans which had all failed, but left behind images of heroic fight to the death. These heroes were physical and brave, tied to the land" (p. 122). Hence, the Jewish mass suicide in Massada in 73 has become a powerful national symbol, denoting Israel's resolve to commit suicide rather than fall hostage to its enemies.
As part of the socialization process, the curricula of secular Israeli schools includes Bible education, viewed as an integral component of the study of Jewish history. Beit-Hallahmi refers to this as the "historization of the Bible" (p. 124), whereby biblical heroes such as Abraham or King David are presented as forerunners of today's Zionists. In this regard, archeology becomes a tool for rediscovering and preserving the past, in order to substantiate a historic connection between Israel's contemporary experience and the a ancient Jewish presence in Palestine.
Beit-Hallahmi discusses the rejection of Yiddish as the language of the diaspora and the revival of Hebrew as part of Zionism's legacy and attempt to delegitimize the Jewish experience in Europe. …