Dmitry Shumsky. Beyond the Nation-State: The Zionist Political Imagination from Pinsker to Ben-Gurion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018. 320 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-23013-0.
Reviewed by Brian Horowitz (Tulane University)
Published on H-Judaic (July, 2019)
Commissioned by Barbara Krawcowicz (Jagiellonian University)
This is an important book. It is admittedly polemical but also creative, well argued, and penetrating. It aims to shift paradigms, and it succeeds in this goal by examining the original intellectual contexts of Zionism’s greatest thinkers. Dmitry Shumsky, associate professor at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, claims that scholars of Zionism have made serious mistakes because they misinterpreted what the founding fathers actually said. Instead of analyzing Theodor Herzl and Ahad Ha’am on their own terms, scholars sought ideological justification and salient precedents for today’s Israel—a nation-state. However, according to Shumsky, the theoreticians of Zionism could not have predicted the nearly complete domination of the nation-state as a political form after World War II. It is time to dispense with conventional but false truths and examine Zionist thinkers on their own terms.
Shumsky deals with the pantheon: Leo Pinsker, Theodor Herzl, Ahad Ha’am (Ginzburg), Vladimir Jabotinsky, and David Ben-Gurion (Green). In individual chapters devoted to each thinker, he reconstructs their worldview based on a more accurate understanding of political concepts during their lifetimes. Such ideas as “nation,” “people,” “land,” “territory,” “autonomy,” “federation,” “state,” and “empire” had different meanings than they do in our day. Relying on his earlier studies of Zionism in the Austro-Hungarian Empire before World War I, Shumsky elicits new meanings from these heroes of Zionism. The reformed interpretations show that Pinsker had been and remained an integrationist; Herzl desired a multinational, multilinguistic, and multicultural Palestine of Jews; Ahad Ha’am was not the father of cultural Zionism but a Realpolitik realist who saw the need to share the land with Palestinian Arab nationalists; Jabotinsky is not the spiritual father of the idea of population transfer but a believer in coexistence with a contented Arab minority; and finally, Ben-Gurion and his friend Itzhak Ben-Zvi envisioned a Jewish Palestine in the Ottoman Empire in which Jews would compose one nation in a multinational empire. The common denominator to all the chapters is this: Israel the nation-state, as we know it today, was only one of several possible political forms that Zionist leaders imagined. In fact, Zionism’s founding fathers conceived of much different outcomes than the nation-state, outcomes that included binationalism, a two-state solution, and a Jewish colony within a large empire. Shumsky’s are strong readings, but how accurate are they?
Generally speaking, all the chapters offer tremendous insights, but some are more convincing than others. Let’s look at the merits first. Critics have been unable to understand how Herzl, author of The Jewish State (1896), afterward proceeded to write a novel, Old New Land (1902), where the fulfillment of Zionism does not include the establishment of a Jewish state. But the two need not be viewed as opposed to one another and the connecting tissue is the Ottoman Empire and the image of Reschid Bey in Old New Land. In Reschid Bey, Herzl “imagined a native of Palestine who has been acculturated into the Turkish-Ottoman imperial culture and who sees himself as an enlightened Muslim” (p. 82). Shumsky continues, “It is more than plausible, then, that Herzl was quite familiar with the discourse of Ottoman modernity that had been dominant toward the end of Abdul Hamid II’s reign. Reschid Bey, it appears, is an exact embodiment of this discourse, which was being disseminated widely by Ottoman intellectuals in several European languages, especially in French” (pp. 82-83). Shumsky argues that with Reschid Bey, Herzl unveiled his conception of Palestine as a future European outpost in the Ottoman Empire in which cultured Jews and Arabs comingled. Going back to The Jewish State now, one can interpret it as a blueprint for a multicultural colony in Palestine rather than some kind of call for a nation-state.
The chapter on Jabotinsky permits a different reading from the usual interpretation. In 1906, at the Helsingfors Zionist Conference (which took place right after the failed Russian Revolution of 1905), Jabotinsky formulated a conception of minority rights based on the writings of Rudolph Springer (Karl Renner). In this conception, minorities would have full national autonomy to develop their character through separate cultural, educational, and legal institutions. Although these ideas were designed to reconfigure the Russian Empire along national lines, Jabotinsky saw them as applicable to any multicultural politic. Thus, he conceived of Jewish-Arab coexistence in the Ottoman Empire during the period of the Young Turk Revolution, and then in Mandate Palestine. Jabotinsky placed his stress on the development of the nation in concrete territory rather than the construction of a nation-state. In this interpretation, Jabotinsky showed himself as a believer in something like a binational Palestine in which the country would contain Arabs who would have equal civil and national rights, albeit as a national minority.
Shumsky gives a strong defense of his approach in his conclusion: “And indeed, it was only reasonable and natural that the Zionist political thought that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century in imperial spaces saturated with multiple nationalities would be anchored first and foremost in the national political discourse that obtained in its close environs. This is also true of Zionism’s approach to the idea of national collective normalization, which it developed above all by observing national-political developments in the Romanov, Habsburg, and Ottoman imperial spaces. These were the spaces where most of the world’s Jews lived when Zionism emerged, one of which even contained the Zionists’ territorial destination of choice.... In any event, the possibility that the empires would collapse ... was not particularly attractive to the leaders of small nations, even on the very eve of World War I. Rather, it was actually the possibility of a more egalitarian multinational state that emerged as the best possible scenario according to the national-political discourse of that period. And if the national leadership of non-Jewish territorial nations, nations whose members were concentrated in their historic homelands, preferred the federative multinational state rather than the nation-state as a ‘final goal,’ is it any wonder that the political Zionists chose to work toward a political program that was in the spirit of their neighbors’ autonomist territorialism?” (pp. 221, 223)
This is perhaps the most essential argument of Shumsky’s book: being true to historical context, the original Zionists could not imagine a future full of nation-states and therefore formulated their ideas around empires and national autonomism, which were their relevant models of political organization. Of course, there are going to be challenges to his interpretation. I quickly thought of three. Some might claim that the multinational empire was not the model since Zionism emerged from a criticism of it. Anti-Semitism in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, and to a degree, the Ottoman Empire motivated Zionist thinkers to conceive of an escape; it is unlikely that they would look to failed conditions as a solution. Other critics might say that autonomy might be the ideal, but their conception of autonomy included a vision of national territory filled with a thick Jewish population that would appear similar to today’s nation-state, although in their time they might call it by a different name. Still other critics might argue that the debate in Zionism between “now” and the “future” was already played out between Hibbat Tsion and political Zionism in the first two decades of the twentieth century; political Zionism won. These objections do not mean that Shumsky is wrong, but his opponents are unlikely to surrender.
However, for me, Shumsky is certainly right that a fetish about the nation-state form has distorted Zionist historiography. His challenge to conventional wisdom is a welcome one. In this effort, he has been helped by the wonderful translations by Itamar Haritan and Avner Greenberg. The volume is intended for all readers who always felt something wrong in the hagiography of the Zionist founding fathers but could not identify it. Shumsky has identified, analyzed, and diagnosed the misreadings and succeeded in writing a rare and meaningful book.
Brian Horowitz is the Sizeler Family Endowed Professor in the Departments of German/Slavic and Jewish Studies at Tulane University.
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Brian Horowitz. Review of Shumsky, Dmitry, Beyond the Nation-State: The Zionist Political Imagination from Pinsker to Ben-Gurion.
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