[H-Net Reviews]

Amos Elon. A Blood-Dimmed Tide: Dispatches from the Middle East. New
York: Columbia University Press, 1997. 332 pp. Index. $24.95 (cloth),
ISBN 0-231-10742-0.

Reviewed by Zouhair Ghazzal, Loyola University Chicago.
Published by H-Review (May, 1998)

The Future of Zionism

It is no secret that Theodor Herzl's Judenstaat (1896)--"a country for
Jews," rather than the more familiar "Jewish state" as proposed by Amos
Elon (p. 132)--preached for a secular Jewish nationalism in which
religion would play only a minor if not ambiguous role. Herzl was indeed
no great champion of religion and was neither interested in ancient
Judaism as such nor in its more modern nineteenth-century messianic
evolution. Herzl was in fact thinking more in terms of a practical
solution to anti-Semitism in both eastern and central Europe, even
though the distinction between the two Europes (supposing he was aware
of the political implications of such a distinction) did not seem to
have mattered that much to him; nor did he operate between various
brands of nationalisms for that matter. In addition, he was also
thinking of the urgent need for a territorial state to the Jews of the
world, which all by itself would be enough a measure to contain
anti-Semitism. Zionism thus became the de facto ideology of the secular
Jews who were looking for territorial nationalism as a way out to
anti-Semitism.

In fact, Herzl's nationalism probably owed much more to the state
formations of the large empires of eastern Europe than to the
nation-states of central Europe. Thus, in the nationalistic tradition of
the large empires and in particular the Austrian-Hungarian empire to
which Herzl belonged, the full integration of all citizens on the basis
of a combination of political, linguistic, and territorial loyalties was
not expected. This seems to have been the luxury of the ruling
Austrian-Hungarian elite (or Russian in the case of the Russian empire,
or the Turkish ruling elite of the Ottoman empire), while the other
dominated ethno-linguistic-religious groups were only supposed to
manifest their overt "loyalty" to the ruling group polity, while
maintaining their internal cohesiveness on their own (by means of their
own patriarchal and authoritarian social structures).

It is no surprise therefore to realize that the bulk of Russian and east
European Jewish immigrants (among them Ben-Gurion) were the ones who
felt the most at home in Herzl's secular nationalism--but the ultra
orthodox pious Hasidic Jews had their roots in eighteenth-century
eastern Europe too, and they were among those who were overall not
terribly excited about Zionism. The group of immigrants commonly
referred to as the Ashkenazim--the Western Jews--and who worked out the
association between socialism and secular Zionism were to dominate the
Israeli political scene from 1948 and for three consecutive decades. In
fact, it was only the election of 1977 that brought Labor down, and
Menahem Begin, then at the head of the Likud, became prime minister.
Since then, the Israeli political scene has proved even more uncertain,
with the popularity of the two biggest parties wavering to the benefit
of much smaller radical parties making their way to the Knesset and
forcing coalitions with Labor and the Likud, and thus imposing their
will on Israeli politics.

It is the ambition of Amos Elon's A Blood-Dimmed Tide to cover this
post-1977 complex Israeli political scene and analyze how it changed
lately with the advent of the peace process and its stumbling. The book
is drafted in the form of "dispatches"--twenty-one in total, ranging
from such diverse topics as the six-day war, a portrait of Moshe Dayan,
visits to Egypt and Alexandria, the intifada, a meeting with Arafat in
Tunis, and, of course, the aftermath of the Oslo agreements. The book
borrows its title from the seventh dispatch, a reflection on the
non-charismatic but ambitious Shimon Peres who for a long time "has been
looking for his main chance" (p. 103) and seems to have always missed
it. The dispatches, originally published between 1967 and 1995, were
mostly aimed at the American audiences of The New Yorker and The New
York Review of Books.

What brings all twenty-one dispatches (or chapters) in the book together
into a coherent whole is probably a single concern (even though Elon
does not explicitly state his problematic as such): What is the status
of present day Zionism, and what significance should be attributed to
the process of fragmentation of Israeli society? Such concerns are
probably best expressed in Elon's lengthy introduction, which attempts
to bring coherence to the chapters that follow. Elon looks at Zionism
with a tragic irony: now that Zionism has "successfully achieved most of
its purposes," it has become "in its current interpretation by
nationalist hardliners and religious fundamentalists" a stumbling block
towards peace (p. 2). In short, the problem with Zionism is that it has
become a "state-ideology," and, paraphrasing Karl Kraus, one which could
eventually gravitate toward war.

Looking back at the historical roots of Zionism (a fancier term for
"Jewish Nationalism"), Elon sees its success partly in "that there was
little evidence of Arab nationalism before 1908, and none at all of a
specific Arab-Palestinian variety" (p. 3). The date here seems to refer
to a "national" Turkish elite movement known as the Committee of Union
and Progress (C.U.P.): having for the first time in Ottoman history
explicitly prompted a movement of "Turkification" within the empire, it
is generally thought that, within the Arab provinces, a de facto
counter-movement of "Arab nationalism" slowly established itself (George
Antonius coined the term "Arab awakening" while others described it as a
continuation of the nahda, a Renaissance movement of the mid-nineteenth
century). The problem, however, in such sweeping generalizations
regarding the birth of "nationalisms" within a fragmented Ottoman empire
is that ambiguous social movements, which erupted at a time of harsh
economic and political conditions, are often described in parallel terms
to western movements of a totally different nature. Thus Elon does no
better than Arab and Palestinian historians, among others, who would
like to see "nationalist" movements at any price. (A great deal of
research has been completed on the Arab side precisely to show that the
Zionist claims, on the non-availability of forms of nationalism among
Arabs, as totally unfounded.) Thus, having declared that "Zionism was a
resorgimento for Jews," Elon then states that "Zionism was part of the
final wave of liberal European nationalism" (p. 12). The problem,
however, is that when Zionism becomes purely and simply assimilated to a
phenomenon with long and complex "European" roots, its utility as a
concept loses a great deal of its significance. It is indeed my
intention to argue that the concept of "nationalism," to be of any use
in a Middle Eastern context, needs to be narrowed down to its
basic--originally, European--constituents: civil society, individual
"rights," separation of powers, the public sphere, the rule of law, and
the role of the state.

The notion of "nation"/"nationhood" that emerged in nineteenth-century
Europe was the outcome of political concepts partly derived from the
British and French revolutions. At its most basic level, nationhood
implied territorial and/or linguistic integration. Such an assimilation,
however, implied a Hobbesian covenant in which the newly formed
"citizens" be granted individual "rights" for having delegated to the
state the right to monopolize violence. Such a contract--the basis of
civil society--legally protects individuals from the coerciveness and
abuse of state institutions, and guarantees--at least formally--the rule
of law. Thus, besides what the dichotomy state/civil society implies,
civil society is "a society of individuals" to be integrated on the
basis of subjects whose individual rights are mutually recognized. To be
sure, this was no easy process, and the assimilation of "minority
groups" (e.g. the Jews and Protestants in France) led to xenophobia and
anti-Semitism, while the legal and political fiction of "individual
rights," and the gradual dissolution of privileged groups and classes
into the common bourgeois melting pot, led in turn to fascist and
proto-fascist movements in Europe.

Since then, "nationalism" has been associated with all kind of
linguistic-religious-ethnic movements claiming some form of territorial
sovereignty. Such a generalization, however, proves confusing unless the
essential questions are genuinely posed: What kind of "civil society" do
such nationalist movements assume? What is the status of the individual
in society? Are individual rights granted? Such questions prove to be
crucial because many of the so-called "nationalist" movements in eastern
Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and elsewhere in the world, have bypassed
individual rights, the rule of law, and a truly democratic public
sphere.

As noted earlier, Elon only alludes to the difficulties facing
Zionism--or, rather, of what Zionism has become at the turn of the
twenty-first century. Having metamorphosed into a state-ideology,
Zionism now runs the risk of promoting the collective rights of the
Jewish people over individual rights, and of protecting the (Jewish)
state over the autonomy of civil society. Consider, for example, what
Elon refers to as "the deepening gulf between the legal Israel and the
real Israel" (p. 132): more concretely, Elon is referring to the gulf
between cities like Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv. Thus, while Tel-Aviv is
often described as "the gate of modernity" (The Economist, April 25,
1998, survey, p. 18), Jerusalem, in contrast, bustles with orthodox Jews
making their way to or from synagogue. In short, "the Sabbath in Haifa
and Tel-Aviv today is much as it is in any European or North American
city" (p. 132). To be sure, in a relatively new society composed mainly
of successive wave of immigrants, such divisions are to be expected:
Arabs and Jews, Ashkenazim and Sepharadim, Haredim and secular Jews, to
name only a few of the main divisions. The point here is that over the
years not only such divisions have tended to manifest themselves more
overtly, but more importantly, some new ambiguous ones have developed.
One such case in point are the immigrants from the ex-Soviet Union: with
more than 700,000 since 1989, and now amounting to more than 15 percent
of the population, those immigrants have created their own autonomous
party in the 1996 elections (the Yisrael Ba'aliyah, 7 out of the 120
Knesset seats). Moreover, with the Israeli system of proportional
representation giving full political representation to any small group,
both Likud and Labor saw their seats declining. Coalition governments
are now the norm rather than the exception.

Such divisions, eventually leading to a tribalization of Israeli
political life, similar in some respects to its Arab neighbors, do not,
however, solely operate on notions of territorial gains, for territory
is usually the means rather than the end. Different groups fight for
their own selfish interests, and, now that the Zionist ideology has been
fully actualized, the common target is the state rather than any (real
or fictitious) territory. Consider, for example, the public
embarrassment that each group of squatters causes to the state, and how
much the state is weakened by such actions, a phenomenon which Elon
describes so well and reduces to four major steps (p. 66): (1) a fact is
established with the squatters imposing themselves on the ground; (2) a
compromise comes through whereby the squatters agree to "temporarily"
"vacate whatever spot they have occupied;" (3) "The government which
first claimed to oppose the settlement, now gives in to these
pressures;" and, finally, (4) "Land [is] seized for "security" reasons
[and] turned over to the housing ministry."

My point is that when all kinds of independent groups and individuals
impose their will on the state, a host of consequences are sure to
follow: (1) the question to be posed in this context is what has become
of "civil society" when the state consumes its energies in managing the
affairs of conflicting groups acting on their own; (2) when autonomous
groups impose their will on the state (and hence on other groups), the
unlawful becomes lawful; state polity is then fated to be articulated on
a piecemeal basis, and the state surrenders itself to an internal game
of wicked politics rather than to the rule of law. In other words, the
major weakness of Zionism as "territorial nationalism" has become even
more apparent in the last two decades (since Labor lost its long
established monopoly over Israeli politics and society). Having favored
territory over civil society, the very foundations of Israeli state and
society have thus become even more problematic, and the big risk now is
indeed the future of democracy altogether. Elon does point out to a
"decline in democratic values" (p. 129) in particular among the young
and teenagers (p. 107), but he does not address the issue forcefully
enough.

Interestingly, and in spite of a large gap in living conditions, some of
the essential problems in Israeli society are becoming remarkably
similar to those of its Arab neighbors. For one thing, the surrounding
Arab states share in common authoritarian structures whose
power-relations render it difficult, if not impossible, to construct a
civil society along the lines outlined above. Even a distinction between
state and civil society becomes difficult to operate since the state is
literally eaten by sectarian conflicts and the like. In the case of the
Palestinian National Authority (P.N.A.), not only a radical Islamic
movement like Hamas succeeds in establishing itself as a "society"
within the broader Palestinian "civil society," but even the groups now
in support of Arafat and the P.N.A. could eventually fragment into
competing factions for obvious reasons. As for Syria, Elon seems certain
that "the remaining issues with Syria are more 'normal' problems of
neighboring states: borders and water resources" (p. 5). I doubt,
however, that a society with a per-capita gross domestic product of
around $1,200 (compared to $17,000 for Israel), and suffering with
internal unsafety (to say the least) would be mainly worried about
territorial issues--what if the territorial issue is used for other
purposes?

Yet, despite all the problems one could foresee, Elon sounds globally
optimistic. Not only does he look favorably, albeit with few
reservations, at the peace process, but he even postulates post-Zionism
as a possible future ideology of the Jewish state. This newly professed
after-Zionism "reflects a desire to move ahead to a more Western, more
pluralistic, less 'ideological' form of patriotism and of citizenship"
(p. 11). In Elon's understanding, post-Zionism even perceives the Law of
Return as having become redundant (p. 18). The Jewish state would then
become fully secular and would cease to be "Jewish"; citizenship would
be granted on the basis of need and merit, and no ethno-religious group
would be privileged. Citizens would be finally looked upon as
individuals with rights rather than subjects of ethno-religious groups,
and they would all be assimilated on this basis. Needless to say, such a
project derives its main impulse from Western notions of the subject,
civil society, and democracy. Elon looks at such a possibility as the
logical conclusion of early Zionism--even though the early Zionists had
never foreseen this. In a fully secular state, as in all Western
democracies, there would still be a dominant group with few privileges,
and the Jews in this scenario are expected to become the Israeli wasp,
but the other less privileged groups would nevertheless fight their
rights on the basis of some "affirmative action" principle.

I see two major problems facing the full secularization scenario: (1)
Would it be possible for Israeli society to evolve on its own and
independently from the problems facing the neighboring Arab states?, and
(2) Can a move towards post-Zionism effectively take place without a
radical critique of Zionism--a critique more radical than what Elon has
attempted, and that looks at the serious shortcomings of Zionism with a
cool eye--in particular the emphasis on territoriality and on secular
Judaism over civil society, individual rights, and the rule of law.

Elon's Blood-Dimmed Tide definitely suffers serious shortcomings on both
counts: Elon can neither fully assess the impact of neighboring
societies with authoritarian power-relations and mostly state controlled
economies, nor can he see the importance of the damage created by all
kinds of groups within Israeli society whose actions are slowly
dismantling state authority and the civil society that made it possible.
Old Zionism might be breeding a divided society along weakly integrated
power-relations.

Citation: Zouhair Ghazzal . "Review of Amos Elon, A Blood-Dimmed Tide:
Dispatches from the Middle East," H-Review, H-Net Reviews, May, 1998.
URL: http://www.h-net.msu.edu/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=32571896477204.

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