‘The land will sink beneath your feet’ — a century of Jews wrestling with Zionism

Martin Buber

JVL Introduction

In the article on Mondoweiss, Steve France reviews a new compilation by Daphna Levit: “Wrestling with Zionism: Jewish Voices of Dissent”

Subtitled a chronology of voices, from the birth of zionism until today, here is the rollcall of voices covered:

Theodor Herzl, Ahad Haam, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Noam Chomsky, Tanya Reinhart, Zeev Sternhell, Uri Avnery, Tikva-Honig Parnass, Shlomo Sand, Tom Segev, Simha Flapan, Baruch Kimmerling, Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappe, Gideon Levy, Amira Hass, and Michel Sfard.

This article was originally published by Mondoweiss on Sun 13 Dec 2020. Read the original here.

‘The land will sink beneath your feet’ — a century of Jews wrestling with Zionism

Daphna Levit’s new book, “Wrestling with Zionism: Jewish Voices of Dissent,” offers a concise introduction to 20 major Jewish critics of political Zionism since its inception in the 1890s. The book is a treasure trove of anti-Zionist zingers. On a deeper level, the presentation of these dissenters as an ensemble shows how difficult it has been, even for such independent-minded individuals, to entirely escape the gravitational pull of Zionism. Deeper yet, the book shows that, after more than a century, Zionism can’t be salvaged – the idea of a Jewish State must be abandoned.

Some of the most withering attacks on Zionism, in fact, have come from Jews who nevertheless retained a Zionist perspective. Levit astutely takes note of her subjects’ moments of ambivalence, letting us see, for example, that Martin Buber, a towering existentialist philosopher and theologian, and Ahad Ha’am, who bitterly denounced early Zionist treatment of the indigenous Arabs, each remained deeply attracted to the idea of the Jewish people coming together in Palestine. Even Orthodox traditionalists, who initially all had a deep and visceral loathing for the idea of forming a Jewish State in Palestine, almost all eventually embraced a version of Zionism, or at least came to happily accept the state’s hospitality. (Levit doesn’t focus on the Orthodox “wrestlings” with Zionism. For that story, the best sources probably are the books of University of Montreal historian Yakov Rabkin, who himself is a truly anti-Zionist Orthodox Jew.)

Levit grew up in Israel during the 1950s and 60s, believing in a now-obsolete “secular/political Zionist hope.” In 2001, as the crackdown on the Second Intifada moved into high gear, she left Israel and found refuge in Nova Scotia, where she teaches and writes. The thinkers she profiles range from enshrined heavyweights like Buber, Albert Einstein, and Hannah Arendt, through more specialized contemporary scholars, journalists, activists, and lawyers. All of them once believed in a hopeful Zionism; all resisted its darkness; not all of them went all the way to renounce it completely.

In its early years, when Zionism was largely just an idea, it attracted many aspiring intellectuals – none more aspiring than Buber. Cross-fertilizing the Romantic rationalism of German philosophy with the spiritual passion of Hassidism, he vaulted way beyond mundane nationalism, whose Zionist version he condemned as Jews just trying to “join the wolf pack.” That way lay an awful doom, he warned. If Jews missed their opportunity to make Zion a new sanctuary of nations – a “great upbuilding of peace” – and instead merely tried to have a land like others had a land, “the land [would] sink beneath [their] feet,” he prophesied. Buber spoke strongly and bravely of the necessity to respect and live in peace with the Arabs. Yet, as Levit tellingly notes, he wrote to Gandhi in 1939 — in the smoldering wake of the British–Zionist torching of the “Arab Revolt” — that the Zionist Jews in Palestine had never ceased “to strive for the concluding of a genuine peace between Arab and Jew.”

A generation before Buber, Ahad Ha’am left his Hassidic upbringing behind in Kiev to settle in Palestine. He too wished to help Jews preserve and build on their unique moral and spiritual traditions, Levit writes, although he worked from a secular and humanist perspective. The father of “Cultural Zionism,” he is mentioned most often today as the man who took note of the indigenous Arabs when he visited proto-Zionist settlements in Palestine in 1891, five years before Herzl birthed Political Zionism in his book “The Jewish State.” Ha’am told his readers then that Palestine was not uninhabited; its people were not savages; and that the Jewish settlers were treating them in cruel and hostile ways. The unacceptability of such cruelty and violence was a constant theme. And yet, he could never let go of his belief that the Zionist project was Jews’ big chance to escape assimilation and live out their destiny.


Albert Einstein’s wrestlings with Zionism were more peripheral to his life’s work. Levit shows us that he loved the ethical and intellectual nature of his Jewish heritage and warned that it was dangerous and antithetical for Jews to develop a “narrow nationalism.” Nonetheless, we learn that in 1947 his resolve wavered when he wrote to India’s prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, asking him to support the establishment of a Jewish state at the time of the U.N. Partition Resolution. In 1948, he was back to fiercely criticizing Zionism, joining a letter that compared the Israeli terrorist leader Menachem Begin (a future Israeli prime minister) to a Nazi. Levit wistfully notes that the myth that Einstein was in complete support of Israel was “born the day after his death in his obituary in The New York Times.

A fascinating aspect of Levit’s book is how it sheds light on the deep ambivalences within Zionism itself. In her sketch of Zionism’s founder, the restless and frustrated Theodor Herzl, we see that the fault lines run right back to his own unresolved ambivalence toward Jews and Jewishness. Such ambivalence had bedeviled many European Jews over the previous century of episodic “emancipation,” assimilation, and the nasty rise of a modern, racial antisemitism. In Herzl, ambivalence became the fertile ground of the utopian fantasy he spun in “The Jewish State” and his novel “The Old-New Land” to magically solve the “Jewish problem.” His Jewish problem. A convinced assimilationist with little exposure to Judaism or Jewish tradition, he had suddenly felt the weight and menace of the new antisemitism and begun to preach Political Zionism, which built on a widely-held belief in the centrality of national destinies and the vast superiority of Western civilization. Instantly, his idea became a movement, hosting a historic World Zionist Congress the very next year, in 1897. Seven years later, Herzl was dead at age 44, but the movement grew into a British policy (1917), an endless Nakba (1948–), “beautiful little Israel” (1949-67), a perennial global crisis, and an American obsession.

The remaining critics on Levit’s roster all wrestled with the reality of Zionism in their times. Like earlier dissenters, some of them also contributed their own ambivalences to the mix. Two political thinkers, however, Hannah Arendt, and a generation later, Tikva Honig-Parnass, gave no quarter to Zionism.

Arendt, who died in 1975, provides the most profound analysis of the incoherence of Zionism and the consequent certainty of its eventual collapse. And so, of course, she was – and remains – the most bitterly shunned by Israelis.

She was interested to understand the facts of European Jewish history in relation to the non-Jews among whom they lived, especially the Germans. She came to the task with a rigorously dispassionate attitude, although it was the fearful climax of racial antisemitism in her native Germany that moved her to take up the subject, and to seek the exact historical causes of antipathy toward Jews. By no means excusing hatred, Arendt noted the relevance of Jews often segregating themselves morally, culturally, and linguistically, Levit says, “in order to preserve their identity, unaffected by outside influences.” More pointedly, according to Levit, Arendt acknowledged the “Jewish tradition of an often-violent antagonism to Christians and Gentiles.”


Arendt’s blasphemy against the sacrosanct tenets of Zionism is illustrated by an account of her falling out with her old friend Gershom Scholem, a prominent Israeli scholar of Jewish mysticism. He publicly accused her of not having a love of the Jewish people. She answered, famously: “You are quite right – I am not moved by any ‘love’ of this sort. … I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective, neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of the sort. I indeed love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons. … I do not love the Jews, nor do I believe in them: I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute or argument.”

When Zionist icon Golda Meir told Arendt that she believed not in God but in the Jewish people, Arendt, an atheist, dryly pointed out that the greatness of the Jewish people had come from being a people that believed in God. Her seminal 1963 book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” was not translated into Hebrew for 36 years.

Honig-Parnass was born in Mandate Palestine. She, like Arendt, has adamantly insisted on viewing the Jewish people as no more important than others, in particular, Palestinians. Unlike Arendt, however, she, as a member of the ’48 generation, in her words, had been “brainwashed” to carry out the “colonialist, nationalist, tribal, self-righteous destruction” of the indigenous inhabitants, oblivious to any notion of human rights. The day after the UN endorsed a plan to partition Mandate Palestine, in 1947, Honig-Parnass dropped out of university to join the war against the Palestinians, serving in a Palmach unit that ethnically cleansed several villages.


After the war, she became a socialist and began moving steadily away from Zionism, which she came to call a version of “nationalist socialism.” By 1960, she was an anti-Zionist and co-founded the tiny, but highly vocal, anti-Zionist Matzpen Party. Her masterpiece, “False Prophets of Peace” (2011), expertly exposes the hollowness of liberal Zionism. But her most striking work perhaps is the 1998 “Reflections of a Daughter of the ’48 Generation” in Against the Current.” In it she dissected the “advanced dehumanization” of her own brainwashed mind during the Nakba. The article quotes a chilling letter she wrote to her mother in October 1948. The letter poses the problem she sees of Jews “not knowing how to be conquerors.” The young ethnic cleanser tells her mother about two American World War II veterans in her unit: “[W]hen they saw all the Arab women and children returning to their villages starving for bread, they became soft-hearted and had pity on them, and in the evening they began to shout that if this new state cannot take care of its Arab inhabitants then it has no right to exist. … [T]his America, with its idealistic Zionists, gets on one’s nerves sometimes.  Their entire philanthropic approach towards life and the world is also expressed in their attitude to Zionism.” In other words, they didn’t get that ethnic cleansing was the means to the end.

Bringing her “chronology of voices” up to date, Levit profiles, among others, historian Ilan Pappe, and Ha’aretz columnist Gideon Levy, both of whom hold that the only way out of the human-rights catastrophe of Zionism is to embrace Liberal Democracy as it exists in most developed countries of the world. In Palestine-Israel this solution is called One Democratic State, and it means Jews and Palestinians living together as equals.

Levit could have included many more dissenters in her book, including many brilliant young voices. Indeed, Jewish dissent is stronger than ever.


Among the new stars, Peter Beinart stands out, although, until this summer, he was a virtuoso of liberal Zionist ambivalence. He reprises some of the early critics’ devotion to Jewish traditions, and deeply positive aspirations for the Jewish community. Also, he has set a simple rule to keep the siren of Zionism in check: he refuses to participate in any public discussion panel about Israel if there isn’t at least one Palestinian on the panel. This rule addresses the original and besetting sin of Zionism, which is to think or act as if the State of Israel can ever decently exist – or legitimately be imagined – without the willing involvement of Palestinians. If only the early critics had been so wise.

Today, the very idea of a hopeful, humane Zionism is obsolete.  But Levit’s last sentence points the way forward, telling “every Zionist” to read Mahmoud Darwish and Edward Said, two Palestinians who opened her eyes. Their indomitable humanism can fill the void left by the failure of Herzl’s dream, and help both people together to move toward a nobler vision.