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Lessons from Isaiah Berlin’s liberal Zionism

By Arie Dubnov

This article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle and appears with permission.

A few weeks ago, while public attention in Israel was turned to the elections, a number of distinguished historians and scientists gathered at the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Jerusalem to talk about the legacy of Chaim Weizmann, the chemist, Zionist statesman and Israel’s first president.

It was none other than the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin who was chosen to write the entry on Weizmann for the Encyclopedia Hebraica. Moreover, it was no one-time gig: he dedicated a number of essays, lectures and eulogies to Weizmann, whom he came to describe as Exilarch, the uncrowned King of the Jewish people, and ultimately as “the first totally free Jew of the modern world”.

The opening of Berlin’s archives and the publication of two volumes of his correspondence reveal a different Berlin to the one widely known: a cradle Zionist with an acute sense of the need to belong to one’s own community and culture; an Oxford don and wartime diplomat who played an active, even central role in promoting the Zionist cause; a liberal unwilling to endorse superficial universalism and liberal-cum-assimilationist schemes, deeply interested in thinkers like Johann Gottfried von Herder, the great believer in diverse Volksgeist (“Spirit of Nations”) which give every ethno-national group its unique psychology, intelligence, values and, ultimately, culture and civilization.

How could Berlin, the doyen of liberalism and an unyielding critic of authoritarianism and excessive nationalism, defend Jewish nationalism without feeling he had fallen prey to an impossible paradox? What kind of intellectual acrobatics allowed him to take seemingly mutually exclusive values such as individual liberty and ethno-nationalism and present them as compatible and interdependent?

How could the doyen of liberalism and an unyielding critic of excessive nationalism defend Jewish nationalism?

It was in Jewish Slavery and Emancipation, an essay published by this paper in 1951, that Berlin explained his position. Zionism, he argued, bequeathed to the world a new type of Jewish collectiveness that ultimately served a greater liberal cause. How? By turning Jews into free individuals with a wider range of possibilities to choose from. For Berlin this was not a talmudic pilpul, nor an argument about the nature of nationalism as much as it was a an invitation to rethink what stands at the heart of what we call freedom. What made Zionism worth defending, he said, was that it enriched Jewish life in general, creating new circumstances in which Jews had more than one option to choose from.

He felt it would be wrong to think of Zionism as enhancing Jewish freedom if one demanded that all Jews move to Israel. The ability to opt out after 1948, to remain a Jew in more than one way, was at the crux of Berlin’s argument. There was no logical or moral imperative to tie in your personal life with the Jewish republic. In Berlin’s words: the dilemmas of diaspora Jews, “of whether to go or stay, to assimilate or to remain in a betwixt-and-between condition, is now a purely individual problem which each Jew is free to solve as he chooses, and for which he bears responsibility not as a member of a nation but as an individual human being”.

Zionism’s achievement, in other words, was not simply a creation of a viable Jewish political entity, nor what we call “the nation-state”, but the creation of new circumstances in which Jews, for the first time in modern history, enjoyed the possibility to choose from more than one course of life. Thus, albeit indirectly and probably unintentionally, Zionism served a lofty liberal cause – turning Jews into conscious, free individuals, capable of choosing how to live their personal lives.

Berlin accepted the basic assumptions of Zionism without calling for liquidation of Exile, and could not but see Israel as closely integrated with the Jewish diaspora. It was a very British kind of Zionism. Indeed, it comes as small surprise that, among all Zionist leaders, it was in Weizmann that Berlin identified the incarnation of the Zionism he admired.

Weizmann reflected a by-then unfashionable sentimental Anglophilia typical of many Russian Jews of his time, who were amazed Brits could have it all – a vast Empire, excellent tea, real aristocracy and, at the same time, true liberal commitment to personal freedom and a solid parliamentary tradition.

A fellow East-European Anglophile, Berlin was inspired by a similar admiration for English political culture and what might have been also a grossly exaggerated belief in fair play. But more cardinal was the stress Berlin the philosopher of freedom put on the idea of choice. In his view, the ability to choose between multiple courses of action is the cornerstone of freedom. To him, the expression of human life could not be reduced to a single pattern; political normative thinking needed to acknowledge that humans organise their societies differently; “the essence of man”, to quote from one of his lectures, was “not consciousness, nor the invention of tools, but the power of choice”. Understanding Berlin’s Zionism thus becomes hugely important not only for understanding his thinking about nationalism, but to understand the basis of Berlin’s liberalism.

Zionism, which Berlin often treated as a sort of an extended family business, was eventually defended as the programme for freeing Jews from the burden of collectivity and praised for allowing them to make choices as autonomous individuals. Berlin reiterated the conclusion time and again. The achievement of Zionism was that it managed to bring about this radically new historical situation. And this is what made Weizmann, its first citizen, the first totally free Jew in the modern world.

Today’s chic intellectuals, the Judith Butlers or Jacqueline Roses, who fashion themselves progressive by questioning the very right of Jews to a state of their own, would most likely dismiss Berlin’s apologia for Zionism as proof that even great intellectuals have had their follies and blind spots.

They cannot stand Israelis not because they consider them uncivilised thugs but because the very existence of the Jewish nationalist stands in the way of their attempt to freeze the Jew as a symbol: a symbol of critical spirit, universalism, an exilic mind that feels nowhere at home. In such cases, one is reminded of Cynthia Ozick’s remark that Jews are not metaphors – not for poets, not for novelists, not for theologians, not for murderers, and never for antisemites.

It would also be unlikely for Berlin’s liberal defence of Zionism to be treated as a blueprint by those in Israel and elsewhere who combine neo-conservative propaganda tactics with a rigid anti-intellectualist and a dogmatic, often partial interpretation of the Zionist creed. They see diaspora Jewish communities instrumentally and asymmetrically as tools for fundraising, as ways to sponsor questionable institutions, as a body to block anti-Israeli policies. On moral and political issues, however, they demand diaspora quietism, allowing nothing but unequivocal loyalty to any policy line promoted by an elected Israeli government. They promote a ruthless agenda, allowing no room for Berlinian pluralism, which they equate with perilous relativism.

One should not forget the context in which Berlin developed his diaspora Zionism. From today’s vantage point, it seems that it rested on what might have very well been failed prophecies: the belief that, after pains of birth, Israel would become increasingly democratic; that the tension between religious and secular Jews, which Berlin described to David Ben-Gurion as having the potential to blow up into a fully fledged Kulturkampf, would ease rather than intensify; that instead of a constant lubricating of collective paranoia and siege mentality, Israel’s future leadership would follow Weizmann’s footsteps, fostering, instead of putting at risk, those unwavering alliances between Israel and the superpowers who are willing to support it.

Berlin said little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in public. In his later writings, he viewed it as a tragic clash between right and right, and voiced his support for a two-state solution shortly before his death in 1997.

The Israeli-Palestinian political deadlock today, however, is a grim issue. What would Sir Isaiah say? The fine line he drew, distinguishing moderate nationality from what he called “pathological nationalism,” the condition of inflamed national consciousness, “diseased and aggressive toward others,” often comes to mind when reading news from Israel today. It is not hard to imagine that Berlin would not have been happy to see the slow yet persistent takeover by the settler movement of the Israeli state. The imminent demise of the so-called two-state solution, that imperfect compromise between two competing national claims, would probably have worried him. Avoiding confrontation almost at all costs, I wonder whether he would have been willing to accept the pessimistic forecast that each passing day makes a South African apartheid trajectory more likely.

Yet, as a historian, I restrain myself from indulging in such thoughts or taking them too seriously. I do not posses that crystal ball that allows me to communicate with Berlin’s ghost. Neither do I believe such questions are particularly instructive. Not only because, as the saying goes, of all forms of human error, prophecy is the most avoidable one. But also because I believe that, as moral creatures, it is our responsibility to face contemporary reality and form our own judgment rather than search for ready-made recipes in the writings of thinkers who were grappling with historical situations that are only superficially similar to ours.

What worries me, not as a Berlin expert but as a Jewish-Israeli who considers himself a social democrat, is that, like the Weizmannite belief in political Zionism, the Berlinian liberal and diasporic interpretation of Zionism, will soon be entirely forgotten, not only in Israel but also by Jewish communities elsewhere.

For we are witnessing a double erosion: first and foremost in the level of commitment by ordinary Israelis to core democratic values; secondly, in the ability of diaspora Jews, and especially the younger generation in liberal states who receive more-or-less progressive education, to live comfortably with this awkward Levantine cousin. Numerous recent surveys of American Jewry strongly suggest its youth are distancing themselves from a state that has become an embarrassment instead of light unto the nations.

Britain, I believe, does not lag far behind. Is the meaning of being a liberal Jew today is to become member of the order of “ASHamed Jews,” as The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson’s comical roman à clef, suggests? More seriously: are we heading towards that awful zero-sum game, in which it is no longer possible to balance the universal and particular? Will future generations consider civility and nationality as mutually exclusive? Are we forcing them to choose between a hyper individualist yet tolerant society that cultivates pluralism, and rigid collectiveness that allows no differences to co-exist?

Berlin was one of those Jewish liberals who was willing, to paraphrase Irving Howe, to endure bruising conflicts between their liberalism and their Jewishness. Either-or choices offer easy and tempting solutions to personal as well as collective predicaments. Yet these are not genuine choices. There is still hope that Israel’s citizens and institutions will discard what Berlin famously described as a dangerous, potentially authoritarian “positive” understanding of liberty, based on the false premise that the word “free” refers to the alpha male in the crowd, to the one who is the sole arbiter, the ultimate and unrestrained master of the house.

There is also still a hope that instead of diaspora quietism and embarrassment, Jewish communities will be active participants, helping to support the injured yet still thriving civil society in Israel. The type of liberal Zionism Berlin supported seems increasingly oxymoronic. Yet Berlin was a firm believer that the future was not yet determined. To choose to abandon noble dreams is a choice, not a destiny.

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