Book review of What is Modern Israel? by Yakov M. Rabkin
As someone who gives political talks from a Palestinian vantage point to groups traveling through Palestine, I have spoken to thousands of Jews, among others, from around the world. I walked away from reading Professor Yakov M. Rabkin’s What is Modern Israel? with the burning desire to call back every one of those Jewish travelers and sit down with them, one on one over a hot cup of mint tea — so that I could read them each of his chapters aloud, looking up and into their eyes at the end of every chapter to ask somberly, Do you get it now? You’ve been had, collectively. You’ve been lied to, collectively. You’re being used, collectively. Your religion, a rich one, has been hijacked, purposely.
The book starts with an odd note of comparison between modern Israel and the Russian port city of Saint Petersburg. Professor Rabkin cites the words of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–81) who described Saint Petersburg as the “most abstract and premeditated city in the whole wide world.” In a radio interview, Rabkin recalled Israeli poet and author Benjamin Harshav’s depiction of the city as “artificial” and “inhospitable”; Russia’s greatest authors “saw the city of majestic elegance as an incongruous intruder, both foreign and strange, prophesying a dreadful end in the form of nature’s revenge.” The comparison with Saint Petersburg’s suffered beginnings is related to “the cost in human lives [caused by the] Zionist enterprise.”
As it happens, Saint Petersburg, formerly known as Leningrad (1924–1991), was Rabkin’s birthplace. Born and educated in the former Soviet Union, today he is Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Montreal; his research interests relate to the history of the Soviet Union and the consequences of its dismemberment, the contemporary history of the Jews and the history of Zionism and the State of Israel, and the sciences and education as factors in international relations. He has studied Judaism at the Yeshivat Dvar Yerushalayim, the Pardes Institute, the Shalom Hartman Institute and the Bet Morasha Centre for Advanced Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, at the Centre Rachi in Paris, and privately with several rabbis. He was an Associate Member of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs for over a decade and collaborated with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz of Jerusalem in reviving Jewish education in the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s. He has consulted in the field of science policy for OECD, NATO, The World Bank, and the government of Canada.
This book is not a light read, but anyone engaged on the topic will surely not be disappointed and will learn a significant amount from it. Professor Rabkin writes that “to understand Israel, it is necessary to distinguish between religion, ethnicity, and nationalism.” He offers nine, fact-packed chapters that do exactly that, dissecting each of these domains as they relate to Israel.
Before diving into detail, the author sets the historical scene, noting that “Zionism is an integral part of the European colonial history. Colonialism at the time had no negative connotation: the principal financial arm of the Zionist movement was then officially known as the Jewish colonial trust [sic].” A choice act of colonialism is what the project of Israel turned out to be and over 100 years ago, when it was fashionable to do so, the Zionist movement strongly embraced the concept.
The backbone of this book is Judaism, the religion. That is not to say that this is a religious book; just the opposite. It is a very political book, making the case for how the religion has been disfigured by political actors, namely the ideology of Zionism and subsequently the state of Israel. In our time and age, the disfiguration of previously known concepts is not new: think “terrorism,” “violence,” “peace,” “security,” and “democracy.”
Take the concept of violence as a case in point since Israel today claims that it is violence that drives that nation’s obsession with the need for “security,” forgetting that it is Zionism that pioneered the use of political violence in Palestine. Professor Rabkin notes that “The critics of Zionism often cite the first Jewish political assassination in the land of Israel for centuries, the murder of Jacob Israel de Haan […], [o]ne of the first Dutch Jews to immigrate to Palestine for Zionist reasons […]. De Haan’s “acquaintance with […] leaders of the future Israeli right wing, quite a few who were fascinated by European fascist members, rapidly distanced de Hann from Zionism. De Haan “became aware of the threat inherent in the violent side of Zionism for both pious Jews and the Arabs. [He] openly deplored the aggressive nature of the Zionist enterprise [and] took due note of the conflict with the Arabs that Zionist activists were fomenting through discriminatory hiring practices, moral laxity, and nationalist aspirations which had until then been foreign to the region. De Haan’s dispatches, published in Europe, began to assume an anti-Zionist tone. He laid bare the financial machinations of the Zionist organizations, and held their leaders up to ridicule before their western financial supporters.” However, “[w]hen a newspaper drew attention to his intention to establish an anti-Zionist movement on his return from a trip to London[,] agents of the Haganah [the precursor to the Israel Defense Forces] gunned him down as he came out into the street after prayers.”
Forty years after that assassination, a British police officer in charge of the de Haan investigation admitted to being a Haganah agent and said that his only remorse was that he was merely an accomplice and not given the role to actually “liquidate him.” Termed by some the “first political murder in Jewish Palestine,” this happened in 1924 and such policies of political assassination with impunity live on even today!
Maybe there is a subtle lesson embedded in this story: that we should not use — as a litmus test to engage with someone — the issue of whether they claim to be a Zionist, since most such people apparently have no idea of what that actually means.
Zionism’s Protestant’s Roots
The driving spoiler of Judaism, and subsequently of the state of Israel as well, is the ideology of Zionism: Zionism operated as a political movement, one that leaves no room for Judaism while claiming to represent its values, and leaves no room for anyone not Jewish while portraying Israel as a “democracy” and a “light unto the nations.” Rabkin asserts that “there was little room for Jewish tradition in the Zionist scheme…” and then dives into proving this statement. While reading, I recalled the outstanding work of Israeli-British historian and Professor Ilan Pappé, whose book The Idea of Israel: A History of Power and Knowledge (New York: Verso. 2014), could easily be read as a sequel to this book by Professor Rabkin, showing how Israel turned the Zionist “win” into a brute model of global might is right.
Professor Rabkin acknowledges that much has been written on Israel and Zionism but claims that many such texts have been “works of historical concealment.” No wonder so many Jews and others, around the world, are blind to the basic facts of the matter, let alone the sad reality of Israel today. Improved cherry tomatoes, the latest Intel chips, and drip irrigation, no matter how useful and no matter how many times touted by indicted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the global stage, will never conceal the atrocities in Israel’s history nor their continuation by the Israel of today. That is thanks partly to Jewish writers, Jewish sages, Jewish activists, and Jewish tradition itself, which firmly embodies the foundational ethic of social justice for all, Jewish and Other.
Part of Professor Rabkin’s key argument, and appearing here and there as one reads his book, are various revelations concerning the origin of Zionism. Many of us who have been active all our lives on this issue fully understand the key role currently played by Evangelical Christianity in enabling Israel to act with total impunity in today’s world. Professor Rabkin, however, meticulously teases out the neglected historical threads that, once woven together for us, clearly portray how this white, English-speaking, evangelical, Protestant strain of Christianity can be understood to have originated the entire concept of Zionism. This was one of the many takeaways that I will surely follow up on, starting with the rich references Professor Rabkin provides to make the case.
Analyzing the Protestant roots of Zionism allows the reader to better understand the particular support Israel musters in the United States with the advent of Evangelical Christians as a political force. (For more on this phenomenon, listen to the extremely informative Up First (NPR) podcast, Evangelicals and Politics). And how infuriating it is to realize that this particular strain (more like a stain) of Christianity is also behind the motivation for President Trump and his funders to make a frontal attack on Palestine and Palestinians, just as the world was anticipating an end to five decades of Israeli military occupation.
Speaking Truth to Justice
Professor Rabkin does not shy away from the many contentious issues involved. He touches on the dark areas of European and Western societies; the Nazi genocide (purposely avoiding the word Holocaust, as explained in his radio interview); little-known internal deliberations and decisions of the Jewish community; structural discrimination in Israel against the Haredi, Yemini and other Arab Jewish communities, among others; political bombshells like the meaning of “Jewish State,” the “Chosen People,” the origins and roles of the Jewish Agency (JA) and the Jewish National Fund (JNF); how Zionism and Israel employ violence seemingly as part of their DNA while fueling an Orwellian discourse of how Palestinian violence threatens them; the premeditated ethnic cleansing used to create the state of Israel; the prominent roles countries and communities like Germany, the USSR, Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Lithuania, and others played in the creation of today’s realities — and much, much more. If you mark up the book while reading to be able to skim the notes afterward, you will find yourself rereading the book in its entirety; this is how insightful and referenced the arguments are.
Another key argument in the book “demonstrates why the state of Israel divides Jews far more than any other political, social, or religious question.” Rabkin explains how Zionism, from its earliest days, was rejected by great numbers of Jews around the world. He then shifts his focus from the origins of Zionism to the locus in which it politically flourished, none other than his country of birth, the USSR (subsequently Russia), and throughout Europe, before and after WWI, through today. He notes that “Israel is today home to the largest Russian-speaking diaspora in the world, and several former Soviet citizens have served as key ministers in Israeli governments.” In his radio interview he claims that Israel, since its founding, has never had a prime minister who did not come himself from the former Russian empire or else had parents who had come from there. Furthermore, he quotes Vladimir Putin’s revealing remark that “Israel is, in fact, a special state to us. It is practically a Russian-speaking country. Israel is one of the few foreign countries that can be called Russian-speaking.” No wonder that, as Rabkin quotes from a Euro-Asian Jewish Congress (EAJC) news item, “As 2015 was coming to an end, Israelis name Russia’s President Putin ‘man of the year.’”
Professor Rabkin fearlessly takes on another of today’s hot potatoes: the conflation of anti-Semitism with any sort of criticism by anyone about any of the actions or policies of the State of Israel. “History has shown that the attractiveness of Zionism increases with the intensity of anti-Semitism or economic hardship, which explains the fact that relatively few British, American, or Swedish Jews hastened to accept the Zionist project at first, and up to the present day most are reluctant to leave their countries to take up residence in Israel.”
For many Jews in the West, a vast chasm separates their birthplace, whether in the UK, USA, or elsewhere, from the State of Israel. Bridging that chasm requires Hasbara (the Hebrew euphemism for Zionist propaganda), something Israel excels at and also funds generously, at mindboggling levels. The book reminded me a senior American friend who wrote this to me once: “Hasbara, when it succeeds, conflates Judaism-Israel-Zionism. That needs to be ‘uncoupled.’ Christianity doesn’t equal Inquisition. Catholics aren’t Greek Orthodox. Americans didn’t fight to stop the theory of National Socialism in Germany. [They] fought because the German state declared war on us. Plus, we wanted to end the demonic deeds of Nazism. It was the practical acts we wanted to end, not some unimpactful philosophy. Zionists could believe the moon is made of gefilte fish and few would care. It’s the harm they do in reality that evokes condemnation.” Professor Rabkin’s book unpacks those dynamics with the utmost intellectual rigor.
What is Modern Israel? breaks the issues down into the following chapters: The Land of Israel and Its Place in Jewish Tradition; The Jews of Europe: Between Equality and Extermination; A Return to the Promised Land as a Return to History; The Zionist Enterprise; The Nazi Genocide, Its Memory and Its Lessons; The Making and Maintaining of the Zionist State; Jewish Opposition to Zionism; Israeli Society and Jewish Communities; Israel in the International Arena; and the Conclusion: A State Without Borders.
The Pluto Press website highlights a concise one-line summary of this thought-provoking book, as follows: “Shows that Zionism was conceived as a sharp break with Judaism and Jewish continuity.” The statement actually reflects only one of the many prisms this book brings into focus vis-à-vis reality. The book is extremely well researched, with over 600 footnotes. The bibliography alone is a road map to a wealth of knowledge in this domain for anyone desiring to further their reading on the matters discussed. Rabkin wrote in French and the book has been translated to English as well as Japanese and Russian. His original motivation in writing it, as he explains in his radio interview, was to inform Japanese students on the issue.
Like all competent historians, Professor Rabkin makes us wiser but does not lead us forward into the future, other than musing, in passing, on the need for a binational state in all of Israel/Palestine. He does, however, note a remark “made by the historian Enzo Traverso with respect to the 1947–49 war: “Their [Zionist] action was physically taking place in Palestine but their mindset and their moral universe remained in Europe.” Unfortunate as it is for the Palestinians — Muslims, Christians, and Jews — to have been and to remain on the receiving end of this “action,” we have no option but to struggle for our freedom and independence. This is not about a one state or two state solution, but rather about removing the Zionist boot from our collective neck — Palestinians, Israelis, and Jews around the world.
I conclude by sharing a Washington Post article that came to me from an Israeli friend as I was reading Rabkin’s book in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown in Palestine, all the while agitated by the whizzing sound of an Israeli drone above my city and sounds of gunfire in the neighborhood. The article is about a freed US prisoner and is titled, “He served nearly 44 years in solitary confinement. He was innocent of the crime” (KK Ottesen, March 31, 2020). The freed inmate, Albert Woodfox, 73, served 43 years and 10 months in solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. He was released in 2016. When asked, “But how do you not become bitter?” he answered that his steadfastness allowed him “an opportunity to find something that I loved to the point that I was willing to sacrifice my life.” His focus on contributing to a better world throughout all those years, as he described it, allowed him to be “angry… [but] not bitter.” Palestinians are angry, too; Jews should be.
Mr. Woodfox goes on to say, “[…] public officials and bureaucrats are fond of saying ‘in the name of the people.’ And ‘the people’ have no idea what’s being done in their name.” Let us hope that Professor Rabkin’s intellectual prowess alongside the righteous determination of Albert Woodfox can inspire us to shine a guiding light on the collective action of “the people,” chosen or otherwise, in whose name Palestinians are still being made to suffer.
* This phrase, from page 44 of the book, is attributed to the Israeli intellectual Amnon Raz-Krakozkin reflecting, as Professor Rabkin notes, with “both precision and concision” the “paradox of the position held by the founders of [Jewish] Zionism.”