Ben-Gurion’s Willing Executioners

Ben-Gurion’s Willing Executioners

The Founding Myths of Israel:
Nationalism, Socialism, and The Making of the Jewish State
by Zeev Sternhell
Princeton University Press, 1998 464 pp $29.95

The Jews, Heinrich Heine is supposed to have said, are like everyone else but more so. How true for Zionism, which is at heart nothing but a variety of nationalism, the most compelling form of collective identity in the modern world. Yet during the first half of this century, the enormous difficulty of creating a Jewish state and the need to combat Zionism’s many ideological rivals endowed the Zionist project with an intensity unprecedented in the history of nationalism.

The state of Israel is now fifty years old. Although the nationalist fervor of some Israelis is fiercer than ever, for others it has dimmed and been replaced by a comfortable, if rather weary, sense of at-homeness. But Israel, it appears, is not destined to join the periphery of nations, to become yet another small state, a Middle East Ruritania. The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995, the election of the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu half a year later, and the near-total deterioration of the peace process since then are symptoms of an existential crisis within Israel: unresolved and escalating conflicts about the very nature of the state, about its relationship with its citizens and with the Jewish faith.

Israeli intellectuals, most of whom are secular and leftist, tend to blame the rightist and Orthodox camps for the increasingly ethnocentric and fundamentalist qualities of Israeli political culture. One group of scholars, however, mainly historians and sociologists at Israeli universities, points an accusing finger at the Zionist left itself, at the labor movement that built the country during the interwar period and dominated the state of Israel for half a century. These critics write in the spirit of Julien Benda, who, in 1927, attributed the decline of the French Third Republic to the “treason of the clerics,” intellectuals who had abandoned Cartesian rationalism for a politics of passion and a brutally instrumental view of humanity. Similarly, since the Likud triumph of 1977, some in Israel have blamed the fall of the secular republic on the treason of the apparatchiks, the bosses of Labor Zionism, who are accused of caring less for democracy and social justice than for state building, and of pursuing a militaristic and expansionist agenda.

Zeev Sternhell, a distinguished, albeit controversial, historian of European fascism, is a prominent member of this group of critical Israeli scholars. To invoke Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between foxes, who have many ideas, and hedgehogs, who have one grand idea, Sternhell is a quintessential hedgehog. His idée fixe is the belief that fascism originated as a mutation of Marxist social democracy into an ethnocentric “nationalist socialism.” Antirational and antidemocratic, national...