IN SEARCH OF ISRAEL: THE HISTORY OF AN IDEA Michael Brenner Princeton University Press 2018, 416 pp, $29.95
It is a rare history that compels the reader to think constantly about the present and even about the future. But that is what the historian Michael Brenner has accomplished in this meticulous journey through the labyrinth of yearning that has led to the modern State of Israel. He does not relegate to the dusty past the passions and visions of Zionist forefathers such as Theodor Herzl or Vladimir Ze'ev Jabotinsky, or early Israeli leaders such as Chaim Weizmann or David Ben-Gurion or scores of others who struggled to conceive of a Jewish homeland of refuge and fulfillment. Their dreams, prescriptions and cautions are as alive today as ever before.
Brenner's In Search of Israel: The History of an Idea chronicles the competing ambitions to preserve and nourish Jews and Judaism in safety, embraced by an array of Jewish thinkers and leaders from the late 19th century into the present. Would it be by assimilating into the dominant culture, as the Jewish German foreign minister Walther Rathenau argued? Or by creating a state like any other as Weizmann once believed? Or by rejecting both assimilation and territory and instead creating states within states--a "Jewish diaspora nationalism," as the historian Simon Dubnow of Odessa proposed?
The Hebrew essayist and Zionist thinker Ahad Ha'am, raised in a religious family in the late 19th century, envisioned a Hebrew-speaking spiritual center to reconnect Jews with their culture stretching back thousands of years. Decades later, Ben-Gurion, as Israel's first prime minister, embraced the seemingly competing notions "to be like all other nations, and to be different from all the nations," as Brenner quotes him. "These two aspirations are apparently contradictory," Ben-Gurion declared, "but in fact they are complementary and interdependent. We want to be a free people... and we aspire to be different from all other nations in our spiritual elevation and in the character of our model society."
The strained coexistence of conflicting perceptions--and self-perceptions--shapes Brenner's historical narrative, as he traces the ever-shifting tensions between singularity and normality, between otherness and assimilation. As Brenner observes, Jews have perplexed societies from ancient Egypt onward, as a people apart and therefore special but alien, the subjects of acute admiration but aversion, of both...