A Normal Israel?
by Michael Brenner
Princeton University Press, 392 pp., $29.95
Michael Brenner’s erudite and elegantly written new book reminds us that his subject, the “idea” of Israel, has always been a contentious one, even among those who have upheld it. Throughout its history, the Zionist movement has been a collaboration between Jews who wanted a state like others and those who aspired to create something altogether unique. Zionism has long based its claim to sovereignty on the universal right to national self-determination, and the phrase “like all other nations” has been incorporated into Israel’s Declaration of Independence, yet the goal of “normalization” has proven to be much more complicated than most early Zionists had thought.
As Brenner notes, the end of the 19th century witnessed the birth not only of Zionism but of a number of different attempts to “normalize” the status of Jews. In the annus mirabilis of 1897 Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel in August, the Jewish socialist Bund was founded in Vilna in October, and the leading industrialist Walther Rathenau published a haunting and somewhat neglected plea for radical assimilation, evocatively titled Hear, O Israel, in Berlin. Political Zionism argued that normalization could be achieved only if the Jews were to have a state of their own, like all other nations; the Bundists argued that Jews should strive for integration into the societies in which they were living through a universal socialist revolution that would nonetheless give them a distinct place in the new world order alongside other nations; and Rathenau suggested that Jews could attain integration into German society if they would redefine themselves as a German tribe, like Saxons, Bavarians, or Prussians.
Herzl’s vision of the future Jewish state, as presented in his utopian novel Altneuland, was straightforward: The Jewish commonwealth would be a Western European liberal democracy, with equal citizenship rights for its non-Jewish population and suffrage for all. He coupled this with a generous social—though not socialist—vision of a welfare state that guaranteed a seven-hour workday and other institutional arrangements that Herzl called “mutualism.”