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Book Notes: The Origins of Zionism, David Vital

Michael D. Biddiss

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Book Notes The Origins of Zionism, by David Vital, Claren? don Press, Oxford, 1975, xvi +396pp., ?8-50. Soon after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II and the start of the resulting pogroms Y. L. Pinsker wrote: 'A people without a territory is like a man without a shadow?something unnatural, spectral.' The de? velopment of Zionism from this point until its World Congress in 1897 is the theme of David Vitafs latest book. His reluctance to make sustained comparison with non-Jewish movements seeking national fulfil? ment in this and earlier periods is the only important failing in an otherwise admirable guide to a complex story. Professor Vital begins by dealing deftly with the themes of Exile, Return, and Redemption in Jewish history and by providing a crisp survey of the state of nineteenth-century European Jewry. There is an espe? cially illuminating treatment of the manner in which emancipation, to whatever degree attained, usually assumed the form 'of a breaking down of the Jew's entry into civil society as an individual, not of the establishment of the Jewish community on a basis of equality with other ethnic groups'. The author gives an outstandingly clear account of how, for this and many other reasons, late nineteenth-century European Jewry was more than ever divided. Points of disagree? ment were legion: some Jews lived where assimilation was possible, others did not; some were keen on assi? milation, others were not; some desired only an area of secure free settlement, others nothing less than a full? blown state; some argued for migration from Europe, others against; some saw a future in Palestine, others looked elsewhere. Treatment of such disputes helps the author to explain how, over the whole period of the Aliya (1882-1903), only rather less than 3% of the Jews who left Europe came to the economically far from promising land of Eretz Israel. He also explains amply how even within the ranks of those who favoured this course there were deep divisions, usually reflecting the fragmentation of European Jewry itself: 'The movement began as the direct response of a multitude of individuals and local centres ... a re? sponse unmediated by some trumpet-call of national leadership and without those individuals or groups being fully ?ware of each other until positions had already been taken and commitments made.' Nowhere is Professor Vital's analytical talent more evident than in tracing the contrast between the Biluim, so strong on student idealism, and other migrants?fellow-Russian, as well as Rumanian and Yemeni?whose aspirations were simpler and more mundane. It is perhaps inevitable that the book should have its climax in the activities of Theodor Herzl. He emerges from this account as impressive, though also as ego? centric, as ever. Yet it is not the least of the merits of Professor Vital's work that this effect is achieved with? out any skimping of the attention due to his imme? diate predecessors, and especially to those with a more markedly Eastern European background. Only within this more richly textured setting can we appre? ciate fully the significance of the manner in which Herzl 'cut through the inconsistencies and dilemmas that overshadowed and largely paralysed the social action of the Jews of Europe in a Jewish cause with a speed and toughness that are hard to credit'. There is, however, no inconsistency in the accompanying reali? sation that even after the 1897 Congress, whose delibera? tions at Basle the book vividly summarises, the Zionist movement was still very far from being strong or even united. Distrust of Herzl, this largely assimilated Hungarian-born but German-speaking journalist, was not dispelled at a stroke?and least of all among the eastern Jews. Professor Vital's postscript directs us to elements both of success and of failure. He could usefully have made rather more than he has of at least one of the latter. His volume shows well enough that many of these Zionists concerned themselves deeply with the problem of winning over Palestine's Turkish rulers. It brings out all too spasmodically (though very memor? ably in the case of one quotation from Ahad Ha-'Am) the scarcely less evident fact that they bothered much more seldom about the feelings of the Sultan's Arab subjects. Amidst the horror of antisemitic pogroms in Eastern Europe that attitude may have been under? standable enough. Yet it was also a manifestation of myopia, with whose consequences the modern State of Israel lives still. Michael D. Biddiss University of Leicester</page></plain_text>