How one people’s dream, the establishment of a Jewish state, became another people’s nightmare.
Born into a Zionist family that fled Luxembourg in 1940, historian Mayer (The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revoltuions, 2000, etc.) has watched events unfold in Israel with interest and growing consternation. Enlisting his considerable erudition in European history, he embarks on a chronological breakdown of the Zionist movement: its emergence during the “high noon” of Western colonial imperialism; the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the establishment of a binational Mandate with arbitrary borders and little regard for the native Palestinians toiling the land; partition and independence from Britain in 1948. Mayer incorporates the messianic ideals of such prominent Zionists as Theodor Herzl, Vladimir Jabotinsky and Chaim Weizmann, as well as internal critics like Ahad Haam and Martin Buber, who warned early on of the imploding “Arab Question.” Zionism’s characterization of Palestine as “a land without a people for a people without a land” set the stage for Arab rancor and resistance as Jewish immigration rose and borders mutated, prompting the first intifada of 1929. Mayer never loses sight of the similar Palestinian Arab urge toward self-determination, born at the same time as the Zionists’ but swept aside by the world’s sense of guilt over the Holocaust and the decision to collectively atone for it with the creation of Israel. In his magisterial “Prolegomenon,” Mayer demonstrates how Jabotinsky’s call for an “iron wall” of military strength against the Arabs prevailed among politicians from Ben-Gurion to Sharon, draining whatever reserves of innocence and entitlement Israel possessed. Beleaguered by irrepressible Arab neighbors and engulfed by violence, the present-day American-backed military state is paying dearly for this hubris. The opening section was actually written last, the author notes in a postscript: “There was no way to conclude this book, the story it tells being indeterminate [so] I turned to writing the thematically framed Prolegomenon.”
Perspicacious, evenhanded and well grounded—a critical, contextually rich study of the Jewish-Palestinian imbroglio.