From Rick Perlstein, The American Prospect <[email protected]>
Subject The Infernal Triangle: The Neglected History of the State of Israel
Date February 21, 2024 1:04 PM
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The Neglected History of the State of Israel

The Revisionist faction of Zionism that ended up triumphing adhered to
literal fascist doctrines and traditions.

I begin with fulsome praise: Isaac Chotiner of


**New Yorker**
is the greatest interviewer alive.

He asks the most terrible

people alive, or sometimes just conspicuously


people, the bluntest questions imaginable. They evade; he follows
up-ruthlessly. They're reduced to puddles of incoherence. We get to
peer inside the mystery of moral failure-an accomplishment few other
writers can manage. Just as valuable are his straightforward
informational interviews, especially these past


in which Chotiner has been methodically flushing out


the inhumanity on the ground in Israel and Palestine, from all sides

One of Chotiner's best interviews ran this past November
A leader of the militant West Bank settlement movement told him that
Jews have a sacred duty to occupy all the land between "the Euphrates in
the east and the Nile in the southwest," that nothing west of the Jordan
River was ever "Arab place or property," and that no Arabs, even
citizens, should have civil rights in Israel. Stunning stuff, and
extremely valuable to have on the record, especially given the settler
movement's close ties
Benjamin Netanyahu's government.

I praise Chotiner, however, as a bridge to a separate point: Even the
most learned and thoughtful observers of Israel and Palestine miss a
basic historic foundation of the crisis.

Return to that November interview. Chotiner asked, "So rights are not
some sort of universal thing that every person has. They're something
that you can win or lose." The settler answered, "That's right." He
followed up: "When you see Palestinian children dying, what's your
emotional reaction as a human being?" She replied: "I go by a very basic
human law of nature. My children are prior to the children of the enemy,
period. They are first. My children are first." Chotiner responded with
incredulity: "We are talking about children. I don't know if the law
of nature is what we need to be looking at here." The settler,
nonplussed, repeated herself: "I say my children are first."

It's a remarkable thing to hear such horrifying sentiments, unadorned.
But it is also remarkable how surprised we are by them. I've been
reading an outstanding 2005 study, The Jewish Radical Right: Revisionist
Zionism and Its Ideological Legacy
, by historian Eran
Kaplan. You should too. One of the things you'll learn: That settler
is repeating almost word for word the doctrines of one of Zionism's
original political traditions-the faction that ended up winning, and
whose foundations were literally fascist.

I USE THE WORD "FASCIST" in the literal sense. Do not flinch from it.
The founders of Revisionist Zionism certainly didn't. Respect them
enough to take them at their word.

In 1928, a prominent Revisionist named Abba Ahimeir published a series
of articles entitled "From the Diary of a Fascist." They refer to the
founder of their movement, Ze'ev Jabotinsky (his adopted first name is
Hebrew for "wolf"), as "il duce." In 1935, his comrade Hen Merhavia
wrote that Revisionists were doing what Mussolini did: "establish a
nucleus of an exemplary life of morality and purity. Like us, the
Italian fascists look back to their historical heritage. We seek to
return to the kingdom of the House of David; they want to return to the
glory of the Roman Empire." They even opened a maritime academy in
Italy, under Mussolini's sponsorship, for the navy they hoped to build
in their new Israeli state. "[T]he views and the political and social
inclinations of the Revisionists," an Italian magazine reported, "are
absolutely in accordance with the fascist doctrine ... as our students
they will bring the Italian and fascist culture to Palestine."

Like all fascists, Revisionists believed the most exemplary lives were
lived in violence, in pursuit of return to a racially pure arcadia.
Their rivals, the Labor Zionists, who beat out the Revisionists in the
political battle to establish the Jewish state in their own image,
hardly shrank from violence, of course. But they saw it as a necessary
evil-and defensive. Revisionists believed in violence, offensive
violence, as a positive good. "Now it is not enough to learn how to
shoot," Jabotinsky's successor as Revisionist leader put it in 1945,
five years after Jabotinsky's death. "In the name of historical
justice, in the name of life's instinct, in the name of truth-we
must shoot."

And like all fascisms, it expressed an overwhelming ethnic chauvinism.
One of the kookiest things I learned from Kaplan's book was that
Jabotinsky believed "the Semitic sounds of Arabic were but a series of
noises without distinction or character," with which Hebrew had little
in common. Hebrew was actually a Mediterranean language, Jabotinsky
believed. Recovering the non-guttural sound of real Hebrew "would evoke
in the nation's youth the true national characteristics that had all
but disappeared in the Diaspora."

"Revisionism was, first and foremost," Kaplan writes, "an attack on
modernity ... an attempt to revise the course of Jewish history and
release it from the hands of the champions of such ideals as progress,
rationality, and universal rights."

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YOU MIGHT IMAGINE, IF YOU HAD a typical American education like mine,
this doctrine could never get far among Jews, of all people, who
introduced the world to those ideals. "Western civilization," as my high
school world history teacher said, "walks on two legs: Jerusalem and
Athens." Dancing in circles, kibbutzim, wars only because hostile
neighbors forced them on us: That was what the typical American Jewish
education taught us Israel was all about.

Only if you were more sophisticated in such matters would you know that
in 1977, the very same young Revisionist who praised killing "in the
name of life's instinct, in the name of truth" became Israel's prime
minister. As a commander in Israel's War of Independence, Menachem
Begin wrote a telegram to his forces who had just massacred over a
hundred Arabs before razing their village: "Continue thus until victory.
As in Deir Yassin, so everywhere, we will attack and smite the enemy.
God, God, thou has chosen us for conquest." In 1946, an underground
militia Begin led set a bomb in Jerusalem's King David Hotel, in an
attempt to chase the British out of the country, that murdered 91

I'm no expert on Israeli history and politics. (If I get anything
wrong here, or if you disagree, I want to hear from you at
[email protected] .
All these essays are conversations.)

I am, however, an expert on how another nation-this one-has made
forgetting, repressing, and distorting the ugliest parts of its past a
foundation of its self-understanding. Generations learned about happy
slaves from Gone With the Wind, and even the best-informed white
observers-like me-were only vaguely aware of the 1921 Tulsa Race
Massacre , where
airplanes literally bombed a thriving Black neighborhood out of
existence, slaughtering hundreds, until an HBO show based on a comic
book brought it to
the cultural fore. I feel like I have something valuable to say about
this particular America-Israel special relationship-partly based on


**haven't** known.

Israeli history was everywhere during my upbringing-for instance, in
our basement rec room, where we displayed the framed first issue of a
newspaper that used to be called

**The**Palestine Post, but then, what with its banner headline "State of
Israel Is Born," became


**Jerusalem Post**. But I only learned about the King David Hotel
bombing when I was around 30, at ... the King David Hotel.

Kaplan starts his 2005 monograph by noting that this "dark side of the
Zionist dream ... has long been ignored and overlooked by both the
Zionist (and Israeli) academic and the political leadership." Just so: I
have a textbook, Understanding Israel
, by the
distinguished Israeli academic Amos Elon, published in 1976 for the
American Sunday school market, written on a high school level. It
mentions Jabotinsky and Revisionism precisely once.

I asked my Facebook friends what they knew about Revisionist Zionism:
Almost without exception, they knew less than what I knew about the
Tulsa Race Massacre before exploring it further after seeing

**Watchmen** on HBO.

With trepidation, I reached out to Isaac Chotiner to ask him what he had
known about Revisionism when he was so shocked by the settler reciting
its doctrines. (And make no mistake: What this settler told him was
doctrine. "For Jabotinsky," Kaplan writes, "human rights, civil
equality, and even political equality could not create harmony among
individuals. Only the common ties of blood, history, and language could
bring people together.") I explained to Isaac my idea for this essay,
with himself as its proof text. Graciously, he gave me his blessing. He
had known practically nothing about Revisionism, too.

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READING UP ON REVISIONISM, your head might spin at how many of the
things you understood

**as**Judaism and Zionism, like


**aleph**, simply are not so. For instance, everyone has heard the joke
"Two Jews, three opinions."

Now, I will never hear it again without cringing.

Kaplan quotes Amos Oz: "Israel is a fiery collection of arguments, and I
like it this way." Jabotinsky did not like it that way. He was a
political monist. "In a healthy soul there is only one ideal," he wrote.
Same for nations: Like Maoists pursuing cultural revolution,
Revisionists wished to "purge the Zionist agenda of all other
aspirations." Kaplan summarizes their ideal: "When a person is one with
the nation, there is no room for individuality."

Astonishingly, Revisionists adjured the entire tradition of rabbinic
learning: the Hebrew Bible, as a heroic chronicle of a race mighty of
warlords, required no interpretation. They especially despised any
interpretation that found in Judaism a universalist moral
vision-especially the socialist one of their Labor Zionist rivals, the
tradition that won the battle to determine Israel's reality and

Until, that is, having won that battle, Labor Zionism, by this late
date, lost the war.

Reading Kaplan, I thought of my grandpa, who grew up in the labor
Zionist hotbed of Milwaukee. Its matriarch Golda Meir wrote in Yiddish
(Revisionists despised Yiddish) in his autograph book how she looked
forward to seeing him some day in Eretz Yisrael. He was sent to
agricultural college to prepare to pursue the foundational Labor Zionist
dream, "making the desert bloom" as a farmer. Long story, which I tell
in this interview
He ended up staying in Milwaukee instead, but was always puttering
around his garden in Sabra-like khaki shorts and work shirt.

Ze'ev Jabotinsky would have hated my grandfather: To him, farming was
emasculating diasporic silliness.

In Jabotinsky's allegorical novel Samson, Samson's father teaches
the future warrior king, "It is a sin to rape the land. She is our
mother." Kaplan paraphrases the lesson: Liberated from the farmer's
life, "Samson's spiritual powers become so great that by merely
standing by the side of the road, he made traveling merchants stop and
give him their goods." Revisionist ideology called upon Jabotinsky's
disciples to follow the same path, to become what Joseph Klausner, the
Revisionist historian and author, described as the ideal warrior: "the
warrior of life as part of life itself."

And I thought of my late father, during my childhood in the age of
Menachem Begin. He may also have hardly heard of Ze'ev Jabotinsky. But
political ideas can be transmitted in ways far more strange and subtle
than via mere books and doctrines. Sometimes, they are just in the air.
Dad displayed a full-size replica of an Uzi on his office wall. The
model Israeli tanks and warplanes he built in the basement as a hobby
were scattered around the house, even hanging from fishing line from the
ceiling. He might not have quite had words to express it, but
Jabotinsky-style visions of the redemptive power of violence were what
his Zionism was all about.

You may know how the story of Revisionism and Israel now plays out.
Jabotinsky had a close associate named Benzion, who begat a son,
Benjamin Netanyahu, who as prime minister, Kaplan notes, is if anything
closer to Jabotinsky's original Revisionist vision. Begin focused
mostly on Revisionism's vision of territorial conquest. "To Begin,"
Kaplan writes, "the Jews were in a constant battle against Amalek."

If you've been following the news from Gaza, you'll understand the

But Netanyahu added back something Begin had neglected: Zionism as a
totalizing reactionary cultural project. For instance, his supporters
launched a magazine, Azure, whose editor pressed the idea that Zionism
went astray when it embraced "the universalist heritage of the

A few weeks back, I recorded a segment for the show

**Democracy Now!**. As I awaited my turn, I heard host Amy Goodman
interview Simone Zimmerman, founder of the activist group IfNotNow
, which calls itself "a movement of
American Jews organizing our community to end U.S. support for
Israel's apartheid system and demand equality, justice, and a thriving
future for all Palestinians and Israelis." I heard Zimmerman say of the
war there, "It's so deeply contrary to our values as Jewish people."
And I knew why she was wrong-at least if by "our" she means


I also have come to understand why that kind of utterance

**never** quite made sense to me: They certainly weren't values I
learned in my natal home, looking up at celebratory F-15s. In the course
of Zionism's longer history, it makes even less sense. Say it plain:
That is

**one**set of Jewish values. Another celebrates razing Arab villages,
just like another set of American values than my own celebrates razing
Black ones. In both cases, it is up to people with a stake in those
nations to give their all to determine that the humane set of values


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