The most surprising thing about the pro-phets of Israel, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, is that they “were tolerated at all by their people.” The prophet “alienates the wicked as well as the pious, the cynics as well as the believers.” Yet the prophet of Israel has a saving grace: He “begins with a message of doom; he concludes with a message of hope.”
While Heschel was writing about the biblical prophets, he might as well have been describing the eight Zionist figures the historian Rick Richman profiles in And None Shall Make Them Afraid: Eight Stories of the Modern State of Israel. It is a cogent telling of the rebirth of the Jewish state and the men and women who mobilized their co-religionists against hopelessness and resignation. In doing so, they “reflect[ed] the intellectual and social revolutions that Zionism and Americanism brought to the world”—namely, “the struggle between free societies and their totalitarian enemies.”
Four are Americans: Louis Brandeis, Golda Meir, Ben Hecht, and Ron Dermer (Meir was born in Kyiv but became a U.S. citizen at 19). Four are European: Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, Vladimir Jabotinsky, and Abba Eban. Herzl, the Viennese journalist who injected the concept of a reconstituted Jewish state into the bloodstream of global politics, felt the weighty delirium of prophecy more than most. “I have more than once been afraid I was losing my mind,” he confided to his diary. “This is how tempestuously the trains of thought have raced through my soul. A lifetime will not suffice to carry it all out. But I shall leave behind a spiritual legacy. To whom? To all men.… I think life for me has ended and world history begun.” Herzl was living the life of an emancipated Jew and didn’t experience anti-Semitism personally until an incident involving his law-school fraternity in 1883. Just over a decade later, his home city of Vienna would elect an explicitly anti-Semitic government. During his travels as a writer, he observed the status of the Jews of Europe and understood that the idea of the emancipated Jew was a fiction. There was no alternative to self-determination. Thus began Herzl’s new career, which we might call confrontational Zionism. He criticized the great Jewish philanthropists of the age as failures, wrote The Jewish State, and organized the groundbreaking First Zionist Congress, which brought Jewish thinkers and leaders together from around the world to set to work making the Jewish state a reality.
Like the prophets, Herzl faced scorn and ridicule from the Jewish community. The London-based Jewish Chronicle, a voice of establishment Jewish news and opinion in Western Europe, panned Herzl’s idea as “hastened, if not dictated, by panic.”
Four decades later in the United States, another novelist and playwright would get similar treatment from the Jewish establishment. Ben Hecht was born in Manhattan in 1894. He would make his way to Chicago and then to Hollywood, where he became Hollywood’s most sought-after screenwriter. Before that, Hecht had been a talented reporter and had published a successful first novel. Hecht’s writing seemed to satisfy everyone except Hecht, who found his own crowd-pleasing material shallow. That would change as it became clear to him that Jewish life in Europe was facing imminent destruction and he turned the use of his immense talents toward the Zionist cause.
Hecht did not live an avowedly Jewish life, and that is important. In its attack on Herzl, the Jewish Chronicle mentioned Herzl’s lack of religious observance throughout his life, as if he had no right to speak so definitively about the future of the Jewish people. In fact, the Herzls and the Hechts were the perfect Paul Reveres for precisely that reason. The observant Jew could tell you that assimilation would not save you from anti-Semitic regimes, but the plight of the secular, integrated Jew proved it. A novella published by Hecht seven months after Kristallnacht features a “global pogrom,” after which its narrator says: “We who had gone to sleep the night before on the borrowed pillow of civilization woke in the Dark Ages.… We were Jews again.”
The more Hecht asserted himself in the public defense of his people, the more his contemporary communal leaders tried to sideline him. In 1943 he wrote a stage pageant titled We Will Never Die, calling out the world’s indifference to the slaughter in Europe. Rabbi Stephen Wise, a prominent Jewish leader who mistook his access to President Franklin Roosevelt for influence, told Hecht over the phone that he’d read his script and wanted Hecht to cancel the whole production. According to Hecht’s recollection, Wise said: “If you wish hereafter to work for the Jewish Cause, you will please consult me and let me advise you.”
Hecht hung up, annoyed and unbowed. Wise may not have liked the script, but First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, in the audience when the play came to Washington, was blown away. Perhaps Hecht knew better than Wise how to get the attention of those in power: not with meek flattery but by making “the free world” stare right into its own hypocrisy and using the money from ticket prices to make sure that the Jews fighting for their survival might have the necessary guns and ammunition to do so. Ben Hecht was not sorry to bother you.
Thus does a theme emerge from the book. Vladimir Jabotinsky was a contemporary of Herzl (though 20 years his junior), and yet Richman’s chapter on him takes place in 1937, just a few years before Jabotinsky’s death. There is a good reason for this.
Jabotinsky spent decades as a writer, public intellectual, statesman, Zionist leader, and soldier. He was the force behind the Jewish Legion, the three Jewish battalions of the Royal Fusiliers that fought in Palestine in World War I. The legion was disbanded after the war and the Jews of Palestine faced waves of terror campaigns and riots by Palestinian Arabs. Britain would neither protect the Jews under its mandate nor allow them the means to defend themselves. Britain convened what became known as the Peel Commission, essentially an attempt to reduce future Jewish sovereignty in the land under the guise of mediating an end to the violence.
Jabotinsky was the last Zionist leader to testify before the commission, in February 1937. And he did something quite different from all the others who had preceded him. Jabotinsky proposed that it was time for a British commission focused not on Arabs and Jews but on the British themselves: “Because I claim someone is guilty. I claim that a tremendous amount of ammunition for the Arabs has been allowed to percolate into Palestine both before and during the events. I claim there was neglect of duty. … Sometimes even a humble man like myself has the right to say the words ‘J’accuse.’ … I submit most respectfully and humbly that some independent Commission, independent of the Colonial Office and independent of the [British officials in Palestine], should inquire and investigate into this question of guilt. … The person guilty should be punished and that is what I humbly demand.”
The Peel Commission’s recommendation did not rescind the plan for a Jewish state, but it did propose reducing its boundaries enough to make it virtually impossible to defend. Britain’s endorsement of the Peel recommendations would take the form of a House of Commons vote. But that endorsement never came, because Jabotinsky pulled Winston Churchill off the sidelines and implored the future prime minister to rally opposition to Peel. Churchill did so, and the Peel endorsement was defeated.
In his speech to Peel, Jabotinsky said: “I believe in England, just as I believed in England twenty years ago, when I went against nearly all Jewish opinion and said, ‘Give soldiers to Great Britain’ [by forming the Jewish Legion] because I believed in her. I still believe.” His point was clear: I kept the Zionists under my wing on the side of the Western democracies; Britain must keep itself on the side of freedom and democracy, too.
Hecht offered the American version of that argument, after being made to contemplate the charge that Zionists were of insufficient loyalty to the United States: “If my sense of outrage against the Germans is a Jewish one, do I lessen my Americanism by voicing it? … If tyrants flout the laws of human rights, and murder the weak, and I shout against them, am I more Jew than American? … [A Jew] cries for the rights of man, and for the decent unperilous operation of government. If he cries more loudly for these than the American next to him, is he not, perhaps, more American?”
That would certainly have been the response of others profiled in Richman’s book as well. Louis Brandeis, the Supreme Court justice who took the reins of American Zionist leadership, insisted that even if American Jews believed they had found true freedom in the United States, they still had an obligation as Americans to support the extension of that freedom to their brethren. According to Brandeis, “loyalty to America demands rather that each American Jew become a Zionist.”
Like Hecht, Ron Dermer “was born in America, raised in America, and formed in America,” as Dermer wrote in 2005 upon relinquishing his American citizenship to serve as Israel’s economic attaché in Washington. He added, “I left America because I wanted to help another nation I love defend the freedoms that Americans have long taken for granted.” Dermer would go on to pursue that course as Benjamin Netanyahu’s ambassador to the United States, bringing his practice of Zionism and Americanism full circle.
Though it is exasperating to watch the Jewish people be made to argue in favor of their own existence over and over, the state they built is 75 years old and thriving. A world without Israel is a failed idea. Richman’s superb book shows why, and it invites us to share in the vindication of those who made that world a thing of the past.
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