Australian Books

Next year in Jerusalem

27 June 2020

9:00 AM

27 June 2020

9:00 AM

Zionism: the concise history Alex Ryvchin

Connor Court, pp.250, $29.95

Alex Ryvchin’s book couldn’t possibly have come at a better time. On an almost daily basis, voices opposed to the existence of the world’s only Jewish state are getting louder. Nowhere is this more visible than on university campuses.

Yet it’s only the form of opposition that is new. The opposition itself is much older. This makes it all the more necessary for the world to be educated about what Zionism actually is, rather than settling for an interpretation based on exaggerations and conspiracy theories. There is no shortage of books on this subject. More than a few of them face a common dilemma. Either, the research is adequate, but the writing style isn’t accessible. Or the writing style is accessible, but the research is inadequate. Ryvchin’s book gets a tick in both boxes.

He tells the story of a nation that has stood the test of time, and does so with the kind of empathy that is too often absent from public debate on this subject. The Jews have survived invasions of their native land from countless ‘now-extinct’ ancient nations, such as the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans.

Miraculously, the Jews are still here. Following expulsion in 135 CE from their native land by Roman occupiers, the Jewish nation was forced to survive on other people’s lands, speaking other people’s languages and living under other people’s rules for the next 18 centuries.  Meanwhile, the native land itself would fall under successive waves of foreign rulers such as the Byzantines, Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatimids, Crusaders, Mamluks, Seljuks, Ottomans and finally the British. During this entire time, the Jews never gave up the hope to return home.

As Ryvchin rightly explains, Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. It is not a form of foreign colonialism, rather it is the opposite. There are a few interesting observations to make in analysing Ryvchin’s argument. Zionism’s goal of Jewish independence was always going to be far more challenging than for a typical nationalist movement.

Typical nationalists usually have three luxuries which the Zionists didn’t have. One, numbers. The people nationalists seek to represent usually make up the majority of the demography on the territory over which they seek statehood. The Zionists didn’t have this from the start.  Two, language. The people that typical nationalists seek to represent usually have a common lingua franca. While Hebrew was the language of the ancient Israelites, it had ceased to be a spoken vernacular even before the diaspora kicked off. Its use was restricted to liturgical purposes. Three, a single opponent. Nationalists typically only have to resist one opponent to achieve independence. The Zionists had to resist the Ottoman Turks, then the British Empire and hostile clan leaders to decolonise the Jewish state.

Yet, they did it. This is a story that isn’t told with empathy often enough. As Ryvchin reminds us, the Zionists strengthened their numbers through land purchases and setting up communal farms. They revived the ancient language. They successfully resisted not one, but multiple forces to achieve Jewish independence. They managed to do all that despite active opposition from the beginning. Between 1882 and 1948, there were violent attacks against Jewish inhabitants in pre-state Israel and anti-Zionists lobbied the British colonial authorities to stop Jews from returning home.

Yet the early Jewish communities in pre-state Israel worked hard and managed to establish all the features of a modern nation-state before the dream was formally realised in 1948. As Ryvchin notes, they had newspapers, hospitals, educational institutions and orchestras. Between 1948 and 1982, the opposition took on the form of both conventional and asymmetric warfare. Time and again, the Jewish state has proven itself capable of defending its interests on the battlefield. Between 1987 and 2005, the opposition mostly took the form of asymmetric warfare. This period saw two armed uprisings against the Jewish state.

The first ended with the Oslo Agreement in 1993, which provided those opposed to the Jewish state a quasi-state of their own. The second ended in 2005 with Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Neither response has achieved peaceful coexistence.

If anything, both have left opposing forces under the impression that so long as there is sufficient resistance, the Jewish state may continue to give up more land. Their latest form of resistance is the so-called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to corner and ultimately erase Israel off the world map. Its arguments are unsound, but its influence is growing on university campuses by the day.

Now is not the time for complacency. It is a time to expose those with an agenda to obliterate the only Jewish state. Equally, it is time to appeal to those who are reasonable enough to understand the Zionist story in its own words and prepared to work together to find a way to coexist.

This book will go a long way towards the fulfilment of this goal. It should be prescribed reading for anyone who is interested in understanding the miraculous story of the world’s most tenacious nation that has stood the test of time against multiple waves of invaders, lost its native language, lost its demography, lost its sovereignty, and yet, managed to literally resurrect all of that within the space of a century.

No nation appreciates having its story told by its opponents. This courtesy should also apply to Zionists. The final chapter is the one to look out for. It shows how opposition to the idea of a Jewish state started out as an internal debate among Jewish intellectuals, yet went on to becoming virtually indistinguishable from blatant antisemitism, both in terms of its aims as well as its rhetoric. This chapter plainly explains the little-known history of the ‘Zionism is racism’ resolution, the legacy of which continues to linger on to date.

If Ryvchin’s argument makes one thing clear, it is that antisemitism has run right through the story of Zionism every step of the way. If more people started to understand the Zionist story told by Zionists in their own words, that would be a major step towards the eventual elimination of antisemitism from our world. This book is a great place to start that journey.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Dr Sherry Sufi is a Western Australian author and columnist. His award winning Ph.D. thesis was on language and nationalism. The views expressed here are his own.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments