Not Normal

By Assaf Sagiv

The British author Malcolm Muggeridge was once interviewed on American television in the early 1960s, admitting that he had only once in his life voted in an election. “On that occasion,” as he told it, “I just had to. There was this one candidate who had been committed to an asylum and upon discharge was issued a certificate of sanity. Well, now, how could I resist? What other politician anywhere has an actual medical report that he is sane?”
There is something discomfiting about a man who feels compelled to produce evidence proving he is normal. In trying to allay concerns about his mental health, he ends up deepening them. Yet what is true for a single politician is no less true for a political movement presuming to express the aspirations of a nation. The desire to integrate successfully with the other, presumably “normal” nations points to a fundamental insecurity, one that runs directly against the grain of most national ideals, which traditionally aim at fostering a sense of pride and distinctiveness of spirit.
For the longest time, however, the wish to become a “normal” people has been one of the major rallying cries in modern Jewish nationalism. Prominent figures in the pre-state Zionist movement called upon the Jews, a people persecuted, alienated, and scattered throughout the world, to remake themselves as a nation “like all the nations,” one that could live a modest, proper life in a sovereign state. This dream took various forms, depending upon one’s ideological tastes: Some, such as Leon Pinsker and Max Nordau, viewed it through liberal, bourgeois eyes; while others, such as Ber Borochov and Haim Arlosoroff, phrased it in Marxist or socialist terms. In either case, the assumption was that the primary aim of the Zionist revolution was to elevate the standing of the Jewish people until it reached equal footing with other peoples that were materially secure and healthy in spirit.
With hindsight, it is not difficult to see that this version of Zionism took a page from the ideal of emancipation, which sought to remake individual Jews as equal and active partners in Western civilization. This ideal, which captured the imagination of Jewish maskilim from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries, was dashed against the harsh anti-Semitic reality in Europe and Russia, and finally abandoned with the destruction of the European diaspora in the Holocaust. Yet it found longer life within the rubric of Zionism, and its echoes can be heard in the hopes of some of that movement’s thinkers to find in nationalism the elixir which might correct the anomaly of Jewish life in exile. As Pinsker wrote in his path-breaking essay Auto-Emancipation:
The great ideas of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have not passed by our people without leaving a mark. We feel not only as Jews; we feel as men. As men, we, too, wish to live like other men and be a nation like the others….
Similar opinions were embraced by many Jews, particularly those who saw themselves as having awoken from the emancipatory dream, who chose to build their Zionism on the foundation of a broader, cosmopolitan sentiment. The movement’s principal aim, they felt, should be to secure for the Jews, by reclaiming the material basis of communal life in their own land, the same emancipation as a people that they were unable to attain as individuals—in other words, to gain entry into the exclusive club of progressive, enlightened, “normal” nations.
Given the orientation of these Zionists, it should come as no surprise that many of them also sought to erase from the public consciousness those elements of Judaism which, in their eyes, stood in the way of Israel’s acceptance among the nations—and in particular the idea of being a “chosen people.” Joseph Haim Brenner, one of the outstanding literary figures of the Second Aliya, gave voice to this sentiment when he wrote:
I would, with the most delicious and fierce pleasure, erase from the Hebrew prayer book of our generation any mention of “You have chosen us from among the nations.” I would do it today: Scratch clean all those counterfeit nationalist verses, until no trace would remain. Because this empty national pride, this groundless Jewish preening, will not repair the breach, nor will the aphorisms of a counterfeit nationalism amount to anything.

t cannot be denied, then, that the normalizing tendency within Zionism has been a part of the movement more or less from the beginning. Yet it is a distortion of history to argue, as have some of Pinsker’s and Brenner’s radicalized ideological descendants of late, that these views reflected the mainstream of classic Zionist thought. Indeed, they stood in deliberate opposition to the dominant approach, which saw the Jewish national movement as motivated by dreams that went far beyond “normalization,” building instead on the classical belief in the Jews’ special mission among the nations.
Foremost among these was, of course, Ahad Ha’am. A leading figure in the early Zionist movement, he spelled out the implications of these two approaches with remarkable foresight. In his view, the greatest question facing the Zionist leadership was
whether the Jews are to live in their own state, according to their unique spirit, and to revive and develop the national possessions which they have inherited from the past—or whether the state will merely be a European colony in Asia, one whose eyes and heart look toward the “metropolis” and try to imitate in all its endeavors the program which emerges from there.
The belief that the Zionist enterprise must in some way embody the unique spirit of the Jewish people was seen as central by the movement’s most important political and ideological leaders—including Theodor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion, A.D. Gordon, and Berl Katznelson. Herzl, himself a former devotee of emancipation, came to believe in the idea of a Jewish state as the only way to realize the special potential inherent in the Jewish nation. “By means of our state,” he wrote in his diary in 1895, “we can educate our people for tasks which still lie beyond our horizon. For God would not have preserved our people for so long if we did not have another destiny in the history of mankind.” To allow this to happen, Herzl believed that the Jews themselves would have to find their unique “inner unity” through a return to their own wellsprings. As he wrote in 1896: “A generation which has grown apart from Judaism does not have this [inner] unity. It can neither rely upon our past nor look to our future. That is why we shall once more retreat into Judaism and never again permit ourselves to be thrown out of this fortress…. We shall thereby regain our lost inner wholeness and along with it a little character—our own character. Not a Marrano-like, borrowed, untruthful character, but our own.”
A similar belief in the special mission of the Jewish nation was a central feature of Labor Zionism. A.D. Gordon, the spiritual mentor of many of the early kibbutzim and moshavim, made this idea central to his worldview. In an essay he wrote in 1920, Gordon called upon the Jews to rediscover the “cosmic element” in their national identity, something which was already beginning to find expression in the Palestine of his day:
Here something is beginning to flower which has greater human significance and far wider ramifications than our history-makers envisage…. We seek the rebirth of our national self, the manifestation of our loftiest spirit, and for that we must give our all.
As the Labor movement grew and developed, gradually coming to dominate the Zionist enterprise, many of its leaders adopted a similar approach. “We will not change the world’s attitude toward us by buying it off—not through any kind of ideological or spiritual bribery…,” declared Berl Katznelson, the leading ideologue of the Labor movement, in 1942. “Only if we have the strength to stand up for ourselves, to defend our righteousness, only if we ourselves live to the fullest the special phenomenon known as the Jewish destiny on earth… only then will we know how to bring our message to others.”

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