Hanan Harif, For We Be Brethren: The Turn to the East in Zionist Thought (Jerusalem: The Zalman Shazar Center, 2019).
This book surveys Zionist attitudes towards Asia and the Eastern world, concentrating on various ‘pan-Eastern’ and ‘pan-Semitic’ views that existed within the Zionist realm from the 1880s to the establishment of the State of Israel. Spurred by the experience of growing antisemitism and pogroms in Eastern Europe, post-assimilatory Jewish intellectuals began to challenge the standard European-oriented model of Jewish identity. As a result, their political views concerning Jewish existence changed dramatically. Influenced by such writers as the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, several Zionist thinkers looked to the ‘East’ (Mizrah) – meaning the Middle East and Asia – as the answer to their search for cultural belonging and political identification. Not unlike numerous intellectuals across the Ottoman Empire and the colonial world who rejected European civilization in favor of pan-Islamism or pan- Asianism, these Zionist thinkers and writers framed their quest for Jewish political independence as part of a larger rejection of Europe.
The first book-length analysis of this fascinating phenomenon, For We Be Brethren offers an original insight into the modern Jewish encounter with ‘the Orient’ and its role in the formation of the new Jewish national culture developing in Palestine. The book places the Zionist case in the context of different pan-movements and of non- European thought, as well as of colonial Orientalist discourse. The concepts explored in the book challenge the assumption that the establishment of a Jewish nation-state was the only goal of pre-state Zionism. While the Zionist movement never actually formulated a clear position towards ‘the East’ – neither politically nor culturally – its ideology did contain regional and transnational aspirations, as well as a search for the integration of European Jews within the Orient as an ‘Eastern People’ returning to their origins. This study includes in-depth analyses of thinkers who adopted such attitudes including Yehuda Leib Levin (Yehal’el), Yitzhak Epstein, Rabbi Binyamin, Mordechai Ze’ev Feierberg and Haim Margolis Kalvarisky as well as lesser known Zionist activists like Moshe Ya’acov Ben-Gavriel, Moshe Ayzman and Ya’acov Thon. Other well- known figures, like Nahum Sokolow, Menachem Ussishkin, Joseph Klausner and Albert Einstein also raised these ideas, which played a significant role in shaping their own political outlooks. Articulated in different ways and under varying cultural influences and historical settings, these endeavors were often characterized by philo- Islamic sentiments that often corresponded with a pessimistic view of European civilization. As a result, many of these intellectuals took part in a discourse that underscored the common Semitic origin of the Jewish and Arab peoples, the hopes for the construction of a ‘Semitic brotherhood’, and the belief in the possibility, even necessity, of a ‘Revival of the East.’
The book’s first chapter presents the awakening of European Jewish intellectuals from their hopes for integration into European society and their self-image as Europeans. The writings of Moshe Leib Lilienblum, for example, illustrate the rise of Zionist thought as a result of the destabilization of European Jewish identity and the internalization of anti-Jewish rhetoric identifying Jews as non- European Semites. As a result of this awakening, many Zionist writers began looking to Asia and the Orient as a space where Jews could be reborn as a people. The second chapter highlights how this line of thought was often accompanied by a reconsideration of Jewish attitudes towards Islam and the Arab world. Many of these writers expressed interreligious aspirations, emphasizing the proximity between Judaism and Islam as a potential foundation for a joint future. The book’s third chapter continues this discussion by examining the influence of Benjamin Disraeli on these developments. Disraeli’s books and articles contained the seeds of these ideas, which were adopted and discussed by many Zionist thinkers from the 1880s onwards. One of the best-known examples of this phenomenon was Mordechai Ze’ev Feierberg’s story ‘Whither’, which presented the revival of ‘the entire East’ as the main goal of the Zionist movement. Analyzed at length in the fourth chapter, Feierberg’s text impacted several Zionist groups, including many pioneers of the Second Aliyah and other intellectuals in British Mandatory Palestine.
A central aspect of these trends was ‘Pan-Semitism’, an idea whose most significant advocate was Yehoshua Radler-Feldman (known as Rabbi Binyamin). The fifth and sixth chapters in this study explore how Pan-Semitism was adopted by a variety of Zionist thinkers in Europe and in Palestine from the late Ottoman period until the establishment of the State of Israel. These thinkers aspired to political partnership and co-existence with Arabs in Palestine on the basis of what they perceived as their common racial origins and cultural similarities. Pan-Semitism was also a local offshoot of a much larger trend advocating pan-ideologies, which emphasized transnational movements and calls for global partnerships grounded in racial, regional and religious similarities. Rabbi Binyamin and other figures discussed in this book promoted pan- national ideas through publications aimed at Jewish audiences as well as the cultivation of political and cultural ties with prominent Arab figures. The seventh chapter in this study is dedicated to a striking example of pan-Eastern Zionist thought, which is found in the writings and work of Moshe Ya’acov Ben-Gavriel, who attempted to link Zionism to the much larger Pan-Asian movement centered in Japan. Although it took place in the margins of the Zionist movement, Ben-Gavriel’s activity was part of a larger trend among Middle Eastern national intellectuals who wished to forge links with the Far East as a replacement for their former ties with European society and culture. These pan-national trends within Zionism came to an end with the establishment of the State of Israel. Nevertheless, several prominent thinkers continued to pursue these ideas after Israel’s statehood. The book’s eighth chapter focuses on Hebrew writers like Boaz Evron, Uri Avnery and Amos Kenan, who worked from the 1940s and beyond in various political contexts, including the Israeli Knesset, to promote the idea that the State of Israel was part of the ‘Semitic Region’ and that it had to integrate into the region’s cultural and political landscape. For example, the Semitic Action and related political groups emphasized the role of the Israeli state in the political awakening of the Middle East. In this sense, Avnery and his colleagues harked back to the earliest stages of Zionism by setting the political goal of the Jewish people as the revival of ‘the entire East.’
This book offers a comprehensive study of these and related threads of thought that existed within the framework of Zionist culture and politics from its very beginning, and thus tells the fascinating story of the Zionist cultural encounter with the Orient. Although they never became part of the Zionist mainstream, the ideas and thinkers under discussion formed an essential part of the Jewish national discourse, a part that is too often omitted from the historical narrative and contemporary public debates.
Hanan Harif is a Deputy Chairman of the Ben-Zvi Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities in the East and a lecturer at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Hanan studies the wide range of attitudes held by Jewish scholars and writers towards the Orient during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as the role of the tendency towards the East in Jewish nationalism and its impact on modern Jewish identity.Currently Hanan works on an intellectual biography of the German-Israeli-American historian S.D. Goitein.