Daniel G. Hummel, review of Anne Perez’s “Understanding Zionism: History and Perspectives”

Anne Perez. Understanding Zionism: History and Perspectives. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2023. 277 PP. Paper $27.00. ISBN: 9781506481166.

A small thought experiment: a non-academic friend texts you, “What book would you recommend as an introduction to Zionism?” The scholar of Zionism may have a ready recommendation, though many of the classics would likely overwhelm someone looking for an overview — those by Walter Laqueur (1921-2018), Shlomo Averini (b. 1933), and Melvin Urofksy (b. 1939), or newer volumes like the ones by Anita Shapira (b. 1940) and Colin Shindler (b. 1949). While these texts can offer the student of Zionism much introductory material and insights into deeper scholarly debates, they are written for academics and classrooms. They are also largely historical in approach and, either because of publication date or focus, do not draw direct lines to contemporary headlines involving Zionism.

To continue the thought experiment, perhaps you call your friend to get some more context. She says that she’s interested in the history, yes, but also topics that relate to contemporary Zionism: Christian Zionism, anti-Zionism, the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement (BDS), the relationship between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, and recent proposed models for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Here the potential recommendation list gets shorter; the most up-to-date literature is often produced by organizations with deeply vested interests in a particular perspective and would not be ideal as introductory material. That said, entry-level primers might include Oxford’s Zionism: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Stanislawski or a more journalistic approach, like the student favorite, Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon Tree, or the classic David Shipler’s Arab and Jew (less student friendly at over 750 pages!). These can do the trick, but they again lack studious attention and detail on the current state of Zionism, understood both historically and through multiple perspectives.

Anne Perez’s Understanding Zionism: History and Perspectives, recently published by Fortress Press, stands out as the best book to succeed in this experiment. The book meets basic requirements, like the page count being under 230 before notes. More importantly, it is written in an accessible but rigorous style. Its seven chapters are divided between a historical narrative that spans the beginnings of Zionism to contemporary developments, and topical chapters on the aforementioned Christian Zionism and anti-Zionism.

As useful as the coverage is Perez’s studied impartiality. This is evident from the introduction, where Perez enumerates definitions of key terms. To the uninitiated, the author clarifies, for example, that “Israelite” is anachronistic. She anticipates Christian confusion about the definition of “Jewish” and highlights how Zionism itself is a term “still under dynamic political, social, and cultural construction” (2). She applies this same care later, in her summary of anti-Zionism. While the meaning of Zionism has never been settled, “neither have the opposition movements to Zionism, and any comprehensive or honest historical and political treatment of these subjects must therefore contend with this contingency” (179). Throughout the book Perez gives voice to a litany of diverse individuals and sources that speak directly to the major aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is hard to convey how valuable such an impartial approach can be, especially as a primer, especially on such a polarizing topic as Zionism.

In addition to Understanding Zionism’s general merits, two aspects of Perez’s volume stand out for consideration. The first is how Perez integrates Christian Zionism into the history of Zionism writ large, a historiographical move that is increasingly needed but which does not appear in a systematic way in any of the above-mentioned works on Zionism. Scholars including Yaakov Ariel, Shalom Goldman, Samuel Goldman, and Donald Lewis have elevated the nineteenth-century connections between Christian Zionist advocates such as William E. Blackstone (1841-1935) and William Hechler (1845-1931) and the political Zionist movement of Theodor Herzl (1860-1904). These histories not only help to situate the Zionism in a broader intellectual and cultural historical framework, but also gesture to a coherent recontextualization of Zionism at the intersection of Jewish, Christian, and political history. So, too, is the history of anti-Zionism benefited with a broader canvas, which has historically been advanced in theological terms. Recognizing, as Perez does, the important diversity within Zionism that includes political, cultural, and religious traditions, including Christian Zionism and Christian anti-Zionism especially offers useful comparisons and perspective.

Perez’s second stand out is centering the complex and conflicting roles of nationality and religion in Israel/Palestine. In particular, the presence of Christians has often created a flashpoint of debate concerning what it means to be Jewish in Israel. Messianic Jews (Jews who believe that Jesus Christ was the Messiah) prompt some of the most intense debate. Historical examples include Brother Daniel (Oswald Rufeisen), born in 1922 (d. 1998) as a Jew who, while hiding in a convent during the Holocaust, converted to Catholicism and eventually joined the Carmelite order as a priest. He was a religious Zionist before converting to Christianity and remained a Zionist afterwards. He joined a monastery in Haifa in 1958 and applied for Israeli citizenship, listing his nationality as “Jewish” and his religion as “Catholic.” The Israeli government refused to honor the registration, and in 1962 Brother Daniel appeared before the Israeli Supreme Court, which decided that a national Jew could not also be a Catholic monk. The court replaced Brother Daniel’s nationality with the designation “unclear.” As Perez writes, this “perhaps fittingly described the status of religious and national identity in Israel” (82). Ultimately, Perez uses Zionism as a lens to understand the intersection of nationalism, culture, and religion — one whose clarity is enhanced by focusing on those areas of deepest contestation between and among Zionists.

The current landscape of primers on Zionism for non-academics is greatly improved with Perez’s book. Perez’s Understanding Zionism deserves wide readership among at least two audiences. As a book from Fortress Press, an academic imprint of 1517 Media, the publishing house of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Understanding Zionism should be read by Christians who instinctively regard Zionism as an issue with little Christian relevance. As Perez writes, “While Zionism emerged from a broad and rich Jewish history, Christians have not been absent from Zionist history and they would therefore be remiss to be ignorant of it” (211). A second audience is students who, anecdotally, have seemed to polarize into two camps on Israel/Palestine: the deeply invested and the majority disinterested. For those student activists who are organized on Israel/Palestine, Understanding Zionism will likely not be the most useful tool to advance the cause. However, for the much larger group of students uninformed on Israel/Palestine, Zionism, and Middle East politics, a book like Perez’s can stimulate interest, learning, and reflection. And Perez’s broad approach may inspire some to read further, develop a wider knowledge base, and to join advocacy groups, newly inspired by some of the enduring questions and concerns related to the history of Zionism. This may be the highest praise one can give to a book with the aims of understanding and introducing a central and complicated historical subject.

Daniel G. Hummel is the Director for University Engagement at Upper House, a Christian study center serving the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received his PhD in American History at UW-Madison and is a former Mosse Graduate Exchange Fellow. He is the author of The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism: How the Evangelical Battle Over the End Times Shaped a Nation (Eerdmans Press, 2023).


Leave a Reply