Michael Brenner Discusses “In Search of Israel: The History of an Idea”


I’m here with Michael Brenner to discuss his new book, “In Search of
Israel: The History of an Idea,” and the idea is the debates and discussions over
the past 130 years or so since the late 19th century on what political form of
organization the Jewish people should one day take if any at all and I found
this to be really interesting there’s so many ideas and possibilities and
alternatives to the situation that we see today that were debated and
discussed for a very long time and so the first question that I wanted to ask
you is the way that you open up the book you open the book with this really
interesting anecdote in which someone is asking a prominent Jewish intellectual
and you guys are such a unique people you’re such a unique special people with
this unique history and whatnot why do you want to give it up to become a
country like Albania Albania is not a country usually think about too much
when you think about the history of Jewish people you know why did the idea
of becoming a country like Albania yeah the exert an appeal yeah it’s
interesting actually Albania appears and reappears again in their discussions in
1920s and 30s of what the Jewish state should become the person who is asked
the question is hi invites man who was the leader of the Zionist movement it’s
been later the first president of State of Israel and as the story goes told by
Isaiah Berlin important Oxford philosopher the lady who asked him the
question as you say she said but but you just want to be country like Albania and
supposedly Weitzman’s had lit up like a light ball and he said Albania yes
Albania and wild vania well I guess the idea was Albania was a relatively new
and relatively small State which most of the world didn’t care that much about
and one of the central wishes of the if some of the Zionist leaders
we just want to be a people like any other people in the state like any other
state if there is anything like that because Jews were always the other
always special you know not be singled out we just want to be you live a normal
life right to be a state like any other and Albania is the quintessential state
like any other it’s not that was the other slightly exactly um one of the
things that you were talking about in here is the ways in which you know most
most states will think of themselves as unique in some respect and are part of
the appeal of becoming a state like Albania was to be a little less unique
you know sort of in one respect and part of the irony of what eventually happens
with the creation of Israel is that Israel as you suggest becomes truly
unique in the sense that it is not only perceived as unique by the people who
live within that country but it’s also perceived as unique by everyone else
right why is this you know unique to Israel why is it that Israel has this
distinction where you know in addition to every single state the leader is
always thinking oh we’re special everyone else also thinks it’s special
right alright so you’re absolutely right I mean these ideas of uniqueness are are
all over and we see them in in in America and in many European countries
in other places but interestingly very often they are even the idea of
uniqueness often is based often on a model of a chosen nation which again is
is is based on the biblical story and it’s again the Jewish story so in that
case I would say it’s almost a prototypical case of uniqueness so that
makes it a little different in addition I think it is a it is a different story
of establishing a country it’s not a country that the State of Israel
established in 1948 there was no Jewish state for almost 2,000 years
and there are probably no parallels to a nation that at least in its own
consciousness regards itself as a successor of a state that had existed
2,000 year ago and at the same time I would say the other part was the very
immediate past and that’s of course the Holocaust as part of their foundational
story of Israel which was also seen obviously as a very unique crime and
genocide in modern history so Jews who wanted to escape that
uniqueness were almost swooned back into it by what by the terrible act that
happened to them just a few years before the state was founded so they kind of
trapped in this uniqueness right right that’s actually an interesting way of
putting it trapped in this uniqueness one of the things that occurred to me as
I was reading your book when you were talking about this is the ways in which
part of what makes Israel so unique is not necessarily just its perception by
other people but the specific geopolitical circumstances that lead up
to its creation and you talk about many other alternatives that were posited as
to what other forms that the Jewish people might be able to take in a
political organization the state or a permanent diaspora you know something
like this so let me ask you was Israel the ideal solution from the perspective
of you know can you talk about the most prominent Jewish thinkers or leaders was
there any sort of consensus because Israel was in large degree determined by
outsiders the strategic interests of other parties was it the ideal solution
in hindsight it’s hard to say if there’s no thought about it hundred and 25 years
ago would say this is the ideal state probably you know we can depending on
where we stand we could say yes or no all right but if you go back to the
beginnings of the idea of a modern Jewish state so the story of political
Zionism which you have started in the eighteen
90s with Viennese journalist called Theodore Herzl wrote a book called the
Jewish state you see how many questions are still open because there is no
immediate example he wanted to create a state because Herzl and other early
Zionists thought there was so much anti-semitism especially in Eastern
Europe but also other parts of Europe that Jews need their own state and
especially who they want to be a nation like any other nation they need ever
escaped like any other nation where is it but the question were should it be
for Herzl in the Jewish state he says Oh Palestine or Argentina you know there’s
not much in the Bible about Argentina but Argentina was a country that invited
many immigrants at the time and was considered fertile territory and a good
place to go to later he the British consider offering
design is Uganda East Africa is actually today’s Kenya a part of it and he says
well why not we could at least consider this and then they’re not a territory
and there’s a small segment of the Zionist movement that splits and they
call themselves the territory lists and they will consider any territory in
Australia in South America wherever it is to save the Jewish people of Europe
so the question were wasn’t clear the question should be an independent state
or maybe an autonomous entity within back then was the Ottoman Empire laid
over than Britain that wasn’t clear either what kind of Constitution should
it have should it also should be a secular state or more religious state
most of the founders of Zionism and the State of Israel were secular and
actually many of them were socialist so they didn’t want of religious states but
there are religious Jews who and then there were other Jews who didn’t want to
have a Jewish state at all because they said oh but we are Jews because a
release so why do we need a state and as I said
oh we’re just because our nationality is Jewish were part of the Jewish people
so just couldn’t even agree their religion or a nation and if your only
religion and not a nation you usually don’t want to have your own state so
there were a lot of disagreements and I would say only it was really only during
World War two that the majority of Jews if the
background of course is the Holocaust the catastrophe that the majority of
Jews see oh we actually needed a state even right right don’t want to live
there and other Jews well lived there but we need a Jewish state it’s
important for the Jewish people to have this political emblem of stability this
anchor in the world of nation-states even if I’m not going like it was there
if you know we had it in 1935 maybe not six million but some millions maybe
could have been saved in all ago so that was the number one but but at the same
time I wouldn’t say it was the Holocaust that created the State of Israel because
even before the Holocaust the Zionist movement had had some considerable
diplomatic successes and immigration to Palestine I think what’s so wonderful
about the book is how you bring out this complexity you know for someone like me
not a specialist in this area and whatnot it’s easy to sort of passively
fall into the habit of thinking of the Jewish people as you know the semaj
inist group and it’s a yeah the Jewish people I understand what you’re talking
about and when you read this you very quickly
understand how complicated it is how many internal schisms there are and I
found your discussion of the history of Israel since the creation of the state
in 1948 also to be really interesting I mean for the first 25 years or so the
the type of people who immigrated there their their their educational level
their degree of secularism you know or whatnot changes drastically over you
know several generations and one of the major distinctions that we see today is
this distinction between the Israeli diaspora and the Jewish Diaspora and so
this sort of the last question that I kind of
wanted to pose to you it it’s not splitting hairs to try and ask what is
the difference between the two right so when the first sign is thinkers
conceived of the Jewish state their ideal was that all the Jews would gather
in this future Jewish state they would all live there then of course you know
you hit some times you realized well probably American Jews won’t go there
but most others might go there but there will be a Jewish Diaspora that will
remain and today we have most ironic situation we don’t have only the Jewish
Diaspora plus the State of Israel but we have also an Israeli Datak spirit and in
the way and that’s my argument in in contrast to maybe the prevailing opinion
in Israel for many decades which saw the immigrants Israeli immigrants in a very
negative light actually the Hebrew terms you’re deemed those who descend or go
down as opposed to those who immigrate to Israel go up so I argue that is one
achievement for office normality no matter the number the percentage-wise
percentage rised the the the the Israeli citizens will leave the State of Israel
it’s comparable to most Western countries it’s not outrageously huge
it’s it’s that’s a normal feature of most countries that people come in and
other people go out that’s the natural situation especially in the 21st century
so many of these Israelis even of the second generation maintain the language
Hebrew maintain relations with Israel and for those who live in Europe Berlin
surprisingly now is one of the largest Jewish expat communities it’s so close
that they go back and forth I mean it’s a flight like from New York to Miami if
you fly from Berlin to Tel Aviv and they live in both worlds area
and and I think this is in a way and you normal not for the average person but
for many people in that way I would argue the Israeli diaspora gives the
lens even a little bit of normality to the British right that’s a really
interesting way that thinking about it that to be a normal state to have the
sense of normality you need a political expatriate community where the very
definition that they’re expatriate comes from the fact that I have a political
identity of being associated with Israel well and not just a cultural or
religious identity it would make it a non normal state if Israel would not
have any Israeli community outside the country right right absolutely well I
certainly learned a lot from your book and I think it’s a central reading for
people who are interested in understanding what is truly one of the
most pressing issues of the day you know as you say Israel the Jewish community
occupies a proportion of public discourse and debate far out of
proportion to its actual relation the size of Israel in any in any of these
indicators so thank you very much for sitting down with me thank you

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