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Spring 2019

The Maverick Israeli Intellectual You've Never Heard About

Boas Evron, who died last year aged 91, held unusual views on the nature of Jewish Nationhood, the State of Israel and its relationship with the diaspora. A new book revisits his unorthodox political thought.

“Civic Israeliness: Boas Evron’s ‘A National Reckoning,'” By Israel Segal (Hebrew), Magnes Press, 2018.

 

As its title makes clear, Israel Segal’s Civic Israeliness: Boas Evron’sA National Reckoning” stands on the shoulders of another essay. In its essence, it is a critical evaluation of A National Reckoning, Evron’s 1988 magnum opus (published in English in 1995 as Jewish State or Israeli Nation?) and invaluable compendium of his unorthodox political thought. Civic Israeliness started life as a doctoral dissertation—a research project cut short by the author’s untimely death in 2015. Evron himself passed away last year, aged 91.

Born in Jerusalem in 1927, Evron was a prolific journalist, essayist, theater critic, translator, and for decades a leading public intellectual. He came of age politically during the latter years of the British Mandate, when he joined Lehi (the so-called Stern Gang), the radical militant group; like many of his brothers-in-arms, he was influenced by the Canaanites, the neo-Hebraic revivalist movement led by the poet and intellectual Yonatan Ratosh. Evron broke from the movement over their professed desire to impose Hebrew nationalism across the entire Near East, and in the 1950s co-founded Semitic Action, a group of intellectuals who advocated for the integration of the young Israeli nation into its geo-cultural surroundings.

A National Reckoning roves from purely political commentary to the realms of historiography, presenting a forcefully ideological critique of Jewish history. Semitic Action’s manifesto, “The Hebrew Pamphlet”—drafted by Evron and his comrades thirty years prior, opens thus:

“A new Hebrew nation was born in the Land of Israel.

Two generations ago, the pioneers of the Zionist revolution came to this land. Their revolutionary zeal paved the way for the establishment of the Jewish community. This new reality, created in the wake of the Zionist Revolution, gave rise to the new Hebrew nation and to its diplomatic incarnation – the State of Israel. But the new nation was not free to shape its own norms and patterns…

It is now time for the Hebrew nation to start a second revolution.”

Evron vigorously dismisses the Zionist premise of the Jews as a “territorial nation,” forced into exile and constantly yearning for their return to Zion.

A National Reckoning remains the most serious attempt to give Semitic Action’s manifesto a theoretical basis and a broader worldview. Evron comprehensively dissects the canonic historiography and sociology of the Jews; his analysis of Yehezkel Kaufmann’s History of the Religion of Israel and Exile and Estrangement, for instance, takes up much of the first chapters. Evron acknowledges Kaufmann’s scholarly magnitude, and salutes his objection to the conceptualization, as championed by Ahad Ha’am and others, of the Jews as an organic nation who withstood the travails of history. But this admiration notwithstanding, Evron also takes issue with what he sees as intrinsic flaws in Kaufmann’s arguments about the genesis, in exile, of Jewish Peoplehood. Despite his dogged insistence on refuting the inherently “Jewish” character of the Israeli polity, Evron shows himself here as an excellent methodical analyst with a broad scope.

Evron vigorously dismisses the Zionist premise of the Jews as a “territorial nation,” forced into exile and constantly yearning for their return to Zion. This view—as stated by the Israeli Declaration of Independence—has no leg to stand on, he argues, given the millennia-long existence of diasporic communities. The history of the Jews (which, unlike the history of the ancient People of Israel, begins in the 6th century BCE, with the Return to Zion) is depicted as a culture of religious rituals, first articulated by the elites returning from Babylon. The Jews under Ezra the Scribe’s leadership, Evron argues persuasively, sought to distinguish themselves from the “peoples of the land” from the very outset, by relinquishing sovereignty in favor of submission to Persian rule. This impulse recurs, in different iterations, across the years: the Pharisees during the Hasmonean period, Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai and the sages of Yavneh in the first century CE, Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi in the second century, and others well into the Middle Ages. But, each time, the ultimate goal was the same: the preservation of religion. Not the nation, and not the territory. Insular tendencies always set the tone, Evron asserts, and “the Jews cast themselves apart from the doings of history.”

One of Evron’s central arguments is that of all the Jewish communities throughout history, the Yiddish-speaking Jewish population of Eastern Europe was the only one that fostered full-fledged territorial nationalism, thanks to specific historical circumstances of Europe of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. “[T]he difference between East European Jewry and the rest of the Jews in the world lies not in the fact that the other Jews were ‘less Jewish,’ a preposterous proposition, but that East European Jewry had demographical, geographical and sociological traits that enabled it to develop a national consciousness … What emerged in Eastern Europe was not an unqualified Jewish nation but something more specific – an East European Jewish nation.” This is indeed the demographic from which the Jewish national movements—the Bund, Autonomism and Zionism—arose. Zionism, in turn, inflicted its own specific features, retrospectively, on the historical “Jewish people” as a whole.

This was a major blind spot in Zionism’s self-justifications, Evron argues; this attempt to dress the “Jewish people” in a national garb was bound to lead to an inevitable clash with the unequivocally anti-nationalist religious attributes that have characterized Judaism since time immemorial. Zionism co-opted religion as an “essentially national trait,” and tried to transcend the contours of Judaism. But nothing, except religion, is common to all Jews, and so the experiment failed.  

Evron goes on to argue that Zionism’s claim that every Jew carries a latent Jewish “essence” closely resembles the proto-fascist “integral” nationalisms that argue that “society precedes the individual, that the individual is a mere fragment of the whole and has meaning only insofar as he belongs to the whole, and is wholly determined by national, biological or class factors.” Such ideologies set the basis for the rise of modern anti-Semitism as a major political force in central and eastern Europe. Evron makes another bold leap forward when he argues that “essentially, that is how most Zionist thinkers view the Jewish people. And the tenet that Judaism cannot be summed up in religion, that there is an indefinable Jewish essence to be found in every Jew, is tantamount to integral nationalism.” In other words, the ethno-national perspective of “most Zionist thinkers” led them to consider the rise of anti-Semitism as a direct result of the rise of nationalism more generally; for this reason nationalism, and ergo Zionism, can never be congruous with liberal democracy.

Evron’s A National Reckoning sets out a scathing indictment of the Zionist leadership’s treatment of the Jewish diaspora. For him, the shift of focus to the Land of Israel that followed the rejection of the Uganda plan [an early twentieth-century attempt to establish a Jewish state in east Africa] came at the expense of the underpinning objective that Theodor Herzl had ascribed to Zionism—saving the Jews from distress. “[S]ince it had been decided that the aim of Zionism was Eretz Israel, unconditionally and above all else, and not the finding of some territory in which the Jews could solve their problem … it followed that this aim was independent of the needs of the Jewish people.” In a chapter entitled “Zionism Without Mercy,”  Evron refers at length to studies (predominantly by historians Shabtai Beit-Zvi, Dina Porat, and David Vital) detailing the rather aloof attitude of the Zionist leadership toward European Jews while the Holocaust was raging, and the very limited efforts that were made to save them. For Evron, the historic role of Zionism came to an end with the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. The urgent imperative to save the Jews from persecution became irrelevant, and the internal dynamic within world Jewry was thereafter divided between the citizens of the State of Israel, established shortly afterwards, and the Jews of the Western diaspora, who enjoyed unprecedented wealth and safety. Meanwhile, Israel, founded on the principles of historic Zionism, remains unable by definition to accord fully equal rights to its non-Jewish citizens, and they will forever remain second-class. In parallel, non-Israeli Jews are a priori guaranteed citizenship of the so-called Jewish state, as well as the power and influence afforded them by lobby groups such as AIPAC.

For Jewish immigrants and returning Israeli expatriates, Evron states: “Zionism has become synonymous with patriotism … or pro-Israel philanthropy in the diaspora, which has nothing to do with immigrating to Israel or taking up Israeli citizenship.” Years later, in Athens and the Land of Oz, a 2010 collection of essays, Evron returns to this theme: “What is Zionism today other than a pretext to continue the ongoing discrimination against Israel’s Arab citizens and the continuing dispossession of the Palestinians? That, instead of guaranteeing fully equal citizenship to all, and stopping the intolerable interference of Jews who do not live in it and never dream to settle in it.”

***

Civic Israeliness is a critical essay dedicated to Evron’s political thought. Much of it seems rushed, although this may be due to the untimely death of the author, at the age of 63. In any case, many facts, potentially key to the reader’s appreciation of Evron’s oeuvre, are glossed over. One such oversight is the perhaps technical fact that aside from Hebrew and English, A National Reckoning has also been translated into Arabic, and was published in Cairo in 1995. Traditionally, Israeli anti-Zionist discourse has been catnip for Arab intellectuals: what, then, was the impact of Evron’s exposure and reach beyond his Hebrew and English readership? Similarly, Segal’s exploration of Evron’s attitude towards other, more vocally anti-Zionist groups like Matzpen and The New Left leaves much to be desired. Segal points out that “Evron castigated [their] members and their perception of themselves as representatives of enlightenment to the point of labeling them [in a 1969 article] ‘neo-antisemites.’ For him, their attacks on Zionism were a thinly veiled attack on Jews.” But Segal doesn’t address the fundamental contradiction in this judgment–the same, after all, might very well be said of Evron himself and his scathing critique of Zionism.

Elsewhere, the section of the book dedicated to his political biography is little more than a laundry list of speeches and actions. Segal, for instance, could have drawn on Evron’s conversations with writer and essayist Ehud Ben Ezer, published in the latter’s Unease in Zion (1986). In these conversations, which took place between 1966 and 1970, Evron admits to a certain warming toward Israel and Zionism in the aftermath of the Six Day War—which explains, at least in part, his antagonism towards the unflinchingly radical New Left.

In fact, only much later in the book does Segal highlight this “softening” of Evron’s position on Zionism, which he attributes to the persistence of anti-Semitism. But the same time, Segal presents Evron as more forgiving of the State of Israel’s responsibility, assumed rather than conferred, for the wellbeing of the Jewish diaspora. Other than noting that, after the amendment of the Law of Return in 1970 (legislation which formalized the ties between Jewish kinship and Israeli citizenship), Evron reverted to his original views on Israel-diaspora relations, Segal does not analyze the underlying causes for these ideological meanders. The truth, I think, is that Evron (along with Uri Avnery and other members of the now-defunct Semitic Action) were critical of the New Left and their denunciation of “Israeli aggression” in the wake of the Six Day War. Evron and his peers viewed this war as defensive in its essence; the position championed by the New Left, Matzpen, the Communist Party and others was thus immoral and—given that they sought to blame the Jews unnecessarily and unfairly—anti-Semitic. For several years, Evron castigated adherents of these radical groups as “spoiled brats”: unable to understand the meaning of existential threat, they placed blame on Israel in undue and disproportionate manner. Be that as it may, Evron’s “Zionist” honeymoon did not last beyond the early 1970s, as noted above.

Segal’s consideration of A National Reckoning‘s main theses is, again, far too brief. He does, however, try to locate the influence of Evron’s historiographical critique in important monographs that followed in the book’s footsteps, most notably The Bible: No Evidence (1999) by the archaeologist Prof. Ze’ev Herzog, and The Invention of the Jewish People, the 2008 bestseller by Prof. Shlomo Sand, a devout admirer of Evron. But there is scant consideration of Evron’s position on Zionism’s failure to generate a territorial nation in the Land of Israel, and his dismissal of the constitution of the Jews as a nation. “[According to Evron,] Judaism is not a nation, and religion not only makes no contribution to nationhood, it in fact undermines it: The state and the halakha are mutually exclusive. A Jewish state, based on the principles of Jewish law, is a contradiction in terms.”  But Segal’s analysis amounts to little more than an executive summary of Evron’s position. But, while it does injustice to Evron’s dense and complex text, this may, perhaps, pique the reader’s interest and spur them into exploring more of Evron’s original work.

The attempt to dress the “Jewish people” in a national garb, Evron argues, was bound to lead to an inevitable clash with the unequivocally anti-nationalist religious attributes that have characterized Judaism since time immemorial.

Evron’s partial departure from the Canaanite sphere of influence receives more attention from Segal. The so-called Canaanite movement, famously, envisioned the creation of a new, “nativized” Hebrew (Ivri) individual, better integrated into the Semitic environment of the eastern Mediterranean. The Caananites represent one of the boldest attempts to reestablish—or, to be precise, to invent—the lost and repressed traditions connecting the autochthonic ancient Israelite to his Eastern geography and culture. Nevertheless, the Canaanites’ new Hebraic Übermensch was a creature who had discarded a millennia-long heritage of Jewish existence, in order to leap back into a pre-Biblical past. Evron’s misgivings (also shared by Uri Avnery and other fellow lapsed Canaanites) were largely to do with the movement’s central premise, the “renewal of the Ancient Land”: in effect, the desire to impose Hebrew nationalism and culture on the diverse populations of the Fertile Crescent. Evron considered this a suspiciously expansionist instinct – and indeed he was to be proven correct decades later, with the echoes such impulse in Gush Emunim and the Settler movement. Indeed, Segal reveals in an unobtrusive footnote that Uzi Ornan, younger brother and follower of Canaanite leader Yonatan Ratosh, had a close friendship with Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, the spiritual father of the Settler movement—a little-known fact that, if explored in the manner that it clearly warrants, could shed light on the ideological crossover between the ostensibly opposed movements.

More pertinently, the Semitic Action breakaways remained skeptical about the ability of modern Israelis to “shed” the unwanted Jewish heritage and, at the same time, treated Arab nationalism, conscious of its sway and its Islamic roots, as a fait accompli. For Semitic Action, the Middle East was not a “Hebrew” region awaiting re-appropriation, but an Arab, predominantly Muslim, one that required a more subtle approach to attempted integration.

***

Civic Israeliness is not just a guide (albeit incomplete) to Evron’s A National Reckoning. It also presents a wide-ranging discussion on Zionism’s loaded relationship with Judaism over the years, weaving in crucial insights from eminent scholars including Arthur Hertzberg, Anita Shapira, Ehud Luz, David Vital, Israel Bartal, Israel Kolatt, and Baruch Kimmerling. “The fact are not disputed,” Segal writes. “Everybody is in agreement that Labor Zionism adopted large dimensions of the Jewish tradition … And they all agree that the Zionist movement […] cast a different role for religion in the nation-in-the-making, and undoubtedly a certain extent of separation of religion and state.” All told, Evron, the radical outsider, arrives at what in fact is the logical end point of Zionism’s original guiding principles.

Segal seems to have been swayed, decisively, by Evron’s original arguments and towering scholarship. This is not necessarily a criticism. Although an intellectual heavyweight in his time, Evron has latterly been all but forgotten in the discourse on Israeliness. Segal, who met with Evron many times, is on a mission to redress this oversight, and labors intensely to put his ideas in the right context. However, this positive—and at times uncritical—engagement with Evron prevents Segal from challenging some of the flaws in the latter’s arguments. One explanation for these gaps in Evron’s rhetoric may be that they often emanate from the gap between his publicistic writing—indeed, the bulk of the body of his published work—and this historiosophical treatise, which is a different endeavor altogether. For example, Segal cites a 1968 Yedioth Aharonoth column by Evron, in which he decries the status quo in religious affairs, that in his opinion had been “decided upon in a bid to prevent divisions [in the then newly established State of Israel] while in effect it created divisions between Jews: Israelis and the Reform communities in the United States.” However, Evron the philosopher spent pages upon pages arguing that Israelis and American Jews are, ipso facto, separate entities—so what divisions can be sowed? Evidently, the thinking of a prolific and seasoned intellectual of Evron’s caliber would evolve across half a century of writing and arguing; but, it is the role of the critical essay to address these gaps and flaws, and to try to account for their existence.

The second of the book’s three appendices is the transcript of a public debate between Evron and Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the maverick Orthodox intellectual. Although the two men did agree on more than either otherwise would be willing to admit, Leibowitz’s engagement with Evron’s thinking embodies the critical distance that Segal, starry-eyed one fears, fails to maintain. Per Leibowitz, Evron’s reading of ancient Jewish history (placing the Babylonian exile as Judaism’s “ground zero”) is overly influenced by “the anti-Jewish Protestantism of German critical Bible scholars.” Drawing from Evron’s own sources, Leibowitz highlights the limitations of his thesis, showing that the Jews’ collective self-perception, as well as the conception of the God of Israel as a universal deity, preceded the Babylonian period.

By way of an epilogue, Evron’s 1980 essay “The Holocaust: A Danger to the People” is reproduced in full. In it, he castigates Israel’s “Holocaust ritual,” set in motion by the Eichmann trial. This state of “chronic victimhood,” Evron argues, prevents Israel from becoming a “normalized” country, subject to the plenitude of political and moral obligations created by statehood. Victimhood undercuts Israel’s ability to face up to the political, diplomatic, and economic challenges prompted by statehood, and encourages its leadership to capitalize on the guilt—justified though it may be—of German and other “Christian nations.” In the long run, the Eichmann trial sabotaged the Zionist enterprise: for Evron, this meant “normalizing the Jewish people, and turning it into a political subject like any other … a political nation fully integrated in the global system of political economy.”

Segal must be commended for conjuring up Evron’s somewhat forgotten works. However scholars (and Evron’s lay admirers) will find little of revelatory value in Civic Israeliness. A much worthier cause for assessing a lifelong thinker of Evron’s status would be an attempt to bring his unorthodox ideas a little closer to the mainstream. I’m not entirely convinced that Segal’s book is up to this formidable task.

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