Never criticise the family

Zionism is one of the most contentious ideas, freighted with emotion by both partisans and detractor

A Time to Speak Out: Independent Jewish Voices on Israel, Zionism and Jewish Identity

Edited by Anne Karpf, Brian Klug, Jacqueline Rose and Barbara Rosenbaum

Verso, 310pp, £9.99

Journey to Nowhere: One Woman Looks for the Promised Land

Eva Figes

Granta Books, 184pp, £14.99

Plowshares Into Swords: From Zionism to Israel

Arno J Mayer

Verso, 432pp, £19.99

The Returns of Zionism: Myths, Politics and Scholarship in Israel

Gabriel Piterberg

Verso, 298pp, £16.99

On the Other Hand

Chaim Bermant

Vallentine Mitchell, 352pp, £17.95

Before Edward Gibbon began The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he had thought of writing another - a history of England in his own time. But he shrank with terror from a subject where every reader is a friend or enemy, "where a writer is expected to hoist a flag of party, and is devoted to damnation by the adverse faction". Gibbon's words will haunt anyone who writes about Zionism, and they are brought to mind by a group of new books. The whole topic of Zionism, its causes and consequences, is a minefield. No other subject is so fraught emotionally, as well as intellectually, so rarely discussed sine ira et studio.

This is explained in part by the bullying which tells non-Jewish critics of Israel that they are anti-Semitic, and Jewish critics that they are self-hating, but there is more to it. Given the circumstances in which the Jewish state was born, in the shadow of the most horrible catastrophe in Jewish history, it was difficult - if not morally impossible - for most Jews to disown the newborn state. History was rewritten to evade the inconvenient fact that when Theodor Herzl wrote The Jewish State in 1896 and launched his audacious project, most of the Jewish people were either indifferent to political Zionism and such a state, or fiercely hostile.

In recent years there has been a significant turn in opinion. Younger readers may not remember that there was once a time when Israel was deeply admired in the west. Since the 1967 Six Day War there has been a reaction, slow at first and then accelerating, which has found eloquent expression among Jews themselves, as various as the "independent Jewish voices" collected in A Time to Speak Out, or Eva Figes's memoir, which is also a polemic against Israel, or the Israeli scholar Gabriel Piterberg, or the American historian Arno Mayer, or the late and much-missed Chaim Bermant.

Throughout, there runs a theme, of resentment at having been expected to conform to a party line, or a code of omertà. "What is intolerable," writes Gabriel Josipovici, "is your father telling you never to criticise the family because a family must always present a united front." And Jacqueline Rose addresses head-on "the myth of self-hatred". But Mike Marqusee, in defending left-wing Jewish critics of Israel from the charge of anti-Semitism, raises another problem. One can't deny that the cast list here is politically predictable, and three of these books come from the same publisher: Verso is the publishing arm of the New Left Review, which is symptomatic, and a pity, however much that list should be commended for issuing valuable books.

As an old-fashioned philo-Semitic assimi lationist (if I may say), I have felt strongly for some time past that it would be disastrous if any large public controversy were to develop in which all, or even most, Jewish opinion were on one side and all non-Jewish opinion on the other. In June 1967 the British, like the western Europeans and Americans, Jew and Gentile alike, overwhelmingly supported Israel. By July 2006, however, when Israel attacked Lebanon, British Jews who supported Israel were painfully isolated. The division of opinion throughout the world that summer went roughly speaking like this. On one side: Israel, the Bush administration, the United States Congress, much of the Diaspora and Tony Blair. On the other side: everyone else. In one poll, only 22 per cent of British voters thought that the Israeli response was justified.

And although Jewish opinion is itself divided, as these books demonstrate, it would be even more lamentable if this question were to become one of left against right. Such liberal western Jews as still feel fondly towards Israel cannot be pleased to notice that her strongest defenders are now on the intransigent right, not only in America, but among the dismal Anglo-neocons who have infiltrated the Tory party. Nothing could be healthier than for an intelligent and honest conservative critique of Zionism to appear, or rather to reappear.

As it is, Jewish anguish can take dispiriting forms. Eva Figes is a much-admired novelist, but Journey to Nowhere is not a book that is easy to warm to, written as it is with such anger and bitterness. Figes's family were Berlin Jews who managed to escape to London before the war, leaving behind Edith, their housemaid, also Jewish. She miraculously survived, made her way to Palestine, where she was friendless and unhappy - German Jews were not beloved of many other Zionists - and then came to London, where she told young Eva her extraordinary story. Figes weaves this into her own disillusionment with Israel, but with a boiling rage that does not much enlighten us. "Zionists and Nazis had more in common than is generally acknowledged," she writes. But maybe not that much, as even critics of Israel might agree.

In Plowshares Into Swords, Arno Mayer gives a sweeping and often illuminating overview of the story of Zionism. He tries to rescue forgotten heroes such as Martin Buber, Judah Magnes and Yesha yahu Leibowitz, who lived in the Holy Land and were deeply absorbed in Jewish life but who strongly opposed the chauvinistic and brutalising tendencies of Zionism. It might seem paradoxical that Mayer also voices some admiration for Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of right-wing ultra-nationalist Revisionist Zionism (and still a hero to Tzipi Livni, who seems likely to become prime minister of Israel shortly), but it is not so strange, given Jabotinsky's intellectual honesty and clarity.

Despite the immense time and space devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the news media, Jacqueline Rose has observed that very little is ever written about Zionism as such. In The Returns of Zionism, Gabriel Piterberg tries to make amends with an analysis of the intellectual and literary origins of the Zionist ideology. He begins unpromisingly by saying that other studies "adhere to an Idealist causality, because they privilege not only the ideational sphere but also the intentions of the Zionist settlers", whereas his own book will insist "on collapsing several alleged dichotomies".

Must you? There is a curious cultural pheno menon on display here. Piterberg pays glowing tribute to Perry Anderson, thanked by Mayer also. But it was Anderson who, eight years ago, acknowledged that the only starting point for an honest left as a new century began was "a lucid registration of defeat", while also lamenting the execrable prose of too much Marxist-academic writing. Indeed so, and the two may be related. Especially in America, such writers are as remote from the real life of their country as 4th-century monks or hermits in the desert. Hermetic is the word for so much of their discourse, almost as though they don't want anything they write to be accessible to the mere multitude.

But Piterberg's book proves to be very well- informed, and even fascinating. He has examined numerous Hebrew texts unknown in the west, to friend and foe of Israel alike. There is a particularly striking section on Chaim Arlosoroff, one of the leaders of Labour Zionism, who was much cleverer, though much less ruthless, than his rival David Ben-Gurion. Arlosoroff was assassinated in Tel Aviv in 1933 and it has always been supposed that his killers were Revisionists of some stripe or other. Ever since, it has been highly convenient for Israeli Labour and its western allies to make Labour look better by portraying the Revisionists as quasi-racists and fascists.

And yet it has always been clear to anyone who looked harder that what really distinguished Jabotinsky from Ben-Gurion in their attitudes to the Palestinian Arabs was that Jabotinsky expressed himself publicly with a frankness that Ben-Gurion thought inadvisable. As Piterberg shows, the martyred Arlosoroff himself rejected joint organisation with Arab workers, and expressly compared the Zionists with other European settlers elsewhere.

When scholars such as Mayer and Piterberg write about Zionism as a colonial project that assumed an inferior place for the Arabs, they tend to adopt a now-it-can-be-told tone, as though these are startling revelations. But they only seem so because of the prolonged, and truly weird, attempt by some Zionists, especially Labour Zionists and their fellow-travellers, to deny the obvious truth. Martin Peretz, the former owner of the New Republic in Washington and a most voluble champion of Israel, proclaims risibly that "Israel was an anti-imperialist creation" whose "decolonisation struggle looks very much like other decolonisations, in the Indian subcontinent, for example", and insists that the Jews who settled in the Holy Land "were not colonialists". Well, that's what they looked like to the Palestinians - and that's what both Jabotinsky and Arlosoroff were happy to call themselves.

But if the problem on one side has been denial, on the anti-Zionist side it's prochronism. Herzl and his colleagues were not cruel or rapacious men, they were men of their age. Political Zionism was born in the heyday of European nationalism and European colonialism, and it would have been surprising if it had not echoed both. Zionists from the 1890s stand accused of ignoring the wishes and interests of the indigenous inhabitants, but what thought did the British at that time give to the wishes and interests of the people they ruled in Asia and Africa - or the Americans to the wishes and interests of the Indians of the West?

Something else is missing. All of our contemporary Jewish critics of Israel focus their attention on the Palestinians and their treatment. It is a fine thing that such voices should have set aside group loyalty and returned to the noble Jewish traditions of justice and individual conscience. And yet one would never guess from these books that the passionate Jewish opposition to Zionism once had nothing to do with its effects on the Arabs and everything to do with its potential effects on the Jews. Claude Montefiore was president of the Anglo-Jewish Association and an exceptionally proud and pious Jew. He entirely rejected, as many Jews then did, what he called the fundamental Zionist propositions that the Jewish people were "a 'nation', or might profitably become a nation".

Along with David Alexander, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, he wrote to the Times shortly before the Balfour Declaration in 1917, denouncing any proposal to invest the Jews in Palestine "with certain rights in excess of those enjoyed by the rest of the population". This could only "prove a veritable calamity for the Jewish people", for whom, wherever they lived, the principle of equal rights was vital. "The establishment of a Jewish nationality in Palestine, founded in this theory of Jewish homelessness, must have the effect throughout the world of stamping the Jews as strangers in their native lands," he wrote, "and of undermining their hard-won position as citizens and nationals of those lands."

Those prophetic words might have been understood by Chaim Bermant; and On the Other Hand, a collection of his pieces, is a reminder of what a sane as well as witty voice was lost when he died ten years ago. Brought up on a shtetl in Latvia, he came with his father, a rabbi, and family to Glasgow just before the war. After it, he repeatedly visited Israel and almost settled there. He hated the Revisionist right - he mentions how in Jerusalem in the early 1950s he shunned Kapulski's cafe, "the hangout for the Begin crowd" - and later became a ferocious critic of the settlers in "the Wild West", as he nicely called "Judaea and Samaria".

While he knew all about the contradiction in "religious Zionism", Bermant was more indulgent towards his Labour friends, and overlooked that other contradiction - what George Steiner has perceptively called Zionism as a secular-political movement invoking a scriptural-mystical justification "to which it could not, in avowed honesty, subscribe". Or as the Israeli writer Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, cited by Piterberg, puts it, "There is no God, but He promised us the Land" (thank the Lord, wherever he may be, that Zionism has not extinguished another great tradition - Jewish irony).

And yet what was most admirable about Bermant was his rejection not only of Zionist violence, but of the sense of embattled exclusion that underlay it. He whose entire larger family, and every childhood friend, had been murdered by the Germans in 1941 disliked the "Holocaust industry", Holocaust museums and studies, and the harping on this horror "as the central event in Jewish history", all of which "can have a pernicious effect on Jewish attitudes to the outside world. It intensifies paranoia and the sense of isolation." He regularly told readers of the Jewish Chronicle that the Jews were not and never had been friendless.

That is my own sentiment, reinforced by all of these books. Maybe there are still some Jews who don't particularly wish to hear their dilemmas and misgivings discussed by non-Jews, but I hope not. I could not agree more with Bermant's central message. And my own belief, which I like to think Jewish readers might understand, is summed up by an everyday phrase: We're all in this together.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include "The Controversy of Zion: Jewish Nationalism, the Jewish State and the Unresolved Jewish Dilemma" (Perseus), which won an American National Jewish Book Award, "The Strange Death of Tory England" (Penguin) and "Yo, Blair!" (Politico's)