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Books: A long way from the foundry

THE CONTROVERSY OF ZION by Geoffrey Wheatcroft Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 17.99
The word "ghetto" probably derives from the Venetian dialect for "metal-working". In the 16th century Jews were herded from the centre of Venice to the Ghetto Nuovo (New Foundry) where they faced poverty and disease. This was a landmark in the history of Jewish persecution. When Napoleon invaded northern Italy in 1796, he dismantled its ghettos: the Rights of Man for French Jews were extended to the other side of the Alps. However, while civic equality opened new opportunity for Jews in Europe, it also led to an erosion of Jewish consciousness. Old ghetto trades - loan-banking, goldsmithery - were a shaming reminder of the past. To assimilate or not to assimilate; this was the Jewish question of the day.

In this fascinating account of the Zionist movement, Geoffrey Wheatcroft cites Karl Marx as an example of Europe's new secularised Jew: "he was most of all a Jew who hated Judaism, and even Jewry". The age of social Darwinism produced numerous Jewish anti-Semites. In Antisemitism and the Modern Science, Cesare Lombroso denounced his co-religionists as "theologically gullible", greedy for gold and downright mendacious. Max Nordau, the popular 19th-century French writer and Zionist, bewailed the confused identity of assimilated European Jewry. "They tell me that the majority of Jews in Italy ... have forgotten their origins." Nordau voiced a chief concern of early Zionism: assimilation had brought only false hopes. After centuries of dispersion, the Jewish people had to recover their historic Palestinian homeland.

It's an exciting story, and Wheatcroft tells it with great panache and objectivity. Zionism was the brainchild of the dandified Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl, who formulated his ideals after reporting the Dreyfus affair. This was not the militant Zionism of today; Herzl would have been appalled by a fanatic like Baruch Goldstein, the settler who killed 29 worshippers in a Hebron mosque two years ago. According to Wheatcroft, Herzl had hoped for a homeland which resembled the "elegant Viennese cafe culture".

In its early days, Zionism constituted a radical break from Jewish tradition with its conscious disregard for ritual (Zionist zealots were known to picnic on ham sandwiches). Published in 1896, Herzl's book The Jewish State insisted that Jews were not a religious group merely, but a true nation waiting to be born. After the First World War the movement's intellectual centre was England. Both Herzl and Max Nordau were starry-eyed about English philosemitism. No doubt Anglo-Jewry knew better. George Orwell was surely right when he said the only English writers to have stuck up for the Jews "before the days of Hitler" were Dickens and Charles Reade (though he appears to have forgotten that George Eliot's Daniel Deronda was portrayed as a good Jew) . The really venomous Jew-baiter was Hillaire Belloc. He was convinced that both Matthew Arnold and Robert Browning were Jewish, and thus Christ-killers. ("Okay so we killed him. But only for three days", Wheatcroft quotes a New York Jew.)

It was England that endorsed the objectives of Zionism with the Balfour Declaration of 1917. This stipulated that rights for non-Jews in Palestine should not be impaired. In the rush to establish a Jewish state after Hitler's Final Solution, safeguarding Arab nationalism in the Holy Land was not, unfortunately, the most pressing concern. Dispersed Jewry had first to find a home. Without Hitler, says Wheatcroft, Israel could not have been born in the way and when it was. Zionism did not gain any significant support from Jews until the first persecutions under the Nazis in 1933. Assimilated Jewry had argued that medieval Jew-hatred would evaporate with the inevitable progress of mankind. Germany had proved them wrong. It now seemed the Jewish Question could only be solved through the creation of a Jewish state.

In the post-war years the British Socialist Left was greatly sympathetic to the Zionist experiment. Michael Foot was an enthusiastic supporter of Israel. So was another Labour politician, Woodrow Wyatt, who visited the state in 1950 to write his pamphlet The Jews at Home (illustrated by John Minton). With Israel's triumph in the Six-Day War of 1967, no Jew could reasonably oppose this nation. Primo Levi, visiting Israel then for the only time, thought its "nobility and spirit" showed in "planting trees and raising babies". Fifteen years later, Levi was calling for the resignation of President Begin after Israel's brutal invasion of Lebanon. Roald Dahl, certainly not known for his philosemitism, wrote that 1982 was "when we all started hating the Jews".

Yet, in the most literal sense, Herzl's dream of a Jewish home in Palestine has come true; Israel is approaching its fiftieth birthday. Where now? Superbly written, The Controversy of Zion offers no facile predictions. Geoffrey Wheatcroft wears his erudition lightly, weaving facts and anecdotes into a vivid history which should be read by Jews and non-Jews alike.