Confusion of loyalties

The Controversy of Zion by Geoffrey Wheatcroft Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 17.99
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The Independent Culture
Geoffrey Wheatcroft's thesis is that Zionism set out to solve the "Jewish question" - the problem of what to do with a mass of rootless outsiders in a dozen European societies; but its proposal, to offer Jews a refuge and homeland by setting up Israel as a state, created, he argues, a host of further issues for "Diaspora Jews". The book is less a coherent argument, however, than a peg on which to hang a colourful guided tour.

Many Diaspora Jews, even up to the Six-Day War, had acute doubts about the project and Wheatcroft's sympathies appear to be with the early doubters. One was Edwin Montagu, the Liberal Cabinet minister, who opposed the Balfour Declaration. Others were Hannah Arendt, Walter Lippmann, the US columnist, and the earlier Viennese writers, Arthur Schnitzler and Karl Kraus, who made biting, satirical attacks on Herzl, Zionism's father-figure. The book's first half valuably digs up a wealth of material on cross-currents of the early debate, cogently linking Jewish doubts to their uneasy social situation in the West.

Many early Jewish critics of a state in Palestine - or the ''Holy Land'', to use that uniquely cloying term - were wary of knock-on threats to their hard-won status, from enemies who would claim a confusion of loyalties: should they be true to the new Jewish state or to their European base? In fact, as Wheatcroft says, Hitler was scarcely aware of Zionism. His comments on Chesterton and Belloc - but, also, surprisingly Asquith and Muggeridge, antisemites in a lower key - make riveting reading. He also points out how it took until the late Fifties for the Holocaust to sink into Western consciousness.

The argument over "dual loyalties" is a theme running through this book. Wheatcroft hints that it raises real questions for political Zionists outside Israel, especially in America. His sharpest focus after 1948 in on the Jewish lobby in Washington: ex-Presidents Ford, Carter and Bush have all, as he revealingly shows here, thrown the F-word at it. But Western Jews have been around much longer and hold stronger positions to apply influence; the Middle East is 1996's most intractable regional issue, a nuclear flashpoint in a strategically vital zone.

Wheatcroft cites Israel's declining population during the Diaspora and argues that it has its own interests, which are not Israel's - a last chapter is called "fractured friendships''. But he shows no active, human empathy for the Israeli way of life. Israeli folk-music is a vital, exhilarating experience but Wheatcroft can only deride Israel's role in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Sometimes, he creates artificial problems, when the really serious matters - such as sorting out the Middle East's borders - are real enough. Diaspora numbers are declining, but the communities, despite high intermarriage rates, won't vanish in the realistic future. Strict religious tests of ''Who is a Jew?'' may need to be revised to add communal staying-power: he should have probed this issue.

Wheatcroft is a talented and stimulating writer with an eye for the dramatic and the intriguing. But he is radically selective with data, letting absurdly over-simplified, instant value-judgements become "givens", from which a stream of unwarranted inferences flow. He may unwittingly give ammunition to people who dislike Jews, Israelis and Zionists a lot more than anyone can accuse him of doing.

A tougher editor would have taken him to task at many points. For instance: Britain abstained in the UN's vote on Israel's creation; it did not vote against. ''The Irgun put to death British prisoners'', he writes of 1945- 8; only, as far as I know, ''the two sergeants'', a famous act of retaliation for British executions of non-violent offenders. The UN's slogan, "Zionism equals racism" was, he writes, "gravely malicious and deeply offensive", but, later, "little more than a statement of the obvious"; he can't have it both ways. He calls the movement by Jews to pre-1948 Palestine, ''European colonialism in Asia''; yet they faced hostility by the colonial power most of the time, bought their land on the open market and, in the kibbutzim, relied on their own labour. This claim demands a book in itself, not unargued phrase-making. Likewise he says the US Jewish lobby is the "least scrupulous'' in Washington, without offering much, if any, back-up evidence of misconduct or illegality.

I read the whole book compulsively, at one sitting, wishing that I could have argued with Wheatcroft before he sent it to the publisher; I read it largely for its many historical nuggets, not its contribution to current debate.