The Collapse of Zionism: A Response to Charles Krauthammer

This is a letter by Martin Kramer in response to the article by Charles Krauthammer, “The Collapse of Zionism,” in The Weekly Standard, May 29, 2000. The letter appeared in the June 12, 2000 issue of The Weekly Standard.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER IS disappointed with his brethren who reside in Zion. We do not have what it takes to stick it out in our nasty neighborhood, and if we don’t shape up, the next century will be cruel to us, and undo all the achievements of this one. Territorial contractions, a lost miniwar in Lebanon—these are symptoms of a deeper malaise.

Yes, as a people, we are not yet expert in the exercise of power. But peoples with far more experience also know something of the limitations of power, and we are learning those lessons, too. Every power in European and American history has known setback and defeat on some battlefield, and the idea that the Jews could be an exception is all too reminiscent of the mindset of Buber, who also held up Israel to an impossible standard. We can no more win every battle than we can uphold every moral principle. Yes, this is a disappointment to some Jews of the Diaspora, who look to us to do one or the other. It is even a disappointment to some Israelis. But we are an ordinary people facing ordinary choices, which are never simple. We can maintain democracy and human rights, but in an imperfect way, and we expect understanding from our friends, since our enemies will offer none. And we will win the big wars on which our existence depends, but we may sometimes forfeit the little ones on which it doesn’t, and we expect encouragement from our friends, since our enemies will offer none.

Fortunately, we do have some room to maneuver. Our neighbors still do not have the fundamental attributes of modernity, and they can still be relied upon to miss opportunities and miscalculate, to their own detriment. Already some of them are drawing the wrong conclusions from what happened in Lebanon. But it is painful to see our friends do the same, and succumb to a gloom which has no more foundation than their past euphoria.

Krauthammer concludes: “Israel’s enemies see the future, a future Israelis themselves may now be creating: a world without Zionism, a world without Israel.” The late Elie Kedourie, whom I think most of us admired, was a practical friend. And his 1983 words in Encounter would be his riposte to Krauthammer:

“Does Israel as it is now depend on the truth, or cogency of the doctrine which presided over its coming to be? However it came about, here is a society which is now a going concern, in all its variety and complexity, its tensions and complications. It does not need to justify its existence by appealing to some ideology. Nor can the ideology make Israel immune from the chances and changes to which all states are necessarily subject, or save its rulers from mistakes and blunders. And, given the differing self-views which coexist in the Jewish world, it is not easy, or indeed even practicable, to have recourse to one single ideology in order to explain and justify the nation-state.”

Israel was not a product of Zionist ideology. It was the outcome of desperation and need. Most of those who came to its shores had no ideological indoctrination. They fought for their lives. And Israelis will continue to fight for their lives, their homes, their families and countrymen, their new prosperity, and their freedoms. They don’t need intellectuals to tell them why they need do so; and perhaps we intellectuals would do well to remind ourselves, as Elie Kedourie always did, of the limits of our own power.


Director Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University
Tel Aviv, Israel