Between Ethnic and Civic: The Realistic Utopia of Zionism

Yitzhak Conforti. Israel Affairs. Volume 17, Issue 4. October 2011.


This article discusses the utopian vision of the Zionist movement: from its beginning until the establishment of the State of Israel. I have chosen the term ‘realistic Utopia’ to describe the Zionist vision throughout this era, from the period of classical Zionism (approximately 1880-1914) and covering the period of the British Mandate over Palestine. By ‘realistic Utopia’, I mean that the utopian Zionist works, such as that of Herzl and other thinkers at the turn of the twentieth century, had realistic and pragmatic dimensions, and they aspired to contribute to the realization of the Zionist vision. Furthermore, this term also applies to the concrete plans of the Mandate period Zionist leadership to found a modern Jewish national state based on the democratic principles of a just society. As John Rawls argues, political philosophy is also realistically utopian when it aspires to create reasonable conditions for just social existence. To clarify, we should note that: 1) Zionism is not a utopian movement, but rather a national movement, although it did have a utopian element; 2) it would be naïve to determine, based on the examples I will discuss here, that Zionism was realized as a Utopia. However, analysis of the general intentions of the Zionist visionaries in the period discussed has significance for understanding the goals of the Zionist movement as a nationalist movement.

Zionism, like other European nationalist movements, developed out of the Enlightenment. Its basic beliefs are rooted in the worldview of the Enlightenment, which holds that human rational action can mould the future. The Enlightenment brought with it a true change in the relationship of Western society to the dimension of time. As the historiographer Ernst Breisach wrote, ‘For centuries, the past as tradition had guided human actions in the present and human hopes for the future. Now, in a total reversal, the expectations for the future governed the life of the present and the evaluation of the past.’ Modern historical consciousness is thus powerfully connected to the aspiration to mould the future. From this point on, history was understood as a process of progress toward the emancipation of humanity. Thus we identify an interesting connection between the origin of modern historiography on one hand, and modern Utopia on the other—both are children of the Enlightenment and the concept of historical progress. In the nineteenth century, history became the leading field of knowledge among the humanities, and Utopia was a particularly widespread literary form. It is not surprising, then, that in this intellectual environment the concept of Utopia is located in the future tense, and not in the dimension of space, such as Thomas More’s Utopia island. Especially prominent among the utopian authors of the nineteenth century were socialist thinkers who criticized the economic and class relations of Western society. In Altneuland, Herzl noted the widely influential book of socialist utopian Edward Bellamy, (1850-98) Looking Backward: 20001887, and the Utopia of Viennese Jewish author Theodor Hertzka (1845-1924), Land of Freedom. The Zionist movement, as a modern nationalist movement, sought radical change in Jewish ethnic life, from a Diaspora ethnic group to a territorially-based nation. Hence, Zionism includes a utopian element.

Researchers of Zionism have examined the Zionist Utopia from two aspects. The first is an exacting study of utopian writing in the days of classical Zionism (1882-1914) and the second is an investigation of the Zionist vision from the institutionalization of Zionism in Palestine until the creation of the state (1917-48). The most valuable contribution in the first field has been the work of Rachel Elboim Dror. In the second area, the definitive work has been that of Yosef Gorny. In this paper, I do not intend to offer an in-depth description of Zionist utopian thought, but rather to recount a number of noteworthy test cases from the two periods. There are a number of central questions. How did the Zionist visionaries relate to the ethnic and civic component of their vision? Related, to what extent was the Jewish state designed to reflect a Western civic and universal society, and to what extent did it reflect particularist Jewish ethnic desires? Moreover, how did Zionism aspire to implement its vision? Did it aspire to realize a general utopian concept, or did it take a more measured approach and create a minimalist, realistic framework for implementing the general goal of establishing a state for the Jews?

In this paper, I will examine the conceptions that major Zionist leaders held for the desired character of the Jewish state: Ahad Ha’am and Theodor Herzl in the period of classical Zionism, and Chaim Weizmann Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion during the British Mandate period. These two periods reveal a clear difference. During the first period, under the Ottoman Empire, Zionist utopian writing relied on the literary genre of Utopia, and it was completely disconnected from the political situation in Palestine. During the second period, that of the British Mandate, a significant step was taken towards fulfilment of the Zionist vision, following the Balfour Declaration and the authorization of the British Mandate for Palestine by the League of Nations. The character of utopian activity also changed from one period to another; from an attempt during the first period to create an ideal Jewish society, to the search during the second period for ways to cope with the reality of Palestine, especially the existence of an Arab majority that opposed the Zionist goals.

Since Zionism is a clear example of an ethnic national movement, scholars usually tend to ignore its civic components. Here, I will argue that the two characteristics, civic and ethnic, were continuously present in mainstream Zionist thought and activities from the 1880s to 1948. The primary aim of the ‘Zionist consensus’ was to create a Western Jewish nation-state, in contrast to two alternatives that were proposed by marginal movements within Zionism: a bi-national state or the messianic Israelite kingdom

Between Utopia and History

During the modern period, utopianism was often related to socialist and Marxist ideology. In Ideology and Utopia, Karl Mannheim argued that ‘Utopia’ and ‘ideology’ show some similarity, but also clear differences. According to Mannheim, both are incongruent with social reality as it exists during their time. However, while Utopia aspires to completely change the social order and to establish a new order, ideology can also serve the existing order. ‘Such an incongruent orientation became utopian only when in addition it tended to burst the bonds of the existing order.’ Mannheim considered Utopia as more than a mere literary genre; for him it was a revolutionary social force. Thus he chose to ignore most of the utopian literature of the early modern period, and set his starting point for modern Utopia with the Anabaptist movement led by Thomas Münzer. In his opinion, the desire for complete social change in the West began to germinate in the sixteenth century and developed in stages until the twentieth century. Admittedly, his idealistic Hegelian stance with regard to ‘historical progress’ weakened his historical analysis.

Following Mannheim, Yosef Gorny argued that utopian aspects were present in Zionist thought throughout its history, and not just in the classical Zionist period. Yosef Gorny identifies lines of similarity between Utopia and ideology in Zionism: ‘In contrast to Mannheim’s theory, Utopia and ideology are no longer disconnected but now constitute a single dialectical continuum.’ Gorny, who discussed Zionist utopianism in the Mandate period, distinguished between fantastic Utopia, realistic Utopia, and utopian realism. The latter two forms have a realist basis, and thus they were implemented in the modern age—whether as radical revolutions that led to totalitarianism, or as democratic revolutions such as the French or American models. Zionism, Gorny argued, belonged to the third model—utopian realism—like the French and American revolutions, since Zionist utopianism emphasized the realistic aspects and was flexible in its structure on the path to implementation of the Zionist goals. This is in contrast to more dogmatic models that emphasized the utopian aspect, such as the Bolshevik case. The existence of a structured, manifest, and constant conflict between methods and streams (and even within streams) of Zionism reveal varied and dynamic interpretation of the Zionist vision until its implementation. As said, the guiding principle of the main Zionist movement was the creation of a Jewish national state in the Land of Israel.

On this point, we must also relate to the problematic side of the utopian concept, as noted by several prominent researchers of the mid-twentieth century. In his book The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper identified the relationship between Utopia and history. He attacked the utopian concept from the time of Plato until Hegel and Marx. As we know, Popper anticipated research on the poverty of historicism, sharply criticizing the historicism of Hegel, Marx, and Comte, who analysed history for the purpose of predicting the future course of history. He thought that this approach, which created ‘supra-structures’ or laws for understanding the past, led directly to total utopian planning that endangered human freedom and liberal values. Popper did not object to social planning, and he proposed a more moderate form called ‘piecemeal social engineering’ instead of general Utopia that allowed no room for mistakes or corrections.

In the middle of the twentieth century, after two world wars and extreme ideologies, a substantial group of outspoken objectors to Utopia arose. They saw Utopia as the path leading to a totalitarian society, closed and enslaved. The work of Friedrich von Hayek, Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin, and Jacob Talmon, parallel to the anti-utopian literature of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Eugene Zamiatin, pointed to the danger presented by Utopia to Western civilization. They argued that from the French Revolution to the twentieth century comprehensive social planning to create a perfect model of social order led to the creation of destructive totalitarian regimes that destroyed individual freedom. This is why Gorny objected so strongly, and rightly, to the comparison between Zionist Utopia and the realization of totalitarian Utopia. At the same time, while Gorny characterized Zionist utopianism with the development of its implementation, especially within the labour camp, mainly relating to Karl Mannheim’s approach, I would like to argue that Zionist Utopia’s path to implementation was not related solely to Zionist socialism, but to the main Zionist movement in its entirety. This approach began, as Rachel Elboim Dror shows broadly, in the period of classical Zionism, in which the influence of socialist Zionism was much weaker than in the Mandate period. The leading streams of classical Zionism—political, practical, religious, and cultural—already had a fairly clear image of future Zionist goals. In the Mandate period as well, the civil approach, the Weizmannist approach, and the moderate method of broad sections of the Labour Movement reveal planning for the future that was more moderate and hesitant than the aspiration for a holistic vision developed by Mannheim. Although it is true that we can describe the kibbutz as a holistic utopian vision—and indeed, the kibbutz movement has often been characterized as the summit of Zionist achievement—at no stage did the kibbutz movement represent the Zionist vision in its entirety, nor did it ever pretend to do so.

During the classical Zionist period, the Zionist Utopia was created in the minds of individuals, while during the British Mandate period the Zionist utopian genre made way for actual programmes to establish a government in Palestine that would enable realization of the Zionist dream. These programmes addressed the British regime as well as the Arab majority in Palestine. Weizmann, Jabotinsky, and Ben-Gurion, like a long line of other Zionist leaders from all shades of the political spectrum, took an active part in the attempt to institutionalize the Zionist vision through proposals for a constitution that would establish Jewish national existence in Palestine.

The Utopian Vision during the Period of Classical Zionism

Utopian writing during the period of classical Zionism was characterized by various attempts to design the perfect place for the Jewish people. During this period, a number of utopias were written about the Jews’ future. These works had in common the attempt to imagine an ideal Jewish society in Palestine. Below I will focus briefly on the two most prominent Utopias, which reflect opposing approaches. Ahad Ha’am’s work represents cultural Zionism, while Herzl’s Utopia represents political Zionism. These contrasting utopian models stood at the foundation of a heated polemic that developed after the publication of Herzl’s Altneuland in the autumn of 1902 between Ahad Ha’am and Herzl and their respective followers.

Ahad Ha’am’s Ethnic Biblical Vision

Ahad Ha’am aspired to establish a spiritual centre in Palestine for the entire Jewish people. According to him, the Jewish state was not only an ordinary modern state, but was designated to serve as a beacon for the spiritual existence of the Jewish people. In this spirit, Elchanan Leib Lewinsky, Ahad Ha’am’s closest friend, wrote in his book A Journey to the Land of Israel in the Year 2040 (1892):

Jerusalem is the centre of the entire universe, the navel of the world … In particular, it is the centre for the Jews. …, the schools of higher education in Jerusalem are centres of Torah, knowledge, and wisdom for all of our brothers in the Diaspora. Thousands of students will rush to them from the four corners of the world to hear lessons in all branches of the Torah and knowledge, and from Jerusalem will go forth Torah and literature to all inhabitants of the earth.

The image that arises from the book is an idealistic and romantic view of the Jewish state in 2040. At that time, peace reigns and the new Jewish society reflects the national and universal ideal, in the spirit of the biblical prophets. Lewinsky’s approach faithfully represents the Eastern Jewish intellectuals who had limited exposure to Enlightenment; their perspective was first and foremost internally Jewish. Therefore, his vision, as opposed to Herzl’s, was particularistic and did not relate expansively to non-Jews or to the attempts of other nations to create a civilized society. Among the Zionist Utopias written at the turn of the twentieth century, Lewinsky’s Utopia was definitely the most particularistic, that is more ethnic than civic.

Indeed, Ahad Ha’am attacked Herzl’s Altneuland exactly on this point because, in his view, Herzl went too far in his desire to show the world the extent of the Jews’ tolerance toward non-Jews. According to Ahad Ha’am, Herzl’s entire goal was to offer ‘self-justification’ to the European nations and prove to them how far the Jews were from ‘nationalist chauvinism’.

In summary, Ahad Ha’am’s vision is far more focused on the inner world of the Jews. Lewinsky’s Utopia follows the same path, beginning with the credo: ‘My land and my people! I am yours, and my dreams are yours’, and his writing follows this spirit.

Herzl’s Civic Liberal Vision

In Altneuland, Herzl’s vision was very different from that of Ahad Ha’am. In practice, the Jewish state is managed by the ‘New Society’, a modern alternative to the existing regimes in Europe. Herzl’s protagonist David Litwak explained the character of the ‘New Society’ as a civic society:

We have no state, you see, as Europe had in your time. We are an association of citizens who are trying to find their happiness in work and cultural activities. We are satisfied with making and keeping our youth physically fit. For this purpose we think it enough to have athletic and rifle clubs as in Switzerland.

The political concept Herzl discussed is thus built on a voluntary social arrangement that focuses solely on the maintenance of normal civic life. According to Herzl, the Zionist project aimed not only to solve the Jewish problem: as Mr. Kingscourt says: ‘You (the Jews) might undertake to set up the pilot plan for mankind, a better world over there, where we’ve just came from, a new land on the old soil. Old new Land!’

The civic dimension in Altneuland is very clear. Herzl, as revealed clearly in this book, viewed the Arabs not as enemies but as partners with equal rights in the ‘New Society’. Herzl’s vision combines human progress with the solution to the ‘Jewish question’ and the Jews’ suffering. All of humanity profits from the return of the Jews to their historical land. Herzl’s humanist vision reaches its peak in Altneuland, in the description of Jerusalem. There the peace palace is built, and its gates bear the saying ‘Nil humani a me alienum puto‘ (I regard nothing human as alien to me): ‘The Old City had become an international centre which all nations might regard as their home, for this was the home of the common lot of all mankind—suffering.’

In summary, both these Utopias, which faithfully represent utopian writing during the classical Zionist period, express the aspiration to create an ideal society that lives in peace and harmony with its environment. Neither of these works mentions potential war with the Arabs or with the real need to establish a fighting army. This approach characterizes the majority of Zionist Utopias that were written up until the First World War.

The Zionist Vision during the British Mandate

After the end of the First World War, Zionist utopian writing waned as a literary genre. But many plans were written with the purpose of providing a foundation for a government in Palestine that would enable the existence of a national Jewish entity in the face of Arab opposition and British policy. I will focus on the standpoints of three prominent leaders who both planned and led Jewish life in Palestine: Chaim Weizmann, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and David Ben-Gurion. After Herzl’s death, the crisis within the Zionist movement and the departure of the territorialists increased the need to address the national rights of Jews worldwide. Zionist leadership developed a new ‘synthetic’ approach, which combined political and diplomatic activity along with practical Zionism in Palestine. Moreover, a type of ‘Zionist autonomy’ developed, supported by Zionist leaders in Europe as well as in Palestine. Before the war, Ben-Gurion thought that he should promote national autonomy under the auspices of the Ottoman Empire—it is no coincidence that he attended university in Turkey with Yitzhak Ben Zvi and studied Turkish law and language there. During the war, although Ben-Gurion declared his unswerving loyalty to the Turkish Empire, he was persecuted by the regime and was forced to leave Palestine.

On the other hand, Jabotinsky, who helped formulate the decisions of the Helsingfors Conference of 1906, viewed the demand for an independent Jewish state in Palestine as unrealistic and premature, until the end of the First World War. In summer 1918, Jabotinsky wrote a booklet entitled ‘The Jewish Nation’, the first formulation of his proposal for an administrative government in Palestine. This work clearly demonstrates that the demand for an independent Jewish state was not on the agenda: ‘a great confusion of ideas is noticeable with our friends as well as enemies. Some of them think that we claim an independent Jewish State—which of course, we do not, and most emphatically not…. A “Jewish state” is so premature that we need not even discuss it. But a mere ‘right of immigration’ is a fiction not worth the ink it is written with.’

We see, therefore, that at that time Jabotinsky and Ben-Gurion thought that realization of the vision of an independent Jewish state was still far in the future, and that it demanded deep familiarity with the real demographic situation of Palestine. During the First World War, young Zionist leaders such as Weizmann, Jabotinsky, and Ben-Gurion were aware of Arab nationalist aspirations which directly opposed the Zionist goals. They considered Zionism’s goal to be the creation of the proper conditions for unhindered and unlimited Jewish emigration to Palestine. Therefore, their Zionist plans were much more focused on the Jews’ proposed legal system in Palestine rather than on a utopian vision for creating an ideal society along the lines of Herzl or Ahad Ha’am, who in their time were not fully aware of Arab nationalism. Despite their various and differing viewpoints it is interesting to note that there are many lines of similarity in their visions. Moreover, we should note that the First World War brought an end to an era: ‘the long nineteenth century’. Namely, the geopolitical situation sharply changed in Europe as well as in the Middle East.

Chaim Weizmann—Moderate Pragmatism

In Weizmann’s view, the future of Palestine was strongly related to British control over the Middle East. Weizmann thought that the British Occupation and its authorization by the League of Nations through the Mandate over Palestine would lead to the blossoming and prosperity of the land for the benefit of all its residents—Jews as well as Arabs. Therefore, in his opinion, British control was also in the interest of the Arabs, especially the moderate Arab leadership, such as Prince Faisal. Weizmann thought that Arab opposition to Zionism derived from a misunderstanding of the Zionist goals by the Arab farmers (fellaheen) as well as the wealthy Arab effendis. For their part, the Arab effendis ‘very well knew, as they admitted, that there was sufficient land in Palestine for vast populations yet to come’. According to Weizmann, the ‘responsible’ Arab leadership, such as Prince Faisal, recognized Palestine’s extensive immigration potential, so that as many as five million Jews could be absorbed without threat to the Arabs already living in the land or the Islamic holy places. In the early 1920s, Weizmann thought that Palestine could become a Switzerland of the Middle East in which Muslim and Christian Arabs lived in peace together with Jews, in separate cantons, in a state with a Jewish majority. In a report to the Zionist Executive on 24 October 1921, he reported on his meeting with Riad Bey, Propaganda Minister for Emir Faisal in Damascus. Weizmann said to Riad that ‘Palestine was not part of an Arab Empire but a land in which Jews and Arabs could live in peaceful relations in the same way as the three nationalities in Switzerland.’ In the early 1920s, Weizmann thus tended to give an optimistic analysis of the state of relations between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. At that time, he believed that there were objective reasons which would lead to a weakening of the Arab objection to Zionism, including a combination of economic interests, fear of pan-Islamic tendencies and the desire to create an Arab confederation in the Middle East. Furthermore, he thought that the neighbourly relations between Arabs and Jews in everyday life revealed cooperation and mutual appreciation.

In the late 1920s, when Arab nationalism intensified and the struggle between Jews and Arabs became more violent, Weizmann became more pessimistic about the possibility of cooperation between Jews and Arabs. The Arab majority in Palestine and the British regime’s gradual retreat from its commitment to the Balfour Declaration worried him deeply. In a 1930 letter to James Marshall, he reviewed a decade of Zionist activity in Palestine. He clarified that the return of the Jews to their homeland was not at all comparable to colonial settlement outside Europe, such as in the United States. ‘The case of Jews returning to Eretz Israel is absolutely different from that, say, of aliens wishing to settle in the U.S.A.: we enter Palestine by right and not sufferance.’ The Balfour Declaration and the mandate it gave Britain recognized the Jewish people’s right to Palestine. Thus, Palestine would eventually become a state with a Jewish majority—but this state would preserve equal civil rights for Arabs.

Palestine was to be a Jewish State in which the Arabs would enjoy fullest civil and cultural rights; but for the expression of their own national individuality in terms of statehood they were to turn to the surrounding Arab countries—Syria, Iraq, Hedjaz, etc.

Despite Weizmann’s optimism in the first years after the Balfour Declaration regarding cooperation with the Arabs, in the late 1920s he declared that the Arabs were not at all interested in Jewish settlement in Palestine, even if Jewish settlement was carried out most fairly and without harming their rights: ‘The Arabs, when they speak out the truth, say to us: “We do not ask you to deal fairly with us, but do not come.”‘ Weizmann ruled out the idea raised by members of Brit Shalom (The Peace Association) to establish a bi-national state in Palestine. Like them, he was also heavily influenced by Ahad Ha’Am’s restraint and caution towards the Arabs, but he felt that any retreat from the concept of a Jewish majority in Palestine would be considered a betrayal of the Zionist idea and the promise given to the Jews in the Balfour Declaration to establish a Jewish national home in Palestine: ‘We have to look to the end, we have no right to commit national suicide… We must not sin against the right nor betray the future of our people.’

In the 1930s, Weizmann recognized both the power and the organizational strength of Arab nationalism, and his belief in the chances of reaching an agreement with the Arabs waned even further. At the same time, he continued to suggest possibilities for cooperation on the basis of equal government or the concept of a Jewish-Arab federation, which was repeatedly raised in discussions among the Zionist leadership. Yet, as we noted, he did not believe in the realistic possibility of implementing such plans. Throughout the Second World War, the Zionist leadership worked on consolidating its position on the future of Palestine. The belief that at the end of the war a change would take place in the international attitude towards the Jews, as it had following the First World War, led the Zionist leadership to create a number of action plans. Weizmann aspired to find an alternative to the White Paper policy of 1939 which harmed the Zionist interest. In his view, Britain’s new policy hurt two vital elements for building the Jewish national home in Palestine: immigration and land. Reducing the possibilities for Jewish immigration to Palestine and prevention of land purchase halted the opportunity to establish a Jewish national home in Palestine. Weizmann expressed his vision for Palestine’s future in an article published in the major American journal Foreign Affairs in January 1942. In it, he argued that Palestine should be the place where the Jewish national home was established. In contrast to the objection raised that Palestine could not absorb mass immigration of Jews, he clarified how the land could absorb millions:

It is essential to obtain such a settlement in Palestine as will help to solve the Jewish problem—one of the most disturbing problems in the world. The Arabs must, therefore, be clearly told that the Jews will be encouraged to settle in Palestine, and will control their own immigration; that here Jews who so desire will be able to achieve their freedom and self-government by establishing a state of their own, and ceasing to be a minority dependent on the will and pleasure of other nations.

In that state there will be complete civil and political equality of rights for all citizens, without distinction of race or religion, and in addition, the Arabs will enjoy full autonomy in their own internal affairs. But if any Arabs do not wish to remain in Jewish state, every facility will be given to them to transfer to one of the many and vast Arab countries.

Weizmann had a vision for implementing the goal of establishing a Jewish national state. From the Balfour Declaration until the establishment of the State of Israel, in a process that he himself called ‘trial and error’, Weizmann attempted to realize this vision in which he, of course, assumed that the Jewish state as a national state would implement equal civil rights for all its citizens.

Ze’ev Jabotinsky: Nationalist Activism and Civic Government

Ze’ev Jabotinsky was among the first to provide a clear formulation of the Zionist goal. In a draft of a constitution which he proposed at the end of the First World War in 1918, he spoke of complete national equality between Jews and Arabs: ‘Both Jews and Arabs would enjoy from the start a complete autonomy equal to that of an independent nation.’ But he insisted that Palestine be recognized in a peace conference as the national home of the Jewish people and that emigration to Palestine be allowed for Jews from all over the world, with no limitations.

Our Zionist claim can be specified in one word: we want to colonize, that is all. We want to remove from the Diaspora and bring to Palestine as many Jews as the Diaspora can release and Palestine can feed. We are not out for political domination, or religious proselytism, or expansion of our language beyond the members of our own nation, or anything of that kind: … our only claim is colonization, a fair, free and full chance for colonization.

In December 1922, Jabotinsky composed a plan for an autonomous Jewish state in a federal framework, proposing it to the Zionist Executive in London several times. Although Jabotinsky did not believe that the Arabs were ready to accept the Zionist proposal, he did think that the Zionists should determine the guidelines for the framework:

In any Cabinet, at least half of the Ministers shall be appointed with the consent of the Jewish Agency… Should there be a Parliament, it shall consist of a Chamber and a Senate. The Chamber shall be elected by all citizens of both sexes who can read and write in any language… The Senate shall be constituted on the American (federal) basis adjusted to Palestinian conditions…

 The three Communities—the Yishuv, the Moslems and Christians—shall be constituted upon a fully developed ‘Millet’ system of inner self-government with rights of self-taxation…

The armed forces shall consist of an equal number of Jewish and Arab Companies under separate Headquarter Sections…

Weizmann also supported this plan in general terms, but Jabotinsky resigned from the Zionist Executive in January 1923, and the idea was not raised again. During the 1920s, Jabotinsky was much more pessimistic about the possibility of reaching some kind of agreement with the Arabs; his position towards them was based on militant activism, namely the ‘iron wall’ approach. In other words, because it was not possible to reach an agreement with the Arabs regarding the establishment of a Jewish state, the only option was to create a strong military force: ‘an iron wall, which the local population will be unable to breach’. Despite this, in his article ‘The Iron Wall’ he still expressed the position that the Jewish state should grant the Arabs equal rights, both individual and national:

I am proud to belong to the group that formulated the Helsingfors Plan. We wrote it not just for the Jews, but for all nations; it is based on equal rights for all peoples. Like all the Jews, I am prepared to swear in our names and in the names of our descendants, that we will never breach [this principle of] equal rights, and we will make no attempt at deportation or suppression.

In direct opposition to the radical group within the revisionist camp known as Brith ha-biryonim (‘alliance of bullies’) led by Abba Achimeir, Uri Zvi Greenberg, and Yehoshua Heschel-Yevin, Jabotinsky never neglected the liberal element in his national theory. In his last book, The Jewish War Front, published in the year of his death in 1940, Jabotinsky again proposed a constitution for Palestine with clear civic elements:

Civic Equality

  • Providing nothing be done to hinder any foreign Jew from repatriating, and, by doing so, automatically becoming a Palestinian citizen, the principle of equal rights for all citizens of any race, creed, language or class shall be enacted without limitation throughout all sectors of the country’s public life.
  • In every Cabinet where the Prime Minister is a Jew the vice-premiership shall be offered to an Arab, and vice versa.
  • Proportional sharing by Jews and Arabs both in the charges and in the benefits of the State…


  • The Hebrew and the Arabic languages shall enjoy equal rights and equal legal validity…

Cultural Autonomy

  • The Jewish and the Arab ethno-communities shall be recognized as autonomous public bodies of equal status before the law…
  • Each ethno-community shall elect its National Diet with right to issue ordinance and levy taxes within the limits of its autonomy…

The Holy Places

  • The relevant areas within the Old City of Jerusalem, to be delimited under the authority of the League of Nations, shall enjoy the same measure of extra-territoriality as that universally recognized in the case of embassies…


  • A Palestine Land Court shall be formed including, among other members, judges and agricultural experts belonging to both ethno-communities.

As we see, this proposed constitution addressed difficult issues such as the holy sites and the question of land. From the beginning of his career, Jabotinsky was influenced by the political philosophy of Rudolf Springer, who discussed the national rights of minorities in the Austrian Empire in 1868.

Jabotinsky insisted that the goal of Zionism was to create a Jewish majority in Palestine; in other words, a draft of this constitution, which proposed equality to Arab citizens, would be possible only in an independent Jewish state with a Jewish majority, and only if the Arabs accepted citizenship in such a state. Furthermore, Jabotinsky himself, as we see from his general approach and even from his wording here, was highly doubtful of the Arab’s willingness to accept even such a liberal law.

David Ben-Gurion: Socialism and Zionist Messianism

As early as 1915, during the First World War, Ben-Gurion stated: ‘The peace conference must recognize the right of the Hebrew nation to establish a homeland in Eretz Israel.’ Zionism must therefore take advantage of the situation that was created: ‘Our demand now is that the peace conference recognize our right to build the land and establish our homeland there … that it give us the necessary legal guarantees and freedom of action in order to complete the building from start to finish.’

Ben-Gurion placed his hopes both in the world powers’ agreement to grant the Jews a national home in Palestine as well as in constructive Zionist action in the Land of Israel, without relation to the positions of the world powers:

A homeland is not given or taken as a gift, nor is it acquired with political rights and contracts, nor purchased with gold, nor conquered with the power of the fist. Rather, it is earned by the sweat of the brow. Homeland—this is a historical creation and the collective enterprise of a people, the product of generations of physical, spiritual, and moral labor.

He integrated the slow settlement activity, which was the motto of socialist Zionism, into his belief in revolutionary decisive moments in history. Influenced by Berdichevsky on the one hand, and by Lenin on the other, Ben-Gurion thought that sometimes there were ‘jumps’ in history, when revolutionaries could realize their social visions. He believed that the Balfour Declaration at the end of the First World War was such a moment, allowing Zionism to achieve its vision in Palestine. At that time, Ben-Gurion emphasized the urgency of settling the Land of Israel: ‘In the next twenty years, we must create a Jewish majority in Eretz Israel. This is the essence of the new historical situation.’ Utilizing political opportunities along with consistent construction, step by step, was the guideline that the pragmatic utopian Ben-Gurion followed on his path to implementation of the Zionist goal.

At the beginning of the 1920s, influenced by the communist revolution in Russia, Ben-Gurion emphasized the socialist aspect in his utopian vision. At that time, he gave the workers’ union (Histadrut Ha-Ovdim) a central role in the economic activity of Palestine. It is possible to note a Bolshevist echo in his statements on the desired character of the Yishuv economy: ‘Instead of anarchy—order and discipline; instead of divisions and contradictions—unity and mutual responsibility…’ He repeats the motif of discipline to such an extent that he speaks of establishing an organized and disciplined ‘labour army’.

Following the Arab riots of 1929, Ben-Gurion—along with the rest of the Zionist leadership—grew increasingly suspicious of rising Arab nationalism and of the expected danger to Zionism that it posed. As a result, between 1929 and 1931, he presented his programme for a constitution for Palestine that took into account the Mandatory government and the Arabs. His ideas were consolidated through intense debate within the socialist camp. His rejection of the bi-national state idea of the left-wing Brit Shalom (Peace Association) and of the right-wing revisionist solution also contributed to the formation of his ideas. Ben-Gurion suspected that Britain would renounce its obligations towards the Mandate after the Zionist idea lost support among the British public and government. He rejected criticism that proposing a constitution directly following the riots represented a reward to the insurgents. ‘The events reopened the Zionist argument in world public opinion. What was authorized in 1917 in the Balfour Declaration, fulfilled in 1920 at the San Remo conference, and signed in 1922 in the League of Nations Mandate, was placed in question by the riots.’ In Ben-Gurion’s opinion, Zionism had no need to justify its aspiration for creating a Jewish majority in Palestine, but it did have to answer the world how it would avoid damaging Arab rights:

We cannot say to the world—pay no attention to the arguments of 700,000 Arabs, because we must not reward the rioters. We must provide an answer to ‘the Arab question.’ Without a plan for an agreement with the Arab nation, I fear that we will not be able to enter into a serious discussion even with England …, and we must approach the Arab nation, without deceit or concealment of our Zionist goals, but in peace and truth. I will state clearly: no matter what happens—we will not budge from here.

In parallel, he also stated, ‘We must find a way such that without harming the rights of the Hebrew nation and its essential interests in Eretz Israel, we will fully fulfill the just demands of the Arabs, including their political demands.’

Ben-Gurion’s proposal for creating a constitution for the Land of Israel was also influenced by the fact that, as opposed to Jabotinsky, he was not a strong believer in the power of Britain and the West. Thus, he proposed a plan in which British influence on Palestine would gradually diminish as the national home became established. In the introduction to his plan, he emphasized the right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, a right that the Arabs as a nation did not share: ‘Eretz Israel is intended for the Jewish people and the Arabs who live in it.’ He continued: ‘The interests of the Jewish people (the “national home”) and those of the inhabitants cannot hurt each other, and the Mandatory government in Eretz Israel must preserve both of them to the maximum.’ Furthermore, he said, ‘We must establish just relations between Jews and Arabs, to promise both Jews and Arabs the opportunity for unhindered development and full national sovereignty, such that at no time will there ever be Arab hegemony over Jews or Jewish hegemony over Arabs.’

In his plan, Ben-Gurion addressed three stages of development: 1) the preliminary stage of the Jewish national home, in which the Arabs oppose it; 2) the stage of fortification, during which the Jewish population begins to narrow the gap with the Arab population; 3) the final stage, when the Jewish national home is established, and Jews and Arabs cooperate. Under this constitutional proposal, the process eventually leads to establishment of a Jewish-Arab federation, with the rights of Jewish and Arab nations preserved under a legal framework:

The council of the federal union, to be comprised of two houses: 1. The house of nations, composed of an equal number of Jews and Arabs; 2. The house of citizens, composed of representatives of the cantons relative to their population … Hebrew and Arabic will be equal in all their rights throughout the State of Eretz Israel and in all its institutions: federal, cantonal, and municipal.

During the 1930s, Ben-Gurion held the view that Zionism should agree to an egalitarian regime in Palestine—parity between Jews and Arabs—thus encouraging British support and minimizing Arab opposition. In 1937, Ben-Gurion supported the Peel Commission’s partition plan—because he saw it as the realization of the vision for the Jewish state, though only in a small area of Palestine. Later on, in the early 1940s, he abandoned the idea of Arab-Jewish federation. During the Second World War, Ben-Gurion initiated the Biltmore plan, the first expression of the Zionist demand to establish a Jewish state (Jewish Commonwealth) in Palestine. As a result, on 13 March 1945, Ben-Gurion presented the following points to the Zionist core council, as a continuation of the Biltmore plan:

  • The Jewish State will be based on full equal rights for all of its inhabitants—with no differences for religion or ethnicity, in governmental, civic, religious, and national life, without domination or subjugation.
  • All ethnicities will enjoy full autonomy to manage their religious, educational, cultural, and social institutions.
  • The Arabic language and Arabic schools will enjoy all governmental rights. Each city and village will establish its own municipal government.
  • The state will make efforts to equalize the standard of living of all its inhabitants.

In practice, the State of Israel’s Declaration of Independence reveals integration between the ethnic and civic components that recall Ben-Gurion’s plan. The intense schedule of the Zionist leaders, including Ben-Gurion, in their struggle for the establishment of the Jewish state forced them to focus on short-term political tactics instead of planning a Utopia. Yet Ben-Gurion’s utopian vision—the socialist Zionist one—remained with him throughout his career, and even intensified after the establishment of the State of Israel.

I will now return to the relationship between ethnic and civic elements in the Zionist Utopia. As we have seen, the Zionist vision integrated ethnic, cultural aspirations with components of civic democratic values. Hans Kohn initiated a negative evaluation of ethnic nationalism that intensified during the late twentieth century. But the dichotomist approach to understanding the phenomenon of nationalism does not always stand the real test of the various types of nationalism. As Anthony Smith’s extensive research shows, most of the nationalist movements were based on ethnic and cultural foundations. Moreover ethnic or civic nationalism should not be categorized as definite ‘good’ or ‘bad’ stable phenomena. As Smith asserted:

in practice, these types frequently overlap, and a given national state will often display ethnic as well as civic components in its form of nationalism sometimes in a historical layering, or its nationalism may move some way from one type to another and back. Moreover, each type, as I have argued, has its peculiar problems. If the ethnic-genealogical type tends towards exclusivity (though not necessarily), the civic-territorial type… is often impatient of ethnic differences; it tends towards radical assimilation, some might call it ‘ethnocide’, of cultural differences and minorities.

In this respect the State of Israel is no exception; it grew into a nation-state out of a national ethnic-cultural movement. Still, throughout its history, Jewish nationalism was infused with Western civic values. In the cases I have discussed, the civic values remained present in the Zionist leaders’ vision of the Jewish state, even during the diplomatic effort for international recognition of the Jews’ right to establish a Jewish nation-state.


The Zionist Utopia aspired to change the reality that the Jewish people faced in the modern era. This Utopia outlined two goals for change: the first was a fundamental transformation within the Jewish people and individual, while the second targeted change in the political situation in which Jews lived as minorities within majority societies in nation-states. In the Utopias we have studied, Ahad Ha’am’s approach during the period of classical Zionism placed greater weight on ethnic aspects and internal changes needed within the Jewish people in order to establish a ‘truly Jewish state’, while in Altneuland Herzl emphasized the civic and universal component. During the second period of the British Mandate, when Zionist utopianism became a concrete political act, I have demonstrated that Weizmann, Jabotinsky, and Ben-Gurion made a consistent attempt to create a Jewish majority in Palestine in order to establish an independent Jewish nation-state that would realize the national rights of the Jews and that would also implement universal civic values. The Zionist Utopia did not attempt to define an exact format for the Jewish state after its realization. The Zionist realist Utopia enabled the implementation of the Zionist vision but did not dictate a comprehensive utopian model.

In conclusion, I have shown that the integration of ethnic and civic values led Zionist utopian thought to inspire the creation of the State of Israel. While the vast majority of Israelis believe in the integration of civic and ethnic values, voices within the internal Israeli debate, on either end of the political spectrum, view Israel either as solely a ‘Jewish state’, disregarding civic universal values, or as ‘a state for all its citizens’, with no relation to Jewish ethnic culture. Bridging the gap between these two poles remains one of the most significant challenges of the current Israeli generation. Furthermore, the character of the state of Israel—as a Jewish nation-state or one of the other options—has significance not only for Israel itself but also its relationship with the Arab neighbours.