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Zionism and the Roads Not Taken: Rawidowicz, Kaplan, Kohn, by Noam Pianko.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.  277 pp.  $25.95.


Zionism and the Roads Not Taken is a well-researched intellectual history of Zionism without a state of Israel, of Jewish nationalism without the presumption of political sovereignty. Pianko focuses on three important thinkers of the interwar period, who have been lost to the canonical intellectual history of Zionism that goes from Herzl and Nordau to Ben Gurion and Jabotinsky.

              Pianko devotes a chapter to each of the three thinkers. Scholar and essayist Simon Rawidowicz envisioned a Zionism through the lens of global Hebraism, in which language and culture, not a state, would bind the Jewish nation. For Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, most famous for founding the Reconstructionist movement in the U.S., Zionism was a central facet of his vision of Jewish civilization, but not in the form of a state. Rather, he envisioned a global world bound through the ties of peoplehood, through history, culture, politics, and religion. And Hans Kohn—most well known as a Buber discipline and liberal American intellectual who theorized civic versus ethnic nationalism—articulated a Zionism of cultural humanism, in which the Jewishly particular and the universally human would work in tandem, rather than opposed to one another, a concept prescient for its time.

              Pianko shows how all three envisioned a way to be nationalist in commitments to the global Jewish people and patriotic in relation to the country of which one was a citizen. In other words, he breaks open the phrase “nation-state.” Many of these non-statist Zionists traced their intellectual roots to Ahad Ha’am and cultural Zionism (usually opposed to Theodor Herzl’s political Zionism). But rather than suggesting that Ahad Ha’am was a cultural as opposed to a political Zionist, Pianko, via his thinkers, shows that it is an equally political statement to say that Zionism does not ipso facto mean a Jewish state. Pianko makes other arguments illuminating a more complicated history of Zionism, like the important role of religion in binding the modern Jewish people or the fact that American Zionism did not demand any less of a commitment to Jewish national ideals than European Zionism.

              But the crux of the book is that Pianko thinks they paved an alternative path to a gentler, (less militaristic, since states demand a military) form of Jewish nationalism, which got relegated to the dustbin of history after World War II, the Holocaust, and the triumph of the Jewish state. As Pianko states, “They didn’t leave Zionism. Zionism left them” (p. 5).

              While reading the book, it was statements like this where I began having a creeping suspicion that these thinkers have had more of an impact than Pianko may give them credit for, even if it’s not a direct intellectual correlation. Perhaps Zionism did not leave them permanently. Rather they seem to have been ahead of, not behind, the times. It is in the 21st century that their visions of Zionism are gaining political currency.

              Pianko’s lament for the lost opportunities of a diverse, global Zionism prevents him from seeing how times have changed since David Ben Gurion proclaimed the state and told global Jews to pack up and move. For example, Pianko suggests that Rawidowicz’s global Hebraism was a failure, since “Hebrew culture has had almost no impact on American Jewish life” (p. 204). This just simply isn’t true. Israeli Hebrew pushed Ashkenazi Hebrew out of Jewish educational institutions in the 1970s and 1980s (although the Ashkenazi pronunciation is making a comeback in ultra Orthodox environments). There are now parents, Jewish and not, clamoring to enroll their kids in Hebrew-language charter schools in New York and Florida, and Hebrew language courses on college campuses are a must for any university with a Jewish Studies program, which is all major American universities. If Yiddish was the international lingua franca for most of global Jewry in the interwar period, in the year 2010 Hebrew has come to serve that function. Because of Zionism’s successful pull of global Jews to Israel and because of the yerida/descent/emigration of Jews from the Jewish state in search of greener pastures, modern Hebrew has gone truly global. Maybe Rawidowicz would be proud.

              In discussing Kaplan’s articulation of a national civilization for Jews, Pianko reminds us that instead of the word nationhood, Kaplan proposed “peoplehood” to describe global Jewish connections. Pianko suggests that contemporary uses of “peoplehood” are simply a mask for good old Zionist allegiances. It is true that peoplehood has become the new in term for a 21st-century Zionism with a human face, in the offices of American Jewish family foundations and the Jewish Agency of Israel. But there is something significant about the fact that in the year 2010 the very word “Zionism” is out and “peoplehood” is in, and perhaps we have Kaplan and his indirect, subconscious legacy to thank for that. 

              Echoing the scholarship of other scholars working on contemporary diaspora theory and Jews, Pianko suggests that these thinkers’ non-state-centered Zionism puts diversity, rather than unity, at the center of the theoretical universe. They envisioned a world defined as a series of global nodes, rather than as a center and a periphery, an argument my colleague Caryn Aviv and I made several years ago. But it is hard to tell whether Pianko actually believes his own argument about the consequences of a non-statist Jewish nationalism. He continues to refer to “two centers of Jewish life,” by which he means Israel and the United States (p. 199) and to “diaspora consciousness” (p. 198). Both concepts seem to undermine the very theory of global nodes, rather than a center, of a Jewish nation and non-state-centered Zionism.

              Pianko is frustrated that contemporary Jewish policy makers don’t heed the voices of his heroes and provides great criticism of contemporary Jewish state-driven rhetoric. But in his very justified frustration, Pianko misses a key point. When Natan Sharansky, the new head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, starts to use words like peoplehood instead of Zionism, it tells us two things about global Jews in the year 2010. It proves Pianko’s point that the word Zionism was co-opted by the statists. But it is also shows that the state-centered model of Zionism that triumphed in the postwar period and rendered alternatives Zionisms invisible is no longer the only game in town, just as Rawidowicz, Kaplan, and Kohn might have wanted it.

David Shneer

University of Colorado at Boulder