Brief Review: Halpern’s The Idea of the Jewish State


First published in 1961 and rereleased in a second edition in 1969, Ben Halpern’s The Idea of the Jewish State should be included in whole or part on the syllabus of any university course which examines this subject. Indeed, it should be considered required reading for any serious scholar of Israeli history.

However dated regarding contemporary regional developments, one would be hard pressed to find a study of the birth and development of the Zionist idea and Israeli state as complex, detailed, and historically thorough as Halpern’s. This work follows a broad historical arc from Jewish responses to Emancipation in Europe and its effects on the emergence of Zionism in the 1800s to the political aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War. At over 441 pages, Halpern volume leaves virtually no ideological variation on Zionism, anti-Zionism, or non-Zionism unexplored and no major political or diplomatic development relating to the area which became the State of Israel unexamined.

The author appears to be broadly sympathetic to the Zionist narrative and project, yet it does not appear to detract from his close examination of the ideologies and policy preferences of those who are not. Anyone wishing to understand the roots of both religious and secular Jewish opposition to the idea of a Jewish state will find ample documentation and discussion here. So too does he offer an in-depth exploration of imperial and Great Power intrigue in the negotiation of Jewish settlement and gradual political control of the territory under the Ottoman, British mandatory, and United Nations auspices.

For the purposes of my own research, this book is incredibly valuable in terms of its critical engagement with the idea of Jewish territoriality in the Land of Israel. Refusing to treat attachment to the biblical Land of Israel as an axiomatic explanation of the choice of this territory for Jewish settlement, Halpern seriously considers the alternatives such as the 1903 Uganda Plan, lesser known Jewish resettlement projects in the United States, South America, and Russia, and, of course, the preferences of anti- and non-Zionist movements for Jewish integration and emancipation in Europe. He also explores how mythic ideas regarding Zion and the Promised Land found concrete physical and political expression, not only from religious sources but pre-existing channels of diaspora support for Jewish communities of the Old Yishuv.

From the establishment of the Mandate itself, British division of Transjordan, the 1947 UN Partition Plan, and Israel’s early years, Halpern also provides extensive documentation as to the priorities and territorial preferences of the Zionist movement (itself not monolithic). He also seriously considers how such demands interacted with and were modified in response to Arab, British, French, and later American and Soviet interests and demands. Particularly interesting is the preference expressed across the Zionist parties for the development of a Jewish majority in the land prior to and as a prerequisite for any ascension to independent political sovereignty.

The rapid course of political developments between the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the Holocaust in Europe, and the UN Partition plan in 1947 followed by the Israeli War of Independence in 1948-9 forced the Zionist movement to contend with a wider variety of considerations. It is particularly interesting to note how majoritarian preferences interacted with the consistently salient emotional, cultural, and religious attachments particularly to Jerusalem, coupled first with immediate threats to the survival of the Jewish people and then to the emergent State of Israel.

Here too he emphasizes the inconsistent, self-interested, and often two-faced engagement of major players in the international community with regard to the establishment of and support for the continued existence of Israel. Lacking credible external partners aside from a largely supportive diaspora Jewish community, a picture emerges of an Israel in the 1950s and 1960s willing to take on incredible military, diplomatic, and economic risks to secure itself against openly hostile neighbors bent on the state’s liquidation. Indeed, one likely cannot understand contemporary Israeli skepticism regarding international cooperation or external political guarantees absent an examination of these formative experiences.

As such, I offer my unqualified recommendation that if you find these subjects to be of any interest, you must pick up this book. Unfortunately it is currently out of print, but several copies of both the first and second editions are available on Amazon and it should be available at any university library with a respectable Middle Eastern history collection. For my part, the reflections and historical analyses included in The Idea of the Jewish State will most certainly be finding their way into my dissertation as well as future syllabi.

2 Responses to Brief Review: Halpern’s The Idea of the Jewish State

  1. […] them for the day, and returning them when I leave. The books which I have been reading, like The Idea of the Jewish State, are a bit dated, but their historical and theoretical contributions have been […]

  2. […] War, the Golan was taken by the French as a compromise for British control elsewhere (Halpern’s The Idea of the Jewish State offers a detailed account). “The only way to know the future,” Harel insists, “is to do […]

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