The Siege

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Conor Cruise O’Brien, the distinguished Irish historian, literary critic, university teacher and administrator, journalist, and diplomat, has written, in The Siege, a remarkably comprehensive, clear, and balanced book covering the tangled terrain of Zionism since its pre-Theodor Herzl days, the history of mandatory Palestine, and the turmoil-ridden years of Israel from its founding to the post-Menachem Begin era, ending the account in 1985.

O’Brien’s background for exploring this emotional mine field is impressive: He served as deputy chief of Ireland’s delegation to the United Nations from 1956 to 1961, representing his country on the Special Political Committee, which spent much of its time debating Arab-Israeli issues. By a quirk of the alphabet he found himself seated between the delegates of Iraq and Israel, trying to befriend both but losing the goodwill of the former when he socialized with the latter. After 1961, O’Brien devoted himself, in turn, to academic work, Irish parliamentary politics, and, from 1978 to 1981, the editorship of the London weekly The Observer. Questioning his paper’s optimistic editorial position that a comprehensive accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization could be achieved, he visited the Middle East extensively from 1981 to 1984 and wrote this massive history during the years 1982 through 1985. His intent was to compose an outsider’s guide to the region aimed at the intelligent general reader, “what the French politely call un ouvrage de haute vulgarisation.” His model was the American critic Edmund Wilson’s classic narrative of nineteenth to early twentieth century Marxism, To the Finland Station (1940). O’Brien has splendidly succeeded.

O’Brien takes almost three hundred pages to trace the course of Zionism and the history of Palestine that culminated in the May 14, 1948, proclamation of Israel’s statehood. He establishes the wide-ranging nature of the aggressive anti-Semitism in turn-of-the-century Europe that fueled the increasing attraction of Zionism. Russian czars regarded liberalism as their greatest enemy and the Jews as the principal carriers of liberalism; they therefore adopted anti-Semitism as official policy. In Germany, the composer Richard Wagner and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche made nationalist anti-Semitism respectable; in The Antichrist (1902) Nietzsche even paraded the concept of Christianity as a Jewish corruption whose ethic of mercy and forgiveness weakened the true “Aryan” values of strength and ferocity. In Austria, the spectacularly popular Karl Lueger, Lord Mayor of Vienna, built a successful political career in the 1890’s and 1900’s on a platform of anti-Semitic demagoguery; Adolf Hitler was enormously impressed by Lueger’s speeches. Late nineteenth century France was greatly influenced by one of the most skillful popularizers of anti-Semitism up to Hitler’s advent, Eduard Drumont, whose writings appealed to Catholic and right-wing elements; the 1894 conviction of Jewish captain Alfred Dreyfus, on charges of treason that had been manufactured, divided French society into passionately pro- and anti-Semitic factions.

Among the reporters covering the Dreyfus trial was the Paris correspondent of a Viennese newspaper, Theodor Herzl. Previously a cosmopolitan assimilationist, Herzl was converted to Zionism by the case’s revelation of irreconcilable hatred of Jews among many French. Herzl was born to be a magnetic leader, with his polished speaking voice, assured presence, and stately good looks; many Jews came to regard him as a modern fusion of Moses and the Messiah, an agent of God’s will. Starting in 1897, he convened and easily dominated several world Zionist congresses, making them quasi-liturgical rituals that bonded together both pious and secular Jews in their search for a homeland that would shelter them from widespread persecution.

Chaim Weizmann, a young chemistry student who attended the Second Zionist Congress in 1898, was to succeed Herzl as Zionism’s leader. Though Russian born, Weizmann was Western educated and made his home in Great Britain. After Herzl succumbed to heart disease in 1904, Weizmann’s astutely gentle and pragmatic style made Zionism an important counter in the Western world’s diplomatic games; by 1914, eighty-five thousand Jewish pioneers had migrated to Palestine, constituting 12 percent of the area’s population. The local Arabs were at first only passively resentful and suspicious of the newcomers, but European powers colonizing the region, particularly anti-Dreyfusard French clergy, transmitted their obsessional anti-Semitism to many Westernized Muslims, adding an increasingly hysterical edge to the Arabs’ traditionally passive anti-Jewish feelings. On the Jewish side, a new strain of Zionism began to attract converts in Palestine: a strain that was more assertive, ruthless, puritanical, that stressed Jewish self-reliance in preference to cooperative living with the indigenous Arabs, that pointed toward a self-contained Jewish community that would tolerate Arabs but not need them.

Because Great Britain was the only strong nation established in the Palestinian region, Zionism needed to negotiate with it; Weizmann did so to seminal effect in the 1910’s, particularly by befriending Arthur Balfour, who led the British Conservative Party from 1902 to 1911 and served as foreign secretary from 1916 to 1919. As a result, Balfour issued what was to become his famous declaration on November 2, 1917. The Balfour Declaration promised a “national home for the Jewish people” in the then Ottoman provinces of Palestine but proceeded almost to void that promise by stating that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Trying to be fair to both sides, the British only succeeded in annoying both. Balfour himself had been persuaded of Zionism’s merits by Weizmann, but other members of Great Britain’s wartime Cabinet regarded the declaration largely as a practical weapon for keeping the French and the Germans out of Palestine. Moreover, both the British Foreign Office and military administrators in Palestine were strongly sympathetic to the Arabs, regarding imperial interests as far more important than the religious-ethical claims of Zionism. In 1919, Balfour was replaced as foreign secretary by George Curzon, who had consistently opposed the declaration. Yet even Curzon, though he considered the whole notion of a British mandate in Palestine as “drawn up by someone reeling under the fumes of Zionism,” dared not explicitly repudiate his government’s commitment to the establishment of a Jewish national home. Nor did any of his successors.

In the early 1920’s, a tripartite system of organizing Palestine emerged that endured throughout the mandate period. The British had overall control, but they left both the Jewish and Arab communities with largely autonomous power to run their own affairs. On the Arab side, the grand mufti of Jerusalem presided over a Supreme Muslim Council which handled Muslim financial and legal affairs. The Jewish settlers’ supreme authority was the Zionist Executive, which later renamed itself the Jewish Agency and developed such specialized branches as the Histadrut, or the general federation of labor (which was to become the organizational embryo of Israel), and the Hagana, an underground armed force which, on May 31, 1948, became Israel’s regular army. Jewish immigration increased...

(The entire section is 3098 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Booklist. LXXXII, January 15, 1986, p. 708.

Christian Century. CIII, June 4, 1986, p. 560.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVIII, March 12, 1986, p. 24.

Library Journal. CXI, March 15, 1986, p. 66.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 16, 1986, p. 1.

The New Republic. XCXIV, March 3, 1986, p. 26.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, March 2, 1986, p. 1.

Newsweek. CVII, March 24, 1986, p. 74.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIX, January 3, 1986, p. 48.

Time. CXXVII, April 21, 1986, p. 76.