The following interview with the former Israeli prime minister was conducted by Gadi Taub as the 100th episode of his Hebrew-language podcast Shomer Saf. The original can be viewed here. Courtesy of Rotem Sella and Sella Meir Publishing, Mosaic is pleased to present to its readers an exclusive English-language translation of the interview, done by Avi Woolf and Neil Rogachevsky. The transcript has been lightly edited for content and clarity. An introduction by Neil Rogachevsky precedes Taub’s interview.
The Last Revisionist?
According to his supporters, Benjamin Netanyahu, now leader of the opposition after the longest tenure in the prime minister’s office in Israeli history, ably led his country through choppy geopolitical waters during his time in office. To his critics, he has been venal and self-serving, all too willing to prioritize his own political fortunes over the long-term interests of the country.
Opinions about Bibi will continue to differ. Inevitably they will be colored by what happens next. Once the partisan passions of the moment have cooled, I suspect that many Israelis will think of Netanyahu’s premiership quite positively, for a simple reason. Israel in 2021 is stronger, more stable, and more prosperous than it was when Netanyahu came into office in 2009. Even if the groundwork for this success had been laid by others, history is full of examples of leaders who have squandered a good hand.
What’s next for Netanyahu? Though clearly pining to return to the big job, Netanyahu seems to want to emulate one of his heroes, Winston Churchill, by spending some time out of office reflecting on his own career and the history of his times. His literary ambitions may not be Churchillian but they might be grander than those of your average politico: as Netanyahu notes slyly in this eye-opening 85-minute podcast interview with the Haaretz columnist and Sella Meir publishing house podcaster Gadi Taub, he is writing a memoir that may also serve as his own history of Israel. If he can resist the temptation to churn out something quickly just to pay the bills, this could be one of the more interesting Jewish books of our time.
The Taub interview offers a fascinating window of what could be, but it is also extremely illuminating in its own right. Ably queried by Taub, Netanyahu extends his comments beyond the major political questions of the day such as the Iran threat, the swiftly changing balance of forces between the great powers, or relations with the Palestinians. Through discussion of three figures Netanyahu admires—the father of political Zionism Theodor Herzl, the little-known but important agronomist, spy, and Zionist activist Aaron Aaronsohn, and, of course, Winston Churchill—one has here an honest and mostly spin-free introduction to Netanyahu’s manner of thinking about Zionism, modern Israel, and the task of the Jewish statesman. Agree with Netanyahu’s policies or not, he has thought deeply about these themes. It is worth improving your Hebrew to watch this interview. At the very least, you should read the translation published below. In what follows I discuss aspects of the conversation that especially struck me and might especially benefit those who are less familiar with Netanyahu’s family background and the Zionist tradition to which he belongs.
It is generally known to anyone who has followed Benjamin Netanyahu’s career that his father, the Revisionist Zionist historian and activist Benzion Netanyahu (1910-2012), was an important influence on Benjamin (as he was on his late brother, Yoni Netanyahu, killed at Entebbe on July 4, 1976). But just how deep that influence goes is perhaps not as well understood. And, in this interview, one sees how closely Benjamin follows his father not merely as an example or a source of inspiration but at the level of ideas and of worldview. In this decisive respect, Netanyahu has been the model of a Revisionist Zionist leader in the mold of Benzion Netanyahu, Vladimir Jabotinsky, and, they would claim, Theodor Herzl.
To be sure, Bibi has had other intellectual influences beyond that of his father and the other great Revisionists. (His knowledge of highbrow classics of Anglo-American social science and history of the last few generations remains astonishing. In this interview, he recites from memory the argument of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s work on Philosemitism in England.) But what particularly struck me is how much one hears the voice of Benzion when listening to Bibi talk about ideas and history.
Benzion Netanyahu’s historical writing covered a range of subjects but focused particularly on Spanish Jewry before the expulsion of 1492 as well as on documenting the men he called, in a wonderful collection of essays, The Founding Fathers of Zionism. His writing is nuanced and alive to historical specificity. And yet, there is a single overarching perception of Jewish history and the Jewish people that runs through all of Benzion Netanyahu’s work. According to this perspective, the Jewish people, for all its virtues of mind, had through the centuries of exile lost the habit of thinking politically. Even as they studied the Exodus from Egypt, the Jews throughout history had been unable and unwilling to see the political grounds shifting beneath their feet. They could not conceive that the future could be radically different than the present. They buried their heads in the sand and assumed they would somehow be protected. The awareness that the future could be radically different from the present, or is radically unknown, is a prerequisite for thinking politically since, faced with that uncertainty, one has to prepare for different possibilities, and, as far as one can, try to shape the future actively. To Benzion Netanyahu, the Jews had consistently failed to do so.
Time and again in the Diaspora, the Jews had been, as Benjamin Netanyahu puts it in this interview, unaware of threats. They were unwilling to see the gathering storms that could wash away the lives and communities they had built with so much love and care. On the very eve of the final expulsion from Spain, according to Benzion Netanyahu’s landmark study of the period, the majority of Jews were persuaded that they remained well protected. In a similar vein, the Jews of Europe had failed to appreciate the threat of Hitlerism because they could not see that the future could be radically different than the past: they thought that persecutions to come would be on the same scale of the “manageable” persecutions of the past. This bracing assessment of repeated failures of the Jewish imagination formed a core plank in the formation of Zionism and particularly of Revisionist Zionism.
Benzion Netanyahu wrote less clearly about the causes of what he saw as this character flaw of Diaspora Jewry. In certain parts of his work, he seems to suggest that Jewish reverence for laws had, in the Diaspora, lost its vital connection to the underlying political and social phenomena that laws, at their best, are meant to elucidate. At other times, he seems to suggest that the Jewish inability to recognize dangers was the inevitable consequence of the exile and the loss of political sovereignty. Like his mentor Jabotinsky, and, in his own view, Theodor Herzl, Benzion Netanyahu saw this as a dangerous tendency that had to be combatted.
One sees from this interview how closely Benjamin Netanyahu adheres to this interpretation of Jewish history. It is an interpretation that shapes his approach both to contemporary problems—such as the Iran threat—but it also shapes how he views the successes and failures of Zionism and Israel. To take one significant example: in this interview, Netanyahu grants that Ben-Gurion deserves all honors for what he did in 1948 in bringing about an independent, sovereign state. Similarly, Chaim Weizmann deserves praise for his able and even indispensable international diplomacy in gaining recognition for those efforts towards sovereignty. And yet, according to Netanyahu, Ben-Gurion, Weizmann, and the other mainstream—i.e., non-Revisionist—Zionists had over the course of the preceding decades generally only done the right thing after every other option was exhausted. Mainstream Zionism, according to Benjamin Netanyahu, had wasted precious opportunities. Why hadn’t Jewish leaders pressed the British for immediate political sovereignty in Palestine at the end of World War I?
Through narrating the diplomatic career of Aaron Aaronsohn, Netanyahu claims that the possibilities were there. They should have been fought for by all means and with all urgency. And why, he asks, was Jabotinsky the lone voice in the wilderness during the 1930s warning of the severity and immediacy of the threat to European Jewry? Why hadn’t the mainstream Zionist leaders seen it?
The reason for this, according to Benjamin Netanyahu, is that mainstream Zionist leaders had still been hampered by a Diaspora-like unwillingness to look around corners. They frequently got bogged down in local quarrels, which distorted their perspective of the international scene. Jabotinsky had seen it. Herzl had seen it. But even much of the Zionist elite had failed to see the fragility of the European order and the fragility of the Jewish place within it. How many more millions of Jews could have been saved, asks Benjamin Netanyahu, had Herzl or Aaronsohn or Jabotinsky’s approach been carried through? Yes, the Jewish state came into being. But too late to absorb the millions who never made it out of Europe, each one a tragically missed opportunity? In the present day, how many challenges, threats, or opportunities are we neglecting when we take refuge in comforting facts or in the illusions of the present? These are the questions that haunted Benzion Netanyahu. These were the questions that Revisionist Zionism asked. And they are the questions that Benjamin Netanyahu asks, and believes that a leader of Israel must ask.
There is a straight line from these questions to Netanyahu’s understanding of the role of a leader of Israel in our time and, really, at any time. That leader must not wait passively for opportunities. He must not manage the status quo. He cannot assume that some acceptable fact or situation today will remain so in the future.
Herzl, according to Netanyahu, was and remains the paragon of statesmanship. Herzl understood that he had to insert himself into world politics and, in so doing, drag the Jews, kicking and screaming, along with him. By the sheer force of his genius, of his will, of his understanding of the world around him, Herzl accomplished his task even as his work was cut short by his premature death. The Viennese journalist and playwright somehow managed to get meetings with the sultan and with the pope, mobilized the most fervent minds amongst the Jews, and created political institutions out of whole cloth. Herzl made the Jews into players on the world stage rather than spectators. And as players, even small-time ones, you finally have some say over your future and also a means to get the information you need to plan for possible eventualities.
This model clearly is the one Netanyahu believes a leader of Israel must try to emulate. A leader of Israel must aspire to play at the very highest level of international politics. He must cultivate friendships, or at least good working relationships, with leaders of all the dominant powers. He must work tirelessly to strengthen his country so that his diplomatic preferences have credibility. The reader will judge for himself Netanyahu’s successes and failures in this domain. But, to take one example, Netanyahu’s ability in his premiership to bomb targets in Syria while staying on Vladimir Putin’s good side—all the while without alienating the United States—must rank as a Herzlian accomplishment. With the growing antagonism between China and the U.S., this remains a necessary skill for any Israeli leader.
“Play the game at the highest level” sounds like pretty obvious advice, which one learns not only from following the career of Theodor Herzl but from the basketball player LeBron James. But it is much easier said than done. After all, most politicians are not representatives of an entire nation but rather a certain part of a nation. And thus the natural tendency of the politician is to focus on that local, parochial part that gives his activity its force. It is for good reason that the best political scientists see most foreign-policy choices through the lens of domestic-policy disputes. But the true statesman must aspire to see further. Without neglecting the part that elevated him, he must see the interest of the whole country and the dynamics of the international scene and act accordingly. Sounding at times like Alexander Hamilton, Netanyahu implies that energy is the essence of the executive.
Netanyahu takes the requirement to insert oneself on the world stage a step further. One must, like Herzl, Aaronsohn, and others, even be willing to insert oneself into the domestic politics of another country. Just as Jabotinsky won valuable goodwill from British leaders by bringing a Zion Mule Corps into the British Army in World War I, a leader of Israel today has the responsibility—even at the risk of major enmity!—to speak to the U.S. Congress or American public opinion about, say, the dangers of Iran. Netanyahu’s frequent American political interventions should not be seen as mere grandstanding or vanity. They rather reflect a deeply held view of the responsibilities of statesmanship.
As I watched the now seventy-two-year-old Netanyahu articulate these thoughts to Gadi Taub, I kept saying to myself: this is a figure from another world. There are potentially promising future leaders of Israel, but none of them think or speak in these Revisionist Zionist terms, at least at this level of sophistication. Rather than a harbinger of the future, Netanyahu’s brand of politics may actually mark the end of a certain way of thinking about politics and Jewish life.
If the impulse to lead the Jewish state according to this way of thinking does indeed come to an end with Benjamin Netanyahu, something of significance will be lost. And perhaps in the space that opens up, there will be something to gain. For there are certain questions facing Israel today that Netanyahu’s Revisionist-Zionist framework does not and perhaps could not address. In particular, the pressing questions of religion and state need to be addressed by reference to categories that are simply different than those of Herzl or Jabotinsky or even Menachem Begin. As for Netanyahu’s critique of mainstream Zionists, I think they have some real force but they also have their limits. If mainstream Zionists, both those of today and those of the past, have underappreciated the need actively to shape circumstances in light of Jewish or Israeli interests, Revisionist Zionists have sometimes radically overestimated their capacity to shape world politics in light of Jewish or Israeli interests. Whatever the future may hold, Netanyahu’s perspective, gained from experience in things contemporary and readings of things more ancient, will be valuable to the students of Jewish statesmanship today and tomorrow.
Shomer Saf, episode 100, originally broadcast December 7, 2021
I’ll introduce you in case people don’t know you. This is Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister of Israel, now head of the opposition. We agreed before this conversation that, instead of getting bogged down in current affairs, we’d take a step back from the din of politics. I asked you to choose three political leaders whom you consider to be inspirational. Two didn’t surprise me, one did. You chose Winston Churchill, Theodor Herzl, and Aaron Aaronsohn. Who do you want to start with?
Who do you want to start with?
I’m with Churchill any hour of the day, but the stage is yours.
Look, to a certain degree, Herzl is more important. Churchill was not the creator of the Jewish revolution. He supported it but he didn’t create it. Herzl created it. Herzl is a phenomenon whose uniqueness, whose power, is hard to pin down. There’s a book by Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday. You know that book?
He describes his meeting with Herzl, when Herzl was the editor of . . .
The Neue Freie Presse.
He wasn’t the editor of the paper, he was, . . .
He edited the cultural section.
He edited the cultural section. And Zweig describes the meeting with Herzl. And the young author Zweig, who was nineteen or twenty years old, brings Herzl a big [article he had written]. And Herzl reads it and reads it. At the end, he lifts up his head, and tells him “Welcome, Mr. Zweig, to the Neue Freie Presse.” And Zweig felt as though he’d been accepted to the temple.
And Zweig describes Herzl. His power, his depth, and the way in which he conquered the masses. Zweig didn’t become a Zionist, by the way. He ultimately fled to Latin America, where he committed suicide. The “World of Yesterday” was no more.
Was no longer.
[That was one vision of Europe]: the wonderful, liberal, democratic place where culture would defeat evil? Zweig saw that everything went up in smoke. So he committed suicide. Zweig didn’t become a Zionist. But he describes what the response was from the Jewish masses when Herzl died. Herzl died, at a very young age, of course, at age forty-four.
At age forty-four.
And masses started coming to the funeral. Masses! They came from Bulgaria, they came from Eastern Europe, and few even came from the West. [They feared it had all be in vain.] And the people said: “That’s it. The messiah died. The redemption died.”
In the scholarship, we can say that there are two Herzls. The Paris interpretation and the Vienna interpretation. What made Herzl into a Zionist? Was it the Dreyfus trial? Or was it the election of [the self-professed anti-Semite] Karl Lueger [as mayor] of Vienna? Because in [Paris], it’s anti-Semitism in its simple form. But the Vienna interpretation effectively says that the more democratic society becomes, the more it becomes inclined toward nationalism. The more rights are given to the Czechs, the less willing they are to have their children learn in a German school. So nationalism emerges from democratization. And Herzl considers this to be both the problem and the solution to a degree. It’s threatening to him. But he also concludes from this that nationalism is also the solution for the Jews. Which side are you on: the Herzl of Vienna or the Herzl of Paris?
I think that both cities influenced him, both phenomena influenced him. In general, Herzl understood what the Jewish problem was. They had a problem. So long as they were locked up in ghettos in the Middle Ages—they were limited. And they could be beaten up. And here comes the new world, with the Enlightenment, everything’s opened up, everything’s OK. But Herzl after all wrote plays about Jews who effectively stayed within the ghetto even if they left the ghetto. He understood this.
And there was the question: how do you deal with the Jewish Question? The other nations are after all becoming liberated. The Springtime of Nations, 1848, and everything that happened in the 19th century—the well-known rise of European nationalism. And Jews said, “Well, there are two ways to solve the Jewish problem.” One, to cancel nationalism, which was the approach of the socialists and primarily the Communists, among whom Jews were very dominant.
And today some of the progressives and globalists.
It’s part of the response to the Jewish problem. I have no doubt that it influenced Marx, as well. The way to end the Jewish problem is to end not only Judaism, but also nationalism, dissolving them in general into some wonderful International. This is one solution. The second path was to assimilate into the nationalism of the other nations. You see for instance in the Risorgimento in Italy an enormous number of Jews. How many Jews were there in Italy even? But an enormous percentage of the Italian nationalists were Jews. You see the same thing in other countries. In other words, we will solve the Jewish Question not by ending nationalism, via the Communist International, but in joining the nationalism of others.
And Herzl understood—this won’t work and that won’t work. You can’t end nationalism. You can fortify or revive your own nationalism to create—and here he was unique—the practical tools that would provide for a reconstruction of national life on a territory. He wanted it in the Land of Israel. He understood the territorial need, the governmental need, the economic needs. All these elements—he really was unique. It’s hard to understand just how unusual this man was.
But I would like specifically to touch on Vienna since you touched on it. So a few years ago, I discovered something that amazed me. You know about Herzl’s meeting with Mark Twain? And I simply read about that story about The Woman in Gold [by Gustav Klimt]. Reading about that, I discovered that Herzl met Mark Twain! And they became friends. Twain came to Vienna at the end of the 19th century, when he was already an older man, and Herzl was a young playwright.
Twain’s wife was sick. They were touring Europe to find convalescent spots.
I always wondered about that essay by Mark Twain [“Concerning the Jews” (1899)]. A very powerful essay. He wrote about how the Jews, with one hand tied behind their back, managed to overcome and to outlast all the empires: the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines. And the Jew stood there and beat them all. And what an amazing contribution they made for humanity.
And I wondered, where did he get this from? Did he meet some Jewish merchants in Missouri? In Mississippi? It wasn’t clear to me. And later I figured out where it came from. It came from his encounter with the Jews of Vienna, Herzl’s Vienna. The Jews there reached a cultural flowering and financial and class success that was indescribable. Within a few decades, they conquered the Viennese cultural world.
And when Twain came, he met all these geniuses, one after the other. Freud. Others. They were all there! And he was stunned. He saw it, and then he wrote what he wrote about the Jews and their contribution to humanity. And he believed in this power, which in itself could establish the future of the Jews, and consequently also the future of humanity.
And then he met Herzl. And Herzl was of a different view entirely. Herzl was of another mind. He said that the prominence of the Jews was also their weakness. They were prominent and weak. They didn’t have a truly independent status. They didn’t have a way to fight anti-Semitism. And to the contrary, their prominence invited the attacks. When you stand out, when you’re successful and weak, you absorb the blows.
Here their paths diverged. While Twain was optimistic about the Jews, Herzl was very pessimistic. He thought of it as a giant house of cards: this wonderful, golden, shining thing built by the Jews of Vienna. He said it will collapse. And he was right. He saw it. And in this sense, he saw what others—I don’t know if they just didn’t see, but that they refused to see. He understood that it was all foam, that it had no meaning.
The book by Shlomo Avineri on Herzl [Theodor Herzl and the Founding of the Jewish State], is fascinating. Avineri effectively ascribes to Herzl another disappointment, which was disappointment with liberalism. Emperor Franz Joseph [of Austria] had been generous to the Jews, all things considered. And the thinking of the Jews of Vienna was that there would be liberalization, then their situation would improve, and they would be more accepted in society.
And this is why the election [of Lueger as mayor of Vienna] was so traumatic for Herzl. Since with rights came greater anti-Semitism.
I would like to add something here. Herzl’s understanding was in the first instance structural. He understood that the Jews could not solve their particular problem, their nationhood, by assimilating into another nationalism or by ending nationalism. [They had] to establish their own nationhood. This he understood.
But he also understood that a timer was running. He understood that Europe was going to undergo tremendous upheavals—that this anti-Semitic fire would spread and would extinguish them. He spoke of the catastrophe. In essence he wrote about the Holocaust dozens of times. He didn’t call it a Holocaust, but he pretty much called it a Holocaust. He understood this perfectly.
Hence the Uganda plan, [devised by Herzl, to try to establish a Jewish state in East Africa].
He was right! (Gadi Taub: to extract the Jews.) To extract! There was need to extract the Jews! He understood this. Look, many people opposed it. My grandfather also opposed it as a delegate to the [Zionist] Congress [where Herzl proposed the plan]. He opposed Herzl on this issue and only on this issue. My grandfather didn’t think that the Jews could be concentrated within the national project that Herzl had called for and effectively created somewhere else outside of the Land of Israel.
And there are difficult questions here. Logically speaking, Herzl was right. No “night-time waystation” was established [in East Africa]; there was no sanctuary city. And we know what happened to the Jews [as a result]. He was right about this. But on the other hand, was it possible to create Zionism, to bring the Jews to Uganda and from there to move towards Sinai and then to the Land of Israel?
But Herzl understood there was no time. He understood that these forces would extinguish the Jews. But he had difficulty explaining the urgency. He did not succeed in convincing the Jews of the urgency of action. He intended to do it himself. He said that the Ottoman empire would collapse. He saw it. He stood with a timer, a stopwatch.
He stood with a stopwatch waiting for the Ottoman empire to collapse with a plan to establish the sovereign state in the Land of Israel on its ruins. He was truly a genius with great prophetic power. And it came from rational analytical skills—perhaps even excessively rational in a sense.
And a very strange personality. Herzl, on his own accord, makes himself the representative of the Jewish people. And he goes to negotiate, makes promises to the sultan, promising to pay for the debts of the Ottoman empire at a time when he has to send a telegraph to Vienna saying that doesn’t have the money for a train ticket to get home. What are your impressions about his character, as someone who raised himself to the status of a leader?
I think he didn’t think about himself, he thought about his people. He really thought about his people, in the purest form possible. My father [Benzion Netanyahu] edited some of Herzl’s writings when he was twenty-six. He gathered Herzl’s writings, his political library, and [the philosopher and early Zionist leader Max] Nordau’s. By the way, Nordau greatly influenced Herzl. The question of “degeneration” as he called it, in the title of his famous book. Nordau saw the processes you’re talking about and how liberalism was moving to totalitarianism. Nordau understood this sharply.
And Herzl understood what Nordau understood. The partnership between them, these two geniuses, is what drove Zionism. I am doubtful if Herzl would have succeeded in starting what he did without Nordau. Two great forces, who were truly enlisted in this enterprise. You asked what drove Herzl? What drove him was, let’s call it “the vision.” When we say vision, we always mean a vision in the positive sense. The positive vision of the redemption of the nation, of sovereignty and all that.
But Herzl saw the nightmare vision. And he understood that to leave the nightmare vision, he needed the vision of restoration. But he didn’t have time. He understood that he didn’t have time. Unlike Twain, who saw the Jews rising upward without a problem, and unlike the other Jews in the West, who mostly thought: progress, enlightenment, liberalism are here. They will protect us. Herzl understood, Nordau understood. Effectively, they understood what [his Russian Zionist precursor Leon] Pinsker understood without reading Pinsker.
When he wrote The Jewish State, he hadn’t read Pinsker. And Pinsker, who is another great figure, who looked at the East, from Russia, and understood what was going to happen to the Jews—and really came up with the same solution. You can compare [Herzl and Pinsker] to Newton and Leibniz, each inventing calculus without knowing about the other. But they understood reality and life: if the Jews don’t establish their own sovereignty for themselves—their own state in their own territory—they will be lost.
Now to say such things at the end of the 19th century—when you have this great flourishing and the expansion throughout the human world, and the good in man is being expressed—to say such things was something very extreme. So there was an anti-Semitic trial in Paris? So some anti-Semite was elected in Vienna as mayor? Most people said: “There’s no need to exaggerate.”
And therefore, Herzl was seen as a madman. Just as Vladimir Jabotinsky later was, after things were already happening, in the twenties and thirties, when he was warning [about the impending catastrophe] And Jabotinsky was a major student of Herzl. And he warned of the catastrophe which was coming. And he was seen as a panic-monger, an alarmist, and so on.
The inability of the Jews to identify the danger is a chronic problem that works against us. A chronic problem to our detriment. You know, my father wrote a book on Don Isaac Abarbanel, [Don Isaac Abarbanel: Statesman and Philosopher], who was the great leader of Spanish Jewry and also the finance minister in Portugal. He was a great genius, without a doubt. He wrote in 1492, a few months before the expulsion from Spain: “The situation of Spanish Jewry has never been better.”
The ability to identify danger in time is a prerequisite for the survival of any living organism. And this organism can be a small fly, who suddenly sees a threatening shadow and flees, or a nation of human beings. The Jews lost the ability to spot danger in time.
Have they gotten it back?
Well, there’s a danger here, too. We need to fight against it. Iran is not a threat? They’re declaring that they’re going to destroy us. They’re building the weapons of mass destruction! Some say, “Nu, there’s no need to exaggerate the threat . . .”
We’ve seen this already! Did the Jews learn this? In part, they learned, but not enough. That’s clear. Herzl stood out in having identified the danger, provided the solution, and this solution was unfortunately not implemented by his successors in time, and therefore a third of our people were [destroyed].
I want to ask a final question on Herzl before we move on. Herzl, like Pinsker, reached a national conclusion almost algebraically. They understood the great forces and the vectors, and they understood what was what needed.
But how to fill the content of nationalism as not just a national framework, but also as a culture? [And what do we make of Herzl’s contributions in this area?] Herzl thought that we won’t speak Hebrew in the Jewish state. Zionism sought to reestablish the Jewish spirit. But now when I look at it, and this is what I deal with to a great degree, the elite of our country has simply become post-Zionist. Did the revolution started by Herzl succeed in planting the new Judaism deeply enough into the roots of Jewish history, so that nationalism remains a stable identity?
Well, the test is still before us. As they say in English, “the jury is still out.” What we’ve started here has no equivalent. Many nations disappeared; first of all, many nations were exiled and vanished. Or they came to a new land, conquered another land, assimilated in other nations. We did neither this nor that. In other words, we assimilated and disappeared, many of us. But we neither conquered a new country nor disappeared [entirely]. A component remained that wanted to return here, [to the Land of Israel], and to form a national life—this is something that never was. And we succeeded thanks to this deep ambition, maintained over the generations, with “Next Year in Jerusalem.”
But we needed someone like him and the group of people he depended on to rekindle that flame, to make it into a concrete plan, and to get it moving. But as I said: it didn’t succeed, because there was first of all the problem of removing the Ottoman government from here. [Plans to establish the state elsewhere didn’t work.] There were many proposals. It was clear that the place, as my grandfather thought—and I think he was right in this—the only place is here. But this place was occupied. Someone conquered it, someone ruled it, and these were the Turks, and the question was how to remove the Turks. You can’t advance Zionism unless you remove the Turks. They were here 400 years. They could have stayed another 400 years. Or at least to stay here long enough for the historical window of time to close and we would not have been able to establish a Jewish state.
This connects to Aaron Aaronsohn, and the activity of Aaronsohn in the NILI [Jewish underground espionage network] against the Turks. He was playing with fire, no? We saw what the Turks did to the Armenians. Say they saw the Jews as a threat to their empire: I assume our fate would not have been very different from that of the Armenians.
That’s correct, and there was fear. My mother was born in Petaḥ Tikvah in 1910. And the Turks came and cut down the trees of the orchard, and one of the first words she learned was not “food” but ekmek, which is bread in Turkish. And there was a big fear. The Turks exiled the Jews of Jaffa to Petaḥ Tikvah. And there was a fear that since there was an inherent sympathy of the Jews towards Britain. With the outbreak of World War I, Britain was on one side and Turkey was on the other. And they were worried about it.
So the question was what to do? How to deal with it? There were two approaches: I don’t think people know this, but one approach was that of David Ben-Gurion. Ben Gurion, at the beginning of the war, said that they needed to side with Turkey. He also proposed establishing a Jewish fighting battalion that would fight in the Turkish army against the Allies. Did you know this? He changed his opinion openly and officially only after the Balfour Declaration, which was three years later. The Turks had expelled him to Egypt a year after the war began. He still remained very cautious.
In any event, there was an opposite approach from the outset. And by the way, I can understand Ben-Gurion’s approach—I don’t agree with it, but I can understand it—there was a fear of Armenian-style pogroms against the Jews. They feared this. And that wasn’t without basis. There was a big problem, and it greatly influenced the atmosphere in which NILI operated vis-à-vis the Yishuv, since the Yishuv was very fearful of identifying with Britain.
Now, the opposite approach regarding whom to support was that of Vladimir Jabotinsky. He said from the outset that they needed to support Britain. Along with Joseph Trumpeldor, he pushed to establish a fighting battalion, a Jewish fighting force in a British framework. And that’s what he created, that was the Mule Corps—the Mule-Driver Corps—and then the Jewish battalions, which took part in conquering the country here, in liberating the country, if you will. And this was also joined later by others, such as [Yitzḥak] Ben-Zvi.
When Jabotinsky spoke of an “Iron Wall,” he still thought of a Jewish-British force as the Iron Wall.
Jabotinsky wanted [the Jewish fighting forces of World War I] to be the basis of the Jewish army. He was right, by the way. He thought that if the Jews establish this kind of army unit, they can break off afterwards. That’s exactly what happened. He understood this perfectly—this is generally known. [But I’d like to emphasize here the first challenge]: the need first, and foremost, to conquer the land.
To participate in the conquest of the land with the British army, that’s an important thing. That’s what effectively happened at Gallipoli [and beyond]. The Jewish troops participated and entered into the British army. But the problem was conquering the land. It wasn’t easy. The British were in Cairo, Egypt. Allenby and his HQ. And the Turks were here and they were very strong. They also had a joint command with the Germans, the supreme commander was even German. I think he was Jewish, by the way! Just so you understand what kind of world it was, then, in 1914.
In any event, the problem was how to break through? And this is where Aaron Aaronsohn’s wonderful role comes in, a role which is both military and also political. The military aspect is known, the political is not. Aaronsohn understood that it would not be possible to convince the Turks [to depart Palestine]. He understood what Herzl did not understand. Herzl tried to convince the sultan; he went to him. He tried. It’s OK, it’s good that he tried. He also went to London often with Israel Zangwill, [he understood the task].
But Aaronsohn understood that there’s no chance to get anything from the Turks. This he understood immediately.
He was very sharp. When I read his diaries, his sharpness, his intellectual power is very impressive, and his organizational power was also impressive. This is a man who in his thirties became famous all over the world because he was a great scientist. He discovered the “mother of wheat,” and so on. He was invited to California. Half of California’s agriculture comes from him. He was the first start-up guy. He provided incredible agricultural knowledge.
So Aaronsohn was very famous. But he said there is no way to get anything out of the Turks here and bring about Herzl’s vision in the face of the coming Holocaust. So what do we need to do, he asked. We need to join up with Britain, with all the risk that existed—in the first place, enormous risk to himself, his family, and his friends. We saw that he fully understood what he was doing.
He said we have no choice. And then he did something amazing. He effectively established the first Jewish intelligence network since the [biblical] spies. He established it with wisdom that had no equal. There was a locust plague. Using his fame, he went to the Turkish governor [of Palestine] and said to him: “You need help to deal with the locusts? I would love to help. I am an agronomist. But I need access, I need access to all the locations. Military bases are also locations, locusts don’t care, they don’t care about fences.”
So he got access during wartime. He got the password for communications between the Turks and the Germans and gave it to the British. People don’t know this. They gave them a lot of intelligence, as you know.
It was effective intelligence.
No, it wasn’t just effective intelligence, it was decisive intelligence. Why was it decisive? Because British General Allenby had already tried to break through to the Land of Israel. They tried twice to break through via Gaza. And in Gaza, they suffered very serious defeats with very high casualties. They didn’t succeed.
And Aaronsohn constantly tried to convince them to transfer their effort to Be’er Sheva. He gave them information. In Cairo, he met Allenby’s intelligence officer who was named [Richard] Meinertzhagen, a British aristocrat of German origin. They later thought he was Jewish because he became a Zionist, but he wasn’t. He was a very smart man. And he was anti-Semitic, like many of that milieu. But when he met Aaronsohn, he was stunned. He’d never seen such a thing. He said this is a man without fear and a great intellect.
Aaronsohn told Meinertzhagen: “Look, I’ll help you. I’m giving you this intelligence, giving you also the critical advice. Don’t go in through Gaza a third time. You’ll suffer yet another defeat. How many defeats can you take? Go through Be’er Sheva.”
And what was this knowledge based on? Aaronsohn himself was not a military man though he served in the First World War.
Aaronsohn read 30,000 books. He has an enormous library. He was a renaissance man. He was a great genius, an autodidact. He was a man whose capabilities are hard to exaggerate. And when you read his diaries, as I read them. I was impressed that he was a practical man, a man of action; he was not just an intellectual. He asked, what needs to be done to get the main thing done? What’s important, what’s less important? And what was important was to get rid of the Turks. To get rid of the Turks, you need the British. To bring in the British, you need to convince them, and give them the tools to break through the best path into the Land of Israel.
Meinertzhagen was convinced. And then British intelligence came up with an interesting famous idea. Perhaps you know it. And what they did was that they took what we call a tadal, a military document case. And they planted all sorts of fake battle plans, imaginary battle orders. They also apparently found a girl who was in Cairo who had a lover, and they asked her to write letters as though she was in England to a “lover.” And they planted all these hints in the letters which corroborate things in the documents that they’re indeed going to try to break through via Gaza a third time.
And this document case was taken by a British soldier to the Turkish lines. He entered into the no man’s land and the Turks shot at him. So he fled, and he dropped it. Now this document case reached the Turks and their German commander. The German commander at first claimed that it influenced him. Later he claimed it didn’t influence him. But it’s a fact that he didn’t do the main thing. He didn’t move forces to protect Be’er Sheva.
So what happened? The British came via Be’er Sheva. Indians, Australians, and New Zealanders [under British command]. The Australians and the New Zealanders conquered Be’er Sheva in a cavalry charge. I think it’s the last effective cavalry charge in history.
This whole change in direction was the result of the actions of Aaronsohn and his colleagues, just thirty people in all. Thirty people—his family, his wife Sarah. We know the story of her bravery and her suicide. We need to understand the context of what Aaronsohn did. Essentially, he shifted the whole British empire to the breakthrough without which Zionism could not have been realized.
But the Ottoman empire was about to collapse even without this decisive cavalry charge.
Well yes but it’s not totally clear if that happens. And the British themselves after the war, they said that Aaronsohn was their most important agent in the Middle Eastern theater. They even wrote an official letter where they said that without NILI they would not have won. Without the NILI underground. That’s not me saying it, it’s them saying it. They spoke about this.
We can debate this, but we can’t debate one thing: that Aaronsohn’s actions produced political results that were enormous and that no one recognizes.
What, for instance?
He influenced this Meinertzhagen who became Zionist. The other officer whom Aaronsohn met in Cairo at the British HQ was Mark Sykes. In 1916, he was a young, very brilliant, eccentric British officer. He came and they did this partition of the mandatory borders, the colonial borders. But what people don’t know is that there, when he met Aaronsohn, just as Meinertzhagen was taken by Zionism, Sykes was also taken by Zionism, and he became a Zionist.
And then, a year later, when the British Prime Minister Balfour along with Prime Minister Lloyd George decided on the Balfour Declaration, there was a group of bureaucrats who were tasked with formulating the Balfour Declaration. And one of these was Mark Sykes. And they formulated this document, which has enormous historical significance because it opened the gates for Zionism, certainly in terms of morale—psychologically, politically.
People know this: Mark Sykes ran to the other room [during the British cabinet approval of the Balfour Declaration], and in the other room sat Chaim Weizmann who of course had a very big part in this. But there was someone else there and Sykes yelled “It’s a boy!” A boy had been born. But there was someone else in the room: Aaronsohn.
So understand that this man had such enormous influence on breaking through the gates of the Land of Israel, moving the British into this. And they felt a commitment. And he created a commitment which led to the Balfour Declaration.
But the direct influence on the Balfour Declaration is nevertheless Chaim Weizmann. Has Aaronsohn been done a historical injustice?
Yes. By the way, Weizmann himself wrote about Aaronsohn, with great superlatives. And it may be that if Aaronsohn hadn’t died tragically in 1919—his plane crashed in the English Channel—the story would have been different. But he was then a great hero. He had political skills which he integrated with his practical, operational view of a scope which I haven’t seen. He had his problems. He was very domineering. And the Yishuv did not like him: he was bourgeois, you know?
NILI needed to operate under that kind of character. There was strategic uncertainty. [He ensured that] you have to go with the British, and that’s that. Go with them in such a way that you prevent the massacre if you can, but let there be no doubt, in secret operations, of course you need to help the British, just as he did, and at great risk.
But the conventional historiography says that Aaronsohn was around when London gave the Balfour Declaration, but not that he was among the people who engineered it? Is the historiography in your opinion doing an injustice in glorifying Weizmann?
Look, I don’t think, specifically in the matter of Weizmann, that there was exaggeration. He was a diplomat with very great abilities. He had very great virtues, and he acted in this matter and he has pride of place. And I’m not saying this in terms of political correctness. I’m trying to be correct, not politically correct. So he definitely has his merits.
But there is no doubt that there was another engine there. A very large engine which is almost entirely unknown.
The sequence of events you’re describing, I don’t see some of it. It’s very hard for me to assess it, but this sequence of events involves the intelligence and the army and the circles in which Aaronsohn ran already in Cairo of the British intelligence. But how did this have a direct influence on British diplomacy, on the cabinet of Lloyd George?
It absolutely did. It influenced not just the army, it also influenced others, it radiated. Ormsby-Gore, for instance, who was one of the influential officers there. He spoke about Aaronsohn, on how they had never met such a Jew. They said, “We’ve never met someone like this.” It differed from everything they knew. Meinertzhagen also writes “I read anti-Semitic books. I was a typical anti-Semite.” And when he met the rich Jews of England, it didn’t make an impression on him. And it all changed for him at a stroke when he met Aaronsohn, this enormous force of nature—also on others in the British establishment. So there is no doubt that he has an important contribution.
I don’t mean to cancel out Weizmann, I just want to say that Aaronsohn had something incredible. But then came the disaster. And that’s what I want to tell you about now.
Aaronsohn was at the Versailles conference [in 1919]. I don’t know if you know this (Gadi Taub: Yes.) He was very aggressive. He wanted to advance [a Jewish state within Jewish borders], to push it forward. And here, you see the difference that did exist between him and Weizmann. He was a very aggressive man and Weizmann was very soft.
And afterwards Meinertzhagen and also others told Weizmann that he hadn’t been aggressive enough. You had the opportunity, they said. The Jews fought and helped the British in conquering the country in World War I. True, there were Jews who also fought on the German side, but the Jews clearly were for the British. They helped with the critical intelligence for the British, supported the British.
And now we want to get ours. Now! In time! Why in time? Because anti-Semitism is coming. Because the Holocaust will come. Aaronsohn understood this, Jabotinsky understood this. Herzl had understood this, but he died. And he had said: “I am standing with a stopwatch for the fall of the Ottoman empire.” It fell! And that was a time to collect.
And then Weizmann was confronted by Israel Zangwill, who had been won over by Herzl. Zangwill wrote The Melting Pot. He was an incredible writer. He came to Weizmann after Versailles and said: “Why didn’t you demand a Jewish state? After all, they’re dividing the region! Why didn’t you demand a Jewish state?” And Weizmann responded: “I thought I wouldn’t get it.” And Zangwill replied: “And you got one this way?”
Aaronsohn was the complete opposite of that. He was daring without being hasty and foolish. He was smart and daring. He could have led such a move.
And if Aaronsohn was in Weizmann’s position, you think it would have been possible to establish the Jewish state through the partitions of the Versailles treaty?
I think that this was Herzl’s dream. He of course didn’t know exactly how the Ottoman empire would fall. But it was clear that this empire was falling, so you need to get that slice. That’s clear.
And this was an enormous missed opportunity, because it effectively sealed the fate of the Jews of Europe. It’s clear as day. Because you don’t have your own territory, you can’t be absorbed. Some tried to come on the ship the St. Louis. There was a ship here and a ship there. And a couple of Jews made it to Cuba. And then all these terrible things. And the Jewish people was imprisoned in Europe because it didn’t have a state.
This breakthrough, this political vision, this ability to see ahead, as Herzl saw in his mind, like Jabotinsky saw, and as Aaronsohn saw, this unraveled. But Aaronsohn could have added his unique powers of persuasion. He had very great persuasive power in this sense.
OK, one can say that the cemeteries are full of indispensable people. But there are people who are irreplaceable. And the more I study this, the more I see that Aaronsohn was irreplaceable, because no one understood what he understood. No one understood it. And no one acted.
Weizmann didn’t act. And Weizmann has his merits! But he didn’t act on this. And there are people who have enormous merits. Ben-Gurion after the Holocaust with his declaration of the state has enormous merits. I think it’s a thing for generations, his decision [to declare statehood]—which was also barely adopted, by the way.
He has merits, I have boundless respect for him. In 1948 he rose above. But with the Turks, he erred. And he also erred afterwards on other things. He understood partially. It’s a fact that he didn’t understand [America], because he thought that we’ll stay in Sinai after 1956, [following the Suez Crisis].
He abandoned a British orientation for an American orientation:
That’s clear, but he didn’t know how to influence [America]. The problem was how you have an influence. The problem is how you’re the catalyst. He couldn’t move the U.S.
Maybe speak to Congress!
Certainly, that’s part of it! Ben-Gurion couldn’t influence the Americans. He understood the importance of the Americans, but America was like a black box for him. He doesn’t know what to do. “Eisenhower tells me leave Sinai. So I’ll leave Sinai.” He intended to stay there, but he was thrown out on his ear.
He could have stayed at the end of Operation Kadesh [1956 Sinai campaign]?
This goes to the book that I am writing, so we’ll leave that for now. What I want to say is that when I talk about Aaronsohn, I talk about him not only with enormous respect but also with a sense of a terrible lost opportunity. Because we have not had a leader emerge here, on the soil of the Land of Israel, who combines both political vision and the capacity for practical action. Ben-Gurion had a great capacity for action and an important ability to make decisions at a given moment, but he didn’t play on the global stage. He didn’t know how to move the forces. What Aaronsohn knew how to do was to drive the forces forward, to push Britain, and there is no doubt that he would have succeeded in moving others.
He was also in America. He got people on board with Zionism. They talked about him. He met Henrietta Szold. He met Brandeis. And everyone was stunned by his persona. With this man, we lost a leader who might have changed the picture between the wars. [As it happened] Britain effectively tossed out the Balfour Declaration, put the  White Paper on us, closed the gates of the country, and condemned millions of Jews to death. This was not out of a desire to eliminate us, but out of surrender to Arabs and the Arabist officers.
A side question because you mentioned the monumental questions. Can I ask you about the psychology of the fateful decisions? Ben-Gurion grew as he faced big decisions. What does a person feel in that chair, which you also sat in, for a long time, longer than Ben-Gurion, when you need to make such decisions? Yitzḥak Rabin spoke of the isolation [there]. I’m asking you now not about the contents of the many decisions you made, but rather but the personal-psychological aspect of it. What does a person feel?
Read my upcoming book! This is a very good question, but I’m presently avoiding answering it.
So, we’ll end with Churchill, whom I wanted to connect to the cavalry battle [in Be’er Sheva]. Churchill was not accepted into the Royal Military Academy. He was forced to suffice with the cavalry, and he even participated in a number of cavalry battles. One horse was shot from under him. He was a very brave man, personally.
But first of all, it’s almost a trivial question: did you choose him so that might say something about Munich?
No I was thinking more in the direction of Zionism, which we’re more focused on in this conversation, in terms of the breakthroughs of Zionism but also because Churchill represented the remnants of the philo-Zionist thought which formed in Britain. We need to remember that the power wasn’t America, it was Britain. It was a global power, and it inclined towards Zionism at first in the 19th century out of both Christian and what I would call cultural elements.
It prepared the ground. After all, non-Jewish Zionism preceded Jewish Zionism. This you know. We need to understand that actions started here in the 19th century by different people. We know Twain and others.
Napoleon as well?
Napoleon, Verlaine and others too. I think Verlaine was the one who was [in the land of Israel]. I’m not sure. One of their great poets. But philo-Semitism mostly came from the British and Americans, who on the basis of religion or history or culture or a combination of all these things together thought that the return of the Jews to their land is part of a historic or divine plan, which needed to be helped to realize it. And this was expressed in the Palestine Exploration Fund. By the way, I was in their offices in London. A small house that Queen Victoria founded so that they come and start to map the Land of Israel. They mapped it. Very nice maps, not bad topography.
And they started to study, and to research, and to do archaeology—this brought it back to life. This started to create the sympathy for the idea of the Return to Zion, first of Ḥovevei Tsiyon [the proto-Zionist “Lovers of Zion” movement founded in the 1880s], and then the Zionists themselves came in subsequent waves of migration.
And what’s interesting is that Churchill was a clear example of this orientation. He was not alone, most of them were like that in the 19th century. And then it starts to melt away in the 20th century with the Arabist influence and also growing anti-Semitism within these circles. He was never taken in by that. He remained Zionist.
Also philo-Semitic, not just Zionist?
Philo-Semitic in the sense that he saw the Jews as a cultural foundation. In other words, I don’t think he loved Jews as Jews. But he saw Judaism as a fundamental bedrock of Western civilization and he saw Western civilization as a fundamental bedrock for the future of humanity.
There are people today who will interpret [Churchill’s love of Western civilization] in a racial or in a racist way. This political correctness and critical race theory is delusional. Soon they’ll come for Moses, who gave the world the idea of the abolition of slavery. And they’ll say “He also had slaves! He also needs to be taken down!” There’s no end to this thing. The attempt to plant the concepts of today within the past of thousands of years ago borders on lunacy. But people I think understand this. They say it’s “over the top.” They understand that there’s a kind of insane totalitarianism here.
I just wanted to quote Orwell on this who said “Those who control the present, control the past. Those who control the past, control the future.” This effort to erase historical memory, to introduce a moral lesson in the present to change history.
So why didn’t they know the world is round? Let’s start going back and examining it. It’s absurd.
But what I want to say about Churchill is that I always respected him for his enormous contribution to saving the West and the free world against the Nazis, even though as I told you before we started . . .
That he didn’t save the world! This shocked me greatly.
No. He saved the world in the sense that a bridgehead remained in Britain. Everyone knows the story and he’s worthy of all admiration. But in practice if Britain had fallen, from what we know now, in retrospect, the Nazis would have been defeated because the Americans— thanks primarily to German-Jewish atomic scientists—like [Leo] Szilard, and [Edward] Teller, and others—had the bomb.
The Jews had a full part in its creation, including [Robert] Oppenheimer, the American Jew. In this sense, what would have happened had Churchill not been there?
The Jews would have ultimately defeated the Nazis?
In the end, on this matter, the science of Jews would have beaten the science of Germans. The German scientist chosen by Hitler was very talented but wasn’t talented enough. We know, for certain. You saw the play Copenhagen? Copenhagen describes the meeting between a German scientist [Werner Heisenberg] and the Danish Nils Bohr during the war.
What was interesting was that, I left the play in London and they were handing out the text of the play. So I said, “Hang on, let’s buy this.” The text of the play was less interesting, because I saw the play. But in the appendix, the question was posed: “Could the Nazis have developed the atom bomb alone?”
And there was a lot of useful information there. The German scientists were captured by the Allies at the end of the war, even before the collapse of Japan. And they were brought to a an estate, much like Bletchley Park. And they bugged them. And the day it was reported that Hiroshima had been bombed by the Americans, the German scientists were taped. And then you hear them talking to each other. And it was obvious that they didn’t understand the technology involved, they were on another path. They weren’t even on the same path. In other words, yes, the science of the Jews defeated the science of the Germans, 100 percent.
And that’s what would have given the Americans [the edge]. Of course they would have had to come with bombers. Greenland. It’s not important right now how they would have done it. It’s very obvious that Churchill has enormous merits. But we tend to think [the West] wouldn’t have been saved. I think it would have been saved, but with far greater costs.
In the speech “Their Finest Hour,” he said we are what separates between freedom and a thousand years of dark ages illuminated by the perverse lights of a new science. So the new science. Churchill was very interested in science. He had an idea of what horrors could be.
It’s clear that he understood this, and this is true. But still I say he has tremendous virtues and this is an object of admiration, even if you raise the question I raise regarding the nuclear capability of the Allies. By the way, you see that within five years of the end of the war the Soviets managed to steal the nuclear technology and develop it. So it’s not impossible if the Germans had managed to steal it and do it. But they didn’t have such good intelligence.
He was a man who saw the danger coming, who identified the danger in time and acted in an energetic way—not just to be some intellectual or historian but rather a man of action. And he was a combination of all these things. Another autodidact, by the way. He learned, he learned and read and swallowed. He knew how to connect pen to paper. He knew how to write a few words.
But beyond that admiration, I always had a small part that was critical towards him. Because he saw Zionism—he came here as colonial minister in 1924, he was in Rishon Lezion in 1921. He saw the progress, he understood. He was very sympathetic and empathetic. But he didn’t succeed in rolling back the White Paper policy. And later he was also tossed aside. But in the war, he didn’t do anything to bomb the death camps. And then I discovered recently that he wanted to bomb the tracks.
And Roosevelt refused.
What does refuse mean? He said “over my dead body.” He said “not one American pilot will fall.” Not one.
Churchill wanted to bomb the camps. He wanted to establish a Jewish state. The entire British establishment was against him. I can understand something like this, by the way, when the defense establishment works against you. And the United States worked against him. Or, more correctly, the president of the United States opposed this action. They said they didn’t want to anger the Arabs. That was their approach.
And he was a driver and was a supporter of Zionism, almost to the end of his days. There was his disappointment after the death of Lord Moyne. But he stayed a Zionist. But he didn’t have the power. In the end, he wouldn’t have given, and no one gave us, what we needed to get between the two world wars. This is what Jabotinsky saw, what Aaronsohn saw, what Herzl predicted. There was no one within the Jewish people and there was no one outside the Jewish people who would crash open the gates and allow European Jewry to escape the danger. And that is our catastrophe.
In other words, Herzl died early. Aaronsohn died early. Jabotinsky didn’t manage to convince here or there. And Churchill wasn’t in the government. And when he was, he also didn’t have the power. And therefore this disaster that Herzl had predicted happened.
But what did happen? This is the reason we’re sitting here now. We can look outside and see this amazing city of Tel Aviv and the Judean Hills above it and our state. What did happen was that enough sparks from Herzl’s vision managed to create a bridgehead here, which absorbed thie remnants later. And therefore we’re here.
But Herzl’s idea was not that there would be 600,000 Jews here. He didn’t think about 600,000 Jews in 1948. He thought of millions of Jews 3, 4, 5 million—the numbers went up. He considered this to be a solid foundation, and in this sense his vision was not realized.
By the way, [people point to his errors] such as his saying that people will speak German, but his description of the Jewish state in Altneuland is pretty accurate. It’s pretty close to what we see here today with the trains, the technology, the water, the industry, and so on. On this, he was entirely accurate.
But where he was unfortunately most accurate was that if you do not create the state in time, a Holocaust will come to European Jewry. He was right about this, and we failed in this. And that’s what happened.
Now, you want current affairs?
We can, to finish off.
There’s a new threat to us. And this threat is Iran. And Iran is preparing the tools to destroy Zionism. These tools of destruction are a nuclear arsenal. I worked with everything I had for decades to prevent, to delay, to restrain their moves towards this arsenal, because it threatens our very existence.
And this is the mission. I say, “to identify the danger in time,” because dangers don’t disappear. You constantly need to identify them and drive them away. You have two choices. When a living organism faces a mortal danger it can do two things: it can run or it can fight. We don’t want to and cannot run. We need to fight.
Can I ask for your take on this, in these general terms, on the possibility of Israel stopping it on its own initiative?
It can. Yes. Even if you delay, you know you’re always delaying, if there weren’t the actions we took, Iran would have long since gone nuclear. Political actions, actions at the level of operations, Iran could have continued.
You can’t accept or to agree to the international agreement which is coming, where Iran can effectively create advanced centrifuges for enrichment of uranium, which effectively gives it the critical thing for creating a nuclear arsenal, for nuclear bombs which are aimed at this house, this city, of this small country. You can’t.
That’s why I [have tried to address this threat] with that same urgency we talked about, the same determination, the “seeing the future” that characterized the Zionist leaders who saw the danger. They didn’t just say “Here in the land of our father’s desires, all the hopes will be realized.” But they did say that without the land of our father’s desires, there are no hopes, there is no existence at all.
So we’re in such a moment?
We are in a moment where I believe we have broken through to the region. I brought four peace treaties which are starting to dismantle the Israeli-Arab conflict, and you can see already that it will have an end if they leave this narrow prism of the Palestinians and the Palestinian veto. The view was: “First we’ll make peace with the Palestinians, and then we’ll get the Arab world.”
But how will you make peace with the Palestinians who want to destroy you? So this veto will be perpetual and you’ll never do it. For a quarter of a century, we couldn’t make any agreement because the Palestinians imposed a veto. So I bypassed them.
So you have a great breakthrough into the region. Israel is becoming stronger and more powerful. And this is important because in the end, in the end you need the power. You need the power.
This is the piercing debate. My mother, may her memory be blessed, wrote a wonderful poem when she was a sixteen-year-old-girl—here at the gymnasium High School of Herzliya, almost right outside this door—upon the death of Ahad Ha’am. And Ahad Ha’am had a debate with Herzl. There were two different approaches. He said, “OK a state. But you don’t need a state, we can wait 200 years. The Jewish people needs to become established in spirit.”
It’s an approach that I very much respect and understand it in itself. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks also writes about it, and he writes well. But you can’t wait. If we had waited. . . . Well, we saw what happened to us while we waited as much as we had waited.
But acting as though he had time? As though the forces of anti-Semitism and extermination will wait for you, and let you to develop your spirit? If you don’t have the physical power to protect your nation, you won’t survive. Many nations have indeed not survived, in history, and we almost didn’t survive.
So that’s why I say that this threat is the next threat. It’s the current threat. It could be that there will be other threats. For its part, Israel is an amazing success. Israel is ranked since 2015 as the eighth most powerful country on earth. At the University of Pennsylvania, there’s an annual index of 20,000 opinion makers in 80 states and this is what comes out. We have achieved great things here.
First of all, opening up the economy, which is something that greatly occupied me, because without that you have no ability to develop military force. That costs money. Everything costs money. Planes, drones, submarines. It all costs money. A ton. And where will you have money from? From a North Korean economy?
You need the combination of the free economy and the intelligence and military power—that gives you very great political power, and that’s happening. But at the same time, at the same time, a force is being built up whose purpose is to destroy Zionism.
I don’t always do one-to-one analogies, but just as the fathers of Zionism first and foremost identified the danger, we need to understand that Zionism emerged first and foremost based on the understanding that the situation of the Jews of the world will reach a nadir without Zionism. They also understood, they envisioned what could be here, this enormous flourishing, first of all Herzl, before anyone else.
But he was first and foremost driven and moved because of Karl Lueger in Vienna. Because of the Dreyfus trial in in Paris. He understood that there a great danger here. You know, the positive side of Zionism is a privilege. That’s the bonus. The existential side dictates, which is why he was prepared to do something so unusual like Uganda.
We have enormous achievements here, and we also have a bright future. But we also have an enormous threat. And this threat, unfortunately, is not being adequately dealt with. And everyone is saying, “Look, wait a minute, but they only have such and such kilograms [of uranium]!” If we hadn’t done anything to them, they would have had a nuclear arsenal a while ago. And who will do it, if not us? And who will lead this fight, if not us? Who will speak among the nations, at Congress, at the UN, if not us? And who will act against them? The nuclear archive we pulled out from the heart of Tehran? All sorts of other things that I won’t get into here. Who if not us? If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if not now, when? Just so, in those terms.
And also in the new conditions with the Biden administration that’s trying to go back into the nuclear deal with Iran?
Joe Biden asked me. He told me, “Listen, I would like to ask that disagreements between us remain behind closed doors and you shouldn’t surprise us.” I said “Joe,”—he’s been a friend for 40 years—I answered politely, “No.”
This almost makes my last question unnecessary, from what runs throughout everything you’ve said in this conversation, I feel like I can answer myself, but I won’t do that.
Do circumstances create the man or does man create the circumstances, in history?
You can find cases where these are two things that flow into one another, but it’s very hard to know. . . . The only way you can answer this is what happens when you have a particular person who creates change and suddenly he disappears.
Aaronsohn, Herzl, Churchill—though he didn’t disappear for long.
There is no doubt that Churchill changed the mindset and the direction of the war. It’s clear as day that he changed it. Herzl started to change the world. His death did leave a movement which operated in his spirit, but not with his power.
And when people depart, you can judge what their part was. In other words, the period creates the people, but the people—well, it depends greatly on their personal fate, what will happen, if they can continue to act, if they can’t continue to act.
I’ll say a word on this general subject to conclude: I think that a large portion of my generation, the way we were taught Zionism imposed a kind of malaise on us. It turned it into a kind of burdensome obligation. What happened here is something amazing, truly amazing. You look at global history. Zionism is something no nation has tried to do, let alone succeeded in doing. And after the state was founded, the population was tripled in seven years, and Zionism succeeded in a democratic form, and a whole generation grew up here as though that’s all a given.
This is both a success and a failure, because the fact that they turned this miracle into something obvious, it also allowed it to become something routine which we maintain.
This needs to be acquired and renewed all the time. We are still a small nation, a small state. With enormous powers, but you need all the time be focusing on the fact that you are a miracle. You have to. And it’s not obvious. You know that the slogan of NILI was Netzaḥ Yisrael lo yishaker [1Samuel 15:29, “the Eternal One of Israel will not lie”]. Well that depends on us.