In the early 1960s, Jalal Al-e Ahmad was one of Iran’s leading literary celebrities, a writer whose works deeply impressed the dissident clerics who would go on to found and lead the Islamic Republic. Born to a devout family in Tehran in 1923, a boy in the bazaar, Al-e Ahmad had drifted away from the faith and eventually earned a degree in Persian literature. He flirted with the communist Tudeh Party of Iran in the 1940s but broke with it for being too pro-Soviet; then, he helped found (and later left) a workers’ party that supported Mohammad Mosaddeq, who was elected prime minister of Iran in 1951. After the 1953 coup that toppled Mosaddeq, Al-e Ahmad succumbed to pressure from the shah’s regime and renounced politics entirely, publishing a letter “repenting” for his prior participation. He returned to his roots and seemed to find his vocation, becoming famous throughout Iran as a novelist, essayist, and underground polemicist, especially for his 1962 book Gharbzadegi, or “West-struck-ness” (published in English as Occidentosis or sometimes Westoxification).

Gharbzadegi presented the West’s technology and individualism -- which he saw as little distinguished from its consumer capitalism -- as a kind of disease. This sickness, Al-e Ahmad argued, was being spread in Iran by the shah and his old colonial sponsors as they industrialized the country. The disease was all the more insidious for the way it fed on common ambitions -- for enrichment, knowledge, and equality -- in order to undermine traditional Islamic ways of life based on humility and family cohesion. For Al-e Ahmad, authenticity lay in the village, in rug weaving, in the mosque. “We have been unable to preserve our own historiocultural character in the face of the machine and its fateful onslaught,” he wrote.

Among his admirers were Iran’s revolutionary clerics, such as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his disciple Ali Khamenei (Iran’s current supreme leader). Al-e Ahmad was skeptical of the clerics’ hierarchy and rigidity, but he thought their preeminence in Iranian society was natural and was pleased that they took Gharbzadegi seriously. He shared with them a view of Shiite Islam as carrying the moral prestige of perpetual insurgency: virtue in the face of corrupt materialism, steadfastness against imperial power. Iran could and should import machines, they agreed -- piety should not block technology. But as for the freedom of inquiry that produced the technology, that was a different question: if it inevitably brought agnosticism, sexual nonconformity, and greed, then Iran would be better off refusing that part of the bargain.

As Al-e Ahmad’s literary reputation grew, so did his eminence and the censors’ attention. He made extensive visits to the Soviet Union, Western Europe, and elsewhere, which he chronicled in detail, and even spent the summer of 1965 at Harvard, meeting Henry Kissinger, among other luminaries. He died at age 45 in 1969, most likely from a heart attack, in his family village in the Iranian province of Gilan. (His brother, Shams Al-e Ahmad, speculated that he had really been assassinated by the SAVAK, the shah’s secret police.)


One of Al-e Ahmad’s foreign trips, chronicled in an article and later a book, was to the then-young country of Israel in 1963. Samuel Thrope, a Persian scholar now at the Hebrew University, has published a new translation of Al-e Ahmad’s account of this long-forgotten journey, an excerpt of which follows, below. It makes for fascinating reading, not least because it is strikingly positive. The travelogue conjures up a long-lost era of calmness and curiosity between Iranians and Israelis, as well as the naive yet potent Third World ideology so common in developing countries at the time. But it is important for what it says, not just for what it represents. It suggests how the Iranian and Israeli leaders who feel such intense mutual hostility today actually mirror one another in certain ways, particularly in their foundational attitudes toward religious authority, political and economic populism, and the West. That a writer such as Al-e Ahmad, guru to the ayatollahs, liked Israel now seems touching. What he liked about Israel seems cautionary.

Al-e Ahmad titled his original essay “Journey to the Land of Israel”; Thrope has repackaged it as The Israeli Republic, to evoke “the Islamic Republic.” The Iranian visitor was particularly struck by the kibbutzim he visited. He liked their agricultural communitarianism, their pronounced patriotism, their purified retreat from urban ennui -- and with tractors, to boot.

In his introductory commentary, Thrope plays up the improbability for all it is worth: “An Iranian who loved Zionism! A Muslim who loved Israel! Encountering these early chapters of The Israeli Republic for the first time, it is difficult not to think in exclamation points.” But what is more interesting, as Thrope suggests, is how, given the divine socialism Al-e Ahmad hungered for, he was primed to hear Israel’s theocratic melody as well as its socialist notes.

Al-e Ahmad saw Israel as a velayat, or “guardianship state” -- the sort of polity Khomeini would establish in Iran a decade and a half later. He visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, and left in tears, concluding that the new country was an appropriate response to the Jews’ tortured history and a useful model for his own oppressed people:

"Israel is the best of all exemplars of how to deal with the West, how with the spiritual force of martyrdom we can milk its industry, demand and take reparations from it and invest its capital in national development, all for the price of a few short days of political dependence, so that we can solidify our new enterprise."

Public education, Hebrew-language instruction, collectivist industry -- all these, he felt, would create a new kind of insurrectionary melting pot. Reading Al-e Ahmad, one remembers what few young people can fathom today: how vital, even cool, Labor Zionism seemed back then.

But velayat also had militant religious connotations:

"[David] Ben-Gurion is no less than Enoch, and Moshe Dayan no less than Joab: these new guardians, each one with his own prophecies or -- at least -- clear vision, built a guardianship state in the land of Palestine and called to it all the Children of Israel, of whom two million live in New York and the other eight million in the rest of the world."

Al-e Ahmad grasped that for Labor Zionists, avodah, “labor,” was holy in the Tolstoyan sense; he would not have been surprised to learn that avodah means “worship” in the liturgical sense as well. Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, would have shrugged off such comparisons. He saw Zionism primarily through the tradition of Western proletarian movements, and he and his colleagues spurned rabbinical authority in personal life. Still, he often layered onto his statements a kind of rhetorical messianism (“return” and “ingathering” had double meanings), and he routinely substituted the Hebrew Bible for works of history and archaeology. The Torah provided Labor Zionists with place names and figures of speech. Once the state was founded, and the country was inundated with a million refugees from Arab countries, Israel’s leaders increasingly took halakha (religious law) for granted not only as a source of artistic and literary inspiration among free-thinking European Hebraists but as a force for incipient national solidarity.


There were legal consequences to these ambiguities. The young state’s Law of Return and its Population Registry required a legal definition of “Jew.” But what was that? And who should preside over immigration, the Israeli state apparatus, or the Jewish Agency for Israel, a diaspora organization? As the contradictions piled up in the 1950s, Labor movement leaders and the state’s appointed judiciary surrendered to the rabbinical notion that to be recognized as Jewish, one had to have been born of a Jewish mother or converted by an Orthodox rabbi. The designation was not merely honorific. Almost all land available for development, including almost all of that confiscated from Arab refugees, was owned and managed either by the Jewish National Fund or by a state body that, like the JNF, openly discriminated against non-Jews.

Rabbinical courts were given control over marriage, divorce, and burial, as they had been under the British mandate. Civil marriage between Jews and non-Jews was not possible -- and still is not. A separate, state-funded religious educational bureaucracy was handed over to religious, and particularly ultra-Orthodox, parties. (Today, more than half of Jewish children in Jerusalem, and a quarter in Israel as a whole, attend the schools this bureaucracy set up.) Ben-Gurion had the parliamentary votes to enact a truly liberal constitution in 1949 but chose to ally with the small religious parties rather than share power with genuine rivals. The original Labor Zionist idea that “Jewish” might be a novel, inclusive national category -- might refer to anyone who spoke Hebrew and lived in the Jewish national home -- was effectively abandoned.

Al-e Ahmad repudiated Israel after the 1967 war. But it was in the wake of that war, ironically, that his view of Israel as a velayat would be realized most vividly. Labor leaders now spoke without embarrassment about the miraculous unification of Jerusalem. They sentimentalized the cultural results of deals cut earlier with the Orthodox rabbinate -- deals that confirmed Orthodox precepts in ways that would soon lead to the rise of the Likud Party and the eclipse of Labor’s more secular and liberal norms. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists today that Israel be recognized as “a Jewish state,” Palestinian negotiators may well wonder if he means Jewish in the way that France is French, or a Hebrew republic -- or a Jewish velayat such as the one Al-e Ahmad anticipated.

The admiration Al-e Ahmad showed for the Israel he saw in 1963 is one reflection of the confident piety one saw at the founding of the Islamic Republic: the human face of the revolution, some of whose cadres -- such as Iran’s current president, Hassan Rouhani -- the West now hopes might preside over a sort of perestroika. But for Israeli liberals, ironically, Al-e Ahmad’s is an embrace they would rather have done without. It is admiration for a compromised democracy that might have been otherwise.

After all, if Al-e Ahmad was right that Israel was a guardianship state, who would be its ideal guardians? Clearly, the Scripture-loving hawks committed to pure collectives and a command economy, to the martyr’s version of Jewish history and authentic Jewish rites and law -- activists carrying a forlorn hatred for the materialistic, corrupt, and treacherous West and promoting themselves as a vanguard on the Promised Land for world Jewry. In other words, the old Gush Emunim and other zealous West Bank settlers. (One of their number, still unrepentant, assassinated a Labor prime minister.)

So the Israeli forces Al-e Ahmad applauded found their culmination in fanatical rabbis who hate the ayatollahs and are hated in return -- radically new Zionists who, as the novelist V. S. Naipaul once wrote of an Iranian cleric, slide down their theology to the confusion of their certainties. Al-e Ahmad’s little chronicle is instructive. It is not instructive in the way he intended.


An excerpt from a new translation of Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s account of his 1963 trip to Israel

There are two reasons I call Israel a guardianship state. First of all, Jewish rule in the land of Palestine is a guardianship state and not another kind of government. It is the rule of the Children of Israel’s new guardians in the Promised Land, not the rule of the inhabitants of Palestine over Palestine. The first contradiction arising from the existence of Israel is this: that a people, a tribe, a religious community, or the surviving remnants of the twelve tribes -- whatever designation you prefer -- throughout history, traditions, and myths suffered homelessness and exile, and nurtured many dreams in their hearts until they finally settled, in a way, in answer to such hopes and in a land neither especially promising nor “promised.” It was thanks, in fact, either to the force of time, the necessities of politics, the clear vision of their guardians, or the dictates of economics and unfettered capitalism; I will address each of these in turn.

Now, although one does not dare compare Israel’s leaders with Abraham, David, Solomon, or Moses -- peace be upon them -- in any case, today’s prominent politicians can be called, if not prophets, then, certainly, guardians. . . . [This] is a true miracle, not some sailor’s yarn. Ben-Gurion is no less than Enoch, and Moshe Dayan no less than Joab: these new guardians, each one with his own prophecies or -- at least -- clear vision, built a guardianship state in the land of Palestine and called to it all the Children of Israel, of whom two million live in New York and the other eight million in the rest of the world. And the most important aspect of the miracle is this: the guardianship state of Israel, with its two million and some inhabitants in that long and narrow land, like it or not, now governs and acts in the name of all the 12 million Jews scattered around the world.

If only one example will suffice, we can call to mind the Eichmann trial. Israeli agents captured him in South America, brought him to Israel, tried him, executed him, and even scattered his ashes at sea -- and all this in the name of six million Jews who were slaughtered in the crematoria of a Europe leprous with fascism, before the establishment of Israel, and on the basis of the policies of a regime whose name, customs, and laws the Germans themselves are ashamed to mention.

This I call a miracle: an event opposed to norm and custom, against international law and the precedent of governments that, even if they sought fit to fanatically assassinate Trotsky in Mexico with the blow of a terrorist’s hammer, at least finished the job on the spot.

If only on account of that example, we cannot but consider Israel a guardianship state, and its leaders guardians: those who march onward in the name of something loftier than human rights declarations. You could say that the spirit of Yahweh is upon them and those prophecies . . . for as long as Moses had not murdered and had not fled to the wilderness, he did not have the brand of prophecy on his breast.

This is the first reason I call Israel a guardianship state.


Secondly, I do so in this sense: the present territory of Israel in no way resembles a country, if by country we refer to the commonly held conception, in other words, something on the order of a continent; the guardianship state of Israel is a small span of earth, approximately the size of the province of Saveh in Iran, less than 8,000 square miles. And how inhospitable! If Moses, peace be upon him, knew to what a rocky place he was leading his people, if he could fathom what a shallow joke the river Jordan is compared to the Nile, he would never have called it the Promised Land and would not have brought the people for all those years through suffering and hardship.

But in the modern world, numbered among tiny, so-called reputable countries such as Switzerland and Denmark, Iceland and Qatar, Kuwait and the Principality of Monaco, for us who are a part of the East, this same narrow territory of Israel lies in our arm’s reach, like a fist on the table of the Fertile Crescent; it is a source of power and also -- on that very account -- a source of danger.

Its power or danger depends on your perspective on the world. If your viewpoint is that of the Arab politicians, Israel is a source of danger, preventing the unification of the Islamic Caliphate of which, after the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, so many people have dreamed. But if you look with the eyes of an Easterner like me, devoid of fanaticism and hyperbole and resentment, worrying for the future of an East of which one end is Tel Aviv and the other Tokyo, and knowing that this same East is the grounds of the future events and the hope of a world tired of the West and Westoxification -- in the eyes of this Easterner, Israel, with all its faults and all the contradictions concealed in it, is a base of power, a first step, the herald of a future not too far off.

In these two senses I call Israel a guardianship state [and] I will attempt to retell what I came to know of it, not for publicity, nor as payback for free lunches that I have eaten there; not for the purpose of providing advice to Iran on its two-faced policy regarding Israel, nor to vex the Arabs. . . . Rather, my goal is only that you come to know the disposition, the words, and the “yes, buts” of a penman from this corner of the world -- and a Persian speaker -- faced with the reality of the Children of Israel’s new country in this corner of the East.

But for transparency’s sake . . . I will say that leaving aside tradition and myth and the years of promises and threats, leaving aside what happened before Israel’s establishment as a state -- all of which is historians’ work -- from my perspective as an Easterner, the current government of Israel, on the one hand, is the sure bridgehead of Western capitalism, which reappeared in the East in a different form and in other garb following World War II. I have grounds for debate with this aspect of Israel. And, on the other hand, Israel is a coarsely realized indemnity for the fascists’ sins in Dachau, Buchenwald, and the other death camps during the war. Pay close attention: that is the West’s sin and I, an Easterner, am paying the price. Western man exported the capital for this indemnity, whereas I in the East provided the land: I lack no opinions on this issue as well. To put it plainly, Israel is the curtain Christianity drew between itself and the world of Islam in order to prevent me from seeing the real danger; this is exactly what drives the Arabs to distraction.

I also have grounds for debate with the Arabs. It is true that the Palestinian refugees, like a ball chasing the Arab politicians’ bat, have with time become accustomed to parasitism. But pay close attention: for more than 10 years these same Palestinian refugees have been paying the penance for someone else’s sin in that hellish cauldron. From the bones of the Ottoman Empire this last piece -- this Palestine -- that was set aside as a sweet morsel sits like a mace on the table spread between the Persian Gulf and the River Nile. Or is it perhaps like a scarecrow, keeping anyone from extending a hand or foot beyond his own plate?

I will even go a little further: if one day the country of Israel vanishes, who will Arab leaders blame for being the only barrier to Arab unification? Is it not, rather, that the very existence of Israel, and the fear that it has instilled in the Arab heart, is the cause of the modest unity and internal concord of the border guards on this side of the world?


Another point is this: in the Jewish spectacle of martyrdom, the memorialization of the war’s murdered and gone, I see the other side of the coin of fascism and a dependence on the racism which replaced it. But I also say this: if you must be a base, learn from Israel and the high price it has charged! If you are forced to marry one of your distant neighbors, then follow their example! And if your lot is to play the game of democracy, and that too in a land which, as long as there was God, was crushed under the boots of the pharaohs of earth and heaven . . . again, learn from Israel. In any case, for me as an Easterner, Israel is the best of all exemplars of how to deal with the West, how with the spiritual force of martyrdom we can milk its industry, demand and take reparations from it and invest its capital in national development, all for the price of a few short days of political dependence, so that we can solidify our new enterprise.

And this is the last point: the Persian-speaking Easterner in particular considers the Jews in a historical perspective. During the ancient reigns of Darius and Xerxes, it was I who sat Esther on the throne, appointed Mordechai to the chancellery, and ordered the rebuilding of the Temple. And although now and then, in the markets and alleys of Ray and Nishapur [in Iran], at a governor’s instigation or for a commander’s profit, I have leapt into Jew-killing, nevertheless the tomb of Daniel the Prophet in Susa still performs miracles, and the graves of Mordechai and Esther in Hamadan are no less holy than the shrine of a saint of pure lineage from the Prophet. But leave off laying those obligations and the load of foolish self-satisfaction on the shoulder of God’s people. It is enough for me that this very Daniel the Prophet was once my chancellor and I don’t care who was his king.

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  • BERNARD AVISHAI is Adjunct Professor of Business at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Visiting Professor of Government at Dartmouth College. JALAL AL-E AHMAD (1923–69) was an Iranian writer and critic. The excerpt presented here is from The Israeli Republic (Restless Books, 2013), a new translation of his writings on Israel by Samuel Thrope. Copyright © Samuel Thrope, 2013.
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