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Inconvenient Truths about ‘Real Existing’ Zionism

Jacques Hersh is professor emeritus of Aalborg University, Denmark and former head of the Research Center on Development and International Relations there.

The celebrations on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel brought forth mixed feelings for those of us who survived the Holocaust. The reason for this ambivalence is that, while the survivors of the Nazi genocide celebrated the creation of a Jewish state in 1948, few were aware at the time of the human costs and injustices that had been, were being, and would be perpetrated against Palestinian Arabs in our name. The slogan “Never Again,” which was the dominating thought in the Jewish psyche in those years, was mostly concerned with the fate of European Jews.

This notwithstanding, some survivors found it difficult to comprehend why, after the industrialized and scientific massacre of millions of Jews, as well as that of other ethnic groups and nationalities, together with the persistent anti-Semitism in both postwar Europe and America, the big powers were now willing to accede to the project of a Jewish homeland. Was this change of heart purely a function of guilt over the treatment of European Jews or was there some “intelligent design” involving the mapping of a future international political architecture which the new state formation would help bring about?

Indeed, with the creation of Israel a shift in the political culture of Jews, gentiles, and Arabs was seemingly taking place. In retrospect, this transmutation would prove to be of great significance for the shape of the world to come. The full scope of this historical phenomenon was not realized at the time. It was only after the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union that the contours of the new international order could be discerned. The world had certainly not arrived at an end point as suggested by Francis Fukuyama’s thesis on “the end of history.” Instead a new confrontational formation was proposed by the British-Israeli Islam expert, Bernard Lewis, and later propagated by the American political scientist, Samuel Huntington. In essence, the thesis of the “Clash of Civilizations” placed a new paradigm of international politics on the agenda that was readily adopted by neoconservatives in the United States and the Likud Party in Israel. Theoretically and ideologically the thesis drew a fault line between the “West and the rest”! In this projection, the West is considered to be the repository of Judeo-Christian civilization and thus includes the Jewish state.

During the Cold War era, Israel had moved from its initial position of neutrality between the two superpowers at the time of its establishment, to become a Western bastion in the Middle East. In this context it is often forgotten that the Soviet Union accorded diplomatic recognition to the new state within minutes of its proclamation of statehood—with little consideration of the consequences for the Communist Parties in the Arab world! The support of the Soviet Union for the emerging state, which had taken the form of military assistance to the Zionist liberation struggle, was based on the rationale that this would weaken British imperialism in the region. This assumption proved to be correct, but with greater acumen it could have been foreseen that the United States would replace Great Britain and become the principal player in the region as well as the main ally of Israel.

The U.S.-Israeli relationship has become so closely knit since the 1960s that U.S. academics have begun to debate whether it is the Israeli lobby in Washington that determines American policy in the Middle East at the expense of U.S. national interests.1 Since 9/11, this alliance has grown even stronger. Allegiance to the state of Israel has become a criterion of political correctness with candidates to the White House debating which would best protect Israeli interests. In his commemoration address to the Knesset on May 15, 2008, President Bush declared that the United States was proud to be the “closest ally and best friend in the world” of a nation that was a “homeland for the chosen people” that “had worked tirelessly for peace and…fought valiantly for freedom.”2

Concerning the Palestinians, who were commemorating the Nakba (catastrophe)—when 700,000 of their forefathers had fled or been expelled from their homes because of the military violence which accompanied the Israeli declaration of independence—the president had “encouraging” words. When Israel would celebrate its 120 anniversary, he envisioned that the Palestinians would have the “homeland they have long dreamed of and deserved—a democratic state that is governed by law.” By 2068, the president prophesized, the Middle East would consist of “free and independent societies” and Hamas, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda would have been defeated. In other words, six decades more would be needed before “mission accomplished” could be declared—complete acceptance by the Muslim-Arab world of a U.S.-Israeli imposed regional order. Even compared to members of the Bush administration who believed that they could create their own reality, this prediction seems delusional!

Besides the futuristic assumptions concerning the evolution of Middle East politics, this prognostication is based on the supposition that the countries of the region will accept such a geopolitical regimen and that U.S. and Israeli political aims will remain fixed on this objective regardless of the costs involved. The crisis of hegemony the United States is currently undergoing cannot but affect the future possibilities of imposing a “Pox Americana” on the world. Nor is there any guarantee that the contradictions of Israeli society will not influence the politics of the state or that the allegiance of Diaspora Jewry to the long-term objectives of Zionism will retain the same viability. After all, the first sixty years of the existence of Israel have not, even according to present-day proponents of Zionism, fulfilled its promises of greater security for Jews in general. This, in spite of the fact that the state of Israel has an arsenal of two hundred nuclear bombs, one of the strongest and most modern military machines in the Middle East, one of the most developed economies in the world, and last but not least an alliance with the world’s number one military superpower. Despite the fact that Islamophobia has replaced the virus of Judeophobia in the West, Diaspora Jews feel unease at the prospects of identifying with a state that violates the human rights of another people and serves the interests of U.S. imperialism worldwide.

The existential purpose of Israel has come into question for many Israelis as well as for an increasing number of Diaspora Jews. The concept of a “national home of the Jews” is losing its appeal. According to Tony Karon, “the simple fact is that almost two-thirds of us have chosen freely to live elsewhere, and have no intention of ever settling in Israel.” It is somewhat paradoxical that 750,000 Israelis live in the United States or other European countries and that it is the norm today, for Israeli citizens who can, to acquire a foreign passport. One of Karon’s conclusions that is relevant to the analysis of the Middle East problematique, and in direct contradiction to Bush’s prognosis, is that “Israel may be an intractable historical fact, but the Zionist ideology that spurred its creation and shaped its identity and sense of national purpose has collapsed—not under the pressure from without, but having rotted from within. It is Jews, not Jihadists, that have consigned Zionism to the dustbin of history.”3 Will the Jewish question again reassert itself after the second failure in modern times to find a “final solution” to it?

To understand what has happened, it may be useful to go back to the roots of Zionism and to include the forces external to the movement that influenced the evolution of Jewish politics. Awareness of the past is of importance to any analysis of the present as well as projections of the future. The collective Jewish memory has been tainted by the Zionist discourse. In this regard, taking the Holocaust as the point of reference for the rich experience of the Jewish people is not nearly sufficient. It should be made clear at the outset that Zionism was only one attempt among others, in modern times, to resolve the Jewish condition caused by their specific situation in the European context. The endeavor to unify the different elements of Jewry behind the Zionist project was a wager undertaken at the end of the nineteenth century that didn’t come to fruition until after the Holocaust. Secular nationalism among Jewish populations of Europe appeared parallel to the rise of nationalist ideologies on the continent after the 1840s. But the ideas of the movement began to receive the support of a Jewish base only as a result of the rise of anti-Semitism after 1881. Although the poor and discriminated-against Jewish populations of Eastern Europe were the most receptive to the message of a new life in Palestine, the majority nevertheless tried to emigrate to Western Europe, the Americas, and Australia.

The sociological composition in the gestation of the Zionist movement was characterized by a high variation: religious Jews, non-religious Jews identifying nevertheless with Jewish tradition, and assimilated Jews without interest in Judaism or Jadishness, but nevertheless considered to be Jews by gentiles. The common denominator, apart from their ancestry, was the way they all were viewed by the others: i.e., anti-Semitism. European Jews were dispersed and belonged (unevenly) to certain social layers in some places and to different ones in others. Some were more integrated while others were less integrated. Some shared a cultural particularism, for example the Yiddish-speakers of Eastern Europe, and just as important, Jews in Europe were divided by many ideological currents.4 The bonds of Jewish commonality were rather limited to their immediate surrounding and situation.

Jewish nationalism recruited its rank-and-file supporters from the poor and persecuted Jews of Eastern Europe. In this respect it is useful to recall that the assimilated Jews in Western Europe were less than eager to see immigration of East European Jews to their countries. This was due to the disdain felt by the Western Jewish bourgeoisie for these poorly qualified workers as well as apprehension that such influxes would strengthen latent anti-Semitism.5

Under these conditions, it was almost natural that the leadership of the Zionist movement tended to be middle-class intellectuals in Eastern and Central Europe who sought support from the Jewish grande bourgeoisie in the West which, according to Maxime Rodinson, was “only too happy to divert from Western Europe and America, a wave of lower-class immigrants whose alien ethnic characteristics and revolutionary tendencies endangered their own chances of assimilation.”6

In the formative years of Zionism, the Jewish political left was split between proponents and opponents of Jewish nationalism. Both tendencies applied a class framework to give legitimacy to their positions.7 In the context of the debates, the left Zionists put emphasis on the strength of the Jewish proletarian element and socialist ideology in the Zionist movement, suggesting that under certain circumstances their ideal-type state formation could contribute to the anti-imperialist struggle on a world scale. As far as the anti-Zionist left was concerned, they (as well as some rightist opponents of Zionism) emphasized the bourgeois and capitalist leadership of the movement as well as its imperialist ties.

The different currents that contributed to the emergence of Zionism make it difficult to consider the movement merely as the product of a specific class of Jews. Its relationship to Judaism was just as complicated. Zionism attempted to instrumentalize religion to serve its political purpose. It wanted to keep intact the social function of Judaism in order to unify the Jewish people, while at the same time eliminating its mystical content. Among the secular currents favoring an ingathering of the Jews there were projects for a homeland elsewhere than in Palestine. Theodor Herzl, the author of Der Judenstaat (The Jews’ State is a better translation than The Jewish State) had himself voiced interest in a Jewish entity in Argentina or in Africa. Orthodox religious Jews were wary of the paradoxes contained in the Zionist project, which on the one hand, aimed at maintaining the religious identity, while on the other hand, threatening its existence by replacing the constant Jewish messianism with the foreign doctrine of Jewish nationalism. As formulated by Yakov M. Rabkin, the dilemma was that “while (Zionism) claimed to be a force for modernization against the dead weight of tradition and history, it idealized the biblical past, manipulated the traditional symbols of religion and proposed to transmute into reality the millennia-long dreams of the Jews. But above all, Zionism put forward a new definition of what it means to be Jewish.”8

Although the Zionist movement encompassed diverse political and social trends—from the working classes of Eastern Europe and Russia to the assimilated middle class and professionals in Western countries—the project would not have been able to coalesce without the efforts of assimilated Jewish elements in the West who sought the support of various European and American imperialist powers. In this connection, the postulate of political Zionism that revolved around the incompatibility of Jews, especially those from East Europe, and Christian peoples. It projected emigration to an extra-European territory in order to establish a nation in the Western mold. As Nathan Weinstock noted: “Such an ideology could only appear during the epoch of imperialism and is to be situated in the continuation of the European colonial expansion” (original emphasis).9

Leading Zionists of those days were more than aware that their movement did not operate in a geopolitical vacuum or in a global cultural environment. Of the divisions within the movement then, such as between secularism and religion, and working-class ideology and capitalist liberalism, it is the dissonance between the Occidental and Oriental identification of the Jewish people that persists in modern Israeli society. While the cultural Zionist, Martin Buber, considered Jews in Palestine as belonging to the realm of Oriental cultures and emphasized Jewish historical ties to the Orient because of religious and cultural traditions, Theodor Herzl, in contrast, adhered to a Eurocentric conceptualization of the identity of Jewry. In this perspective, only Ashkenazi Jews mattered! The pivotal point in Herzl’s view on the Jewish condition in the European context and worldview of a Jewish entity in the era of imperialism was based on the assumption that while anti-Semitism could not be defeated in Christian society, the Jewish state could nevertheless become part of this imperialist community! As a realist strategist, he realized that it was necessary to vet the interest of big powers for the project of a Jewish entity in Palestine. In his important document Der Judenstaat (1886), written before the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Herzl states clearly how a Jewish state would be to the advantage of the big power that promoted the Zionist cause: “If his Majesty the Sultan were to give us Palestine, we could undertake the responsibility of putting the finances of Turkey completely in order. To Europe we would represent a part of the barrier against Asia; we would serve as the outpost of civilization against barbarism. As a neutral state we would remain allied to all of Europe, which in turn would have to guarantee our existence.”10

The interesting paradox of this position, which gained prominence in the World Zionist Organization (WZO), was that it assumed that while Judeophobia could not be defeated in the Western world, these same powers could be mobilized to resolve their own internal Jewish problem by accepting the establishment of a homeland for Jews. As remarked by Lenni Brenner: “Accommodation to anti-Semitism—and pragmatic utilisation of it for the purpose of obtaining a Jewish state—became the central stratagems of the movement, and it remained loyal to its earliest conceptions down to and through the Holocaust.”11 Consequently, whereas a current of Zionism, represented by Martin Buber, had hoped that Jews would assimilate to their roots and become part of the Middle East, mainstream Zionism in contrast took a colonialist approach to the Arab population of Palestine. In the worldview of Theodor Herzl, the solution to the European Jewish question could only be realized by engaging the imperialist powers and presenting the Zionist project as being concordant with their interests. With what would later be called third world solidarity, Buber opposed the Eurocentrism of this approach, and his understanding of the problematique can be said to have been one of the first examples of deliberate ethnic identity politics.12

The emergence of Jewish nationalism was taking place during a dramatic period of European history. E. J. Hobsbawm characterized the evolution of capitalism during the nineteenth century as both The Age of Revolution and The Age of Empire. It was in this context of socio-political disruption accompanying the process of modernity that the Jewish populations were drawn into the whirlwind of European politics. Anti-Semitism was part of the general xenophobia that came to the fore during times of hardship. In countries like France and Germany where Jews accounted for a small proportion of the populations, anti-Semitism was directed at bankers, entrepreneurs, and others who the little folks identified with the ravages of capitalism. Hobsbawm notes that the antagonism towards Jews took on an additional dimension with the increase of xenophobia in the ideology of the nationalist right: “Anti-Semitism, the German socialist leader Bebel therefore felt, was ‘the socialism of idiots.’ Yet what strikes us about the rise of political anti-Semitism at the end of the century is not so much the equation ‘Jew ≈ capitalist,’ which was not implausible in large parts of east/central Europe, but its association with right-wing nationalism.”13

The twentieth century opened a window of opportunity for Zionism and the WZO’s engagement with big powers gave it substantial influence toward the end of the inter-imperialist First World War. Although many Zionists had been pro-German, the organization had especially made lobbying efforts in Great Britain. While not directly related to these efforts, the course of the war and events in Russia, with the overthrow of the Czar, changed the fortunes of the Zionist project. Socialist forces among the Jewish working class of Russia and other European nations were sympathetically inclined toward the Soviet Revolution and a number of Jews came to play an influential role in the new regime. Seen from London, the WZO appeared as a useful tool in its diplomatic strategy to weaken the impact of the Soviet Revolution as well as, according to Lenni Brenner, in influencing U.S. Jews to pressure Washington to enter the war in Europe.14

The give-and-take relationship between the WZO and British imperialism resulted in the notorious Balfour Declaration. This took the form of a letter from Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to his friend Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild. In this document, Balfour pledged that the British government would endeavor to facilitate the achievement of a “national home for the Jewish people” with the convoluted addendum “that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”15

The ambivalence in the document can be explained as the result of the insistence of the Jewish cabinet member, Edwin Montagu, who accused the government of anti-Semitism for implicitly turning British Jews into “aliens and foreigners.” In fact, the Anglo-Jewish community was split at the time on the Zionist project. While the Samuels and the Rothschild’s were in favor of British support for the creation of a Jewish homeland, the Cohen, Magnus, Montefiore, and Montagu families were against.

The argument of the assimilated opponents to the Zionist conceptualization of the Jewish condition was based on the assumption that assimilation was possible and Jews should strive for it. In May 1917, a committee published a letter in the London Times, in the name of leading Anglo-Jewish organizations, stating explicitly that the emancipated Jews had no separate national aspiration other than being British. Furthermore the committee considered that the establishment of a Jewish nationality in Palestine founded on the presupposition of Jewish homelessness “must have the effect of stamping the Jews as strangers in their native lands.”

However, the dispute on this issue did not merely remain a matter between Zionist and non-Zionist factions within the British Jewish community. Had no other actors participated there is little question that the anti-Zionist Jews would have won. But as Chaim Bermant put it “there were the gentile Zionists to consider and they carried the day.”16

Placating Zionist pressures however was not the primary concern of British imperialism at the time. The timing of the Balfour Declaration is interesting to the extent that it took place toward the end of the First World War and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Britain at that moment was in the process of posturing itself and redefining with France the map of the Middle East. These two powers came to define the frontiers of Palestine. However, the British political elite had to reconcile its engagement in the establishment of a Jewish state with its awareness of the interests of the Arab national movement and thus not disappoint Arab expectations with regard to Palestine in the new geopolitics of the region.

But there was another important challenge facing British imperialism that affected its strategy toward Zionism during this period. In 1917 a major political transformation was taking place in Russia. The February Revolution had resulted in the abdication of Czar Nicholas II, the collapse of Imperial Russia, the popular demand for peace with Germany, and the end of the Romanov dynasty. The Provisional government under Alexander Kerensky was an alliance between liberal and socialist forces wanting to reform the system. Its failure, which led to the October Revolution, signified a change in Russia’s socio-political structure and represented a menace to the world capitalist system. This at least was the perception in the political circles of London. The British political elite opposed the intention of the Bolsheviks to pull Russia out of the war, as this would have strengthened the Germans on the Western front. But more importantly there was a fear that a successful socialist revolution might spread across Europe due in part to the unpopularity of the inter-imperialist bloodbath. As a matter of fact, the First World War ended in 1918 in the shadow of the Russian Revolution. Peace, however, did not prevent an allied military intervention in the ensuing Russian civil war on the side of the Whites against the Reds. The coordinator of this effort was the young Winston S. Churchill, then-war secretary in the British government.17

It is in this context that the Balfour letter should be seen. The Jewish population in Europe was divided between different classes and different ideological affiliations and aspirations. But the attempt by Zionism to impose nationalist boundaries on Jewish identity was not readily accepted. The Yiddishe Arbeiter Bund, the most popular Jewish socialist party, was militantly anti-Zionist.18 Generally, the Jewish working class was attracted to ideas of socialism and a number of Jews played an influential role in the Bolshevik Revolution. Under these conditions, British support for Zionism at that time could be interpreted as an attempt to weaken the Soviet experiment from the beginning by weaning Jews away from universalistic socialism. The projection of a “Judeo-Communist conspiracy” became the justifying element behind the British strategy as well as the later Nazi worldview. Both these positions were based on implicit political anti-Semitism and paradoxically not in opposition to the founding assumptions of Zionism!

In an interesting article published in the Illustrated Sunday Herald in 1920, Winston Churchill clarified the British strategy of helping Zionism while raising the specter of Judeophobia. Under the title “Zionism versus Bolshevism—A Struggle for the Soul of the Jewish People,” the piece distinguished between “Good and Bad Jews.” The good Jews were the “‘National’ Jews” who were integrated in their country, while practicing the Jewish faith, such as was the case in Britain. The national Russian Jews who promoted the development of capitalism under the Czarist regime also belong to this category of “good Jews.” Evil are the “International Jews” who belong to a sinister atheist confederacy and “have forsaken the faith of their forefathers, and divorced from their minds all spiritual hopes for the next world.” According to Churchill, this current included Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Bela Kun, Rosa Luxemburg, and Emma Goldman. Some of these bad international Jews were said to have played an important part in the creation of Bolshevism and bringing about the Russian Revolution. Consequently, the significance of Zionism was to “foster and develop any strongly-marked Jewish movement which leads directly away from these fatal associations.”

According to this way of thinking, Zionism thus offered a third political conception of the “Jewish race.” In the words of Churchill: “In violent contrast to international communism, it presents to the Jew a national idea of a commanding character.” Even though it could not accommodate the entire Jewish people, the creation of a Jewish State under the protection of the British crown would also be an event which would be beneficial and in harmony with “the truest interests of the British Empire.”19

The anti-communism of Churchill and the instrumentalization of political Zionism in order to weaken the socialist appeal to Jews were not endeavors free of contradictions. On the Jewish question, Bolshevism at that time had been opposed to Zionism on the ideological front and to anti-Semitism on the political level. British imperialism, in contrast, was promoting Zionism to counter Bolshevism while supporting the elements of the White Guards in the Russian civil war who had a long tradition of anti-Semitism and pogroms. During the civil war, anti-Bolshevik forces killed at least 60,000 Jews.20 Another difficulty for British imperialism in the Middle East was that it could not outright work for the emergence of a Jewish state without raising Arab opposition to the interests of the empire.

What this pro-Zionist discourse did, however, was to make anti-Semitism ideologically acceptable in societal and political terms. More sophisticated than the “Protocols of the Elder of Zion,” whose inspiration went back to the time of the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century when reactionary French circles alleged a Jewish hand in that historical event, Churchill nevertheless reiterated the canard of an international Jewish conspiracy. Such a myth had lived on in nineteenth-century Europe, in countries such as Germany and Poland. The sophistication behind Churchill’s approach was that his anti-Semitism was based on a class-based analysis of the Jewish question, i.e., the differentiation between the “good Jews” (assimilated capitalists and Zionists) and the “bad Jews” (socialists)!

Consequently, far from putting the genie of modern anti-Semitism back in the bottle, the phenomenon was now mobilized in the crusade against socialism and for the promotion of political Zionism. As far as the anti-Semitism of that period was concerned, it became based on a notion that the Jews had invented socialism and Bolshevism with the intention of assuming power over the helpless goyim! In the case of continental anti-Semitism, the postulate of a Jewish-socialist compact coexisted with the view that Jewish bankers controlled the world. While Churchill’s position on the Jewish question was based on a class hatred of socialist Jews, the anti-Semitism of Adolf Hitler was more pathological. As he put it in an often quoted phrase from Mein Kampf: “If, with the aid of his Marxist creed, the Jew triumphs over the peoples of the world, then his crown will be the funeral wreath of humanity.”

Despite the primordial anti-Semitism of Adolf Hitler and the project of the annihilation of European Jews, a less known facet of the Holocaust is that there was an implicit Nazi sympathy for the Zionist project and paradoxical agreement with the axiom of Zionism concerning the incompatibility of Jewishness and German citizenship. The slogan “Juden raus!” and “Kikes to Palestine!” which was in vogue in Europe at the time reinforced the Zionist message. Lenni Brenner in a chapter on the Nazi-Zionism relationship has a reference to a leading Nazi-politician in Bavaria who stated, “that the best solution to the Jewish question, for Jews and Gentiles alike, was the Palestinian National Home.”21 The original aim of Nazism had been to make Germany “Judenfrei” which became transposed to the whole of Europe. At first this did not entail the annihilation of the Jewish people. The Nazis had planned a project of a “Jewish principality” in central Poland as a kind of reservation for German Jews. After the defeat of France, Adolf Eichmann worked a full year on a project for turning the French colony of Madagascar into a “Jewish principality” for Europe’s Jews.22

In the newly emerging Soviet Union—with the highest concentration of Jews in the world at the time (five million)—the Jewish question required the immediate attention of the new regime because of the specific conditions of the Jews in Russia on the one hand and the pressures of Zionism on the other. In Czarist times, the former traditional economic activities of the majority of Jews had been concentrated in trade and small crafts. Politically, and unlike other minorities, the Jews had had no claim to a nationality. They were dispersed among national entities and spoke Yiddish. As a matter of doctrinal principle, the Soviet regime, from the very beginning, combated manifestations of anti-Semitism in a society contaminated with the virus, thus attracting Jewish intellectuals to the Communist Party. While the New Economic Policy was in force, following the hardships of foreign interventions and the economic policy of “war communism,” the Jewish petite-bourgeoisie took advantage of the reappearance of a private sector and consolidated its economic position. This together with the use of Jews in the administration, however, refueled anti-Semitism among Russians of all nationalities.

The new regime found itself hemmed-in by the residual, and at times virulent, anti-Semitism of Russian society; the need to find a socio-economic and political solution to the situation of Jews; the need to develop distant and economically backward regions; the pressure of Zionism; and last but not least by its own theoretical understanding of the nationality question. In Marxism and the National Question (1913), Stalin, who after the revolution had become the People’s Commissar for National Affairs, formulated the notion that in order to qualify as a nation, a national minority should be characterized by a specific culture, language, and a common territory. Of course the last characteristic didn’t apply to the Jews of Russia as they were living dispersed throughout the land. Nevertheless, they were identified as a nationality. In order to develop regions of the Far East and to undercut the offensive of political Zionism for a homeland, a Soviet alternative to the Zionist project was launched in 1928, when Birobidzhan was set aside for Jewish colonization. In 1934, the autonomous region was proclaimed as a Jewish homeland with a bourgeoning Yiddish culture. As put by Nathan Weinstock, this Palestine substitute was most probably meant to divert Soviet Jews from Palestine and from allegiance to political Zionism. But in fact raising the identity of Jews to the status of nationality, could not but be beneficial to the Zionist ideological construction and political project. Countering the dream of “Eretz Israel” with an “Ersatz Israel,”23 although a defensive and pragmatic solution to the Russian Jewish question, meant in the last instance strengthening the ideological foundations of Jewish nationalism.

Much has been written about the lingering of anti-Semitism in Soviet society as well as in the internal political struggles of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but Western Jewry has not been attentive to the fact that in the years 1935–43, it was “the Evil Empire” that came to give shelter to the majority of European Jews fleeing the Nazi genocide. While the United States and Britain allowed only 6.6 percent and 1.9 percent of Jewish immigrants respectively, 75.3 percent of the Jewish refugees from Europe, that is close to two million, found refuge in the Soviet Union.24

The task of Jewish nationalism as an ideological and political construction of Zionism implied the remolding of the psyche of European Jews into a (false?) consciousness of uniqueness. In doing so, the diversity of experiences of Jews in the Diaspora was considered to be of lesser importance than the resolution of the alleged permanency of Judeophobia which reached its apex in Europe with the Holocaust. Zionism was of course a European Jewish project that in order to achieve legitimacy had to be transposed to the situation of Jews with a different historical experience. Even in the Zionist state, the Ashkenazi dominance has been evident from the very beginning. As Ella Shohat put it: “Within Israel, and on the stage of world opinion, the hegemonic voice of Israel has almost invariably been that of European Jews, the Ashkenazim, while the Sephardi/Mizrahi (Oriental/Arab Jews) voice has been largely muffled or silenced.”25 It is worth recalling that although the situation of the Arab Jews was not idyllic, the Sephardim did, generally speaking, live comfortably within Arab-Muslim society. According to Ella Shohat during the formative year of political Zionism, Sephardi Jews were rather indifferent to it. In some cases, Arab-Jewish religious leaders denounced Zionism as they protested against the Balfour Declaration. In its early phases, the national Arab movement in Palestine and Syria carefully distinguished between the Zionist immigrants and the resident local native Jewish population (mostly Sepharadim) who lived peacefully with their neighbors.26

Amidst decolonization and an upsurge in national liberation struggles, the emergence in the Middle East of the new Euro-Israeli nation—whose political elite identified with the West—could not help but influence Arab politics. The anti-imperialist struggles in these countries was deflected in the direction of making politics a function of the relationship and antagonism toward Israel. As Paul Sweezy put it following the 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors: “The upshot of concentrating the struggle against the local partner in the Israeli-imperialist alliance is thus the opposite of what is intended: it keeps the Arab world divided and weak, and it strengthens the grip of imperialism.” He implicitly made the point that this was a trap the Arabs should avoid.27 This reflection is interesting to the extent that it shows an understanding of the Israeli-Arab conflict that existed among progressive forces in the West at the time. The advice that Arab progressives should try to accentuate divisions in Israeli society by seeking common grounds with elements of the Israeli proletariat, comprising mostly Jews from Asia and Africa, assigned the onus of political maturity to the Arab side. Socialist Jews of the Diaspora held an even more accentuated one-sidedness. This is exemplified in a second editorial comment in the same issue of Monthly Review, when Leo Huberman went a step further in writing that: “Arab socialists should turn their sights on the real target—if they are to be part of a ‘holy war’ they should direct that war against enemy No. 1 which is not Israel but feudalism and imperialism.”28

Not until decades following the Israeli army’s pre-emptive war of 1967 did the Palestinian Nakba receive much attention or sympathy in the Western world. With the defeat of the Arab armies and the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza, the dominating political culture of Israel morphed into a kind of proto-fascism. Unnoticed at the time, a sense of invincibility came to permeate the ideological foundation of Israeli society and the pro-Zionist Diaspora translating into a political right turn within “real existing” Zionism. As noted by an Israeli academic: “With the blitz victory of 1967 and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the sudden expansion of Israel’s borders gave rise to a more rapid erosion of the socialist and humanist values that had once been the hallmark of labor Zionism.” In the euphoria there was little resistance to  “the new, dynamic Greater Israel movement, which sought to turn Israel’s most recent conquest into an integral part of the country.”29 Empathy for the Palestinians among Israelis and Diaspora Jews was at a minimal level in this political climate.

This notwithstanding, a radical critique arose from within Israeli society. A group of intellectuals and academics began to reinterpret the birth of Israel by acknowledging the ethnic cleansing that had accompanied the imposition of the Jewish state over the Palestinian-Arab population. This brought to light the most unsavory aspect of Zionism—the original sin of Israel. These revisionist historians and critical sociologists encapsulated under the term “post-Zionism” questioned the dominant narratives concerning the state formation and challenged the accepted understanding of the origins of the Israeli-Arab conflict. In doing so the Zionist monopoly on historiography and ideological assumptions was disputed.30 By rehabilitating the Palestinian identity as a people and as historical victims, “post-Zionism” made it possible to analyze Israeli strategy in terms of a “politicide” perpetrated on the Arab populations with the aim of dissolving the Palestinian people as “an economic, social and political entity.”31 The Zionist slogan of “a land without a people for a people without a land,” which had reduced the Palestinian Arabs to a status of non-existence, was now proven to have been a myth, making the “moral myopia” of Zionism visible.32 The Intifada in the occupied territories against the Israeli military forces made the presence of the Palestinian people more concrete.

Coping with the Jewish question in general and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular has been and still is a dilemma for progressive opinion in the West. While it is acknowledged that Arab politics and political culture were affected by the intrusion of a Jewish state in the area and its alliance with the United States, the same consideration was not given to the transformation of Jewish political culture, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, as a result of the creation of the Zionist state and its patron-client relationship to the United States. Pro-Israel Jews of all political stripes have been duped by the ideological discourse of Zionism, which has hailed the existence of the Jewish state as the guarantor of the security of Jews everywhere.

Having captured the “commanding heights” of morality by usurping the mantle of the victimhood of European Jewry, the Zionist state, in a seldom-seen example of chutzpah, transformed the Holocaust experience into political capital. In this context it is interesting to note that the Holocaust did not become a universal point of reference in the Western worldview until after the decade of the 1960s. The reason for the time lag is related to the convergence of strategic and ideological currents in the postwar period. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, the antifascist coalition gave way to the Cold War between East and West. The German question played a central role in the establishment of the Western alliance system under the leadership of the United States. Under these conditions there was little interest on the part of the U.S. foreign policy establishment and indeed the U.S. government to alienate Germany by dwelling on the Nazi responsibility for the extermination of European Jews. In addition, looking closely at the Holocaust would have revealed the profiteering of U.S. industrialists in the arming of Hitler’s war machine. As far as the American Jewish elite is concerned, it acquiesced to the public silence on this monstrous crime and accepted the U.S. policy of rearming a barely de-Nazified Germany. Motivated perhaps by the concern of not reactivating American anti-Semitism and putting their improved situation in jeopardy, U.S. Jewry followed an opportunistic strategy.33

In the case of Israel, the Shoah question reflected the complex relationship of Zionist ideology toward non-Israeli Jews. The extermination of European Jews legitimized the cause of Zionism, to the extent that the Holocaust confirmed that Jews could not survive and prosper in the Diaspora and that integration and assimilation in these nations was an illusion. At the same time, there was a widespread feeling among Israelis following the Second World War that European Jews had themselves to blame for their fate, because they had not resorted to armed resistance. In contrast, Israelis saw themselves as rejecting the past and creating a new kind of Jew, capable of defending his or her people and the Jewish state.34 As the focus on the Holocaust evolved, it came to be seen as related to the transformation of the struggle for a secure Israel into one of an expanding and conquering state. The Shoah-paradigm became useful in reminding public opinion of the justification for the creation of the Jewish state and for the deflecting of criticism of Israeli policies, especially in the occupied territories of Palestine.

The Holocaust discourse, however, was more important in the Diaspora than in Israel itself and it introduced an element of confusion within the ranks of progressive politics. The sixties had been a decade of youth activism in the West that had included some leading Jewish participants. Many active anti-imperialist Jews in the Diaspora were caught off-balance by the realization that Israel, as the embodiment of the victimhood of the Jewish people, could be capable of victimizing another people and of following a pro-U.S. imperialism foreign policy. In Churchill’s terminology, the “bad Jews” (internationalist and anti-imperialist) had to be turned into the “good Jews” (pro-Zionist and well established in the West). Some of them became figureheads of neoconservatism!

The desperation with which the Holocaust paradigm is projected by modern Zionism and Western (especially U.S.) political establishments is not kosher. The attempt to pre-empt criticism of Israeli and U.S. policy and strategy in the Middle East will hardly be feasible in the longer run. Besides the dissidence toward the dominating ideology in Israel, the success of Zionism in the establishment of a modern Jewish capitalist state contains the seeds of its own societal “post-Zionism.” From an initial projection of pioneering social-nationalism, Israeli society in recent years seems to be affected by an identity and material crisis accentuated by the implementation of neoliberalism. From having been originally one of the most egalitarian Western societies, Israeli society has since the 1980s become one of the most unequal. The poverty rate in Israel is one of the highest of advanced capitalist countries with approximately 22 percent of the population living below the poverty line.35 The socio-economic prospects are bleak for a sizable number of Israelis and this seeping crisis translates into a crisis of identity for the Israeli-born generation who does not relate to Jewishness. “It is ideologically indifferent, secular, petit bourgeois in lifestyle and outlook, apathetic to world Jewry, and concerned with self-fulfillment only.”36

The Israeli dissident politician, Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Knesset, fears that the Zionist experiment will lead to a tragedy for the Jewish state. Without having become anti-Zionist, he nevertheless feels that the original principles of Zionism and the values of the declaration of independence have been betrayed and that Israel has been transformed into a colonial state led by a corrupt clique of outlaws. In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot in 2003, he foresees a bleak future for the entire project of Zionism: “The end of Zionism is at our door…it is possible that a Jewish state will survive, but it will be another kind of state, ugly because of being foreign to our values.”37


  1. John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007). The authors of the book had written an article on the same subject that could not find a U.S. publication willing to publish it. It was published in the London Review of Books 28, no. 26 (March 26, 2003) with the title “The Israel Lobby.”
  2. Donald Macintyre, “Bush hails Israelis as ‘chosen people’ but ignores Palestinians on ‘catastrophe’ day,” The Independent, May 16, 2008.
  3. Tony Karon, “Israel is 60, Zionism is Dead, What Now?
  4. See Maxime Rodinson, Cult, Ghetto and State (London: Al Saqi Books, 1983), 144.
  5. See Nathan Weinstock, Le pain de misèreHistoire du mouvement ouvrier juif en Europe, Volume II L’Europe centrale et occidentale jusqu’en 1914 (Paris: Editions La Découverte, 1984).
  6. Rodinson, Cult, Ghetto and State, 145.
  7. Rodinson ironizes over this type of analysis by writing that it was “in accordance with Marxist dogmatism,” 144.
  8. Yakov M. Rabkin, A Threat from Within (London: Zed Books, 2006), 22.
  9. Nathan Weinstock, Le zionisme contre Israel (Paris: Francois Maspéro, 1969), 44.
  10. Theodor Herzl, The Jews’ State (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1997), 148–49.
  11. Lenni Brenner, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators (Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill, 1983), 1.
  12. For a discussion of the two approaches see: Nina Berman, “Thoughts on Zionism in the Context of German-Middle Eastern Relations,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 24 (2004): 133–44.
  13. E. J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire 18751914 (London: Abacus, 1995), 158–59.
  14. Brenner, Zionism, 10. This opinion is interesting in the context of the present discussion concerning the power of the Israel lobby in Washington, which is alleged to determine U.S. policy in the Middle East (see footnote 1). I have no evidence to present to the contrary, but I very much doubt that Washington would have followed the advice of a Jewish organization to determine its policy and strategy. U.S. national interests were in my opinion the determining element behind the decision to enter the Second World War.
  15. Walter Laqueur, The Israel-Arab Reader (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1970), 36.
  16. Chaim Bermant, The Cousinhood (London: Macmillan, 1971), 260.
  17. The start of the Cold War can be dated to the events that took place at that time. See D. F. Fleming, The Cold War and its Origins, 1917-1950, vol. I (Garden City, NY: Double Day & Company, 1961).
  18. Tony Karon, “Is a Jewish Glasnost Coming to America?” September 14, 2007.
  19. Winston S. Churchill, Zionism versus Bolshevism.
  20. Brenner, Zionism, 10.
  21. Brenner, Zionism, chapter 7, p. 83.
  22. Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust, (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1989), 15–16.
  23. Weinstock, Le zionisme contre Israel, 31.
  24. Weinstock, Le zionisme contre Israel, 146
  25. Ella Shohat, “Sephardim in Israel,” in Adam Shatz, ed., Prophets Outcast (New York: Nation Books, 2004), 278.
  26. Shohat, “Sephardim in Israel,” 290.
  27. Paul M. Sweezy, “Israel and Imperialism,” Monthly Review (October 1967): 5.
  28. Leo Huberman, “Israel Is Not the Main Enemy,” Monthly Review (October 1967): 9.
  29. Simha Flapan, “The Birthday of Israel and the Destruction of Palestine,” in Shatz, ed., Prophets Outcast, 138.
  30. Herbert C. Kelman, “Israel in Transition from Zionism to Post-Zionism,” The Annals of the American Academy (January 1998): 47.
  31. Baruch Kimmerling, “Politicide,” Manière de voir, no. 98 (April–Mai 2008): 57–58.
  32. I. F. Stone, “Holy War,” in Schatz, ed., Prophets Outcast, see footnote 24.
  33. Norman G. Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry (London: Verso, 2000), 11–16.
  34. Tony Judt, “Trop de Shoa, tue la Shoa,” Le Monde diplomatique, June 2008.
  35. Hunger in Israel”.
  36. Sammy Smooha, “The Implications of the Transition to Peace for Israeli Society” The Annals (January 1998): 33.
  37. Quoted by Eric Rouleau, “L’autre judaisme d’Avraham Burg,” Le Monde diplomatique, May 2008, 27.
2009, Volume 61, Issue 01 (May)
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