In response to recent attacks on Jeremy Corbyn concerning “Anti-Semitism”, the British Labor Party leader sought to appease Zionist organisations in an op-ed in the Guardian (3 August 2018) in which he disavowed the notion that “Zionism is racism” as an old-fashioned and misplaced Lefty idea. At the same time, liberal Zionists, who are critical of Israeli governmental policies, lament the “betrayal” of early democratic ideals. Recently, Ron Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress wrote in the NYT (13 August 2018): “The Zionist movement has been unwaveringly democratic from its very start. Writ large upon its flag were liberty, equality and human rights for all.” From this perspective, Israel’s recent Nation-State Basic Law, which constitutionalises Jewish supremacy, is a mere aberration or unfortunate development.
Facing such a blunt rewriting of history, it is crucial to expose the falsity of these narratives and recall the objectionable nature of Zionism, even prior to the establishment of Israel in 1948 and prior to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. This is the task of this intervention, which revisits some of the early debates from the 1890s to 1948. The reason for this method is that Zionism, as Edward Said argues in The Question of Palestine, needs to be studied both genealogically (to examine the lineage of its ideas and their discursive and institutional affinities), and practically (as an “accumulation” of material and symbolic resources and “displacement” of others’ material and symbolic resources). The focus here will be on early liberal and progressive critiques of Zionism. This presentation of ideas illustrates that there are sufficient grounds to object to Zionism, even if in its liberal Zionist form. What is objectionable about Zionism should not be reduced to its right wing or religious continuum.
Can Zionism be Liberal?
Writing in The New Republic on 8 March 1919, the legal philosopher and “legal realist” Morris Cohen decried the inability to have “clear and honest thinking” about Zionism. He posited that Zionism is inconsistent with liberalism:
Zionism is not merely a philanthropic movement to help the homeless. It claims to be a solution of the Jewish problem; and its emphasis on Palestine rests on a nationalist philosophy which is a direct challenge to all those who still believe in liberalism.
Despite all their differences, what unites Zionists, according to Cohen, is an antipathy to Jewish assimilation that would depend on the success of the European Enlightenment. Declaring the failure of the Enlightenment, Zionists developed a “racial philosophy of history” that “fundamentally accept[s] the racial philosophy of these anti-Semites, but draw[s] different conclusions”, according to which “it is the Jew that is the pure and superior race.” For Cohen, “these beliefs are radically false and profoundly inimical to liberal or humanistic civilization.” Indeed, “History… shows that the claim to purity of race… is entirely mythical.”
Cohen further argues that “nationalistic Zionism” contravenes American liberalism because it seeks “group autonomy”, not a “complete individual liberty for the Jew.” It thus privileges a particular group over others, and furthermore it does not separate religion from the state. Cohen writes:
how could a Jewish Palestine allow complete religious freedom, freedom of intermarriage and free non-Jewish immigration, without soon losing its very reason for existence? A national Jewish Palestine must necessarily mean a state founded on a peculiar race, a tribal religion and a mystic belief in a peculiar soil, whereas liberal America stands for the separation of church and state, the free mixing of races, and the fact that men can change their habitation and language and still advance the process of civilization.
While Cohen presents an idealized view of American practice at the time of his writing, his fundamental point is that liberal principles are rejected by Zionist ideology not only at the level of practice but also at the level of principle, the likely consequences of the ideology, and its ultimate objective. His view of early Zionism is vindicated by later scholars who studied “labour Zionism”, like Ze’ev Sternhal (The Founding Myths of Israel), and showcased that its leaders were “nationalist socialists” who “despised abstract principles and had only contempt for universal norms and values.” Cohen was writing before the Zionist project materialized in a state that practiced all these limitations on immigration, marriage, and citizenship: the exclusion of the formal legal principle of equal protection of the laws from the bill of rights; a legislation that grants Jews exclusive and immediate access to citizenship; a citizenship legislation that prevents Arab citizens from naturalising their spouses; and a constitutional law that elevates Jewish supremacy to a constitutional status.
Is Zionist Nationalism a “Liberal Nationalism”?
Modern-day liberal Zionists, such as Yuli Tamir (Liberal Nationalism), seek to defend a theory of “liberal nationalism” in order to justify the Zionist enterprise. Zionist nationalism, however, is no liberal. It is an anachronistic nationalism that seeks a homogenous state. In her essay “The Crisis of Zionism” (1943), Hannah Arendt (The Jewish Writings) critiqued the Zionist dogma that “the Jewish question as a whole can be solved only by the reconstruction of Palestine” which “will eradicate anti-Semitism”. Arendt argued that this argument is false on two grounds: first, the Russian Revolution and the United States as well as the project of a European federation provided examples for the possibility of resolving the minorities’ questions without “the exodus of Jews from their former homelands” by creating a state that is the state of all its citizens that provides constitutional guarantees for minority rights. Second, the Zionist fixation on Palestine is wrongheaded, she added, because “as if we actually believe that this small land of ours—which is not even ours—could live an autonomous political life”. Zionism in her analysis is rooted in an anachronistic nationalism that conceives of the “solution of minority or nationality problems” as (exclusively) an “autonomous national state with a homogenous population”.
Zionism is occasionally described as a revolutionary movement seeking national self-determination. In contrast, Arendt argued, in her 1946 review of Herzl’s The Jewish State, that Herzl’s was an “essentially reactionary movement” and that “He had a blind hatred of all revolutionary movements as such and equally blind faith in the goodness and stability of the society of his times.” He viewed reality as fixed and immutable, and in forming this view he ignored social, political, and historical differences. This leads to nightmarish reality that would “exclude [the Jews] altogether from the human community.” Once stripped from the confidence in the “helpful nature of anti-Semitism” after the Holocaust, it is likely to lead to suicidal tendencies, Arendt warned. Unlike those who wish to count Zionism and its project of a Jewish state as part of demands for national self-determination, Herzl, according to Arendt, “saw Jewish demands as unrelated to all other events and trends” and he “was very careful not to tie the claims for Jewish liberation to the claims of other peoples”.
The “illiberal” attitude of the Zionist philosophy is deep seated. Two factors according to Arendt provided the fertile ground for the rise of Zionism. First, is the secularization of European Jewry that led many to hold “unrealistic” and utopian views, that is, it made them “less capable than ever before of facing and understanding the real situation.” Second, is anti-Semitism and the rise of assimilated Jewish intelligentsia. As an assimilated Jew, Herzl could understand anti-Semitism “on its own political terms”. “With the demagogic politicians” of anti-Semitic Europe, Arendt wrote, “Herzl shared both a contempt for the masses and a very real affinity with them.” Moreover, the Zionist belief in the eternal and universal nature of anti-Semitism is: “Obviously… plain racist chauvinism and it is equally obvious that this division between Jews and all other peoples — who are to be classed as enemies — does not differ from other master-race theories”.
The Non-democratic nature of Zionism
Arendt (The Jewish Writings 180-181, 354) points out that “Zionism has never been a true popular movement. It has spoken and acted in the name of the Jewish people, but it has shown relatively little concern whether the masses of that people truly stand behind it or not.” In fact, the Zionist debate with the assimilationists marginalized the “fundamental conflict between the Jewish national movement and Jewish plutocrats.” Indeed, according to Arendt, “political Zionism”, starting with Herzl, was not democratic as it had no room for a belief in “government by the people”.
This is clear in Herzl’s dismissal in The Jewish State of Rousseau’s social contract, his advocacy of elitist politics, and his call for “aristocratic republic”. Herzl’s open disdain for democracy is also clear in his diaries (Volume I). In an entry on 21 June 1895 he writes: “Democracy is political nonsense which can only be decided upon by a mob in the excitement of a revolution.” He elaborates in his “Address to the family” on 15 June 1895 what he would repeat almost verbatim in The Jewish State:
What will our Constitution be like? It will be neither a monarchic nor a democratic one… I am against democracy because it is extreme in its approval and disapproval, tends to idle parliamentary babble, and produces that class of men, the professional politicians. Nor are the present-day nations really suited to the democratic form of government… For democracy presupposes a very simple morality… I have no faith in the political virtue of our people… Government by referendum does not make sense, in my opinion, because in politics there are no simple questions which can be answered merely by Yes or No. The masses are even more prone than parliaments to be misled… I could not even explain the protective tariff or free trade to the people, let alone some currency problem or international treaty… Politics must work from the top down… I am thinking of an ‘aristocratic republic’… Our people… will also gratefully accept the new Constitution that we give it. But whenever opposition may appear, we shall break it down… if need be we shall push it through by brute force.
Zionism and Settler Colonialism
This illiberal and anti-democratic genesis of Zionism is intertwined with colonialism and imperialism. Zionism is not merely a discourse but also a set of institutions and practices. At the turn of the 19th century “colonialism” was not yet an infamous word. Unlike today’s Zionists who seek to deny origins, early Zionists were happy to own it. In 1898 the 2nd Zionist Congress established the “Jewish Colonial Trust Limited”, out of which the “Jewish National Fund” was later founded in 1901. These are institutions whose mission was to colonize Palestine and uproot the non-Jewish inhabitants. In line with the colonial ideas of his time, Herzl declared in The Jewish State: “We should there [Palestine] form a portion of a rampart Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism”. In his fictional account Altneuland (1902) Herzl did not conceal his disdain for the native inhabitants:
Everywhere misery in bright Oriental rags. Poor Turks, dirty Arabs, timid Jews lounged about-indolent, beggarly, hopeless… The inhabitants of the blackish Arab villages looked like brigands. Naked children played in the dirty alleys.
This colonization project differed from other colonial projects in one crucial respect. This difference goes to the heart of Zionist ideology and makes it part of the settler colonial phenomena. Arendt (The Jewish Writings) points out how for Zionist ideology being anti-capitalist corresponded to being anti-Arab because Zionist ideas and practice concerning “Hebrew labour”, and “redemption” of the Jew through working in the land, sought to prevent Jewish capitalism from exploiting cheap Arab labour. Here then the ideology reveals its racialism and settler colonialism: rather than exploitation what is required is dispossession. On the one hand, as Franz Fanon remarks in The Wretched of the Earth: “In the colonies the economic substructure is also a superstructure. The cause is the consequence; you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.” On the other hand, as Patrick Wolfe suggests, settler colonialism’s primary objective is not to exploit the natives’ labour, by extracting surplus value, but to replace the natives altogether and eliminate their political existence. For him, settler colonialism is a structure not an event.
Therefore, when liberal Zionists seek to separate between 1967 and 1948, between consequences and origins, they err in reducing the ongoing nature of the settler colonial enterprise into an event. Instead of exploitation, Zionism chose ethnic cleansing and dispossession. Early critics like Arendt and Morris Cohen warned against ignoring the native inhabitants’ rights. In an essay entitled “Zionism Reconsidered”, Arendt attacked the World Zionist Organisation’s Atlantic City Resolution of October 1944, “in which the Jewish minority had granted rights to the Arab majority. This time the Arabs were simply not mentioned in the resolution, which obviously leaves them the choice between voluntary emigration or second-class citizenship”. In a later essay, Arendt wrote that the Zionists overlooked the native population in their preoccupation with the slogan “the people without a country needed a country without the people.”
Similarly, Morris Cohen’s 1919 essay rebuked the “idealist” Zionist position that lambasts non-Zionist Jews as “materialists”. This idealism, he pointed out, betrays a “disinclination to look actual difficult problems in the face”. Indeed, “idealistic Zionists are quite willing to ignore the rights of the vast majority of the non-Jewish population in Palestine.” He ultimately warned against Balkanization, “but whether tribalism triumphs or not, it is none the less evil, and thinking men should reject it as such.”
Moreover, Arendt (The Jewish Writings) objected to the partition of Palestine claiming that:
it is simply preposterous to believe that the further partition of so small a territory whose present border lines are already the result of two previous partitions—the first from Syria and the second from Transjordan—could resolve the conflict of two peoples, especially in a period when similar conflicts are not territorially soluble on much larger areas.
In another essay, Arendt pointed out the imperial policies and international power politics that supported Zionism—such as the Balfour Declaration, the British Mandate, and the US and UN support for partition—emboldened the Zionists and weakened the non-Zionist Jews who opposed what they considered as extremist and unrealistic demands. She critiqued non-Zionist Jews for not insisting on the question of the “presence of Arabs in Palestine” and for “lack[ing] the courage to warn… of the possible consequences of partition and the declaration of a Jewish state.” She added that “The partition of so small a country could at best mean the petrifaction of the conflict, which would result in arrested development for both peoples; at worst it would signify a temporary stage during which both parties would prepare for further war.” (The Jewish Writings)
Cohen and Arendt’s cool-headed warnings went unheeded. The dire consequences of partition and establishment of the state materialized in the mass expulsion of the Palestinians. If anything, Cohen and Arendt underestimated the lengths to which Zionists would carry their violent takeover of another nation’s homeland. As documented by Nur Masalaha in his books Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of “Transfer” in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948 and The Politics of Denial: Israel and the Palestinian Refugee Problem, Zionist leaders pursued a transfer policy from the mid 1930 till 1948 “almost obsessively”. Many leaders of Mapai (like Avraham Katzenlson) and Jewish National Fund operators (Yosef Weitz) supported the expulsion of the Palestinians. Mapai would become the ruling party in Israel for decades.
Ben-Gurion himself had voiced his support to a “compulsory transfer” of the indigenous population on several occasions and his diaries show that he was willing to use force “to expel the Arabs and take their places” (5 October 1937). A military plan called Plan Dalet, writes Avi Shlaim (The Iron Wall), “both permitted and justified the forcible expulsion of Arab civilians” because it ordered “the capture of Arab cities and the destruction of villages”. Indeed, David Ben-Gurion sanctioned during 1948 the army officer Yitzhak Rabin’s expulsion of the natives of Lydda. Rabin, as per his memoirs, wholeheartedly agreed with the necessity of the expulsion of the civilian inhabitants.
Zionism and Imperialism
It is often said that Zionism cannot be colonialist because of the lack of a home country that expands into overseas territories. This lack of home country does not, however, negate the need for an imperial sponsor. Arendt argued that Jewish nationalism will inevitably have to rely on foreign powers, in other words it will have to tie its fate with imperialist forces. She wrote (The Jewish Writings):
Nationalism is bad enough when it trusts in nothing but the rude force of the nation. A nationalism that necessarily and admittedly depends on the force of a foreign nation is certainly worse. This is the threatened fate of Jewish nationalism and of the proposed Jewish state, surrounded inevitably by Arabs states and Arab peoples.
She warned that a continued conflict with the Arabs would make the Zionists look like “tools” or “agents of foreign and hostile interests” and this “will inevitably lead to a new wave of Jew-hatred”. What Zionism offers the Jews is the establishment of an “imperial sphere of interest” under the “delusion of nationhood” while “alienating neighbours.”
Specifically, the Balfour Declaration represented such a Zionist alliance with imperialism because of the British interests in Palestine. A “politics free of illusion”, in Arendt’s view, requires an acknowledgment that the Balfour Declaration would serve imperial-colonial interests, namely the protection of the Suez Canal and the route to India. She writes: “Ever since the Balfour Declaration, Jews have been called the ‘pacemakers of British imperialism.’… Once again we are the receivers of our emancipation… and even a ‘Jewish state’… is offered to us as addendum to foreign interests and as part of a foreign history, that of the British Empire.” (p. 205, 58) To use Fawwaz Traboulsi’s words, in a 1969 New Left Review article, the Balfour Declaration was the “wedding ring” that married Zionism to imperialism. Indeed, the goal of Jewish national home was inscribed into the British Mandate’s founding document, which also granted the Zionist Agency a formal role.
Similarly, the pacifist Zionist Martin Buber wrote in 1939 (A Land of two Peoples) in the wake of the Arab Revolt: “Our error lay in acting within the scheme of western colonial policies…. The result was that we received the stamp of the agent of imperialism…”. Crucially, the British brutal quashing of the 1936-1939 revolt was a decisive factor in what transpired in 1948.
In lieu of popular and democratic politics, Zionism led by Herzl and later by Haim Weizmann was narrowly focused on negotiations in the corridors of imperial powers. Arendt points out Herzl’s “opportunism” in negotiating with “the great powers”. He negotiated with European powers “appealing… to their interest in getting rid of the Jewish question through the emigration of their Jews.” These negotiations failed because these governments were puzzled by “a man who insisted on the spontaneity of a movement [anti-Semitism] which they themselves stirred up.” More appallingly, during Herzl’s negotiations with the Turkish sultan, Herzl dismissed students’ protests against him negotiating with “a government which had just slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Armenians” by saying: “This will be useful for me with the Sultan” (The Jewish Writings, 362-363). During a time of agitation and growing Arab demands for national self-determination from the Ottomans, Herzl presented his project as the creation of a minority that would be loyal to the sultan.
What is the nature of differences amongst Zionists?
The differences between labor Zionism and right-wing Zionism had to do only with the means required to achieve the end which both colonial strands shared. According to Arendt (The Jewish Writings), although Weizmann’s so-called “practical Zionism” seems at face value a “deliberately complicated talk designed to hide political intentions”, the “truth of the matter is that the Zionist ideology, in the Herzlian version, had a definite tendency toward… Revisionist [i.e. right-wing] attitudes, and could escape from them by only a wilful blindness to the real political issues that were at stake.” The only difference between centrist and extreme right-wing Zionism, in Arendt’s view was merely their policy towards England as the mandatory power
Moreover, according to Avi Shlaim’s The Iron Wall, Ben-Gurion realized that there is a fundamental conflict between the Arabs and the Zionists, and he declared during June 1936 that, “peace for us is a means. The end is the complete and full realization of Zionism.” As for Ben-Gurion’s agreement for partition, Shlaim writes: “The difference between [Ben-Gurion] and the [extremist] Revisionists was not that he was a territorial minimalist while they were territorial maximalists but rather that he pursued a gradualist strategy while they adhered to an all-or-nothing approach.”
In fact, socialist Zionism is as colonialist as the right wing Revisionist factions. Moses Hess a founder of Labor Zionism, preceded Herzl in envisioning in his Rome and Jerusalem (1856) “the founding of Jewish colonies in the land of their ancestors” when conditions in “the Orient” allow a “restoration of the Jewish state”. Like Herzl, he also envisioned imperial patrons. His was France.
Resisting Zionism: Gandhi v. Buber
Martin Buber represents a spiritual and tolerant Zionism that objected to the imperialist alliances that Zionists made, and rejected what he considered as the false claims of nationalism and advocated non-violence. He advocated a form of bi-national solution. For instance, Martin Buber argued after the Arab Revolt 1936-1939 that the goals of free Jewish immigration to Palestine and free purchase of property should be achieved by the approval of the League of Nations and an agreement with the Arabs (A Land of two Peoples). Yet, reading him today, one is struck by the fact that his thinking combines similarities to the American imperialist doctrine of “manifest destiny”, colonialist claims of a civilizing mission, and colonial theories inspired by Lockean labor-based land-grab. Martin Buber may be an anti-imperialist, but he is certainly a colonialist.
In his writings in 1920, Buber portrayed the struggle over Palestine as one in which the Jewish immigrants would modernize Palestine, would be welcomed by the lower classes, and would be opposed only by the upper classes, namely the notables and the feudal landlords. The Jews’ right to Palestine rests on three prongs, he argued: an ancient link with “the ancient homeland” that is stronger than the notion of historic rights (“a perpetual good”); an appropriation of a “wasteland” through labour; and a trans-historic mission of the Jewish people of “fulfilling an ancient purpose”. His claims against Jewish nationalism are on behalf of a “divine mission” which rejects the Zionist notion that the Jews are “like unto all the nations” because “their destiny is different from all other nations of the earth”.
Although he rejects the imperialist façade of humanitarianism in supporting the Jewish National Home policy, his own arguments make the same move: an apparent internationalism that is essentially parochial. Although he rejects Zionist nationalism, he effectively prefigured theorists of nationalism, who curved out a loophole for the so-called “ancient nations”. Nationalism, as we know it, is a modern phenomenon, but at the hands of those who deploy the concept of “ancient nations” it becomes rather paradoxically a pre-modern phenomenon. Mystifyingly, the “nation” becomes both trans-historical and extra-territorial essence.
In at least one sense, this Zionism is even more dangerous for Palestinians: unlike Herzl’s pragmatism exemplified in his willingness to contemplate any national home, Buber considers Palestine as the only place where the ingathering of exiles, spiritual regeneration, and Jewish redemption can happen.
It is useful here to contrast this pacifist Zionism with Mahatma Gandhi’s position who wrote in November 1938:
But my sympathy [to Jews’ conditions in Europe] does not blind me to the requirements of justice. The cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me… Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs. What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct… Surely it would be a crime against humanity to reduce the proud Arabs so that Palestine can be restored to the Jews partly or wholly as their national home…. The nobler course would be to insist on a just treatment of the Jews wherever they are born and bred….
I have no doubt that [the Jews in Palestine] are going about it in the wrong way. The Palestine of the Biblical conception is not a geographical tract. It is in their hearts. But if they must look to the Palestine of geography as their national home, it is wrong to enter it under the shadow of the British gun. A religious act cannot be performed with the aid of the bayonet or the bomb. They can settle in Palestine only by the goodwill of the Arabs….
I am not defending the Arab excesses… But according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds.
In contrast, in his reply to Gandhi, Buber presents the conflict as one of two opposing claims with no yardstick to determine who is right or wrong: “no objective decision can be made as to which is just or unjust”. When confronted with the realities of history and power, suddenly the religious Buber who is convinced of the historical mission of his people reverts to post-modern-sounding claims of lack of objectivity. When confronted with the injustice at the base of his own project, Buber rejects historic rights. When confronted with the spiritualism of a “Biblical Palestine”, he exposes his materialism by insisting on realising it in the world and in human history.
Buber’s claim to equally valid rights continues to be the basis of many liberal Zionists even if they have shifted from a bi-national solution to a two-state solution that would presumably reflect this equivalence while maintaining Jewish demographic majority and denying the Palestinian right to return. The Zionist enterprise in all its forms had entailed their expulsion, and it has since then entailed their exile and subordination. Like Buber’s non-violence, modern day-liberals deny the Palestinians’ the ability to meaningfully resist their servitude and seek to maintain that which was achieved by violence and force. Liberal Zionists may dislike the means but they surely like the results. To echo Immanuel Kant: if you will the end then you will the means for achieving that end, and if you do not will the end how come you are not willing the means to resist it?
Nimer Sultany is Senior Lecturer in Public Law, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London