Against Appeasement: What’s Wrong with Zionism?

by | 27 Aug 2018

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declares Israel an independent state 14 May 1948

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


  1. An appallingly bad-faith piece which seeks to obfuscate the reality of modern anti-semitism via a cherry-picked list of theorists.

    Just the first sentence, in which the motivations of this piece are laid conspicuously bare, can be easily deconstructed.

    By referring to ‘recent attacks on Jeremy Corbyn’, as well as putting ‘anti-semitism’ into scare quotes, the author instantly confesses their unwillingness to accept that anti-semitism is a real problem affecting the UK Labour Party movement (or even the ‘British Labor Party’, as they misspell it).

    For some reason the author fails to provide a link to the offending op-ed in the Guardian. ( It is frankly bizarre to seek to discredit Corbyn’s (albeit inadequate) attempt to deal with a problem that he recognises in his own party.

    Moreover, whether through ignorance or disingenuity, the author omits to indicate the obvious context of why Labour should choose to say that one can believe in Zionism without being racist. Most pressing is the problem that within racist circles, on both the right and left, ‘Zionist’ is increasingly used as a pejorative synonym simply for ‘Jew’. It is increasingly deployed to support a broader matrix of anti-semitic tropes in popular discourse. This is a problem, no matter how much Arendt you profess to read.

    The question that the author seeks to silence, therefore, is not what Zionism means to Jews, but what it means to anti-semites.

    • A load of baloney. There is no anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. There is a campaign to vilify legitimate criticism of crimes against humanity committed by Israel on a daily basis in the occupied Palestinian territory. This in itself is deplorable because anyone with an iota of decency will not accept what Israel is doing, let alone demonizing the moral rectitude of those who do not wish to be complicit by silence.

      • I don’t usually engage with racist cranks on the internet, but Emmanuel’s comment has riled me at a moment of weakness.

        One can of course criticise Israeli state actions *and* accept that anti-semites exist on the left. Quite why people think this is a zero-sum game is beyond me.

        As for the article itself, well, the author might want to reflect on exactly why it would attract support in the form of Emmanuel’s comment.

        • It is not unusual from honesty to touch raw nerves. No-one should turn a blind eye to Israel’s crimes.

        • I am curious to know what precisely do you consider racist in Emanuel’s comment and do consider anyone whose views are different than yours a ‘crank’?

    • I agree with Daniel’s comments, unfortunately, this piece is not a helpful contribution to debate.
      For those interested in the diverse forms of zionism historically, I recommend:
      Alroey, G. (2016) Zionism without zion: The Jewish territorial organization and its conflict with the zionist organization. Wayne State University Press.
      Conforti, Y. (2010) East and West in Jewish nationalism: Conflicting types in the Zionist vision? Nations and Nationalism. 16(2), 201-219.
      Rovner, A. L. (2014) In the shadow of zion: Promised lands before Israel. NYU Press.
      Löwy, M., & Larrier, R. B. (1980) Jewish messianism and libertarian utopia in central Europe (1900-1933). New German Critique. 20, 105-115.
      Goldstein, Y. (2010) Eastern Jews vs. western Jews: The ahad Ha’am–Herzl dispute and its cultural and social implications. Jewish History. 24 (3), 355-377.

      For those interested in Hannah Arendt’s perspective on European Jewish nationalism, I offer a quote:
      “I do not think it is utopian to hope for the possibility of a commonwealth of European nations with a parliament of its own. As for us [Jews] at least, this would be our sole salvation. …. Within such a commonwealth we could be recognised as a nation and be represented in a European parliament. For this ‘solution’ of the Jewish question, the conundrum of a people without land in search of a land without people – practically speaking, the moon, or a folktale free from politics – would finally have become meaningless” (The Jewish Writings, 130)

      • Of course, you and all other apologists for Israel agree with Daniel too! Mind you, the US had threatened the Palestinians with freezing aid if they refer Israeli leaders to the ICC. Now that aid was cut, it is hoped the thugs will be brought to justice.
        See Shulamit Aloni, former israeli minister, admits that the holocaust and the “antisemite” accusation are used to manipulate those who criticize zionists.
        Go to:
        As you see even Israelis have the decency to tell the truth.

      • I am an admirer of Nimer Sultany, and specifically of his work on Palestine, so these comments are offered in a sympathetic spirit. I have described myself, and been described by others, as anti-Zionist, and I support the criticism of Zionism as a political project. I am also however sympathetic to the points made by Daniel and Didi above, specifically as regards the intended role of this critique in the current UK context.

        I think it is worth considering the broader context invoked at the opening: contemporary antisemitism in the UK, and to ask what the reader is supposed to take from this article with regard to that. I recently posted an article of mine that was in its own way an attempt to contribute to this debate (the controversy around defining antisemitism, from the point of view of censorship): here, . Following some substantive discussion, it soon attracted a blatantly antisemitic comment (the word “Juden” with all the Nazi associations that the German term was intended to invoke). This was a contribution, not from a robot, but from an actual human being. As odd as it felt (given that the point of the article was to expose censorship), I had to delete all the comments (since LinkedIn would not let me delete just the antisemitic one). I censored an antisemitic commentary on an article that was about antisemitism, because that display of hatred showed me that it was the wrong forum for serious debate. I am hopeful that this is a better forum for that discussion.

        I won’t try to say even a fraction of what might be said in response to these issues here. But I will invoke an analogy. In “Hegel and Haiti,” Susan Buck-Morss argues that Hegelian philosophy has crucially shaped the colonizing process, and the justification of slavery, in Haiti. It is a good argument, and she is right. But I don’t know that the lesson to take from it is that we should therefore start attacking Hegelians (see Emanuel’s comment above), or treat Hegelianism as a philosophy teleogically destined to legitimate oppression. (The Marxist tradition is enough to refute that.) I can accept that Zionism is racism, but to give such an analysis substance we would need to consider how all nationalisms are racist to a greater or lesser degree. A question such as “Can Zionism be Liberal?” seems to me inflected by the kind of teleology that is arguably part of the problem with Zionism itself. The world is not ruled by rationality or consistency, and ideas can mean whatever we want them to mean when they operate in the political realm. As far as I am concerned, there is no idea that cannot be liberal if it wants to be, and it is difficult to take Cohen’s overtures to “American Liberalism” seriously, given that they were written in Jim Crow America.

        Of course, it can be claimed that the big difference between Hegelians in Haiti and Zionists in Israel is that the latter identify as such, whereas most colonial officials do not directly attribute their crimes to their experience with reading Hegel. As Marxists, or leftists, I think we should be attuned to the dangers of false consciousness, and to the ways in which all ideas can be instrumentalized for political gain by people in a position to exploit others. That shouldn’t prevent us from offering critical intellectual histories of Zionism (and this article appears to belong within that genre) but I think that task should be distinguished from commentary on the weaponization of antisemitism as well as on its disturbing ongoing reality.

        Finally, with regard to the claim the Israeli “colonization project differed from other colonial projects in one crucial respect” and the subsequent reference to Fanon, it seems to me that that quotation works equally well as a description of classical colonialism, so the distinction between colonialism and settler colonialism here seems rather fuzzy.

        With that said, I think this is important work, and I hope the author continues to develop this critique.

  2. Can’t believe I need to explain this Aaron, but it was the bit about there being no anti-semitism in the Labour Party that irked me. I am by no means a supporter or defender of the Israeli government ffs.

    • As you express your irking, you could do well to clarify where you stand on the problematic equating of any critique of Israeli violations of human rights and international humanitarian law with anti-semitism, and to make sure you’re not confusing the two, and that anyone expressing concerns over human rights violations and continued unlawful occupations of Palestinians is not labeled as anti-Semitic as a means to silence these important and legitimate voices.

    • You have to impossibly innocent to think that this “crisis of anti-Semitism in Labour” is driven by forces which apolitical, purely concerned with the public good and wholly disconnected from Tel Aviv’s intensive hasbara efforts (why? what are they trying to hide and who do they think they are fooling?)

      “Al Jazeera Investigations exposes how the Israel lobby influences British politics. A six-month undercover investigation reveals how Israel penetrates different levels of British democracy.

      Episode One: In part one, Al Jazeera Investigations reveals how pro-Israel groups are trying to influence Britain’s youth.

      Episode Two: In part two, our undercover reporter joins a delegation from the Israeli embassy at last year’s Labour Party Conference.

      Episode Three: In part three, our undercover reporter witnesses a heated conversation between two opposing activists. The evidence raises serious questions about whether accusations of anti-Semitism are used to stifle political debate.

      Episode Four: In part four, the senior political officer at the Israeli embassy in London discusses a potential plot to ‘take down’ British politicians – including a minister.”

  3. “Didi” can list all the wonderfully evasive and magical books that he or she likes. What “Didi” seems to forget is the existence of objective reality.
    “Zionism” is not the name of an avant-garde art movement where we can have pleasant disputes over the details of our manifestos. Zionism is the ideology of one of the most violent, brutal, shameless and mass-murderous projects of military colonialism in modern history.
    The *real* meaning and definition of Zionism is that which most closely corresponds to the realities on the ground at present, historically and as these trends continue into the future.
    Does “Didi”‘s disgusting capacity to engage in atrocity and genocide denialism extend so far that s/he is honestly going to try to deny the central place of Herzl in the formation of early Zionist ideas and colonial policy?

    Nimer Sultany’s essay relies upon giving an account of Herzl as he is clearly a foundational figure whose colonial ideology closely conforms to Israeli military colonial history. Albeit in an even more extremist form with regards modern Israel which is a rogue nuclear state prosecuting a mass-murderous project of ethnic cleansing land and resources theft. Can the same be said about your favoured list? In which case, your list belongs on the shelves of SF and Fantasy literature.

    The extremism of Israel’s current trajectory is such that David Rothkopf’s statement of dismay written in January of this year has already become dated with the latest series of Gaza massacres and with the ultra-nationalist Jewish State Law.

    “Israel Is Becoming an Illiberal Thugocracy, and I’m Running Out of Ways to Defend It”
    What about Netanyahu? Are you going to disappear into a magical list of fantastical works in the forlorn attempt to deny the existence of Netanyahu and this monster’s actions and words?
    Here’s the latest contribution that Netanyahu has made to the history of war criminal infamy (let’s see you try to deny this):

    “The weak crumble, are slaughtered and are erased from history while the strong, for good or for ill, survive. The strong are respected, and alliances are made with the strong, and in the end peace is made with the strong.”

    See also amongst the responses.
    “A message from an American of different faith:
    Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
    Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
    Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.”

    See also this for video a quick summary of Netanyahu’s supreme indifference to the anti-Semitism of ultra-nationalists world-wide so long as they support, and identify with, ultra-nationalist Zionist military colonialism and ethnic cleansing.

    “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likes to accuse critics of Israel of being anti-Semites. But how does he explain his own glaring ties to anti-Semitic world leaders and evangelical preachers, not to mention his defense of Adolf Hitler and his son’s attack on George Soros? Does defending Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands make you immune from the charge of anti-Jewish hatred?”

  4. “The Jewish Labour Movement acted as a proxy for the Israeli embassy, a document obtained by The Electronic Intifada reveals.
    “We work with Shai, we know him very well,” the group’s director Ella Rose admitted to an undercover reporter in 2016, a transcript of the conversation shows.
    Shai Masot was the Israeli embassy spy forced out of the UK after an undercover Al Jazeera investigation last year exposed him plotting to “take down” a senior UK government minister.
    In a transcript of a conversation Rose had with an Al Jazeera reporter who was using the pseudonym “Robin,” Rose admits to working closely with Masot both before and after she was appointed executive director of the Jewish Labour Movement.
    The transcript contains material that was not broadcast as part of Al Jazeera’s January 2017 film The Lobby which exposed Masot and cast light on the activities of pro-Israel groups in the UK.”

    More on the Jewish Labour Movement can be found here:

  5. Comments on this article will close on 4 September 2018 @ 12 pm BST.

  6. As an interloper from across the pond, I’m not going to weigh in on the debate over Jeremy Corbyn and anti-Zionism or anti-semitism. But I do contend that Nimer Sultany’s critique of Zionism as simply a bad piece of scholarship and worse history. There is plenty to criticize in Zionism or Israeli policy – and I have done a lot of it over several decades in a number of forums. But to claim some sort of anti-liberal ‘essence of Zionism’ – and compound it by relying on the largely idiosyncratic analyses Sultany employs, makes it hard to take him seriously.

    Sultany’s aim, apart from the Corbyn controversy, is to refute the notion that Zionism, even in its most liberal forms, was ever or could ever be democratic or liberal. This is the basis for his argument that the recent ‘Nation-State” Basic Law, passed by the Knesset this summer, was in no way an aberration but, rather, that Zionism has been recognized from its beginnings as inherently non-democratic, illiberal, and a lackey of imperialism. I will demonstrate this is ahistorical and rests on cherry-picking his sources.

    Sultany employs a monolithic conceptualization of Zionism that is severely flawed from the outset, and proceeds to compound it by relying primarily on the writings of two Jewish but avowedly anti-Zionist commentators – Morris Cohen (1919) and Hannah Arendt (1943 and 1946). Their critiques are anachronistic because they, in addition to disliking Zionism’s conception and nature, are clearly convinced it could never be workable. Now, whatever you may think of Israel as a state, it is clearly a going concern – and it was Zionism’s (very disparate) ideological and practical activities that brought it about, that gathered the critical mass of Zionist-oriented Jews in Palestine so that the state could be proclaimed in 1948 and survive thereafter. It was improbable and unlikely – until it happened. So Cohen and Arendt’s main critiques have been utterly refuted by history.

    Now to Sultany’s main point, that Zionism was not and never could not be liberal and democratic. Besides citing primarily Cohen and Arendt, he spends a good deal of time quoting Theodor Herzl, considered by both proponents and detractors as Zionism’s founder. But Herzl’s own views and writings are a red herring for anyone who wants to understand what Zionism became. Herzl’s contributions – certainly not insignificant – were a) as the founder of the Zionist Organization and the convenor of the First Zionist Congress in 1897, and b) as the very successful publicist of the idea of a Jewish state primarily among the Jewish masses in eastern Europe, as realistic in real time. He then failed utterly at obtaining a charter for Zionism from any of the potentates he visited – and was thoroughly and humiliatingly repudiated by the Zionist movement itself when he suggested ‘Uganda’ as a nachtasyl (emergency refuge) for threatened Jews. The only thing that saved his reputation for posterity was that he conveniently died the next year (1904), thus sparing himself further humiliation. He could therefore be continually lionized – even today, his picture hangs in the Knesset – but his ideological influence on Zionism’s ideological development was minimal, virtually nonexistent. So Sultany’s extensive attempts to pile on the opprobrium is simply irrelevant. Zionism was quickly taken over by “practical” and then socialist Zionists, whose views were very different from Herzl’s. So taking Herzl down says little or nothing about Zionism. Can Sultany seriously claim that the extensive selections he quotes from Herzl’s writings had the slightest effect of what the Zionist movement or the State of Israel became? The answer is unequivocally no.

    I have great respect for Hannah Arendt as a political theorist, but most of Sultany’s extensive quotations from her writings on Zionism refute themselves. For example he writes that ‘the Zionist debate with the assimilationists marginalized the “fundamental conflict between the Jewish national movement and Jewish plutocrats.”’ What plutocrats? There were indeed some very rich Jews, but few of them supported Zionism, with the exception of Edmond de Rothschild, whose financial contribution was crucial in the early years but who had little or no ideological influence. Nor did Lord Rothschild, the addressee of the Balfour Declaration. Most rich Jews, in fact, opposed Zionism. The distinctive institutions of Zionism, namely, the kibbutz, the moshav, and the Histadrut (the labor federation that was also a holding company and Israel’s largest employer during its first decades) were invented precisely because there was very little private investment to be had. In fact, Israel was one of the world’s two or three most egalitarian countries in the 1960s.This changed with the rise of neo-liberalism in the 1980’s, but that is not Sultany’s argument.

    Sultany resurrects the old claim that Zionism was inherently imperialistic and colonialist. I discuss these claims at length in my article on “Zionism and Israel” in the Encyclopedia of Race and Racism (2d ed. 2013), in which I contend that that the nature of Zionist settlement of the land was simply so different from most colonialist endeavors that the word in its usual meaning is simply inapposite, even though, as Sultany, correctly points out, it was embraced by early Zionists because it didn’t contain the pejorative resonance that it has today.

    My point is certainly not to claim that Zionism, as exemplified by today’s Israel government, is liberal or admirable. Nor do I assert that there was an original Zionism that was pure – and that it has been corrupted by 40 years of largely rightwing governance. Rather, I take issue with Sultany’s unproven and demonstrably false claim that there was never anything liberal or democratic in Zionism – that it was inherently and originally so tainted that it cannot be defended, even historically, by any progressive. That is flatly wrong – and Sultany’s use of flawed and idiosyncratic texts to prove his contentions instead illustrate his wrong-headed methodology and arguments.

    Rather, Zionism was never a monolithic ideology at any point from the First Zionist Congress on. There were Marxists like Ber Borochov, who envisioned Jewish and Arab workers uniting against feudal sheikhs and plutocrats – something actually attempted by groups in the 1930s. There was – and is – Israel’s universalistic and humanistic ‘Declaration of Independence’ and the “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” (1992) whose spirit – though not their provisions – are contradicted by the Nation-State Law.

    I am not happy with Israel’s current trajectory, along with the numerous Israelis who express themselves in the many organizations and movements against the Occupation and for social justice. They are following in the footsteps of many Zionists at different points in the 20th century, who tried heroically to combine the quest for a Jewish State with universalist rights.

    There is no doubt that there is difficulty in marrying a particularistic ideology like Zionism – even in its many different liberal forms – with democracy; and the rightwing ideologies currently governing Israel are no help. But the effort has been made many times in many ways – including today – and Sultany is simply wrong when he denies the existence of a liberal and democratic tradition in Zionism.

    Paul Scham
    Washington, D.C.
    Research Associate Professor of Israel Studies
    University of Maryland, USA
    Law degree (J.D.) from the University of California, Berkeley

  7. To Paul:

    Precisely. Sultany is stuck, at the latest, somewhere in the late 1950s but with an orientation based on the late 1930s, rehashing the paradigms of the then Arab propagandists and Jewish anti-Zionists such as Antonius, Mattuck as well as Protestants.


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