The grim ‘logic’ of Zionism
This article was written for the special Palestine Solidarity issue of Irish Socialist Worker.
Leon Trotsky once wrote that if the young Stalin had been able to foresee the monster that he was to become he would have recoiled in horror. Much the same could be said of those founded the state of Israel.
If we think of the Jewish people in the 19th and early 20th century when Zionism took shape the outstanding figures who come immediately to mind are the likes of Marx, Heine, Einstein, Freud, Proust, Kafka, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, Niels Bohr, Emma Goldmann, Chagall, Mahler, Schoenberg, Kafka, Durkheim, Benjamin – intellectuals, artists, scientists, revolutionaries, predominantly humanitarian and progressive. Of course these are exceptional individuals but nevertheless their character is neither accidental nor genetic. It reflects the peculiar position of the Jews as an oppressed people in the history of Europe, many of whom, in rebelling against their own oppression became champions of human liberation in a much wider sense.
The Zionists who came to Israel as ‘pioneers’ on the early kibbutz and who established the Israeli state in 1948 were not that far removed in their consciousness and character, except for being Zionists, from the people listed above- almost all them would have considered themselves ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’, most were secular, many were atheists and some would considered themselves socialist, even Marxist. It should be remembered that that the kibbutz were ‘communes’, egalitarian and collectivist in their internal regimes and practice. So how did it come to the horror we now see played out before the eyes of the world – the bombing of schools and hospitals, the targeting of kids on the beach, the daily slaughter of children, the hate-filled racism that calls for ‘death to the Arabs’ and sits on the hillside at Siderot to watch and celebrate the killing?
It was precisely the working out of the logic of Zionism. As a political movement Zionism was simply the demand that the Jewish people should be able to have their own state. This could be, and was, presented as something entirely reasonable, fair and just. The French had a state, the British had a state, the Germans, the Italians, the Dutch etc.,etc, - it seemed that every people had a state. Why not also the Jews? Surely only a dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semite could deny the Jewish people this right? And the fact that Jews had suffered centuries of racist persecution and oppression made this case seem all the stronger. On this basis millions of liberal, progressive and anti-racist people round the world supported or sympathised with the Zionist project.
Unfortunately there were, from the outset, two ‘small’ problems with this project. Where was the state to be located and how was it actually to be set up? By the time Zionism established itself as a political movement there was nowhere in the world to which significant numbers of Jews could be attracted which was vacant. It was clearly not going to be possible to persuade the Jews of New York or London, Berlin or Vienna or even Kiev and Warsaw to migrate en masse to Northern Siberia or the Greenland icecap. Moreover this was a period in which, as Lenin kept pointing out in his analysis of imperialism, the entire world or almost the entire world, had been divided up between a handful of great powers – Britain, France, Russia, Germany, Japan, USA etc.
The combination of these two problems meant that there was there was, in practice, only one way that a specifically Jewish state could be established – that was as a settler state in a territory occupied by an economically and politically weaker people. And given the fact that the Jews were a scattered and oppressed minority in Europe, initially without their own armed forces, this could only be realised with the backing of one or more of the imperialist states that actually controlled all possible sites for the projected Zionist state.. This meant that to achieve its aim Zionism was forced to go cap in hand to imperialism.
But why should any imperialist power want to support this project? Sympathy for the oppressed Jewish people? Colonial empires were not based or built on sympathy for the oppressed and besides the rulers whose backing was required were precisely the rulers responsible for the centuries of oppression and discrimination. There was only one way that the forces of imperialism would facilitate the founding of a Zionist state and that was if they considered it in their interests and the Zionist leaders understood this. What they had to offer was to be the loyal outpost and representative of imperialism in the area in which they settled. As Sir Ronald Storrs, the first Governor of Jerusalem, at the time of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, said a Jewish homeland in Palestine ‘will form for England a little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.’ And thus the fate of Zionism was sealed. Whatever the subjective intentions of its pioneers, whatever the ideals of the early kibbutzim, Israel would develop as an imperialist settler state and this had built into it a logic of racist barbarism.
Before returning to how this logic has worked itself out in the history of Zionist Israel we should remind ourselves that there is nothing unusual or specifically Jewish about this phenomenon. Racism against non-Europeans and people of colour as a whole arose from European enslavement and conquest of the rest of the world beginning at the end of the 15th century but it was always particularly virulent among settler populations who were at the sharp end of this process: think of the Boers (Dutch) in South Africa, the White Settlers in ‘Rhodesia’, the Australians and the Aborigines, the French Pieds Noir in Algeria and, of course, the European settlers in America.pushing relentlessly westwards at the expense of the Native Americans. To the settler the indigenous population – dispossessed and oppressed- is perceived as a permanent existential threat that needs to be ‘pacified’, subdued or disposed of and the ideological justification for this inevitably develops an intense racist dynamic.
Zionism, born out of a (profoundly mistaken) response to racism, has turned inexorably into one of the most extreme racisms on the face of the earth. Sometimes people are perplexed by this transformation. How, they ask, could a people who suffered so much persecution resort to behaviour that so mimics that of their erstwhile oppressors? Again it has to be said that such transformations are not rare in history. The Dutch who revolted against Spanish Habsburg rule in the 16th century establish in the Dutch Republic the most ‘liberal’, tolerant and progressive society in Europe at the time but the moment they became colonialists, in the Dutch East Indies, Southern Africa etc, they turned into brutal racists. Similarly the Puritans who went to North America to escape religious persecution in England become the initiators of the long genocide of the indigenous population and later the same fate befell many of the Irish emigrants. Or think of Cromwell himself – a (bourgeois) revolutionary hero in England; a monster in Ireland.
Now consider the position and mindset of the Zionist Jewish settlers in Palestine arriving and establishing themselves in the first half of the 20th century. This land is to be their land, their ‘Jewish homeland’ where they will live in security free of, or protected from, the racist persecution that had been their lot hitherto. That is their premise, the very principle and goal of the Zionist movement and their whole reason for being there. But how can this claim be justified – and people need justifications for others and for themselves?
The Zionists have deployed several justifications – and they all have directly racist implications. One of the first was to deny the existence of the Palestinians. This was often expressed in the slogan ‘A land without a people for a people without a land’. Given the manifest existence of the Palestinian people and their evident objection to being dispossessed and colonized this denial inevitably morphed into the claim that even though they may exist there was something inherently wrong with them. They were uncivilized, savages, much inferior by nature to the Jews. In other words the Zionist justification for a Jewish state picked up on and slotted into the central idea of European racism developed to justify empire. This in turn fed the notion that it was the Jews who had built up and developed the country ‘out of the desert’, the condition in which it had allegedly been left by its Palestinian inhabitants ( who were ‘lazy/savage/uncivilsed etc) and were therefore entitled to it – a justification which exactly paralleled that used by White South Africans.
Finally there was the religious justification: Israeli was ‘the promised land’, given to them by God since the days of Moses because they were God’s ‘chosen people’. This religious claim was not, as is often thought, the driving forcing or central tenet of Zionist ideology (which was generally secular rather theological and focused on Jewishness as a cultural/ racial identity rather on Judaism as a religion) nevertheless it was seized on and deployed, often cynically, because religion is always useful for justifying wars and doubtless this myth was particularly useful in parts of America. But if the Jews were God’s chosen people and God gave Israel to the Jews then the racist implications for the Arabs were unavoidable: they were ‘not chosen’ and they should get out of the place.
The situation and role of the Israeli settler state compounds and exacerbates this racist tendency. Let us take the Israelis at their word: all they want is to live in peace and security in their homeland. But they cannot live in peace and security because they are surrounded by hostile Arabs. Why are the Arabs hostile? Because have they have been dispossessed and ethnically cleansed. This cannot be admitted so it must be because Arabs, or is it Muslim, are innately anti-Semitic. But if Arabs are innately anti-Semitic then every Arab and every Palestinian is an enemy. Security turns into a requirement to drive out the enemy or crush them to the point where there can be no more resistance – no more stones thrown or rockets fired.
Perhaps what they need is secure borders. But the borders are never secure because beyond them to Lebanon and Syria in the North, to Jordan in the East, to Egypt in the West are more than a hundred million Arabs and Muslims with whom it is their role as imperialism’s watchdog to be in conflict, and millions of Palestinian refugees who obstinately continue to dream of returning to their homeland. So the borders must be extended and extended again and the enemy within must be subdued and subdued again. So there is permanent war. And so the desire creeps up for some way out: for some ‘final solution’. Thus, in the grimmest of dialectics, Zionism, born out of racism and confirmed by genocide, itself becomes ever more racist and genocidal.
Was there an alternative? Yes – the alternative of Marx, Luxemberg, Trotsky and innumerable other Jewish socialists, leftists and workers, namely not to set off in search of a Jewish state in a non-existent vacant place but to stay and fight anti-Semitism and the capitalist society that gave rise to it as an integral part of the international struggle of the working class. And essentially that remains the alternative today only, tragically, it must now also include as part of its perspective the defeat of Zionism and imperialism in Palestine and the Middle East by the Arab masses and their international allies.
 The slogan appears to have been coined in 1843 by an English Christian ‘restorationist’ [who wanted to restore ‘the Holy Land’ to the Jews] but was taken up by many others such as the Earl of Shaftesbury and echoed by Israeli PM Golda Meir in her 1976 statement in the New York Times. ‘There is no Palestinian people. There are Palestinian refugees’.