Understanding the Roots of the Israeli-Palestinian Dispute: The Ethnic Nationalist Vision of Zionism
Many Jews see Zionist Israel as the glorious fulfillment of a long cherished Jewish dream, the culmination of a two thousand year long struggle against unrelenting anti-Semitism, and a bulwark against any future persecution of Jews.
Many Palestinians see Zionist Israel as not only harmful for their material well-being, having appropriated their land and its resources, but at a more fundamental level, as a deep wound on their civilization, and an affront to the honor and dignity of their fathers and forefathers.
This essay comes out of an attempt to understand some of the historical reasons why the Israeli and the Palestinian views are so far apart and so intensely antagonistic towards each other.
The Rise of Anti-Semitism
Many Palestinians see Zionist Israel as not only harmful for their material well-being, having appropriated their land and its resources, but at a more fundamental level, as a deep wound on their civilization, and an affront to the honor and dignity of their fathers and forefathers.
This essay comes out of an attempt to understand some of the historical reasons why the Israeli and the Palestinian views are so far apart and so intensely antagonistic towards each other.
The Rise of Anti-Semitism
Israeli historian Benny Morris quotes a 19th century traveler passing through territory under Ottoman rule,
I have seen a little fellow of six years old, with a troop of fat toddlers of only three and four, teaching [them] to throw stones at a Jew, and one little urchin would, with the greatest coolness, waddle up to the man and literally spit upon his Jewish gabardine.1
Quotes such as these are often presented as evidence of widespread anti-Semitism prevailing in the Ottoman empire, part of the unrelenting anti-Semitism faced by Jews in the diaspora over their nearly two-thousand years of exile.
A deeper understanding of the context reveals a far more complex situation, however.
We learn, for example, that the Ottoman rulers gave Jews the right to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. This right was affirmed and reaffirmed by firmans (decrees) issued by various Ottoman sultans. We also learn that while slavery was legal in the Ottoman Empire, Jews (as well as Muslims and Armenian Christians) were exempted from becoming slaves. We also find that many individual Jews were accepted by non-Jews in the Ottoman Empire as leaders and intellectuals, and at least two (Emmanuel Carasso and Moiz Cohen) of the dozen or so most prominent leaders of the Young Turks movement were Jewish.
Consider the expulsion of Jews from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition, a tragic event widely considered to have been driven by anti-Semitism. The Virtual Jewish Library has this to say,
Anti-Semitism in Spain peaked during the rule of Ferdinand and Isabella as they instituted the Spanish Inquisition... Ferdinand and Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree in 1492, which officially called for all Jews, regardless of age, to leave the kingdom.2
But Jews were not the only ones expelled from Spain during the inquisition. Prior to the Reconquista, Spain had been ruled by Arabic speaking Muslims. After the victory of the Christian armies, Muslims in Spain were forcibly converted to Christianity. Between 1609 and 1614, King Philip III expelled all Moriscos (Muslims forcibly converted to Christianity, and their descendants) from Spain. Thus, what at first glance appears to be pure-and-simple anti-Semitism turns out to be part of a phenomenon that targeted not just Jews but Muslims as well.
The broad picture that emerges from history is not a straightforward one of Jews in the diaspora facing systematic and unrelenting anti-Semitism throughout their two-thousand years of exile, but a far more complex one. Jews certainly faced varying degrees of discrimination, but in many cases, they also enjoyed certain privileges denied to some other communities and in some other cases, discrimination against Jews was part of a broader culture of discrimination that targeted Jews as well as non-Jews.
Max Dimont, author of Jews, God and History, refuses to characterize the discrimination faced by Jews in pre-industrial societies as anti-Semitism. According to him,
Irrational race anti-Semitism … was unknown in the pagan, Grecian, Roman, Islamic and medieval cultures in which the Jews lived from 2000 B.C. to 1800 A.D. We have seen how during these 3,800 years Jews were slain, massacred, tortured, sold as slaves - but who was not treated much the same way in those days? Anti-Jewish violence differed in no way from the violence directed at other minority nations and groups.
Pre-industrial societies tended to be made up of largely self-governing communities that were defined primarily by tribe, religion or village. The lives of individuals were governed primarily by community institutions rather than by the state. Different communities and different classes of communities enjoyed different rights and faced different restrictions. The mosaic of communities that made up the social order in pre-industrial societies often represented peaceful and symbiotic relationships between various communities, but just as often witnessed contestation and strife. Jews were part of this mosaic of communities, and in the hierarchy of communities, Jews were never allowed to occupy the top rungs of kings and nobles. However neither were Jews relegated to the lowest rungs - the landless peasants, the serfs, the slaves and the pagans. Jews tended to be somewhere in the middle in the hierarchy of communities, and the average Jew was usually no worse off than the average member of pre-industrial society.
The social structure in Europe went through a fundamental change with the industrial revolution and the advent of the nation state. By the end of the 19th century European society had undergone a radical transformation from a medieval feudal framework to the framework of the nation state. Increasingly the lives of individuals came to be governed by a direct contract between the nation state and the individual, greatly reducing the role of churches, rabbis, tribal elders, and other traditional community leaders and institutions. Identity came to be defined primarily as membership of a nation rather than a kin group or religious community, and “national self-determination” – the idea that every nation must have its own sovereign territorial state – became important. Nations came to be marked out in terms of national languages, national territories, national values, national heroes, and particularly in Germany and some other countries in Europe, in terms of national racial or ethnic identities. These national identity markers were woven into highly romanticized nationalist narratives. The connection between a nation and its national “homeland” or “fatherland” came to assume particular significance. This connection went well beyond the traditional connection between a tribal group and its ancestral town or village, and came to imply a deep and enduring connection, a primordial and eternal bond, an almost filial relationship, between an entire racial or ethnic group and the land that it inhabited and cultivated. This connection was thought to be unique and exclusive to a particular nation and was imbued with a mystical quality perhaps best captured by the German phrase “blut-und-boden”, or “blood-and-soil”.
Paradoxically, nationalism in Europe was simultaneously inclusionary as well as exclusionary. The inclusionary character of nationalism was evident in the German unification and the Italian Risorgimento. However, European nationalism was fundamentally exclusionary when it came to the Jews, particularly in societies where racial or ethnic identity was thought to be the core of national identity. A Jew, it was thought, could never become an authentic German, or an authentic Frenchman, or an authentic Russian. It was not so much a case of Jews losing their authenticity, as much as new national ethnic identities emerging that excluded Jews. In the past there had never been an authentic Ottoman ethnic identity, for example, nor an authentic Austro-Hungarian one, and thus Jews and non-Jews alike never viewed themselves as authentically Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman in a racial or ethnic sense. In the era of ethnic nationalism, however, not being viewed as authentically German (or French, Russian, etc.) would have serious consequences for the Jews of Europe.
It was in this charged atmosphere of European ethnic nationalism that Jews were singled out and targeted for systematic vilification and persecution in a phenomenon accurately described as anti-Semitism. Though this anti-Semitism was technically not exactly racism (the Nazis treated light-skinned Jews no better than darker-skinned ones), it had characteristics that were very similar to the most extreme forms of racism.
The Nature of Zionism
An “uprooted, impoverished and sterile” people, “living parasitically off an alien economic body”4 was how an essay written in the early 1930s described the Jews of Europe. Such sentiments were common among anti-Semites at the time, but what comes as somewhat of a surprise about this particular essay is that it was written not by some Nazi anti-Semite, but by David Ben Gurion, a leading Zionist who would one day become the first Prime Minister of Israel. At first glance the seemingly anti-Semitic sentiment expressed by a prominent Zionist might appear rather astonishing but a deeper understanding of the nature of Zionism and the historical forces that shaped it reveal that such views are neither surprising nor inconsistent with the core values of Zionism.
It is important to recall that Zionism arose just as ethnic nationalism was taking hold in Europe. Zionism arose from within the milieu of European ethnic nationalism, and as a reaction to the new racist anti-Semitism that accompanied it.
Ethnic nationalist ideologues in Europe saw the “Jewish Problem” in the following terms:
- Jews were not just a separate religious group with a different set of rituals, prayers and religious beliefs, but constituted a separate and inferior race. As such Jews could never hope to become German (or Russian, French, etc.).
- Jews were outsiders. They could never establish authentic “blood-and-soil” links to the national homeland as true sons of the soil could.
- Being a separate race and without any deep or enduring ties to the national homeland, Jews could never hope to become part of the (German, Russian, etc.) nation and could never be accepted as part of the national spirit (Volksgeist in German).
- Lacking any close connection to the land, Jews were incapable of living off the land (i.e., farming) or engaging in other forms of primary production. They were consequently engaged in “parasitic” activities that exploited the true sons of the soil and “sucked the blood” of the nation.
- The presence of Jews violated the purity of the nation and the national homeland and was contrary to the national spirit (Volksgeist). Moreover, their parasitic and exploitative nature meant that the Jewish presence was worse than just an impurity - it was a dangerous contamination. To borrow a modern metaphor, the Jews were portrayed as destructive invasive species wreaking havoc in the pristine ecosystem of the national homeland. This unnatural existence had taken a toll on the Jews as well, and they had developed grotesque physical deformities accompanied by equally bad, if not worse, moral deformities, rendering them devoid of such heroic qualities as martial courage and valor.
Living in the midst of growing ethnic nationalism and rising anti-Semitism, and perhaps convinced that ethnic nationalism was the wave of the future, Jews in Europe were forced to formulate a response to this phenomenon - a response that took the form of Zionism. According to Zionism,
- Jews were not just a religious group bound by shared rituals, prayers and religious beliefs, but a distinct racial or ethnic group tied together by blood.
- Jews could never hope to establish authentic “blood-and-soil” links to any national homeland in Europe, but there was the ancient Jewish homeland - Eretz Israel (the land of Israel) - to which the Jewish people were linked by primordial and eternal “blood-and-soil” connections. Though weakened over the nearly two-thousand years of exile, the link between Eretz Israel and the Jewish people had never been completely severed, and the time had come to fully restore, renew and refresh this link.
- While Jews could never hope to become part of the European nations, they constituted a separate nation of their own. However, this Jewish nation did not yet meet all the conditions of nationhood as per the accepted norms and practices of European ethnic nationalism. Jews must therefore embark on an ambitious nation-building project to fulfill the conditions of nationhood and secure the future for the Jewish people. As part of this project Jews must establish for themselves a national language (modern Hebrew), suitable national heroes (the Maccabees, Bar Kokhba, etc.), a distinct national spirit (a Jewish Volksgeist), a nationalist narrative (an example is Heinrich Graetz’s Geschichte der Juden or History of the Jews), national symbols, and so on. Above all, this meant establishing a Jewish national homeland in Eretz Israel - the only land to which the Jewish people were thought to be linked by ties of “blood-and-soil”.
- Jews must shed the unnatural “parasitic” nature of Jewish life in the diaspora. They must stop exploiting non-Jews. Instead they must establish (or re-establish) Jewish farming communities in Eretz Israel (eventually to take the form of kibbutzim and moshavim) where Jews would learn to live off the land and engage in manual labor.
- By ending their unnatural and parasitic diaspora existence, returning to their national homeland, and fulfilling all the other conditions of nationhood, the “New Jew” would emerge. The New Jew would be true to the Jewish national spirit: impressive in appearance and physique, and imbued with heroic qualities like martial courage and valor. Eretz Israel, which had been turned into a wasteland during the long Jewish exile, would also be transformed. The New Jews would “make the desert bloom”.
What is important to note here is that Zionism arose as a response to European ethnic nationalism and its critique of the Jews. In formulating this response, mainstream Zionists did not question the core value system of ethnic nationalism, such as the racial or ethnic basis of nations, the theories of racial superiority and inferiority, the supreme importance of primordial “blood-and-soil” links to a national homeland, or the glorification of warriors and farmers. Instead, most Zionists (though there were some exceptions) sought to carve out a respectable niche for Jews within the parameters and the value system of European ethnic nationalism – they sought to build an ethnically defined Jewish nation that would become a respected member of the family of nations. To a very substantial extent, therefore, Zionists accepted and even internalized the core values and assumptions of European ethnic nationalism and viewed it as the only viable mechanism for securing the Jewish future. As philosopher Hanna Arendt put it, “the Zionists, in a sense, were the only ones who sincerely wanted assimilation, namely ‘normalization’ of the people (‘to be a people like all other peoples’).”5
Zeev Jabotinsky, a leading Zionist and a source of inspiration for today’s right wing Israeli ideologues, described his ideal “nation” in the following terms,
Let us draw for ourselves the ideal type of an “absolute nation”. It would have to possess a racial appearance of marked unique character, an appearance different from the racial nature of that nation’s neighbors. It would have to occupy from times immemorial a continuously and clearly defined piece of land; it would be highly desirable if in that area there would be no alien minorities, who would weaken national unity. It would have to maintain an original national language, which is not derived from any other nation...6
Above all, Jabotinsky, like many other European ethnic nationalists, stressed the supreme importance of racial identity for a nation,
You are forced to say: territory, religion, a common language – all these are not the substance of a nation, but only its attributes; true these attributes are immensely valuable, and they are even more valuable for the stability of national existence. But a nation’s substance, the alpha and omega of the uniqueness of its character – this is embodied in its specific physical quality, in the component of its racial composition.6
Far from denouncing the notion of racially pure nations, which was responsible, in part, for the vicious anti-Semitism of the era, Jabotinsky whole-heartedly embraced racism, and wanted the Zionists to emulate the racism of Europe, albeit with a unique Jewish flavor.
What is rather astonishing from our perspective today is that Zionists even viewed Jews through the lens of the European ethnic nationalism in much the same way that anti-Semites did. The Nazis, for instance, portrayed Jews as cowardly, ugly-looking, bow-legged parasites living in filthy ghettos. And the Zionists viewed many European Jews as cowardly, ugly-looking, bow-legged parasites living in filthy ghettos. In effect, the Nazis and the Zionists largely agreed on the diagnosis of the “Jewish Problem”. Where they disagreed was the cure. While the Nazis felt that the cure for the “Jewish Problem” was the “Final Solution” - the complete extermination of the Jews, the Zionists believed that the solution lay in transferring the Jewish population to Eretz Israel and transforming the parasitic diaspora Jew into the New Jew.
In his book Israel is Real, Rich Cohen describes the Zionist transformation of the old diaspora Jew into the New Jew,
They changed their names - shed the steins and bergs of Europe, which were exile names, slave names, and took Hebrew names that suggested power, nature, or the land itself. The most popular included Peled (steel), Tzur (rock), Avni (another kind of rock), and Allon (oak), as in, This New Jew is as solid as an oak! … The New Jew would behave less like his grandfather the ghetto Jew, than like his ancestor the Zealot … Some spoke of retiring the word Jew altogether. A Jew is in the Diaspora. A Jew is cowering and weak. “We are not Jews,” said Shimon Peres. “We are Israelis.”7
In emulating the value system of European ethnic nationalism, Zionists placed great emphasis on the physical appearance and external characteristics of the New Jew. The Nazi ideal was a strong, blond, blue-eyed, Aryan man, dashing, courageous and confident, a man of action rather than contemplation, ideally brought up on a farm, with deep “blood-and-soil” links to his Heimat (homeland). The Zionist ideal of the New Jew was a strong, sun-tanned, Sabra (native born) Jew, dashing, courageous and confident, a man of action rather than contemplation, ideally brought up on a farm, with deep “blood-and-soil” links to Eretz Israel.
Another value that the Zionists shared with other European ethnic nationalists was militarism and military glory. Many Zionist groups and institutions were given names evocative of the Maccabees or Bar Kokhba, Jewish warriors noted for their courage and valor. In contrast, very few Zionist institutions were named after more peaceful figures from Jewish history, such as Rabbi Hillel or Maimonides.
Zionism in Palestine
A small number of Jews had always lived in the Holy Land, even after Jews were expelled from Judea by the Romans. Jerusalem has had a continuous Jewish presence since at least 638AD, when it came under the rule of Caliph Umar bin Khattab, and Arabs and Jews have coexisted there for centuries. However, by the 1930s, there had arisen such intense and all-pervasive animosity between the Arabs and the Zionists that coexistence became nearly impossible. This animosity seems to have been caused by certain Zionist actions and attitudes, which were determined by the logic of Zionism, which, in turn derived, in large part, from the influence of European ethnic nationalism.
During the Second Aliyah (1904-1914), the Zionists adopted the slogan Kibbush Ha’avoda meaning “Conquest of Labor”. The aim was to “return” Jews to manual and agricultural labor, which was seen as morally superior to the trades and professions that they had adopted in the depravity of exile. Another closely related slogan was Avoda Ivrit (“Hebrew Labor”) which effectively meant replacing Arab workers with Jewish ones in Jewish owned farms and factories in Palestine.
The need for Jews to “return” to agricultural labor was driven by the prevailing nationalistic viewpoint that only those who farm the land with their own hands can possess true “blood-and-soil” links to the land. European anti-Semites had claimed that since Jews did not farm the land they could not possibly have any “blood-and-soil” links to the land and therefore could not become part of the European nations. Taking this critique to heart, Zionists insisted that in Eretz Israel, Jews must work the land with their own hands. According to Ben Gurion,
We do not want to create a situation like that which exists in South Africa, where the whites are the owners and rulers, and the blacks are the workers. If we do not do all kinds of work, easy and hard, skilled and unskilled, if we become merely landlords, then this will not be our homeland.8
Zionists were insistent that in Eretz Israel Jews must not exploit Arabs. This notion too had its roots in European anti-Semitism. European anti-Semites had characterized Jews as “parasites” who became wealthy by exploiting non-Jews. Zionists largely agreed with this characterization, and insisted that in Eretz Israel Jews must cleanse themselves of their “parasitic” nature. What is important to note here is that for the Zionists, avoiding the exploitation of Arabs did not mean dealing with them on the basis of equality and mutual respect. Instead, it meant reducing economic interactions between Jews and Arabs to a bare minimum, resulting in a policy that kept the Jewish economy in Palestine almost completely segregated from the Arab economy. Some Palestinian Arabs did benefit from the trickle-down effects of the massive capital infusion brought about by the Zionists. However, the Arab share of the new economy was miniscule, thereby creating a sense of resentment. More importantly perhaps, this meant that the kind of communications and civic relations that tend to develop through mundane economic interactions never developed in Palestine. For example, the kind of relationships and understanding that may have developed from a Jew running a bakery with an Arab partner, or from Jews working side-by-side with Arabs in a factory, or from a Jewish grocer dealing with Arab suppliers, etc., never had any real chance of developing in Palestine.
Referring to Arabic as “the language of the land” in a 1913 article, Nissim Malul, a Jew born in Tunisia and educated in Egypt, exhorted Jews in Palestine to embrace the Arabic language,
“If we desire to root ourselves here in the mode of the land of the past and of the future, then we must learn the language of the land and think in it more compared to other languages”.9
Malul’s article was part of a debate over language among Jewish settlers in Palestine. This debate was eventually settled decisively in favor of Modern Hebrew largely because of the logic of ethnic nationalism. Just as the German language was a vehicle and a symbol of German nationalism, and the Russian language of Russian nationalism, Zionists wanted Modern Hebrew to serve the cause of Jewish ethnic nationalism.
It is interesting to note however that the dominance of Modern Hebrew was not always considered inevitable. Hebrew, as a language of day-to-day communication had not been an important part of Jewish life for ages. One has to go all the way back to the First Temple period (ending 586 BC) to find a time when Hebrew was the predominant language of day-to-day communication for Jews. Consequently, there was a vigorous debate over which language (or languages) Jews in Palestine should learn and use. Some, like Malul, who came from within the Arabic cultural milieu, argued in favor of Arabic. Malul’s advocacy of Arabic was not just limited to language, however. It was part of a broader vision of Jewish society in Palestine that was very different from that of the European Zionist establishment. According to historian Abigail Jacobson,
Moyal, Malul, and other members of their Sephardi milieu ... were enthusiastic Zionists, though they also criticized the Zionist movement led, at the time, mainly by Ashkenazi foreign subjects (Ben-Gurion, Sharrett, Ruppin). Their view of Zionism departed considerably from that of the ‘second aliya’ Zionists and can better be termed ‘inclusive’ Zionism, one which was attuned to local conditions in Palestine, the existence of two peoples in the country and the need to live together in one locale. It was a more peaceful and realistic approach than put forward by the ‘second aliya’ Zionism (which I term ‘exclusive Zionism’), and considered the situation in Palestine in terms of future relations between different inhabitants of the country... What stands out in much of their literature and intellectual activity in Palestine was a belief that close ties must be developed between Jews and Arabs (especially Muslims) in the country, that Jews who did not know Arabic must be exposed to Arabs and their culture.10
The decisive victory of Hebrew in the language debate symbolized not just a rejection of the Arabic language, but the growing tendency among Zionists to view Arab society as wretched and inferior, unworthy of serious engagement by the Jews. One long-term consequence of the Zionist decision to stay completely separate from the Arab social, cultural and civilizational milieu has been Israel’s inability to wield any real soft-power in the region. To this day, Israel's ability influence Arab public opinion through movies, literature, music, cultural exchanges, and so on, remains minimal. In effect, the Merkava tank and the F-15 strike fighter are the only tools that Israel wields today in its attempts to influence Arab public opinion.
According to the Zionist narrative, which was modeled on the ethnic nationalist narratives of late 19th century Europe, the history of the Holy Land began with Abraham at the dawn of the Biblical Age and reached the heights of its glory under the rule of King David and King Solomon, and under the militaristic Maccabees. This land went through a cataclysm in the first and second centuries AD, with the Jews rising in defiant revolt against the Roman rulers, the Romans conquering Jerusalem and destroying the Second Temple, and the Jews rising in revolt once again under the leadership of Simon Bar Kokhba. The tragic defeat of this last revolt resulted in Jews having to flee Judea and go into exile. After the Bar Kokhba revolt, the history of the Holy Land went through a long two-thousand year hiatus, which finally ended when the Zionists arrived in the late 19th century seeking redemption of the land as well as the Jewish people. In the intervening two thousand years between the Bar Kokhba revolt and the arrival of the Zionists, nothing much of value happened in the Holy Land. The people who occupied the land in these intervening centuries did not possess any “blood-and-soil” links to the land and did not nurture it lovingly, thereby turning it into a wasteland, a desert. Only the return of the Jews would restore the “blood-and-soil” links between the land and the Jewish people, thereby rescuing the land from its misery and “making the desert bloom”. It was therefore incumbent on the Zionist settlers to cleanse the land of the detritus of history that had accumulated over the previous two thousand years and nurture the land to its former and rightful glory. To the extent possible, this meant wiping the land clean of its Arabs inhabitants and its Arab heritage.
One example of the Zionists’ systematic efforts to cleanse Palestine of its Arab heritage is described by Meron Benvenisti, a former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem whose father was a Zionist cartographer and map-maker. Benvenisti writes about how Israeli government agencies worked to replace Arabic place names, including names of “mountains, valleys, springs, roads, and so on”, with Hebrew names. Some of these Hebrew names were thought to be biblical names for those places, while others were brand new Hebrew names that merely sounded biblical. Benvenisti quotes a letter that Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion wrote to the Committee for the Designation of Place-Names in the Negev Region (also known as the Negev Names Committee, or NNC), in 1949,
We are obliged to remove the Arabic names for reasons of state. Just as we do not recognize the Arabs’ political proprietorship of the land, so also do we not recognize their spiritual proprietorship and their names.11
Another example of systematic purging of Palestine’s Arab heritage was the widespread destruction of Arab mosques and (to a lesser extent) churches after 1948. Several Muslim sacred sites were even converted into Jewish sacred sites. Here’s how Benvenisti describes these conversions,
There was nothing novel about the victorious Jews’ takeover of sites sacred to the Muslims, save for the fact that it was something that might have been plucked from another era: not since the end of the Middle Ages had the civilized world witnessed the wholesale appropriation of the sacred sites of a defeated religious community by members of the victorious one. It is true that places of worship in many countries have been vandalized – even recently – from the bombing of mosques in Sarajevo in the 1990s and the blowing up of churches by the Bolsheviks following the October Revolution, down to the plundering of churches and monasteries during the French Revolution. But to find the parallel of the reconsecration of places of worship by a conqueror, one must go back to Spain or the Byzantine Empire in the middle to late fifteenth century.12
One prominent component of the Zionist narrative is the notion that the return of the Jews to Eretz Israel would “make the desert bloom”. Indeed the Zionists did bring about a dramatic transformation in the landscape of the Holy Land. However, this was accompanied by widespread destruction – the deliberate obliteration of Arab towns, villages, orchards and olive groves. According to Benvenisti,
The demolition of Arab villages was, of course, a major component of the destruction of the old landscape, but the destruction of Arab agriculture – orchards, citrus and olive groves, terraces – had an even more devastating effect. Arab citrus groves, olive trees, and other fruit orchards covered an area of almost 1 million dunams (250,000 acres). Most of the abandoned trees were neglected or destroyed outright as the Israelis destroyed whatever the Arabs had left that could not be integrated into their framework. Most citrus groves were uprooted to make room for housing developments, ancient olive trees were left uncared for or destroyed to make room for field crops. This does not fit Israel's self-image as a people that “makes the desert bloom”. 13
Viewing the world through the lens of ethnic nationalism, Zionists tend to question whether the Palestinians constitute a nation (or “a people”). Whatever the merits of this debate, it entirely bypasses the undisputable fact that whether or not the Palestinians satisfy all the benchmarks of nationhood established by the doctrine of ethnic nationalism, there has long existed in the land of Palestine an entire social civilizational world made up of actual human beings. A world that is whole in itself, with a rich history stretching back more than a thousand years. With a complex and composite society of Muslims, Christians and even a small proportion of Jews. A living society that in its own ways is creative and dynamic, with its own worldview and own internal logic, though not without its problems or its internal schisms.
Unsaid, but implied in the Zionist arguments regarding the Palestinian nation is the notion that only members of nations deserve to be treated as human beings and that human rights and dignities are not intrinsic to a human being but derive from one’s membership of a nation.
A Refuge for Persecuted Jews?
The primary aim of Zionism, it is widely believed today, was to establish a refuge for persecuted Jews. If this is true, however, an obvious question arises: how did Zionism fail so miserably? For surely, the Holocaust stands as evidence of its utter failure.
Well, some may say, Zionism emerged too late. The movement simply did not have the time or the opportunity to set up a refuge for Jews before it was too late. This argument does not, however, hold up to the historical evidence. The First Zionist Congress, organized under the leadership of Theodor Herzl, took place in 1897, some three and a half decades before the Nazis seized power in Germany. To put this in historical perspective, it is worth remembering that the Zionist movement emerged before either the Bolshevik movement in Russia or the Young Turks movement in Turkey, and almost a quarter century before the establishment of the Nazi Party in Germany. More importantly, over the years various proposals for a Jewish refuge (in Uganda, Madagascar, Argentina, etc.) were made but were deliberately ignored or rejected by the Zionists because they did not conform to the ethnic nationalistic vision of a Jewish national home, but which, if acted upon could have provided an alternative to the gas chambers for many European Jews in the 1930s and 40s.
Even in Palestine itself, it seems that for the Zionists other priorities took precedence, even when the need for a refuge was most urgent. It appears that for the Zionists, saving the old diaspora Jew was never as important as creating the New Jew, and setting up a refuge for persecuted diaspora Jews was never as important as setting up a new Jewish nation boasting of all the nationalistic bells and whistles deemed necessary by the norms of European ethnic nationalism.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the Jewish Agency, an arm of the Zionist movement, was given the power to issue immigration certificates, subject to a quota set by the British authorities in Palestine. It appears that in handing out these immigration certificates, the primary criterion used by the Jewish Agency was not who faced the greatest danger of persecution, but rather, who could better satisfy Zionist needs in Palestine. According to Israeli historian Tom Segev, Jews “returning to the land would give birth to the ‘new man’ [the Zionists] hoped to create in Palestine”, and in parceling out the immigration certificates, they therefore “preferred healthy young Zionists, ideally with agricultural training or at least a willingness to work on the land”. A Jewish Agency executive considered those receiving immigration certificates “merely as refugees” to be “undesirable human material”. And a decision was made in 1935 - two years after Hitler had come to power in Germany - that “anyone who was a merchant or of similar employment, will not receive a certificate under any circumstances, except in the case of veteran Zionists”. 14
Perhaps the last chance that the Zionists had of establishing a refuge for Jews and avoiding the worst horrors of the Holocaust was the 1937 Peel Commission plan, which proposed a two state solution with Palestine being partitioned into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The proposal was rejected by both sides. Twenty years later, David Ben Gurion would write “had [the Peel Commission plan] been carried out, the history of our people would have been different and six million Jews in Europe would not have been killed - most of them would be in Israel”15. It could be argued that the Arabs, by their rejection of the plan, were at least as guilty as the Zionists of sealing the fate of millions of European Jews. However, the greater part of the blame must surely fall on the Zionists, who, by their utter disregard and blatant disdain for the Arab people and their heritage, had all but ensured that the Arabs would resist increased Jewish immigration to Palestine when the need was greatest.
Today, one of the main arguments used to justify Israel’s occupation of Palestine is that an ethnically and culturally defined Jewish State, guaranteed by a permanent Jewish ethnic majority, as envisaged by the Zionists, is essential in order to serve as a refuge for Jews, in case the horrors of Nazi-style anti-Semitism befall us once again. But, setting aside the question of whether or not it is ethical to subject the Palestinians to a harsh occupation in order to cater to the possible future needs of Jews, it is not at all clear that a Zionist Israel is the best answer, should a refuge for Jews ever become necessary in the future. For it is difficult to escape the conclusion that if a refuge for persecuted Jews is what is desired then Israel in its present Zionist form is neither necessary (because a refuge does not have to be an ethnically defined Jewish State located in the Holy Land) nor sufficient (because history has shown that Zionism failed to establish a refuge for persecuted Jews when the need was most urgent and the opportunity to do so still existed).
Judaism and Zionism
It is the year 70 AD. Jerusalem has fallen to the Romans. The Second Temple is destroyed, the city is sacked, and Jews are forced to flee Judea. At this point, one might have expected the Jews to disappear from history, with individual Jews either dead, or dispersed and absorbed into other communities, as has happened to so many other communities before or since: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Sumerians, and so on.
But the Jews do not disappear from history. Following the destruction of the Second Temple, Jewish rabbis, let by Rabbi Johannan Ben Zakkai set up a center for Jewish scholarship at Jabne, where they transform Judaism from a religion centered around sacrifices and Temple rituals into one that would make do without the Temple. In so doing the Rabbis do not seek to relocate or replicate the Jerusalem Temple rituals in a temple (or temples) elsewhere, but fundamentally transform Judaism into a diasporic religion, known today as Rabbinic Judaism. Jerusalem is transformed from a city of bricks and mortar at the center of Temple Judaism into a spiritual symbol at the center of Rabbinic Judaism.
For nearly two thousand years following the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabbinic Judaism provided the framework on which Jews built their lives. Rabbinic Judaism was certainly not perfect, but it had its share of remarkable achievements. Rabbinic Judaism instilled in Jews an accomodative attitude that enabled them to become part of many different cultures and societies, and make important contributions to these societies, while still retaining a unique Jewish identity. It helped to promote a remarkable Jewish intellectual tradition that would give the world the likes of Maimonides, Spinoza and Einstein. It also helped to inculcate a strong culture of philanthropy among Jews that reached out to Jews as well as non-Jews. And it achieved all these largely without resorting to violence or coercion. On the whole, Rabbinic Judaism successfully provided Jewish communities with the tools needed to sustain themselves over many long and at times difficult centuries, sometimes barely surviving, but under favorable conditions (e.g., in Islamic Spain, or in modern America), flourishing and prospering, and in turn, greatly enriching the societies they were part of. Rabbinic Judaism viewed Jewish life after the fall of the Second Temple as a life of exile, and the notion of “exile” may justifiably be seen as carrying a certain negative connotation. However, in Rabbinic Judaism this Jewish exile was imbued with sacredness and the belief that this exile was part of God’s plan for mankind, and therefore must be for the good. Thus, if the centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple were centuries of exile for the Jews, it was an exile that was infused with meaning (“it was God’s plan”) and one that was witness to a remarkable flowering of Jewish creativity and ingenuity, representing a rich contribution to our human civilization.
Zionism took a very different view of the Jewish exile. It saw the exile in almost entirely negative terms. In the Zionist view, the Jewish exile was a miserable, shameful and humiliating experience that was bad for Jews and bad for non-Jews. In their view, the exile was so terrible that it had caused Jews to become cowering and weak, had eroded their moral fiber, and reduced them to a “parasitic” existence, thereby arousing ill-will and hatred in their host nations and giving rise to the “Jewish Problem”. It is difficult for us from today’s perspective to understand why the Zionists should have viewed diaspora Jews with such intense self-hatred, but perhaps anti-Semitism was so pervasive in Central and Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that just being part of these societies caused the Zionists to imbibe and internalize the prevailing negative images of diaspora Jews. The root cause of the “Jewish Problem”, as the Zionists saw it, was the Jewish exile. If only the exile could be reversed, Jews would be transformed from cowering and weak parasites into courageous, valorous, self-reliant and proud warriors and farmers, thereby solving the “Jewish Problem”, earning the respect of other nations, and ultimately putting an end to anti-Semitism.
Since the Zionists viewed nearly everything connected with the Jewish exile in negative terms, Rabbinic Judaism, which had served as the mainstay of the Jewish exile, tended to be viewed negatively by the Zionists. Rabbinic Judaism, in turn, tended to view Zionists with suspicion, not only because the Zionists looked down on Rabbinic Judaism, but also because the Zionist effort to forcibly reverse the Jewish exile was seen as a violation of God’s plan. However, in spite of going against some of the basic tenets of Rabbinic Judaism, Zionism developed a growing following among Jews in the first half of the twentieth century. What explains this growing popularity of Zionism? Perhaps this arose from one great failure of Rabbinic Judaism: its complete inability to come up with any sort of response to the new racist anti-Semitism that had come to dominate Europe around this time. Perhaps Zionism became popular amongst Jews because it was formulated specifically in response to the racist anti-Semitism of the times and it promised a solution for anti-Semitism. We know today, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and with the benefit of hindsight, that Zionism had no solution to anti-Semitism either. But faced with a desperate situation, besieged by a virulent anti-Semitism, with their very lives in danger, it appears that Jews were willing to give Zionism a try.
The increasing popularity of Zionism among Jews, forced the Rabbinic establishment to take Zionism seriously. In the years following the First World War, Rabbi Abraham Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, came up with a formulation that would reconcile Rabbinic Judaism with Zionism and give rise to what we know today as religious Zionism. Later, the power and trappings of the state of Israel and Israeli military victories, particularly in the Six Day War, would be seen by many Jews as a sort of divine vindication of Zionism, and would convince most (though not all) of the Rabbinic establishment to follow in the footsteps of Rabbi Kook and reach some sort of accommodation with Zionism.
According to the political scientist Shlomo Avineri,
The [Zionist] pioneers coming to Palestine, Rabbi Kook maintains, are indeed highly hostile to the Jewish religious tradition and are motivated, according to their own understanding, by secular considerations which are basically alien to the religious structures of Judaism. The legitimacy given by them to their actions is similarly not related to religious sources, but draws its inspiration from non-Jewish European revolutionary ideas such as nationalism and socialism. Yet, Rabbi Kook argues, this subjective understanding of their own motives is only one side of the picture... [Zionists] may subjectively think they are motivated by secular, political ideas, but truly they are acting within a cosmic scheme of a divine will, in which their seemingly secular and even atheistic motivation is nothing more than an external cover for the true meaning of their actions as related to God’s redemptive structure.... In this way, the resettlement of the Land of Israel, even by blasphemous atheists, is a step on the road to salvation.16
In other words, according to Rabbi Kook, the Zionists, while openly hostile to Rabbinic Judaism, were unintentionally and unknowingly carrying out God’s plan, and therefore deserved the support of the Rabbinic establishment.
One might well ask, what then was the difference between the Zionists – the “good sinners”17 as Rabbi Kook called them – and the bad sinners – the Muslim and Christian Arabs and even some Jews – who opposed the Zionists? In the religious Zionist formulation, a new value was to be the ultimate differentiator between good and evil, a value that superseded Judaism’s traditional ethical framework for virtue and sin. This ultimate value, which, according to religious Zionism, superseded all the other ethical values of Judaism, was the “return” of ethnic Jews to Eretz Israel (“Aliyah”) with the aim of establishing ethnic Jewish demographic dominance and Jewish political, military and cultural hegemony in as much of the Holy Land as possible (but not, it may be noted, the religious hegemony of religious Jews).
In essence, the result of Rabbi Kook’s grand reconciliation was that Zionism received divine sanction, which it had previously lacked, and Zionist values came to supersede the traditional values of Rabbinic Judaism. Thus the form and rituals of Rabbinic Judaism were not abandoned but came to be subordinated to the Zionist goal of achieving an ethnically and culturally defined Jewish State in Eretz Israel. This had many implications for Judaism and for Jews everywhere. One implication of this was that even though Rabbinic Judaism had been intensely non-violent for nearly two thousand years, religious Zionism would acquiesce to, if not fully embrace, the aggressive militarism of Zionism, which, in turn was modeled on the aggressive militarism of European ethnic nationalism.
Something analogous to the grand reconciliation between Rabbinic Judaism and Zionism happened among the wider Jewish public as well, particularly in the wake of the Six Day Way. Today, for many Jews, Zionism has superseded Judaism as the primary locus of their Jewish identity. Thus, even relatively gentle criticism of Israel immediately provokes cries of “anti-Semitism” from many Jews. In contrast, criticism of the rules of Kashrut or the rituals of Shabbat (Sabbath) usually do not provoke any similar accusations, even though these have been very important to Judaism for thousands of years. It is thus evident that for many Jews today, criticism of Zionism, much more then criticism of Judaism, is seen as an attack on their Jewish identity, implying that for them, Zionism has superseded Judaism in their conception of their Jewish identity. (It should be noted however, that comparing a reasoned critique of either Zionism or Judaism to the racist anti-Semitism of the first half of the twentieth century is absurd and such casual comparisons risks glossing over the severity and viciousness of racist anti-Semitism.)
Can There be Peace?
It is obvious that conflict over territory is at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The intense Palestinian antagonism towards Israel is not just over territory, however. It also has much to do with the fact that largely due to the historical forces that shaped it, the core values of Zionism are fundamentally incompatible with a sense of respect for the Palestinian people and their heritage. Zionism, in its present and historical form, has failed to treat the Palestinians with a sense of dignity and respect, not just at the level of individual human rights, but also at the level of Palestinian society as a whole. Palestinians view Zionists not only as usurpers who have stolen their ancestral lands, but whose actions and attitudes constitute an affront to their civilizational honor and who seek to belittle and humiliate them at every opportunity. This makes it almost impossible for the Palestinians to reach a genuine heartfelt compromise with Zionism while still retaining a modicum of self-respect and dignity. At its core, the Palestinian resistance is not just a struggle for territory and for individual human rights, but a quest for collective dignity – a quest to refute the Zionist narrative that Arab Muslims and Christians in Palestine are non-entities, irrelevant to the history and heritage of the Holy Land.
If Israelis ever wish to live in peace with their Arab neighbors they will need to not only accept a territorial compromise but also transform some of the core values of Zionism so as to inculcate a sense of respect and appreciation towards their Arab neighbors and their culture, history and heritage. Without this, a territorial agreement, even if achieved, may not result in lasting peace.
Is such a transformation possible?
The good news is that the larger historical forces that shaped Zionism have now turned in a different direction, and these changed historical forces may well make such a historic transformation not only possible but even inevitable. When Jewish leaders and intellectuals in Europe formulated Zionism, they did so in the face of vicious racist anti-Semitism and in the midst of widespread - and still growing - ethnic nationalism. They had every reason to believe that this represented the wave of the future and hence quite consciously cast Zionism in the mold of European ethnic nationalism. However, after having reached its zenith in Nazi Germany, ethnic nationalism has been on the decline, particularly since the 1960s and 1970s. In today’s world the broad trend is away from ethnic nationalism and towards multicultural, multiethnic and multiracial societies that value ethnic diversity over racial purity, respect the culture and heritage of multifarious groups and communities, and do not place too much importance on standardized nationalist narratives. Judged by these new civilizational norms, much of what was logical under the Zionist paradigm does not make sense any more. For someone who has grown up in a multi-cultural society that values diversity in race and ethnicity, it is mind-boggling that a Palestinian Arab person is not allowed to set foot in his ancestral village, which his grandparents were pressurized to abandon by force or fear, and someone from Russia is invited to settle there – all because the person from Russia is deemed to be of sufficiently pure Jewish blood. What is beyond mind-boggling is that the Israeli legal mechanism that makes this possible is called the “Law of Return”. For people who came of age during the heyday of ethnic nationalism and imbibed some of the common racial attitudes of those days, something like Israel's “Law of Return” may make perfect sense, but for today’s emerging post-racial generation, it makes no sense whatsoever. The very notion that one’s ethnic purity should be the primary determinant of one’s legal, political and cultural rights is anathema in our post-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural civilization.
Abandoning some of the core values of Zionism may not be easy for Israelis, particularly because Zionism has become such an important part of Jewish identity worldwide, but Israelis are an enterprising people, blessed with abundant talent, creativity and energy, and if they set their minds to it, there is little they cannot achieve. Here are two examples of concrete actions that Israel could undertake to distance itself from some of the most problematic values of Zionism. Such actions might not mean much by themselves but if they are part of a broader change in attitude, they may make a real difference.
- In instances where Israelis deliberately replaced Arabic place names with Hebrew ones, they could revert to the pre-1948 Arabic place names. Initially this could be done for uninhabited geographical features such as hills, streams, etc., and could then be extended to populated areas. Such a change would constitute an Israeli acknowledgement of the Arab history and heritage of the land.
- Many Arab refugees of the 1948 war ended up in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza and elsewhere outside the “Green Line”, which became Israel’s international border. Many refugees, however, remained within the Green Line. According to a United Nations agency, approximately one-third of the Arabs who remained within the Green Line and became Israeli citizens in 1948 were refugees from villages that were also within the Green Line. In the sixty-four years since 1948, these internal refugees, labeled “present absentees” by Israeli officialdom, have not been allowed to return to their homes and villages. Israel could grant the right of return to the “present absentees”, thereby recognizing in principle that Arabs have rights to the land that are no less legitimate than the Jews’.
Actions such as these would not require huge amounts of money or other resources. They would not immediately alter the Israel’s demographics (which Israelis appear to be fearful of), and do not even require a “partner for peace”. All they need is a transformation in Israeli attitudes towards Arabs.
Ultimately the Israel’s ability or inability to achieve widespread legitimacy – and perhaps even to survive – may depend less on how many Merkava tanks and F-15 strike fighters it can amass or how many walls it can build, than on its willingness to fundamentally transform some of the most problematic aspects of Zionism, so as to enable Israelis to treat Palestinians – individually and collectively – with the same respect and dignity they themselves expect from others.
1. Morris, Benny (1999). Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, p. 11.
2. “Spain”, Jewish Virtual Library, website http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/spain1.html, last accessed Aug 29th 2012.
3. Dimont, Max I. (1994). Jews, God and History (2nd Edition), New American Library, New York, p. 327.
4. Avineri, Shlomo (1981). The Making of Modern Zionism, Basic Books, New York, p. 200.
5. Zimmerman, Moshe (2001). “Hannah Arendt, the Early “Post-Zionist””, in Aschheim, Steven E., ed., Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem, University of California Press, Berkeley, p. 191.
6. Avineri, Shlomo (1981). The Making of Modern Zionism, Basic Books, New York, p. 167.
7. Cohen, Rich (2009). Israel Is Real (Kindle Edition). Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, p. 243.
8. “Avoda Ivrit Definition “, Zionism and Israel - Encyclopedic Dictionary, website http://www.zionism-israel.com/dic/Kibbush_Haavoda.htm, last accessed Aug 29th 2012.
9. Marcus, Amy Dockser (2007). Jerusalem 1913: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Penguin, New York, p. 118.
10. Jacobson, Abigail (2011). “Jews Writing in Arabic: Shimon Moyal, Nissim Malul and the Mixed Palestinian/Eretz Israeli Locale” in Ben-Bassat, Yuval and Ginio, Eyal, eds., Late Ottoman Palestine: The Period of Young Turk Rule, I.B.Tauris, London, pp. 177-178.
11. Meron Benvenisti (2000). Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948, University of California Press, Berkeley, p. 14.
12. Meron Benvenisti (2000). Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948, University of California Press, Berkeley, p. 273.
13. Meron Benvenisti (2000). Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948, University of California Press, Berkeley, p. 7.
14. Segev, Tom (1991). The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust, Henry Holt, New York, pp. 42-44.
15. Segev, Tom (1999). One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate, Henry Holt, New York, p. 414.
16. Avineri, Shlomo (1981). The Making of Modern Zionism, Basic Books, New York, pp. 192-193.
17. Cohen, Rich (2009). Israel Is Real (Kindle Edition). Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, p. 274.