Zionism Reexamined: Beyond the Narrative
Photo by Mahmud Hams / AFP via Getty Images
“The Story of Palestine: Empire, Repression and Resistance” by Vashti Fox provides a comprehensive and critical look at the historical and political context surrounding the formation of the State of Israel. The book challenges the often-promoted notion of Israel as a historical constant, highlighting instead the specific combination of historical events that led to its establishment. Fox delves into the role of British imperialism in the Middle East, the strategic importance of the region’s oil reserves, and the alignment of these interests with the Zionist movement.
For a left committed to fighting against colonisation, imperialism and oppression, the Palestinian struggle for liberation has been an inspiration. Yet the so-called ‘conflict’ between Israel and Palestine is often portrayed as impossibly complex. That argument, and the confusion it creates, reinforces the unjust status quo by paralysing opponents of Israel’s crimes. The Story of Palestine provides a much needed introduction to the history of Palestinian oppression and resistance. It cuts through the lies told by politicians and media outlets, and stands uncompromisingly on the side of the Palestinian people. It also presents a uniquely socialist strategy for liberation, based on a mass revolutionary movement of workers and the poor across the region.Red Flag Books
Proponents of the state of Israel often present the narrative that Israel’s existence is a historical constant, implying an eternal presence. However, contrary to such narratives, the establishment of Israel’s state was the result of a particular combination of historical events. Specifically, it arose from the convergence of British imperialistic objectives in the Middle East, a region of critical strategic importance due to its oil reserves, and the Zionist movement, which aligned with those interests.
The Holocaust, with its undeniable harrowing atrocities, is often cited as a justification for the establishment of the State of Israel. However, the roots of Zionism, advocating for a sovereign Jewish nation, trace back much further than the brutalities of the Nazi genocide. The inception of Zionism occurred in the latter part of the 19th century, originating in Eastern Europe and Russia. It was predominantly a secular nationalist movement, not a religious one, and it posited the creation of a Jewish state as the resolution to the systemic persecution, economic disenfranchisement, and prevalent anti-Semitism that Jews faced.
The primary aim was to create a homeland exclusively for Jewish people, which would provide leaders of the Zionist movement with their own nation where they could exercise sovereignty and power. A variety of locations were considered for this purpose, with potential sites spanning from Uganda to Japan and even Australia. Nevertheless, Palestine ultimately emerged as the most favored option. The process of Zionist immigration to Palestine commenced in small increments during the 1890s. The foundational drive behind Zionism was characterized by Marxist historian Abram Leon in a particular way.
From its inception, Zionism appeared as a reaction of the Jewish petty bourgeoisie, hard hit by the mounting anti-Semitic wave, kicked from one country to another, and striving to attain the Promised Land where it might find shelter from the tempests sweeping the modern world.The Jewish Question
Zionism emerged as a complex response to a combination of distinctly modern factors: the expansion of capitalism, the rise of nationalism, and the escalation of anti-Semitic violence in the form of pogroms. This movement was framed as a timeless philosophy, despite its newness. Similar to various nationalistic movements, Zionism constructed an extensive historical narrative that retroactively claimed to embody the continuous aspirations of Jews worldwide—a pursuit that purportedly spanned two millennia for the establishment of a sovereign Jewish state within Palestine. Leon contends that this narrative is a revisionist creation; it imposes a retrospective intentionality on history that, in reality, simply did not exist. He gives an example to illustrate this point: “The Jewish tavern keeper or peasant in sixteenth-century Poland was no more inclined to entertain thoughts of resettling in Palestine than a Jewish millionaire in contemporary America would be.”
Zionism historically represented a relatively small segment within the global Jewish communities. Migration patterns offer insight into this phenomenon. Statistical analysis indicates that, from 1880 to 1920, approximately three million Eastern European Jews resettled in the United States, with another half-million relocating to Western Europe. These numbers significantly dwarf the estimated 120,000 Jews who had moved to Palestine by the year 1930. It could be argued that, during this period, the United States, rather than Palestine, was the epicenter of aspirations for many Jewish people.
Social perceptions of Zionism were significantly influenced by socioeconomic status. The majority in the Jewish working class did not subscribe to the concept of a Jewish nation-state, as they were firmly integrated within their own local societies. These individuals were predominantly aligned with socialist groups and dedicated to the pursuit of social equality and self-liberation within their respective nations. For example, in Poland, it is noted that in seven key cities with an approximate total Jewish populace of 840,000, around 40 percent cast their votes for the Bund, a socialist party that championed Yiddish culture. The allegiance of millions of Jewish workers to socialist ideologies starkly contrasted with Zionist principles, which they viewed as a deviation from the essential fight for justice and equality in their immediate environments.
Yosef Goldstein, a historian of Jewish civilization, argues that:
In sum, Zionism attracted the middle-class Jews who were open to new tendencies but sought to maintain Jewish tradition. The intelligentsia and the working class…did not join the movement in its early days, despite the fact that the leadership came from the intelligentsia. The Jewish proletariat was not attracted to the Zionist movement because the latter offered it no immediate social, economic and cultural solutions. A major portion of the Jewish proletariat was drawn to the Bund and the Jewish intellectual sought more to be integrated into the surrounding society than to join the Zionist movement.
The Zionist leadership was acutely aware of their ideological adversaries within the Jewish community, particularly the socialist Bund. Chaim Weizmann, a notable figure among the Zionists, articulated in 1903 how formidable an opponent the Bund was, stating: “In every location, our most challenging confrontation is with the Bund… This faction draws heavily upon our energy and valor… It has reached a point where even children defiantly oppose their parents.” Intense discussions unfolded in various towns, marking the ideological clash between these two parties. One such debate, as recounted by the biographer of future Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion, occurred in 1905 in the Polish town of Plonsk, and was held in the distinguished setting of the Great Synagogue. The Bund delegated one of its most eloquent speakers for this event, signifying its significance; local commerce was suspended, and in a gesture of respect for the sanctity of the synagogue, handguns were laid upon the table.
Following the suppression of the 1905 revolution, European revolutionary movements faced increasing repression, a trend that particularly impacted the Jewish labor union, the Bund. Amidst this environment, and with socialist ideologies gaining traction among Eastern Europe’s Jewish workers, certain Zionist factions saw the need to adopt Marxist principles into their doctrine to avoid becoming sidelined. While a number of Jews found a political home with socialist parties like the Bolsheviks or Mensheviks, others gravitated towards Zionism. This era witnessed the emergence of numerous socialist Zionist or labor Zionist organizations, striving to attract Jewish laborers with the promise that immigration to Palestine and the establishment of a Jewish working class could lay the foundation for a socialist state. Notably, the discourse of these groups largely omitted any significant mention of the Arab population.
Socialist Zionist factions, such as Poale Zion, sought to reconcile nationalist aspirations with the ideals of class struggle. This synthesis, however, was fraught with tension. Labour Zionist organizations like Poale Zion, and particularly the Histadrut—their foremost agency in Israel and a major Jewish trade union—underscored the essential role of “Hebrew” or Jewish labor as the cornerstone of the emerging state.
This stance manifested in a dual-strategy. On one hand, Jewish businesses were actively discouraged from hiring Arab or Palestinian workers, with measures extending to picketing, boycotts, and in some instances, assaults on businesses that employed non-Jewish labor. On the other hand, there was a deliberate effort to exclude Arab or Palestinian workers from organization within the labor movement; indeed, even when such workers engaged in strikes, their efforts were often sabotaged.
The Histadrut’s policies extended beyond the typical scope of a trade union. Not only did it disallow Arab workers from membership, but it also operated as a significant employer within British-mandate Palestine, thus positioning itself uniquely in the socio-economic context of the region. These practices effectively subverted Marxist principles of solidarity and internationalism.
John Rose provides a sharp analysis of these dynamics, stating, “These ‘principles’ of the Jewish trade union movement in Palestine anticipated the foundations of the Israeli state itself: the institutionalized separation of Arab and Jew, privileging the Jew at the expense of the Arab.” In essence, the discriminatory policies of the Histadrut foreshadowed a system of separation and inequality reminiscent of apartheid.
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The onset of Zionism as a minority viewpoint among European Jews in the early 20th century underscores the fact that Zionism was not an inherently self-evident expression of a perennial Jewish longing for a homeland in Palestine. Instead, it was a concept actively constructed and propagated by Zionist thinkers. Until the events post-1905 stirred greater interest, Zionism garnered little attention from the working-class Jewish communities, whereas Jews who had assimilated into the upper echelons of Western European society showed more favor towards it. This favor was rooted in two main concerns.
Firstly, the apprehension that the involuntary migration of indigent Jews within Eastern Europe might escalate anti-Semitic sentiment was prevalent, potentially impinging upon the social progress and safety of more affluent Jews, especially as governing powers and non-Jewish citizenry responded to the surge of migrants. For these prosperous Jewish individuals, Zionism presented a compelling solution, offering to stimulate the exodus of the impoverish Jewish populace from Europe.
Secondly, the wealthier Jewish segment harbored ambitions to establish a sovereign state that would grant them the freedom to pursue economic success unencumbered by existing constraints. Over time, they lent increasing support to the Zionist cause, both ideologically and financially, which undergirded the burgeoning migration initiatives to Palestine.
So unwavering was the commitment of the Zionist movement to the ambition of forming a Jewish presence in Palestine that it consistently opposed any alternatives that might steer Jewish migration elsewhere. This stance was maintained even during the most harrowing years of the Second World War and the Holocaust, when key Zionist figures, including Ben-Gurion, deliberately refrained from advocating for Western nations such as England, the USA, and Australia to open their borders to Jewish refugees.
In a discourse from December 1938, David Ben-Gurion expressed a poignant stance. He controversially posited that the peril and potential sacrifice of half the Jewish children within Nazi Germany’s grip could be justified if it meant that the surviving children would contribute to the settler population in Palestine. Furthermore, it is recorded that a prominent figure from the Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary organization, engaged in discussions with the notorious Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann in Berlin. During this meeting, the Irgun representative is said to have offered intelligence about the Allies in return for the Nazis’ commitment to direct Jewish emigrants only to Palestine.
The Zionist exclusivist project, based on an interpretation of history that says Jews and gentiles can never live together amicably, inevitably tends toward racial and ethnic separatism, unholy alliances and racism. For instance the Jewish Agency, the peak Zionist body in Palestine before 1929, had a constitution which included phrases like Jewish “purity of blood” and mandated that Jews and non-Jews should not be allowed to marry.
My journey in creating this space was deeply inspired by James Baldwin’s powerful work, “The Fire Next Time”. Like Baldwin, who eloquently addressed themes of identity, race, and the human condition, this blog aims to be a beacon for open, honest, and sometimes uncomfortable discussions on similar issues.
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