The truth about Zionism

Today’s fashionable loathing of Zionists is far from progressive.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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All this week, spiked is publishing a series of articles on the Jewish Question in the twenty-first century. Here, Brendan O’Neill traces the origins and growing unpopularity of Zionism.

Critics of Israel often argue that one can be an anti-Zionist without being an anti-Semite. They’re right. Criticising an ideology is not the same thing as expressing hatred towards a group of people.

Yet while opposition to Zionism is entirely legitimate, it is worth asking what motivates the politics of anti-Zionism today. Criticism of the ‘Zionist state’ of Israel is widespread, not only in Arab regimes but throughout polite society in Europe. And the language used to denounce Zionism becomes shriller all the time.

The radical writer John Pilger calls Zionism ‘an expansionist, lawless and racist ideology’. Others say Zionism is similar to other ‘racist ideologies, such as Nazism and Apartheid’. Across Europe, many university student unions and radical left-wing groups demand ‘No Platform For Zionists’ on the basis that they are ‘racists’, ‘colonialists’, and even ‘fascists’.

Such is the relentless focus on Zionism as the most foul colonialist and racist ideology in the world that anti-Zionists often call on Western governments – the inventors of modern colonialism – to teach the Zionists a lesson. Anti-Israel campaigners ask US President Barack Obama to get the Zionists ‘under control’. In Britain, radical leftists have called on the government to expel Israel’s ambassador from the UK over his nation’s crimes. So even the rulers of Britain, the invaders of Iraq and Afghanistan and former supremos of colonialism, are seen as less bad than these wicked Zionists.

The message is clear: Zionism is different. It is evil. It is intolerable. There is little progressive in this now mainstream politics of anti-Zionism. It is driven by double standards. It is underpinned by ignorance about the past and political disorientation in the present. Zionism has been turned into Public Enemy No1 in European debates about international affairs because it is seen as the most explicit expression of what are now considered to be outdated ideals: nationalism; sovereignty; the idea of an homogenous people with a shared past and destiny. Moreover, the demand by radical anti-Zionists that Western governments should tackle the crimes of Zionism hands European leaders a stunning opportunity: posturing against the evils of Zionism allows the cynical rulers of Europe to whitewash their own colonialist and racist pasts and to present themselves as elevated and cosmopolitan, the guardians of international morality.

The tragedy of Zionism

The argument that Zionism is a ‘racist ideology’ is crude. It is based on a failure to distinguish between Zionism in theory and Zionism in practice. While Zionism in practice, especially from the end of the Second World War to the more confusing contemporary period, has unquestioningly led to the expulsion of people from their homes and the colonisation of Palestine, Zionism in theory is just a nationalist ideology, albeit a peculiar one. And like other nationalist ideologies, it is separatist and, yes, reactionary – but no more so than many other modern movements to create a national homeland.

Both the critics and supporters of Israel are guilty of propagating historical illiteracy about the origins and meaning of Zionism. Some anti-Israel activists see Zionism in super-simplistic terms as another Nazi-style ideology. Meanwhile, supporters of Israel present Zionism as an ancient creed, something that springs from the Bible, the rightful fulfilment of a 2,000-year-old dream to create a homeland for Jews on historic Palestine.

In truth, Zionism is a modern movement, forged not by Biblical dreams but by a desperate desire to escape the consequences of anti-Semitism in decadent capitalist society.

Theodore Herzl (1860-1904) is considered by some the ‘father of modern political Zionism’. A Hungarian-born Jewish journalist, he wrote The Jewish State in 1896. It was a fiery political tract which argued, in response to an upsurge in anti-Semitism in Europe, that Jews could never fully assimilate into mainstream society and thus would have to found their own special state in order to survive and thrive. Herzl and other new Zionist thinkers – most notably Moses Hess and Max Nordau – assumed leadership of the early Zionist movement at the end of nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth century, seeking to win support for their idea of separating Jews from Gentiles.

As Nathan Weinstock argues in his important book Zionism: False Messiah (1979), early Zionism was a doctrine whose starting point was ‘the incompatibility of the Jews and the Gentiles’, which advocated ‘massive emigration to an underdeveloped country with the aim of establishing a Jewish state’. While this new movement cited old Jewish ideas of a ‘return to Zion’ and to ‘the Holy Land’ in Palestine – ideas which until the late nineteenth century had been mere religious sentiments, incantations, rather than substantial political goals – in reality political Zionism was a very modern movement, founded in the face of open and vitriolic forms of anti-Semitism in turn-of-the-century Europe, says Weinstock. ‘Jewish nationalism, [especially] its Zionist variant, was an absolutely new conception born of the socio-political context of Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century’, he writes.

In The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation (1946), perhaps the finest twentieth-century text on the predicament of the Jews, Abram Leon likewise analysed the modern, reactive nature of political Zionism. This movement was ‘born in the light of the incendiary fires of the Russian pogroms of 1882 and in the tumult of the Dreyfus Affair [an anti-Semitic political scandal in late nineteenth-century France]’, wrote Leon, ‘two events which expressed the sharpness that the Jewish problem began to assume at the end of the nineteenth century’.

In both Western and Eastern Europe, said Leon, the unpredictable and frequently disruptive nature of capitalist development impacted particularly hard on Jewish communities. In Russia, ‘the rapid capitalist development of the Russian economy after the reform of 1863 made the situation of the Jewish masses in the small towns [who had made a living through feudalistic means] untenable’. And in the West, the ‘middle classes, shattered by capitalist concentration, began to turn against the Jewish element whose competition aggravated their situation’. The subsequent emergence of anti-Semitic pogroms in the East and the rise of anti-Semitic sentiment in the West created the conditions for the rise of Zionism, said Leon – a movement that ‘pretends to draw its origin from a past more than 2,000 years old’, but which is, in truth, ‘a reaction against the situation created for Judaism by the combination of the destruction of feudalism and the decay of capitalism’.

However, political Zionism remained a fairly marginal movement among European Jewry in the early twentieth century. It was counteracted by two other strands within Jewish communities: middle-class assimilationists, who still believed they could make their way in mainstream capitalist society, and more importantly a growing socialist movement among the working classes, including working-class Jews.

Many early twentieth-century socialists – both of the Gentile and Jewish varieties – argued against both anti-Semitism and Zionism. They described anti-Semitism, in the words of German socialist August Bebel, as ‘the socialism of fools’, where Jewish communities were made into scapegoats for the failures and crises of capitalism itself. And they looked upon Zionism as an unacceptable accommodation with anti-Semitism, since it, too, treated the Jews as a race apart, as a peculiar people who should ideally be separated from mainstream society.

Socialists recognised the intrinsically defeatist and fatalistic streak in Zionism, an ideology implicitly built on the idea that society could never be fundamentally changed, and therefore if the Jews had any hope of prospering, or simply surviving, they would have to remove themselves from that society. Zionism, argued Gentile and Jewish socialists, denied the possibility of real change, of revolution, of future equality and prosperity for all.

In the 1920s, Zionism looked like an eccentric, minority belief. In revolutionary Russia after 1917, where once the Tsar had exploited anti-Semitism to divide workers, Jews such as Trotsky took on positions of responsibility and power. The revolutionary government declared freedom of religion for all and abolished earlier restrictions on the education and residential rights of Jews. Any individuals or mobs that attacked Jews were severely punished. Meanwhile, Jews continued to migrate to Western countries, showing their belief that, for all the evils of anti-Semitism, a better life could be forged there. In 1927, at least as many people emigrated from Palestine – namechecked by Herzl and other Zionists as the place where Jews should remove themselves from the world – as migrated to it. Political Zionism looked like a losing card.

So what changed? How did Zionism emerge victorious in the three strands of thinking among twentieth-century European Jews? It became the beneficiary of political degeneration, and of the outbreak of war and genocide.

The strand of Jewish assimilation, where middle-class Jews confidently believed they could prosper in European society, was destroyed by the relentless intensification of anti-Semitism in the 1920s and 30s. As the crisis of capitalist society deepened following the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the trend towards economic recession, there emerged a vicious right-wing backlash in Western and Eastern Europe. The main target of this backlash was the organisations of the working classes, but it also visited its fury upon Jews, who were held up as the main cause of ‘Bolshevik conspiracism’ and economic decline. With the march of Nazism across Europe in the 1930s and 40s, and the elevation of Jewish extermination to the level of government policy, the strand of Jewish assimilation lost all credibility.

Meanwhile, the most positive strand, socialism – whose Jewish adherents refused simply to assimilate into capitalist society or wilfully to separate themselves from it – suffered numerous setbacks in the 1920s and 30s. A combination of the attacks on the working classes in Europe and the creeping degeneracy of Russia under the Stalinists dealt a severe blow to the ideal of internationalism and socialist solidarity. By the late 1920s, working-class solidarity with Jews had declined, and even morphed into new forms of anti-Semitism. Prejudice against Jews was on the rise in Stalin’s Soviet Union. By 1930, the German Communist Party was even shamefully refusing to allow its Jewish leaders to speak in public, lest such a spectacle upset the Nazis. The German Communists cravenly offered up ‘non-Jews’ for public debate instead.

It is in these circumstances that Zionism, founded in the late 1800s but remaining fairly marginal in the early twentieth century, became more attractive to European Jews. Victimised by governments and disillusioned with socialism, many Jews understandably embraced the safety and security – the outright separation – offered by the Zionists. This is the tragedy of Zionism. It emerged in response to anti-Semitism in the late nineteenth century, and was further popularised by the intensification of anti-Semitism and the decline of the left in the 1920s and 30s. The victory of Zionism among European Jews spoke to the degeneration of capitalist society and the failure of the left to uphold internationalism.

With assimilation discredited, and international socialism seemingly exhausted, European Jewry effectively adapted to anti-Semitism rather than seeking to defeat it. Zionism was based on a conviction that Jews can have no place in Gentile society since, in the words of the early Zionist thinker Leo Pinsker, anti-Semitism is insurmountable; it is ‘hereditary’, a ‘disease’, which has been ‘incurable for 2,000 years’. Thus the Jews must cut themselves off. In this sense, Zionism rejects the idea that anti-Semitism can be fought and defeated, and in fact gives credence to the anti-Semitic view that Jews are somehow abnormal. That is one good reason to oppose Zionism. But this is no ancient creed, or a base racist ideology; it is the product of complex historical forces and the experience of profound political defeat.

Zionism and imperialism

Those who argue today that Zionism is ‘an expansionist, lawless and racist ideology’ also distort the facts. It is true that, both before and more significantly after the Second World War, Zionism was reliant on the imperialist powers to make its dream of a Jewish homeland a reality. That is because the rise of Zionism was implicitly bound up with the imperialist era, and there were powerful forces in the West – most notably Britain and the United States – that were keen to exploit Zionism for political ends. In the current period, however, we have what we might refer to as ‘Defensive Zionism’ – a form of Zionism that is less interested in expanding than withdrawing behind security walls, and which justifies itself less by reference to future-oriented dreams of a Land of Zion than by appeals to a ‘Jewish identity’ of victimhood.

In today’s politics of anti-Zionism, one could be forgiven for thinking that Zionism is the only and most terrible form of imperialism. Many believe that Zionism is fundamentally the driver of Western forms of imperialism, too. In their controversial text The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, American authors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt put forward an increasingly popular argument: that America’s foreign policy is dictated by the needs and desires of the Zionists; that the Zionist state is the tail that wags the dog.

Such a view of ‘Zionist imperialism’ misunderstands the subordinate relationship that Zionism has always had with imperialism. It is true that, post-Second World War, the Zionist movement could only create and maintain its homeland of Israel with the backing and assistance of powerful Western governments. But this rather demonstrates that it is the Zionists who are reliant upon imperialism rather than imperialism being beholden to Zionism and the Jews.

Abram Leon persuasively argued that what distinguishes Zionism from other bourgeois nationalist ideologies is not any in-built racism or lawlessness, but rather the conditions in which it emerged. Where most bourgeois nationalist projects emerged when capitalism was in its ascendancy, expressing the desire of the new capitalist elites to carve out ‘national bases of production’ and finally ‘abolish feudalism’, Zionism emerged when capitalism was in crisis and decay.

As Leon wrote: ‘Far from being a product of the development of the productive forces, Zionism is precisely the consequence of the complete halt of this development, the result of the petrifaction of capitalism. Whereas the national movement is the product of the ascending period of capitalism, Zionism is the product of the imperialist era.’

Indeed, Leon points out that when bourgeois national movements were flourishing, Jews tended to subscribe to an assimilationist outlook; because capitalism was relatively stable then, and thus anti-Semitism tended to be quite rare, they saw their place as being within already-existing societies rather than being nationally separate from them. It is only with the onset of capitalist crisis and decay, first in the late nineteenth century and then more terrifyingly in the 1920s and 30s, that Jews begin to embrace the ‘national movement’. Their nationalism is a product of capitalism in decline, of the imperialist era, rather than of capitalism in ascendancy. Zionism had more in common with the smaller, more backward national movements that also emerged in the early twentieth century, such as those that sprung from the decay of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, than it did with classical nationalism – yet it lacked even some of their historical antecedents.

Consequently, the Zionist national project would be realised not through Jews acting independently to create their own bourgeois nation state, but rather through the intervention and support of imperialist powers. Leon recognised that the very conditions that gave rise to Zionism also meant that turning Zionism into a successful national project was virtually impossible. ‘Capitalist decay – the basis for the growth of Zionism – is also the cause of the impossibility of its realisation’, he wrote in the early 1940s. ‘The Jewish bourgeoisie is compelled to create a national state, to assure itself of the objective framework for the development of its productive forces, precisely in the period when the conditions for such a development have long since disappeared.’

He perspicaciously noted that only with the support of imperialism could Zionism create a nation state, arguing eight years before the founding of Israel that: ‘A relative success for Zionism, along the lines of creating a Jewish majority in Palestine and even of the formation of a “Jewish state”, that is to say, a state placed under the complete domination of English or American imperialism, cannot, naturally, be excluded.’

This is what came to pass. The Zionists, first with the backing of Britain and later with the support of the United States, have created the ‘relative success’ of Israel. From its earliest days, Zionism was forced to appeal to external forces for assistance with its ‘national liberation’ project for Jews. As one study puts it, ‘[F]rom its inception, Zionism depended on European powers’ sponsorship of its colonial-settler aims’. Early Zionists explicitly appealed to imperialist powers’ desire to cement and spread their influence around the globe. At the very start of the 1900s, Herzl, in his various discussions with the British government, promised that his Jewish State would be ‘a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism’.

This piqued the interest of the imperialist powers, in particular Britain. A combination of the inherent weakness and artificiality of the extremely young movement of Zionism and the ambitions of the British Empire meant that Britain adopted elements of the Zionist cause. In the 1910s and 1920s, while Zionism was still relatively marginal among European Jews, Britain permitted Jewish migration to its territory of Palestine, largely, said Leon, as a way of ‘using the Jews as a counterweight to the Arab threat’. Britain’s main interest was to settle Jews in Palestine (but not too many Jews) in order to sideline early twentieth-century ‘Arab nationalism’. In 1917, the Balfour Declaration for the first time stated the British Empire’s recognition of the aim of creating a Jewish state in Palestine.

Winston Churchill, then a Cabinet minister, explicitly stated Britain’s reasons for expressing an interest in the Zionist project: ‘[A] Jewish state under the protection of the British Crown… would from every point of view be beneficial and would be especially in harmony with the truest interests of the British Empire.’

After the Second World War, backed up by the authority of Jews’ experience in the Holocaust, first Britain and later America supported the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Jewish guerrillas eventually fought with British forces in order to end the British mandate over Palestine and hurry the creation of a Jewish state. With the political, economic and military backing of the US from the 1950s onwards, the Zionist project in Palestine became something of an outpost for Western imperialism. The Middle East became a key arena of the Cold War, with Israel acting as the West’s gendarme against Soviet-backed Arab nationalism. Far from being an especially evil or deceitful project, however, the realisation of Zionist goals in Palestine had much in common with Western colonialism more broadly. It involved the expulsion of people from their land and the occupation of nationally disputed territory. These things came about, not as a result of a peculiarly lawless or racist ideology, but by a combination of the emergence of Jewish nationalism in twentieth-century Europe and the exploitation of this nationalism by imperialist powers keen to preserve and extend their influence in the volatile Middle East.

The argument today that America and other Western nations are in the pockets of the Zionists gets things entirely the wrong way round. In truth, because of its peculiar origins, Zionism has always been reliant upon imperialism for its power and purpose, and imperialist powers have frequently been willing to exploit it. In more recent times, especially since the end of the Cold War, Western powers have become more willing to chastise Israel and even to punish it with threats and sanctions, as witnessed in US secretary of state John Kerry’s very public warning to Israeli leaders about signing up to a new peace deal. The Zionists remain beholden to Western power.

The creation of the Zionist state did not resolve the Jewish Question, the issue of Jews’ place in contemporary society. It merely displaced it, and in many ways intensified it. As Leon Trotsky warned in 1940, eight years before the founding of Israel, ‘future development of military events may well transform Palestine into a bloody trap for several hundred thousand Jews’. Tragically, the creation of a ‘special place’ for Jews not only represented an adaptation to early twentieth-century Western anti-Semitism; it also intensified some people’s view of Jews as strange, cut off, different to the rest of us.

Defensive Zionism

Today, the discussion of Zionism has been utterly separated from any knowledge of its historical origins or any understanding of its changing, 100-year relationship with imperialism. It is also utterly separated from any humanistic debate about the place of the Jews in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Instead, the Z-word has become a cheap, lazy codeword for ‘evil’, for wickedness. That is because the contemporary politics of anti-Zionism is not based on an appreciation of history or meaningful solidarity with either the Jewish or the Palestinian people, but rather has become an outlet for the expression of all sorts of grievances, and, among Western officials, for back-covering.

Zionism is seen as a hangover from the West’s past that most people would rather forget. At a time when sovereignty is no longer sacrosanct, when Western powers pool their national sovereignties into things like the European Union and demand that nations around the world open themselves up to the interrogation of the ‘international community’, Zionism is an ugly reminder of a forceful, still unresolved sovereign project. At a time when Western powers cynically describe their military ventures as a disavowal of their own self-interest – apparently they fight for the humanitarian betterment of beleaguered peoples around the world – the Zionists’ use of force to express their right to exist, and to firm up their borders, is frowned upon. In our era of multiculturalism, when Western European governments sing the praises of mixing cultural identities (while keeping their borders firmly closed to the wrong kind of cultural identity), the Zionists’ desire to preserve their Jewish state is seen as so twentieth century. Disillusionment with old Western values is continually projected on to Zionism.

Even worse, some Western leaders now seek to rehabilitate their own moral standing in world affairs by accepting the challenge of anti-Zionists to stand up to Israel. For me, the spectacle of British politicians, the president of France and the leaders of Germany – three nations that have terrible imperialist and racist pasts – making demands of the Zionist state to rein in what the UN has labelled its ‘racist and imperialist ideology’ is nauseating. In posturing against Zionism, Western leaders hope to offset their colonial and racial guilt on to the Middle East, to make the Zionists the bearers of the West’s shameful past practices.

In short, we have the leaders of European states whose earlier actions left Jews with little choice but to embrace Zionism (anti-Semitism was widespread in the early twentieth century, from Britain to Germany to Poland) now holding up Zionism as wicked; politics doesn’t get much more degenerate than this.

If discussing Zionism as ‘expansionist, lawless and racist’ would have been inaccurate in the past, it is way off the mark today. Contemporary Zionism is defensive. It is underpinned not by visions of the future but by ideas of Jewish victimhood, by the necessity of halting ‘future Holocausts’ against the Jews from their various mortal enemies. This has given rise to an even more physically closed-off form of Zionism, where Israel builds monumental brick walls covered in barbed wire to protect Jews from the external world. This is a tragedy, not only for Palestinians, but for Jews, too.

The Jewish Question has long been of key importance to progressives, because the position of Jews in a society reveals much about the nature of that society. Where the French Revolution helped to liberate many European Jews from earlier discrimination (‘the triumphant march of the Napoleonic armies was the signal for Jewish emancipation’, said Abram Leon), the onset of capitalist decay condemned Jews to scapegoating and extermination; and where the rise of Zionism represented a tragic, defeatist accommodation with anti-Semitism, the rise of anti-Zionism today represents the apportioning of guilt for Western wrongs on to the Jews. And it encourages them to fence themselves off even more, which is the worst possible answer to the Jewish Question.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. The above is an edited version of an essay that first appeared on spiked four years ago.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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