Editor’s note: Below is an excerpt of an important post that’s been up for a few days already, Jerome Slater’s earnest/tormented/scholarly effort to reconcile his belief in the necessity of a Jewish state with the project’s unjust record in Palestine. Slater ends up (as he has in a dialogue at this site that helped provide the impetus for his post) by endorsing the two-state solution. He says that binationalism has many times failed, and the Israelis want a Jewish state and the Palestinians want their own state, too. “Israel is here to stay.” He also calls for international pressure to end the settlements. Well, it’s an important conversation. Slater’s allowed me to post the first quarter of his long post below, including the wonderful scholarly portions on Zionist history near the beginning. You can go to the link to see how the story ends…
A small but growing number of Israeli and American Jewish critics of Israel have concluded that the root cause of Israel’s continuing oppression of the Palestinians is Zionism, which at its core is the belief that the Jewish people have both the right and the need of a state of their own. Some of them even argue that because of the inherent conflict between Zionism and the rights of the Palestinian people, the creation of a Jewish state in part of Palestine was never justified. Tellingly, though, almost all who so argue are Jewish, for there are few if any Western gentiles of good will in this camp.
Most contemporary critics of Zionism hold to a more moderate view, that of “post-Zionism,” or the belief that whatever its initial justification, Zionism and the insistence that Israel must remain and be formally acknowledged by the Palestinians as a Jewish state is now a pernicious anachronism and an unbridgeable obstacle to a just settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Zionists disagree. However, further distinctions must be made, for on this issue there are at least three different schools within Zionism. Rightwing Zionists believe not only that Israel must remain a Jewish state, but that the main failure of the early Zionist years was that the large-scale expulsion of the Palestinians during the 1947-48 period did not go far enough, for it still left more than 150,000 of them within the Jewish state.
The Zionist left–or “liberal Zionists,” as they are widely known today–accepts that some form of Palestinian expulsion was necessary to establish the state, but strongly deplores the Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinians since then, especially after the 1967 war. For example, Zeev Sternhell, perhaps Israel’s most prominent and honored political scientist and an outspoken opponent of Israeli policies, recently told David Remnick that “Our basic failure in 1967 was not to understand that what was good and legitimate until 1949 had ceased to be after that.”
The largest group, the centrist Zionists, while somewhat uneasy about the continued occupation and often willing to give lip service to a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, typically oppose the Israeli concessions that are the sine qua non of such a settlement.
Was Zionism Ever Justified?
The first step towards answering that question is to sort out Zionism’s good arguments from its bad ones. For one thing, doing so is a crucial intellectual necessity if one is to truly understand the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Second, it is also morally necessary, for much–but not all–of the Zionist argument cannot withstand serious logical or moral analysis. But most importantly, it is the continuing failure of most Israelis to distinguish serious history from Zionist ideology that largely accounts for Israeli self-righteousness, rigidity, moral failures, and blindness to their own best interests.
A good beginning to this demythologizing process is to separate the original Zionist argument for the necessity of a Jewish state from the argument that such a state had to be in Palestine, and nowhere else. Jewish nationalism, the Zionist political movement, emerged in Europe in the early 20th century, a reaction to the centuries-long history of antisemitism in Europe and elsewhere, and especially to the revival of severe antisemitism in France and, even more so, the pogroms in Russia and eastern Europe in the late 19th-early 20th centuries.
As Sternhell has put it, “Jewish nationalism was first of all a defensive reflex,” and an “existential necessity,” a consequence of “the rise of state anti-Semitism in the Russian Empire, which clearly sought to rid itself of its Jews.” In light of the often-murderous persecution of the Jewish people throughout history, culminating of course with the Holocaust, few if any other people have had a more powerful case for possession of a state of their own.
Where that state should be located, however, was a very different matter. The terrible paradox of Zionism is that by the mid-twentieth century the arguments for the creation of a Jewish state were so strong as to be nearly self-evident, but most of the arguments for the right to create that state in Palestine were very weak.
The founder of the Zionist political movement, Theodore Herzl, initially considered the question of where the Jewish state should be located as an open one, a practical rather than an ideological or religious issue; consequently, for awhile the Zionists canvassed a number of locations. However, the search for alternatives to Palestine was quickly abandoned. The turning point–and the origin of the Palestinian-Israeli and the larger Arab-Israeli conflict–came at the Zionist congress of 1905, which decisively rejected any effort to create the Jewish state in any place but Biblical Palestine.
To be sure, even if Herzl’s secular views had prevailed, it was by no means certain that a Jewish state could have been created elsewhere–most of the supposed alternatives were frivolous and held very little promise. Perhaps the most serious one was suggested in 1903 when, following the Russian pogroms, British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain offered 5,000 square miles of what was then British East Africa to Herzl, to serve as a refuge for the Jewish people.
The Zionists were not interested. In any case, the British offer would obviously have not solved the problem of a Jewish state being created by colonial imposition, and ultimately it probably would have simply transferred the problem of the conflict between Zionism and the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine to those of Uganda and Kenya, thereby creating an African-Israeli instead of an Arab-Israeli conflict.
Even so, it is a reasonable argument that the search for a better solution than Palestine was abandoned prematurely and, more importantly, for the wrong reasons.
That is, even if alternatives to Palestine ultimately had proven to be unfeasible, the very willingness to search for them would have required a dissociation of Zionism from Biblical theology, and that would have made the need for a just compromise with the Palestinians evident from the start.
From the 19th century to the present, Zionists have made a number of arguments for exclusive Jewish political rights in Palestine, all but one of them entirely unconvincing, beginning with the argument from Biblical history.
Modern Biblical historical scholarship and archaeological evidence calls into question most of the Zionist mythology. In brief summary (for a fuller discussion, see here), it is not the case that the central homeland of the Jews was in Palestine, nor that the Jews had established political sovereignty over much of that land: there were large Jewish communities in Egypt and elsewhere throughout the Mediterranean basin, and Palestine was inhabited by a number of peoples, no one of which was politically dominant.
Moreover, there appears to be little evidence that the Romans engaged in a wholesale expulsion of the Jewish people from Palestine after they suppressed the Jewish rebellion of 66-70 AD. Rather, most of the Jews remained in Palestine throughout the period of the Roman Empire, but over time the majority became Christians, and later Muslims, leaving only a small group which preserved its Jewish identity.
Thus, while there has been some kind of unbroken Jewish presence in Palestine for some thirty centuries and that it is true that some Jews have religious or emotional ties to that land (especially to Jerusalem), the much more important fact is that the overwhelming majority of the Jewish people who have lived throughout the world in the last two thousand years do not think of themselves as a “Diaspora,” longing to “return” to Palestine. In any case, the key point is that Christians and Muslims in general, and Palestinians in particular, also have strong historical connections, claims, and ties to Palestine of religion and sentiment. That being the case, there is no persuasive basis for privileging the Zionist claim of ancient rights, let alone eternal ones.
The argument for Jewish political rights in Palestine does not rest solely on unsupported Biblical mythology, let alone on the religious belief that God promised Palestine to the Jews for all eternity–a claim that can persuade only those people who can be persuaded by such an “argument.”
However, the full Zionist case also is based on a secular argument: instead of (or in addition to) religious beliefs, territorial history establishes a permanent Jewish territorial right to rule Palestine. In order to fully analyze that argument, let’s assume–against most of the serious historical evidence–that the Zionists are right that the Jewish people lived primarily in the ancient land of Palestine for many centuries, that they established political sovereignty over it, and that they lost their homeland only because they were forcibly driven from it.
Even if all that had been true, however, it is a fallacy to believe it would establish a persuasive modern Jewish claim to the land of Palestine. The argument that an ancient claim to a land has precedence over very long periods of a different reality–in Palestine, eight centuries of Christianity followed by thirteen centuries of an overwhelming Islamic majority–is accepted in no other place in the world, whether in law, moral reasoning, or plain common sense.
Palestine has been repeatedly conquered by outside invaders since ancient history: by Assyria, Babylon, Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, the Crusaders, the Ottoman Empire–indeed, if the Old Testament is to be the historical source, by the Jews themselves! On each occasion, the previous inhabitants of the land were killed, driven into exile, or subjugated by new rulers, who then held sway for centuries. Who, then, are the “rightful” claimants? In the absence of a persuasive religious claim accepted by everyone (“the Promised Land”), including those of different nationalities and religions, the stopping of the clock as it marches backward in time to twenty centuries ago, neither earlier nor later, must be completely arbitrary and self-serving.
Put differently, by what objective criteria are the claims of one set of victims–the Jews, supposedly driven out by the Romans two thousand years ago–privileged over all other such claims? If ancient victimization is the criterion, then the descendants of the Canaanites–that is, today’s Syrians–must have priority over the descendants of the Jews. On the other hand, if recent victimization is the criterion, then all victims of conquest after the Roman “expulsion”–certainly including today’s Palestinians–must have priority over the Jews.
There is scarcely any place in the world that has not at one time been conquered, subjugated, and populated by a previously foreign people. Thus, a kind of common sense statute of limitations on land claims by right of previous inhabitance has evolved–as it must, since in its absence there would be no stability, no principled objection to endless wars of restitution, and no law other than might makes right.
Of course, there can be no precision in ascertaining the point at which the passage of time has nullified the moral or legal validity of previous land claims, and certainly there are hard cases. However, the Zionist claim, based on dubious “history” two thousand years ago is not one of them. On the other hand, paradoxically, the Palestinian claim, whose historical validity is not in doubt, is based on events only sixty-four years ago. (Even so, as I shall later argue, a Palestinian “right of return” is, in practice, unrealizable).