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Once, most Jews viewed Israel as the anti-semite’s best friend

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It was an assessment no one expected from the deputy head of the Israeli military. In his Holocaust Day speech last week, Yair Golan compared current trends in Israel with Germany in the early 1930s, as Nazism took hold.

In today’s Israel, he said, could be recognised “the revolting processes that occurred in Europe … There is nothing easier than hating the stranger, nothing easier than to stir fears and intimidate.”

The furore over Golan’s remarks followed on the heels of a similar outcry in Britain at statements by former London mayor Ken Livingstone. He observed that Hitler had in practice been “supporting Zionism” in 1933 when the Nazis signed a transfer agreement, allowing some German Jews to emigrate to Palestine.

In their different ways both comments refer back to a heated argument among Jews that began a century or more ago about whether Zionism was a blessing or blight. Although largely overlooked today, the dispute throws much light on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Those differences came to a head in 1917 when the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, a document promising for the first time to realise the Zionist goal of a “national home” for the Jews in Palestine.

Only one minister, Edwin Montagu, dissented. Notably, he was the only Jew in the British cabinet. The two facts were not unconnected. In a memo, he warned that his government’s policy would be a “rallying ground for anti-Semites in every country”.

He was far from alone in that view.

Of the 4 million Jews who left Europe between 1880 and 1920, only 100,000 went to Palestine in line with Zionist expectations. As the Israeli novelist A B Yehoshua once noted: “If the Zionist party had run in an election in the early 20th century, it would have received only 6 or 7 per cent of the Jewish people’s vote.”

What Montagu and most other Jews feared was that the creation of a Jewish state in a far-flung territory dovetailed a little too neatly with the aspirations of Europe’s anti-Semites, then much in evidence, including in the British government.

According to the dominant assumptions of Europe’s ethnic nationalisms of the time, the region should be divided into peoples or biological “races”, and each should control a territory in which it could flourish.

The Jews were viewed as a “problem” because – in addition to lingering Christian anti-semitism – they were considered subversive of this national model.

Jews were seen as a race apart, one that could not – or should not – be allowed to assimilate. Better, on this view, to encourage their emigration from Europe. For British elites, the Balfour Declaration was a means to achieve that end.

Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, understood this trenchant anti-semitism very well. His idea for a Jewish state was inspired in part by the infamous Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish French army officer was framed by his commanders for treason. Herzl was convinced that anti-semitism would always prevent Jews from true acceptance in Europe.

It is for this reason that Livingstone’s comments – however clumsily expressed – point to an important truth. Herzl and other early Zionists implicitly accepted the ugly framework of European bigotry.

Jews, Herzl concluded, must embrace their otherness and regard themselves as a separate race. Once they found a benefactor to give them a territory – soon Britain would oblige with Palestine – they could emulate the other European peoples from afar.

For a while, some Nazi leaders were sympathetic. Adolf Eichmann, one of the later engineers of the Holocaust, visited Palestine in 1937 to promote the “Zionist emigration” of Jews.

Hannah Arendt, the German Jewish scholar of totalitarianism, argued even in 1944 – long after the Nazis abandoned ideas of emigration and embraced genocide instead – that the ideology underpinning Zionism was “nothing else than the uncritical acceptance of German-inspired nationalism”.

Israel and its supporters would prefer we forget that, before the rise of the Nazis, most Jews deeply opposed a future in which they were consigned to Palestine. Those who try to remind us of this forgotten history are likely to be denounced, like Livingstone, as anti-semites. They are accused of making a simplistic comparison between Zionism and Nazism.

But there is good reason to examine this uncomfortable period.

Modern Israeli politicians, including prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, still regularly declare that Jews have only one home – in Israel. After every terror attack in Europe, they urge Jews to hurry to Israel, telling them they can never be safe where they are.

It also alerts us to the fact that even today the Zionist movement cannot help but mirror many of the flaws of those now-discredited European ethnic nationalisms, as Golan appears to appreciate.

Such characteristics – all too apparent in Israel – include: an exclusionary definition of peoplehood; a need to foment fear and hatred of the other as a way to keep the nation tightly bound; an obsession with and hunger for territory; and a highly militarised culture.

Recognising Zionism’s ideological roots, inspired by racial theories of peoplehood that in part fueled the Second World War, might allow us to understand modern Israel a little better. And why it seems incapable of extending a hand of peace to the Palestinians.

Jonathan Cook

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His new website is

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18 Responses

  1. Citizen on May 10, 2016, 12:00 pm

    Astute article by Mr. Cook; I’m glad he’s around and speaking up–constantly. I wish the US mainstream cable TV news/infotainment shows would give him some platform to inform the American public. All we get are hasbara pundit parrots either intentionally misleading or abysmally ignorant–or both.

  2. Dan From Away on May 10, 2016, 1:59 pm

    What was Herzl’s definition of antisemitism?
    What was Balfour’s definition of antisemitism?
    What is Netanyahu’s definition of antisemitism?

    View a poster promoting the Haavara Agreement here:

  3. Laurent Weppe on May 10, 2016, 4:13 pm

    Such characteristics – all too apparent in Israel – include: an exclusionary definition of peoplehood; a need to foment fear and hatred of the other as a way to keep the nation tightly bound; an obsession with and hunger for territory; and a highly militarised culture.

    And, last but not least, a parasitic ruling class keenly aware of the intrinsic frailty of their ethnic supremacist project taking steps to ensure their heirs can quickly evacuate the “hallowed motherland” toward a safe haven where they’ll keep living comfortably when the regime collapses.

  4. wondering jew on May 11, 2016, 12:07 am

    The headline is a falsehood: Once, most Jews viewed zionism as antisemitism’s best friend is a falsity. Most of those fleeing the vast home of Jews: the Russian empire, did not view Zionism as antisemitism’s best friend, they viewed Zionism as a dream for utopian thinkers and unrealistic people, that’s why they chose other destinations. True there were those who were settled in the west who might have viewed Zionism like Montagu did in the case of the British cabinet at the time of the Balfour Declaration. But most Jews did not view Zionism as a threat, they viewed it as a dream, an impractical dream.

    And missing from the article is the single raw fact that makes Herzl, not the enemy of Jews, but the friend to the Jews: his prophecy. He saw the future and that future was Hitler. So to attribute to him friendship with people who hated Jews without mentioning the fact that he saw the reality for the vast numbers of the Jews under the yoke of the Czar and the majority of Jews living in Europe: a future where Jew hatred would consume them. to skip that fact makes this piece by Jonathan Cook as propagandistic as anything coming out of Hasbara Central.

    • Misterioso on May 11, 2016, 9:34 am

      “And missing from the article is the single raw fact that makes Herzl, not the enemy of Jews, but the friend to the Jews: his prophecy. He saw the future and that future was Hitler.”

      Herzl was not the only eminent Jew to see the future:

      Thirty-one prominent Jewish Americans presented a petition to President Wilson, which he brought to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. The signers included among others, Senator Henry Morgenthau Sr., former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey; Simon Rosendale, ex-Attorney General of New York; E.M. Baker, President of the Stock Exchange; New York Times publisher, Adlolph S. Ochs and Congressman Julius Kahn. These learned Jews feared that Zionist influence at the peace conference might lay the foundation for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine which they opposed. The petitioners warned against any commitment “now or in the future to Jewish territorial sovereignty in Palestine” and predicted that given the Arab presence in Palestine, Zionist objectives would inevitably lead to a violent struggle between the two groups. In conclusion, they asked the president to argue at the Peace Conference that “…Palestine be constituted as a free and independent state, to be governed under a democratic form of government, recognizing no distinctions of creed or race or ethnic descent….”

      Senator Morgenthau left no doubt as to where he stood on Zionism: “Zionism is the most stupendous fallacy in Jewish history….The very fervour of my feeling for the oppressed of every race and every land, especially for the Jews, those of my own blood and faith, to whom I am bound by every tender tie, impels me to fight with all the greater force against this scheme, which my intelligence tells me can only lead them deeper into the mire of the past, while it professes to be leading them to the heights. Zionism is… a retrogression into the blackest error, and not progress toward the light.”

      The thirty-one distinguished American Jews must have expected that President Wilson would heed their advice as it was consistent with his stated principles for creating a better world. He opposed the annexation of land as spoils of war and was the prime mover in establishing a League of Nations to provide a forum for settling international disputes peacefully. However, as his endorsement of the Balfour Declaration had indicated and future events would confirm, the president’s humanitarian vision did not include Arabs.

      • wondering jew on May 11, 2016, 1:28 pm

        Misterioso – Henry morgenthau senior’s opposition to zionism is not news to me. But his status as senator is news (most probably false).

      • Misterioso on May 11, 2016, 8:25 pm

        My error. Haste makes waste.

        Henry Morgenthau was former ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and not a Senator.

      • Marnie on May 12, 2016, 1:02 am

        Morgenthau didn’t mince words!

    • Mooser on May 11, 2016, 11:04 am

      “this piece by Jonathan Cook as propagandistic as anything coming out of Hasbara Central.”

      Sure, “yonah”. When something Jonathan Cook writes rouses you to literacy and legibility, I’ll think you’re the least bit concerned.

      But if we rate your alarm by the number of inches you cover with type, at 16 pts. you’ve got about 14 inches!

    • Sid on May 11, 2016, 12:42 pm

      During the Dreyfus affair, much of the hysteria was orchestrated by Eduard Drumont, a rabid anti-Semite, through his newspaper La Libre Parole. Herzl was inspired by Drumont and in the midst of writing Der Judenstaat noted “Much of my current conceptual freedom I owe to Drumont, because he is an artist.” Drumont, too seems to have had a favorable view of Herzl, and wrote a glowing review of Der Judenstaat in La Libre Parole. Unlike Herzl, it is safe to say that most Jews did not have a positive view of Drumont, nor Drumont of them.

      In the Russian Empire region, consider Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who grew up in Odessa. Jabotinsky was an ardent admirer of Ukranian ethnic nationalism, even though it promoted anti-Semitism. Jabotinsky had high praise for Symon Petluira, the Ukranian nationalist leader who oversaw some of the worst pogroms. Unlike Jabotinsky, most Jews in the region were extremely vary of Ukranian ethnic nationalism, and eventually it was a Russian Jew who assassinated Petliura in Paris. In a tribute to the Ukrainian nationalist poet Taras Shevchenko, Jabotinsky recognized that Shevchenko had “all the defects involved in nationalistic attitudes, including explosions of wild fury against the Poles, the Jews and other neighbors,” but praised him nevertheless, for having “given to his people, as well as to the whole world, a clear and solid proof that the Ukrainian soul has been endowed with talent for independent cultural creativity.” Most Jews, justifiably concerned about “wild fury” directed at them, most likely would not have agreed with Jabotinsky.

    • MHughes976 on May 11, 2016, 2:24 pm

      In response to Yonah – Herzl certainly prophesied woe to Jews and some would say that he saved many by his timely warnings. He also prophesied that Jewish immigration to a New Land would do much more good than harm to everyone concerned. The dire effects of this false prophecy need to be considered.

      • wondering jew on May 11, 2016, 2:52 pm

        Mhughes- “he also prophesied that jewish immigration to a new land would do much more good than harm to everyone concerned.”
        This formulation really is insufficient. he prophesied that jewish statehood in some territory (probably through colonizing a powerless people) (probably in palestine) would do more good than harm. i agree that judah magnes was closer to the truth regarding the nature of the consequences of such a state rather than herzl.

        but that was not the content of this post by cook.

    • Talkback on May 11, 2016, 3:38 pm

      yonah fredman: “He saw the future and that future was Hitler”

      ROFL, he saw the future and that future was what happened to Jews beyond Hitler’s realm: assimimilation, emancipation, intermarriage …

  5. yourstruly on May 11, 2016, 12:48 am

    Once most Jews Viewed Israel as the antisemite’s best friend?

    Soundly based, too, considering the fact that the Jewish-settler colonization of Palestine accounts for most of today’s antsemitism

    This is so not only because history has discredited settler colonialism, but because Palestine today is a living example of the horrors that settler conquest bestows upon native peoples.

    Perhaps Israel is no worse in this regard than the many settler colonizations that took place over the past 5 centuries. Israel’s “misfortune” is that its crimes are played out before billions of people, compliments of modern communication technology. Who knows what the world would look like today had the Conquistadores been faced with such instant revelations?

    Yet Israel & its supporters, rather than asking themselves “what are we doing wrong that the world’s turned against us”, cling to the illusion that “they hate us because we’re Jewish.” Yeh, and the worldwide opposition to settler colonialism in South Africa was attributable to hatred of Whites and not to the recognition by most people that colonialism = racism, and therefore must go?

    What is there about settler colonialism that riles people up? Well, it being a form of enslavement, its existence forces us to decide, on which side, the slave (ie. the Palestinian) or the slave-owner (ie. the Jewish settler). Most of us, of course, side with the slave. Why? Perhaps has something to do with the “there but for go I”, or, perhaps the realization (conscious or otherwise) that none of us will be free until the last chain is broken.

    And this, not antisemitism, is why the world’s against the settler state Israel. Simple and as basic as that. Nothing to do with antisemitism, which, unfortunately is something that Israel and its supporters won’t dare consider. They take that up and the walls come tumbling down.

    That’s not to say that there aren’t at least a few anti-Semites who’ll try to jump aboard justice for Palestine movements such as BDS. Except that a few rotten apples do not a mass movement spoil, especially when its members know that opposing one form of racism (settler racism) with another (antisemitism) is a recipe for disaster.

    Indeed, with the dissolution of the state of Israel (not its people), the amount of antisemitism in the world would be reduced to a size that could easily be flushed down a toilet.

    • Mooser on May 11, 2016, 11:19 am

      “Soundly based, too, considering the fact that the Jewish-settler colonization of Palestine accounts for most of today’s antsemitism”

      Oh, it’s much worse than that!
      In fact, the horrible fact is – ” the Jewish-settler colonization of Palestine accounts for most of today’s” criticism and condemnation of “the Jewish-settler colonization of Palestine”!!

  6. hophmi on May 11, 2016, 12:54 pm

    Once, most Jews were afraid to speak their minds for fear of what others might think.

    Do you guys ever recognize the irony of what you say here? You claim that antisemitism is overblown, and then you talk about how great it was when Jews self-censored in order to avoid opprobrium from antisemites. And you wonder why people think that anti-Zionism and antisemitism is the same thing.

    • Mooser on May 11, 2016, 2:08 pm

      “Once, most Jews were afraid to speak their minds for fear of what others might think.”

      Oh, “Hophmi” I think you are exaggerating the amount of intra-Jewish censorship and thought control. I’ve never heard of anybody being disinherited for anti-Zionism.
      Do you really think Jews censor themselves for fear of what other Jews might think?

  7. rosross on May 12, 2016, 7:29 pm

    It does not explain how a religion turns a diverse group of races, nationalities and cultures into a people in any sense beyond religious metaphor, as would apply to any religion.

    The problem with accepting Jews as being a race or people, is that the only link between them is religion and that would therefore apply to all religions.

    It is the catchcry today in India, of Hindustan for the Hindus, a recipe for bigotry, intolerance and disaster, as has been the case with Israel.

    Religions have been and can be destructive enough without the deluded concept of them creating a people, or ‘race’ or something which deserves and/or requires ‘self-determination.’

    When religion and bigotry join forces the results are indeed terrible and it is not to be encouraged on any count.

    If Israel stands as an example, it is of the truth of such a partnership and a warning to all those who challenge democratic principles – still the best foundation we have for societies based on tolerance, justice, acceptance and enlightened assimilation.

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