Before there were Israelis, there were Zionists and Zionism. Heirs of the project are living out the literal foreignness of the Zionist nationality—overlaid on the human Palestine map.
The secular, Ashkenazi theoreticians of the pre-state Zionist movement contrast with their progeny, Naftali Bennett and “hilltop youth,” Hebrew-speaking religious Zealots, looking to cast adrift from the democratic tradition in favor of an atavistic Jewish kingdom.
It’s a wise child that knows his own father. The state of mind of Israeli Zionists is now such that they feel Zionists of the wider world are alien to them.
“Equal suffrage is obviously inadvisable in so backward a civilization as that of the Arab…”
So pioneer American Zionist, Jerusalem Post founder and future Tel Aviv Mayor Gershon Agronsky (later Agron) observed in a 1927 report on Jewish “reclamation” of Mandate Palestine.
The occasion of Agronsky’s report was an extraordinary international conference —-under United States sponsorship, improbably enough in Honolulu in 1927, “The First Pan Pacific Conference on Education, Rehabilitation, Reclamation and Recreation.”
(Presumably, Mandate Palestine’s touching of the Gulf of Aqaba made it a territory of the Pacific.)
That conference, which opened at the newly built landmark Royal Hawaiian Hotel, gives us a view of the times, and a valuable picture of the role that “advanced” nations were seen to play in the lives of the “native.”
For Agronsky, personally attending the conference was an occasion to share the story of Zionist settlement of Palestine, with steady advances in dunums irrigated and number of Jewish schools and hamlets.
For appointed Hawaii Territorial Governor Wallace R. Farrington and the Japan government representatives—in their lights “advanced” parties—it was an opportunity to discuss indicators of progress for indigenous Hawaiians and Koreans.
The Japanese proudly reported improved education and rice production since the 1911 annexation of Korea by Japan, and the Hawaii Territorial government representatives described the efforts to educate and set native Hawaiians in homes on land in trust for them.
For Agronsky, the Jewish Agency representative, his theme was “Jewish Reclamation of Palestine,” and mention of non-Jews in Palestine was less than secondary.
In the pioneering pre-state period, a portion of the Zionist intelligentsia—personified by Judah Magnes—understood the danger of what was being constructed.
Jewish settlement-building followed Ben-Gurion’s principles of Jewish self-sufficiency and “Hebrew Labor,” and had the effect of building two societies at odds with each other.
Herzlian philosophy was that Jews—in the main Jews of Eastern Europe—would become a “normal” people by doing all the functions that a people do, such as tilling the soil, in a Jewish land.
“Jewish agriculture is the base for the reconstruction of Palestine, and a Jewish peasantry the foundation of a new Jewish Commonwealth,” said D. Arthur Ruppin, a Zionist presence in Palestine since the First Aliyah.
To the Zionist pioneers, this meant minimizing interdependence with non-Jewish Palestinians. There was an unavoidable European sense of superiority.
In a February 1918 American Jewish Committee board meeting, AJC board member Cyrus Adler illustrated the all-too-frequent contempt for Arabs that poisoned foreign plans for Palestine, when he observed that, to him,
“It is difficult to imagine how Jews, who have lived in the great world, in the great modern cities of Europe and America, and who should go back to Palestine, could take a place side by side with the Arabs who are 2,000 or 3,000 years behind the Jews in civilization.”
That February comment is echoed in a May 1918 letter from Chaim Weizmann in Tel Aviv-Jaffa to British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, complaining that British administrators of Palestine were ignoring the
“fundamental qualitative difference between Jew and Arab….The present system tends on the contrary to level down the Jews to the status of a native, and in many cases the English Administrator follows the convenient rule of looking on the Jews as so many natives.”
Weizmann was pointing out the special status that Jews were to have in Mandate Palestine, as living in their intended homeland by “a right and not on sufferance,” as Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill put it in 1922.
(In a theme that recurs in discussions of Zionism, Churchill said in 1920, “The struggle between the Zionist and Bolshevik Jews is little less than a struggle for the soul of the Jewish people. In this case, redeeming the land is saving the Jews for the good of the nations.”)
In the periods of Zionist settlement in Palestine before statehood, the management and force of the Zionist movement was from the technological, “advanced,” European world.
When waves of Mizrahi (eastern/Arab Jewish) olim arrived in Israel, in the trauma to the Arab world of the partition of Palestine, the “civilizing” mission was felt by the arriving “backward” Arab Jews, the Mizrahim, in contempt and tutelage.
The Mizrahim experienced the phenomena of children stolen for adoption, and forced “Western” education, as experienced by Aboriginal Australians and North American First Peoples.
Arabs do appear in Israeli self-conception when convenient. Constitutional and human rights lawyer Mazen Mazri comments that in Israel’s May 1948 Declaration of Independence, “In the tradition of the civilising mission, the settlers also brought ‘the blessings of progress to all the country’s inhabitants’. The motifs of immigration, settlement, building and benefits for the other ‘inhabitants’ reverberate throughout the Declaration.”
Crucially, the Jewish nation that was created was based on the idea of separation from other inhabitants of Palestine in culture, language, labor, and economy. Even when geography and demographics did not support it, the notion of a separate Jewish society was essential to the political Zionist conception of returning to Palestine.
Now, in really what should be noted is a short time, an Israeli nationality exists fully formed, with an anthem and a founding origin story. Its culture has very much its Mizrahi component — a fact of Arabness with little acknowledgment. Even public speaking of Arabic is a suspect activity threatening societal status and personal safety.
We approach the 100th anniversary of the November 1917 Balfour Declaration, the British Foreign Secretary’s expression of support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
It will be interesting to see how and whether the Israeli nationality endures. Ministers now in power openly tout Arab expulsion plans. Likud eminence Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is proposing a radical rethinking of the occupation, with Israel taking Arabs in as citizens along with the land it covets.
From the time of the November 1947 UN General Assembly vote in Palestine, sectarian Jewish militias began the removal of the half of the residents of the proposed “Jewish” state, and land beyond, who were not Jews, beginning the Nakba (catastrophe).
It is frequently asked whether, if the Jewish “return” to Palestine had been conducted in a different spirit, the situation would have developed as poisonously.
It may not have made a difference. As the whites in Hawaii could not accept being equal citizens in a Kingdom of Hawaii ruled in part by native Hawaiians, would the emigrating Jews have accepted the same with Arabs of Palestine?
The doctrines of Zionist state-building and Jewish self-sufficiency argued against that, and waves of new immigrants from Europe who imagined, to repeat Cyrus Adler, Arabs “2,000 or 3,000 years behind the Jews in civilization.”
Now, central to many Jewish Israelis is the belief that they are home. Literally, permitting citizenship of Arabs remaining in Israel is seen as an example of Zionist magnanimity—or, as Israeli “New Historian” Benny Morris expressed it, failure to “finish the job” of expulsion.
This article was originally published on Feb. 17, 2017 by the LA Progressive here.