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Dear Simon Schama, you need a history lesson on Zionism

on 34 Comments

Dear Professor Simon Schama,

I’ve just read your letter to The Times this week about Zionism and antisemitism in the Labour Party, co-signed by your fellow historian Simon Sebag Montefiore and novelist Howard Jacobson. As you’re the senior academic, I’m addressing my concerns to you, although I’m slightly embarrassed at having to offer someone of your reputation a history lesson.

While I’m sympathetic to some of your points over the language and tone of the Israel/Palestine debate in some parts of the British left, overall your letter only adds to the lock-down of freedom of speech on Israel by attempting to make criticism of Zionism toxic by association. That doesn’t feel like a good position for you to take as a public intellectual.

Your letter makes questioning either the theory or outcomes of Zionism politically, socially and morally unacceptable. In my view, that does little to help our understanding of Zionism, modern Jewish history, or traditional rabbinic Judaism. And, like others before you, you are muddying the meaning of antisemitism.

“Troubled” and “Alarmed”

You say you are “troubled” and “alarmed” by how constructive criticism of Israel has “morphed” into something closer to antisemitism under the cloak of “so called anti-Zionism”. While I too would condemn anti-Zionist criticism that employs theories of Jewish conspiracies and control of the media (wrong and far too simplistic), you take things a step further by accusing anti-Zionists of making “false equations” of Zionism with “colonialism and imperialism” and “fictitious parallels with genocide and Nazism”.

I agree that making parallels between the treatment of Palestinians by Israel and the Nazi genocide of the Jews of Europe is bad history and bad judgement. And anyway, referencing Nazis is nearly always counter-productive to the cause of Palestinian solidarity. It results in a row about antisemitism rather than a debate about Palestinian rights.

However, I only wish that the sensitivity around the use of Holocaust era language like “ghettos”, “concentration camps” and “racism” was matched by a concern about the very real historic and contemporary injustices committed against the Palestinian people. Saying Gaza is a “concentration camp” should not be as offensive as the health crisis facing 1.8 million Palestinians today because of Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The crimes against the Palestinians should not have to match the Holocaust before we can express our horror or outrage. The fact that opposition to Israel is so muted from politicians around the world may account for why some people reach for inappropriate language in the hope of cutting through and being heard. It’s worth understanding this phenomenon in more detail before dismissing it as mere antisemitism.


But it’s your denial of any connection between colonialism and Zionism that makes me seriously question your historical understanding.

I can agree with your definition that Zionism is: “the right of the Jewish people to a homeland, and the very existence of a Jewish state”, but that’s hardly the whole story. Yes, Zionism was a response to European antisemitism through the re-invention of Jewish nationalism, but you can’t leave it at that.

We both know that Zionism was not the classical 19th century act of a European power to extend its territorial influence and exploit the resources of indigenous peoples. That doesn’t mean Zionism wasn’t a colonial project.

If you take another look at Chaim Weizmann’s autobiography, ‘Trial and Error,’ you’ll be reminded that the early Zionists were perfectly comfortable with the language of colonialism and shared a European view of the superiority of ‘Western Civilisation’ and its right to impose its values on the ‘backward’ dark skinned natives of the Middle East.

Writing to CP Scott, the Editor of the Manchester Guardian, in 1914, Weizmann said that through mass settlement, perhaps of a million Jews over 20-30 years:

“…they [the Zionist settlers] would develop the country, bring back civilisation to it and form a very effective guard for the Suez canal.”

Balfour version 1

Then take a look at the first draft, quoted in Weizmann’s autobiography, of what would become (the considerably watered down) Balfour Declaration in November 1917.

This first version, intended as the official statement to be issued by the British government, was submitted by the Zionist Organisation in Britain to the British Foreign Office in the summer of 1917. This is what the Zionist leadership wanted the British Empire to sign up to and it shows clearly the settler colonialist mindset of Weizmann and his colleagues.

His Majesty’s Government, after considering the aims of the Zionist Organisation, accept the principle of recognising Palestine as the National Home of the Jewish people and the right of the Jewish people to build up its national life in Palestine under a protection to be established at the conclusion of peace, following the successful issue of the war.
His Majesty’s government regard as essential for the realisation of this principle the grant of internal autonomy to the Jewish nationality in Palestine, freedom of immigration for Jews, and the establishment of a Jewish National Colonising Corporation for the re-establishment and economic development of the country.
The conditions and forms of the internal autonomy and a Charter for the Jewish National Colonising Corporation should, in the view of His Majesty’s government, be elaborated in detail and determined with the representatives of the Zionist Organisation.

Professor Schama, why can’t you accept that despite the fact that there had always been a small minority of Jews living in Palestine for 2,000 years, Zionism was clearly going to be a European settler colonial project with imperial backing?


Your letter then plays the ‘conflation card’ attempting, like many Zionists before you, to blur all distinctions between Judaism and Zionism.

“Zionism — the longing of a dispersed people to return home — has been a constant, cherished part of Jewish life since AD 70. In its modern form Zionism was a response to the centuries of persecution, expulsions and mass murder in Christian and Muslim worlds that continued from the Middle Ages to the mid-20th century. Its revival was an assertion of the right to exist in the face of cruelty unique in history.”

This telling of Jewish history fails to explain why Zionism in 1917 was far from being a mainstream Jewish position; why most Rabbis vehemently opposed it; and why this movement for Jewish ‘return’ on a grand scale was a radical shift in Jewish thinking and history compared to the previous 1800 years.

Professor, this is where you are guilty of “morphing” ideas too. In this case you morph Zionism into Judaism as a tactic to make Zionism critically untouchable. It’s a sleight of hand that you should be exposing through your professional expertise rather than colluding with.

Dancing in Whitechapel

In your Balfour essay for the Financial Times last weekend, you recount how your 16 year old father witnessed “singing and dancing from Whitechapel to Mile End” as the Balfour Declaration became public. But you fail to convey the true diversity of Jewish political thinking at the time, nor the almost universal rejection of Zionism across the religious spectrum.

Zionism in 1917 was far from being a done deal for London’s impoverished Jews, and Zionism was not the only political dance in town.

I’m sure you know that the East End of London contained Socialists, Anarchists and Bundists, as well as Zionists, all wrestling with how to respond to the challenges of being Jewish in the early years of the 20th century.

As for the Rabbis, the Orthodox rejected Zionism not just because of the socialist secular outlook of most Zionist followers but more importantly because they saw it as a heresy. Only God would decide when and how the Jewish Exile would end. And furthermore, that Exile was as much a question of spiritual distance from the Almighty as it was physical distance from the Land of Israel. I find it hard to believe that you are not familiar with all of this.

Liberal Zionism

You finish your letter with a typical liberal Zionist sentiment that attempts to display even-handedness but in the end once again shows a lack of historical understanding.

“We do not forget nor deny that the Palestinian people have an equally legitimate, ancient history and culture in Palestine nor that they have suffered wrongs that must be healed.”

If you really thought this you would not express your opposition to anti-Zionism with such utter condemnation. If you truly recognise the equal Palestinian claim to the land you must also understand why they, and their advocates around the world, cannot count themselves as Zionists. How could the project of Jewish national return with Jewish majority control of the land ever have been achieved without the displacement of the majority people already living there? Zionism was always going to turn out badly for the Palestinians.

You admit to “wrongs that must be healed” but who should do the healing? Zionism and its supporters need to acknowledge responsibility and provide recompense if healing and reconciliation is to stand any chance of success.

You say “we do not attempt to minimalise their suffering nor the part played by the State of Israel” but the 1948 Nakba was Zionism in action just as the expansion of the Settlements and the operation of Apartheid on the West Bank are also the practical workings out of Zionism today. This is what national self-determination for the Jewish people has turned out to mean in practice, however worthy the theory was meant to be.

You finish by saying that: “We believe that anti-Zionism, with its antisemitic characteristics, has no place in a civil society.”

Professor, to oppose Zionism in the past or today is a perfectly valid and ethical intellectual position to hold whether you are Palestinian, Jewish or a member of the Labour Party. Saying it has no place in civil society does you no credit and displays a lack of intellectual honesty.

There are other ways to define Jewish self-determination that do not undermine the rights of another people. There are other ways to achieve Jewish security that do not involve creating a heavily armed Jewish Sparta in the Middle East. There are other Jewish options that need exploring 100 years after Balfour.

Your sincerely,

Robert Cohen

This post first appeared on the Patheos site

Robert Cohen

Cohen is a British writer. He blogs at Micah's Paradigm Shift.

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34 Responses

  1. Hemlockroid on November 10, 2017, 10:59 am

    Yeah Robert!!!

    • Emory Riddle on November 13, 2017, 7:31 am

      “the right of the Jewish people to a homeland, and the very existence of a Jewish state”,

      What does that even mean? Does that “right” trump the rights of the non Jews who just happen to be living in the land the Ashkenazis decided would be their Jewish state?

      • eljay on November 13, 2017, 8:05 am

        … I can agree with your definition that Zionism is: “the right of the Jewish people to a homeland … “

        Zionism is not “the right of the Jewish people to a homeland”, because every person who chooses to be/come Jewish already has his or her own homeland.

        Zionism is the mistaken belief that the religion-based identity of Jewish comprises a right to a religion-supremacist “Jewish State” in as much as possible of Palestine.

      • DaBakr on November 16, 2017, 10:58 pm


        Why yes. It absolutely does.

      • rhkroell on November 27, 2017, 7:09 am

        Yes, absolutely. “Restoration [of the Jews] to a Palestinian homeland and their ‘fulfilment’ as Christians” is a fulfillment of Christian prophecy (THE ORIGINS OF CHRISTIAN ZIONISM, Lewis, Donald M., Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 2010, p. 43). The restoration of the “Jews” to Palestine is not primarily a Jewish development. It has always been for British and American hegemons a fulfillment of Christian prophecy. The conversion of Zionist Jews to Evangelical Christian doctrine is imminent.

  2. Paranam Kid on November 10, 2017, 12:22 pm

    “I agree that making parallels between the treatment of Palestinians by Israel and the Nazi genocide of the Jews of Europe is bad history and bad judgement.”
    True, no 2 genocides are the same.

    “Your letter then plays the ‘conflation card’ attempting, like many Zionists before you, to blur all distinctions between Judaism and Zionism.”
    The reason for that is very simple: the Zionists have no real fact-based arguments as to why criticism of an essentially racist political ideology should not be allowed. Thus, by conflating Zionism & Judaism, the antisemitism card can be played, and that card is a very effective tool for stifling all criticism.

    The Zionists & their surrogates around the world are focusing incessantly on Israel’s right to exist & the Jews’ right to self-determination, but never bother to mention those principles for the Palestinians. Worse still, anyone who does mention those principles for the Palestinians is immediately attacked viciously & accused of antisemitism (!!!), of all things.

    You respectfully call Schama an intellectual, but a real intellectual is able to look at an issue holistically, which Schama is completely incapable of doing. For him only 1 facer counts.

    • Mooser on November 10, 2017, 2:17 pm

      “I agree that making parallels between the treatment of Palestinians by Israel and the Nazi genocide of the Jews of Europe is bad history and bad judgement.”

      So go argue with Albert Einstein.

      • Stephen Shenfield on November 10, 2017, 4:55 pm

        Israel has not perpetrated full-scale genocide of the Palestinians and I doubt that anyone claims that it has. But there are parallels between Israeli treatment of Palestinians and Nazi treatment of Jews in the period before the Holocaust began, i.e. from 1933 to early 1941.

        The description of ‘ghettos’, ‘concentration camps’ and ‘racism’ as ‘Holocaust-era language’ makes any sense only if the Holocaust being referred to is the one started by Columbus in 1492. The word ‘ghetto’ was first used in its current meaning in Venice about half a millennium ago, while the first ‘concentration camps’ were set up by the British in the Boer War (1899–1902).

      • gamal on November 10, 2017, 6:39 pm

        “So go argue”

        thanks for that, its not just the adoption of the BHL plunging male neckline, I think Simons photo is harassing me, why the cheeky twinkle what does he want, the first time I came across Simon, 54 GSOH, I read a bit and then I thought ah “Vapid, oh no this is Vapid, not good for me..each to his own, I doubt we’d be astrologically compatible, I button up as no one is interest in my front, it is featureless like it is in all well raised men, why no medallion Simon lack of conviction, pitiful

        reading that letter Mooser we can only conclude amongst some classes of human the arrow of evolution has reversed, those old time people were brave and their prose so least downhill is effortless.

      • Mooser on November 11, 2017, 12:37 pm

        “Israel has not perpetrated full-scale genocide of the Palestinians and I doubt that anyone claims that it has.”

        We would be in a uch better position to determine this if you would supply us with the bright line between “full-scale genocide” and ‘small-scale genocides’.
        The UN and international law gives us no help in this area, so it’s up to you, “Stephen”.

      • Mooser on November 11, 2017, 12:42 pm

        “amongst some classes of human the arrow of evolution has reversed”

        “Q:Are we not men? A: We are Devo!

      • echinococcus on November 11, 2017, 1:44 pm


        Download the Convention on Genocide, a text written by Raphael Lemkin himself, or so I was told. It’s here:

        Zionists aren’t using ovens. They aren’t as fast as the Nazis. YET.

      • Elizabeth Block on November 11, 2017, 2:58 pm

        “Making parallels between the treatment of Palestinians by Israel and the Nazi genocide of the Jews of Europe is bad history and bad judgement. ”
        Bad judgement, perhaps. Bad history?
        When I was there (March 2016) a woman from the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions said she doesn’t use the word “genocide” to describe what is happening now. She is saving it for when it actually starts. And she said when, not if.

      • Paranam Kid on November 12, 2017, 11:28 am

        I assume you mean that as a comment to Robert Cohen, the author, because I only quoted him with that sentence, and from my comment you can see that I do not agree with his statement.

      • Mooser on November 12, 2017, 1:35 pm

        “I assume you mean that as a comment to Robert Cohen”

        Yes. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

  3. lyn117 on November 10, 2017, 4:39 pm

    If all Zionists truly believed

    ‘“We do not forget nor deny that the Palestinian people have an equally legitimate, ancient history and culture in Palestine nor that they have suffered wrongs that must be healed.”’

    then they would all be supporting the right of return for Palestinians.

    Today (according to mainstream Zionists and probably Schama tho I haven’t read the letter), the right of return for Palestinians equates to destruction of Israel, so supporting such a right is anti-Zionist.

    • MHughes976 on November 11, 2017, 5:42 am

      That is very true, lynn! If wrongs have been done by Zionists in authentic pursuit of Zionism and in violation of legitimate rights reflecting an ancient culture Zionism cannot be a wholly legitimate moral principle.

    • Emory Riddle on November 16, 2017, 8:08 am

      Yep. Including Chomsky.

  4. Darcha on November 10, 2017, 7:23 pm

    Please don’t buy into the hasbara bait-and-switch about the Nazi allegory. The Nazis were Nazis long before the extermination camps. What defines a Nazi is a particular brand of racial thinking, not in having accomplished a holocaust. A kind of racial thinking largely shared in Zionist Voo-Doo. The squeamishness at making the analogy reminds me of the mixed feelings about saying ‘apartheid’ and ‘Israel’ in the same breath only a few years ago. As Israel spirals toward the event horizon of its own ideology, the analogy is only due to become more obvious and more apt…even to an American audience.

    • Bont Eastlake on November 10, 2017, 8:49 pm

      Such racial mode of thought is hardly unique to Nazis. In fact they were pretty late in embracing it after the rest of the Western powers. Look at America, how in 2017 it still uses racial classifications such as white, asian black etc, and the pseudoscience in explaining the differences between each labels. Caucasians for example, when there are no such thing in the scientific community.

      • DaBakr on November 16, 2017, 11:00 pm


        Good point. White is a meaningless classification.

      • Mooser on November 17, 2017, 12:13 pm

        “Good point. White is a meaningless classification.” “Dabakr”

        Okay then, how much meaning does the classification “Jewish” have?

    • oldgeezer on November 10, 2017, 9:03 pm


      On a purely rational and logical level you are correct. There is no reason that any two things shouldn’t be compared whether they are similar or dissimilar. And no doubt some of the reason for the GoI and hardcore zionists to fight against such comparisons are to protect the image they wish to create in peoples minds about the actions of the state.

      That said you overlook the emotional aspect of comparing the victims of the holocaust with those of the perpetrators. Again nothing wrong it rationally as we know the abused often become abusers but it has it’s emotional aspect regardless.

      Not just with zionist or Jewish communities either. An extremely large number of people are horrified by the acts perpetrated during WW II.

      I think such comparisons are more than counter productive. They turn people off/away. And there is no gain or need to do so. The crimes against humanity can be pointed out factually for their own evil without reference to the evil that the nazis perpetrated on various groups.

      Do Israelis use collective punishment against civilians? Heck yes. Did the nazis? Oh yeah. Is there a need to point that out? No. We all know that collective punishment is wrong except for the lunatic fringes on the right and left and there is nothing to be gained except having people stop listening to your message.

      At some point in the future such comparisons won’t be as sensitive and the current actions can be studied in the cold light of history with nonsubjective criteria.

  5. JosephA on November 11, 2017, 5:33 am

    Wonderfully well written and expressed. Thank you! This really puts Simon Schama to shame!

  6. Ossinev on November 11, 2017, 10:58 am

    So the Zio factory here in the UK has wheeled out three “eminent” historians/writers to stage yet again this old and tedious bollocks about endemic Anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. No doubt it is a clumsy attempt to turn the UK reader/electorate away from the shambolic Patelgate farce. Then again perhaps it is some sort of convoluted method of generating anti – Semitism as in oh God not again it`s those expletive Jews whinging again about supposed anti – Semitism in the Labour Party (BTW they can`t really make the claim about anti – Semitism in the Conservative Party as in don`t bite the hand that feeds Zionism).

    Schama and the other two have been plainly been called to Zio arms by Hasbara Central and when your country (Israel) calls you must do your duty.

    Interesting that he says:
    “We do not forget nor deny that the Palestinian people have an equally legitimate, ancient history and culture in Palestine nor that they have suffered wrongs that must be healed.”

    He may get a dressing down on this for referring to “the Palestine people” and “Palestine” as increasingly according to the mainstream public in Zioland there is no “Palestine” and never was and there are no “Palestine people”. and never has been.Still he saves the day to an extent by saying that they have suffered wrongs that must be “healed”. Note “healed” as opposed to “righted”. Only Jews have wrongs which must be “righted” as in the right to steal another peoples land and to brutalise and ethnically cleanse the native population.

    I do so wish that these Israel Firsters here in the UK would pack their bags and get the first El Al flight back to their ancient homeland. Should be a no brainer for them really since they claim to be living in a society which is awash with hatred for their cult.

    • MHughes976 on November 11, 2017, 11:46 am

      Yes, ‘healed’ suggests that a little psychotherapy might be just what’s needed.

      • Elizabeth Block on November 11, 2017, 2:55 pm

        I just got an email from a fellow Quaker asking if anyone had a contact in Gaza who could help a teenage girl get out to Egypt, for treatment for PTSD that is so bad it has turned into schizophrenia.
        A little psychotherapy?

      • MHughes976 on November 11, 2017, 6:54 pm

        I hope that the young lady gets help. But while injustice and oppression continue psychotherapy will not be enough.

  7. Misterioso on November 11, 2017, 11:01 am

    Debra Nussbaum Cohen – Nov 08, 2017

    “Young U.S. Jews Want to Know Why No One Told Them About the Israeli Occupation”

    “IfNotNow launches ‘You Never Told Me’ campaign, calling on Jewish educational groups to inform students about Israel’s policies and to include the Palestinian narrative.”

  8. MHughes976 on November 11, 2017, 11:41 am

    Neither Schama nor Cohen seems to say what ‘Z’ means to them. To me it means that people who are Jewish, and they only, have a share of sovereignty in Palestine by birthright, others only by grace and generosity. I call myself an anti-Z because I think this proposition indefensible under any reasonable theory of political rights.
    Maybe Schama uses the term ‘Z’ diffferently, to mean that there are two kinds of people who have birthright in Palestine, that is people who are Jewish and people who are born in the territory. I would say that this cannot be the Z that has actually been put into practice, because – as lynn has rightly said – it would imply a Palestinian RoR, fiercely refused over decades of misery. And even if that right had been granted the idea that someone living far distant from a territory, with loyalties, taxes and principal economic interests elsewhere, has rights equivalent to those of a locally born, still resident person and has those rights on the basis of race or religion is still completely mistaken.
    Schama speaks of historically inflicted cruelty, though Z never stood a chance of being put into practice without cruelty. But the suffering one’s ancestors is not the basis of political rights now. One’s own presence and participation in society, at least in the absence of any reasonable suspicion that that presence is morally wrong, or one’s own status as a refugee with RoR is the only basis.

    • inbound39 on November 19, 2017, 2:44 am

      In reality the ROR is a living fact. Resolution 194 enshrined the Palestinian ROR. Israeli Government agreed to implement it in return for Full Membership in the UN. Israel has never honoured it. On that basis the UN would be within its rights to suspend Israel until it does.

      • jon s on November 26, 2017, 3:03 pm

        It should be noted that the Arab states ,at the time, rejected resolution 194.

      • John O on November 27, 2017, 7:53 am

        @jon s

        And Israel objected to it (Israel was not yet a UN member) and, for good measure, Lehi assassinated the UN mediator, Folke Bernadotte.

      • inbound39 on November 27, 2017, 6:34 pm

        Note what you like Jon s…….Israel still agreed to implement Resolution 194 in exchange for Full UN Membership. They have an obligation to fulfil that agreement or withdraw from the UN or be suspended for failure to implement it. GThey have never fulfilled the second half of the Balfour declaration.

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