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1918, 1948, 2018: World War I, the Nakba, and the rise of ethnic nationalism

Middle East

This year marks not only the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, but also the centenary of the end of the First World War. The two events are closely linked in a number of ways, which I would like to explore through the eyes of a remarkable early twentieth-century Jewish anti-Zionist by the name of Aharon Shmuel Tamares (1869-1931), rabbi of the town of Milejczyce (Russia and later Poland).

For a glimpse of Tamares’ theological rejection of nationalism, see this recent post by Rabbi Michael Davis.

In his final work, “Sheloshah Zivugim Bilti Hagunim” (“Three Unsuitable Unions”), written in response to the 1929 riots in Palestine and published a year or so before his death, Tamares explained his opposition to the Zionist movement, specifically in relation to Zionist attitudes to the Great War and its aftermath.

Tamares begins the relevant section of this work (“Part 3: The Union between ‘The Revival of Hebrew Language and Culture’ and Zionism”) with an unequivocal denunciation of the war and the division of its spoils by the victorious powers:

The great powers of the world decided to have a discussion regarding their respective greatness—a discussion by fire. Along the way, they consigned thousands of towns and villages to the flames, and covered the entire earth with the fallen. Having concluded their “genteel” debate, the members of the side whose guns had had the final word and to whom the world fell in conquest convened to divide the earth between them, to carve up the world into tiny states that would do their bidding.

He calls the WWI “the greatest scandal in the history of the world” and compares the Paris (Versailles) Conference to a group of butchers standing around a chopping block. In creating numerous new nation states, Tamares argues, the powers lent their support to the idea of ethnic nationalism—which inevitably results, according to Eric Hobsbawm, in the “mass expulsion or extermination of minorities.”

It is this ethnic nationalism that Tamares identifies as the primary cause of anti-Semitic violence and discrimination against Jews in Europe during the post-war period, particularly in the newly created ethnic nation states in Central and Eastern Europe. Tamares further cites the normalisation of brutality as an exacerbating factor, predicting that henceforth, those in power will reason that “if it was acceptable, during the War, to drive millions of people like cattle to slaughter, it goes without saying that they may also imprison them in large numbers, that they might simply die of starvation”.

These arguments lie at the heart of Tamares’ indictment of Zionism and the Zionist leadership: their ideological glorification of the concept of war itself and their active participation in the abomination that was the Great War (in the “Jewish Legion” and in acts of espionage against the Ottoman Empire in Palestine); and their embracing of the principle of ethnic nationalism, thereby emboldening others and casting themselves into the moral abyss of the colonialist dispossession of the native inhabitants of Palestine.

It is not Tamares’ contention that the Zionist movement did not aspire to these things before the war, but that the war and the “Balfourism” to which it gave rise made them possible. Emboldened by the Balfour Declaration and the decisions of the Paris Conference and the League of Nations, the Zionist leaders made no secret of the fact that their intention was to bring Jews to Palestine not as ordinary immigrants but “as occupiers … to impose their rule on its primary inhabitants … to be masters of the land … to become a majority … and to turn the land’s previous inhabitants, the Arabs, into a minority.” With the power of Balfour behind them (not only as the author of the Balfour Declaration, but also as one of the architects of Versailles), they felt they could ignore the fact that “the land in question was not some new and uninhabited island they had found at the ends of the earth and the distant seas, but home to a people that would undoubtedly feel their aspirations to ‘sovereignty’ and ‘statehood’ like a needle in its flesh.” He goes on to quote a talmudic story regarding a group of sailors who had stopped to rest on what they believed to be an island. After a while, they began to behave as if they owned it and when they lit a fire, the giant fish on whose back they had decided to settle rolled over, throwing them all into the water. “The analogy,” he writes, “is obvious.”

The Zionist contention that the Arabs were, by Tamares’ sarcastic account, “an uncultured people that had stolen into the land, settling there for a mere fifteen hundred years, which are but a day and a half by the standards of the distant ‘historical’ tribes, in whose eyes a thousand years are like yesterday,” coincided perfectly with the fundamental racism that led Britain and the League of Nations to support the establishment of a Jewish “national home” in Palestine.

At the heart of ethnic nationalism, according to Tamares, lies the idea that the inhabitants of the world are divided into those who are “masters” in their countries and those who are “strangers,” sometimes tolerated to one degree or another, but always at the mercy of the former. He identifies this division of people into insiders and outsiders, promoted and perpetuated by the powers at the Paris Conference and by the League of Nations, with the sin of the people of Sodom, for which the city was destroyed by God (Genesis 19; see also Babylonian Talmud: Sanhedrin 109b). It is precisely this approach that he attributes to the Zionist movement, which he accuses both of giving aid and comfort to European nationalists responsible for the brutal persecution of Jews in Europe, and of seeking to create a polity in Palestine in which the native inhabitants of the land would also be treated as “strangers,” forced to depend on whatever “tolerance” they might be shown by their Jewish “masters.”

This juxtaposition of anti-Semitism and Zionism, through the lens of ethnic nationalism is particularly interesting, not only in a golden-rule sort of way (Do not unto others…), but also as an analysis of Zionism as a reaction to anti-Semitism and a solution to the “Jewish Question.” Tamares argues in fact, that Zionism not only failed to combat anti-Semitism in Europe, but actively encouraged it by embracing its root cause and, at times, even its actual exponents (as ideological “brothers” as well as a means to its own ends).

This may seem like a historical, commemorative piece, but that is not my intention. A century after the armistice of 1918 and 70 years after the Nakba, ethnic nationalism is alive and well. It is why Palestinian protesters, whether in Gaza, Jerusalem or Umm al-Fahm, can be shot with impunity; why Gazans can be imprisoned en masse for 11 years, with no end in sight; why Palestinians in the West Bank can be denied basic human rights; why Palestinian citizens of Israel can be denied equality; and why the rights of Palestinian refugees can still be ignored.

As in Tamares’ day, this ideology is not the exclusive province of Zionists, nor does it exist in a vacuum. And as in Tamares’ day, it is Balfourism itself that must be opposed, wherever it seeks to divide people into “masters” and “strangers.”

Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel
About Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel

Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel is a teacher, translator and independent researcher based in Rome. He is a member of Rete ECO - Ebrei contro l'occupazione.

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11 Responses

  1. eljay
    eljay
    May 15, 2018, 9:22 am

    Thank you, Shmuel, and nice to see (read) you again. :-)

    • Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel
      Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel
      May 15, 2018, 1:09 pm

      Hi Mooser and eljay.

      That’s a rather selective and misleading obit.

      While a student at the yeshiva of Volozhyn in the 1890s, Tamares joined the student arm of the Hibbat Zion movement (precursor to political Zionism), and served as a delegate to the Fourth Zionist Congress (London, 1900). He was so shocked by what he encountered, that he immediately forbade republication of his previously favourable articles, and eventually became a fierce opponent of Zionism (I guess that’s what “Lately-Rabbi Tamares had come to be more identified with the Jewish Orthodox movement in Poland” is supposed to hint at).

      A number of Orthodox rabbis initially supported Hibbat Zion, only to withdraw that support and reject political Zionism when they discovered its true nature.

      • Mooser
        Mooser
        May 15, 2018, 3:01 pm

        “That’s a rather selective and misleading obit.”

        Yes, I thought so. Everybody is grist for the Zionist mill.

  2. Boomer
    Boomer
    May 15, 2018, 12:28 pm

    Thank you for this interesting history with all-too current import.

  3. Citizen
    Citizen
    May 15, 2018, 1:34 pm

    Richard Spencer would find this piece of history very interesting, yes?

  4. DaveS
    DaveS
    May 15, 2018, 1:57 pm

    Shmuel, thanks for this brilliant article. I was unfamiliar with Tamares but am excited to find an intellectual who accurately foresaw the inevitable consequences of the Zionist project. It is an excellent antidote to the standard “liberal” position today that Netanyahu & co. are extremists who are betraying the promise and potential of Israel and hopefully will suffer a political setback that restores Israel to its rightful place. The current government may be Israel’s worst but it is a natural culmination of the very idea of Jewish statehood, not an aberration or perversion. It is simply astounding that Tamares’s sarcasm – that the Arabs are “an uncultured people that had stolen into the land, settling there for a mere fifteen hundred years” – is still necessary as a perfect response to combat contemporary hasbara that should have been abandoned many years ago as embarrassing drivel.

    • RoHa
      RoHa
      May 15, 2018, 8:15 pm

      “an uncultured people that had stolen into the land, settling there for a mere fifteen hundred years, which are but a day and a half by the standards of the distant ‘historical’ tribes, in whose eyes a thousand years are like yesterday,”

      This is still the view of some of the Zionist contributors to MW. Jackdaw in particular.

  5. Stephen Shenfield
    Stephen Shenfield
    May 15, 2018, 4:29 pm

    Let me draw attention to two other Judaic critiques of Zionism as ethnic nationalism.

    1) The prominent Russian-Jewish philosopher and liberal public figure Mikhail Gershenzon wrote a long essay entitled “The Fate of the Jewish People’ that first appeared in 1922. He identifies Zionism as a nationalist movement of the German type and predicts that a Jewish state will be constantly at war with its neighbors. An English translation of the work was published in the journal Telos in December 1983.

    2) A work by the Neturei Karta rabbi Yaakov Shapiro that has just appeared has the intriguing title ‘The Empty Wagon: Zionism’s Journey from Identity Crisis to Identity Theft’. Unfortunately it is available only in an expensive hardback edition.

    • Mooser
      Mooser
      May 15, 2018, 5:57 pm

      The most important thing about Jewish individual identity/ national identity is that it stay loose, fungible and flexible. That way, it can be used in any situation as needed.

    • Yaakov Shapiro
      Yaakov Shapiro
      May 17, 2018, 6:29 am

      Stephen,

      Thanks for the mention.

      One thing, though. I am not affiliated in any way with Neturei Karta. I would appreciate if you would correct that. As far as the book goes, I want to publish a condensed, paperback edition in a more manageable size (the current version has 1374 pages) , as well and making the content more user-friendly for a secular audience audience (the current version was geared toward ultra-Orthodox rabbis and Rabbinical students).

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