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.”