On May 14, 2018 while Israeli forces were massacring Palestinian protesters in the illegally occupied Gaza Strip, the controversial new U.S. Embassy to Israel opened in Jerusalem. Among the speakers at the ceremony were American evangelical pastors John Hagee and Robert Jeffress. Both have a history of making anti-Semitic comments: Jeffress has said that Jews are going to hell, and Hagee has described the Holocaust as part of God’s plan to return the Jews to Israel. Their presence didn’t seem to bother Israel, however, where U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was met with jubilation. Indeed, the New York Times remarked that the pastors’ attendance signaled “the most public recognition yet of the growing importance the Netanyahu government now assigns to its conservative Christian allies, even if some have been accused of making anti-Semitic statements.”
The embassy ceremony is only the latest example of Israel’s apparent willingness to align with right-wingers who are not only Islamophobic, anti-immigrant and authoritarian, but anti-Semitic. From U.S. President Donald Trump to Hungary’s blatantly anti-semitic Viktor Orban, Israel’s growing relationship with the right internationally has presented a serious challenge for its claim to represent Jewish self-determination, even as it slanders the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as anti-Semitic.
Why is “the Jewish state” supporting anti-Semites? Answers are suggested by the history of anti-semitism as well as the origins of Zionism as a colonial movement, which point to a contradictory relationship between the two. This history can help us challenge Zionism today, blunting its attacks against Palestine activists as well as its dangerous enabling of anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism and the origins of the Zionist movement
Anti-Semitism should first be recognized as modern racism more than religious persecution. Its basis is not in religious dogma, but in the racist pseudoscience that developed in 19th century Europe, dividing humanity into inherently different nations and races. It’s of a kind with justifications for European colonialism, which imagined the existence of a superior white race tasked with the burden of bringing civilization to the “lesser races” of the world.
Anti-Semitism was fueled by the ruling classes of European countries, who used it for their own interests. The Russian Tsars, under whose rule most of Europe’s Jews lived in the 19th century, scapegoated Jews to deflect and confuse popular anger. Anti-Semitism offered “Jewish financiers” or “communist Jews” as alternative targets for the ire of poor gentiles. It portrayed Jews as greedy and conniving, engaged in elaborate conspiracies for global domination. The most infamous example is the forged “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” fabricated by Russian ultra-nationalists to appear as if it was a secret Jewish plan for world conquest.
Facing poverty, unemployment, a denial of political rights and anti-Semitic pogroms, Jews in the Russian Empire began to emigrate en masse in the late 19th century. Many fled to western Europe, where small Jewish populations enjoyed political rights and were largely integrated into wider society. Their arrival was followed by a rise in anti-Semitism in western Europe, much like the anti-immigrant racism of Europe today, regarding Jewish immigrants as a subversive fifth column who didn’t share the values and customs of the nation.
In 1905, British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour presided over passage of the Aliens Act, largely aimed at restricting Jewish immigration. Balfour, who believed in the supremacy of the “white race,” gave speeches supporting the act about the supposed dangers presented by Jewish immigrants.
Rising anti-Semitism in France contributed to the false conviction of Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus on charges of treason in 1894. The “Dreyfus Affair” was a major subject of public debate, and a shocking development in the first country that had granted political rights to Jews. It was a blow to the idea, popular among many Jews, that the answer to anti-Semitism was Jewish integration into wider society (commonly referred to as “assimilation,” a term that didn’t carry the negative connotations it does today). Covering the story as a journalist, Austrian Jewish intellectual Theodor Herzl became convinced that Jews could never be safe as a minority. In 1896 he wrote “The Jewish State,” a book that became the basis for the Zionist movement, and a year later he convened the first Zionist Congress in Switzerland.
For Herzl and the Zionists, persecution of Jews was essentially a permanent feature of gentile society. They held that Jews constituted a separate nation, and following nationalist ideas of the day, the Jewish nation needed its own “soil,” its own country and national state. Creating such a state would finally resolve “the Jewish question,” with Jews finally taking their place among the world’s nations.
While this history is uncontroversial, the colonial nature of Zionism, both in practice and ideologically, is left out of most accounts. Zionism accepted racist, colonialist ideas, and its project required the support of a colonial power to succeed. The Zionist slogan describing Palestine as “a land without a people for a people without a land” obviously ignored the existence of the Palestinians who already lived there. Zionists conceived of their project as spreading civilization, “redeeming” and “restoring” the land by cultivating it and making it more productive. An ugly passage in Herzl’s “The Jewish State” exemplifies his colonialism, conceiving of a Jewish state in Palestine as “a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.”
Practically, the Zionist movement recognized that creating a Jewish state in Palestine would require the support of a colonial power to deal with the indigenous Palestinians. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of right-wing Revisionist Zionism, summarized this in his 1923 essay “The Iron Wall:”
“Zionist colonization must either stop, or else proceed regardless of the native population [emphasis his]. Which means that it can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population – behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach.
That is our Arab policy; not what we should be, but what it actually is, whether we admit it or not. What need, otherwise, of the Balfour Declaration? Or of the Mandate? Their value to us is that an outside Power has undertaken to create in the country such conditions of administration and security that if the native population should desire to hinder our work, they will find it impossible.”
Herzl himself appealed to a number of colonial powers for support (often unsuccessfully). His diaries offer one example, a 1902 letter intended for the British colonialist Cecil Rhodes, whose British South Africa Company had founded the settler colony of Rhodesia:
“You are being invited to help make history. That cannot frighten you, nor will you laugh at it. It is not in your accustomed line; it doesn’t involve Africa, but a piece of Asia minor, not Englishmen but Jews.
But had this been on your path, you would have done it by now.
How, then, do I happen to turn to you, since this is an out-of-the-way matter for you? How indeed? Because it is something colonial, and because it presupposes understanding of a development which will take twenty or thirty years.”
With the first waves of Zionist settlement in Palestine, its colonialism would be proven in cruel practice well before the 1948 creation of Israel. Zionist settlers began the process of expelling Palestinians from their land, buying land from wealthy Palestinian landlords and expelling Palestinian peasants from it. A wide range of other racist practices would later be described by the Israeli Labor Party leader David HaCohen, a so-called “socialist Zionist,” in a 1969 speech:
“I had to fight my friends on the issue of Jewish socialism, to defend the fact that I would not accept Arabs in my trade union, the Histadrut; to defend preaching to housewives that they not buy at Arab stores; to defend the fact that we stood guard at orchards to prevent Arab workers from getting jobs there. … To pour kerosene on Arab tomatoes; to attack Jewish housewives in the markets and smash the Arab eggs they had bought… to buy dozens of dunams from an Arab is permitted, but to sell, God forbid, one Jewish dunam to an Arab is prohibited; to take Rothschild, the incarnation of capitalism as a socialist and to name him ‘benefactor’ – to do all that was not easy. And despite the fact that we did it – maybe we had no choice – I wasn’t happy about it.”
It’s important to note that Zionism was initially a minority position among Europe’s Jews. Whereas today Zionists equate their ideology with Judaism, “the politics of Jewish self-determination,” the movement was opposed by many Jews for numerous reasons. Many favored assimilation into larger society. But there was another politics of Jewish self-determination that rejected both assimilation and Zionism, calling for socialism and Jewish autonomy in Europe. Its eventual defeat, and Zionism’s triumph, would be brutally effected by powers outside of Jewish politics.
The Jewish Bund
Formed in 1897, the same year as the founding of the World Zionist Organization, the General Jewish Labor Bund in Lithuania, Poland and Russia was a Jewish socialist party and communal organization. It was rooted in the Jewish working class in the Russian Empire, and fought for a socialist society as well as Jewish national autonomy within that society. At its height, it boasted over 30,000 members and even more supporters.
The Bund organized agitational reading groups for Jewish workers in their own language, Yiddish, rather than in Russian. It organized strikes as well as self-defense militias, sometimes successfully beating back pogroms. It also ran Yiddish schools and cultural programs, as well as publishing newspapers and journals in Yiddish. Like other socialist organizations in Russia, it had to operate as an illegal or semi-legal organization, and at one point, some 4,500 members of the Bund were held in the Tsar’s prisons.
As socialists, the Bundists stood for working class internationalism, but unlike the rest of the socialist movement (which also included many Jews), the Bund opposed Jewish assimilation. Instead, Bundists tried to combine working class internationalism with Jewish nationalism. They rejected Zionism as a colonial movement, countering with the principle of doikayt, roughly “here-ness” in Yiddish. Doikayt celebrated diaspora Jewish culture and held that Jews belong wherever they live: instead of going over “there” and colonizing Palestine, Jews should fight anti-Semitism “here” at home, together alongside non-Jewish workers as part of the struggle for socialism. When Palestinians rioted against Zionist settlement in 1929, the Zionist movement decried the riots as anti-Semitic, but the Bundist newspapers replied that in fact the riots were anti-colonialist.
The Russian Revolution and Civil War would see the Bund dissolve itself into the Russian Communist Party, but the organization persisted in newly-independent Poland, where the Bund continued to be active throughout the interwar period. It would ultimately be destroyed in the Nazi holocaust. More than merely being defeated and dissolved, the Bund was wiped out, with even the memory of it buried along with the people and communities who composed it.
Zionism’s triumph in Jewish politics
While the Holocaust’s victims obviously included Zionists and Jews of all political affiliations, the Zionist movement as a whole would fare much better than the Bund. Unlike the Bund, Zionism’s base of support was not limited to eastern Europe. Crucially, the Zionist movement would benefit from the support of Great Britain. Zionism could not have colonized Palestine without British support – and many of its strongest supporters in the British government were themselves virulently anti-Semitic.
The 1917 Balfour Declaration, for example, famously declared British support for the creation of a “national home for the Jews” in Palestine. The declaration is named for Britain’s foreign minister Arthur Balfour, the same Arthur Balfour who as prime minister had railed against the dangers of Jewish immigration and overseen passage of legislation targeting Jewish immigrants.
Another British statesman expressed support for Zionism in an essay rife with anti-Semitic bigotry and conspiracy theory. In his 1920 essay “Zionism versus Bolshevism,” Winston Churchill contrasted “good Jews” with “bad Jews,” decrying the “schemes of the international Jews” in pursuing a “world-wide communistic State under Jewish domination.” Churchill called on Jews in every country to prove their loyalty by “combating the Bolshevik conspiracy.” By contrast, he praised the Zionist movement, and wrote that Great Britain had “the opportunity and the responsibility of securing for the Jewish race all over the world a home and a centre of national life.” He described Zionism as the alternative to communism in the “struggle for the soul of the Jewish people.” (Churchill’s essay is popular today with right-wing anti-Semites, finding an expression of their own views from a highly respected historical figure.)
Britain would provide privileged treatment to Zionist settlers in Palestine against the indigenous population. Settlers were granted economic concessions by the British colonial government of Palestine that were denied to Palestinians, and the settlers were afforded the freedom to develop their settlements independent of British rule, in contrast to direct British control over Palestinian life.
When Palestinians revolted in 1936 against both British rule and Zionist colonization, Britain turned to Zionist settler militias for military support in crushing the rebellion, offering arms and training and incorporating thousands of settlers into a colonial military force. The arming and training of Zionists as well as the defeat of the Palestinian revolt would set the stage for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the creation of Israel in 1948. And while Britain was making possible the creation of a Zionist state, it along with the rest of the world would turn its back on Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis, with strict quotas for Jewish immigration.
This history shows how the debate between Zionism and other Jewish politics did not take place on a level playing field. Zionism didn’t come to dominate Jewish politics through rational debate or an equal exchange of ideas. Colonialism and genocide from outside Jewish communities would intervene overwhelmingly, practically selecting Zionism to thrive while alternatives were destroyed. Is that self-determination?
The creation of Israel and Zionism’s dominance of Jewish politics today would have been impossible without outside intervention, including support from powerful anti-Semites. This contradiction carries through to today’s alliance between Israel, now more clearly than ever a racist settler colonial regime, and the global far right that shares its values.
That alliance has real consequences. As long as it’s widely recognized as “the Jewish state” and the ultimate authority on all matters Jewish, Israel can powerfully shield anti-Semitic governments from criticism. Hungary’s Orban, who infamously praised a Hungarian nazi and has launched a virulently anti-Semitic campaign against the Jewish philanthropist George Soros, was recently praised by Netanyahu for his supposed efforts against anti-Semitism. Netanyahu also interjected to defend Trump from accusations of anti-Semitism, saying there’s “no greater supporter of the Jewish people” than Trump and that we “should put that to rest.” If the leader of “the Jewish state” says so, who can say he’s wrong?
Standing with Palestinians
The Palestine solidarity movement, particularly in the United States, recognizes that focusing on Jews to the exclusion of Palestinians is itself a concession to Zionism. Recognition of Palestinian humanity should be reason enough to oppose Zionism, and it’s Palestinians who face expulsion, torture, theft and murder under Israel’s apartheid regime. As Israel has openly embraced the global right, its ethnic cleansing of Palestine has accelerated, with the rate of settlement expansion effectively tripling since Donald Trump’s election, and apparent preparations to annex the occupied territories.
The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement for freedom and equality has never been more urgent. But there are still many liberals, Jewish and gentile, who feel conflicted between Palestinian rights and “the Jewish state.” Without necessarily accepting the slander and repression against BDS, they hesitate to support it. They should consider Zionism’s relationship with anti-Semitism, and recognize that it’s not a zero-sum game between Palestinians and Jews. Indeed, exactly the opposite is true. Standing behind the demands of Palestinian self-determination is critical for resisting the rise of the far right, including a resurgence of real anti-Semitism that is just beginning.