The ethos of Zionism has been that of the “strong Jew”. This notion was a counter to the ‘diasporic’ Jew, who lives on others’ terms, either in seclusion or in assimilation, and cannot defend her/himself.
The people who championed this notion often expressed their contempt for this supposedly weak Jew. Some of the Zionist founders’ descriptions of such ‘diasporic’ Jews were downright anti-Semitic. Consider, for example, Zionist founder Theodor Herzl’s description of Jews at a gathering at a wealthy Berliner’s home in 1885:
Some thirty or forty ugly little Jews and Jewesses. No consoling sight.
The Zionist leader who became Herzl’s second-in-command of the Zionist venture, Max Nordau, coined the term “Jewry of Muscle” (‘Muskeljudentum‘). This term served as the title of his 1903 article, where he argued:
We must think of creating once again a Jewry of muscles. . . In the narrow Jewish street our poor limbs soon forgot their gay movements; in the dimness of sunless houses our eyes began to blink shyly; the fear of constant persecution turned our powerful voices into frightened whispers, which rose in a crescendo only when our martyrs on the stakes cried out their dying prayers in the face of their executioners. But now, all coercion has become a memory of the past, and at last we are allowed space enough for our bodies to live again. Let us take up our oldest traditions; let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men.
Later on, those Jews who were born in Israel, considered themselves ‘strong’, as the so-called ‘Sabras’ – those who were born in Palestine, which they considered Eretz Israel (the term ‘Sabras‘ is a Zionist cultural appropriation from the Arabic Sabr – the cacti which are typical nowadays in Palestine-Israel, though not indigenous). Thus we have people like the late Yitzhak Rabin, calling Prime Minister Eshkol and his ministers, who were not born in Palestine, “the Jews” with a wink-wink suggestion that they represented diasporic weakness.
There has been rather wide understanding, especially from the West, that this “strong Jew” notion is a self-protective response to historical persecution, and as such, the rough-and-tough vein of Israelis was basically excused under this idea, if it wasn’t actually admired, which it often was.
But I contend that this supposed ‘strength’, this intrinsically macho demonstration of bravado, is actually meant to hide a weakness, and is a compensation for lacking moral stature. I believe that the root of the “strong Jew” notion is an attempt to avoid the difficulties of working together with the international community, and instead to isolate oneself (in a national sense) in a nationalist self-imposed ghetto of sorts, one which survives on and accentuates the use of power – the sword – a modern Sparta. The basic rationale of this is deeply entrenched in the roots of Zionism – that ‘nobody can really help us but ourselves’, that ‘nobody really cares’, and that ultimately, ‘nobody can be trusted’. ‘We’, of course, are ‘the Jews’. This is the notion that instructed another Zionist founder, Leon Pinsker, in his theory of “auto emancipation” – the Jews were to liberate themselves, through a Jewish nation-state.
That an international body was created in the wake of WW2, the UN, meant to address and hinder the worst examples of human persecution, was of interest to Israel only in part. The part that interested it was the international legitimacy that it was able to afford the nascent Zionist state, first by suggesting partition (thereby legitimizing a ‘Jewish State’), and second by accepting Israel as a member state. Besides this, the UN was of rather little importance for Israel, and often represented an obstacle to it getting away with its crimes of ethnic cleansing and unilateral violent expansionism. Thus, Israel has basically treated UN resolutions taking it to task for the most serious issues, such as Palestinian refugees, military expansionism and unilateral annexations, with contempt, and has managed to ignore the consequences of these by the method of veto by its patron, the US.
The Zionist idea of the ‘strong Jew’ is not merely an idea of adding strength to the former diasporic Jew, of developing her/him – but rather of creating a whole new type of human – creating a “Jewish Nation” from scratch. Consider the late Golda Meir’s words, concerning her signing of the Israeli Declaration of Independence:
From my childhood in America, I learned about the [US] Declaration of Independence and the geniuses who signed it. I couldn’t imagine these were real people doing something real. And here I am signing it, actually signing a Declaration of Independence. I didn’t think it was due me, that I, Goldie Mabovitch Meyerson, deserved it, that I had lived to see the day. My hands shook. We had done it. We had brought the Jewish people into existence.
There are two critical points in Meir/Mabovitch/Meyerson’s account which are worth emphasizing:
1) Notice how she refers to herself by her former, ‘diasporic’ names, tracing the metamorphosis of the girl who was born in Kiev in 1898, immigrated to the US as a girl in 1906, and finally immigrated to Palestine in 1921, finally “Hebraicizing” her name. This is her saying that she shed her past and became this ‘new Jew’.
2) Notice how she says “brought the Jewish people into existence”. How can it be, one may ask, that Meir’s referred Israeli Declaration of Independence starts out with “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people”, referring to biblical history, if they were only brought to existence through the Declaration of 1948? The Declaration is not merely referring to biblical history, it is suggesting a continuity, to wit: “Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland.” Meir’s words can perhaps be considered a kind of Freudian slip. The “Jewish people” did not exist in the sense of a “nation” as was to be understood in modern concepts. It was invented by the Zionist venture as a novel concept which was extra-territorial and mythologically reaching to times immemorial.
Meir’s idea of the Jewish people coming “into existence” is also based on the idea that Jewish existence can only truly materialize in a Jewish nation-state, thus rendering Jewish existence as a religion, irrelevant. This is the inextricable coupling of Judaism with nationalism that Zionism championed, thus essentially rendering Jewish existence outside of this paradigm as irrelevant, perhaps even non-existent. The Zionist idea of state power is actually not a completely secular notion – the power of a ‘Jewish state’ has its roots in the Talmudic concept of “when Israel is mighty”. “Israel” in this context is the Jews, when they are no longer subordinate to the “nations” (literally “goyim” in Hebrew), and is able to exert its own state power as an exclusively Jewish state. It is in this light, which we must reflect upon the words of the Judeo-Nazi settler-rabbi educators, who were recently caught on video praising Hitler – they said:
The Lord (blessed be his name) is already shouting for many years that the [Jewish] exile is over, but people don’t listen to him, and that is their disease, a disease which needs to be cured by the Holocaust.
Many Jews, also the Zionist ones, would oppose calling the Holocaust a cure, but it is in the Zionist vein to abhor the diasporic “weakness” which supposedly led them to go “as sheep to slaughter”, a term which epitomized the contempt with which the Israeli Zionists viewed diasporic Jews, including Holocaust survivors in general, in the early years of Israel. It was only in the 1960’s, following the Eichmann trial, that there started to be serious interest in Israel for hearing stories of Holocaust survivors, apparently since they began to witness its PR value for Israel. Before that time, Holocaust survivors were generally not listened to, and their stories merely represented weakness. The term “soaps”, common in Israeli colloquial, was derived from the myth of Nazis creating soap from human fat of Jews, and it meant “weaklings”.
The emphasis on military power and prowess is framed by Zionists as a pragmatic response to a “rough neighborhood”. In 1956, then army Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan made this claim in a eulogy he delivered for a fallen soldier:
A generation of settlement are we, and without the steel helmet and the maw of the cannon we shall not plant a tree, nor build a house.
There is an admission hidden here, as to the settler-colonialist nature of the Zionist venture. Dayan was aware, that having ethnically cleansed Palestine (whatever he would call it then), it is doubtful that there would be much goodwill from those dispossessed. In fact, only two paragraphs earlier in his elaborate eulogy, he admitted it outright and with full clarity:
Let us not hurl blame at the murderers. Why should we complain of their hatred for us? Eight years have they sat in the refugee camps of Gaza, and seen, with their own eyes, how we have made a homeland of the soil and the villages where they and their forebears once dwelt.
But Dayan saw this as a fait accompli of Zionism and did not see or offer an alternative to this situation. The Palestinian refugees had to be kept away indefinitely, and we had to live by the sword.
That situation, of dispossessing people and then dealing with their response by military power, is something that Zionists basically require, since they will not rectify the root cause of the violence, which they know, beyond their walls of denial, stems from their own doing. I thus suggest further, that the intrinsic Zionist demonstration of power is not merely a response to external matters. It is a frenzy meant to strengthen one’s own denial. As long as one is involved in and obsessed with power, the noise generated by that allows to overdub the more subtle sounds of reason, of introspection, of recognition of the wrongs and crimes committed in the name of this power. As long as the noise continues, one does not have to turn around. This is the nature of being reactionary – you do not look back and introspect – you respond, and hence escalate the violence.
It is no wonder, that the Zionist vein, even in its relatively liberal mode, has basically always held a certain contempt for this kind of introspection, for it held the danger of weakening the Zionist project. Whenever true equality was suggested in the Palestine-Israel paradigm, it was seen by mainstream Zionism as anathema to its existence – simply because it is. The discussion of ‘liberalism’ can go so far by Zionists, but never truly reach equality – at that point, the response is the macho derision. A prime example of this sort of ‘strong Jew’ who nonetheless seeks to appear liberal and introspective, is the late Israeli author Amos Oz. The contradiction between his supposed empathy and violence is on full display in one of his last lectures before his death last year. Here he speaks of a need for a “big stick” with which to beat Palestinians, but tries to qualify that you can’t “treat a wound with a stick”:
What is between us and the Palestinians for over a century, is a bleeding wound, and not only a bleeding wound, it’s also a poisoned wound, it’s infected, it’s festering. You do not treat a wound with a stick! There is no such thing. You cannot keep beating the wound with another hit and another hit, to teach it a lesson that it should stop being a wound and stop bleeding. I’m not against a stick. I’m no pacifist. In opposition to my colleagues in Europe or North America, who often embrace me for the wrong reasons, ‘our brother art thou, our brother art thou’, ‘make love not war’ [said in English], in opposition to them, I never thought that violence is the ultimate evil in the world. I always thought, all my life and also now, that the ultimate evil in the world is the aggression. And aggression needs to be stopped by force, often. You need a big stick in order to inhibit and subdue aggressiveness. Aggressiveness is the mother of all violence in the world. And therefore I have never believed ‘make love not war’ [said in English], ‘we’ll turn the other cheek’, ‘all you need is love’ [said in English].
Anyone could be forgiven for not knowing what to make of this. Should we use a stick? Should we try treating the wound? Is violence not a problem? Only “aggressiveness”?? Oz is an eloquent author. If this rant is contradictory, it is not because Oz is simply confused. It is because he tries to portray an ideology based on power and violence, in peaceful terms, and it doesn’t work.
The weakness of Zionism is this automatic, intrinsic resort to violence. Israel perceives its military might as its strength. This strength was bought in large part by US foreign aid (Israel is the largest recipient of US foreign aid since WW2, totaling at $228 billion in constant 2017 dollars between 1951 and 2017 and growing by $3.8 billion each year in military aid alone). Receiving such gifts has made Israel largely oblivious to the need of providing Palestinians with a state. When the requirement was being pushed by the US itself as the “honest broker” of the failed “peace process”, it could be perceived as mere “advice”, which could be easily declined. As Moshe Dayan once said:
Our American friends offer us money, arms and advice. We take the money, we take the arms, and we decline the advice.
And since Israel had little reason to relinquish its 1967 occupation, since it carried no effective sanctions (the US blocked this) and since its plundering of resources and even most of foreign aid to Palestinians proved profitable, Israel would have no reason to carry through on a ‘2-state solution’, not even providing Palestinians with a state on the remaining 22% of historical Palestine. It was simply never to be, and a Palestinian state was always to remain fiction for Zionists – no Israeli government intended it, only, at best, “less than a [Palestinian] state”, as Rabin told the parliament less than two months before he was murdered in 1995.
Israeli leaders have tried to depict their reasons for not withdrawing to pre-1967 under the pretext of fear. In 1969, then Foreign Minister Abba Eban told the UN that the pre-1967 lines bring to Israelis “something of a memory of Auschwitz”. Later, less melodramatic expressions, have often cited the generalist “security concern”. Beyond the fact that Israel simply covets all of historical Palestine, the cited fear is not really territorial. It is the fear that if Palestinians are not kept under control, they might consolidate a threat, and that threat needs to be contained by direct Israeli control. And this fear arcs back to before Israel was even established. It goes back to the very isolationist concept of Zionism. Since the concept of a settler-colonialist Jewish nation-state worked out, through the massive expulsion of the native population and subjugation of the rest of it by Apartheid, the first fear has created a second – the fear of the response of the native Palestinians.
All this speaks of how the Palestinians became victims of Jewish collective fears, first fears that had nothing to do with Palestinians (before Palestine was massively colonized, the fear of being a ‘weak Jew’), and then fear of native response to the eliminationist, Zionist colonialist onslaught (Nakba).
Yet all of it, all of it comes from a collective Jewish internal fear, which is the cause of it all. Zionism offered a means of alleviating the fear of being ‘weak’, by being ‘strong’ in the ultra-nationalist way, and that wasn’t the answer to their fears. Zionists may have been afraid of being ‘weak Jews’, but their dealing with that fear has caused them to fear something else – their own conscience. The demonstration of ‘strength’ is a means of compensation meant to override the screeching dissonance between their wish to be moral, and what they have become due to their ultra-nationalist adherence and resultant crimes. The strength is thus the weakness.
The real strength would be found in the will to relinquish violence as a tool, the real strength would be in the ability to believe in a shared future with those one happens to live with in these times – both in the Palestine-Israel paradigm, but also in terms of the entire weltanschauung of Jews as embodied by Zionism. This would be the brave leap of faith – to believe that Jews can exist in this world as Jews, and that they do not need to become settler-colonialists in order to do so. The courage to effectively abandon the Zionist isolation may also come from the recognition, that the price of this isolation and supposed protection, has been the destruction of other people, and arguably, the moral destruction of Jews themselves. The strength would be to believe that coexistence is actually possible. To believe in such things is no longer a luxury – it is a moral imperative.