I grew up with a deep love for Israel, the redemptive, out-of the-ashes, kibbutz-loving, feisty little country that could do no wrong, fighting for its life in a sea of hateful Arabs and Jew-haters. I learned that Jews were a people dedicated to worship and the study of Torah and this identity kept us alive during the centuries of antisemitism in Europe. If I was not able to dedicate myself to the religiosity of my davening grandfather, tfillin and all, I understood that as a people, we were deeply committed to healing the world and working for social justice, an equally virtuous and inherently Jewish task. After all, we were naturally good, or as my mother explained, Jews bore the responsibility of being chosen for a uniquely positive role in this world.
As the decades passed, this mythology shattered against the hard rocks of reality. One of the most difficult contradictions I now face is understanding the perverse relationship between Zionism and antisemitism. I was sold the story that political Zionism developed as a response to antisemitism and as a modern, liberating movement in the backward Middle East. But in 1897 as modern Zionism was born, it adopted the trope of the diaspora Jew as a pale, flaccid, yeshiva bocher, a parasite, an eternal alien, a nebbish. That Zionism embraced the idea that this pathetic weakling (who was often to be blamed for antisemitism) needed to be Aryanized into the bronzed, muscular Hebrew farmer/warrior tilling the soil in the Galilee is a chilling realization. The evolution of Jews as a people who lived by Torah and its commandments into a biological race with distinct characteristics, (the money Jew, the ghetto Jew, the swarthy, hook-nosed Jew) mirrors the worst canards of antisemites, European fascists, and white supremacists.
This story is complicated by the relegation of European Jewish communities to limited and disreputable professions and the societal resentment towards the “parasitic,” “non-productive” money lenders and peddler/merchant class. As modern capitalism developed, even socialist Zionists worried that there was some kind of an economic deficiency within the Jewish people which led to antisemitism that could only be cured by working the land of Palestine.
It should then not come as a surprise that the founder of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl, looked at antisemites as “‘friends and allies’ of his movement.” Zionists and antisemitism shared a common goal: One group wanted all the Jews to emigrate to Palestine to establish an ethnically pure Jewish nation-state and the other group wanted to get rid of all their Jewish countrymen. Emigration was indeed a splendid solution to the eternal Jewish problem. As Professor Joseph Massad wrote:
“[Herzl] would declare in his foundational pamphlet that ‘the Governments of all countries scourged by Anti-Semitism will be keenly interested in assisting us to obtain [the] sovereignty we want’; and indeed that not ‘only poor Jews’ would contribute to an immigration fund for European Jews, ‘but also Christians who wanted to get rid of them.'”
Was this political solidarity related to class, whiteness, a form of self-hatred, ingesting the institutional racism of the day as one’s own? Was this was a marriage of convenience, distasteful but necessary, or a long-term strategy?
Delving deeper, I was not that surprised to learn that the assimilated, secular Herzl chose to leave his son uncircumcised, that he initially entertained the idea that mass conversion to Catholicism would be a good solution to the Jewish problem, that he celebrated Christmas with a tree no less. He reportedly said, “An excellent idea enters my mind — to attract outright anti-Semites and make them destroyers of Jewish wealth.” The Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery described Herzl’s writings as having, “in places, ‘a strongly antisemitic odour.’”
“In his book, Der Judenstaat, published in 1896, he [Herzl] explains why: ‘The Jewish question exists wherever Jews live in perceptible numbers. Where it (i.e. antisemitism) does not exist, it is carried by Jews in the course of their migration. We naturally move to those places where we are not persecuted and there our presence produces persecution…. The unfortunate Jews are now carrying the seeds of Anti-Semitism into England; they have already introduced it into America.’
In a later chapter, he argues that the immediate cause of antisemitism is ‘our excessive production of mediocre intellects, who cannot find an outlet downwards or upwards — that is to say, no wholesome outlet in either direction. When we sink, we become a revolutionary proletariat, the subordinate officers of all revolutionary parties; and at the same time, when we rise, there rises also our terrible power of the purse.'”
When Herzl considered the language of the new state, he wrote of Yiddish: “We shall give up using those miserable stunted jargons, those Ghetto languages which we still employ, for these were the stealthy tongues of prisoners.” He had a similar disdain for the Jewish religion. “We shall keep our priests within the confines of their temples…. They must not interfere in the administration of the state…,” and envisioned a state without Jewish holidays or Jewish symbols. There is indeed a strong sense of self-loathing in these statements.
Another damning piece of evidence is the 1912 comment by Chaim Weizman, later president of the World Zionist Organization and first president of Israel: “Each country can absorb only a limited number of Jews, if she doesn’t want disorders in her stomach. Germany already has too many Jews.”
Or Israel’s founding father and first prime minister, Ben Gurion’s statement in 1922: “We are not Yeshiva students debating the fine points of self-improvement. We are conquerors of the land facing a wall of iron and we have to break through it.” He noted of diaspora Jews: “They have no roots. They are rootless cosmopolitans — there can be nothing worse than that.’” Ben Gurion was famously elitist and racist. He described diaspora Jews as “human dust, whose particles try to cling to each other,” and he called Mizrahim, (Jews from Arab and/or Muslim countries), backward and primitive, with Orientalist characteristics that would threaten the nascent state of Israel. Portraying Yemeni immigrants, he wrote:
“[Yemini culture is] two thousand years behind us, perhaps even more. It lacks the most basic and primary concepts of civilization (as distinct from culture). Its attitude toward women and children is primate. Its physical condition is poor. For thousands of years it lived in one of the most benighted and impoverished lands, under a rule even more backward than an ordinary feudal and theocratic regime. The passage from there to Israel has been a profound human revolution, not a superficial, political one. All its human values need to be changed from the ground up.”
Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism which was the forerunner of today’s Likud Party, was even more upfront in his reactionary affiliations. He supported the settler colonial and militaristic core of Zionism, openly talked about the need to fight the indigenous Palestinian population, and called on Jews to mobilize for “war, revolt and sacrifice.”
In 1923 he wrote Revisionism’s Bible, an article, “The Iron Wall (We and the Arabs)”:
“Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonized. That is what the Arabs in Palestine are doing, and what they will persist in doing as long as there remains a solitary spark of hope that they will be able to prevent the transformation of “Palestine” into the “Land of Israel.”…. Zionist colonization must either stop, or else proceed regardless of the native population. This 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.”
At the same time, his antisemitism was profound:
“Our starting point is to take the typical Yid of today and to imagine his diametrical opposite … Because the Yid is ugly, sickly, and lacks decorum, we shall endow the ideal image of the Hebrew with masculine beauty. The Yid is trodden upon and easily frightened and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to be proud and independent. The Yid is despised by all and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to charm all. The Yid has accepted submission and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to learn how to command. The Yid wants to conceal his identity from strangers and, therefore, the Hebrew should look the world straight in the eye and declare: ‘I am a Hebrew!'”
Jabotinsky flirted with the ideology of Benito Mussolini who praised him as a “Jewish Fascist” and was happy not only to work with Nazis but to espouse their totalitarian ideology. He established the New Zionist Organization and his Palestine representative ran his Yomen shel Fascisti (Diary of a Fascist) in their paper. Von Weisl, NZO’s Financial Director, told a newspaper that “He [Jabotinsky] personally was a supporter of Fascism, and he rejoiced at the victory of Fascist Italy in Abyssinia as a triumph of the White races against the Black.” Mussolini allowed the rightwing Revisionist Zionist youth movement, Betar, to have a squadron at his maritime academy.
When Mussolini decided to join forces with Hitler, he expelled Jews from the party. The Revisionists responded:
“For years we have warned the Jews not to insult the fascist regime in Italy. Let us be frank before we accuse others of the recent anti-Jewish laws in Italy; why not first accuse our own radical groups who are responsible for what happened.”
According to Lenni Brenner, author of “Zionism in the Age of Dictators,” by March 1933, Jabotinsky called for an anti-Nazi boycott and subsequently, Revisionists assassinated the Labor Zionist who had negotiated the Ha’Avara Agreement, (see below). But the relationship between the Revisionists and the Nazis remained torturous.
In 1939, a week before Hitler invaded Poland, Jabotinsky insisted that “There is not the remotest chance of war.” He planned to invade Palestine, landing a boatload of Betarim on Tel Aviv’s beach while the Irgun seized Government House in Jerusalem, and a provisional Jewish government was proclaimed abroad. After his capture or death, it would operate as a government-in-exile.
The Irgun, the Zionist paramilitary organization active in Mandate Palestine, was inspired and led by Jabotinsky until his death in 1940. After the war, the following document was found in Germany’s Turkish embassy: Proposal of the National Military Organization (Irgun Zvai Leumi) Concerning the Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe and the Participation of the NMO in the War on the side of Germany. It read:
“The establishment of the historical Jewish state on a national and totalitarian basis, and bound by a treaty with the German Reich, would be in the interest of a maintained and strengthened future German position of power in the Near East.
Proceeding from these considerations, the NMO in Palestine, under the condition the above-mentioned national aspirations of the Israeli freedom movement are recognized on the side of the German Reich, offers to actively take part in the war on Germany’s side.”
While Jews both inside and outside of Germany understood the grave dangers posed by the Nazi ascent to power, some Zionists viewed this as an opportunity to further their aims of colonizing Palestine. Despite an international boycott of Nazi Germany, in 1933 Labor Zionists signed the Transfer “Ha’avara” Agreement which ultimately resulted in the rescue of 20,000 Jews. Nazi Germany agreed to compensate those German Jews who left for Palestine after the liquidation of their property by exporting German goods of equal value to the country. The emigrants then received some of the proceeds from the sale of the goods. This led to an end of the boycott of Germany and a financial boost for their economy which was still mired in WWI reparations and the Great Depression. As Leon Rosselson wrote:
“Between 1933 and 1939, 60 percent of all capital invested in Jewish Palestine came from German Jewish money through the Transfer Agreement. Thus, Nazism was a boon to Zionism throughout the 1930s.
In 1935, the German Zionist branch was the only political force that supported the Nazi Nuremberg Laws in the country, and was the only party still allowed to publish its own newspaper the Rundschau until after Kristallnacht in 1938.”
The Nuremberg Laws excluded German Jews from German citizenship and prohibited them from marrying or having sexual relations with anyone of “German or related” blood. The laws disenfranchised Jews and removed most of their political rights. A Jew was defined as anyone with three or four Jewish grandparents, regardless of that person’s personal identification.
The German Zionist Federation, the Zionistische Vereinigung fur Deutschland, wrote an appeal to the Nazis in 1933:
“May we therefore be permitted to present our views, which, in our opinion, make possible a solution in keeping with the principles of the new German State of National Awakening….because we, too, are against mixed marriage and are for maintaining the purity of the Jewish group….
For its practical aims, Zionism hopes to be able to win the collaboration even of a government fundamentally hostile to Jews…. Boycott propaganda – such as is currently being carried on against Germany in many ways – is in essence un-Zionist, because Zionism wants not to do battle but to convince and to build.”
Another piece of evidence regarding the Nazi’s relationship to Jews and their plans for deportation (prior to their decision in 1942 to proceed with total extermination), was written by the SS chief, Reinhard Heydrich. In 1935 he published a statement in an SS publication. Francis Nicosia quoted it in his 1985 book, “The Third Reich and the Palestine Question”:
“National Socialism has no intention of attacking the Jewish people in any way. On the contrary, the recognition of Jewry as a racial community based on blood, and not as a religious one, leads the German government to guarantee the racial separateness of this community without any limitations. The government finds itself in complete agreement with the great spiritual movement within Jewry itself, the so-called Zionism, with its recognition of the solidarity of Jewry throughout the world and the rejection of all assimilationist ideas. On this basis, Germany undertakes measures that will surely play a significant role in the future in the handling of the Jewish problem around the world.”
Interestingly, in 1937 Adolf Eichmann, along with his supervisor in the Nazi party’s intelligence agency, traveled to Mandate Palestine, disguised as a German journalist, to investigate the feasibility of German Jewish deportation to the region and the functions of the Zionist organizations within Palestine. Eichmann also secretly met with Feivel Polkes, a representative of the Haganah (which became the Israel Defense Force) to discuss this plan. It is important to remember that Eichmann’s interest was in deporting Jews as efficiently as possible, not in supporting the development of a strong Jewish state that might threaten the economic fortunes of Nazi Germany.
In this New York Times review of “In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy From the Women of Terezin,” Lore Dickstein quotes the memory of a Terezin survivor who met Eichmann:
“Anny Stern was one of the lucky ones. In 1939, after months of hassle with the Nazi bureaucracy, the occupying German Army at her heels, she fled Czechoslovakia with her young son and emigrated to Palestine. At the time of Anny’s departure, Nazi policy encouraged emigration. ‘Are you a Zionist?’ Adolph Eichmann, Hitler’s specialist on Jewish affairs, asked her. ‘Jawohl,’ she replied. ‘Good,’ he said, ‘I am a Zionist, too. I want every Jew to leave for Palestine.'”
Covering Eichmann’s trial in 1963 in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt reported Eichmann boasted of his esteem for Zionists,
“Eichmann’s first personal contacts with Jewish functionaries, all of them well-known Zionists of long standing, were thoroughly satisfactory. The reason he became so fascinated by the ‘Jewish question,’ he explained, was his own ‘idealism;’ these Jews, unlike the Assimilationists, whom he always despised, and unlike the Orthodox Jews, who bored him, were ‘idealists,’ like him.”
After the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to the New York Times regarding the visit to the U.S. by Menachem Begin, a leader of the Irgun, head of the right-wing nationalist Herut Party (which morphed into Likud), and later the sixth Israeli prime minister:
“Among the most disturbing political phenomena of our time is the emergence in the newly created state of Israel of the ‘Freedom Party’ (Tnuat HaHerut), a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties….They have preached an admixture of ultranationalism, religious mysticism and racial superiority… it is imperative that the truth about Mr Begin and his movement be made known in this country.”
Amy Kaplan in her remarkable 2018 book, “Our American Israel,” noted that after the war ended, even non-Jews thought that the children of the Eastern European Jewish race were magically transformed, Anglicized, by the experience of being born in Palestine. Bartley Crum was a San Francisco born, liberal Catholic, civil rights attorney who was part of the Anglo-American Committee charged with determining the future of Displaced Persons languishing in camps post-war. Kaplan noted:
“Crum found evidence for this transformation of eastern European Jews in a ‘strange phenomenon’ that made their offspring raised in Palestine not only stronger from working the land, but also whiter and more Western than their parents:
Many of the Jewish children I saw were blond and blue-eyed, a mass mutation that, I was told, is yet to be adequately explained. It is the more remarkable because the majority of the Jews of Palestine are of east European stock, traditionally dark-haired and dark-eyed. One might almost assert that a new Jewish folk is being created in Palestine: the vast majority almost a head taller than their parents, a sturdy people more a throwback to the farmers and fishermen of Jesus’ day than products of the sons and daughters of the cities of eastern and central Europe.” [p. 31]
Another member of the Anglo-American Committee, James McDonald, visited a synagogue in Jerusalem and:
“…he was ‘struck once more by the variety of the faces of the boys. Had I not know where I was, or heard the Hebrew words, I would have sworn that most of them were of Irish, Scandinavian or Scotch stock, or at any rate of the ordinary mixture of the American middle west. Only here and there was there a face even remotely resembling the ‘Jewish type.’ He concluded that ‘Israel’s young Jews had no distinctive ‘racial type.’” [p. 32]
In 1951, Kenneth Bilby, journalist, noted while observing children from a kibbutz:
“They were even featured, sturdy, bleached by the sun. I would have defied any anthropologist to mix these children with a crowd of British, American, German and Scandinavian youngsters and then weed out the Jews.’ He viewed them as becoming less like “their Semitic cousin in the Arab world.” In the eyes of these visitors, as European Jews in Palestine became whiter – and more civilized- the Arabs among whom they settled appeared darker and more primitive.” [p. 32]
In Israel there has always been a hierarchy of racism grounded in white, Euro-centric supremacy. Ashkenazim discriminated against Mizrahim and Jews of color, and Palestinians faced the most bigotry followed only recently by African asylum seekers. Reactionary religious leaders have also espoused racist attitudes. A prime example of that is Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas party, who has compared Arabs to “snakes” and called for their “annihilation.” These kinds of attitudes have been prevalent in the more rightwing settler movements like Gush Emunim, Tehiya, National Union, and Mafdal which feature a militant Jewish messianism merged with hatred and disdain for the indigenous Palestinians
So why is it important to explore this messy and uncomfortable history? I would argue that first, in this era where the epithet of antisemite is hurled quite loosely at anyone with critical attitudes towards Israel, we must be honest about the foundations of Zionism and its relationship to real antisemitism. It appears that the early Zionists, both on the socialist left as well as the fascist right, held attitudes that were clearly antisemitic. This may have been cynical or amoral, but I think it goes well beyond a marriage of expediency.
If we have an understanding of the roots of the Israeli leadership, we can better understand the attitudes and policies of subsequent Israeli governments leading us to the current regimes. While the Irgun remained in the minority and did not take control until 1977 with Menachem Begin followed by Yitzhak Shamir, it was a powerful force in pre-1948 Palestine, assassinating British leaders and international negotiators like Count Bernadotte and inflicting terrorist attacks on indigenous Palestinians such as the Deir Yassin massacre.
The Haganah and Palmach, (who later became the core of the Israel Defense Force), were also paramilitary groups active in pre-1948 Palestine. I think of the famous quote by Moshe Dayan who joined the Haganah at the age of fourteen and became a celebrated military leader and politician:
“We are a generation of settlers, and without the steel helmet and gun barrel, we shall not be able to plant a tree or build a house… . Let us not be afraid to see the hatred that accompanies and consumes the lives of hundreds of thousands of Arabs who sit all around us and wait for the moment when their hands will be able to reach our blood.” [From Ronen Bergman’s “Rise and Kill First” p. 128-129].
This is the combative voice of the new Jew, the Hebrew reborn in the fight to colonize and create Israel from Palestine. It is not a voice interested in negotiation, tolerance, democracy, or respect for other narratives or backgrounds. Political history creates the social and cultural norms we see today. The U.S. is facing a national conversation about the contradictions between our mythology – the American dream of justice, equality, and freedom for all – and the fact that our national heroes were slaveholders and actually only had dreams for white, landholding men. Their lived experience and attitudes were the foundations for the cultural norms that characterized the most shameful aspects of U.S. history: destroying native peoples, enslaving Africans, owning their children, Jim Crow, redlining, discrimination in opportunities from the GI Bill to employment, anti-miscegenation laws, white nationalism, and the persistent bigotry and institutional racism that is still a major challenge in the 21st century. This kind of honest, painful discourse is critical if we are to turn our so-called democracy in a more positive direction. I would suggest that Israelis need to be having their own national origin conversation and mostly, they are not. This does not bode well.
The Jabotinsky strain of politics which is repressive, anti-democratic, and at some level, deeply self-hating and othering, is a kind of national toxic masculinity. It is also an ideology that is the foundation of modern Zionism, a blend of bunker mentality, Islamophobia, and social Darwinism. This kind of politics gives the Ashkenazi Jewish racism towards Jews of color, Mizrahi, Palestinians, and African asylum seekers a historical context. This kind of politics makes an aggressive and dehumanizing occupation and settler movement possible, where the willingness to kill, main, and incarcerate Palestinians and their children is seen as unapologetically necessary for survival, where attacking “the other” as cockroaches and subhumans is tolerated and applauded by political leaders, where periodically bombing and strangling two million Gazans, creating an impossible humanitarian catastrophe, is just part of “mowing the grass.”
This latter expression refers to a cynical Israeli military strategy seen in the last three wars on Gaza and the Second Lebanon War that involves repeated large-scale but limited military operations as well as smaller assaults aimed at crushing the opponent, degrading the leadership and infrastructure and building deterrence. This attrition warfare has no clear endpoint; it is a foreign policy in itself characterized by the use of extreme force to weaken Hamas and Hezbollah, with minimal risk to Israeli soldiers, but without the total elimination of the enemy who is needed to control more extreme players in the region.
Just as I now know that the displacement and occupation that started in 1967 and continues to this day is a continuation of a process that started long before 1948 – the Nakba, or catastrophe, is ongoing – the fascistic policies of the Israeli government are grounded in the history of the creation of the state. Likewise, the post-1967 Israeli embrace of Christian evangelicals, (whose plans for Jews are conversion or a fiery death), mirrors the warm relationship that Zionists had with antisemitic leaders in Germany and Italy. And in a similar fashion, Israel’s embrace of Christian Zionists and repressive regimes from white South Africa to Saudi Arabia–as well as the Israeli love for our own dog-whistling, antisemitic president–is part of the same old pattern of joining forces with racist, authoritarian governments.
As it is often said, if we don’t know our history, we are destined and doomed to repeat it.