Opinion

On the racial basis of Zionism

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The Likud election campaign for the 23rd Knesset claimed that the Blue and White party aims to form a government supported by the Joint List, and this led Benny Gantz to declare that he “will set up a government with a Jewish majority” that will not depend on Arab parties. Yair Lapid continued in a similar vein, arguing that “we are just a few mandates away from forming a coalition of a Jewish majority.” The term “a Jewish majority” is used by those centrist politicians to refer to a coalition consisting solely of Jewish parties. Later, after being criticized by the entire political spectrum, they both regretted the use of the term “Jewish majority.” Lapid refined the claim by stating “We need a majority of Zionist parties that believe in a Jewish and democratic state,” meaning that “we are by no means racists, we are simply Zionists who believe the state must be Jewish (and of course – democratic).”

Why is the coupling of religion and nationality so important for Zionist Jews? Is Judaism a religion, or a race, or a people? Either way, once the state is by definition Jewish, any criticism of the Jewish state is viewed as criticism of Jews for being Jewish, and such critics are immediately called antisemitic. In this article, I characterize Judaism as it is perceived and shaped by the Zionist ideology, specify the differences between the concepts of Judaism and Zionism, and present the concepts of racism and antisemitism in light of these distinctions.

The Jewish communities in Israel and in the Diaspora are largely pro-Zionist. Almost all Israelis and the vast majority of world Jewry support the state of Israel and its definition as a Jewish state and a territorial-sovereign national home for Jews. Thanks to Israel’s intensive propaganda (“hasbara”), the identification of Jews with Zionism has led to the popular equation of the terms Judaism and Zionism. This is the basis for the claim that opposing Zionism stems from antisemitism. Furthermore, the Israeli “hasbara” attributes any criticism of Israel to antisemitism, with the aim of dismantling any such criticism. Because Zionism is seen as the “new Judaism,” opposition to it is labeled the “new antisemitism” – and a new expression was born…

The term “new antisemitism,” then, is a fiction that has nothing to do with antisemitism. Not only is criticism of Israel obviously not antisemitic, but also opposing Zionism and Israel in its definition as  a Jewish state does not necessarily stem from antisemitism, and is in itself definitely not antisemitic. Moreover, it is the Zionist movement itself that stems from the same racist elements as does political antisemitism. (By “political antisemitism,” I refer to state laws and policies and political movements driven by antisemitism. There is also a take on defining that term here.) I now examine the racist foundations underlying Zionism, and the links between them and political antisemitism, links that had already existed in the early days of the Zionist movement, and are still apparent today.

Outlining Jewish nationalism

“with blood and sweat 

will arise a race, 

proud, generous and fierce.”

That’s what the prominent revisionist Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky wrote in the anthem of the Betar youth movement in 1932. He did not mean race in the genetic sense as the Nazis laid down in their race laws three years later, but race in the sense of a people, a tribe. Over the years, Zionist ideologists have repeatedly hopped between the Jewish religion and Jewish nationality they constructed anew, and secular Judaism inherited from mother to son, linking things in a very complex way. It gets as absurd as claiming that service in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) is an expression of Judaism, as Benny Gantz argued in response to the claim that many immigrants from Russia are not Jews, linking army service to being Jewish, that is, belonging to the Jewish people.

Zionist ideology is racist because it defines Judaism as a race and maintains a regime that discriminates against non-Jews. According to the definition of Judaism by Zionists (the definition of the Jewish race, if you will), Jews are the ones who profess Judaism, as are their descendants. This means we have a mixture of religious-faith principles (and note you can also convert to Judaism) and genetic principles (as defined by the Nazis);  thus the descendants of the Jews are hereditary Jews, regardless of their faith or the observance of any Jewish commandments or customs.

These elements existed in Judaism long before Zionism. The Ashkenazi Jewish communities in Europe, where the Zionist movement was born, were very separatist, and it was in Europe where political antisemitism was born too. The Zionists – who were looking for a solution to the problem of rising antisemitism in Europe – believed that antisemitism was an inherent and permanent social factor because Jews were “racially” different. If we are different from the peoples among whom we live – argued the Zionists – we shall create “the Jewish people” with its own sovereignty and territory by establishing a Jewish state.

Max Nordau, one of the founders of Zionism, who himself married a Protestant woman, was, by his own definition, an assimilated Jew – who gave up following the Jewish commandments – a man of European culture. Nordau was more attracted to German culture than to Judaism: “By the age of fifteen, I had abandoned the Jewish way of life and the study of the Torah… Judaism remained nothing more than a memory for me, and I have always felt German, only German.” In the Second Zionist Congress in 1898, Nordau called for the return of the “lost muscular Judaism.” For him, the “diasporic Jew” should be revived as the “physical Jew,” thus dismantling the sense of humiliation of the Jews in Europe in response to European antisemitism. This idea was influenced by the racial theories that were popular in Europe at that time. In fact, Nordau embraced the antisemites’ hatred for the diasporic Jew” and as a solution to antisemitism advocated the improvement of the Jewish race by changing the Jewish way of life.

The main Zionist movement abandoned orthodox Judaism and replaced it with national Judaism. Religious-faith was abandoned as an ancient and non-contemporary tradition (except for the justification of the right to conquer the land) and religious values were replaced by new values of farming and fighting. The racial foundation was strengthened, and separatism became an ideology favoring the expulsion of the native Palestinians, violent fighting against the British colonialists, and even Jews who opposed to Zionist national Judaism. One of the most extreme expressions of murderous racist isolationism was the persecution of Jewish women who married British soldiers by the underground militias, including murder. One may call it “reverse antisemitism.” Paradoxically, the secular Zionist Jews are much more like Biblical Jews than orthodox diasporic Jews: The Biblical figures of Joshua and King David were role models for Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion and general Moshe Dayan, for example.

In this handout from the Israeli Governmental Press Office, Southern Command General Ariel Sharon chats with former Prime Minister David Ben Gurion during a bus tour of Israeli army installations January 27, 1971 near the Suez Canal in the Sinai Desert, Egypt. (Photo: GPO/ Getty Images)
In this handout from the Israeli Governmental Press Office, Southern Command General Ariel Sharon chats with former Prime Minister David Ben Gurion during a bus tour of Israeli army installations January 27, 1971 near the Suez Canal in the Sinai Desert, Egypt. (Photo: GPO/ Getty Images)

The connection between antisemitism and support for Zionism

European antisemites sympathized and even cooperated with the Zionist movement. Ideologies and interests joined together when Nazi Germany cooperated with the Zionist leadership in transferring Jews from Germany to Palestine in the 1930s. Similarly, in 1885 an antisemitic German writer conceived the Madagascar Plan, aimed to transfer European Jews to Madagascar; the difference between it and Palestine is merely geographic. This program was adopted in the 20th century by antisemites in Britain, Poland and France and during World War II also by Nazi Germany, which almost implemented it. (Ironically and horrifyingly, it was the thwarting of the plan by the British that eventually led to the implementation of “the final solution.”) The conceptual basis of all these antisemitic plans is the same as that of Zionism – seeing the Jews as a distinct race, that should be kept separate as a people in its own territory. The fulfillment of the Zionist vision is largely the victory of the antisemites, as evidenced by what SS commander, Reinhard Heydrich, wrote in a statement in 1935:

“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.”

Arthur James Balfour is well known and celebrated in Israel for his Balfour Declaration of 1917, which he sent as Foreign Minister to Walter Rothschild, a leading figure in the British Jewish community. According to the declaration, “His Majesty’s government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” (Palestine was  still under Ottoman rule at the time…)  Balfour’s support of the Zionist movement stemmed from antisemitism. As prime minister, he supported the Aliens Act 1905 aimed at preventing Jews from Eastern Europe entering Britain. In his speech he warned MPs of “the undoubted evils that had fallen upon the country from an immigration which was largely Jewish.” (At that time the World Zionist Congress accused him of “open antisemitism.”) Establishing a national home for Jews in Palestine was for Balfour a solution to the problem of Jewish refugees in his country.

The connection between Zionism and antisemitism did not end with the establishment of the State of Israel. Even today, we see antisemitic elements supporting Israel. In recent years, we have witnessed the strengthening of Israel’s ties with countries such as the United States, Poland, Hungary, India and Brazil whose leaders are openly antisemitic. The Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is known for his affection for Hitler, is also an avid friend and supporter of Israel. Beatrix von Storch, leader of the far-right party Alternative for Germany, considered by many of its supporters to be the successor of the Nazis, said in an interview for the Jerusalem Post that “Israel could be a role model for Germany.” She added that “Israel makes efforts to preserve its unique culture and traditions. The same should be possible for Germany and any other nation.” She thus expressed the common ideals and aspirations of antisemitism and Zionism – that because Jews have their own culture and tradition, they should live in their own country, similar to what Germany should do. Israel officially disapproves of von Storch’s antisemitic party, but beneath the surface there is sympathy for its white supremacist ideology and Islamophobia, and sometimes it comes out.

In addition to separatism and to the interest of sending Jews from their lands of birth to Israel, Western antisemites have another motive for their support of Israel, which is hatred of Muslims. Xenophobia, once directed at Jews, is now directed at Muslim immigrant and refugee communities. In this sense, Muslims are the “new Jews” of Europe. (see also here.) In this context, Israel is viewed as the forefront of the war of civilizations – “the Western war against extremist Islam.” All this means that the same extremist right-wingers in Europe support Israel, fight the pro-Palestinian BDS, and attack local Jews.

India has been ruled by the BJP party led by Narendra Modi since 2014. Modi was one of the prominent leaders of the RSS movement with whom the ruling party is identified, a Hindu nationalist movement founded in 1925 and known for its admiration for the Nazi movement and Mussolini’s fascism in Italy. The movement advocates treating the Muslim minority in India as the Nazis treated Jews in the 1930s, and Modi does implement a policy similar to the one implemented by the Nazis. In recent years, relations between India and Israel in general and between Modi and Netanyahu, in particular, have tightened. The worldview of the two leaders is remarkably similar, as is their attitude toward Muslims in their own countries. On his visit to India in 2018, Netanyahu said: “India and Israel are living proof not only that democracy works but they demonstrate something deeper – the intrinsic value of freedom which I believe is the intrinsic value of life. Citizens thrive ultimately it is the free citizens who thrive because they are free and when they are free.” In the same speech he referenced a 2008 attack in Mumbai where 101 were killed, staging, “Indians and Israelis know too well the pain of terrorist attacks. We remember the horrific savagery in Mumbai. We grit our teeth, we fight back, we never give in.”

Nationalism and racism in the land of Israel

 A study by Dr. Sachlav Stoler-Liss of Ben-Gurion University found that race theory was very strong and present in Jewish society in Palestine in the 1930s, and ideas very similar to Nazi methods of racial improvement were applied. “It is interesting to note that in Germany and in Israel, too, a connection has been made between eugenics, health and nationalism,” said Stoler-Liss. (It should be noted that Germany and Israel are not the only states where these racist theories took hold). Dr. Arthur Ruppin, head of the Israeli Ministry of the World Zionist Organization, wrote in his book “The Sociology of the Jews,” “In order to preserve the purity of our race, such Jews [with signs of degeneracy – S.T.] must refrain from having children.”

After the Nazi Holocaust, the reputation of race theory declined and many writings about it were shelved, but the ideology did not disappear. Dr. Yosef Meir, one of the prominent eugenicists during the British Mandate, offered to castrate the mentally ill, and in the early 1950s he published severe criticism of the 100-pound “natality prize,” which Ben-Gurion promised to every woman giving birth to 10 children (a sick idea in itself): “We have no interest in the 10th child or even in the seventh in poor families from the East … In today’s reality we should pray frequently for a second child in a family that is a part of the intelligentsia. The poor classes of the population must not be instructed to have many children, but should rather be restricted.” Here, white European racism towards Mizrahi Jews is evident, combined with the idea of racial improvement in the spirit of Nazi Germany’s Lebensborn.

Even today there are circles in Israeli society that adhere to the same ideology adopted by the Nazis in Germany. Rabbi Redler of the Bnei David pre-military preparatory school in Eli explained to his students that “in his ideology he [Hitler] is 100% right, except that he is on the wrong side.” This is not a one-off slip of the tongue, but is rather part of a series of recorded lectures by various teachers in the institute, expressed in the spirit of these ideas; these lectures were recorded and saved in the institute’s lecture archive available to the students. Even after a public mini-storm following the publication in the mainstream media, the same rabbis did not apologize but rather justified themselves, and continued as teachers and educators. The website of the Bnei David pre-military preparatory school (founded in 1988) states that it currently enrolls over 700 students and has about 3,500 graduates. Over 40 percent of the graduates are IDF officers, and the vast majority have served and serve in combat units and elite units. The preparatory school’s founder and head, Eli Sadan, won the Israel Prize in 2016 for his special contribution to state and society.

The Zionist ideology and Israel’s aggressive policy toward its opponents is strikingly similar to the extreme nationalist policies against Jewish people by generations of racist regimes. It’s a racist ideology according to which the strong rule and the weak are subservient to them and live only according to their arbitrariness. The same ideology that has afflicted Jewish minorities in Europe for generations and allowed the pogroms and murders of Jews characterize Israel as Benjamin Netanyahu put it: “In our region the weak do not survive, only the strong survive, and the strong is the one that thrives. With the strong one makes alliances, with the strong, and only with the strong, one makes peace. Even if it takes time, only with the strong, not the weak.” He tweeted a similar message after his speech at Shimon Peres’ funeral in 2018. Many Jews have been the victims of such attitudes in the past. This is arguably an example of the “battered child syndrome” – the one who suffers violence becomes violent and applies the violence he suffered to his own victims.

*****

Antisemitism is hatred of Jews and is an expression of racism. Ironically, it is precisely the Zionists who express racism typical of Jew-hating antisemites. The racism is the same racism and the hatred the same hatred – whether it is directed towards Jews (in the case of antisemites) or towards Arabs (in the case of the Zionists).

I do not claim that all Zionists are Arab haters. Most Zionists are not. Their racism is disguised (even in themselves). They are educated in the spirit of human love and philanthropy arising out of a sense of supremacy and of being “the chosen people.” They do not want to hurt Arabs, and resist such acts or harm or at least disapprove of it.

Harming Arabs is the work of the establishment through legislation, diplomacy and military force; but there is also a violent minority sanctioned by an inciting government that enjoys the violent minority’s contribution to the struggle against the indigenous population. Such violent acts enjoy the passive support of racist cultured Jews, whose understanding of reality is based on state propaganda that begins with the education system, continues with military service and ends with the mobilized media which reports Zionist views only. (In Israeli mainstream media, Palestinian violence and terror toward Jews are covered extensively while military and civilian violence toward Palestinians is mostly being ignored.)

The following words were said by Albert Einstein in a 1938 speech in New York:

“I should much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish state. My awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power, no matter how modest. I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain—especially from the development of a narrow nationalism within our own ranks, against which we have already had to fight strongly, even without a Jewish state.”

To put it simply, Einstein said: Let’s not be like them. No wonder that in 1952 he rejected David Ben-Gurion’s bid to make him president of the state whose narrow-minded nationalism he had warned against.  In recent years, the State of Israel has been waging war against its opponents and critics under the guise of “war on antisemitism” and it exploits the Holocaust memory to justify it. However, this propaganda exercise is hugely ironic. The Nazi Holocaust was the result of an extreme combination of racism and nationalism, which – we should recognize – formed the basis of the Zionist movement and are prevalent in Israeli society to this day. In its ideology, policies, and actions toward the indigenous Palestinian population, the state of Israel generates antisemitism more than it routs it, and endangers the Jews around the world more than it protects them. The fight against antisemitism must begin by campaigning against racism and nationalism. Only a thorough overhaul of the regime can transform Israel from an entity that generates antisemitism to one that fights antisemitism.

Dr.  Ronit Lentin, associate professor of sociology at Trinity College, Dublin, contributed to this article. 

A version of this article was originally published in Hebrew by Haokets on March 10, 2020.

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I’m tempted to write a reply! It’s a good article but it goes astray and fails to see the wood for the trees on occasion. I disagree with Sivan Tal that Zionism abandoned Orthodox Judaism and set up a National Judaism, presumably the Misrahi strand of Zionism. This is wrong. Zionism abandoned no strand of Judaism. What it sought to do was to win over the leaders of Orthodoxy and Reform etc. and also subvert… Read more »

 the United States, Poland, Hungary, India and Brazil whose leaders are openly antisemitic.”

I keep seeing these claims, but I don’t see much evidence of open anti-Semitism from any of those leaders. Could someone direct me to the evidence, please?

“This is arguably an example of the “battered child syndrome” – the one who suffers violence becomes violent and applies the violence he suffered to his own victims.”

I’m highly dubious about applying psychology of individual to groups.

There are several questionable assertions here. Who was the German writer who proposed the Madagascar Plan in 1885? The plan was thwarted by the British , and that’s what brought about the Final Solution? So the British are responsible for the Holocaust?

And Happy Shavuot to all those celebrating! (One of my favorite holidays…)