Lance Selfa, editor of the The Struggle for Palestine, describes the roots of the Zionist movement and the drive to create a Jewish state. This is an excerpt from the book.
IN MAY 1948, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, proclaimed the founding of the state of Israel. Immediately, Jewish commandos in Palestine launched what Israel called its “war of independence.” When Israel concluded an armistice with the armies of Egypt, Transjordan and Syria in 1949, more than 750,000 Palestinians had been forced to flee from their homes. They became refugees from their own country, which the Jewish Zionist armies now controlled.
Thus, the founding of Israel marked the culmination of a 50-year-long campaign, waged by political Zionists, to establish a Jewish state.
The Zionists claimed that they expressed world Jewry’s yearning for “national liberation.” Yet if Zionism was a movement for national liberation, it was like no other.
Rather than seeking to break free from imperialism, it actively courted patronage from imperialist powers. Rather than promising self-determination to the people of Palestine–the vast majority of whom were Arab–it expelled them. And rather than representing a widely popular expression of the fight against national oppression, Zionism counted as little more than a sect for most of its existence prior to the Second World War.
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POLITICAL ZIONISM is, in the words of Nathan Weinstock, author of Zionism: False Messiah, “a doctrine which, starting from the postulate of the incompatibility of the Jews and the Gentiles, advocated massive emigration to an underdeveloped country with the aim of establishing a Jewish state.”
It developed as a response to an upsurge of anti-Semitism in Europe at the end of the 19th century. This atmosphere of despair and oppression stirred several responses in the Jewish population, among them a growing nationalism. Nathan emphasizes that “Jewish nationalism, in particular, its Zionist variant, was an absolutely new conception born of the socio-political context of Eastern Europe in the 19th century.”
Political Zionism received its most powerful statement in The Jewish State, an 1896 tract by Jewish Austrian journalist Theodore Herzl, considered the “father” of political Zionism.
Herzl, a widely traveled man, covered the 1894 Paris trial of Col. Albert Dreyfus, a Jewish military officer whom French military authorities framed as a spy. One could have read the Dreyfus case as an example of the potential for Jews and non-Jews to unite to fight anti-Semitism. Herzl did not. As he later wrote in his diary: “In Paris…I achieved a freer attitude toward anti-Semitism, which I now began to understand historically and to pardon. Above all, I recognized the emptiness and futility of trying to combat anti-Semitism.”
Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. Two hundred delegates from 17 countries authorized the creation of the World Zionist Organization to campaign for a “publicly recognized, legally secured homeland in Palestine.”
Unlike Herzl, socialists defended Jews who faced persecution. Socialists also combated anti-Jewish racism as a poison to the workers’ movement. In this period, August Bebel, a leader of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), denounced anti-Semitism as “the socialism of fools” for diverting workers from their true enemy, the ruling class, onto Jewish scapegoats. Karl Kautsky, another German SPD leader, argued that the differentiation of the Jewish population into classes meant that the condition of the Jews would be bound up inextricably with the overall working-class movement.
Because socialists stressed the need to fight anti-Semitism in the countries where most Jews lived, the socialist movement recruited Jews in large numbers.
The 1917 October Revolution showed what the socialist strategy for Jewish emancipation meant in practice. In a country where the Tsar and his henchman used anti-Semitism to divide workers, Russian workers elected Jewish Bolsheviks like Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Sverdlov to leading roles in the revolutionary government.
The revolution declared freedom of religion and abolished Tsarist restrictions on education and residence for Jews. During the 1918-1922 Civil War against counterrevolutionary armies, which had slaughtered Jews by the thousands, the revolutionary Red Army meted out stern punishment–including execution–to any pogromists in its ranks.
In the workers’ government, Yiddish was given equal status with other languages. A Commissariat of Jewish Affairs and a special Jewish Commission inside the Bolshevik Party simultaneously worked to involve Jews in the affairs of the workers’ state and to win the Jewish masses to socialism.
The revolution’s early years saw an unprecedented flowering of Yiddish and Jewish cultural life. In 1926-27, over half of the Jewish school population attended Yiddish schools and 10 state theaters performed Yiddish plays. By the late 1920s, nearly 40 percent of the Jewish working population worked for the government.
Thus, by the 1920s, the Zionists had been marginalized on all sides. A majority of the world’s Jews clearly showed their desire to emigrate to Western countries. And thousands of Jews who remained in Eastern Europe fought for a better life, winning solidarity from many of their Gentile brothers and sisters. By 1927, as many people left Palestine as migrated to it. The entire Zionist enterprise seemed in doubt.
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WHEN THEY embarked on their campaign for a Jewish homeland, the Zionists didn’t let any ideological attachment to Palestine stand in their way.
In fact, in the first years after Herzl formed the World Zionist Organization, Zionists debated a number of alternative targets for colonization: Uganda, Angola, North Africa. In 1903, Herzl accepted a British government proposal to colonize Jews in Uganda, a decision which proved controversial in Zionist ranks.
Herzl’s death in 1904 put an end to colonization schemes outside of Palestine. Yet the debate on alternative sites for the Jewish state exposed the Zionist enterprise in two respects. First, it showed that political Zionism placed the colonizing project ahead of any 2,000-year longing for Jewish people to “return” to Palestine. Second, it showed that, from its inception, Zionism depended on European powers’ sponsorship of its colonial-settler aims.
Early Zionists made no secret that they hoped the Jewish state to be what Herzl called: “a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.” Zionism’s founders exuded pro-imperialist racism against what they considered the “backward peoples” of Asia and Africa.
When it came to seeking imperialist sponsors, the Zionists had no scruples about dealing with any regime, no matter how rotten or anti-Semitic.
During the First World War, leading Zionists ingratiated themselves to British imperialism. They hoped that Britain would reward them after it defeated the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Palestine. They achieved their goal with the 1917 declaration by Tory politician Lord Balfour. The Balfour Declaration proclaimed British support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” under British protection.
Both Britain and the Zionists saw a Jewish state as a bulwark of imperialism against the spread of Bolshevism. Winston Churchill, then a Tory Cabinet Minister, later explained Britain’s motivations in meeting Zionists’ expectations: “a Jewish state under the protection of the British Crown…would from every point of view be beneficial and would be especially in harmony with the truest interests of the British Empire.”
Chief among those interests was stopping Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky’s “schemes of a worldwide communistic state under Jewish domination.” Thus, Churchill showed himself to be both an ardent Zionist and a rabid anti-Semite!
Under the Balfour Declaration, Britain promised the Zionists both Palestine and Transjordan (modern-day Jordan). Pressure from Arab countries forced Britain to renege on the promise of Transjordan in 1922. The Zionist movement’s mainstream, led by David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizman, accepted Britain’s decision. Later, they agreed to accept British decisions to limit Jewish immigration into Palestine.
This provoked a major split in the Zionist movement as a minority, led by Polish writer Vladimir Jabotinsky, protested Ben-Gurion’s and Weizman’s realpolitik. Jabotinsky argued that Zionists should insist on capturing “both sides of the Jordan” and refuse to abide by any limitations the British imposed.
To placate Arab opinion, the World Zionist Organization called its colony in Palestine “a homeland.” But Jabotinsky insisted that Zionists speak openly of their goal to build a Jewish state in Palestine. Jabotinsky’s program amounted to a call for revising the World Zionist Organization’s strategy, thereby earning his followers the description “Revisionists” in the Zionist movement.
Jabotinsky wrote bluntly in his 1923 essay “The Iron Wall”:
We cannot give any compensation for Palestine, neither to the Palestinians nor to other Arabs. Therefore, a voluntary agreement is inconceivable. All colonization, even the most restricted, must continue in defiance of the will of the native population. Therefore, it can continue and develop only under the shield of force, which comprises an Iron Wall which the local population can never break through. This is our Arab policy. To formulate it any other way would be hypocrisy.
Jabotinsky posed the first major challenge to the dominance in mainstream Zionism of the ideology of “Labor Zionism.” Labor Zionism, which traced its roots to the Eastern European Poale Zion movement in the early 1900s, dominated all of the major institutions of Zionism and of the yishuv, the Jewish settler community in Palestine. If the Bund represented socialists who caved in to nationalism, the Labor Zionists represented nationalists who used socialist-sounding rhetoric to win supporters away from genuine socialist parties.
Until 1977, when self-described terrorist Menachem Begin became Israel’s first Revisionist prime minister, the Labor Zionists effectively represented “Zionism” in most people’s minds. But Labor (the Zionist “left”) and the Revisionists (the Zionist “right”) differed on means, rather than ends.
Both supported an exclusively Jewish state. Like apartheid South Africa’s rulers, the Revisionists were willing to employ the native Palestinian population. Labor sought to replace Palestinian workers with Jewish workers. Both looked for support from imperialism. Labor Zionists oriented towards British and U.S. imperialism. The Revisionists made overtures to the Italian and German fascism.
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THE ZIONISTS tried to convince themselves that Palestine was an unoccupied land. Yet for more than 1,300 years, a Muslim Arab majority–living side by side with Jews and Christians–had resided in the province of the Ottoman Empire there.
In 1882, Palestine held a population of 24,000 Jews and 500,000 Arabs. By 1922, after more than two decades of Zionist-sponsored immigration, the country had a population of nearly 760,000, 89 percent of it Palestinian Arab.
Zionists purchased land–and a foothold in Palestine–from absentee Arab landowners in the 1920s. Later, in the 1930s, rich Palestinians sold their land to Zionists. Individual Jewish “pioneers” didn’t buy the land. Zionist organizations like the Jewish National Fund bought land to provide a foundation for Jewish settlement in the country. Zionists drove Palestinian peasants off their land, forcing them into destitution. British authorities assured the Zionists privileged access to water and other essential resources.
After establishing themselves in Palestine, the Zionists proceeded to set up a separate Jewish economy and government under the noses of British mandate authorities. They called their economic policy “the conquest of Jewish land and labor,” a flowery description for expelling the Palestinians from the country’s economic life.
The Palestinians fought back against their dispossession. In 1936, Palestinian organizations launched a general strike against increased poverty, the Zionists and the Zionists’ British sponsors. The strike and subsequent armed uprisings lasted for three years before collapsing under the weight of Zionist and British repression. The Zionists’ role in the Palestinian revolt clearly showed that Labor Zionism had nothing in common with genuine workers’ solidarity.
The revolt’s intensity derived from the fact that the Zionist threat to Palestine was becoming clear in the 1930s. Throughout the decade, the Jewish population in Palestine exploded. Thousands of Jews fleeing persecution in Central and Eastern Europe–and denied admission to Britain, the U.S. and other Western countries–made their way to Palestine. Between 1931 and 1945, the Jewish population in Palestine swelled from 174,000 to 608,000.
While Jews accounted for only one-third of the population of Palestine on the eve of the state’s declaration in 1948, they were a well-armed and powerful minority. As the Jewish population increased, so did Zionist provocations against the Palestinians.
Without the Holocaust, the state of Israel probably wouldn’t have been founded. Zionists recruited immigrants to the state of Israel from among the thousands of Holocaust survivors whose communities in Europe were destroyed.
Perhaps more importantly, the Holocaust provided a convincing justification for a Jewish state. The Holocaust proved that Gentiles were inherently anti-Semitic, the Zionists argued. Jews living in Gentile societies, therefore, faced the constant danger of extermination. By the end of the war, most Jews agreed with the Zionists.
What was more, the Nazis’ physical elimination of alternative political currents in Jewish society increased support for Zionism. While the Nazis willingly dickered with Zionist leaders throughout the 1930s and 1940s, they made sure to kill every communist, socialist or Jewish resistance fighter they could get their hands on. While the Nazis were determined to kill all Jews, regardless of their political beliefs, they organized to crush working-class and socialist opposition long before they devised plans for the “Final Solution.”
The war forced the British to evacuate much of their empire, including Palestine. Britain left to the United Nations the task of deciding Palestine’s fate. In November 1947, the UN agreed to a partition plan. The plan granted the Zionists control of 55 percent of Palestine (although they represented only one-third of the country’s population). The Palestinian majority was left with 45 percent of their own country. Jerusalem was to be an “international city,” with equal access granted to Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Zionist leaders accepted the UN partition plan in public. In private, they planned a military assault to seize as much Palestinian land as possible. The Zionist “right” and “left” united to hijack the country. They used terror, psychological warfare and massacres to instill fear among Palestinians.
In the most well-known massacre, the Revisionist Irgun and the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel militias–whose chief leaders were future Israeli prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir–murdered the entire Palestinian village of Dir Yassin. The commandos “lined men, women and children up against walls and shot them,” according to a Red Cross description of the massacre. After Dir Yassin, Zionists used the threat of massacre to compel Palestinians to flee their homes, including in cities like Haifa and Jaffa.
For years, Zionist history asserted a number of “facts” about the 1948 war: that little Israel faced overwhelming Arab firepower; that Palestinian leaders encouraged Palestinians to leave the country; that there was no Zionist plan to drive the Palestinians out; that Palestinians rejected partition and started the war. Yet recent historical research–based on formerly top-secret Israel Defense Force documents–prove that all of these assertions are lies.
When the war ended, the Zionists held more than 77 percent of Palestine, including 95 percent of all the good agricultural land in the country. The state of Israel stole 80 percent of privately owned Palestinian land. More than 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes, with Jews moving into them. Palestinian society was destroyed.
On a foundation of war and murder, the Israeli state was built. Zionism gained its longstanding aim–a Jewish state. But as the century-long history of political Zionism and the history of the state of Israel shows, this is nothing to celebrate.