The Failure of Zionism
As I write this Israel has been bombing Gaza, an area 365 square km large and housing 2.3 million precious human beings, for 23 days. Israeli bombs have killed, on average, 110 children a day. Palestinian mothers have begun writing the names of their children on their bodies so when their corpses are pulled from the wreckage left behind by Israeli bombing they can be identified.
Joe Biden, the president of the biggest military backer of the Zionist project, said something I’ve also heard from some Jewish friends of mine: that the Hamas-led health ministry is inflating the number of the dead. He said this without checking any of the actual evidence or the opinions of experts, who affirm that the Health Ministry’s reports of casualties have been shown to be accurate in previous conflicts. The ministry responded by releasing a detailed list of the names of all of the nearly 7,000 civilians who had been killed up to that point (it now passes 8,000).
The Prime Minister of Israel, a politician with a long history of corruption and far-right ideology, today described the current assault on Gaza by evoking the memory of the ancient tribe of Amalek (circa 1400 BCE).
A passage in the Hebrew Bible says, “You must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible. 1 Samuel 15:3 ‘Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass’,” Netanyahu said. The Rabbis who created the Judaism we know today long ago (centuries ago) ruled that no modern nation could be equated with Amalek, but Netanyahu cares little for progressive Rabbinic values, to put it mildly. In quoting that passage he is explicitly signaling genocidal intent and completing the marriage of Zionism — in its inception a secular movement which repudiated the Jewish religion — with a twisted, nightmare vision of Judaism.
In the religious imagination of Jews between 136 CE and the 19th century, Israel was a magical land. Jews prayed multiple times a day for the messianic return to Israel and the redemption of the world. Prophecy, they said, was more easily attained in Israel (or only attainable there according to some); the produce was huge and tasted impossibly good; the soil had magical properties. For centuries, however, though many small groups of Jews went to live in Palestine for religious reasons, Jewish law itself was understood as forbidding a mass return to Palestine. The Rabbis of the Talmud wrote that there were three oaths preventing Jews taking Israel back through war or population transfer: One, that the Jews should not ascend to Eretz Yisrael as a wall (take it back by returning en masse). And another one, that the Holy One, Blessed be He, adjured the Jews that they should not rebel against the nations of the world. And the last one is that the Holy One, Blessed be He, adjured the nations of the world that they should not subjugate the Jews excessively.
The three oaths mentioned above, or rather the two applying to Jews, were taken quite seriously, as was the Rabbinic teaching that Jews should relate to the nations non-violently even if oppressed by them. Jewish law and consensus prior to 1890 stated that Jews should defend themselves boldly before the nations, but only with words. In the 1890s some argued that since the nations had broken the third oath, Jews were released from the first two. Orthodox Rabbis did not agree, arguing instead that if the nations broke their oath with God, then God would deal with it himself.
In the 19th century a group began arguing that Jews were a people like any other — i.e. one defined by ethnicity or culture, not defined by the ideas of the Jewish religion — and as such should live in self-determination and freedom like any other. They argued that Jews could only live in freedom, peace and strength if they shrugged off traditional religion and its promises and built their own nation-state to protect themselves. After some debate over where it should be, it was decided it should be an “altneustate” (old-new state) in Palestine.
Rabbis across the spectrum- both Orthodox and Reform- generally disagreed strongly. Bundists — non-Zionist, nonreligious Jewish activists — also disagreed, arguing that the only way to find freedom and peace for Jews was to build a world of freedom and peace for everyone. As Zionism gradually picked up steam, however, a steady trickle of Jews flowed into Palestine, where between 1878 and 1917 they increased from 3% to 10% of the Palestinian population.
As the new Jewish settlement grew, a minority of Jewish Zionists criticized the Jewish Zionist establishment for racism, dismissal of Palestinian Arabs concerns, and injustice towards them. Ahad Ha’am (1856–1927), the Russian Jewish Zionist, wrote in 1891:
“We must surely learn, from both our past and present history, how careful we must be not to provoke the anger of the native people by doing them wrong, how we should be cautious in our dealings with a foreign people among whom we returned to live, to handle these people with love and respect and, needless to say, with justice and good judgment. And what do our brothers do? Exactly the opposite! They were slaves in their Diasporas, and suddenly they find themselves with unlimited freedom, wild freedom that only a country like Turkey [the Ottoman Empire] can offer. This sudden change has planted despotic tendencies in their hearts, as always happens to former slaves [‘eved ki yimlokh — when a slave becomes king — Proverbs 30:22]. They deal with the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, trespass unjustly, beat them shamefully for no sufficient reason, and even boast about their actions. There is no one to stop the flood and put an end to this despicable and dangerous tendency.”
“We who live abroad are accustomed to believing that the Arabs are all wild desert people who, like donkeys, neither see nor understand what is happening around them. But this is a grave mistake….The Arabs, especially the urban elite, see and understand what we are doing and what we wish to do on the land, but they keep quiet and pretend not to notice anything. For now, they do not consider our actions as presenting a future danger to them. … But, if the time comes that our people’s life in Eretz Yisrael will develop to a point where we are taking their place, either slightly or significantly, the natives are not going to just step aside so easily.”
-Ahad Ha’am, Russian Jewish Zionist, 1891- “Truth from the Land of Israel [Eretz Israel]”
In 1907, in an article in HaShiloah, one of the earliest modern Hebrew-language publications, the Odessa-born teacher and activist Yitzhak Epstein returned to Ahad Ha’am’s point. Epstein belonged to the Hovevei Tzion, the earliest Zionist organization. He had witnessed the purchase of the lands of Ras al-Zawiya and al-Metulla (now known in Hebrew as Rosh Pina and Metullah) several years earlier. When Zionists bought these farms from their Arab owners, they would dispossess the Arab tenant farmers and replace them with Jewish labour. He remembered the anger of the dispossessed Druze farmers:
‘The lament of Arab women … still rings in my ears’, he wrote. ‘The men rode on donkeys and the women followed them weeping bitterly, and the valley was filled with their lamentation. As they went they stopped to kiss the stones and the earth.’
Epstein warned that relations with the Arabs were the ‘unseen question’ that the Zionist movement was not addressing. He argued that Zionists tended to “forget one small detail: that there is in our beloved land an entire people that has been attached to it for hundreds of years and has never considered leaving it….What will the fellahin [arab pheasant farmers] do after we buy their fields?” he asked, “we must admit that we have driven impoverished people from their humble abode and taken bread out of their mouths.” His argument attracted little response, as had Ahad Ha’am’s before him.
Martin Buber (1878–1965), the great Jewish philosopher and mystic, proposed to the 12th Zionist Congress of 1921 a resolution that urged Jews to reject “with abhorrence the methods of nationalistic domination, under which they themselves have long suffered”, and renounce any desire “to suppress another people or to dominate them”, since in the country “there is room both for us and its present inhabitants”.
Buber and others, including academics affiliated with the newly-established Hebrew University in Jerusalem like Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, created “Brit Shalom,” the first major Zionist Arab-Jewish peace group in 1925. The association existed “to arrive at an understanding between Jews and Arabs…on the basis of absolute political equality of two culturally autonomous peoples, and to determine the lines of their co-operation for the development of the country.”
Brit Shalom’s founders came from different political and personal backgrounds. Some of them were well established Yishuv leaders, who saw reconciliation with Arabs as a practical necessity (like Arthur Ruppin, a senior Zionist settlement official). Still others were inspired by moral convictions, and saw the need to incorporate the needs and concerns of local people — not only of Jews — into the Zionist mission.
Ruppin, as a senior settlement official, was criticized by his Labour allies who regarded Brit Shalom as “delusional.” Ruppin, in turn, worried that Zionism would “deteriorate into pointless chauvinism” and that it would become impossible “to allocate a sphere of action to a growing number of Jews in Palestine without oppressing the Arabs.”
The Zionist mainstream consistently claimed that Palestinian nationalism was superficial and was a result of the “ignorant masses” of Arabs being manipulated by an elite who wanted to destroy the Zionist project. This was a dangerous misunderstanding. In fact, as other Zionists saw, the non-Jews of Palestine were deeply attached to the farms and villages their families had lived in for generations and identified with their land and culture just as much as Jews identified with theirs.
Hans Kohn (1891–1971), a Zionist, philosopher, and critic of nationalism, wrote: “I cannot concur with this policy when the Arab national movement is being portrayed as the wanton agitation of a few big landowners. I know all too well that frequently the most reactionary imperialist press in England and France portrays the national movements in India, Egypt, and China in a similar fashion — in short, wherever the national movements of oppressed peoples threaten the interest of the colonial power.”
He wrote: “We have been in Palestine for twelve years [since 1917] without having even once made a serious attempt at seeking through negotiations the consent of the indigenous people. We have been relying exclusively upon Great Britain’s military might. We have set ourselves goals which by their very nature had to lead to conflict with Arabs. We ought to have recognized that these goals would be the cause, the just cause, of a national uprising against us … But for twelve years we pretended that the Arabs did not exist and were glad when we were not reminded of their existence.”
With lucid prescience, Kohn wrote that without the consent of local Arabs, Jewish existence in Palestine will only be possible “first with British aid and then later with the help of our own bayonets … but by that time we will not be able to do without the bayonets. The means will have determined the goal. Jewish Palestine will no longer have anything of that Zion for which I once put myself on the line.”
Ihud (Unity) was a new bi-nationalist movement successor to Brit Shalom. The association called for “Government in Palestine based upon equal political rights for the two peoples.” It was led by Judah Magnes (1877–1948) and Martin Buber, veteran critics of mainstream politics, as well as the famed Jewish anti-fascist intellectual Hannah Arendt (1906–1975). In a 1942 letter to an American Reform rabbi, Magnes defined Jewish nationalism as “unhappily chauvinistic and narrow and terroristic in the best style of Eastern European nationalism”.
When this statement became public, Magnes was harshly criticised. He defended his views: “What I had in mind was not the few extremists … but rather, definite acts which some important leaders and groups have not repudiated and which take on the aspect of being, to say the least, not contrary to their national policy.”
In Palestine itself, the emerging leader of the new Yishuv was David Ben-Gurion (1886–1973), who played a key role in shaping Mainstream Zionist policies. These included a left-leaning government (B-G was a moderate socialist) and a hope for peace with the Arabs that would be based, as he said, on “Jewish power.”
In 1948, 68% of the total population were Arabs and 32% were Jews. In November of 1947, in the wake of the horrors of the Holocaust, the United Nations approved a resolution to partition the country between them, with 61% of the land going to the Jewish state, and 39% going to the Arab one.
The UN voted for partition, a result enthusiastically welcomed by the Yishuv even as intercommunal violence broke out between the Jewish and Arab populations. Ben-Gurion declared Independence and then international war broke out between the nascent Jewish state and five Arab countries. Buber bemoaned the state being “built in blood” and stated that even if the Yishuv won it would be a false victory, as it would be a defeat of the true Zionist ideal of national rebirth- “not simply the secure existence of the nation” but the revival of its ethical mission. For Buber the normalization of the Jewish state was tantamount to assimilation. Jews were succeeding in becoming a normal state, he wrote, to “to a terrifying degree.”
“I cannot be joyful in anticipating victory,” he wrote, “for I fear that the significance of Jewish victory will be the downfall of Zionism.”
The early Israeli government chose not to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their villages and landholdings, some of which had been in their families for generations. The young Israeli government, faced with the daunting task of building a country nearly from scratch and integrating Jewish refugees from many different countries, many of whom spoke different languages, saw the Palestinian refugees as an undesirable and dangerous burden.
Calls from Jewish peace activists like Martin Buber to welcome them into the new Israel were ignored. Israeli society was gearing up for what is surely one of the most remarkable accomplishments in human history: the intentional, designed birth of a country, complete with a new language and a functioning economic, political, technical, agricultural and social infrastructure, including a rich community of artists, writers, musicians and philosophers, and the creation of a new homeland for Orthodox Jews as well (though many of them continued to be officially anti-Zionist and not recognize the state).
Palestinian Arab refugees moved into camps or became second-class citizens in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. One Arab statesman of the time grimly commented that the refugee camps were not a bad thing- they would breed the future fighters which would destroy the unjust Zionist state.
The destruction of pre-Israel Palestinian society is known to Palestinians as the “Nakba”, or the Catastrophe, and is commemorated the day after Israeli Independence Day today, although the government financially penalizes any Israeli institution that acknowledges it. Some Palestinians wear the keys to their former homes on necklace chains which have been passed down in their families, or otherwise make “key symbols” to mark the “right of return” they believe they have.
Thus was born the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which 76 years later still rages like a festering sore.
Today Zionism is a Jewish, and human, failure.
The Zionist dream was that Israel would provide a safe haven for Jews, a base from which Jewish culture would flourish, and a solution to anti-Semitism.
In actual practice Israel has been in a nearly continuous state of warfare since its inception. Although in many ways Jewish culture has indeed flourished there amidst its great technological and creative successes, the maintenance and defense of a state which has an exclusively Jewish identity and prioritizes Jews above others has compromised core Jewish ethical values. It has utterly failed to fulfil the fundamental vision of traditional Jewish culture: the creation of a utopian society dedicated to what we believed are the values of God: uplifting justice and restorative kindness (chesed u’ mishpat).
In Israel today we have a society founded, fundamentally, on the belief that power equals security, a nation state that is an incarnation of the golem writ large. In order to maintain that power Israel has become a global arms dealer to super villains and tyrannical states, a purveyor of spy tech to the most perfidious secret services in the world, and a society which, in order to preserve its Jewish character, has a massive military. It is a global leader in weapons development, has an infamous spy network, and rejects and brutalizes African and other refugees seeking shelter within it. Most egregiously it persists in an illegal and vastly destructive occupation of the West Bank and Gaza which has been attended, for decades, by routine and pervasive oppression and human rights abuses, and which is a continual source of violence against Israeli civilians.
It is inflammatory to say this, but I think the truth is that the Zionist project is one of the chief causes of hatred of Jews in the world to day. An easy piece of evidence for this: since the Israeli siege on Gaza began, anti-Semitic incidents in the UK surged almost 1,500%. (Updated Nov 9 with US poll info). This is our protection? This is our healing? This is the end of anti-semitism? With every violent assault Israel rains down on Palestinians in the last decades there is a surge of anti-Jewish vandalism, hate speech and violent assaults all over the world. These very assaults are then appealed to as the reason we need Israel in the first place.
Maybe it’s time to consider whether or not the Bundists — early 20th century non-Zionist Jewish socialists — were right. They argued that Jewish freedom would only be won by freedom for all, not by building a militarized fortress for ourselves. Certainly a quick comparison of the situation in pluralistic, multi-cultural Canada with the situation in Israel would suggest that they were correct.
But what about Hamas? Doesn’t their desire to eliminate the Zionist state prove we need a militarized fortress and justify the Israel blitzkrieg assaults on their refugee camps?
Stephen M. Walt, a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University, notes that “Israel pummeled the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead in December 2008, did it again in Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and then did so once more (on a smaller scale) in May 2021. These attacks killed several thousand civilians (perhaps a quarter of them children) and further impoverished the trapped population of Gaza, but they didn’t bring us any closer to a lasting and just solution.’”
On most counts, then, Zionism is a failure, and a failure which has come at the expense of the rights and dignity of millions of Palestinians and which has entrapped generations of Israeli civilians in warfare, violence, and trauma.
Some Israelis will say, of course, understandably and angrily, “Are you saying my whole beloved country is a failure?”
There are many, many beautiful and amazing things about the Jewish society of modern Israel. But yes, any country which rests on the foundation of three million displaced refugees controlled through an elaborate security apparatus and endless war is, thus far, a failure.
This is a far cry from the ancient Jewish dream to be a light to the world.
There is one way, though, in which the Zionist regime can still be such a light, though, and that is in its very failure.
Zionism demonstrates in painful, horrific detail the utter bankruptcy of the idea that the solution to the Jewish problem lay in might and power.
The modern state of Israel stands as a warning to all nations and peoples that ethnic supremacy, chauvinism, isolationism and violence are not only not solutions to our problems, but will make them immeasurably worse and spread those problems beyond our borders to infect the human political body in general.
I am not writing this to incite hatred of Zionism or Israel, God forbid, but rather to argue that the only way forward lies through the dismantling of Jewish supremacy in Israel, the return of political rights to Palestinians, and a truth and reconciliation effort throughout Israel/Palestine as happened in South Africa.
Those who argue that we should not be critiquing the structures of Occupation and Apartheid in Israel in the midst of this war are like those saying that a patient who is hitting themselves in the face should not be diagnosed with the brain tumor that is causing it.
Yes, something humane has to be done to restrain their arm; yes they may need pain meds, but we also must understand that the tumor is the source of the problems. Yelling, “How can you talk about brain tumors while they have such bad wounds from hitting themselves!” are not helping, especially when this is what they yell every time the patient begins engaging in self-harm, year after year after year.
This is true especially when the people in the room are actively shoveling the patient chemicals that make the tumor worse — if I can stretch the metaphor just a little further — to cover the overseas funding and military aid that the openly Jewish supremacist Israeli government gets from the US and Canada.
The very real dangers associated with such a path are no greater than the ones associated with the path Israel is now on. Many Israelis see and know that the current status quo is intolerable, and no “Jewish state” is worth maintaining an open air prison for 2.3 million people.
In the meantime, as I write this, the quite possibly genocidal assault on Palestinian civilians in Gaza continues. The Jewish community should not support this war effort, nor should we support the state of Israel until it becomes a pluralistic, just democracy for all of its peoples.
For those interested, below is an interlocking series of articles that I’ve written on Medium on Zionism and Judaism: