It is often stated that there is an ongoing delegitimisation of Israel. What is rarely mentioned is that there has been a parallel delegitimisation of Zionism – an ideological demonisation by those who are often ignorant of its history and evolution. Such ignorance is the underpinning which allows legitimate criticism to occasionally tip over into reactionary racist stereotypes.
In the year 1897-8 several movements were founded which offered a path to the Jewish future. One was the Bund – Jewish socialists which believed in national-cultural autonomy in the territories where Jews were concentrated in Eastern Europe. Another was the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), a faction of which evolved into the Bolsheviks. They believed that the Jews should assimilate and would disappear over time. Finally there was the World Zionist Organisation, established by Theodor Herzl in Basel. Nearly half a century later, the vast majority of the Bundists were cast into Hitler’s ovens. The old Bolsheviks disappeared into the Gulag or met their executioners in the dungeons of the Lubyanka. Only Zionism survived the ravages of the twentieth century to found a state of the Jews, a Hebrew republic in the Land of Israel, in 1948.
Herzl, himself was a member of the Viennese bourgeoisie and was soon challenged in his interpretation of Zionism by advocates of socialist Zionism such as Nahum Syrkin and Ber Borokhov. Like David Ben Gurion who arrived in Palestine in 1906, they regarded themselves as the Zionist wing of the international socialist movement. Indeed Ben Gurion had been arrested several times during the Russian revolution of 1905, the year before his departure.
As indicated in his early writings, Lenin had little knowledge of the existence of such Marxist-Zionists and was surrounded by assimilated and acculturated Jews, estranged from the Jewish masses of the Russian empire. Moreover Lenin was more interested in outmanoeuvring the Bund whom he perceived as an obstacle to moulding the RSDLP in his image. In this maze of ideological mirrors, Lenin’s passing attack on Zionism was submerged in his ongoing assault on the anti-Zionist Bund.
With the success of the October Revolution in 1917, many former Zionists turned to the here-and-now of Communism – and denounced former comrades. The head of the Yevsektsia, the Jewish section of the Communist party, Semyon Diamanstein, was a lapsed Lubavicher hassid. In addition many assimilated Jews, Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Sverdlov, Radek,
were leading Bolsheviks. Regardless of their understanding of Jewishness, so many were murdered in the Stalinist purges.
The October Revolution occurred within a few days of the Balfour Declaration which promised the Jews a home – not a state – in Palestine. These two events symbolised two streams within Jewish tradition – particularism and universalism – which would guide the Jews down the twentieth century. The particularists viewed the possibility of a state of the Jews with favour. The universalists understood the October revolution as the dawn of humanity – all would lose the chains of servitude and antisemitism would be eradicated forever. For those on the Left caught in between, those who regarded themselves as Zionists, there was opprobrium from both camps of Jews. It is the reason today why anti-Zionist Jews attack ‘liberal Zionists,’ and why right wing Zionists label critics of Netanyahu’s government as ‘self-hating’ Jews.
Stalin’s last years were marked by a McCarthyist policy – an anti-Soviet Zionist conspiracy – which mirrored the ‘Reds under the Beds’ fear in the United States. Many Communist Jews believed that the execution of the Jewish writers, the Slansky trial of leading Jewish communists in Prague and the Doctors’ Plot to murder the leaders of the Kremlin was no more than Zionist propaganda. Such true believers explained away each and every act of antisemitism – and then in many cases the scales dropped from their eyes in the revelations after Stalin’s demise.
Today many on the Israeli far Right believe that anti-Zionism is always antisemitic. Many on the British far Left concur that anti-Zionism is never antisemitic, but merely a crafty diversion away from criticism of Israeli government policies. The reality is that it is often on the spectrum in between, depending on the context and language used.
There is also a diminishing generational gap within the British Left. Many from the Old Left fought Mosely in the East End, bore witness to the extermination of the Jews in the Holocaust and greeted the rise of Israel in 1948. Whereas Israel was seen as moving towards socialism, the Arab world instead had embraced nationalism. Aneurin Bevan, leader of the Labour Left and founder of the National Health Service was highly critical of the military regime that had overthrown the monarchy in Egypt.
In an article in August 1956, Bevan wrote:
If a social movement elects to take the path of revolution, it must pursue it to the end and the end is a complete transformation of society accompanied by a transference of power from the old to the new social forces. Judged by this criterion, the movement first led by General Neguib and then by Nasser has not as yet added up to a social revolution or anything like it.
Bevan accused Nasser of “stirring the pot of nationalist passions” to the detriment of bettering the lot of the Egyptian people.
Bevan died in 1960 and joined the pantheon of socialist heroes, adored by the British Left, but significantly his pro-Zionist views were airbrushed out of existence. The succeeding New Left of the 1960s was characterised not by the fight against fascism, but by the epoch of decolonisation, the shedding of empire. For them, Zionism was perceived as a colonial movement, controlled by imperialism and dedicated to the expulsion of a colonised indigenous people. Yet this was a cropping of the historical picture.
For example, whereas the British who arrived in Australia decimated the aborigines with guns and disease, the Zionists in contrast came with hoes and pitchforks to cultivate land outside Arab population areas and to build new cities such as Tel Aviv.
The nascent Palestinian national movement was easier to identify with in the age of Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh. Complexity and context were conveniently ignored. All this was before the settlement drive on the West Bank following the victory of the Six Day war in 1967.
The establishment of settlements in the conquered territories allowed anti-Zionists to blur the distinction between returning to 1967 or to 1948, between vacating the West Bank and eliminating the state of Israel. It obscured the difference between those who wished to give back the West Bank to the Palestinian Arabs so that they could build their own state and those who believed that the Jews had no right to any part of historic Palestine and should leave. It was the difference between a two-state solution and a Greater Palestine.
Many on the British Left are unable to answer the question ‘Do the Jews have a right to national self-determination?’ To answer positively would mean that the recent mentors of the British Left had been wrong. To answer negatively would mean that the establishment of two states, Israel and Palestine, should be replaced by a solitary state whereby all its citizens would freely vote according to their needs and not according to their ethnic origin. This would be a state with a majority of Arab voters – and political reality does not always obey political theory.
Ben Gurion believed that Zionism essentially achieved its goal in 1948 in establishing the state. By the 1960s, Ben Gurion was proclaiming that ‘the title of Zionist now embraces entirely different things among which there is no connection and to speak of Zionism per se has no real meaning’. He instead viewed the Jewish Diaspora as a hinterland to garner political and financial support for Israel. Zionism became pro-Israelism. A Zionist, once someone who emigrated to Israel, now became someone who might emigrate to Israel.
While Zionism certainly completed its revolutionary phase in 1948, does it have meaning today in its post-revolutionary phase? The ingathering of the exiles was always a staggered process. Has it been completed? After all, French Jews have settled in increasing numbers in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings and the Bataclan massacre.
Zionism originally meant not only the creation of a state with a Jewish majority, but also the forging of a new society, substantially different from the societies which the Zionists had left. Israel resembles the economic pattern of Western Europe today, with a plethora of millionaires and a gap between the haves and have-nots. Is not the task for Zionists today to turn Israel into Zion?
Zionism should not be left to the breastbeaters and to those who wrap themselves in the flag. Neither should there be a studied silence when the question of Zionism is raised in Leftist polite company. To do so, in one sense, is a betrayal of recent history and a kowtowing to the purveyors of ignorance.
Students today are at the forefront of this ideological battle. Quoting clichés and slogans is an emotional reaction and not an intellectual one. Self-education is perhaps the only way forward – to understand yourself and to understand the meaning of Israel.
Zionism is not wrong, it is different. And such difference cannot be accommodated by either Marxist or post-colonial theory.
As the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, commented:
Knowledge is power.
Information is liberating.
Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.
We Believe in Israel 26 May 2016