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The Core of Zionism


Editors’ Note: This month CounterPunch Books publishes MICHAEL NEUMANN’s The Case Against Israel, a bracing and tightly argued counterblast to the nonsense peddled by Alan Dershowitz in The Case For Israel. What follows is Neumann’s core thesis. We strongly encourage CounterPunchers to order this book, either through this site or you can Call Becky Grant or Deva Wheeler at 800-840-3683 or email us. AC/JSC.

What matters for an understanding of the Israel/Palestine conflict is what the expression ‘a Jewish state’ would mean to any reasonable person. What, in particular, could the Palestinians reasonably expect when they heard that such a state was to be established in Palestine?

The state itself–the human community–is, everywhere in the world, an absolute dictator bound neither by morality nor by law. Even in the most impeccable democracy, there are ways to institute anything humans can do to one another. Frequently, as in the case of the democratic Weimar Republic of Germany, just invoking emergency legislation is quite enough to open the gates of hell.

For the Zionists to demand a state, any state, was therefore no small thing for anyone–like the Palestinians–falling within its proposed boundaries. But what the Zionists demanded was a Jewish state. Whether this was racism is not of any immediate concern. For one thing, to say that something is racist is not, for many people, immediately to say that it is unjustified: there are those, for instance, who accept affirmative action as ‘reverse’ racism yet still defend it. For another, the project might have begun as racist yet outgrown its racism by instituting sufficient protections for non-Jews. Or it might not have outgrown it altogether, but exhibited a form of racism that, though reprehensible, was not particularly virulent. It, therefore, does not seem particularly fruitful to examine whether Zionism was racism.

When a state is described in relation to the territory it controls, its ethnic character is open. The French state is not necessarily a state for some ethnic group called Frenchmen, just as the Belgian or Yugoslav or Jamaican state weren’t states for ethnic groups of that name. But a Catholic state would be a state run by Catholics; a black state would be a state run by blacks; a heterosexual state would be run by heterosexuals. This could hardly be clearer: what would be Catholic or black or heterosexual about a state not run by at least some members of those groups?

When, as in the post-World-War-I era, the ideology of self-determination added to the picture, the expectation develops further. Now it is that ethnic states would be run not just by members of their ethnic groups, but in some sense by those ethnic groups themselves. At the very least, such states would be governed in the name of those group members in the area. This would amount to something more than a formality. Thus, an Armenian state would be not simply have Armenian rulers. These rulers would truly govern in the name of Armenians. They would not just claim to act for their Armenian subjects or citizens, but would genuinely rule on their behalf, that is, for their benefit. The Armenian inhabitants might–and from Wilson’s standpoint, would–be governed democratically, by themselves. If not, one would hope and expect that they would be governed for themselves, or for, in the interests of, Armenians as a whole.

A Jewish state would, therefore, be a state run by and for Jews. In such a state, Jews would be sovereign. The state would be run in their interests.

For non-Jews to expect as much was and is, therefore, entirely reasonable. Only a consistent, ongoing, highly public campaign to explain that this was certainly not going to happen would be sufficient to dispel this expectation. Nothing remotely like that occurred. So, it is worth reviewing what living under Jewish sovereignty must mean.

It means that Jews have a monopoly on violence in the areas they control. The perceived legitimacy of this monopoly need go no further than a settled expectation familiar to Star Trek fans: resistance is futile. A Jewish state is simply a state where Jews are firmly in control and where that much is recognized. Within its borders, Jews hold the power of life and death over Jews and non-Jews alike. That is the true meaning of the Zionist project.

If that’s what the project is and was, there are a lot of things it wasn’t. The Jews who came to Palestine as individuals and in small groups had various motives. But the overall direction of the Zionist movement, the ultimate goal to which all these individuals and groups would be directed and the one which it would in fact achieve, is something else again. Most accounts of the settlement do not focus on this ultimate purpose, and are therefore misleading. The Zionists and their camp followers did not come simply to settle. They did not come simply to ‘find a homeland’, certainly not in the sense that Flanders is the homeland of the Flemish, or Lappland of the Lapps. They did not come simply to ‘make a life in Palestine’. They did not come simply to find a refuge from persecution. They did not come to ‘redeem a people’. All this could have been done elsewhere, as was pointed out at the time, and much of it was being done elsewhere by individual Jewish immigrants to America and other countries. The Zionists, and therefore all who settled under their auspices, came to found a sovereign Jewish state.

In this state, however tolerant, however easygoing, however joyful, however liberal, Jews would always have the final say, on everything. Affairs would be run in the interests of whatever its rulers or inhabitants considered the interests of the Jewish people. Within that state, the final decision on how much force was to be used to advance those interests was entirely in the hands of its Jewish occupants. This does not have to mean that non-Jews had no representation, no say at all. It does not mean that non-Jews had no civil rights, or that their human rights would necessarily be violated. But it does mean that–since it is the essence of a Zionist state to be Jewish, run by and for Jews–things would always be arranged so that sovereignty remained in Jewish hands. This might be by law or it might be by political manipulation; it might be de jure or de facto. So it would be for Jews alone to decide whether non-Jews had civil rights, whether their human rights would be honored, indeed whether they would live or die. The purpose of establishing a sovereign Jewish state may or may not have been domination; that doesn’t matter. That would certainly be the effect of its establishment.

What then of the claims that Zionism wasn’t necessarily the demand for a sovereign Jewish state? Certainly, there were people who called themselves Zionists and who demanded something else, though what it was always remained obscure. There was talk of a state; its mechanisms never clearly defined. There was talk of a homeland guaranteed by international powers, or simply a homeland. It would be correct to say that not all Jewish settlers demanded a Jewish state, and that some of these settlers considered themselves Zionists. It would be incorrect to say that the Zionist project or enterprise was anything less than an attempt to establish a Jewish State.

In the first place, we have seen that a Jewish state was the objective of the Zionist leadership and the mainstream Zionist movement. Second, by the time ‘nonexclusive’ Zionism had become visible, in the 1920s, its notions of cooperation with the Palestinians had already become unworkable. Too much blood had been shed: the 1921 Jaffa riots had taken 200 Jewish and 120 Palestinian lives, followed in 1929 by the killing of 207 Jews and 181 Palestinians in Hebron. A contemporary Jewish comment on the first serious anti-Jewish riots, in 1920, already asserts that in Palestine there was a general understanding that Zionism would mean a Jewish state, and that this understanding ushered in bloodshed:

“…we all know how the [Balfour] Declaration was interpreted at the time of its publication, and how much exaggeration many of our workers and writers have tried to introduce into it from that day to this. The Jewish people listened, and believed that the end of the galush [exile] had indeed come, and that in a short time there would be a ‘Jewish state.’ The Arab people too… listened, and believed that the Jews were coming to expropriate its land and do with it what they liked. All this inevitably led to friction and bitterness on both sides, and contributed to the state of things which was revealed in all its ugliness in the events at Jerusalem last April [1920]. ” (Ahad Ja’Am [Asher Ginzberg], “After the Balfour Declaration”, 1920, reprinted in Gary Smith, ed., Zionism: The Dream and the Reality, London 1974.)

The British showed as little capacity or indeed inclination to curb the ethnic violence as they were to show in India and many other possessions. I know of no case in which cooperation between ethnic communities followed anytime soon on massacres of this scale. Third, even most ‘nonexclusive’ Zionists were not distinguished by an explicit renunciation of a Jewish state, but rather by a commitment to partition Palestine rather than go for the whole thing. By then, the Palestinians correctly saw that the main tendency of Zionism was to create a Jewish state in Palestine, the intentions of a tiny nonexclusive minority with nebulous plans for some implausibly cooperative two-people government had no point of contact with the political realities.

This is probably why the ‘nonexclusives’ remained, in the words of Norman Finkelstein, “numerically weak and politically marginal.”

MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. This essay is excerpted from Neumann’s new book, The Case Against Israel. He can be reached at:



Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university.  He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel.  He also contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.  He can be reached at

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