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Pitting the West Against Islam


It is tempting to celebrate the creation of Israel as a great triumph, perhaps the greatest in Jewish history. Indeed, the history of Israel has often been read as the heroic saga of a people marked for extinction, who emerged from Nazi death camps–from Auschwitz, Belzec and Treblinka–to establish their own state in 1948, a Jewish haven and a democracy that has prospered even as it has defended itself valiantly against unceasing Arab threats and aggression. Without taking away anything from the sufferings of European Jews, I will insist that this way of thinking about Israel–apart from its mythologizing–has merit only as a partisan narrative. It seeks to insulate Israel against the charge of a devastating colonization by falsifying history, by camouflaging the imperialist dynamics that brought it into existence, and denying the perilous future with which it now confronts the Jews, the West and the Islamic world.

When we examine the consequences that have flowed from the creation of Israel, when we contemplate the greater horrors that may yet flow from the logic of Zionism, Israel triumphs appear in a different light. We are forced to examine these triumphs with growing dread and incredulity. Israel’s early triumphs, though real from a narrow Zionist standpoint, have slowly mutated by a fateful process into ever-widening circles of conflict that now threaten to escalate into major wars between the West and Islam. Although this conflict has its source in colonial ambitions, the dialectics of this conflict have slowly endowed it with the force and rhetoric of a civilizational war: and perhaps worse, a religious war. This is the tragedy of Israel. It is not a fortuitous tragedy. Driven by history, chance and cunning, the Zionists wedged themselves between two historical adversaries, the West and Islam, and by harnessing the strength of the first against the second, it has produced the conditions of a conflict that has grown deeper over time.

Zionist historiography describes the emergence of Israel as a triumph over Europe’s centuries-old anti-Semitism, in particular over its twentieth-century manifestation, the demonic, industrial plan of the Nazis to stamp out the existence of the Jewish people. But this is a tendentious reading of Zionist history: it obscures the historic offer Zionism made to the West–the offer to rid the West of its Jews, to lead them out of Christendom into Islamic Palestine. In offering to ‘cleanse’ the West of the ‘hated Jews,’ the Zionists were working with the anti-Semites, not against them. Theodore Herzl, the founding father of Zionism, had a clear understanding of this complementarity between Zionism and anti-Semitism; and he was convinced that Zionism would prevail only if anti-Semitic Europe could be persuaded to work for its success. It is true that Jews and anti-Semites have been historical adversaries, that Jews have been the victims of Europe’s religious vendetta since Rome first embraced Christianity. However, Zionism would enter into a new relationship with anti-Semitism that would work to the advantage of Jews. The insertion of the Zionist idea in the Western discourse would work a profound change in the relationship between Western Jews and Gentiles. In order to succeed, the Zionists would have to create a new adversary, common to the West and the Jews. In choosing to locate their colonial-settler state in Palestine–and not in Uganda or Argentina–the Zionists had also chosen an adversary that would deepen their partnership with the West. The Islamic world was a great deal more likely to energize the West’s imperialist ambitions and evangelical zeal than Africa or Latin America.

Israel was the product of a partnership that seems unlikely at first blush, between Western Jews and the Western world. It is the powerful alchemy of the Zionist idea that created this partnership. The Zionist project to create a Jewish state in Palestine possessed the unique power to convert two historical antagonists, Jews and Gentiles, into allies united in a common imperialist enterprise against the Islamic world. The Zionists harnessed the negative energies of the Western world–its imperialism, its anti-Semitism, its Crusading nostalgia, its anti-Islamic bigotry, and its deep racism–and focused them on a new imperialist project, the creation of a Western surrogate state in the Islamic heartland. To the West’s imperialist ambitions, this new colonial project offered a variety of strategic advantages. Israel would be located in the heart of the Islamic world; it would sit astride the junction of Asia, Africa and Europe; it would guard Europe’s gateway to the Indian Ocean; and it could monitor developments in the Persian Gulf with its vast reserves of oil. For the West as well as Europe’s Jews, this was a creative moment: indeed, it was a historical opportunity. For European Jews, it was a stroke of brilliance. Zionism was going to leverage Western power in their cause. As the Zionist plan would unfold, inflicting pain on the Islamic world, evoking Islamic anger against the West and Jews, the complementarities between the two would deepen. In time, new complementarities would be discovered–or created–between the two antagonist strains of Western history. In the United States, the Zionist movement would give encouragement to evangelical Protestants–who looked upon the birth of Israel as the fulfillment of end-time prophecies–and convert them into fanatic partisans of Zionism. In addition, Western civilization, which had hitherto traced its central ideas and institutions to Rome and Athens, would be repackaged as a Judeo-Christian civilization. This reframing not only underscores the Jewish roots of the Western world, it also makes a point of emphasizing that Islam is the outsider, the adversary.

Zionism owes its success solely to this unlikely partnership. On their own, the Zionists could not have gone anywhere. They could not have created Israel by bribing or coercing the Ottomans into granting them a charter to colonize Palestine. Despite his offers of loans, investments, technology and diplomatic expertise, Theodore Herzl was repeatedly rebuffed by the Ottoman Sultan. It is even less likely that the Zionists could at any time have mobilized a Jewish army in Europe to invade and occupy Palestine, against Ottoman and Arab opposition to the creation of a Jewish state on Islamic lands. The Zionist partnership with the West was indispensable for the creation of a Jewish state. This partnership was also fateful. It produced a powerful new dialectic, which has encouraged Israel, both as the political center of the Jewish Diaspora and the chief outpost of the West in the heart of the Islamic world, to become more daring in its designs against the Islamic world and beyond. In turn, a wounded and humiliated Islamic world, more resentful and determined after every defeat, has been driven to embrace increasingly radical ideas and methods to recover its dignity and power–and to attain this recovery on the strength of Islamic ideas. This destabilizing dialectic has now brought the West itself into a direct confrontation against the Islamic world. We are now staring into the precipice. Yet do we possess the will to pull back from it?

M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University, and author of Challenging the New Orientalism: Dissenting Essays on America’s ‘War Against Islam’ (IPI Publications: 2006 forthcoming). He may be reached at





M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Macmillan, November 2009). Contact me at

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