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Out of Europe, Out of Time
Prior to the onset of European colonization a century ago, generations of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Palestinians cohabited in the Holy Land with little or no conflict. Zionism’s arrival opened a vein of intolerance that eventually grew into a river of bloodshed that flows directly into the sea of violence and chaos gripping the region today.
Like their present-day descendants, early Zionist colonizers glorified Jewish separation from non-Jews. They set themselves apart from the people and dreamed openly of claiming all of Palestine for the Jews. Foreign intruders and a law unto themselves, they posed a self-declared threat to the lives and land of the indigenous population.
Political Zionism had grown up in the ethnic nationalist fervor that swept Europe for several decades before and after World War I. These movements, which still smolder today, tended to borrow from the self-idolizing annals of 19th century racialist science, which in turn were a product of Europe’s centuries of genocidal colonialism.
European ethnic nationalists held that a ‘people’ define a nation, which has the right to an independent state. By extension, residents of the state who not are not of the ‘people’ can be excluded from the affairs of the nation, if not expelled or exterminated. Nationalist movements in central and eastern Europe were often supported by Britain and France, to undercut Germany and the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.
Zionists took ethnic nationalism a step further by claiming the right of statehood for a religion. By promoting a ‘Jewish race’ with its own speculative bi-racial history, they leveraged the notion that a ‘racial type’ can define a (nation-deserving) ‘people’. With the other hand, they accepted a religious definition of Jewishness. In this way they were able to hijack Judaism to serve the purposes of their politics.
After World War I shattered the old order in Europe and southwest Asia, western powers rewrote the map through the auspices of the League of Nations. In a vain attempt to restrain the genie of ethnic nationalism they had helped unleash, the League required its Balkanized ‘democratic states’ to respect the rights of their ‘minority peoples’.
In practice, this ‘assimilationist’ stance was not significantly enforced. The charters of several new states fashioned citizenship along ethnic lines. Liberals debated the assimilation potential of ethnic groups to gauge their suitability for ‘democracy’. Jews were the group most often defined as ‘difficult’ or ‘impossible’ to assimilate.
In his book, Dark Continent, Professor Mark Mazower demonstrates that the democratic spring of post-Versailles Europe rapidly lapsed into the authoritarian custom of pre-Versailles Europe, without its stabilizing multi-ethnic structures. By the mid-1920s, fascism was a respectable and popular position across the continent. By the time Hitler took power, fascist governments had become so mainstream that the Nazis felt obliged to rejuvenate the movement with more virulent words and deeds.
In both Britain and Germany, transferring the ‘Jewish nation’ out of Europe was an attractive and even logical solution to Europe’s long-standing ‘Jewish problem’. Zionism promised to do just that, and so enjoyed support in the highest reaches of European society. The British occupation (on orders from London) largely ignored Zionist lawlessness and persecution of Arabs, while the Nazis hailed them as fellow travelers to a future of mutual ‘racial’ purity.
Of course it was intrinsically colonial to think that millions of Europeans could move en masse to any place outside of Europe, as if the world were a tabula rasa upon which The Continent could write off its worst bigotry with one large check. While political Zionism was part and parcel of Europe’s 20th century infatuation with ethnic nationalism, its program belonged to the 19th, like Lincoln’s mania to transfer black Americans to Central America.
By forcing itself on Arab Palestine, Zionism took nationalist ideology and threw it into historical reverse, with the 1948 inception of a colonial European ethnic state in the heart of a simultaneously ‘de-colonizing’ Arab Middle East. Israel was an anachronism at birth.
Funneled by the western nations’ anti-Semitic immigration laws (which the Zionist lobby had encouraged) the ‘Jewish nation’ (which the Zionists claimed to represent) would transplant itself to Palestine to fulfill a divine commandment to reclaim the ancient nation of Israel. The extreme historical and religious sweep of this assertion easily trumped all other national mythologies and marked Zionism’s enduring tendency to audacity.
The motive forces of Zionism have continued to conduct Israel as an expansionist colonial project into the 21st century, relentlessly appropriating, destroying, and annexing Palestinian land and water. This robbery-in-broad-daylight is accelerating, thanks in part to the ‘separation barrier’ Israel is building in the Palestinian West Bank. In Europe, walls have been used to delineate borders of nations and ghettoes. Israel uses them to continually expand its borders and carve up its ghettoes for its own use.
By responding to European intolerance and the Holocaust in the inherently racist terms of colonialism, Zionism tied the Jewish desire for freedom and security to the worst impulses of the human heart. It compounded the moral blindness of ethnic nationalism with the moral crime of ethnocide, and saddled Zionism with an incessant need to deny historical reality and the humanity of Arab and Muslim peoples.
These are the deeper roots of the lawlessness we see today in Palestine and Israel. No one has been spared. Israelis are awash in an escalating tide of crime, corruption, incompetence, and venality afflicting their government and society. Recently we learned the graft has consumed even the Israel Tax Authority, and probably the Prime Minister himself. Meanwhile, the State is leaking threats to attack Iran with nuclear weapons.
History suggests that Israel faces an inevitable reckoning with the moral and political bankruptcy of colonialism. It cannot maintain a state of war with its neighbors forever. There is a peaceful way out that begins with Israel’s renunciation of colonialism and occupation. Whether Zionist ethnic nationalism would survive these changes is an open question. Without them, Israel may be blindsided by a day of reckoning it cannot control.
* Mazower, Mark: Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1999