Zionism: An "Abnormal" Nationalism
“The ultimate goal…is, in time, to take over the Land of Israel and to restore to the Jews the political independence they have been deprived of for these two thousand years…The Jews will yet arise and, arms in hand (if need be), declare that they are the masters of their ancient homeland.” —Vladimir Dubnow, 1882
This singular fact has engendered a history of deepening conflicts between Israel – leading an alliance of Western states – and the Islamicate more generally. Jewish ‘nationalism’ was abnormal for two reasons. It was homeless: it did not possess a homeland. The Jews of Europe were not a majority in, or even exercised control over, any territory that could become the basis of a Jewish state. We do not know of another nationalist movement in recent memory that started with such a land deficit – that is, without a homeland. Arguably, Jewish nationalism was without a nation too. The Jews were a religious aggregate, consisting of communities, scattered across many regions and countries, some only tenuously connected to others, but who shared the religious traditions derived from, or an identity connected to, Judaism.
Over the centuries, Jews had been taught that a divinely appointed Messiah would restore them to Zion; but such a Messiah never appeared; or when he did, his failure to deliver ‘proved’ that he was false. Indeed, while the Jews prayed for the appearance of the Messiah, they had no notion about when this might happen. In addition, since the nineteenth century, Reform Jews have interpreted their chosenness metaphorically. Max Nordau complained bitterly that for the Reform Jew, “the word Zion had just as little meaning as the word dispersion…He denies that there is a Jewish people and that he is a member of it.” Since Zionism was a nationalism without a homeland or a nation, its protagonists would have to create both.
To compensate for the first deficit, the Zionists would have to acquire a homeland: they would have to expropriate territory that belonged to another people. In other words, a homeless nationalism, of necessity, is a charter for conquest and – if it is exclusionary – for ethnic cleansing. At the same time, the Zionists would have to start creating a Jewish nation out of the heterogeneous Jewish colons they would assemble in their newly minted homeland. At the least, they would have to create a nucleus of Jews who were willing to settle in Palestine and committed to creating the infrastructure of a Jewish society and state in Palestine.
For many years, this nucleus would be small, since, Jews, overwhelmingly, preferred assimilation and revolution in Europe to colonizing Palestine. A Jewish nation would begin to grow around this small nucleus only if the Zionists could demonstrate that their scheme was not a chimera. The passage of the Zionist plan – from chimera to reality – would be delivered by three events: imposition of tight immigration restrictions in most Western countries starting in the 1900s, the Balfour Declaration of 1917, and the rise to power of the Nazis in 1933. As a result, when European Jews began fleeing Nazi persecution, most of them had nowhere to go to but Palestine. In their bid to create a Jewish state in Palestine, the Zionists could not stop at half-measures. They could not – and did not wish to – introduce Jews as only one element in the demography of the conquered territory. The Zionists sought to establish a Jewish state in Palestine; this had always been their goal. Officially, they never acknowledge that the creation of a Jewish state would have to be preceded, accompanied, or followed by ethnic cleansing.
Nevertheless, it is clear from the record now available that Zionists wanted nothing less than to make Palestine “as Jewish as England is English.” If the Palestinians could not be bribed to leave, they would have to be forced out. The Zionists were determined to reenact in the middle of the twentieth century the exclusive settler colonialism of an earlier epoch. They were determined to repeat the supremacist history of the white colons in the Americas and Oceania. By the measure of any historical epoch, much less that of an age of decolonization, the Zionist project was radical in the fate it had planned for the Palestinians: their complete or near-complete displacement from Palestine.
A project so daring, so radical, so anachronistic could only emerge from unlimited hubris, deep racial contempt for the Palestinians, and a conviction that the ‘primitive’ Palestinians would prove to be utterly lacking in the capacity to resist their own dispossession. The Zionists faced another challenge. They had to convince Jews that they are a nation, a Jewish nation, who deserved more than any nation in the world – because of the much greater antiquity of Jews – to have their own state, a Jewish state in Palestine. It was the duty of Jews, therefore, to work for the creation of this Jewish state by supporting the Zionists, and, most importantly, by emigrating to Palestine.
Most Jews in the developed Western countries had little interest in becoming Jewish pioneers in Palestine; their lives had improved greatly in the previous two or three generations and they did not anticipate any serious threats from anti-Semitism. The Jews in Eastern Europe did face serious threats to their lives and property from anti-Semites, but they too greatly preferred moving to safer and more prosperous countries in Western Europe, the Americas, South Africa, and Australia. Persuading Jews to move to Palestine was proving to be a far more difficult task than opening up Palestine to unlimited Jewish colonization. Zionism needed a stronger boost from anti-Semites than they had provided until the early 1930s.
The Zionists always understood that their movement would have to be driven by Jewish fears of anti-Semitism. They were also quite sanguine that there would be no paucity of such assistance, especially from anti-Semites in Eastern Europe. Indeed, now that the Zionists had announced a political program to rid Europe of its Jews, would the anti-Semites retreat just when some Jews were implicitly asking for their assistance in their own evacuation from Europe? This was a match made in heaven for the anti-Semites. Once the Zionists had also brought the anti-Semites in messianic camouflage – the Christian Zionists – on board, this alliance became more broad-based and more enduring. Together, by creating and continuing to support Israel, these allies would lay the foundations of a deepening conflict against the Islamicate.
Zionism was a grave assault on the history of the global resistance to imperialism that unfolded even as Jewish colons in Palestine laid the foundations of their colonial settler state. The Zionists sought to abolish the ground realities in the Middle East established by Islam over the previous thirteen hundred years. They sought to overturn the demography of Palestine, to insert a European presence in the heart of the Islamicate, and to serve as the forward base for Western powers intent on dominating the Middle East. The Zionists could succeed only by combining the forces of the Christian and Jewish West in an assault that would almost certainly be seen as a new, latter-day Crusade to marginalize the Islamicate peoples in the Middle East.
It was delusional to assume that the Zionist challenge to the Islamicate would go unanswered. The Zionists had succeeded in imposing their Jewish state on the Islamicate because of the luck of timing – in addition to all the other factors that had favored them. The Islamicate was at its weakest in the decades following the destruction of the Ottoman Empire; even a greatly weakened Ottoman Empire had resisted for more than two decades Zionist pressures to grant them a charter to create a Jewish state in Palestine. The first wave of Arab resistance against Israel – led by secular nationalists from the nascent bourgeoisie classes- lacked the structures to wage a people’s war. Taking advantage of this Arab weakness, Israel quickly dismantled the Arab nationalist movement, whose ruling classes began making compromises with Israel and its Western allies. This setback to the resistance was temporary.
The Arab nationalist resistance would slowly be replaced by another that would draw upon Islamic roots; this return to indigenous ideas and structures would lay the foundations of a resistance that would be broader, deeper, many-layered, and more resilient than the one it would replace. The overarching ambitions of Israel—to establish its hegemony over the central lands of the Islamic ate – would guarantee the emergence of this new response. The quick collapse of the Arab nationalist resistance in the face of Israeli victories ensured that the deeper Islamicate response would emerge sooner rather than later.
As a result, Israel today confronts – now in alliance with Arab rulers – the entire Islamicate, a great mass of humanity, which is determined to overthrow this alliance. If one recalls that the Islamicate is now a global community, enjoying demographic dominance in a region that stretches from Mauritania to Mindanao – and now counts more than a billion and a half people, whose growth rate exceeds that of any other collectivity – one can easily begin to comprehend the eventual scale of this Islamicate resistance against the Zionist imposition.
In the era preceding the rise of the Nazis, the Zionist idea – even from a Jewish standpoint – was an affront to more than two millennia of their own history. Jews had started migrating to the farthest points in the Mediterranean long before the second destruction of the Temple, where they settled down and converted many local peoples to the Jewish faith. Over time, conversions to Judaism established Jewish communities farther afield – beyond the Mediterranean world. In the 1890s, however, a small but determined cabal of European Jews proposed a plan to abrogate the history of global Jewish communities extending over millennia. They were determined to accomplish what the worst anti-Semites had failed to do: to empty Europe and the Middle East of their Jewish population and transport them to Palestine, a land to which they had a spiritual connection – just as Muslims in Bangladesh, Bosnia, and Burkina Faso are connected to Mecca and Medina – but to which their racial or historical connections were nonexistent or tenuous at best.
Was the persecution of Jews in Europe before the 1890s sufficient cause to justify such a radical reordering of the human geography of the world’s Jewish populations? A more ominous implication flowed from another peculiarity of Zionism. Unlike other white settlers, the Jewish colons lacked a natural mother country, a Jewish state that could support their colonization of Palestine. In the face of this deficiency, the career of any settler colonialism would have ended prematurely. Instead, because of the manner in which this deficit was overcome, the Zionists acquired the financial, political, and military support of much of the Western world. This was not the result of a conspiracy, but flowed from the peculiar position that Jews – at the end of the nineteenth century – had come to occupy in the imagination, geography, economy, and the polities of the Western world.
The Zionists drew their primary support from the Western Jews, many of whom by the middle of the nineteenth century were members of the most influential segments of Western societies. Over time, as Western Jews gravitated to Zionism, their awesome financial and intellectual assets would become available to the Jewish colons in Palestine. The Jewish colons drew their leadership—in the areas of politics, the economy, industry, civilian and military technology, organization, propaganda, and science – from the pool of Europe’s best. It can scarcely be doubted that the Jewish colons brought overwhelming advantages to their contest against the Palestinians and the neighboring Arabs. No other colonists, contemporaneous with the Zionists or in the nineteenth century, brought the same advantages to their enterprise vis-à-vis the natives.
Pro-Zionist Western Jews would make a more critical contribution to the long-term success of Zionism. They would mobilize their resources – as well-placed members of the financial, intellectual, and cultural elites of Western societies—to make the case for Zionism, to silence criticism of Israel, and generate domestic political pressures to secure the support of Western powers for Israel. In other words, the Zionist ability to recruit Western allies depended critically upon the peculiar position that Jews held in the imagination, prejudices, history, geography, economy, and politics of Western societies.
The Jews have always had a ‘special’ relationship with the Christian West; they were special even as objects of Christian hatred. Judaism has always occupied the unenviable position of being a parent religion that was overtaken by a heresy. For many centuries, the Christians regarded the Jews, hitherto God’s ‘chosen people,’ with disdain for rejecting Jesus. Nevertheless, they incorporated the Jewish scriptures into their own religious canon. This tension lies at the heart of Western ambivalence toward Jews; it is also one of the chief sources of the enduring hatred that Christians have directed toward the Jews. In addition, starting in the fifteenth century, the Protestants entered into a new relationship with Judaism and Jews. In many ways, the Protestants drew inspiration from the Hebrew bible, began to read its words literally, and paid greater attention to its prophesies about end times. The theology of the English Puritans, in particular, assigned a special role to the Jews in their eschatology. The Jews would have to gather in Jerusalem before the Second Coming of Jesus; later, this theology was taken up by the English Evangelicals who carried it to the United States.
Over time, with the growing successes of (Jewish) Zionism, the Evangelicals slowly became its most ardent supporters in the United States. The obverse of the Evangelical’s Zionism is a virulent hatred of Islam and Muslims. Most importantly, however, it was the entry of Jews into mainstream European society – mostly during the nineteenth century – that paved the way for Zionist influence over the politics of several key Western states. The Zionists very deftly used the Jewish presence in the ranks of European elites to set up a competition among the great Western powers – especially Britain, Germany, and France—to gain Jewish support in their wars with each other, and to undermine the radical movements in Europe that were also dominated by Jews.
Starting with World War II, the pro-Zionist Jews would slowly build a network of organizations, develop their rhetoric, and take leadership positions in important sectors of American civil society until they had gained the ability to define the parameters within which the United States could operate in the Middle East. Serendipitously, it appears, pro-Zionist Jews also found, ready at hand, a rich assortment of negative energies in the West that they could harness to their own project. The convergence of their interests with that of the anti-Semites was perhaps the most propitious. The anti-Semites wanted the Jews out of Europe, and so did the Zionists. Anti-Semitism would also become the chief facilitator of the Jewish nationalism that the Zionists sought to create. In addition, the Zionists could muster support for their project by appealing to Western religious bigotry against Muslims as well as their racist bias against the Arabs as ‘inferior’ non-whites.
The Zionists would also argue that their project was closely aligned with the strategic interests of Western powers in the Middle East. This claim had lost its validity by the end of the nineteenth century, when Britain was firmly established in Egypt and it was the dominant power in the Indian Ocean. Indeed, the insertion of an exclusionary Jewish colonial settler state into the Islamicate geographical matrix was certain to provoke waves of resistance from the Muslim peoples. Western interests in the Islamicate were not positively aligned with the Zionist project. Yet, once Israel had been created, it would provoke anti-Western feelings in the Middle East, which, conveniently, the Zionists would deepen and offer as the rationale for supporting and arming Israel to protect Western interests against Arab and, later, Islamicate threats.
Israel was the product of a partnership that seems unlikely at first blush, between Western Jews and the Christian West. It is the powerful alchemy of the Zionist idea that produced and sustained this partnership. The Zionist project to create a Jewish state in Palestine possessed the power to convert two historical antagonists, Jews and Gentiles, into allies united in a common imperialist enterprise against the Islamicate. At different times, the Zionists have harnessed all the negative energies of the West – its imperialism, anti-Semitism, Crusading zeal, anti-Islamic bigotry, and racism – and focused them on a new project, the creation of a surrogate Western state in the Islamicate heartland.
At the same time, the West could derive considerable satisfaction from the success of the Zionist project. Western societies could take ownership of, and revel in, the triumphs of this colonial state as their own; they could congratulate themselves for helping ‘save’ the Jewish people; they could feel they had made adequate amends for their history of anti-Semitism; they could feel they had finally paid back the Arabs and Turks for their conquests of Christian lands. Israel possessed a marvelous capacity to feed several of the West’s egotistical needs. As a vehicle for facilitating Jewish entry into the stage of world history, the Zionist project was a stroke of brilliance. Since the Jews were influential, but without a state of their own, the Zionists were going to leverage Western power in their cause. As the Zionist plan would unfold, inflicting pain on the Islamicate, evoking Islamicate anger against the West and Jews, the complementarities between the two ancient adversaries would deepen, and, over time, new commonalities would be discovered or created between these two antagonist strains of Western history.
In the United States, the Zionist movement would encourage Evangelical Christians – who looked upon the birth of Israel as the fulfillment of end-time prophecies – to become fanatic partisans of Israel. The West had hitherto traced its central ideas and institutions to Rome and Athens; in the wake of Zionist successes, it would be repackaged as a Judeo-Christian civilization, drawing its core principles, its inspiration from the Old Testament. This reframing would not only underscore the Jewish roots of the Western world: it would also make a point of emphasizing that Islam is the outsider, the eternal adversary opposed to both. Zionism owes its success solely to this unlikely partnership. The Zionists could not have created a Jewish state in Palestine by bribing 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, at any time, could have mobilized a Jewish army to invade and occupy Palestine, against Ottoman and Arab opposition. 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 – as the political center of the Jewish diaspora and the chief outpost of the West in the heart of the Islamic world – to become ever more aggressive in its designs against the Islamicate. In turn, a fragmented, weak and humiliated Islamicate, more resentful and determined after every defeat at the hands of Israel, has been driven to embrace increasingly radical ideas and methods to recover its dignity, wholeness, and power, and to seek 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 Islamicate. This is the tragedy of Israel. It is a tragedy whose ominous consequences, including those that have yet to unfold, were contained in the very idea of an exclusive Jewish state in Palestine.
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. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.