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The Zionist Question

In recent times, no nationalist project has been so completely mythologized by its partisans as Zionism. In the construction of nearly all aspects of its history, the official Zionist narrative is often at variance–even complete variance–with the facts as they are known to the rest of the world: and, more recently, even as they have been documented by some Zionist historians.

Yet few Zionists would deny one central fact of their history: and that is the history of violence that has attended the insertion of Jewish colons into the Middle East. The history of the Zionist movement in Palestine–it can scarcely be disputed–has been attended by violence between the Jewish settlers and the Palestinians; it has led to unending conflicts between Arab societies and Israel; and these conflicts continue to draw Western powers, especially the United States since 1945, into ever widening clashes with the Islamic world.

The history of this violence was contained in the Zionist idea itself. Violence is integral to Zionism: not incidental to it.

This violent history of Zionism had been foreseen by the early Zionists in their private musings; and certainly, the risks inherent in Zionism could scarcely remain hidden once its victims began to resist the colonization of their lands. However, the Zionists chose to shelve these concerns, convinced that the ‘natives’ lacked the will, organization and resources to derail their plans.

Thus it is that the Zionists, who engaged in voluminous and intense discussions about the nature of their movement, never developed a coherent “Arab doctrine” that would examine and appraise the unfolding Arab response to Zionism.

In part, they may have felt that this was unnecessary. After all, many of the early Zionists–according to Ahad Ha’am writing in 1891–believed that “the Arabs are all savages who live like animals and do not understand what is happening around them.” Why worry about these “savages,” when they were sure to be swept away by the inexorable advance of civilization the Jewish settlers were introducing into the region?

Other Zionists who took note of the incipient Arab resistance nevertheless chose to dismiss their concerns with wishful thinking. Once the Palestinians would begin to reap the benefits of Jewish colonization–in rising land prices and new employment opportunities–they would welcome the settlers with open arms.

In the Zionist world-view, the Palestinians were not a people; they had no national identity, no national aspirations.

In any case, it would have been impolitic for the early Zionists to air their concerns in public. In the face of open discussions about the violent consequences of Jewish colonization, and the resistance this was certain to evoke among Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims, the meager support that Zionism enjoyed among Jews would quickly have dried up. At this stage, Zionism could not have survived sober consideration of its long-term, violent consequences.

Despite the absence of a public debate, these concerns could not have been limited to the Zionist leadership. How else can we explain–despite the putative Jewish yearning for Zion–that only a trickle of Jews had heeded the call to colonize Palestine in the years before the rise of Nazi Germany? Weren’t they afraid that they might be walking into a trap?

The Zionists also made an effort to overcome Palestinian resistance by invoking pan-Arab nationalism. In return for help from Jews, who would advocate their cause in the councils of great powers, the Arab nationalists could be persuaded to sacrifice Palestine for a higher objective, the creation of an Arab kingdom stretching from Morocco to Iraq.

The historic centers of Arab civilization–so the Zionists argued–lay in Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, not in Jerusalem. Why would the Arabs grudge the loss of Jerusalem if this would help them to realize their dream of restoring the ancient Arab empire?

The Zionists met with some initial success in these efforts. In 1919, at the Conference of Versailles Chaim Weizmann persuaded Emir Faisal, a leader of what is known as the Arab revolt against the Ottomans, to cede Palestine to the Zionists. When he confronted Arab anger at this surrender of Islamic lands, the Emir inserted a clause making his contract with the Zionists conditional on the creation of the Arab kingdom that he and his family sought. This conditional agreement too was short-lived. Under Arab nationalist pressure, the Emir was forced to repudiate his deal with the Zionists.

The Zionists could not long maintain their fiction about somehow creating a Jewish state in Palestine without violence; the challenge came from the right wing of the Zionist movement. In an essay that laid the foundations of Revisionist Zionism in 1923, Ze’ev Jabotinsky punctured the fiction that the Palestinians would voluntarily surrender their historical rights to their country. He wrote that the Arabs would “resist alien settlers as long as they possess a gleam of hope that they can prevent ‘Palestine’ from becoming the Land of Israel.”

Jabotinsky argued that a change in the stated Zionist strategy was imperative: in order to succeed, the Zionists would have to extinguish the Arab’s “gleam of hope.” If the Arabs were not going to sell their lands and move out, they would have to be defeated and driven out. Settlement would proceed, in the words of Jabotinsky, “under the protection of force that is not dependant on the local population, behind an iron wall which they will be powerless to break down.”

Jabotinsky had forced into the open what was always implicit in the Zionist idea–and, indeed, in the thinking of the Zionist leadership. Despite appearances, they had always known what Jabotinsky now challenged them to acknowledge openly.

The use of violence was not the Zionist fallback plan: privately, the Zionists knew that this was the only plan that had a chance of succeeding. Covertly and openly, with or without British support, they had always prepared for a showdown against the Arabs; and they had prepared well.

When the showdown came in 1948, the Zionists achieved their goals almost in their entirety: they defeated five Arab armies to create a Jewish state in 78 percent of Palestine nearly cleansed of its Arab population. Eight years later, in alliance with Britain and France, in a lightning strike, Israel occupied all of Egyptian Sinai.

And less than twenty years after its creation, in the June war of 1967, Israel went on to deal a crushing defeat on three Arab armies, occupied the rest of Palestine, the Sinai, and the Golan Heights–and, in the process, quadrupled its territories. Most importantly, however, they had dealt a stinging blow to the power of Arab nationalism, a humiliation from which it would not recover.

Yet, despite these dramatic successes, Israel has failed to attain normalcy–or, more likely, its interests are not served by normalcy. Many Israelis now openly acknowledge that something has gone awry.

Despite two massive rounds of ethnic cleansings in 1948 and 1967; despite repeated military victories over Arabs; despite a ten-fold increase in its Jewish population; despite unlimited US support; despite its deepening strangulation of Palestinians; despite the largest economic and military transfer from one country to another in history; despite one of the most powerful armies in the world; despite the sustained support of a Jewish Diaspora, more powerful and better organized than ever before; and despite the readiness of all Arab states to recognize Israel, the Zionist project has not come to rest.

Israel has yet to break away from its dependence on Western powers; it has not succeeded in extinguishing the Palestinian’s “gleam of hope;” and Israelis are far from being assured of a secure future.

Why have Israel’s triumphs–and no one would question the magnitude of these achievements–failed even to secure confidence in its survival?

Nearly six decades after its creation–six decades of impressive military, territorial, demographic and economic gains–Israel is still working to destroy its neighborhood, out of insecurity and to remove the last pockets of resistance to its hegemony.

After defeating nearly all its Arab adversaries, after successfully urging the United States to occupy Iraq, after devastating Lebanon in a new war in the summer of 2006, Israel is once again urging the United States to unleash its war machine against Iran, and to use nuclear strikes if necessary to destroy its nuclear sites.

Despite the “iron wall” that Israel erected against Palestinians in 1948, despite the wall of apartheid it has built in the past few years, the Palestinians have not disappeared. Indeed, the Israelis continue their policy of ethnic cleansing against Palestinians in slow motion, all the while preparing to launch a final round of ethnic cleansing to finish the job they had begun in 1948.

Israel is now seen as one of the leading threats to world peace. What is worse, Israelis are increasingly seen in nearly every country barring the United States as oppressors, as racists, the inheritors of South Africa’s apartheid.

Is it the case–as Hugo Bergmann, a young Jewish philosopher from Prague had feared in 1919 — that Palestine had became a Jewish state but only by betraying Jewish ideals?

In short, the creation of Israel has not solved the ‘Jewish question;’ it has changed its locale, its form and name. The Europeans had long wrestled with what they called the ‘Jewish question.’ Israel has transformed the ‘Jewish question’ into the ‘Zionist question’: and made it global.

Anxiously, the world now waits for the Zionist creation–Israel–to make its next significant move.

Anxiously, the world hopes that this next significant move will be historic and not destructive: that it will secure the rights of Palestinians, all Palestinians; that it will redress the wrongs done to Palestinians, all Palestinians, in the same way that Jews still demand redress for the wrongs done to them by the Nazis.

Yet, there is little reason for optimism. Israel cannot render justice to the Palestinians without abolishing its exclusively Jewish character, without dismantling the apartheid that grinds the Palestinians.

No colonialism yet has restrained itself because the colonial masters had acquired a conscience. It was force that stopped them: countervailing force, with or without violence.

The challenge before the Western world, before the Americans especially, is to develop the countervailing force that can compel a solution without violence.

If the West–if the Americans–fail here, if they fail to nurture this countervailing force: they only leave the room wide open to violent solutions.

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: 2007). He may be reached at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.



More articles by:

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 alqalam02760@yahoo.com.

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