The Enigma of Israel

Zionism was supposed to make Jewish existence “normal;”  very different than in a Diaspora peopled by goyim, but there is nothing ”normal” in the life and culture of Israel today—which has not lived in peace with its neighbors, much less let the Palestinians have elementary human rights in the lands in which they have lived for thousands of years.  If war is the criteria of “normal” existence, then Zionism has become a failed nightmare.   It was, when first conceptualized, not supposed to be this way.

Instead of the original dream of A. D. Gordon, Nachman Syrkin,  Dov Ber Borochov, and those influenced by the anti-industrial scouting “wanderfogel” concept (which also played a role in Nazi ideology)  or Tolstoy (who influenced some Zionist theorists), it turned out very differently.  Israel today, the realization of the Zionist theory, bears little relationship to the original concept, which was much more attune to the fact that Palestine was peopled by Arabs and they were also human beings who deserved to have rights.  In its own way, the original Zionist formulations, ignoring the fact there was also a contradiction in wanting to set up a homeland in an area the Jews had not lived for thousands of years and was scarcely Western—as they were themselves now—was much more realistic and fair about the rights of Arabs who were native to that country.

Instead, Israel today has become a danger to the region and to itself, so much so that it cannot exist much longer with its own contradictions and the evolving balance-of-power and the spread of advance technology to every nation with the money and will to use it. It cannot maintain a nuclear monopoly because any oil-rich state can make or buy nuclear bombs.  It cannot go to war with every state in the region that has the money and capability to make nuclear weapons with risking its very existence, or without provoking an exodus out.

Many of the founders of the main branch of Zionism, socialist Zionism, those that built a Jewish presence in Palestine that eventually led to the creation of Israel, would be—if today they still believed what they wrote–in the opposition to what Israel is becoming: a warrior state that is a negation of everything they advocated originally.

None of the influential Zionist theorist I discuss lived to see the creation of the state of Israel, and had they done so they may also have been renegades from their earlier formulations. Many in the Labor Party were, most notably David Ben-Gurion, so there is an “as if” quality to what follows—I assume they meant what they said, which shows how far today’s so-called Zionists, whether they call themselves socialists or Revisionists, have wandered from the original ideals.;  I grant that the founders may have wandered too, but death deprived them of the ability to do so.  None suspected the Arabs would be so badly led and disunited—a fact that has helped immensely to subjugate them.

Bi-nationalism is more in line with Syrkin and Katznelson’s ideas too. The mainstream of the Labor Zionist founders would be horrified by the revisionist-led repression of the Palestinian Arabs today. Berl Katznerlson, who helped found the once-dominant Histadrut labor union and is one of the Icons of the Labor Zionist movement that ruled Israel the first decades of its existence, was against the U N partition plan for Palestine  and essentially for political and social equality for the Palestinian Arabs–and surely not in favor of the way they have been mistreated since 1948. “I do not wish to see the realization of Zionism in the form of the new Polish state with Arabs in the position of Jews and the Jews in the position of the Poles, the ruling people,  For me this would be the complete perversion of the Zionist ideal….Our generation has been witness to the fact that nations aspiring to freedom who threw off the yoke of subjugations rushed to place this yoke on the shoulders of others.  Over the generations in which we were persecuted and exiled and slaughtered we learned not only the pain of exile and subjugation. But also contempt for tyranny.  …. Are we now nurturing the dream of slaves who wish to reign?”

Borochov, with his ambiguous functional relationship to bolshevism and Trotskyism,  is not in the mainstream of Labor Zionism, and he was a sectarian, but he too would be horrified with Netanyahu’s essentially uncompromising, warlike so-called revisionist policies.  In practice there are quantitative distinction between Labor Zionists, the Mapai, and the Revisionist party that became Likud, which Netanyahu leads. But given the subsequent practice, there is no qualitative difference between the Mapai, which were crucial in the expulsion of the Arabs too, and those who descend from the Revisionist stream—such as the present prime minister, Netanyahu.

But while the Likud has been far more consistent in following its original ideals, it too has wandered from Jabotinsky’s creed.  Its theory and practice have been far more in conformity; even Jabotinsky’s original theories advocated a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River, and their insignia made that ambition clear,  Labor moved farther than the Revisionists. Israel today is light years away from what its founders intended, and Netanyahu is far more extreme than even Jabotinsky. {No one, including the Arabs, suspected that the Arab masses would be so badly led and disunited, which has made Jewish expansionism’s task much easier.)

“Existential” Threats

Netanyahu opposes all Palestinian Arab claims for a state of their own and favors measures to restrict the rights of Arabs. whether within Israel or the West Bank.  Jabotinsky was very close to Mussolini’s brand of fascism, and the Revisionist youth movement, Betar, maintained a naval academy in Italy from 1934 to 1938. But even Jabotinsky believed that Arabs should play some part in Israel’s political process, but always, of course, subservient to Jews.

Given the trajectory of the Labor party, Mapai, and the Histadrut, the general labor union that socialists created,  one cannot be certain but given the many factions in classic socialist Zionism, the theorists of the tendency that built and ran Israel the first decades of its existence, had something very, very different in mind.

Instead, a monster was created, a warrior state that bullies its neighbors and is perpetually living with a sense of danger, that is characterized by war and the threat of war.  Producing weapons is a major export, helping it become a Sparta and by far the strongest military power in the Middle East, largely because the U. S .gives it $3 billion in aid every year, most in the form of weapons.  Israel has had many departures—.at least 230,000 Jews left it from 1990 to  2005. generally the most skilled sector and most intelligent of the population—and those who remain are to a critical extent inured to the constant sense of danger which dominates life in the “promised land.” but there are estimates from the Central Bureau of Statistics that as many as 650,000  people—most of them Jews—left the country until 2005, and the figure may be considerably higher. The topic is very controversial in Israel because all Jews are supposed to come there, and its implicit they will stay. They clearly are not coming, or staying. Israel is the Zionist goal but most Jews live elsewhere, and they support Zionism mainly with their money and political influence.

A large majority of the Israelis oppose a war with Iran without U. S. co-operation. but even this population, has also voted  for the very right-wing Likud party and other reactionary and religious parties. Fathoming the Israeli Jewish population is not easy; politics in Israel is very complex and the Jews there are filled with contradictions that make the task of comprehending it all that more difficult.  Its ambiguous nature is part of Israel’s problem.

The real question facing Netanyahu is that a war with Iran, which is almost certain to heavily retaliate by some means or another, will stimulate an even greater exodus and loss of its best talent by Jews tired of perpetual wars and serving in the military–which have increasingly dire consequences for the civilian population—thereby accelerating the growing influence and size of the irrational ultra-orthodox Haredim. Jews.  If Netanyahu’s mantra of Iran close to being able to create another Holocaust is believed, at least some frightened people are likely to want to leave.  Israel was, at least implicitly, supposed to be a peaceful home for Jews; instead it has been perpetually at war or preparing for it; security is a national obsession.  The inevitable consequences and contradictions of this exotic idea, concocted by an unstable Viennese intellectual, are now emerging.  There cannot be a Jewish democratic state where a majority of the people are not Jewish or ultra-religious fanatics who deny Israel’s very right to existence.  Katznelson did not want the Jews to play the role of the Poles before the First World War, but that is precisely what is happening.

The term “existential threat” is used not only for Iran getting a nuclear weapon, and Netanyahu has used the term before in other contexts where there was nothing “existential” about the so-called threat if by that we mean the destruction of the Jews in Israel.  It is trotted out by many to refer to every conceivable problem Israel faces, many of them quite banal.  For example, the ambassador to Washington in 2009, Michael Oren, who was born in the United States and is a Middle East specialist who has written a bestseller on it, said in an article in the neo-conservative Commentary in 2009,  that there are seven “existential” threats to Israel as a Jewish state.  “If it remains officially Jewish, then the state will face an unprecedented level of international isolation, including sanctions, that might prove fatal.” But Oren argues that Iran, Arab and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not recognize Israel’s right to exist and, at least until now, have not been required to serve in its armed forces, because religious political parties were able to extract concessions for them in return for supporting political alliances too weak to form governments without them. ( But there is also the fear that Haredis would listen to their rabbis and those whose views they shard rather than their officers.) His “existential” threats include demography, as well as the symbolic importance of Jerusalem, corruption and growing cynicism and the breakdown of public morality, international sanctions against Israel because of its refusal to grant Arabs basic rights, terrorism, illegal Arab building on which Israel collects no taxes, and illegal Jewish building in the West Bank (this is sanctioned by many Israeli politicians). He is probably right in some regards, though, but he too uses the term “existential” too freely and his article is full of contradictions thereby: he also concludes that Israel is getting stronger. His evidence is mixed, his arguments contradictory, and the demographic time bomb exists from Haredim alone; Arabs can, ultimately be deported, but the Haredim, who are religious fanatics quite unlike secular, bright Jews like Oren, cannot.  Apart from Iran, Israel does have many dilemmas, which make living there increasingly uncomfortable for all kinds of people, especially those who regard culture as international and will be attracted to other nations,  Oren only confirms that the very concept of a Jewish state is abnormal, and certainly not viable as one that is also democratic. If he is correct, then the abnormality, which goes against the main trends in Western civilization since the French Revolution, is Zionism itself.  No amount of warfare and suffering can justify it, and instead of producing a peaceable kingdom Zionism has produced endless crises.

Those who founded Zionism did not expect this malignant outcome.

Indeed, if Israel manages to drag an unwilling United States into a regional war—and at this moment Obama prefers not to have another conflict—they will encourage the very anti-Semitism that Zionism ostensibly abhors and for which Israel was nominally created as a  refuge.  Wars are a terrible thing, costly in terms of human life and money, and hostility to any nation that brings another into it unwillingly is quite justified.  Netanyahu, if he gets his way, may end up fanning the flames of anti-Semitism as it has never been encouraged before.

This fear-mongering is all the more dangerous because even under the best of circumstances (which have never existed)—perpetual peace and amicable relations with its neighbors—the demography of Israel is working against the existing Jewish domination.

The ultra-orthodox community, which has cults and is quite divided, is. in essence, a Jewish Taliban who are intolerant of other life-styles as well as essentially being zealots. Eventually, since these ultra-orthodox have very large families—Ashkenazi (European but mainly Eastern Europe) Haredi had a total fertility rate of 8.5  in 1996, up from  6.9 in 1980. (p. 39]  The men have had draft exemptions until now, have a  high rate of unemployment, study the Talmud, and have babies. They will take over, become the largest sector of the Jewish population, and make life increasingly miserable for the more secular Jews.

Israel, in short, has many contradictions, ranging from the disparities with many of its founding ideologies, which today seem relatively radical on the rights of Arabs, to the immense differences among Jews themselves,  and to the exhausting daily life and fears that being a warrior state imposes.

Israel itself, I have argued before, attracted as many European Jews as it did not principally because the Nazis came to power  in Germany after 1933, which was also a crucial factor that came later, but because of restrictive American immigration laws enacted in 1924  that used the 1890 census as the basis of immigration quotas. thereby discriminating against people who came from East Europe.  Until then, for every Jew that went to Palestine, 27 migrated to the Western Hemisphere.

Functionally, the U. S. became the “promised land.”  Zionism was exotic, and without the changed American immigration laws and Hitler in Germany, Israel would never have come into existence.

Israel, as its leaders are aware, has an Arab population (nearly 20 percent of the Israeli population is Arab) that is reproducing much more rapidly  than secular Jews, and of the Jews only the ultra-Orthodox, many of whom are against a Jewish state, are reproducing far more than the other sectors of the Jewish population.  Zionism was a fairly secular notion, and while it shared some of the culture and myths the orthodox hold dear, the majority of its original thinkers were not very religious. Many were secular and admired the cultures in which they were raised—poetry and music.  Theodore Herzl, the nominal founder of Zionism, also admired Richard Wagner’s Germanic music and even Martin Luther.  He was for mainly Russian and Eastern European Jews, who were becoming revolutionaries, to migrate to a Jewish state—eventually fixed on Palestine. Herzl was never in favor of all Jews moving to a Jewish state, and he decided on Palestine only because the British ruled out Uganda–though some Jews believed that only Palestine could be the place for creating a Jewish state.  Herzl was a complex man and also very conservative, assimilated into Austrian culture despite his outrage  over discrimination against Jews.  Why he is lionized in Israel today is not quite clear.

There are disputes over whether demography poses a time bomb that will destroy the Zionist dream, but the evidence supports the argument there is one, and the more Netanyahu creates fear—which he sees largely as a rationale for attacking Iran– the more skilled and mobile Israelis will be tempted to leave it and settle elsewhere–and they are doing so already.  That is his dilemma, of which he is quite aware.

Arabs who live in Israel are growing at 2.6% a year, while the Jewish population is growing at 1.7%, making the Arab Muslims the fastest growing sector of the population.  Sefardi Haredi also increase their family sizes at rates far  higher than the overall Jewish rate—Haredi are becoming a much larger proportion of the Jewish population. If these trends continue, and they will,  Israel is in  serious trouble.

There are those who argue that if one includes the birth rate among Jews from Arab lands there is no danger of Israel becoming a non-Jewish entity, but the problem here is also the fear of being “levantantized,” that European Jews also have, and they are afraid of this outcome also.  Sephardic Jews—Jews from the Mediterranean and Arab World,  at least the first-generation, are quite different than Ashkanazi Jews, but they do have babies.  The Ashkanazim have many dilemmas.

But many Israeli writers are aware of this demographic problem, and see the conflict between Israel as a Jewish state and Israel as a democracy that reflects the will of a majority, which will in a decade or two  become a majority of Arabs and Jewish religious fanatics.  Some have proposed transferring the Arab population out of Israel—forced expulsions.  An Arab majority, Benny Morris, the historian, argues is an “existential” threat to a Jewish state.

Israel as originally conceived was to  be a Jewish state. Israel is a very mixed-up nation, but there are many other nations that are already or becoming like it. This is a major, unresolved problem in Israel—as it is in France and elsewhere.  Many people, from Vietnamese to Africans, have moved to Israel for economic opportunities.  Many Israeli Jews do not like this cosmopolitan mixture but it is characteristic of many other nations as well, and plays a growing role in French and European politics—generally helping the Right. Israel is one of the most cosmopolitan nations of the world, more so because it hires cheap, hungry workers from Asia, Africa, and elsewhere in the Third World to do the hard work that early Zionist theorists glorified.   The founders of Zionism did not discuss it, or even dream of it, but most admired aspects of European culture and would not like the see a Jewish state that is “Levantantized” either by Arabs or Jews from the Arab world.  Zionism was essentially a European Jewish notion and response to European options and the restrictions America imposed on immigration after 1924.

Israel has many serious problems even if the Iran crisis is resolved without war.  It will be a disturbed nation because Zionism was predicated on a notion of a strictly Jewish state that is in the medium-to long-run is incompatible with democracy and the rule of the majority.

The early Zionist thinkers, assuming they did not change their minds, would be shocked by what Israel has become.

GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience. He can be reached at:

GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience