Being a Zionist can either be a strong identity for some, or it can be just another aspect of one’s set of beliefs. Many people take it for granted, not fully understanding what it means to be one or how it came to them. Were they born into it or did it develop over time for them? Is there an understanding of what its consequences are or is it just a gut feeling? Unless one is running for office, most people who are Zionists don’t wear it on their sleeves. But what is a Zionist? There are five kinds I wish to explore here: One raised on the narrative about Israel, those who refuse to learn about the Nakba, the denier, the justifier, and the religious Zionist.
The first is one who was raised on the Zionist narrative about Israel, which includes how the Arabs were the enemy, and no word on the ethnic cleansing, near-genocide, and brutality directed against the Palestinians leading up to the formation of the State of Israel (the Nakba). Demographically, they are our older generation for the most part. Many were born after WW2 but not much later. These Zionists can at least be educated. They don’t have to read Edward Said, Ali Abunimah or surf the internet for other Palestinian/Arab web sites for whom to them would have an obvious anti-Zionist bias, and therefore discounted. They can go directly to the books, letters, diaries, etc. of many Jewish people, some of whom were active participants in the earliest years: Ben Gurion, Menachem Begin, Moshe Dayan– all who took part in the formation of Israel as soldiers and political leaders. There’s also the contemporaries such as Miko Peled (the General’ son), Gideon Levy (prominent journalist for Ha’aretz) and the Americans, Norman Finkelstein and Max Blumenthal. And many others. Each one of them openly described not only how Israel was created but with matter of fact details of the methods used to remove, sometimes by any means, the Palestinian inhabitants and entire villages (700).
Ben Gurion, for example, was heavily devoted to Plan Dalet, fourth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It was a blueprint for the Hagannah, predecessor of the IDF, in how Mandatory Palestine was to be cleansed of its non-Jewish people. This included innocuous methods, such as allowing the inhabitants to stay if met with no resistance, as well as outright terrorism and massacres.
These folks believed not just in the narrative but also very catchy slogans that can remain with them for a lifetime: “A land without people for people without land” “A land of milk and honey”
This first slogan completely erases a very long history of the Palestinian people living in the area going back not just generations but centuries and millennia. They don’t know, or haven’t seen, the old photographs of Palestine, or the artifacts, like coins, with its name stamped on it. Theatres, markets, government buildings, sports teams (like the soccer match between Palestine and Australia in 1939) could not have existed in these people’s minds. But again, that’s where education comes in.
“A land of milk and honey” is a biblical phrase expressing how a god told Moses that the Israelites would be sent to a place of fertility in a Promised Land. To many Zionists unaware of a complete history of the land, this phrase evokes a utopian society promised to ‘the Chosen People’.
Second kind would be those who are told of the Nakba but refuse to learn any more of it. They, by definition, are the most ignorant of people. Similar to those people, mostly in our past, are those who didn’t want to know about the plight of the American Indian, today recognized as a genocide by most people. Especially before certain movies came out, like Soldier Blue (1970), Little Big Man (1970), Dances with Wolves (1990), most Americans saw the West from the point of view of John Wayne and John Ford. However, Fort Apache (1948) did show respect towards the Indians fighting the 7th Cavalry, even as that was channeled through John Wayne, a notorious and self-described white supremacist. The fear of learning about the Nakba would have challenged everything they learned about Israel, and for many, such a challenge would be too difficult to accept. It would, in effect, be rejecting a connection between the stories they’ve heard of the Holocaust and the justification, by any means, of a state of refuge for them, and even for family members who were survivors. To accept that once a victim is now the aggressor, for many, would be unbearable and a cognitive dissonance.
The third Zionist is those that have heard of the Nakba but refuse to believe it. They accuse all who speak of it as anti-Semites. For that matter, anyone who criticizes Israel is so labeled, including Jews. Their thought processes are akin to that of Holocaust deniers. Believing that the Jews would never do anything like that, especially after being victimized in an even more horrible manner, is no different than a German at the time believing that a country that gave the world Bach, Beethoven and Brahms could never do such a thing as murder six million Jews and millions of other ‘undesirables’ and refuse to accept such obvious evidence that existed.
Whether one can compare the Nakba to the Holocaust is up to interpretation. The Holocaust, a word that is practically trademarked to refer to the Jewish genocide in Europe, was unique at the time. It was a genocide on an industrial scale by state actors. It wasn’t the only such genocide to happen though, even in the 20th century. The genocide of Armenians by the Turks, still denied and in the past, regularly denied by Israel, occurred earlier. Was that a Holocaust or your ‘typical’ genocide? The closest in modern history would be the genocide of the American Indian. That was systemic, legal, performed by the US military. All cultural attributes for many of the tribes were verboten, including religious practices, language use, and even clothing. The Nazi genocide was primarily based on economic factors whereas the American genocide of the Indians was cultural, religious, and definitely the practice of lebensraum, to be copied later by the Nazis. In fact, how the US treated the indigenous population served as a model for much of how the Nazis treated the Jews, even the concentration camps. Race played a role in both as well.
But was the Nakba a holocaust? The eradication of a people and its villages, the erasure of Arabic village names replaced with the occupier’s, later those survivors forced to live under the conditions of apartheid, all lean towards a liberal definition of the word.
Many Holocaust deniers refer to specious arguments that the gas chambers would be killing the German guards as proof that they didn’t exist, or that the number of Jews existing at the time did not match the numbers of those killed. To the Zionists it’s akin to saying there were no Palestinian villages because, in essence, they were destroyed and renamed in Hebrew or the Jewish National Fund planted forests over the land to erase any vestige of Palestinian life. One of the most specious argument these deniers make is that the letter ‘P’ is not an Arabic letter, so therefore, Palestine cannot have existed. They ignore the fact that ‘J’ doesn’t exist in Hebrew either but the word “Jew” does exist in their language. For so many, they are grasping at straws to make their argument.
The fourth Zionist grouping is the most insidious. They take the Holocaust as their main argument for the creation of the State of Israel. This is justified in that Zionism calls for a state for the Jews to live in security. After WW2 the idea had wide-spread acceptance, and understandably so. It says nothing of how it’s to be done, though. Additionally, they are familiar with the Nakba and don’t deny it. They channel David Ben-Gurion in justifying the ethnic cleansing of over 700 Palestinian villages as it was necessary to create a Jewish state, and for that matter, basing it on apartheid as well as colonialism.
What this group justifies is that being victimized they have earned the sympathy of the world, and to play into their guilt for allowing the Holocaust to proceed, either through outright funding of it through individuals and groups like American bankers, financiers, and industrials as well as a wide range of European commercial entities, they argued successfully for the final stage of the Balfour Declaration. It is well documented that support for Nazism and Fascism had strong support in the US with strong links between American and German economic interests. We see that with Union Banking Corporation who transferred funds managed by Prescott Bush, father of President George HW Bush, to strengthen its military buildup. Bayer, with its German associates, developed the gas used in the gas chambers. The Ford Motor Company and GM plants in Germany used slave labor. After the war many of these companies paid restitution to Jewish survivors, which according to Norm Finkelstein, developed into a ‘holocaust industry’, serving Jewish agencies and the State of Israel, rather than the survivors.
Additionally, so many countries also refused entry to Jewish refugees, with disastrous results. The MS St. Louis, a German ship carrying more than 900 refugees was refused entry into the US and Canada in 1939. It returned to Germany and it is estimated that a quarter of them were killed in death camps.
For many of these Zionist justifiers, they are unable to respond to the question, ‘Why should the Palestinians suffer for the crimes of the Germans?’ Has there ever been an attempt to respond to this, other than denying they suffered, or simply saying it was the cost of saving the Jewish survivors of Nazi Germany?
Another way of looking at it, metaphorically, is to describe a house that has burned down and the powers that be give the family someone else’s home, without regard to those that live there. Where they go is of no concern, especially if assistance comes from the powers. This is hardly a characteristic of Jewish ethics, yet such Jewish Zionists cannot see such an equivalence.
The last group are those who refer to the Bible as their justification for Israel’s existence. These people, like all religious fanatics, are adamant in their beliefs and an attempt to educate them on the cruelties perpetrated on the Palestinians is justified by using Biblical references and a reliance on a god that gives them carte blanche. In many ways they are like those who used the Bible to justify slavery in the US. Ironically though there are also very religious Jewish Biblical scholars who oppose Israel for biblical reasons. Until the Jewish messiah comes, there cannot be an Israel.
To the American media and politicians, and especially Jews who see themselves as Zionists without specifying which category above they belong to, there is no separation between being Jewish and supporting Israel. If one sees such a conflation, they are automatically viewed as an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew. It is ironic that Jews in many parts of the world understand and appreciate the difference between religion, cultural identity and nationalism. In Iran, the Israeli government has repeatedly tried to bribe the small population to re-locate to Israel. Virtually none has taken the bait. Why? Because they are Iranian Jews and proud of their thousands of years of history, as Jews and Persians. Israel is not their homeland.
Ironically, the harshest words directed at Israel for how it treats Palestinians, and even elements of their own Jewish population, can be found in Israel itself. Although a Zionist newspaper, Ha’aretz, Israel’s leading paper, regularly rails against its treatment of Palestinians. A prominent journalist, Gideon Levy, noted above, has even written about Israel being a terrorist state, and lives to write further articles. That would never happen in the US. Speak out against Israel and your career in politics, the media, and academia is destroyed. It doesn’t matter whether one is Jewish or not, if you do not fit in any of the above categories, you are labeled an anti-Semite. Look how the infamous and fanatical Zionist Alan Dershowitz destroyed the career of Norman Finkelstein for proving that Dershowitz plagiarized a book on Israel.
In many states, one must sign documents promising not to engage in BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) towards Israel if one wants to conduct business with the state. That is being contested in the courts but that it is even thought of as necessary is indeed frightening. Journalist Abby Martin is suing the state of Georgia for canceling her speech at a state university for refusing to sign a pledge not to engage in the practice of BDS, censoring her for her political views.
So where are we? Clearly, education is the only answer to change minds and accept the fact that Zionism is a form of racism, colonialism, and oppression of a minority population, as well as an escape valve for Jews (especially in America) who feel themselves persecuted in perpetuity and looking for a haven for themselves, only themselves, with little regard for others. The earliest Zionists played up the anti-Semitic tropes that Jews cannot assimilate so they therefore must have a place of their own. The anti-Semitic Balfour saw this as a way to rid England of its Jews (as well as having a colonial outpost in the Middle East), and European Zionists colluded with the Nazis in ways to help create a Jewish state. The Haavara Agreement (Transfer Agreement) was a formal contract between the State and a Zionist organization to allow Jews to escape to Palestine, for a cost. This was in 1933 before the Nazis had fully developed their policies on Jews in Germany. At the time, the prevailing idea was to rid Germany of its Jewish population, not necessarily exterminate them. The plan for extermination was not formulated until 1942 with the Wannsee Conference.
These five different categories of what is a Zionist might illuminate such differences as most people rarely engage in such reflective exercises with a subject that is highly emotional and controversial. As it’s often said, “X is his own worst enemy”. In this case, Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel and his Likud Party are providing the fuel to the fires of self-reflection as his legislation and policies are highlighting the very worst aspects of Zionism. Unfortunately, we are also seeing a rise in anti-Semitism world-wide, which often is due to the false conflation of being Jewish and being a Zionist. It is also assisted by President Trump who promotes hate speech towards minorities at many of his rallies.
With a growing Palestinian solidarity movement, more and more people are learning the real history of the formation of Israel. For some, they may become anti-Zionist and question the very existence of the State. For others, as it is happening more and more, support for Israel remains strong, but with caveats, and treatment and fairness for its occupied people are no longer remaining invisible.