The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Zionism and Anti-Semitism

Feb 16, 2005

We reprint below a translation of excerpts from an article in Lutte de Classe [Class Struggle], March 2005, the political journal of the French Trotskyist organization, Lutte Ouvrière [Workers Struggle]. The article was written in response to a debate going on in France, the details of which we have skipped in this translation. Of particular interest is the brief expose of the development of Zionism as a response to the anti-Semitism in Europe, a development that was not the only possibility.

In October 2004, the French government received a report it had commissioned on the fight against racism and anti-Semitism. Among other things the report reiterated the idea that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are the same thing, and that anti-Semitism is different from other forms of racism....

Defenders of Israel's policies often denounce any criticism of Israel's oppression of the Palestinian nation as anti-Semitism. Those who criticize the Zionist orientation of Israel's successive governments, as they followed one after the other since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, find themselves systematically denounced as anti-Semites, that is, racists.

To consider all opposition to Zionism as anti-Semitism is a fraud in two ways. It is a deception regarding the Palestinians who are thus denied the right to aspire to a national state. But it is just as much of a deception toward the Jewish people, since Zionism is not the only policy possible for them. Since the Israeli state was created over 50 years ago, Zionist policies guaranteed Jews the right to a national existence only at the price of a permanent war pitting them against the other people in the region. The constant deprivations and violence against Palestinians necessitates a military-police regime weighing heavily upon everyone.

Zionism – despite its variations that include everything from so-called socialist leanings to openly reactionary stances – has never been anything other than a nationalist political orientation, whose original aim was the creation and consolidation of a Jewish state. Today Zionism is the expression of the nationalism of an oppressor state, which opposes the national aspirations of the oppressed Palestinian nation.

Zionism: a Nationalist Tendency ...

Zionism emerged at the end of the 19th century in response to the anti-Semitism that was developing in Eastern and Central Europe, where the feudal system was in ruins. But with the Dreyfus affair, anti-Semitism began to thrive in France, where capitalism itself was already showing signs of decay.

In the countries of Eastern Europe, reactionary political forces used anti-Semitic, that is racist, demagogy to try to divert a high level of discontent into pogroms against Jewish shopkeepers, craftsmen and pawnbrokers.

The situation was the same in the countries of Central Europe. Anti-Semitism took root among the ruined shopkeepers, who sometimes faced competition from Jews. Anti-Semites quickly asserted that the Jews were responsible for the misery of the population.

In France, also, anti-Semitism was promoted after 1894 by the Dreyfus affair. This movement drew on the hostility of the aristocracy toward Jewish financiers who had bought their dwellings and lands and whose sons then entered into careers previously reserved for the offspring of the embittered aristocrats.

Zionism first appeared among the Jewish petty bourgeoisie of Central Europe as a reaction to the development of anti-Semitism. But for a long time Zionism obtained very little aid from the well-situated Jewish bourgeoisie that had assimilated into French society – or from those who wanted to join it.

Nor did Zionism have a hold on the Jewish masses. The Jewish intelligentsia from Russia and Poland had provided the workers' revolutionary movement with some of its most important activists, who had chosen internationalism rather than nationalism. Revolutionaries understood that, in order to defeat anti-Semitism and all forms of racism once and for all, it was necessary to put an end to the organization of society based on exploitation. They offered the exploited Jewish masses the perspective of social emancipation of all the exploited, and denounced the Zionist dead-end of retreating back into nationalism.

Zionism, as a nationalist current, was faced with the problem of which territory to claim. The Middle East was not the obvious choice at the beginning. In a world entirely conquered and shared out by the various imperialist powers, no land was "available." For the Jewish people to install themselves anywhere required consent from the "owners": England, France, Russia, Belgium.

Well aware of this problem, early Zionists tried to convince England, the main colonialist power of the time, to accept the creation of a national Jewish homeland. After considering Uganda and Argentina, the Zionists finally decided on Palestine, in order to build there "part of a European bastion against Asia, an outpost of civilization which opposes barbarism," as Theodor Hertzl, the founder of Zionism, explained. From the start, Zionism positioned itself in opposition to the people of the Middle East and acted as a "bastion" of the great imperialist powers, then in the process of supplanting the Ottoman Empire. In fact, things could not have been otherwise. British imperialism was not a philanthropic venture. It would accept a measure favorable to others only if it coincided with the interests of British imperialism. Zionism took its first steps under the protective wing of imperialism, by acting as one of imperialism's defenders or even one of its offshoots. And this beginning indelibly marked Zionism, which operated within this framework from then on.

At the beginning, there were few people in the Jewish communities who wished to live in Palestine. Most viewed the negotiations between Hertzl and the British government with indifference, although they led in 1917 to the Balfour Declaration, allowing the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine.

In the Eastern European countries, virulent anti-Semitism often led to violence and death. Not surprisingly, in many impoverished Jewish communities, the desire to leave Eastern Europe resulted in the departure of hundreds of thousands of men and women. Between 1881 and 1925, almost four million Jews emigrated to the United States, Canada, England, Germany, Holland or France. But only a few, about 120,000, settled in Palestine. Faced with a choice between the arid lands of the Middle East and the Western countries where many Jews already lived, most made the choice to emigrate to the latter, especially among emigrants influenced by the ideas and struggles of socialism, whose vigor was evident in the ancient strongholds of capitalism. For many of these men and women, even for those who aspired to their own cultural and political life, the retreat into nationalism offered by Zionism was alien to them. Many had already been victims of the retreats into the ghettos enforced upon them in Eastern Europe.

When the Jews from Eastern Europe arrived in Western Europe, there were already Jewish communities from earlier emigrations. The richer and more integrated among them did not look favorably upon these disinherited newcomers. Bernard Lazard, from an assimilated bourgeois Jewish family, as he was about to embrace Zionism, described the newcomers as "these loafers from Frankfurt, Russian usurers, Polish innkeepers, pawnbrokers from Galicia, the predatory Tartars, vulgar and dirty." He claimed the new immigrants had come "to live off a country which is not theirs." Certain members of the Rothschild family apparently agreed, since they financed the settling of Jews in Palestine even before the Zionist movement was created. Social and even ethnic antagonisms within the Jewish communities were not masked by common ties or ideas, including Zionism.

... With Reactionary and Colonial Characteristics

Nowadays it is common to present Zionism as a progressive movement, which had its own anti-imperialist hours of glory and then accomplished material progress and democracy. This is a far cry from the truth.

Herzl described Zionism as: "A land without a people for a people without a land." Not only does the formula not correspond to reality, it emphasizes the Zionists' deep scorn for the Palestinians, who didn't exist for the Zionists.

Even before the creation of the state of Israel, the Zionist leaders strove to develop a "closed economy" in which the Palestinians played no role. In other words, the economy was "closed" to the Palestinians, forbidden. And paradoxically, it was the left-wing of the Zionist movement which initiated this policy. The entire Arab population was to be removed, under the pretext of creating in Palestine an agricultural and industrial proletariat composed of only one ethnic group.

The Jewish National Fund, the financial arm of Zionism, bought land from the Arab feudal landowners, in order to expel the Palestinian laborers. It gave these lands to Jewish companies or communities. This choice revealed the social character of Zionism. The agreements were drawn up with the landowners, the majority of whom did not live in Palestine, but in Damascus, Beirut or Istanbul. Although the purchase of the land was "legal," it nonetheless deprived the Palestinian laborers of land they had cultivated for generations. From the outset, Zionist expansionism was thus based on total expropriation, which for the Palestinian masses was synonymous with dispossession and poverty.

The left-wing hypocritically denied the colonial character of such a policy. They preferred to highlight the elements of a so-called Jewish socialism, which resulted from the rather community-like organization of villages dating back to 1908, known as kibbutz. The nature of the relationships between members of a kibbutz were secondary to the relations they maintained with the Palestinians. The Zionist right-wing understood this nature clearly. Jabotinsky, the founder of the political current to which today's right-wing Likud Party belongs, wrote cynically, "Words are of little importance, colonization is in itself a definition, total and ineluctable. It is understood by each Jew and each Arab. Colonization can have but one aim. For the Arabic Palestinians, this aim is unacceptable. That is the way of the world. To change this nature is impossible. Colonization can only take place against the wishes of the Palestinian Arabs." He then added, "The Zionist colonization, even severely restricted, must take place regardless of the wishes of the native population, or it will cease. Therefore this colonization can continue and develop only under the protection of a force independent of the local population, a steel wall which cannot be torn down by the local population." Today's wall is not made of steel, but of concrete.

The Birth of Israel Took Place Against the Palestinians' Wishes

Whatever responsibility Zionism has for the situation created in the Middle East and for despoiling and oppressing the Palestinians, the main responsibility lies with Europe's imperialist powers, followed by U.S. imperialism. It was Hitler's ascension to power, Nazi barbarism, the genocide of the Jews – with the participation of the French state in the deportations – which convinced hundreds of thousands of Jews that there was nothing for them in old Europe. Even the countries Hitler did not invade closed their doors to the Jews fleeing repression!

One hundred and fifty thousand Jews, mainly from Germany, along with a smaller number from Poland, went to live in Palestine between 1933 and 1935. Emigration increased after World War II. By 1947, there were 700,000 Jews in Palestine. Among them, many had chosen the Middle East because they had no other country to go to. In addition to the atrocities perpetrated by Nazism, the Jews faced the contempt shown by the victorious Western nations in closing their borders to Jews. At the end of the war, their only remaining hope was to reach Palestine. This solution was not without difficulty. Two years after the war, more than 100,000 Jews were still locked up in concentration camps by vile regimes, as they waited for an almost impossible escape. England had clamped down on the number of Jewish immigrants to Palestine, while other countries refused asylum.

In May 1948, the State of Israel was finally proclaimed against the wishes of the Palestinian population. This was a choice made by Zionism, just as it also chose to establish policies whose aim was to make the Palestinians flee, by terrorizing them. These policies, which began even before the creation of Israel, increased during its first years of existence. The well-known massacre of 254 Arab villagers in Deir Yassin was not an isolated act. On the contrary, it was part of a strategy to force hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to leave.

Contrary to the founding myths of the State of Israel, the Palestinians did not leave of their own free will. Nor were they convinced to leave by their own leaders or those who claimed to be their leaders. They were evicted by the new Israeli army or paramilitary organizations linked to this army. Four hundred Palestinian villages and hundreds of suburban areas were destroyed in order to discourage any idea that Palestinians could return home. In many other areas the re-population by Jews took only a few months. Nowadays this is known as "ethnic cleansing." Ilan Pappé, one of the "new Israeli historians," a movement emphasizing the responsibility of successive Israeli governments for the Palestinians' exodus, writes: "As regards Palestine, the ethnic cleansing took place according to a scenario drawn up in Plan D of March 10, 1948. This plan foresaw the de-Arabization of the part of Palestine considered by the Jewish Agency as the state of Israel (as defined by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181, as well as the occupied regions which were part of the Arab state – a total of 78% of mandated Palestine). Of the 900,000 Palestinians who lived there, 750,000 became refugees."

A Theocratic State with Racist Overtones

The present policies of the state of Israel, stealing Palestinian land and increasing colonization, are not new. These policies are the same carried out by every government, be it right-wing, left-wing or a mixture of both, as is the present government. Such policies are a permanent feature of Zionism, which, in the concrete circumstances under which Israel was created, led directly to pure and simple racism.

It might have been expected that the state of Israel, founded by learned and cultured men and women, many of whom had come from a Europe which they had to flee, who were victims of contempt and deadly racism, would have turned their backs on such abominations. It could have happened that Israel, like many other countries, put in its constitution the legal equality of all human beings, whatever their origins or religion. But this didn't happen – and not simply because Israel never voted for a constitution, out of deference to its rabbis. Such a constitution would have given equal legal rights to the Arabs – something none of the so-called socialists who had founded Israel wanted. Nor did their successors.

The justification for Jews having more rights than others was given by religion. But the Zionists had little choice. Either they would use religion to justify the hierarchy of rights in Israel – even though most of the Jewish founders of Israel were secularists – or they would have had to make a blatantly racist argument. Using religion, which supposedly is more moderate than an open advocacy of racism, they set a pattern, which has never been overturned. It established Israel as a state with a highly pronounced theocratic character.

Zionism Is Not a Bastion Against Anti-Semitism

Today, there are men and women in Israel who object to the policies which target the Palestinians. They too have to defend themselves against accusations of "anti-Semitism" or of being "anti-Israeli." A former veteran of the Israeli army, who refused to serve as a reservist in the occupied territories, recently wrote that those "who abuse the concept of `anti-Semitism' in order to defend the racist policies of the Israeli government against the Palestinians merely sully the memory of Jews who, themselves, were victims of true anti-Semitism."

...

This obvious abuse of the term "anti-Semitism" does not only sully memories, it also clouds the understanding of what anti-Semitism was and the social causes which engendered it. For the Zionists, anti-Semitism ended up acquiring a "specificity," a "uniqueness," which meant a refusal to compare it to any other type of racism. They have in fact found a distinctive, biblical term to describe the horrors perpetrated on Jews by the Nazis: the Shoah. Why not use the word "genocide"? It, in fact, is clearer, for it means: "the systematic killing of, or a program of action intended to destroy, a whole national or ethnic group." But this definition has a drawback in the eyes of the Zionists because it can also be used to designate the abominations perpetrated on other peoples.

Those who believe that anti-Semitism is an exception and therefore different from other types of racism, those who establish a hierarchy between different types of racism, may end up trivializing the hatred and scorn expressed by their own nation and people toward other nations, other communities – and, in this case, the Zionist hatred of the Palestinian Arabs.

...

Some Zionists [in France] are pleased by the anti-immigrant comments proffered by Le Pen or any other right-wing demagogue, even going so far as to publicly express approval. This, however, will not prevent the far-right leaders from using anti-Semitism if they believe that anti-Semitic demagogy may serve their purposes.

Capitalist society today is no more sheltered from serious crises than it was in the past. This society can produce social and political conditions leading to revolting demagogy. It is still fertile, this belly that bore the hideous beast.

The Dead End of Zionism

Zionism, which at one time represented hope for many Jews for whom the agony of capitalism was personified by the death camps, in fact produced only a society of exploitation and oppression. It established a racism that attacks the Palestinian population of the occupied territories, the Israeli Arabs. It also attacks the Israeli Jews themselves, in particular the Oriental Jews who constitute the poor part of the Israeli population.

Other outcomes could have been possible. In the first half of the previous century, many Jews had an impact on the political, social and cultural life that helped propel society forward. Many revolutionaries came from their ranks – men and women who were convinced that it was counter-productive to work to change things for oneself alone. These revolutionaries thought it necessary to combine the struggles of all the exploited and oppressed in the world in order to produce profound and irreversible changes.

The horrors created by the decay of imperialism in Europe meant that hundreds of thousands of Jews could find asylum only in the Middle East. It was normal that they would aspire to have a state. This state, however, could have been founded on something other than the despoiling of an entire nation. On the contrary, it could have sought fraternal cohabitation with the Palestinians. The arrival of a population as educated and determined and with the high level of culture the Jews brought could have benefitted the entire region. But to do so would have required a systematic policy to overcome the inevitable reticence or even hostility toward the newcomers, from those already living there. The lower classes of the region, oppressed and despoiled by their own more or less feudal landlords, would have had to find allies among the newcomers, who could have helped to free them and improve their lives.

The Palestinian Arabs found only oppressors. This fundamental direction of Zionism gives birth to many other consequences. Refusing to make the exploited Arab classes its allies, the state of Israel became the instrument of the imperialist powers.

In 1956, Israel was the instrument of French and English imperialism when it wanted to punish Egypt for nationalizing the Suez Canal. Israel then became the instrument of U.S. imperialism, its most faithful subordinate in this region of high strategic importance. This choice increased the hatred the Arab masses felt toward Israel. The infernal spiral had been set in motion. For the past 50 years, it has been impossible to gain any agreement between the two nations.

At its founding, Israel was looked upon with benevolence. It was seen as the state of the survivors of the genocide, a small brave country forced to defend itself against the repeated attacks of the feudal Arabs. After two Intifadas, even the image has changed: Israel is now regarded as a cruel, brutal, racist, colonial state whose defenders brandish the Torah in one hand and a gun in the other.

This state is torn apart by contradictions and has never been able to build the haven of peace which many Jews, victims of anti-Semitism, hoped to find in Israel. A fraternal, egalitarian society, free of oppression and exploitation cannot be built in isolation. It is even more impossible to create it against others. For this reason, the policies of the state of Israel deserve to be criticized and combated – in particular, the policies carried out with violence against the Palestinians who, like every people, have the right to their own national existence.

The recognition of the right of the Palestinians to have their own state, under their own control, is all the more important because it is the only way to open up a future going beyond national conflicts. Only in this way could Israelis and Palestinians find common goals around which they could unite in struggle. For all peoples, there is no way out of the present situation except to overthrow the imperialist system, to demolish its ridiculous borders, which are relics of another age, and to establish an economy which works rationally worldwide.

When the Zionists say that criticism of Zionism casts doubts on Israel and its right to exist as a Jewish state, they are right. The most consistent anti-Zionists want all the people who live in Israel to have the same rights, whatever their nationality or religion. If this state truly respects each person who lives there, it will, of course, no longer be a Jewish state.

So does this make anti-Semites of anti-Zionists? Of course not! On the contrary, it does make them anti-racist, at least in so far as they oppose the policies of Zionism.