Eight years ago I presented an essay in these pages titled “The Myth of Zionist Imperialism.” In the essay, I argued that from its earliest manifestation, the modern Zionist movement was rabidly opposed to the rule of empire and, therefore, it was absurd to paint a portrait of a Jewish state as being “imperialist.”
While the essay was well received – as was a later essay on how England reneged on the promises of the Balfour Declaration – the time has come to revisit this contentious issue.
On campuses throughout the world, including here in the US, Israel is accused by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its supporters that the Jews – white Europeans – who settled in Israel before the founding of the state stole the land of the indigenous Palestinians and that Israel was born in the “original sin” of genocide. This argument is absurd and not based on fact. It is a prime example of a reality of intellectual life on Western campuses: the prostitution of scholarship to political ideology.
I do not write these words as Jew or a Zionist but as a student of history. This distortion of history is pervasive in the West and in the Arab and Islamic world and must be challenged. Not to do so is tantamount to cowardice and feeds into the Orwellian world of modern scholarship.
First, the context of the earliest Zionist thinkers and their texts was a world in which Europeans challenged the rule of empires. Rabbi Yehudah Alkalai, one of the earliest modern Zionist thinkers and activists, although he couched his rhetoric of the Jews’ return to Israel in the traditional messianic idea, was no doubt inspired by the rebellions of the Greeks and the Serbs against the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Of Sephardi origin, Alkalai served as rabbi in the capital of Serbia – the anti-imperial movements of the mid-19th century moved him to call for Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. The same goes for Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, an Ashekanzi rabbi born in the part of Poland acquired by Prussia in partition. Twice the Poles under control of the Russian Empire rebelled against the Czars. Like Alkalai, Kalischer called for Jews to return to sovereignty in the Land of Israel in the traditional language of the messianic idea. At the same time, writing in 1862, he urged the Jews “to take to heart the examples of the Italians, Poles, and Hungarians” and fight for national independence. While Moses Hess was a Communist and a far cry from the traditions of rabbis Alkalai and Kalischer, this colleague of Marx argued in his prophetic tract Rome and Jerusalem that Jews fight empires in the spirit of Garibaldi and Mazzini in an independent, modern, democratic Jewish state. The origins of the Jewish state lie in rebellions against oppressive empires.
Second, although Theodor Herzl was the founder of Political Zionism and the dynamo who put the movement on the global map, his attempts to negotiate with great powers to recognize a Jewish state were a failure.
The Sultan of Turkey, Kaiser Wilhelm, the king of Italy and pope Pius X – they rejected Herzl. The reality of Jewish labor and sovereignty in the land of Israel was the work of idealistic young people who sacrificed everything to work the land and build cities and towns.
Great powers did not build Israel and were not responsible for the creation of the kibbutz movement or of the founding of Tel Aviv in 1909. Herzl’s appeals to great powers were a colossal failure. The creation of the State of Israel was accomplished through blood, sweat and tears – not treaties and declarations. To compare young Jews like David Ben-Gurion, escaping poverty and pogroms in the Russian Pale of Settlement, to the French in Algeria and the British in India is absurd.
The Jewish settlement of Eretz Yisrael was not the work of foreigners who exploited the native population to amass great wealth and assume “the white man’s burden.” The immigrants of the Second Aliya proved themselves and their work through their own toil: “Hebrew labor.” They were Jews returning to their people’s point of origin in history, religion and culture.
Third, the Balfour Declaration, celebrated in its own day and today as the first acceptance by European powers of a modern Jewish homeland in what was called Palestine, was a sham that ended up betraying the Jewish people not long after the ink dried on the document. The product of both Christian Zionism and the practical and tactical goal to draw more allies into the fight against Germany, it was a failure due to the British fear of alienating the Arabs of the Middle East. The British choice of rabid Jew hater Haj Amin al-Husseini as mufti of Jerusalem – he later went on to collaborate with the Nazis – and the limitations on Jewish immigration to Eretz Yisrael culminating in the White Paper of 1939 made a mockery of this recognition of a “homeland,” not even a sovereign Jewish state. The promise of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 was betrayed by the British.
If this is the “imperialism” that helped found the modern State of Israel, then the word “imperialism” is a meaningless one, thrown around by professors, post-Zionists and anti-Israel activists to delegitimize a Jewish nation that has every right to exist and has proven its worth to the world.
Fourth, Jews were never “white Europeans.” If you think that the emancipation of Jews in the West was a neutral granting of basic freedoms – including freedom of religion – think again. From Voltaire to Adams to Jefferson, the bargain of civic equality was an abandonment of Jewish “superstition” and the “tribal” and “cruel” God of Israel. John Adams supported a Jewish state in Israel for one reason: so the Jews would “wear away some of the asperities and peculiarities of their character and in time become liberal Unitarian Christians for your Jehovah is our Jehovah and your God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is our God.”
The attitude of the emancipators in the West differed little from the attitude of colonialists to people of color in the areas they controlled. The Jews lived as a people apart out of both desire to do so and as a result of being persecuted – but up until modernity they were never “Europeans.” They were simply Jews living autonomously among a non-Jewish majority. The condescension of the colonial powers toward Arabs, Asians and Africans is little different than the bargain of Emancipation.
Jews were expected to see the light and abandon their inferior culture. Napoleon, only 15 years after the granting of civic equality to Jews in France, suspected that Jews were disloyal to their new motherland because they did not marry Christians, and he still believed they made their fortunes from money lending. Thomas Jefferson, for all his idealism regarding freedom of religion in America, believed that Jesus arrived on the scene to correct the tribalism and cruelty of the God of Israel and to correct the “mummeries” promoted by Moses.
As I have written in these pages before, there is not much distance between Emancipation and Colonialism.
The Jew was not the “white European” who exploited “people of color.” The Jews’ identity was torn into shreds by Enlightened Christians who denied the Jews’ national history and expected them to conform to the majority. Jews understand too well the white man’s burden. When the Emancipation project failed in Europe, the Nazis and their collaborators murdered 5.8 million Jews precisely because they were not “superior” white European Aryans. Jews were murdered because they were Jews.
Zionism was not the result of imperialism and colonialism but a response against it. Whether the struggle was against European empires or Islamic empires, the Jews were inspired by their predecessors who fought for freedom from subjugation. But forget about younger generations learning this truth on campus. In this world of Orwell’s Newspeak, Jews are Nazis, Israel is an apartheid state and a free Palestine will be “Judenrein” from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. Ideology has won. A cogent analysis of historical reality is dead. We are all the losers, except for those who want to wipe Jews and their state off the map.