If the founders of the State of Israel were indeed imperialists, what empire did they represent?
By ELI KAVON
Yehuda Alkalai is one of Jewish history's remarkable figures. Fifty years before Theodor Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in 1897, Alkalai was agitating for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Alkalai, a rabbi who served the community in the capital of Serbia, was influenced by the events occurring around him. The Damascus Blood Libel in 1840 - the Muslim authorities framed, arrested and tortured the leaders of the Syrian Jewish community for ritually murdering a priest - convinced him that Jews needed a haven from anti-Semitism.
But there was another factor in Alkalai's Zionist quest that cannot be ignored: The Serbs were staging a national rebellion against their overlords, the Ottoman Empire. This fight against Islamic imperialism inspired him to ask why Jews were not engaged in a battle for their own national independence.
Delegates at the UN and professors on university campuses worldwide brand the State of Israel the creation of a racist and colonialist European imperialism. This libel of the Jewish state betrays an ignorance of the history of the Jews and the story of the Zionist movement. From the beginning, the Zionist movement has been a foe of imperialism. Rebellions of national independence against the Ottoman and Russian empires influenced precursors of the Zionist movement, such as Alkalai and Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer. Moses Hess, a socialist, looked toward Garibaldi's Italy as his inspiration for a Jewish homeland in Israel.
Herzl's concept of a Jewish state was based on the 19th-century liberal European nation-state. Even Vladimir Jabotinksy, an admirer of Mussolini's fascist regime, always stressed the influence of democracy on his political ideology. No major Zionist leader or thinker ever claimed that Zionism's goals were the imperialist domination of any other people. The accusation made by enemies of Israel that the Jewish state is an imperialist outpost of the West in the Middle East is a lie.
If the Zionist founders of the State of Israel were, indeed, imperialists, what empire did they represent? The pioneers who founded the modern State of Israel were young men and women who were fleeing pogroms and poverty in the Russian Pale of Settlement. It is true that Zionist founders such as Herzl looked toward imperial powers such as Britain and the Ottomans to back the building of a Jewish state. It is true that the Balfour Declaration of 1917 committed British imperialists to the creation of a Jewish home in Palestine. In the end, however, the British Empire betrayed the Jews of Europe to curry favor with the Arab world. It shut the gates of Jewish immigration to Palestine, abandoning the Jews to their fate in Nazi-occupied Europe.
THOSE WHO claim the Zionists have always been imperialists are actually racists. They deny the fact that although Jews lived in Europe and resembled the white-skinned Europeans with whom they lived, the Christians of Europe never believed Jews could ever be true Germans or Frenchmen. For more than a millennium, Christians and Muslims persecuted Jews, branding them inferiors and social outcasts, not caring what the color of Jewish skin was. We forget that racism is not only an issue of color. The Nazi regime destroyed 6 million Jews based on vile and false theories of Aryan racial superiority.
Racist hatred is not just a matter of hating a people for the color of their skin. The Holocaust is the ultimate proof of that. Europe and the Muslim world were never a home for the Jews. The empires of the Christian and Muslim world could have cared one iota about Jewish survival and the Jewish future. The Zionist enterprise was desperate and lonely. If only the Jews had the power of an empire, perhaps millions of Jews could have been saved from genocide. "Zionist imperialism" is an absurd phrase, an oxymoron. It is an anti-Semitic canard. It denies the tragic realities of Jewish history.
JEWS WERE AS much the victims of European colonialism as people of color in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The European imperialists never colonized a Jewish homeland but they did denigrate Jewish religion and Jewish culture. The emancipation of the Jews - the granting of citizenship to Jews 200 years ago in France - robbed them of their national identity and their sense of being a people. The Europeans were not believers in "cultural pluralism." They viewed the granting of citizenship as the first step of the disappearance of Jewish identity through assimilation into their societies and then conversion to Christianity.
After France emancipated its Jews, the imperialist Napoleon demanded that the Jewish notables of the French nation prove their loyalty to that nation, not to the Jewish people. Emancipation was humiliating. Jews in Europe bent over backward to prove their loyalty to Germany, France and England by denigrating their own culture and religious heritage as inferior and in need of reform. They were forced to betray their ancient loyalty to the Jewish nation by rejecting traditional Jewish identity. There were benefits that came with citizenship. But the costs in terms of Jewish identity, pride and dignity were disastrous. The Zionist movement rejected this form of "cultural colonialism." The emancipators denigrated Jews in their own backyard in the same way that they did so to people of color abroad.
FINALLY, TO BRAND Zionism as imperialism is to deny the connection of the Jews to the Land of Israel that goes back 3,000 years. Jews were battling imperialists, whether they were Hellenists or Romans, long before the modern national movements of liberation. The British in India, as well as the French in Algeria, did not have an ancient connection to the lands they colonized. The Europeans exploited native populations for reasons of economics and jingoism. Not so the Jews. The Jewish pioneers settled in Palestine to find a place to live as free men and women, free of the domination of imperialists in the European and Islamic world.
That the Arabs of Palestine suffered a catastrophe in losing their homes to Jews in 1948 was not due to "ethnic cleansing" but to their refusal to accept partition and their hatred of Jews that had its origin in the Islamic call for jihad against Jewish infidels. Today, half the Jewish population of Israel is made up of Jews from Arab and Islamic lands. To label as imperialist a small nation of Jews that flourished despite the power of great empires is absurd. It is an attempt to rob Israel of its legitimacy. It is a lie.
The writer is on the faculty of Nova Southeastern University's LifelongLearning Institute in Davie, Florida.
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