A Response to Didi Herman’s ‘Zionisms’
By Tony Greenstein
In an article ‘Zionisms’ in Critical Thinking of 29th April 2016 Didi Herman argues that the left should drop the use of the term ‘Zionism’. I disagree. The term Zionism is as relevant now as it has ever been.
This argument is not taking place in a vacuum but in the context of a concerted attempt to depict the anti-Zionist left, including Black and ethnic minority members of the Labour Party, as anti-Semites. Part of the narrative of the defamers is that Zionism has become a dirty word, a term of abuse. There are those on the left who have been seduced by this special pleading. Not only Didi Herman but Jon Lansman of Momentum. [Why the Left must stop talking about ‘Zionism’]
There is, as always, when dealing with the Zionist hasbara [propaganda] a certain amount of disingenuousness. On the one hand we have the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis asserting that ‘One can no more separate it [Zionism] from Judaism than separate the City of London from Great Britain.’ and then Didi writes that ‘scholars replace Jews and Judiasm with Zionists and Zionism, and label Zionism ‘racist’ or part of a ‘racial contract’ or ‘apartheid’.] I’m sorry Didi, but it’s not left-wing scholars but right-wing Zionists who conflate Zionism and being Jewish. It hardly takes a logician to work out that if Judaism and Zionism are one and the same, then Jews must indeed be responsible for the actions of the Israeli state.
Didi Herman believes that the way to cut the Gordian knot is to agree not to use the term ‘Zionist’ as if that will remove the confusion between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. It will not because Zionists will cry ‘anti-Semitism’ for as long as Israel is under attack from BDS or any other civil movement. Didi Herman’s article merely furthers the confusion.
Didi says that ‘zionism is first and foremost a state of mind’ and that ‘some forms of it do not require (indeed, are opposed to taking) actual land’. I’m sorry but this is nonsense. Zionism is not some kind of spiritual experience, a psychedelic trip to the unknown. It involved the colonisation and settling of land and the forcible eviction of the Palestinian peasants from its earliest days. In 1948 it involved the massacre of thousands of Palestinian peasants and the forcible expulsion of ¾ million refugees. This was no state of mind.
And let us deal with this ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ version of Zionism. Virtually all wings of Zionism – from Political to Practical to Socialist to Cultural agreed on the need for the colonisation of land. The only real debate, between Zionism and the Territorialists, was over which land. The history of Zionism is the collapse of the binationalist Zionists and the left Zionists into the colonialist wing of Zionism. As Ben-Gurion once remarked to Martin Buber, ‘was it with the permission or against the wishes of the Arabs that you came to this country?’
Perhaps Didi does indeed believe that she was once an anti-Zionist. I can’t ever recall her name cropping up as an Jewish anti-Zionist activist. Perhaps she kept the secret closely hidden. Maybe, in a vague and unformulated way she was, but clearly she didn’t understand the specific nature of the Israeli state and why it is different to other states, still less the dynamics of Zionism itself.
I don’t refer to the Zionist movement because I wish to demonise anyone, still less to summon the ghosts of anti-Semitism past, but because I want a precise and scientific term with which to understand the trajectory of the modern state of Israel and where it came from. Without understanding what Zionism is and was you cannot understand why Israel is what it is. The subjective prose that Didi wishes me to use by way of a substitute clouds rather than clarifies.
Didi writes that ‘‘Israeli nationalism = apartheid’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it.’ That is true. A false equation rarely does have the same impact. Israel is quite unique as an ethno-religious state. Many states for example Ireland have immigration laws based on patriality, whereby those who have some family link to the country can immigrate and claim citizenship. But no state that I know accords such a ‘right of return’ to people who have never been there and who have a mythical attachment going back 2,000 years in preference to those who have always lived there.
I would expect someone who is a Professor Law to at least take the time out to study the basic constitutional framework of Israel, the legal position of the individual and the jurisprudence of the state they are pontificating about. Indeed I would expect Didi to have at least some idea of what it means for Israel to declare itself a ‘Jewish state’.
Let me help her. There is no Israeli nationalism for the very simple reason that there is no Israeli nationality. There is a Jewish nationality and a Christian, Muslim and many more ‘nationalities’ but there is no Israeli nationality, for the simple reason that Israel is a Jewish state. It is a state of the Jewish ‘nation’, as the Jerusalem Program of the World Zionist Organisation prescribes. That means it is a state, not of its own citizens, but of all Jews throughout the world. That is why Israel is unique. That is what makes Israel an apartheid state. It is the Zionist movement, a settler colonial movement, which sought from the start to create a Jewish state which excluded non-Jews from its borders or, if they continued to live in it, from any notion of equality.
In 2013 Israel’s Supreme Court in Uzzi Ornan v the State of Israel ruled that there was no such thing as an Israeli nationality. [‘Supreme Court rejects citizens’ request to change nationality from ‘Jewish’ to ‘Israeli’ – Court rules against change in identity card registration, citing that there is no proof of the existence of a uniquely’ Israeli’ people’, Ha’aretz, 3.10.13.
This followed a similar decision in 1972 in Tamarin v State of Israel. George Tamarin wanted his nationality to be changed from ‘Jewish’ to ‘Israeli.’ Justice Agranat ruled that ‘the desire to create an Israeli nation separate from the Jewish nation is not a legitimate aspiration. A division of the population into Israeli and Jewish nations would … negate the foundation on which the State of Israel was established.’ The court ruled that “There is no Israeli nation separate from the Jewish People. The Jewish People is composed not only of those residing in Israel but also of Diaspora Jewry.” O. Kraines, The Impossible Dilemma: Who Is a Jew in the State of Israel? (Bloch Publishing Company, 1976), p.67. Tamarin v State of Israel (1970).
Didi’s article is one long concession to the Zionists’ cynical weaponising of ‘anti-Semitism’. What is happening today has nothing to do with historical and largely dead Christian anti-Semitism. By disavowing the use of the term ‘Zionism’ Didi is left in a sea of subjectivity, wittering on about homelands of the mind.
It’s not Israeli nationalism that explains why mobs marching in Israel today chanting ‘Death to the Arabs’. Does this not remind her of another time and another place and another people? National Socialism was not merely a form of German nationalism but a particular political creed which used (volkish) concepts of the German nation in order to pursue imperialist aims in Eastern Europe. Both Zionism and Nazism took the form of blood and soil racial nationalism.
Does not the assumption to power in Israel of the fascist Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who promptly announces that the death penalty he is introducing will only be for Arabs, suggest other countries in other times. And what does the plurality of Israeli Jewish voters who support expelling Israel’s Palestinian citizens suggest?
Britain is a Christian state but Christianity is a constitutional adornment. The Prime Minister appoints the Bishops of the Church of England and the Queen is the head of the CoE. But there is no Christian National Fund which declares that Jews cannot rent or lease 93% of British land. Nor are there hundreds of Christian priests ruling that it is a mortal sin for anyone to rent a Jew a room or flat. But in Israel the Jewish National Fund controls 93% of the land from which Arabs are barred. In Israel there is a situation where hundreds of rabbis support commanding Jews not to rent to Arabs, all of them paid state officials. Dozens of Top Israeli Rabbis Sign Ruling to Forbid Rental of Homes to Arabs
In Islamic states such as Iran and Saudi Arabia Muslims don’t receive any benefits. Quite the contrary, an Islamic state is a heavy burden on Muslims. It legitimises the most terrible forms of repression in the name of Islam.
In Israel being Jewish entitles you to privileges in the same way as being Aryan in Nazi Germany entitled non-Jews to privileges. If you are a Jewish child then your school will receive about 30% more funding than if you are an Arab child. Jewish local authorities get far more state aid than Arab equivalents. Indeed half of Israel’s Arab villages are unrecognised, meaning they can be demolished at any time and they do not receive basic services such as electricity and running water. Al Arakabh in the Negev has been demolished nearly 100 times as part of the Prawer Plan for Judaisation of the Negev. As Meirav Arlosoroff observed‘Israel is a country of national separation − or to put it more starkly, of segregation.’
This isn’t accidental. It is Zionist institutions that have been used by successive Israeli governments, Labour and Likud alike, to implement apartheid in Israel. Organisations like the JNF and the Jewish Agency. Israel isn’t ‘post-colonial’ as Didi imagines, it is an active settler-colonial state which is still throwing Arabs off the land, even within Israel.
Zionism isn’t some warm dream of a homeland. In its origins it was a reaction to anti-Semitism in Europe but it was a reaction that accepted anti-Semitism as the normal reaction of non-Jews to the abnormal situation of Jews in their midst. In the words of the founder of Political Zionism Theodor Herzl
In Paris…, I achieved a freer attitude towards anti-Semitism, which I now began to understand historically and to pardon. Above all, I recognise the emptiness and futility of trying to ‘combat’ anti-Semitism. [Diaries, ed. Patai, p.6]
Whilst Zionism accepted anti-Semitism most Jews rejected it.
The founders of Zionism constituted the most reactionary segment of Jewish society. They teamed up with people like Edouard Drumont, the leader of the anti-Dreyfussards in France. Both the Zionists and anti-Semites accepted that Jews did not belong in the countries they had made their home. Zionism consisted of the believers in eugenics and the racial sciences. They were the movement that welcomed Hitler to power because, in the words of Berl Katznelson, a founder of Mapai and editor of its daily paper, Davar, the rise of Hitler was “an opportunity to build and flourish like none we have ever had or ever will have”. [Francis Nicosia, Zionism and Anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany p.91]
The sneering reference to Ken Livingstone, that he has been making stupid remarks about Jews for years is just that, an unmerited sneer devoid of substance. Because Ken is right. Zionism is a movement whose leader David Ben-Gurion could declare, in response to the Kindertransport that saved 10,000 Jewish children after Krystalnacht that:
If I knew that it would be possible to save all the children in Germany by bringing them over to England, and only half of them by transporting them to Eretz Yisrael, then I would opt for the second alternative. For we must weigh not only the life of these children, but also the history of the People of Israel. Tom Segev, The 7th Million, p.28.
Zionism was seen by most Jews in the pre-war period as a form of Jewish anti-Semitism.
Zionism wasn’t a movement consisting of ‘homeland’ dreamers. It was a settler colonial movement that took its inspiration from Cecil Rhodes in southern Africa. It colonised the land and dispossessed the indigenous population. Unlike in South Africa, it did not reintegrate them in the economy as exploited labour but sought to expel them first from the economy and then from the land altogether. It followed the Australian and American colonial models.
So yes Zionism has become a dirty word and quite rightly so. Just as ‘segregation’ and ‘apartheid’ were also considered dirty words. We didn’t use the term ‘separate development’ when the meaning of ‘apartheid’ was perfectly clear. Nor should we use Israeli nationalism when it is ‘Zionism’ that we really mean.
The suggestion that ‘Judaism is zionism’s parent’ is simply nonsense. If anyone was Zionism’s parent it was the Russian Czar Nicholas II and his Interior Minister, the instigator of the pogroms von-Plehve. British Evangelical Christians and anti-Semites like Arthur James Balfour and William Evans-Gordon came a close second. They supported Zionist colonisation of Palestine because they didn’t want Jews to come here.
Anti-Semitism in Britain today is minute. I don’t fear being physically attacked walking down the street. I am not only Jewish I am White. I don’t suffer from police raids, stop and search or being asked for my passport like Black and Asian people. The ‘Anti-Semitism’ of Zionism is a ruse, a device to deflect attention from the actions of Israel. That unfortunately is the effect of Didi’s article.
Yes Jews in Europe had a legitimate desire for a homeland. When fleeing the Czarist pogroms they found one – in Britain and the United States. That’s why Palestine was a racial dream that has turned sour.
In Israel Zionism means the demographic question, the fear that in the night more Arab babies were produced than Jewish babies. It is the fear of racists throughout the ages. When the issue of African refugees who had entered Israel illegally first raised its head, the question was posed in Zionist terms – the threat to Israel’s Jewish identity. The refugees became ‘infiltrators’ a term first used for Palestinian refugees trying to make their way back into their own country.
Netanyahu exclaimed that “If we don’t stop their entry, the problem that currently stands at 60,000 could grow to 600,000, and that threatens our existence as a Jewish and democratic state,” [Guardian, 20.5.12.].
Israel’s then Interior Minister, Eli Yeshai, was even more blunt:
“I want everyone to be able to walk the streets without fear or trepidation … The migrants are giving birth to hundreds of thousands, and the Zionist dream is dying,”
But I make a promise. If Zionists stop referring to their Zionist dreams and the World Zionist Organisation and all similar organisations abolish themselves then I will stop referring to Zionism!
And finally Didi, if there’s one thing I detest it is when an academic deliberately uses obscure words for the general public, like autochthonous instead of the more normal word indigenous. This is just obscurantism. At least you have now corrected the spelling!