The Embarrassment of Zionism

The Embarrassment of Zionism



As the conference season swings into top gear, there is a plethora of motions condemning the Sharon government. The TUC recently called for probable sanctions against Israel and the Labour Party will follow suit. Yet many Israelis also believe that Sharon has no peace plan and no vision of the future – that he is only a man of war and incapable of becoming a man of peace. Why then is there never any mention in such resolutions of support for the peace movement and progressive forces in Israel?

The Israeli Left is undoubtedly an inconvenience. It is far easier to depict the situation in terms of black and white, freedom fighting Palestinians and fascist Israelis. Is the psychological basis for this continual omission of the peace movement that Israel isn’t really like other states? Is the true meaning that it has no legitimate basis for its existance and should never have been established in 1948?

Ironically, it was the Left, which fervently supported the establishment of the State of Israel. In Michael Foot’s biography, Nye Bevan is referred to as ‘almost a Zionist’ who considered resignation from the Atlee government over its Palestine policy.  This view was forged by an alliance with Jews in the fight against fascism. The Old Left also understood this in terms of the national struggle of small peoples such as the Italians and Poles against dominant empires during the previous century. Indeed, Jewish nationalists were particularly impressed by the Irish republican struggle against the British. Yet all this was passé for the next generation. Removed from the Holocaust by decades and no personal experience of confronting fascism, they were fashioned by the rise of Third World nationalism – and the Palestinians fitted into this mindset.

The history and origins of Zionism, a cause supported by Freud, Einstein and Kafka, was rewritten. It was transformed into an adjunct of imperialism and colonialism. It was bourgeois and reactionary. The minuscule Stern Gang was projected as representing an entire people and Israel was simply the product of Zionist terrorism.

How then to explain away the Israeli Left, many of whom regarded themselves embarrassingly as Zionists, campaigning for an end to the occupation and the right of the Palestinians to a state? Clearly the easiest way was to ignore them. Thus the 400,000 – the equivalent of 5 million here – who demonstrated against Sharon’s invasion of Lebanon and the Phalangist massacres in Sabra and Shatilla in 1982 are often airbrushed out of accounts of the period.

Historically, the Jews posed a problem for the Left. It was difficult to define them and to classify them. Marxism tried a number of solutions, but none reflected the reality that the Jews found themselves in.  The problem was that although the French Revolution had brought down the ghetto walls, it also fragmented a broad religious Jewish identity. Many Jews in liberal western Europe desired invisibility, often through self-deprecating assimilation. As Ferdinand Lasalle, the father of German social democracy proclaimed ‘There are two classes of men I cannot bear – journalists and Jews – unfortunately I belong to both.’ Escaping ‘Jewishness’ was also a form of Jewish identity. In Eastern Europe, the Jews became an ethnic minority and where national solutions as Zionism and Bundism (Jewish socialism) emerged.

The Holocaust proved to be the great leveller. With the destruction of millions of East European Jews, Zionism emerged as the ideology of survivalist rationalism in a world, which had looked the other way. With the establishment of Israel in 1948, most Jews including many anti-Zionists recognised the reality that Zionism had delivered.

The rise of Palestinian nationalism produced new critics of whom many were Jewish, often graduates of left-wing Zionist youth groups. Thus both Noam Chomsky and Menachem Begin took different directions after leaving Hashomer Hatzair, a Marxist-Zionist group. The late Tony Cliff aka Yigal Glikshtein, founding ideologue of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain was a member of Left Poale Zion in Palestine in the 1930s when he argued the case for the economic benefits of Jewish immigration.

In this tradition, a handful of Jews, critical of the Sharon government, recently surrendered their right to return to Israel as an act of left wing identification. Yet ironically, many anti-Zionist and non-Zionist Jews, persecuted for their revolutionary activities, have actually benefited from it. The expulsion of Jews from Iraq (1950/1) and Poland (1968) included many Jewish founders of the Communist Parties in those countries. Jews fleeing from the ‘dirty war’ in Argentina in the 1970s and Mandela’s Jewish colleagues were not turned away even though many moved on and retained their world outlook. Despite this, the belief that the ‘Zionist entity’ should dissolve into a Greater Palestine has a resonance. But is this not the same mistake made by Golda Meir who disparagingly dismissed Palestinian nationalism with the comment ‘who are the Palestinians?’ Were the Bevanites wrong when they argued that the Jews had a right to national self-determination?

Zionism has become a pejorative term today – an embarrassment even before the Sharon epoch. A McCarthyite term of abuse based on sympathy for Palestinian aspirations rather than on knowledge of Jewish history. But in this context, it assumes something more than an ideological difference.

Zionism was once classically defined as emigration to Israel and the construction of a just society there. Few British Jews took up the invitation, but a majority understood Zionism as a pro-Israelism and integrated it into their understanding of Jewishness. It is for this reason that criticism of the state and people – ‘that shitty little country’ – rather than the government – is seen as an attack on themselves as Jews even if they privately curse Sharon’s policies. Such commentaries encourage not so much ‘Jew-hatred’, but distrust and wariness of Jews, ‘the polemical theft of their sense of security in Britain’. Despite the depiction of ‘a kosher conspiracy’ – many Jews believe that the warning from history is that they should – like other minorities – be assertive and stand up for themselves and their understanding of Israel. British Jews may indeed be the last ‘Zionists’. But then again, as Freud once remarked, Jews tend to be non-conformists and unlike non-Jews find it much easier to accept ‘subversive ideas’.


Conference resolutions therefore miss the point since they have become an appendage of the megaphone war between the two sides – and in this case, they chant only the Palestinian mantra. The problem today is neither Zionism nor the nature of the Israeli state, but how to cement an alliance between progressives in Israel and Palestine to confront their extremists, put an end to violence and occupation within the framework of a two state solution. The Israeli peace camp is the only group in Israel that can help to deliver a Palestinian state – marginalising them only helps Sharon.


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