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Analysing Zionism

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The escalating crisis in Palestine has reignited a political debate over the history and nature of Zionism — the ideology of Jewish nationalism that underpins the Israeli state. Last year saw the publication of two new books on this topic. Author Jacqu
Issue 1984
An elderly women is carried into exile during the Naqba in 1948. Thousands of Palestinian homes have been destroyed since the foundation of the state of Israel
An elderly women is carried into exile during the Naqba in 1948. Thousands of Palestinian homes have been destroyed since the foundation of the state of Israel

The state of Israel was founded in 1948 when Zionist militias — with the connivance of British authorities — embarked on a brutal ethnic cleansing programme that drove over 750,000 Palestinians from their homes, an event known as the Naqba, or catastrophe.

These facts are well known, and not disputed by any serious historians. But certain questions are less easily settled about the nature of the Zionism, the political movement that led so many European Jews to settle in Palestine during the 20th century and attempt to build a Jewish “homeland” there.

Was Zionism always so implacably hostile to the Palestinians, or did this hatred only surface later on? And did Zionism’s supporters and sympathisers uniformly support the Naqba and the 1948 Israeli declaration of statehood, or was there a dissident streak internal to Zionism?

These are some of the questions the British writer and literary critic Jacqueline Rose attempted to answer in her book The Question of Zion. Rose, currently professor of English at Queen Mary University in London, is a long standing socialist and supporter of the Palestinian cause.

The book closely examines the writings of leading Zionist writers, ranging from prominent leaders such as Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weitzman to intellectuals such as theologian Martin Buber and philosopher Hannah Arendt.

The aim, says Rose, is to understand Zionism from the inside — an aspect she argues has often been overlooked by the left.

“The book is a tribute to Edward Said — his work The Question Of Palestine is the title from which I take mine,” explains Rose.

“In his essay Zionism From The Standpoint Of Its Victims, he says the ‘internal cohesion and solidity’ of Zionism has ‘for the most part eluded the understanding of the Arabs’, that they do not understand the ‘terror and exultation’ out of which it was born.

“I would add that it isn’t understood by the left either. On the left — and obviously I include myself in that — Zionism is a dirty word.

“Said was saying there was something intractable, but also traumatically inspired about the Zionist movement that we need to understand.


“That’s what my book tries to do. But it’s difficult, because if you enter into the mindset of something, you can possibly be seen to be colluding with it. Edward Said once asked me if I was writing an apology.

“I said of course not, I’m completely clear where I stand. And the fact that it is not an apology has been confirmed by the vitriol that’s been poured on the book by Zionists.

“But the strongest rage has been against the book’s use of psychoanalysis. This comes from people who are convinced that Zionism is completely rational, that it was the pursuit of a Jewish national homeland in the face of historic disaster—and that nothing else needs to be said.

“But there’s a lot more that needs to be said to understand why it won’t budge, why it defends itself with such fierce ideological and Biblical commitment.”

Reading the book it’s not hard to see why it sparked such a vociferous response from the Zionist right. Rose meticulously documents the way in which Zionism was from its earliest roots shot through with a “messianic” streak that celebrated cataclysmic redemption and militarised colonial violence.

“The more I have read of this writing,” writes Rose, “the more convinced I found myself becoming that the classic and famous Zionist claim — Palestine was a land without a people — was not just a blatant lie but a cover.

“The draw of Palestine resided at least partly in fear.” In other words, the pioneers of Zionism knew full well they were taking others’ land by force — and Zionism as an ideology repressed this knowledge.

But other audiences have been much more receptive to the book’s argument, says Rose. A new generation of students has been deeply influenced by the arguments of the “New Historians” — scholars such as Ilan Pappe and Avi Shlaim who have demonstrated how official accounts of Israeli history are Zionist propaganda with little or no basis in fact.

“Zionists claim that ‘Arab intransigence’ has blocked peace from the beginning,” says Rose. “But Avi Shlaim’s book The Iron Wall establishes that it is actually Israeli intransigence, if anything, that has blocked peace. And if people are even partly persuaded by that argument, they might want to ask themselves why.

“If it is intransigence, then psychoanalytically there will be a very good reason for it. It will come out of fear and insecurity, out of an inability to acknowledge one’s own capacity for violence. People aren’t intransigent without reason—I wanted to find the reason.”

But Rose’s book has also attracted criticism from the left, in particular over its attempt to develop what could be called a “post-Zionist” position that is neither Zionist nor anti-Zionist.

In particular she criticises the poet Tom Paulin, also a staunch defender of Palestinian rights, for saying, “Look, you’re either a Zionist or an anti-Zionist, there’s no middle way.”

“The problem is that if you think like that there becomes no position within which you can understand what Zionism means,” says Rose.

“It reproduces the history of the Israeli state, that the only alternative is either lethal identification or radical dissent. And it doesn’t leave space for what Edward Said spoke of — an understanding of the ‘terror and exultation’ on which Zionism was made.


“However, on certain issues the book is unequivocal. There was a historic injustice against the Palestinians in 1948 that has not been redressed.

“Even if you understand the rationale for Jewish self determination, there’s something very disturbing about the way Israel has imported a romantic nationalism based on mysticism, land, blood, descent into the Middle East.”

But isn’t there a danger that by moving “beyond” the opposition between Zionism and anti-Zionism, you end up depoliticising the argument and avoiding the necessity of taking sides in a struggle?

“The book is a contribution to ideas, rather than an activist handbook,” replies Rose. “It’s not a programme, not a manifesto, except that it says read Arendt, read Buber and you will know what has to be done. Israel must become a state of all her citizens — whether that’s by partition or a binational solution doesn’t matter.”

Another point of controversy is Rose’s argument that despite its constitutive intransigence, Zionism can nevertheless be transformed from within.

She highlights the work of Zionists such as Arendt and Buber that fiercely opposed the 1948 foundation of Israel and argues they represent an internal critique of Zionism, rather than marginal dissident voices.

“Hannah Arendt’s 1945 essay Zionism Reconsidered predicts with an uncanny prescience everything that was going to happen,” says Rose. “The economy would be subordinated to the needs of war, Israel would become dependent on the US… Reading it now is bizarre — her views were silenced in proportion to the degree she proved to be correct.

“Israel’s current policies cannot be the way forward, and one of the things the book is trying to say is that inside Zionism there is a knowledge of that.

“No discourse is completely coherent — the more it clings to a mirror-smooth fantasy of its own inviolability, the more you can be sure that somewhere something’s giving, elsewhere in the system.”

This may be true, but it doesn’t address the question of political efficacy. As Sabby Sagall argued in a recent review of Rose’s book, “All the evidence indicates that Israel is immune to internal calls for radical change or movements from below. Change will, therefore, have to come from outside.”

“I don’t want to evade Sabby’s point,” replies Rose. “It’s true that these people were roundly defeated in 1948 — but what they were saying is going to become more and more relevant.”

And the voices highlighted in her book certainly remain essential for a full understanding of the traumatic, interconnected history of the Jewish and Arab people in the 20th century.

“It’s not for me to say the book will have an effect,” she adds. “It is being translated into Arabic and the central chapter is being translated into Hebrew. All can say is that I hope it will enter into a dialogue — that it will become part of the dialogue that it’s also describing.”

Land and peace

Ronnie Kasrils is former commander of MK Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the ANC’s military wing. He is currently minister of intelligence in the South African ANC government. He wrote this article at the end of last year in a personal capacity.

The Jewish people suffered greatly from racial prejudice termed anti-Semitism. The crudest and most infamous of the treatment they faced was the genocidal Holocaust carried out by the Nazis, in which six million perished in ghastly circumstances.

The Holocaust greatly accelerated the Zionist project which originated at the end of the 19th century. The key Zionist argument was that the only place where the Jews could find security was in their own national state.

Zionists believed that sooner or later, as happened in Germany, society would turn on the Jews. This leads to an understandable affinity with Israel, owing to the Judaic faith and its belief in the Biblical narrative about Zion, the land promised by God to the Jews.

Unfortunately, the indiscriminate bombings of Israeli civilians and often crude anti-Israeli and anti?Jewish propaganda have reinforced such perceptions, and hardened attitudes to the appalling injustice and brutality meted out by Israel to the Palestinian people.

The state of Israel is based on a framework of myths which require courage to confront, for fear of being smeared with the anti-Semitic brush. To attempt to analyse these myths can only serve to broaden a debate which would be of value to all sides.

And to do so honours those who perished in the Holocaust, rather than exploiting their suffering in order to visit unjust treatment on the Palestinians.

One of these myths equates all criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, aiming to intimidate Jew and non-Jew alike. The sternest critics of Zionism were often left wing Jews. In South Africa this honourable tradition was articulated by the likes of Joe Slovo and Rusty Bernstein.


At the core of Zionism lies the Biblical myth suggesting that the Jewish people have a God-given right to the land known as Canaan. This revered holy book is not, however, based on scientific fact.

The eastern European Zionist pioneers were not particularly religious, but embraced the Biblical promise of Zion in order to exploit the beliefs of most Jews. In fact, the Zionist movement was overwhelming secular and wished for a secular Jewish society — something it has long abandoned.

A Jewish kingdom certainly existed in ancient times, but so too did numerous other kingdoms. A plethora of peoples traded and sojourned in the region. Canaanite civilisation existed in the area as early as 3,500 BC.

It becomes problematic, though, when one group makes an historical claim on the land centuries later, regardless of who else resided there, based on the interpretation of a holy book.

As the eminent Jewish thinker Erich Fromm has pointed out, “If all nations would suddenly claim territory on which their forefathers had lived 2,000 years ago, this world would be a madhouse.”

Zionists allege that the Jewish peoples’ sojourn in Arab lands was pervaded by a hatred of Jews. In fact, Jews flourished and enjoyed considerable periods of peaceful coexistence.

Historical documents show that there was a symbiosis between Arabs and Jews, and what could be called an Islamic Jewish tradition.

Zionists assert that nearly one million Jews were ethnically cleansed from Arab countries in the 20th century. Yet in the early decades of that century, it was Zionist agents and British officials who aggressively sought to relocate Jews living in Arab countries to the Holy Land, as part of a strategy to increase the numbers of Jews living in Palestine.

The Zionist assertion that Israel was a “land without people for a people without land” is another myth. The Palestinian plight was the result of the expropriation of Palestinian land at the time of the creation of the state of Israel.

Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion played this to the hilt with the assertion that the land had been “barren” for two millennia. This is similar to the claim that South Africa was a territory devoid of people when the Dutch colonist Jan Van Riebeck landed in 1652.

Historical records prove that an Arab community had existed in Palestine prior to the creation of the state of Israel. At the time of the Balfour declaration in 1917, there were approximately 65,000 Jews living in Palestine.

Balfour admitted the extent to which Arabs occupied the area when he said, “Zionism is of far profounder import that the desires of 700,000 Arabs who inhabit the land.”


The 1947 United Nations partition plan, influenced by the then balance of forces and post-Holocaust sentiment, offered the Jewish people 56 percent of Palestinian land when they only owned 6.5 percent at the time.

Some 43 percent was allocated to the Palestinians, with an international enclave around Jerusalem.

The fact that Palestinians have been willing to accept a further reduction of land to 22 percent of historic Palestine is an exceptional compromise on the part of their leadership.

To get to grips with the issues at stake, it is necessary to cut through a framework of mythology based on propaganda, distortion and fabrication. Those interested in this debate could do no better than read The Myths of Zionism by British academic John Rose.

This highly impressive analysis of the historical, political and cultural roots of Zionism is an invaluable contribution to the current discourse. His fresh insights shed light on what can only be depicted as misinformation that has been perpetuated over time.

In his thought provoking and well researched critique, Rose makes the important point that the danger with a myth is that it becomes dominant if people can be induced to believe in it strongly enough and if it is uncontested.

While the history of the Jewish people has involved periods of unspeakable hardship and discrimination, it is in the interests of Jewish people everywhere to understand the great harm to Judaic values and reputation that has been caused by Zionism.

The danger of labelling “anti?Semitic” anyone critical of Israel and Zionism is that the term degenerates into a hollow cliché and will be ignored when the real alarm is sounded.

To expose Zionist mythology is not to forsake the Jewish people, but to help resolve a conflict in the interests of all Arabs, Christians and Jews.

The Question of Zion by Jacqueline Rose is published by Princeton University Press. Both are available from Bookmarks, priced £12.99. John Rose’s book The Myths of Zionism is published by Pluto Press and available from Bookmarks, priced £14.99. Go to

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