[This article was published under the pen name Z. Pe’er in Matzpen 35, May 1967]
Zionism has two aspects, and it cannot be analyzed or combated without addressing both of them. Politically and from a Middle East viewpoint, it is very important to analyze and understand the essence and history of the Zionist project — the colonization of Palestine by Jewish immigrants, led and guided by Zionism. Without such analysis it is impossible to understand Israeli political reality, because the State of Israel of today is a product — as well as an extension — of the Zionist project.
But from a theoretical and more general viewpoint it is also necessary to understand Zionism as an ideology, a specific system of concepts, premises, views, and conclusions regarding the so-called Jewish problem.
The present economic recession has led to a general feeling that the Zionist project is in deep crisis and has reached an impasse. In the Zionist camp, the former naïve optimism has vanished and given way to a feeling of unease, skepticism, and anxiety. Given this prevailing atmosphere, it is no wonder that some doubts have arisen in that camp regarding the theoretical foundations of Zionism.
A striking illustration of this skepticism can be found in the official organ of the Alignment [a bloc of two “left”-Zionist parties: Mapai and Ahdut Ha’avodah, established in 1965. In 1968 it merged with another faction to form the Labor Party. Mapai, together with its close allies, dominated Israeli politics and led all government coalitions from 1948 to 1977]. In the latest issue of Ot (no. 2, Winter 1967) there are two articles addressing this topic. Yitzhak Ben-Aharon’s article, entitled “Toward Re-evaluation of Relations between Israel and the Diaspora”, voices his feelings of unease and doubts following his visit to the United States and his meetings with American Jews. Yig’al Elam, an editor of the journal, examines in his article “New Premises for the Same Zionism” some basic premises of Zionism in the light of reality. These two articles complement each other: Ben-Aharon provides illustrations to Elam’s theoretical generalizations.
Zionism and Anti-Semitism
There are two attitudes to the problem of anti-Jewish persecution and discrimination. One is that the Jews should pin their hopes on the general movement for social progress, which would bring about the eradication of all existing reactionary phenomena, including oppression of Jews. The underlying assumption of this view is that anti-Semitism is not essentially different from other reactionary social phenomena: it too is a product of mutable conditions. This implies that the struggle against anti-Semitism is part of the general struggle for social progress: Jews, like other groups subjected to special oppression, must — even from the viewpoint of their specific problem — take part in this general struggle.
Zionism is based on the opposite view. Its underlying assumption is that anti-Semitism is an eternal and “normal” phenomenon, and the Jewish problem cannot be remedied except by separating the Jews from general society and gathering them in a separate state of their own. In this connection Elam quotes Theodor Herzl’s Der Judenstaat: “The Jewish question persists wherever Jews live in significant numbers… We are naturally drawn into those places where we are not persecuted, and our appearance there gives rise to persecution. This is the case, and will inevitably be so… I believe that I understand anti-Semitism, which is really a highly complex movement. I consider it from a Jewish standpoint, yet without fear or hatred”.
Clearly, from this viewpoint Jews have no special reason to take part in the general movement for social progress. Moreover, there is not much point even in a particular struggle against anti-Semitism, because it is caused by the very presence of Jews as a minority among other peoples. Indeed, Zionism and anti-Semitism share a common basic premise: Jews are, and must be, out of place as a minority in a non-Jewish society. Yig’al Elam admits: “To this day we [Zionists] carry with us this feeling of unease, especially when we realize that anti-Semites almost always like to give a friendly slap on the Zionist shoulder”.
For this very reason Zionism aroused from the start opposition in many Jewish circles. Yig’al Elam quotes Lucien Wolf, a leader of British Jews, who wrote in a letter to Lord James de Rothschild (August 31, 1916):
“I understand… that the Zionists do not merely propose to form and establish a Jewish nationality in Palestine, but that they claim all the Jews as forming at the present moment a separate and dispossessed nationality, for which it is necessary to find an organic political centre, because they are and must always be aliens in the lands in which they now dwell… I have spent most of my life in combating these very doctrines, when presented to me in the form of anti-Semitism… They constitute a capitulation to our enemies” [Original letter reproduced in B. Destani, ed., The Zionist Movement and the Foundation of Israel 1839–1972 (10 vols.), Political Diaries 1918–1965, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Archive Editions, 2004), 727].
Although Yig’al Elam does not mention this, it is known that in the Zionist movement there have always been groups that welcomed anti-Semitism and were pleased when it intensified. They believe that anti-Semitism is in any case inevitable, and the Zionist solution is ineluctable — but Jews are sometimes tempted to trust that they do after all have a future in the Diaspora. An intensification of anti-Semitism disabuses them of this “illusion” — so it must be welcomed, as it drives Jews toward the inevitable conclusion; the earlier, the better. This view has rightly been called “cruel Zionism”.
But even putting “cruel Zionism” aside, it is clear that Zionism as a whole has lacked motivation for a real struggle against anti-Semitism. As Yig’al Elam puts it, Zionism was “ambivalent” about the struggle of Jews for emancipation or even for national minority rights in the inter-war period. He goes on to comment:
“For this reason, in the 1930s, as the struggle against the anti-Semitism and the dispossession policy of the Polish authorities intensified, Zionism lost its strong positions in the Jewish community in Poland in favor of the Bund [the socialist “General Jewish Labour Bund of Lithuania, Poland and Russia”]. The Polish authorities did not hesitate to use “Zionist” arguments and exploit the embarrassment of the Zionist leaders for their own purpose.
Moreover, even when it came to rescuing Jews, Zionism was uninterested except inasmuch as the rescue would follow the Zionist prescription: immigration to Palestine”.
Yig’al Elam quotes the following interesting passage from Ben-Gurion’s letter, dated December 17, 1938, to the Zionist Executive Committee just before the London Conference on Palestine:
“Millions of Jews are now facing physical extermination. The refugee problem has now become an urgent worldwide issue and England, assisted by anti-Zionist Jews, is trying to separate the refugee problem from the Palestine problem. The horrible extent of the refugee problem requires a speedy territorial solution and if Palestine won’t absorb any Jews, one would have to look for another territory. Zionism is endangered. All other territorial experiments, which are doomed to failure, will require huge amounts of capital, and if the Jews are faced with a choice between the refugee problem and rescuing Jews from concentration camps on the one hand, and aid for the national museum in Palestine on the other, the Jewish sense of pity will prevail and our people’s entire strength will be directed toward aid for the refugees in the various countries. Zionism will vanish from the agenda and indeed not only from world public opinion in England and America but also from Jewish public opinion. We are risking Zionism’s very existence if we allow the refugee problem to be separated from the Palestine problem”.
What Did the Holocaust Prove?
The Zionist assumption that anti-Semitism and the plight of Jews are normal phenomena that would persist so long as Jews live as dispersed minorities, arose in the situation of extreme distress of the Jews in the disintegrating semi-feudal society of the tsarist empire and the aggressive nationalism prevalent in Central Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. How should this assumption be assessed in light of present-day reality?
Zionists often claim that the calamity that befell Europe’s Jews in the Second World War confirms the Zionist thesis. It has been “proved” that an inevitable catastrophe awaits the Jews of the Diaspora; whereas those Jews who managed to immigrate to Palestine were saved from extermination.
Yig’al Elam notes, quite correctly, that this claim is unfounded. He points out that “the bottom line is that the rescue of the Jewish people depended on one factor: the combat capacity of the Allies that waged war against Hitler”. Indeed, the Jews of Palestine were spared extermination not because of the Zionist colonization process that was then taking place here, but simply because the advance of the Nazis was halted just before they managed to conquer this country — which had nothing to do with Zionism. Similarly, most Jews of the Soviet Union (as well as those who escaped there from Poland) survived because the Red Army managed to repel the Hitlerite attack. Moreover, those Jews who immigrated to the United States were in lesser danger than their fellow Jews who opted for the Zionist solution. Nor did the Holocaust prove that persecution of Jews is “normal”, and that extermination awaits Jews wherever they live as a minority. On the contrary, the Holocaust proved that anti-Semitism is — to use Elam’s apt expression — “a pathological symptom of a society in crisis”. Persecution of Jews never occurs in isolation, but always as part of an entire gamut of pathological and reactionary phenomena rooted in the crisis of capitalist society (or, in the case of the Soviet Union, in deformations and distortions of socialism). It follows that what can ensure against repetition of the holocaust is not migration of Jews to some other place but struggle against reaction generally. As Yig’al Elam rightly states: “The one thing that the Holocaust proved, as far as the Jewish people is concerned, is that the fate of the Jewish people is connected and intertwined with the fate of the world surrounding us, and with what happens in it, for good or ill”.
Failure of Zionist Propaganda
For years the Zionists have been longing in vain for mass Jewish immigration from the “prosperous countries”. The reason for its absence is simple: the Jewish masses do not accept the usual Zionist message about the calamity awaiting them; their own experience shows clearly that the Zionist thesis is incorrect. Yig’al Elam asserts:
“Zionism offered a solution that assumed anti-Semitism to be a universal, natural and permanent given; but Zionism in this aspect is not credible to Jews living in a world in which anti-Semitism is not a natural and permanent given — a world that wishes to get rid of anti-Semitism, which it regards as a pest”.
Yitzhak Ben-Aharon writes on the same subject: “Zionist ideology (as propounded by Borochov or Herzl, [Nahman] Sirkin or Berl [Katznelson]), whose point of departure is the catastrophe awaiting the [Jewish] Diaspora, has no hold on the consciousness of the coming young generations in America. It is a fact that we are identified with the generation that is on its way out… Any attempt to reproduce these theories in American reality is doomed to failure”.
Hence he concludes: “From the moment I no longer brandish the dread of Hitler in their faces, from the moment I no longer envision a catastrophe for them — from that moment it is as though I admit that they can be good and loyal Jews even if they go on building their lives in America”.
A paradoxical situation has arisen, which Elam points out very disapprovingly: formerly, Zionism appealed to the Jews of the Diaspora to immigrate to Palestine in order to rescue themselves; now, when this argument is completely groundless, they are being asked to come in order to rescue the State of Israel.
“An inversion has occurred: the problem of existence of the Jewish people has been inverted into the problem of existence of the State of Israel; behind the demand addressed to the Jews of the Diaspora, that they immigrate to Israel… one detects fear, anxiety — lest we be left on our own, two or three million, in an area of twenty thousand square kilometers, in the midst of the Middle Eastern front, in the midst of the hostile Arab region, lonesome, weak, without a real long-term prospect. If the Jews would converge here, then we shall be sitting pretty, ten or fifteen million, great in number and strong”.
By the way, Yig’al Elam rejects the idea that in the absence of Jewish immigration Israel’s future as a Zionist state would be endangered. In his opinion, the existence of large Jewish communities in the United States and Soviet Union is actually a source of strength for Israel.
Shell and Kernel
What solution is proposed by the two Alignment spokesmen?
There is a difference between the approaches of Ben-Aharon and Elam. The former does not go far beyond the traditional Zionist conception, and is looking for new ways to persuade US Jews to immigrate to Israel. As a matter of fact, he himself evidently believes that in the long run the future of US Jews is in danger; but he has given up trying to make them realize it. So he proposes new methods for attracting Jews, mainly of the younger generation, to Israel. His proposed plan can be summarized in two points.
First, Israel should not concentrate on conducting among American Jewry “intensive” propaganda aimed merely at generating immigration but cooperate with the Jewish communities for a broader aim: to develop the Jewish identity of US Jews (even if they are not about to immigrate to Israel) and prevent their assimilation in the surrounding society. (It hardly needs to be added that, being a nationalist, he regards assimilation — even if it is completely free and voluntary — as a terrible disaster).
Second, he proposes making Israel a focus of attraction for young Jews who would come here not necessarily out of specific Jewish motives but in response to universal cultural and moral challenges. He does not tell us how Israel would turn into a world cultural, scientific, and moral center that would be so attractive to the young generation; but he does remark that “when they come to us, we will gain the initiative”. In other words, from the moment the young Jews step on Israel’s soil, it would be possible to influence them and try to persuade some of them to stay and settle here. There is no need to discuss this childish idea in detail; it is not much more than a fatuous fantasy resulting from disappointment and despair.
In contrast, Elam takes a more radical position. “Certainly”, he says, “Jewish immigration ought to be approved of, encouraged and welcomed”; but it is not vital. One should not be too concerned even if it is slow to arrive. “Under present world conditions we can achieve all that we wished to achieve in the State of Israel — with or without Jewish immigration”. According to him Jewish immigration is only a shell of Zionism, a shell that must be discarded as outdated.
The kernel of Zionism is “the linkage of the State of Israel to the Jewish people… It is only this linkage that gives the State of Israel a sense and a raison d’être; it is only from this linkage that it developed, and only with this linkage can it exist and sustain itself in the world’s consciousness”. Israel is a Zionist state so long as it is not a political instrument of its inhabitants but of all the world’s Jews; and the world’s Jews must be harnessed for pro-Israel activity.
As mentioned above, Elam remarks that from the viewpoint of pro-Israel activity there is some advantage in the fact that Jews do not immigrate to it but stay where they are in order to exert influence in “the global power centers — the US and the Soviet Union.”
He therefore proposes that Israel’s Zionist character be given an official, constitutional, and institutional expression:
“The State of Israel will be accepted as the political project of the Jewish people, in the domain of responsibility of the Jewish people everywhere. This means that responsibility for the State of Israel and for whatever happens in it will not be confined to the citizens living within its borders. The Israelis will have to assert this issue in their constitution and give it immediate institutional expression” [Emphasis in original].
In order to secure the “permanent linkage between the Jewish people and the State of Israel” Elam proposes the following two institutions: (a) A written constitution that will proclaim the linkage between the State of Israel and the Jewish people. (b) A Senate, in which the Jews of the Diaspora will sit, and which will act alongside the Knesset and will be empowered to prevent or delay legislation that is contrary to the constitution of the State of Israel or to Jewish public opinion around the world.
To the objection that it is unacceptable for the destiny of a country to be decided by those living abroad, Elam has a ready response: this is nothing new; this is precisely what Zionism has always practiced. Indeed, the colonization of Palestine was carried out without consulting its inhabitants, so the very existence of the Zionist state is based from the start on the premise that the destiny of Palestine ought to be determined not by its inhabitants but by the entire Jewish people.
We absolutely agree with Yig’al Elam’s definitions: this is indeed the “kernel” of Zionism. It is exactly this kernel that must be struggled against. The choice is between an Israeli and Middle Eastern State of Israel, aiming to integrate in its environment — and a Zionist state, a foreign body in this region, a state that is subordinated to the Jewish communities around the world and to the global “power centers” (i.e., the foreign powers) where most Jews are located.
[This article was translated by its author and first published in English in Moshe Machover’s book, “Israelis and Palestinians ‒ Conflict and Resolution”, published in 2012 by Haymarket Books, Chickago]