Modern history


Political Zionism appeared on the European scene more than three-quarters of a century ago. Its intellectual origins go back to the French revolution and the romantic wave of national revival which followed it. As a political movement it was part of the liberal-humanist tradition of the risorgimento, of Kossuth and Masaryk. It differed from other contemporary national movements because the Jews were a landless people who to a certain extent had lost their own specific character. At the time the idea of a national revival among the Jews appeared only as a chimera. But if the forces of cohesion were weak, the persecution of both individual Jews and the community at large helped to fan and to consolidate the waning national consciousness.

Zionism is the belief in the existence of a common past and a common future for the Jewish people. Such faith can be accepted or rejected, it can be a matter of rational argument only to a very limited extent. Like other national and social movements Zionism has developed an ideology but its ‘scientific’ claims are bound to be inconclusive. The Zionist analysis of antisemitism and its solution could have been right, but Zionism would still have been a failure if its call had passed unheard and if its solution could not have been applied by it because of lack of support among the Jews or because of adverse international conditions. Equally, the success of Zionism would not necessarily prove that it is based on a correct analysis of the ‘Jewish problem’. As far as national movements are concerned, myths are always more powerful motives than rational arguments.

It is too early to assess Zionism in terms of success and failure. Nor is it altogether certain what success and failure mean in this context. A military victory may be an episode in the history of a nation. To a certain degree Zionism is bound to be a disappointment; only political movements whose histories do not extend beyond the utopian stage retain their pristine virtue and cause no disappointment. All others, sooner or later, clash with reality and the result cannot possibly live up to expectations. The syndrome of comme la République était belle sous l’Empire applies to all secular movements. Zionism faced gigantic obstacles, it had to fight for the realisation of its aims in the most adverse conditions and this was bound to affect the ultimate outcome. The origins of Zionism and its subsequent fortunes are full of paradoxes; some of them appear a little less inexplicable in the light of the unique character of Jewish history and the position of the Jews in nineteenth century European society.

1. Zionism is a response to antisemitism. To note this is not to disparage the original impulses and the character of the movement. All national movements have come into existence and developed their specific character in opposition to and usually in the fight against outside forces. Jewish religion, Zion as a symbol, the nostalgia for the lost homeland and other mystical factors played a role in the development of Zionism. But political Zionism as distinct from mystical longings would not have come into existence but for the precarious situation of central and east European Jewry in the second half of the nineteenth century. It became a psychological necessity for central European intellectuals, who realised that the emancipation of Jews had triggered off a powerful reaction and who then found the road to full emancipation barred by strong hostile forces. For the Jewish masses in eastern Europe Zionism was the dream of redemption from their misery. But it could then be no more than a dream. While the Ottoman empire existed, mass immigration to Palestine was ruled out. Up to the Balfour Declaration Zionism’s main function was cultural-psychological: it sustained the faith of its believers but was of no political importance. After the First World War the trend towards Zionism was strengthened by the growth of antisemitic movements which culminated in the rise of Nazism. Had it not been for this increase in tension and anti-Jewish persecution, Zionism might still have existed as a small literary-philosophical sect of idealistic reformers. It became a political force as the result of outside pressure, not because eccentric Jewish littérateurs published stirring appeals. Persecution per se, needless to say, would not have resulted in a national revival. But one cannot stress too strongly the force of circumstances: in a world without antisemitism Zionism would not have flourished. Critics of Zionism have, however, often drawn the wrong conclusion from this indisputable fact. Political movements never develop in a vacuum. Without the ancien régime there would have been no French revolution, without tsarism, no 1917.

2. Antisemitism in its most rabid and murderous form did not prevail in eastern Europe, where the ‘objective’ Jewish question existed in its most acute form. It came to power in central Europe, where the relatively small Jewish communities had progressed far on the road to assimilation and where the Jewish question was no longer a major socio-economic problem. It is one of the many paradoxical features of modern Jewish history which makes nonsense of the attempt to explain antisemitism simply in socio-economic terms. It came as a complete surprise to the Jewish critics of Zionism, but the Zionists, too, were unprepared for a catastrophe of this magnitude.

While the rise of Nazism and the Jewish catastrophe in Europe were not inevitable, there would have been a Jewish problem anyway, since nowhere in Europe were the Jews generally accepted as fully belonging to the community. They were and are tolerated within the liberal order of western Europe. Elsewhere they could at most strive for national minority status. Throughout their history the Jews have become (or remained) a group on the whole identifiable, with certain specific characteristics. For historical reasons, and in view of the possibility for individuals to opt out of the community, many Jews have been only partly aware of the peculiar character of their social existence, and this has caused some confusion among them. They have tended to forget that for all practical purposes their status in society does not depend on an act of will but is decided upon by non-Jews. This decision depends by no means only on the degree of their assimilation, their loyalty as citizens, or the contributions they have made in various fields to the prosperity, the culture and the defence of their native country. The Zionists believed with Mazzini that without a country they were bound to remain the bastards of humanity. Others did not accept the idea of a national state as a historical necessity.

3. Zionism has always regarded assimilation as its main enemy, without clearly distinguishing between emancipation and assimilation. It has decried life in the diaspora as physically unsafe and morally degrading, intolerable for proud, self-respecting Jews. Zionism has preached the more or less inevitable ‘ingathering of the exiles’. This is to ignore the background of emancipation and to regard assimilation as a weakness of character rather than a historical process with a logic and a momentum of its own. For Zionism, the secular form of religious mystique, is a child of assimilation; but for the deep and prolonged exposure to European civilisation there would have been no national revival among the Jews. Zionism, in brief, is the product of Europe, not of the ghetto. Given the general situation and the position of the Jews in European society, assimilation was inevitable in central and western Europe and to a lesser extent elsewhere. While it was probably bound to fail in Poland and Rumania, it has made great strides in other countries. Jewish history does not prove the impossibility of assimilation, nor did Herzl rule it out (‘If they let us be for just two generations …’). He also wrote: ‘Whole branches of Jewry may wither and fall away. The tree lives on.’ But the main branch – east European Jewry – disappeared in the holocaust. Assimilation in the western world was retarded by the antisemitic wave of the 1930s and the holocaust, which strengthened Jewish consciousness. But it seems to have been only a temporary setback, and as the shock passed, assimilation again came into its own. Antisemitism has appeared in one form or another in all countries where Jews have lived (and in some where they did not). But low-level antisemitism has not made assimilation impossible, and it has certainly not acted as an agent of Zionism. History has always shown that substantial numbers of men and women have chosen to leave their native country only when facing intolerable pressure. Zionist doctrine has rejected assimilation as morally reprehensible: Nordau often dwelt on the rootless cosmopolitans without ground under their feet, suffering personal humiliation, forced to suppress and falsify their personalities. The image of the new Marranos and their spiritual misery was overdramatised even with regard to the world before 1914. It bears little relation to the present-day world. Jews as individuals and groups have faced difficulties, but it is certainly not true that ‘all the better Jews of western Europe (or America) groan under this misery and seek for salvation’. Nordau, who wrote this, never set foot on Palestinian soil, but continued to write from Paris for his European public. Yet Nordau was only half a generation removed from Jewish tradition. Subsequent generations grew up in an environment more remote from Judaism. Many are no longer religious and the Jewish tradition is largely meaningless to them. The new assimilationists are not conscious traitors to their people, nor are their personalities necessarily warped or permeated with self-hate. The ties have loosened; they have grown away from Jewish tradition and become indifferent to it. A catastrophe would be needed to stop this process. Assimilation involved a conscious effort in the nineteenth century, when society was imbued with tradition and had generally shared values and rigid standards. To be fully accepted, the assimilationist Jew had to conform to the standards and values of this society and to give up what set him apart from it. Present-day pluralistic western society is different in character: not only have the Jews much less of their own substance, but society itself has lost its moorings. Traditional values have been jettisoned; like the Jew, society is becoming rootless. This cultural crisis, which may be protracted, may be conducive to assimilation while it lasts. But while it helps to break down some of the barriers between Jews and non-Jews, it also undermines the spirit of liberal tolerance on which Jewish existence in the western world is based.

4. Like the Poles and the Czechs, Zionists had their historical opportunity only after the First World War. Moreover, they were bound to clash with another people since the Jews had no homeland. A mass influx of Jews into Palestine in the early part of the nineteenth century (provided the Ottoman government had agreed to it) might have proceeded without much resistance on the part of the native population, because the idea of nationalism had not yet grown roots outside Europe. But there was no national movement at the time among the Jews either: east European Jewry had not yet left the ghetto; central and west European Jews had not yet experienced the new antisemitism.

5. Being a latecomer among the national movements, Zionism from the very beginning was a movement in a hurry, forever racing against time. Both the Balfour Declaration and the UN resolution of November 1947 came at the last possible moment. A few years later the decision would, in all probability, have gone against Zionism. Herzl had written that the success of the idea depended on the number of its adherents and that ‘the Jews who will it shall achieve their state’. But most Jews were indifferent, and success did not depend on them alone, even if there had been more who wanted it. The four years after the Balfour Declaration were perhaps the last opportunity to transplant hundreds of thousands of Jews to Palestine and to create faits accomplis without causing a major political upheaval. This opportunity was not to recur.

Throughout its history Zionism failed to mobilise substantial financial support. Despite all his efforts Herzl did not get the help of the Jewish millionaires who he thought would underwrite a major loan to Turkey and thus enable him to get a charter. Up to the late 1930s the budget of the World Zionist Organisation was considerably smaller than that of any major Jewish local community in Europe or America. The freedom of action of the Zionist movement was severely circumscribed by its extreme poverty: land could not be bought, sufficient support could not be given to new immigrants, and funds for political work in Palestine and in the diaspora were altogether inadequate.

6. Zionism had neither money, nor military power, nor even much political nuisance value. It could rely only on moral persuasion, not one of the most powerful levers in world politics before 1918, and almost totally ineffective thereafter. While others had done important spadework, the Balfour Declaration was essentially the work of one man – Chaim Weizmann. Without his leadership and persistent lobbying the Zionist movement would not have received the charter on which its subsequent activities were based. It was the ‘greatest act of political statesmanship of the First World War’ (Charles Webster). There were certain political considerations which facilitated Weizmann’s task. But Britain needed the Jews at the time much less than the Jews needed Britain. The overall benefits which Britain could derive from the declaration were small, the risks considerable. Lloyd George and Balfour were persuaded by Weizmann to issue the declaration, in the last resort, not because it was advantageous or expedient from the British point of view, but because they accepted that it was the right thing to do. That Weizmann and his supporters could be of considerable help to the allied war effort was a contributing factor, but not the decisive consideration. It was on the whole a selfless act, perhaps the last time that an individual succeeded almost single-handedly in inducing the government of a major power to take a decision irrespective of national interest. That Palestine was not an issue of paramount importance made the decision easier. Nor did the statesmen expect the complications which later occurred and which made subsequent British governments gradually relinquish the Balfour Declaration.

7. The Jewish state came into being at the very time when Zionism had lost its erstwhile raison d’être: to provide an answer to the plight of east European Jewry. The United Nations decision of November 1947 was in all probability the last opportunity for the Zionist movement to achieve a breakthrough. Public opinion in many countries felt uneasy about the Jewish tragedy and, above all, about the fact that not more had been done to rescue Jews. The United States and Russia, the former with great reservations, reached the conclusion that the partition of Palestine was the only workable solution. One or two years later the world situation would no longer have been conducive to a resolution giving the Zionists what they wanted. The British government would probably have pulled out of Palestine anyway, and a civil war would have ensued. The Jewish state might nevertheless have come into existence – but without United Nations sanction and international recognition and, generally speaking, under very inauspicious circumstances.

8. Up to the 1930s the Zionist movement had no clear idea about its final aim. Herzl proclaimed that a Jewish state was a world necessity. But later he and his successors mentioned the state only infrequently, partly for tactical reasons, mainly because they had no clear concept as to how a state would come into being. Two generations of Zionist leaders, from Herzl to Weizmann, believed that Palestine would at some fairly distant date become Jewish without the use of violence or guile, as the result of steady immigration and settlement, of quiet and patient work. The idea that a state was the normal form of existence for a people and that it was an immediate necessity was preached by Jabotinsky in the 1930s. But he was at the time almost alone in voicing this demand. It took the advent of Nazism, the holocaust and total Arab rejection of the national home to convert the Zionist movement to the belief in statehood. The bi-national solution (parity), advocated by the Zionist movement in a half-hearted way in the 1920s and, with more enthusiasm, by some minority groups, would have been in every respect a better solution for the Palestine problem. It would have been a guarantee for the peaceful development of the country. But it was based on the unrealistic assumption that Arab agreement could be obtained. Bi-nationalism and parity were utterly rejected by the Arabs, who saw no good reason for any compromise as far as the Arab character of Palestine was concerned. They were not willing to accept the yishuv as it existed in the 1920s and 1930s, let alone permit more Jewish immigration and settlement. They feared that a further influx of Jews would eventually reduce the Arabs to minority status in Palestine.

9. The Arab-Jewish conflict was inevitable, given the fact that Zionism wanted to build more than a cultural centre in Palestine. Nor is it certain that a cultural centre would not have encountered Arab resistance. Zionism, the transplantation of hundreds of thousands of Jews, was bound to effect a radical change in Palestine, as a result of which the Palestinian Arabs were bound to suffer. It was not the Arabs’ fault that the Jews were persecuted in Europe, that they had awakened to the fact that they wanted again to be a nation and therefore needed a state in the country in which they had lived two thousand years before.

The effects of Zionism on the Arabs should not be belittled. The fact that they derived economic and other benefits from Jewish immigration is immaterial in this context. This is not to say that Zionism was bound to result in the evacuation or expulsion of many Palestinian Arabs from Palestine. Had the Arabs accepted the Peel Plan in 1937, the Jewish state would have been restricted to the coastal plain between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Had they not rejected the UN partition of 1947, most of Palestine would still have remained in their hands. The Arab thesis of inevitable Zionist expansion is a case of self-fulfilling prophecy: the Arabs did everything in their power to make their prophecy come true, by choosing the road of armed resistance – and losing. The Zionist movement and the yishuv matured in the struggle against the Arab national movement. Eventually it reached the conclusion that it was pointless to seek Arab agreement and that it could achieve its aims only against the Arabs.

Arab intransigence was the natural reaction of a people unwilling to share its country with another. For European Jewry the issue was not an abstract one of preserving a historical connection, religious and national ties. With the rise of Hitler it became a question of life or death, and they felt no pangs of conscience: the danger facing the Jews was physical extinction. The worst fate that could befall the Arabs was the partition of Palestine and minority status for some Arabs in the Jewish state. Zionism is guilty no doubt of many sins of commission and omission in its policy on the Arab question. But whichever way one looks at it, the conflict on immigration and settlement could not have been evaded since the basis for a compromise did not exist. Zionism could and should have paid more attention to Arab grievances and aspirations. But despite all concessions in the cultural or economic field, the Arabs would still have opposed immigration with an eye to the inevitable consequences of mass immigration.

10. Seen from the Arab point of view, Zionism was an aggressive movement, Jewish immigration an invasion. Zionists are guilty of having behaved like other peoples - only with some delay due to historical circumstances. Throughout history nation-states have not come into existence as the result of peaceful development and legal contracts. They developed from invasions, colonisation, violence and armed struggle. It was the historical tragedy of Zionism that it appeared on the international scene when there were no longer empty spaces on the world map. Wherever the Jews would have chosen to settle, they would have sooner or later come into conflict with the native population. The creation of nation-states meant the perpetration of acts of injustice. The native population was either absorbed and assimilated or it was decimated or expelled. The expulsion of ten million Germans from eastern Europe was almost immediately accepted as an established fact by the outside world and those unwilling to put up with it were denounced as revanchists and war-mongers. Given the realities of Soviet power, it was clear that the new order in eastern Europe could not be challenged except through a new world war. But Zionism was not in a position of such strength, nor was there a danger of world war. Hence the fact that the territorial changes in eastern Europe have been accepted as irreversible, while those in the Middle East continue to be challenged by many.

Zionism has been challenged on the level of abstract justice: it has been argued that the Jews had no right to a state of their own, because they staked their claim too late and because it was bound to affect the fate of another people. It has been maintained that in these circumstances the Jews had no right to survive as a group. But arguments concerning the raison d’être of nations and states are double-edged, quite apart from the fact that the Jews faced extermination not only as a group but as individuals. Equally, on the level of abstract justice, the fact that a nation or a state has existed for a long time is not by itself a valid argument for its continued survival, unless it has made a substantial contribution to the advance of mankind. Few nations and states can make such claims. If a case can be made for a just distribution of property among individuals, the same applies (again on the level of abstract justice) to peoples and nations.

11. Arab opposition apart, Zionism has been rejected from various angles. The opposition of the ultra-orthodox Jews is based on a totally different system of beliefs and values, and there is no room for any debate between them and Zionists. The non-religious critique of Zionism appears in different variants, but it is based in the last resort on the same ideological assumptions. The critiques of the extreme Left and the liberal-assimilationist doctrine rest on the argument that Zionism is an anachronistic movement, that assimilation is an inevitable historical process and that it has proceeded too far to be undone. Hence the conclusion that the desire of the Jews to survive as a national group runs against the course of world history. Since social and economic developments cause the gradual disappearance of national peculiarities, any effort to reverse this process is bound to be reactionary in character. While nation-states have played a progressive role in earlier ages, nationalism has turned into an obstacle on the road to further progress. The Jews were the first to be denationalised, but the other nations will gradually follow. Instead of reverting to the nation-state, the Jews should try to fulfil the role into which they were cast by history: that of an avant-garde of a new world order. According to the liberals, anti-semitism is bound to disappear as civilisation and enlightenment spread. According to the radical Left, it will wither away with the overthrow of capitalism.

To a large extent the early Zionist leaders shared this belief in human progress. But they did not expect that the new world order would soon come into being, and they feared that meanwhile persecution and oppression would continue. The course of world history has not confirmed the predictions of the optimists. If civilisation has made progress, it is agonisingly slow. National movements and nation-states are nowhere on the decline. International working-class solidarity is invoked less and less – even as a slogan. Antisemitism has antedated capitalism and still exists in post-capitalist societies. As Communism has moved from proletarian internationalism to a nationalist brand of Socialism the position of Jews under these régimes and in Communist movements will remain precarious for a long time; the demand for internationalists is strictly limited. On the contrary, the conspicuous participication of Jews in radical political movements has resulted in an upsurge of antisemitism, regardless of whether these movements attained power or not. The non-Jewish Jew is thus acting indirectly as an agent of resurgent Jewish nationalism.

12. The main source of Zionist weakness has been the fact that conditions for the realisation of the Zionist dream were never favourable. It never quite overcame the inertia of the Jews, it always lacked resources. The establishment of a national home in one of the world’s main danger zones, against the opposition of the Arabs and without any powerful allies, meant that the future of the state would inevitably remain uncertain for a long time to come. From the very beginning the smallness of the territory limited its absorptive capacity: it has served as a national home for less than one-fifth of world Jewry. Even of those in sympathy with Zionism only a few went to Palestine. Only an infinitesimal portion of American, British, French or German (before 1933) Jewry has settled in the Jewish national home. There is no ‘objective’ socio-economic Jewish question in these countries, even though the concentration of Jews in certain professions may still create tensions and occasionally even constitute a political problem. But the process of assimilation interrupted by Nazism has gathered fresh momentum. The percentage of mixed marriages has increased substantially. In these circumstances political and economic motives are unlikely to be decisive in making individual Jews opt for Zionism. They are more likely to be attracted by the Israeli way of life, idealism and the extent to which Israel is spared some of the afflictions occurring elsewhere in the western world.

13. The basic aim of Zionism was twofold: to regain Jewish self-respect and dignity in the eyes of non-Jews; and to rebuild a Jewish national home, for Jews to ‘live as free men on their own soil, to die peacefully in their own homes’ (Herzl). The Zionist movement has certainly succeeded in carrying out part of its assignment. The establishment of the Jewish state has been the greatest turning point in two thousand years of Jewish history and has had a profound effect on Jewish life all over the world. But whereas the national home has attracted much sympathy, its potential as a cultural centre is limited. As normalisation proceeds, the more fanciful claims (Zion as a new spiritual lodestar, a model for the redemption of mankind, a centre of humanity) are receding into the background. While esteem for Jewish determination and prowess has increased as the result of the creation of the state, the position of Jews – contrary to widespread hopes – has not become more secure. If there has been a certain decline in antisemitism in the diaspora, a reaction to the horrors of Hitlerism as much as a consequence of the birth of Israel, hostility towards the new state on the part of its neighbours has increased. The state created by Zionism thus faces an uphill struggle in its endeavour to make its neighbours recognise its right of existence. While this struggle continues, the existence of the state and its independence is no more assured than that of other small countries whose geopolitical location exposes them to the expansive designs of a superpower.

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