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International Socialist Review Issue 24, July–August 2002

The hidden history of Zionism

By Annie Levin

The web site of the Anti-Defamation League defines Zionism as:

[T]he Jewish national movement of rebirth and renewal in the land of Israel–the historical birthplace of the Jewish people. The yearning to return to Zion, the biblical term for both the Land of Israel and Jerusalem, has been the cornerstone of Jewish religious life since the Jewish exile from the land two thousand years ago…. Zionism, the national aspiration of the Jewish people to a homeland, is to the Jewish people what the liberation movements of Africa and Asia have been to their peoples…a vindication of the fundamental concepts of the equality of nations and of self-determination. To question the Jewish people’s right to national existence and freedom is…to deny to the Jewish people the right accorded to every other people on this globe.1

We need to ask: What kind of national liberation movement allies itself in every case and at every moment in its history with the powers of world imperialism? What national liberation struggle built its very existence on the colonization of another people, on the obliteration of that people’s history, their culture, and their land? The founding fathers of Zionism were much more honest about what they stood for. Over and over, one word appears in their writing: not national "liberation," but "colonization." Vladimir Jabotinsky, one of the founding fathers of the Zionist movement, wrote in 1923:

[It is the] iron law of every colonizing movement, a law which knows of no exceptions, a law which existed in all times and under all circumstances. If you wish to colonize a land in which people are already living, you must provide a garrison on your behalf. Or else–or else, give up your colonization, for without an armed force which will render physically impossible any attempts to destroy or prevent this colonization, colonization is impossible, not "difficult," not "dangerous" but impossible!... Zionism is a colonizing adventure and therefore it stands or falls by the question of armed force. It is important to build, it is important to speak Hebrew, but, unfortunately, it is even more important to be able to shoot–or else I am through with playing at colonization.2

Even among today’s peace activists who call for an end to Israel’s 35-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, there is still a general assumption that Zionism itself is a legitimate movement and that the State of Israel must be defended. The organization Americans for Peace Now issued this statement in December 2001:

[C]ontinued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip will, within one generation, mean the end to Israel as a democratic state with a Jewish majority.…

This scenario would be a nightmare for Israel and all of us who support the Jewish state. It is not the Zionist vision for Israel’s future for which APN, or the majority of Jews and Israelis, have fought for generations.3

These activists are right to oppose the occupation. But they fail to recognize that the current occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is a continuation of the process of occupation and colonization of Palestine that began with the first Zionist settlers in the 19th century. The entire state of Israel occupies stolen land that is backed up with armed force. Sharon’s military invasions, the massacres of Palestinians in Jenin, the widespread call for the "transfer" (i.e. ethnic cleansing) of Palestinians in Israel today, are not aberrations from the Zionist project but are absolutely consistent with "the Zionist vision for Israel’s future for which…the majority of Jews and Israelis have fought for generations."

The roots of Zionism

Zionism is not a "two thousand year old yearning," but a modern movement that was born in the last quarter of the 19th century. The development of Zionism as a political movement was entirely a product of European society in the age of imperialism and it is impossible to understand outside of this context. Zionism was one response–the nationalist response–of a section of Jews to the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe.

Modern Jewish history begins with the French Revolution. In the wake of its revolutionary ideals of "liberty, equality and brotherhood," Jews won emancipation throughout Western Europe. The old ghetto walls were torn down. Jews gained new civil rights, and were able to join professions that had been closed to them for generations. The vast majority of European Jews welcomed emancipation. They wanted to be able to assimilate and participate as equal members in society.

But emancipation never reached Eastern Europe, where the majority of the world’s Jewish population lived. In the Tsarist Empire, Jews lived in poverty and isolation, confined to industrially undeveloped areas in Poland and the Ukraine called the Pale of Settlement. There was no heavy industry in the Pale so most Jews worked in small shops or were part of the permanently unemployed. Life in the Pale was punctuated by the bloody pogroms–violent race riots against Jewish communities that were stoked by government officials and local police. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky described the pogroms of 1905:

A hundred of Russia’s towns and townlets were transformed into hells. A veil of smoke was drawn across the sun. Fires devoured entire streets with their houses and inhabitants. This was the old order’s revenge for its humiliation….4

Everyone knows about a coming pogrom in advance. Pogrom proclamations are distributed, bloodthirsty articles come out in the official Provincial Gazettes, sometimes a special newspaper begins to appear.… To start with, a few windows are smashed, a few passers-by beaten up; the wreckers enter every tavern on their way and drink, drink, drink. The band never stops playing "God Save the Tsar," that hymn of the pogroms….

Patrols armed with police revolvers make sure that the anger of the crowd is not paralyzed by fear… If any resistance is offered, regular troops come to the rescue. With two or three volleys they shoot down the resisters or render them powerless by not allowing them within range. Protected in the front and rear by army patrols, with a cossack detachment for reconnaissance, with policemen and professional provocateurs as leaders, with mercenaries filling the secondary roles, with volunteers out for easy profit, the gang rushes through the town, drunk on vodka and the smell of blood.…

A trembling slave an hour ago, hounded by police and starvation, [the rioter] now feels himself an unlimited despot. Everything is allowed to him, he is capable of anything, he is the master of property and honor, of life and death. If he wants to, he can throw an old woman out of a third- floor window together with a grand piano, he can smash a chair against a baby’s head, rape a little girl while the entire crowd looks on, hammer a nail into a living human body.… He exterminates whole families, he pours petrol over a house, transforms it into a mass of flames, and if anyone attempts to escape, he finishes him off with a cudgel.…There exist no tortures, figments of a feverish brain maddened by alcohol and fury, at which he need ever stop. He is capable of anything, he dares everything. God save the Tsar!5

The rise of industrial capitalism across Europe did not bring with it an end to anti-Semitism. On the contrary, the system’s violent economic booms and slumps created a climate in which Jews became easy scapegoats for the immiseration of the population. The 1880s saw a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, both East and West. Over the next three decades, more than five million Jews left Eastern Europe. Most of these refugees went to Western Europe or to the United States. Significantly, only a few thousand chose to go to Palestine. In Western Europe, a prolonged economic crisis in the 1870s also led to a revival of anti-Semitism. Jews who had been safe and prosperous in those countries for over a generation were shocked to find themselves targets of this virulent racism. For many it shattered their faith in the capitalist system and set them on the road for alternatives. Millions of Jews joined the rising revolutionary socialist movements. The revival of anti-Semitism also provided the context for Zionism to grow.

Until the 1880s, the Zionist movement consisted of a handful of fanatical religious sects. Jews who were enjoying the fruits of emancipation felt no need for religious utopias. For example, in 1862, Moses Hess, a Marxist-turned-Zionist wrote a book called Rome and Jerusalem. It’s now considered a Zionist classic, but at the time of its publication, most Jews, if they heard about Hess at all dismissed him as a crank. In its first year the book it sold only 160 copies and the publisher had to ask Hess to buy back the remaining copies!6

The revival of anti-Semitism was epitomized by the Dreyfus Affair, in which the French government framed and convicted a Jewish army officer for treason. The 1894 trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus launched an international movement against anti-Semitism. But for an Austrian journalist named Theodor Herzl, who covered the trial in France, the Dreyfus Affair meant that no matter how assimilated Jews were in society, they would never be safe until they had a state of their own. In 1896, Herzl published The State of the Jews, the manifesto for a new political Zionist movement.

"An outpost of civilization against barbarism"

Herzl’s "political Zionism" was secular and pragmatic. He argued that the Jewish state could only be built under the patronage of one of the imperialist powers. Because the Jews would inevitably be a minority wherever they settled, and since they would incur the hostility of whatever indigenous population they were colonizing, they could not succeed without the big guns of a big imperialist power backing them up. In fact, Palestine was only one of several territories Herzl considered for colonization. Argentina, Uganda, Cyprus, and even a couple of states in the Midwest of the United States were discussed as possible locations for the Jewish state. But the religious faction in the Zionist movement fought hard for Palestine and Herzl, never one to miss the power of a symbol, agreed that the ancient Jewish "homeland" would give the movement more emotional power.

However, defining feature of Zionism was not the choice of Palestine, but the Zionists’ willingness to ally with European imperialism to achieve its goals. Herzl rejected the most progressive ideals of the 19th century–democracy, socialism, republicanism–and embraced the most reactionary– monarchy, nationalism, chauvinism, and racism. Zionism identified with the imperialist powers who carved up the globe, and accepted racist ideas about the "civilizing" virtues of colonization and "the white man’s burden" that made up the ideology of the capitalist class. In The State of the Jews, Hertzl wrote,

The unthinking might, for example, imagine that this exodus would have to take its way from civilization into the desert. That is not so! It will be carried out entirely in the framework of civilization. We shall not revert to a lower stage, we shall rise to a higher one. We shall not dwell in mud huts; we shall build new, and more beautiful, more modern houses, and possess them in safety.… We should there form a part of a wall of defense for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism…. [Europe] would have to guarantee our existence.7

Today the media like to say that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. But democracy was not the political system that Herzl envisioned for the Jewish State. Even a historian sympathetic to Zionism admits, "He preferred a democratic monarchy, or an aristocratic republic. Nations were not yet fit for unlimited democracy.… Politics would have to take shape in the upper strata of the new society and work downwards."8

Throughout his career, Herzl was deeply impressed by the power and authority of kings. After a meeting with the German Kaiser, Herzl wrote in his diary that the Kaiser "has truly imperial eyes–I have never seen such eyes. A remarkable bold, inquisitive soul shows in them."9 And it is clear from his diaries that Herzl saw himself taking his place among the European rulers at the head of a Jewish state. He once wrote, with typical humility,

On Sunday, while I sat on the platform…I saw and heard the rising of my legend. The people are sentimental; the masses do not see clearly…. A light mist has begun to beat about me, which will perhaps deepen into a cloud in the midst of which I shall walk.…[A]t least they understand that I mean well by them, I am the man of the poor.10

Zionism and the Jews

If one of the defining features of Zionism was its identification with imperial power, aother was the way Herzl and founders of the movement viewed the very Jews they claimed to represent. The writings of Herzl and his colleague, Max Nordau, are littered with descriptions of European Jews as parasites, social diseases, germs, aliens. They were frustrated and bewildered that most Jews wanted to assimilate and live in their countries of birth. To these men who worshipped power and privilege, the desperate poverty of the Jews of Eastern Europe was a sign of weakness in the Jewish character.

Nordau wrote,

I contemplate with horror the future development of this race of (assimilated Jews of Europe) which is sustained morally by no tradition, whose soul is poisoned with hostility to both its own and to strange blood, and whose self-respect is destroyed through the ever-present consciousness of a fundamental lie.… This is the picture of the Jewish people at the end of the nineteenth century. To sum up: the majority of Jews are a race of accursed beggars.11

Nordau’s repulsive views flowed quite logically from Zionism’s basic assumptions about Jews. Zionists accepted the 19th century view that anti-Semitism–in fact all racial difference–was a permanent feature of human nature. For this reason it was pointless to struggle against it. The solution for Jews was to form a state and convince the European world that Jews belonged to the class of the "superior" colonizers, not to that of the colonized. It was a very short jump from this belief to concluding that Jews themselves were the cause of anti-Semitism. Herzl accepted the idea that Jews were an economic burden on society, that their very presence provoked violence from the rest of society:

Wherever [the Jewish Question] does not exist, it is brought in together with Jewish immigrants. 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, everywhere.… The unfortunate Jews are now carrying the seeds of anti-Semitism into England; they have already introduced it into America.… [But once Jews go to Palestine] the countries of emigration will rise to a new prosperity. There will be an inner migration of Christian citizens in to the positions relinquished by Jews. The outflow will be gradual, without any disturbance, and its very inception means the end of anti-Semitism.… Once we begin to execute the plan, anti-Semitism will cease at once and everywhere.… It is the relief from the old burden, under which all have suffered.12

Zionism and imperialism

To acquire the land for his state, Herzl was willing to beg from the table of every imperialist power, no matter how criminal. He courted them all–the German Kaiser, the Turks, the Russian Tsar, and the British Empire. In 1896, Herzl entered into negotiations with the Turkish Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled over Palestine for more than five hundred years. Herzl offered the Sultan a deal–in exchange for giving Palestine to the Jews, the Zionist movement would help soften world condemnation of Turkey for its genocidal campaign against the Armenians. He even pledged to meet with Armenian leaders to convince them to call off their resistance struggle! In his diary, Herzl wrote,

[The Sultan] could and would receive me as a friend–after I had rendered him a service.… For one thing I am to influence the European press…to handle the Armenian question in a spirit more friendly to the Turks: for another, I am to induce the Armenian leaders directly to submit to him, whereupon he will make all sorts of concessions to them.… I immediately told [Hamid’s agent] that I was ready a me mettre en campagne [to start my campaign.]13

As it turned out, the Sultan rejected the offer. But as historian Lenni Brenner notes,

It would have occurred to no one else in the broad Jewish world to have tried to hinder or interfere with the Armenians in their struggle; nor would anyone have thought to support Turkey in any of its wars, and in the end Zionism gained nothing by its actions. But what was demonstrated, early in its history, was that there were no criteria of ordinary humanism that the World Zionist Organization considered itself bound to respect.14

Herzl never met a butcher he didn’t like, even if they were guilty of slaughtering Jews. In 1903, he went to the Russian Tsar to see if he could convince Russia to pressure the Ottomans into handing over Palestine. In an infamous meeting, Herzl actually sat down with Count von Plehve, the organizer of the pogroms, the butcher of Jews. Herzl argued with von Plehve that Zionism was the solution to Russia’s "Jewish problem," namely, the enormous number of Jews who were flooding into revolutionary organizations. Herzl later recalled that he told von Plehve "Help me reach land sooner and the revolt will end. And so will the defection to the socialists."15

Herzl kept his end of the bargain. A member of the Russian Social Revolutionary party, Chaim Zhitlovsky, recalled what Hertzl told him soon after the meeting:

I have just come from Plehve. I have his positive, binding promise that in 15 years, at the maximum, he will effectuate for us a charter for Palestine. But this is tied to one condition: the Jewish revolutionaries shall cease their struggle against the Russian government. If in 15 years from the time of the agreement Plehve does not effectuate the charter, they become free again to do what they consider necessary.16

Zhitlovsky gave a brilliant response that epitomizes the revolutionary socialist position on Zionism. He told Herzl,

We Jewish revolutionaries, even the most national among us, are not Zionists, and do not believe that Zionism is able to resolve our problem. To transfer the Jewish people from Russia to Eretz-Israel is, in our eyes, a utopia, and because a utopia, we will not renounce the paths upon which we have embarked–the path of revolutionary struggle against the Russian government, which should also lead to the freedom of the Jewish people…. The situation of Zionism is already dubious enough by the very fact of its standing aloof from the revolution. Its situation in Jewish life would become impossible if it could be shown that it undertakes positive steps to damage the Jewish revolutionary struggle.17

Herzl’s meeting with von Plehve turned out to be a tactical disaster, alienating the very Russian Jews he was trying to recruit to the movement. Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organization, later wrote "I…believed that the step was not only humiliating, but utterly pointless.… Nothing came, naturally, of Herzl’s ‘cordial’ conversations with von Plehve, nothing, that is, except disillusionment and deeper despair, and a deeper division between the Zionists and the revolutionaries."18 Weizmann wrote to Herzl with alarm,

In general West European Jewry thinks that the majority of East European Jewish youth belongs to the Zionist camp. Unfortunately, the contrary is true. The lions-share of the youth is anti-Zionist, not from an assimilationist point of view as in West Europe, but rather as a result of their revolutionary mood.

It is impossible to describe how many became the victims of police oppression because of membership in the Jewish Social Democracy–they are sent to jail and left to rot in Siberia; 5,000 are under state surveillance…and I am not speaking only of the youth of the proletariat.… Almost the entire Jewish student body stands firmly behind the revolutionary camp…and all this is accompanied by a distaste for Jewish nationalism which borders on self-hatred.19

A land without a people?

Herzl’s movement held its first congress in Basel Switzerland in 1897. After that, waves of Zionist pioneers started migrating into Palestine. They came to colonize, but not along the lines of traditional colonialism where the big power conquers a land to create new markets for itself, acquire more resources and exploit the indigenous population as a cheap source of labor. The Zionists did not come to exploit the Arabs but to completely replace them. The goal was to create an exclusively Jewish state with a Jewish majority. In order to achieve this, the Zionists had to destroy the Palestinian economy, steal the land, drive the Arabs out of the labor market, and erase the very memory they’d even been there. This meant carrying out a war on a number of fronts, reflected in the three slogans of the pioneer Zionists: "conquest of land," "conquest of labor," and "produce of the land."20

By "conquest of land," they meant buy and steal as much Arab land as possible; by "conquest of labor," they meant force Jewish landowners to employ Jewish-only labor and organize Jewish-only trade unions to dominate the labor market; and by "produce of the land"–boycott and physically harass Arab farms and businesses to drive them out.

Thus the absurdity of the Zionist saying that Palestine was "a land without a people for a people without a land." Every Zionist knew that the main obstacle to founding their state was that the land they wanted for themselves was already inhabited. Arab Palestine was a flourishing society with an ancient history and culture. There were over 1,000 villages, thriving towns, abundant citrus and olive groves, irrigation systems, crafts, and textiles. Zionists had to obliterate all traces of this society if they were to build a new one. As the Israeli minister of defense, Moshe Dayan, admitted in a speech to Israeli students in 1969:

We came here to a country that was populated by Arabs, and we are building here a Hebrew, Jewish state. Instead of Arab villages, Jewish villages were established. You do not even know the names of these villages and I do not blame you, because these geography books no longer exist. Not only the books, but all the villages do not exist.

Nahalal was established in place of Mahalul, Gevat in place of Jibta, Sarid in the place of Hanifas and Kafr Yehoushu’a in the place of Tel Shamam. There is not a single settlement…not established in the place of a former Arab village.21

"The iron wall of English bayonets"

The First World War and the Russian Revolution caused the collapse of Herzl’s three beloved patrons, the Ottoman Empire, the German Kaiser, and Russian Tsarism. Though the Zionists played all sides covertly during the war, the more farsighted leaders anticipated that Britain would emerge as the dominant imperialist power from the war. Weizmann stated as early as 1914, "We can reasonably say that should Palestine fall within the British sphere of influence, and should Britain encourage Jewish settlement there, as a British dependency, we could have in twenty to thirty years a million Jews out there, perhaps more; they would develop the country, bring back civilization to it and form a very effective guard for the Suez Canal."22

When the war ended, Palestine became a British colony and the Zionists found they shared many interests with their new colonial masters. In 1917 Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, which was the first official recognition of the Zionist settlements in Palestine. Under the British Mandate Government, Britain privileged the small Jewish population over the Palestinians. In 1917 there were 56,000 Jews in Palestine and 644,000 Palestinian Arabs. Still Britain gave Jewish capital 90 percent of concessions for projects like building roads and power plants and by 1935, Zionists owned 872 out of the 1,212 industrial firms in Palestine.23

The British ruling class, which was rabidly anti-Semitic, had its own reasons for this support. Out of the First World War, Arab nationalism had emerged as a major threat to domination of the Middle East and Britain hoped that Zionists could be a useful force for policing the Arabs. But Winston Churchill gave another reason for supporting Zionism–defeat of the left wing "International Jews." In an astoundingly anti-Semitic article titled "Zionism versus Bolshevism," Churchill wrote,

First there are the Jews who, dwelling in every country throughout the world, identify themselves with that country, enter into its national life and, while adhering faithfully to their own religion, regard themselves as citizens in the fullest sense of the State which has received them.…

In violent opposition to all this sphere of Jewish effort rise the schemes of the International Jews.… This movement among the Jews is not new. From the days of Spartacus…to those of Karl Marx, and down to Trotsky (Russia), Bela Kun (Hungary), Rosa Luxemburg (Germany), and Emma Goldman (United States), this world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization and for the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development, of envious malevolence, and impossible equality, has been steadily growing.…

It becomes, therefore, specially important to foster and develop any strongly-marked Jewish movement which leads directly away from these fatal associations. And it is here that Zionism has such a deep significance for the whole world at the present time.… [S]hould there be created in our own lifetime by the banks of the Jordan a Jewish State under the protection of the British Crown, which might comprise three or four millions of Jews, an event would have occurred in the history of the world which would, from every point of view, be beneficial, and would be especially in harmony with the truest interests of the British Empire.24

In 1936, the Palestinians began the Great Uprising against British and Zionist colonization. The Uprising lasted three years and was only defeated by savage British repression–drawing in at some points half the British military.25 It gave the Zionists another opportunity to prove their worth to England. Zionists organized the armed militias called the Haganah and the paramilitary units, which played an important supporting role in crushing the revolt. They also took advantage of the Arab general strike to gain control of new sectors of the economy, replacing more Arab owners and workers with Jews. The British military repression was so severe that it left the Arab population demoralized and exhausted for many years.

This cleared the field for the Zionists to focus on the last remaining obstacle to a Jewish state: the British Mandate itself. After all, the Zionists were colonizers, and had no intention of remaining subjects in someone else’s colony. In 1945, they declared war on the British and drove them out. In 1947, the United Nations imposed its criminal partition of Palestine, which granted the majority of the land to the minority of Jewish settlers. For the Zionists, this was a green light to begin a terrible war of ethnic cleansing. In 1948, through systematic terror and murder, they drove 800,000 Palestinians off their land and founded the state of Israel on the ruins of destroyed Arab Palestine.

"I would not accept Arabs in my trade union"

Many of the leaders like Herzl were extremely hostile to socialism. But marxism was enormously influential in the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. If Zionism was going to build in that kind of atmosphere, it had to make some accommodation to the mood. Ber Borochov was the father of the movement called "proletarian Zionism," which as its name implies, tried to synthesize Marxism and Jewish nationalism. Borochov’s supposedly Marxist analysis was that, because the Jewish proletariat of Eastern Europe worked in economically marginal jobs, they had no social power as workers. Therefore they were powerless to effect change in Russia. Thus, Jewish workers needed to go build their own nation where they could become a "real" proletariat organized in the real centers of production. Only then could they make a socialist revolution. In the meantime, they might have to make some alliances, temporarily of course, with Jewish capitalists. Really this was just giving a pseudo-Marxist gloss to the same pessimistic message that Zionism is all about–you can’t fight here at home against oppression, you must organize to go to Palestine and build the state.

The organization Borochov founded, the Workers of Zion (Po’ale Zion) actually played a reactionary role in the Russian labor movement. Zionists in the unions argued against any united action with non-Jewish workers, which in effect put them in the position of strikebreakers. Here was a party claiming to represent Jewish workers that opposed the struggles of Jewish workers! In 1901, members of the Bund, the Jewish revolutionary organization that was bitterly hostile to Zionism, organized to drive the Zionists of their unions, "informing them that, since they lived in Pinsk and not Palestine, such talk in Pinsk was objectively class-treason, as the Jewish workers of Pinsk, were, quite definitely, engaged in a desperate class struggle with the capitalists and the police," writes Brenner.26

In Palestine, the "socialist Zionists" built organizations that were invaluable to the process of colonization. They founded the Histadrut, the Jewish-only trade union federation, which organized the exclusion of Arab workers from the job market. They started the kibbutzim, the agricultural collectives that built exclusively Jewish settlements on Arab land and defended those settlements with arms. The reality of "Zionist Marxism" is that it had to stretch Marxism beyond all recognition to justify its colonial project. David Hacohen, a Labor Party leader, recalled the ideological difficulties in 1969:

I had to fight my friends on the issue of Jewish socialism, to defend the fact that I would not accept Arabs in my trade union, the Histadrut; to defend preaching to housewives that they not buy at Arab stores; to defend the fact that we stood guard at orchards to prevent Arab workers from getting jobs there.… To pour kerosene on Arab tomatoes, to attack Jewish housewives in the markets and smash the Arab eggs they had bought; to praise to the skies the Kereen Kayemet [Jewish Fund] that sent Hankin to Beirut to buy land from absentee effendi [landlords] and to throw the fellahin [Arab peasants] off the land–to buy dozens of dunams from an Arab is permitted, but to sell, god forbid, one Jewish dunam to an Arab is prohibited; to take Rothschild, the incarnation of capitalism, as a socialist and to name him the "benefactor"–to do all that was not easy.27

"The iron wall of Jewish bayonets"

If the Jewish-only trade unions and kibbutzim were the organizations of the Zionist "left," then Revisionism under the leadership of Vladimir Jabotinsky formed the right wing of the movement. Jabotinsky called his faction Revisionism because it "revised" what he saw as the weaknesses of the movement, its willingness to negotiate with British imperialism, to accept concessions on key questions like immigration and land seizure. In particular, Jabotinsky was quite open and blunt about how Zionists should deal with "the Arab question":

Thus we conclude that we cannot promise anything to the Arabs of the Land of Israel or the Arab countries. Their voluntary agreement is out of the question. Hence those who hold that an agreement with the natives is an essential condition for Zionism can now say "no" and depart from Zionism. Zionist colonization, even the most restricted, must either be terminated or carried out in defiance of the will of the native population. This colonization can, therefore, continue and develop only under the protection of a force independent of the local population–an iron wall which the native population cannot break through. This is, in toto, our policy towards the Arabs. To formulate it any other way would only be hypocrisy.28

To the hackneyed reproach that this point of view is unethical, I answer ‘absolutely untrue.’ This is our ethic. There is no other ethic. As long as there is the faintest spark of hope for the Arabs to impede us, they will not sell these hopes–not for any sweet words nor for any tasty morsel, because this is not a rabble but a people, a living people. And no people makes such enormous concessions on such fateful questions, except when there is no hope left, until we have removed every opening visible in the Iron Wall.29

Revisionists were openly sympathetic to fascism. Betar, the Revisionist youth movement, admired Mussolini. They wore brown shirts and did the fascist salute.30 The Revisionist newspaper carried a regular column called "From the Notebook of a Fascist," and on one occasion when Jabotinsky came to Palestine, the newspaper ran a column called "On the arrival of our Duce."31 In 1933 a columnist wrote, "Social democrats of all stripes believe that Hitler’s movement is an empty shell [but] we believe that there is both a shell and a kernel. The anti-Semitic shell is to be discarded, but not the anti-Marxist kernel."32

The Labor Zionists tried at times to distance themselves from the actions of the extremist paramilitaries. But when the time came for united action they showed that their squabbles were all in the family. As Jabotinsky put it, "Force must play its role–with strength and without indulgence. In this, there are no meaningful differences between our militarists and our vegetarians. One prefers an Iron Wall of Jewish bayonets; the other an Iron Wall of English bayonets."33

It was Jabotinsky who founded the Haganah, and the Revisionists who formed the paramilitary organizations, the Irgun, as well as the fascist Stern Gang. In 1945 the Revisionists and the Labor Zionists united to form the "Resistance Movement" to wage war against the British and then the Palestinians. The Irgun and the Stern Gang were responsible for the infamous massacre in the village of Dir Yassin in 1948. At least until the 1980s, veterans of the Irgun still returned to Dir Yassin to commemorate their "heroism."34

Zionism and the Holocaust

Zionism’s most powerful claim to legitimacy is that the State of Israel is necessary to prevent another Holocaust. The legacy of the Holocaust is brought out to justify every atrocity committed by Israel. But it is precisely the record of how the Jewish Agency (the government of the pre-state Jewish settlements in Palestine) responded to the Holocaust that provides the most damning evidence against Zionism.

To the leaders of the Jewish Agency, the rise of fascism had a definite upside. Menahem Ussishkin told a Zionist Executive meeting, "There is something positive in their tragedy and that is that Hitler oppressed them as a race and not as a religion. Had he done the latter, half the Jews in Germany would simply have converted to Christianity."35 In 1934, Labor Zionist Moshe Beilinson went to Germany and reported back to the Labor Party, "The streets are paved with more money than we have ever dreamed of in the history of our Zionist enterprise. Here is an opportunity to build and flourish like none we have ever had or ever will have."36 Specifically, "the opportunity" meant the potential for thousands of new immigrants and their assets to come flooding into Palestine.

However, Zionist officials were quite blunt in stating that they didn’t want all the refugees from Hitler’s Holocaust. They didn’t want the burden of absorbing millions of impoverished sick refugees who had no ideological passion for Palestine. The Agency only wanted young, healthy Jews who could come over and work and fight and build the state. As Israeli historian Tom Segev writes,

Urban life was, in their [Zionist leaders] eyes, a symptom of social and moral degeneration; returning to the land would give birth to the ‘new man’ they hoped to create in Palestine. In parceling out the immigration certificates, they therefore gave preference to those who could play a role in their program for building the country. They preferred healthy young Zionists.37

The German Immigrants Association in Palestine actually complained in 1934 that the Zionist organizations in Berlin weren’t being selective enough about who they were sending. Its letter of complaint stated in part, ‘The human material coming from Germany is getting worse and worse."38 It even returned some of the refugees to Germany who they felt would be too much of a burden.

The Rescue Committee of the Jewish Agency wrote a private memorandum in 1943 about the prospects for their work. When this was written, it still could have been possible to save millions of Jews from Hitler’s "Final Solution." But they didn’t even try.

Whom to save: Should we help everyone in need, without regard to the quality of the people? Should we not give this activity a Zionist-national character and try foremost to save those who can be of use to the Land of Israel and to Jewry? I understand that it seems cruel to put the question in this form, but unfortunately we must state that if we are able to save only 10,000 people from among 50,000 who can contribute to build the country…as against saving a million Jews who will be a burden, or at best an apathetic element, we must restrain ourselves and save the 10,000 that can be saved from among the 50,000–despite the accusations and pleas of a million."39

Was this position unethical? To paraphrase Jabotinsky, this was their ethic–there was no other ethic. To the Zionists, the needs of the Jewish State came first, second, and last.

The refugees who did make it to Palestine were treated with contempt by the press and public. They were seen as passive victims whose families perished because they failed to stand up for themselves. Everyone knew that most of the refugees, if they had had a choice, would never have come to Palestine at all. The Labor Party newspaper, Davar, published an article saying that the Holocaust was "punishment from heaven" for the European Jews for not choosing Palestine.40 One German immigrant wrote into the German language press, "We have seen Germany’s nationalism gone mad and we trembled; we are on the road to a similar situation here."41

The Zionists took these sick, devastated refugees and sent them into the kibbutzim–on the frontlines of the war against the Palestinians. Tom Segev describes,

In 1949 David Ben-Gurion toyed with the idea of sending immigrants to work on development projects under a military or "paramilitary" regimen, in order to get rid of the "demoralizing material" among them and to give them occupational training, mastery of Hebrew and "national discipline".… The plan, never activated, was often discussed. Eight out of ten Israelis in 1949 said that the concentration of immigrants in the cities endangered the country’s economic and social structure; nine out of ten said the immigrants should be "directed" to the agricultural settlements and slightly more than half said they should be "forced" to go to the settlements.… Ha’aretz…contended that the immigrants were "not taking seriously the obligations they took upon themselves before their immigration; and accused them of not feeling any ‘personal responsibility’ for the Zionist enterprise."42

"Why have you done nothing?"

The bottom line was that the Jewish Agency in Palestine had many opportunities to rescue tens of thousands of Jews and perhaps more. But they sabotaged proposal after proposal, choosing to spend their money on land settlements instead of rescue. David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, said, "It is the job of Zionism not to save the remnant of Israel in Europe but rather to save the land of Israel for the Jewish people and the Yishuv."43

Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, was even more blunt: "The hopes of Europe’s six million Jews are centered on emigration. I was asked: ‘Can you bring six million Jews to Palestine?’ I replied ‘No.’… From the depths of the tragedy I want to save…young people [for Palestine]. The old ones will pass. They will bear their fate or they will not. They are dust, economic and moral dust in a cruel world…Only the branch of the young shall survive. They have to have to accept it."44

In the 1950s, a dramatic court case in Israel revealed that the Zionists had acted with criminal neglect–if not outright complicity–in the destruction of Hungarian Jewry.45 Evidence produced at the trial showed that Rudolph Kastner, a top official in the Israeli Labor Party, and the person in charge of the Rescue Committee in Hungary during the war, had actively collaborated with the Nazis. Kastner negotiated with Nazi official Adolph Eichmann (the architect of the Holocaust)to get a approval for a "VIP train" of 1,685 Hungarian Jews to leave Hungary safely. Kastner personally selected the passengers for the train, which included several hundred people from his hometown and a dozen members of his family. He worked with SS Officer Kurt Becher to make the financial arrangements.

In exchange for the safe passage of the train, Kastner agreed not to warn the Jews of Hungary (whose rescue was in his hands) about Hitler’s plans for their extermination and not to take any action to protect them. Worse, he helped to deceive Hungarian Jews, convincing them that they were simply being relocated. After the war, Kastner testified at the Nuremberg trials on Becher’s behalf, which resulted in Becher, murderer of half a million Hungarian Jews, going free. Most damning of all, it became clear that Kastner had not acted alone, but that his plan for the VIP train had the support of the highest leaders of the Jewish Agency. Segev describes the findings of the Israeli court that,

Kastner knew the Nazis intended to exterminate Hungarian Jewry but kept the information from the members of the community. Had he warned them in time, they might have been able to flee to Romania or organize armed resistance. Since they did not know what awaited them, they boarded the death trains without resistance.… He had been given the VIP train in exchange for his silence.46

Toward the end of the war a staunch anti-Zionist named Rabbi Dov Michael Weissmandel met with high-level Nazi officials to make a desperate deal. The Nazis knew they were losing the war and needed cash. They told Weismandel that the remaining Jews could buy their freedom for a large sum of money. The Nazis gave Weissmandel a deadline to come up with that money. Weissmandel flooded the Zionist organizations with his pleas. But they chose to do nothing. The deadline passed. In an agonizing letter to the Jewish Agency, Weissmandel wrote,

Why have you done nothing until now? Who is guilty of this frightful negligence? Are you not guilty, our Jewish brothers: you who have the greatest good fortune in the world–liberty?… Twelve thousand Jews–men, women, and children, old men, infants, healthy and sick ones, are to be suffocated daily.… Their destroyed hearts cry out to you for help as they bewail your cruelty.47

The socialist alternative

The Nazis murdered the Jewish revolutionary left in Europe; they wiped out its best leaders and organizations. It was these socialists and communists who organized the underground resistance to fascism in countries across Europe, who fought bravely to defend the Warsaw Ghetto against the Nazi assault. With the destruction of these fighters went the memory of what they had accomplished and stood for. It is vital to start with this fact because Zionism has profited enormously from our historical amnesia. The destruction of the strong anti-Zionist tradition among European Jews has meant that Zionism has been able to claim that it represents the unified voice of Jews throughout the world and therefore, anyone who opposes them is an anti-Semite.

We don’t learn that, up until the Second World War, vast numbers of Jews supported the parties of revolutionary socialism–a tradition that opposed Zionism. In 1905 Jews were 4 percent of the population in Russia but formed 11 percent of the Bolshevik Party and 23 percent of the Menshevik Party. In 1905, the anti-Zionist Bund, the revolutionary organization of Jewish workers, was roughly the same size as the Bolshevik Party.48 The socialist tradition condemned Zionism both for its solution to anti-Semitism and for its colonization of the Arabs. In 1910, the Jewish socialist Karl Kautsky defined Zionism as a "sport for philanthropists and men of letters" who wanted to make Palestine "a world ghetto for the isolation of the Jewish race." Later Kautsky expanded, "It is labor that gives people a right to the land in which it lives, thus Judaism can advance no claim on Palestine. On the basis of the right of labor and of democratic self-determination, today Palestine does not belong to the Jews of Vienna, London, or New York, who claim it for Judaism, but to the Arabs of the same country, the great majority of the population."49

It is not hard to see why many Jews were hostile to Zionism. Zionism called for a retreat from the struggle against anti-Semitism. But the socialist movement argued that the fight against anti-Semitism was central to the revolutionary struggle against capitalism. Thus on the one side stood the revolutionaries who organized Jews and non-Jews together to fight the pogroms, lead strikes, and overthrow the Tsarist regime that perpetuated Jewish oppression. On the other side stood the Zionists who collaborated with the Tsar and his butchers, stood aside from the struggles for self-defense, and sabotaged work in the unions. It was the revolutionary workers movement–and not Zionism–that offered a genuine hope for liberation for European Jews. Trotsky described how the workers of St. Petersberg came to the defense of Jews during the pogroms of 1905:

The workers made active preparations to defend their city. In certain cases whole plants undertook to go out into the streets at any threat of danger. The gun shops, ignoring all police restrictions, carried on a feverish trade in Brownings. But revolvers cost a great deal and the broad masses cannot afford them; the revolutionary parties and the Soviet had difficulty in arming their fighting detachments. Meanwhile rumors of a pogrom were growing. All plants and workshops having any access to iron or steel began, on their own initiative, to manufacture side-arms. Several thousand hammers were forging daggers, pikes, wire whips and knuckledusters. In the evening, at a meeting of the Soviet, one deputy after another mounted the rostrum, raising their weapons high above their heads and transmitting their electors’ solemn undertaking to suppress the pogrom as soon as it flared up. That demonstration alone was bound to paralyze all initiative among rank-and-file pogromists. But the workers did not stop there. In the factory areas, beyond the Nevsky Gate, they organized a real militia with regular night watches. In addition to this they ensured special protection of the buildings of the revolutionary press, a necessary step in those anxious days when the journalist wrote and the typesetter worked with a revolver in his pocket.50

Lenin and the Bolsheviks took an uncompromising position against anti-Semitism, seeing it as the key division and source of weakness in the Russian working class. Lenin argued that socialists must be the tribune of the oppressed, willing to fight every instance of anti-Semitism, regardless of what class of Jews were affected. But Lenin argued with equal force that in the revolutionary movement

[T]here must be complete fusion [between the Jewish proletariat and] the Russian proletariat, in the interests of the struggle being waged by the entire proletariat of Russia.… [W]e must act as a single and centralized militant organization, have behind us the whole of the proletariat, without distinction of language or nationality, a proletariat whose unity is cemented by the continual joint solution of problems of theory and practice, of tactics and organization; and we must not set up organizations that would march separately, each along its own track.51

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks abolished all racist laws against Jews and severely punished incidents of anti-Semitism. During the Civil War, the imperialist backed White Army in the Ukraine murdered as many as 60,000 Jews while the Bolshevik Red Army became the protectors of the Jewish communities in Poland and the Ukraine. One writer describes:

For the White Cossack cavalry, looting, rape, and murder were a way of life. Looting was forbidden in the Red Army. Anti-Semitism and pogroms were rife in the White Armies; anti-Semitic publications were banned in the Red Army. Pogromists were shot. In the Ukraine whole Jewish communities lived behind the Red Army lines, advancing when it advanced, retreating when it retreated.52

We should take pride in the record of the socialist movement and its principled opposition to anti-Semitism and all oppression. Today those same principles require us to side wholly with the Palestinians in their struggle against Israel. Next to the treacherous, counter-revolutionary record of Zionism, we must counterpose the best traditions in the workers movement of struggle and solidarity. Trotsky quotes a socialist observer to the events of 1905:

Side by side with this nightmare [of the pogroms]… see how majestically, with what astonishing fortitude, order and discipline, the workers’ movement developed. They did not defile themselves with murders or robberies; on the contrary, they came to the aid of the public everywhere, and, needless to say, protected the public far better than the police, the cossacks, or the gendarmes…. The workers’ armed detachments appeared wherever the hooligans began their foul work. This new force, entering the historical arena for the first time, showed itself calm in the consciousness of its right, moderate in the triumph of its ideals of liberty and goodness, organized and obedient like a real army that knows that its victory is the victory of everything for whose sake humanity lives, thinks, and rejoices, fights and suffers.53

1 "What is Zionism?" on the Anti-Defamation League Web site, at

2 Lenni Brenner, The Iron Wall: Zionist Revisionism from Jabotinsky to Shamir (London, Zed Books, 1984), p. 78.

3 "Policy Statement, December 2001" on the Americans for Peace Now Web site, The statement also demands that Arafat "join the world in fighting terror."

4 Leon Trotsky, 1905 (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), p. 131.

5 Trotsky, pp. 133-134.

6 Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism (New York: Schocken Books,1989), p. 46.

7 Arthur Hertzberg, The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1997), p. 213 and p. 222.

8 Laqueur, p. 93.

9 Laqueur, p. 109.

10 Hertzberg, p. 231.

11 Hertzberg, p. 240.

12 Quoted in Hertzberg, p. 209,214, 225.

13 Quoted in Brenner, p. 39.

14 Brenner, p. 42.

15 Quoted in Brenner, p. 14.

16 Quoted in Brenner, p. 15.

17 Quoted in Brenner, p. 15.

18 Quoted in Brenner, p. 16.

19 Quoted in Arie Bober, ed., The Other Israel: The Radical Case Against Zionism (New York: Doubleday, 1972) pp. 152-153.

20 Bober, p. 11.

21 Quoted in Ralph Schoenman, The Hidden History of Zionism (Santa Barbara, Calif.: Veritas, 1988), p. 41.

22 Quoted in Schoenman, p. 20.

23 Schoenman, pp. 27—28.

24 Winston Churchill, "Zionism versus Bolshevism," Illustrated Sunday Herald, February 8, 1920, online at 200208churchill.html.

25 Bober, p. 58.

26 Brenner, p. 21.

27 Bober, p. 12.

28 Vladimir Jabotinsky, "The Iron Wall," 1923, online at

29 Schoenman, pp. 24—25.

30 Tom Segev, The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1991) p. 23.

31 Segev, p. 23.

32 Segev, p. 23.

33 Schoenman p. 24.

34 Brenner, p. 142.

35 Segev, p. 50.

36 Segev, p. 18.

37 Segev, p. 42.

38 Segev, p. 43.

39 Segev, p. 99—100.

40 Segev, p. 98.

41 Segev, p. 57.

42 Segev, p. 172.

43 Segev, p. 129.

44 Quoted in Schoenman, p. 51.

45 See Segev, Part V, "The Kastner Affair" for a description of the trial. Ironically, the trial was a libel suit initiated by the Israeli government against Malkiel Greenwald, another Hungarian Jew, for accusing Kastner of collaboration with the Nazis. But in substance it ended up being a trial against Kastner. The trial ended with Greenwald’s acquittal, a decision later overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court. Kastner, meanwhile, was assassinated in 1957. Some believe he was killed by the Israeli government, which considered the Kastner affair an embarrassment.

46 Segev, p. 271. Kastner even distributed postcards to Jews awaiting deportation that said, "I have arrived. I am well."Upon arrival at Auschwitz, they were forced to send these cards back home.

47 Schoenman, pp. 52—53.

48 Enzo Traverso, The Marxists and Jewish Question: The History of a Debate (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1990) p. 39.

49 Traverso, p. 86.

50 Trotsky, pp. 137—138.

51 V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 6 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1985) Pp. 332—33.

52 John Rees, "In Defense of October," International Socialism 52, Autumn 1991, p. 46.

53 Trotsky, p. 137.

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