From one perspective nationalism appears to be a complex term. The varied definitions and many analyses attest to this. From another perspective, however, nationalism is a relatively simple term. The right of self-determination should allow individuals who do not oppress others to proclaim a nationalism for themselves and to establish a national group. This holds for both Jews and non-Jews.
During the last two centuries Jews have discussed and disagreed with one another about their own definition. The major issues have been: What is meant by the term the Jewish people? Are Jews a national group or a religious community? Have Jews remained an identifiable and distinguished group because of God, anti-Semitism, and/or something else? Political Zionism emerged from all this discussion and inner controversy as the pragmatically primary advocacy of Jewish nationalism. Its crowning glory came in 1948, when the state of Israel was established with a political Zionist character.
Although political Zionism is on balance a secular ideology, it has a religious component that distinguishes and sets it apart from non-Jewish nationalism. This religious component is the halachic (Judaic, traditional, religious law) stipulation for determining who is a Jew. According to the halacha, a Jew is a person who is either born of a Jewish mother or who converts to Judaism in a prescribed, traditional manner. Some Reform Jews consider a person to be a Jew if the father is a Jew. (Within Zionist circles and in the state of Israel this last point is controversial and is still being debated).
Political Zionism additionally accepts the biblical story of the history of the Jews without necessarily acknowledging God’s involvement, as described in the Bible. This de-emphasis of God is the major reason why many orthodox, religious Jews reject the ideology of political Zionism. The religious Jews, following a talmudic dictate, moreover, believe that the next truly Jewish state will be established only when the Messiah has arrived. These religious Jews, except for a small minority, are nevertheless fierce supporters of the Zionist state of Israel. They base their support upon the proposition that Jews should keep, and certainly not give away to enemies, the territory of the “holy land,” promised to them by God.
An exceptional strain of religious Zionism appeared within the ranks of traditional Judaism in the twentieth century. Rabbi Abraham HaCohen Kook, the Elder (1865-1935), who was appointed the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine by British mandate authorities, initiated religious Zionism and provided its theological essence. After the death in 1935 of Rabbi Kook, the Elder, his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook (1891-1983) became the movement’s spiritual and practical leader. Following the leadership of the two Rabbi Kooks, religious Zionists expanded their base and became increasingly more important. They built Jewish settlements in the West Bank after the June, 1967 war and became, as they have remained, extreme antagonists of the indigenous Palestinian population in the Israeli occupied territory.
The theology of religious Zionism, devised by Rabbi Kook, the Elder, posits that the messianic age has begun and that Jews therefore are justified in establishing the Jewish, Zionist state. Jews, by so doing, are supposedly engaging in a divinely inspired liberation movement. This movement, according to the teachings of both rabbis Kooks, will ultimately result in the coming of the Messiah and in the completed establishment of the true Jewish state. The theology of religious Zionism differs in some ways from other interpretations of traditional Judaism. Yet, as previously mentioned, these differences have not since 1948 prevented the Jews of these persuasions, with only a few exceptions, from supporting the continued existence of the Zionist state of Israel. Today, most traditionally religious Jews support the state of Israel in its current borders.
Be the above as it may, political Zionism, to reiterate, is primarily secular and as such, constitutes the essence of Israel’s character. Regardless of this, the religious, halachic definition of who is a Jew is, as already explained, essential in and for political Zionism. The employment of the biblical narrative of Jewish history, often without belief in most of the god-ideas, moreover, provides alleged justification for political Zionism. The Israeli public school system exemplifies the use of the biblical narrative. Today’s Israeli textbooks contain mostly the same over-all narrative as did earlier textbooks, dating back to and before 1948. Israeli Jews are taught, and most believe, this narrative. It matters little that this-worldly historical evidence for the biblical narrative is in many instances non-existent and in other instances thin. In this regard, it is interesting to note that an Israeli, Jewish historian, Shlomo Sand, in his recently published book, The Invention of the Jewish People, exposed, as other scholars in books and articles have done, this lack of historical evidence to support the biblical narrative. Sand’s book, written and published first in Hebrew and thereafter translated into and published in English, became a best-seller in Israel for many weeks but made no significant dent in the belief of Israeli Jews in the biblical narrative. Outside of Israel, especially in the United States Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular, also generally believe in the biblical narrative with or without the God motif.
At the heart-center of the Zionism of Israel’s character is an absolute theory of anti-Semitism. This theory maintains that Jews have been, are being, and/or will be persecuted by non-Jews in all nation-states in which Jews are a minority. Jews, according to this theory, therefore need a nation-state of their own, wherein they begin as the majority, hopefully of the residents, but certainly of the citizens, and then maintain their majority status. Although explained earlier by some precursors, this theory was concretized in the 1890s by Theodore Herzl, who became the father of political Zionism. Since the time of Herzl, Zionist theoreticians have at times disagreed with one another on some points, but most of them have consistently advocated the creation and continued existence of a demographically Jewish state in order to guarantee safety for Jews.
Herzl, a Jewish Viennese journalist (1860-1904), was not religious and did not originally designate historic Palestine as the locale for the Jewish state. At first he favored establishing the Jewish state in a part of Argentina. Influenced by other Zionists and believing that dealing with the Turks to establish the Jewish state in part of the Ottoman Empire was possible, Herzl came to favor Palestine. He naively thought that his idea of a secular, Jewish state would end anti-Semitism. His goal was to attain security for persecuted Jews. He asserted that a Jewish state could accomplish this goal. In his biography of Herzl the acclaimed Jewish writer, Amos Elon, regarded Herzl as a man of peace, who was convinced, “that Jews and Arabs could live together peacefully and amicably for the benefit of both.” (Amos Elon, Herzl, p. 407) Herzl regarded his Zionist project as an act of historical reconciliation between Gentile and Jew.
Herzl and his early Zionist colleagues were complacent about Arabs. They viewed Palestine as being ninety percent under-populated; they emphasized that Jews and Arabs could and would get along well with one another, when and if Jews had a state of their own in historic Palestine. At the second Zionist congress, held in Basle between August 28 and 31, 1898 neither Herzl nor other Zionist leaders contemplated that Arabs, especially those living in Palestine, would be antagonistic to the attempt to establish a Jewish state. Nor did these Zionist leaders foresee that the Jewish state would be established by war and sustained by bloodshed. They considered themselves humane and just advocates of a worthwhile cause: the salvation of a persecuted people, the Jews. They were convinced that the Arabs of Palestine would welcome them and their enterprise and would be delighted by the prospect of a Jewish state in their midst. How wrong they were!
From the late 19th century until the state of Israel came into existence in 1948 a minority of outstanding Jews, who regarded themselves as Zionists, disagreed with and directly challenged Herzlian political Zionism. Asher Ginsberg, an acclaimed Russian Jewish essayist, known primarily by his Hebrew pen name, Ahad Ha’am (1856-1927), was an opponent of Herzl and one of the foremost pre-state, Zionist thinkers. Ahad Ha’am was the founder of what became known as cultural Zionism. With a secular vision of establishing a Jewish spiritual center in Palestine, he confronted political Zionism. Ahad Ha’am believed that the establishment of such a spiritual center in Palestine could become an exemplary model for Jews around the world and would inspire a revival of Jewish national life in the Diaspora. Only after this had been accomplished would the Jewish people allegedly be sufficiently strong to build a nation-state in Palestine. This nation-state, he maintained, would need to be established carefully so as not to hurt the Arab population in the area and thus arouse their antagonism. This nation-state would be able to inspire Jewish nationalism for Jews who wished to remain in the Diaspora.
Ahad Ha’am wanted the increase of Jewish immigration to Palestine to be slow and gradual. He underlined that all Jews did not need to immigrate to Palestine. He wanted and expected the Jews who came to Palestine to live amicably with the Arab population, which he obviously believed was possible. He warned that Herzl’s program would antagonize the Arabs and cause conflict. Ahad Ha’am split from the Zionist movement after the first Zionist congress was held in Basle in 1897. He nevertheless continued to declare and define himself as a Zionist.
Influenced by the ideas of Ahad Ha’am, Martin Buber (1878-1945) and Judah Magnes (1877-1948) were ardent Zionists, who actively opposed the developing mainstream of political Zionism and sought to reshape the Zionist movement. Buber, a noted German philosopher, came to Palestine in 1938 and joined the faculty at the Hebrew University. Magnes, a Reform rabbi, helped found the Hebrew University, became its first chancellor in 1925 and served as university president from 1935 to 1948. Both Buber and Magnes wanted to reconcile Judaism, as they interpreted it, with Zionism in a, “universal humanitarian framework.” (For a fuller, more in-depth discussion see my article, “Humanitarian Dissent in Zionism: Martin Buber and Judah Magnes,” in Judaism Or Zionism: What Difference for the Middle East, 1986.) They considered Zionism to be an expression of Jewish nationalism that could liberate Jews from their “fractured and incomplete existence in the Diaspora.” The building of a Jewish national home in Palestine, which they regarded as the historic land of Zion for Jews, would supposedly initiate this liberation and provoke a Jewish renaissance.
Buber and Magnes objected to the idea that an exclusive Jewish nation-state was either necessary or desirable for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. They did advocate that Jews, who so desired, should be encouraged and allowed to immigrate to Palestine in gradually increasing numbers. They, however, did not think that all Jews in the world needed to or should immigrate to Palestine. Magnes repeatedly stated that Jews and Jewish values could flourish in the Diaspora as well as in Palestine, if inspired by Zionism and the existence of a Jewish national home.
Baber and Magnes, together with some other like-minded Jewish colleagues including a number of intellectuals, understood and appreciated that the Arabs in Palestine constituted the indigenous population and had their own legitimate claim to the land. These Zionists maintained that the correct blending of Zionism and humanitarianism should not seek to deprive the Arabs of their land or their nationalism. These Zionists preached equal protection for Arab and Jewish rights. Buber stated on September 5, 1921 at the twelfth Zionist congress, held in Karlsbad, Czechoslovakia: “Our national desire to renew the life of the people of Israel in their ancient homeland is not aimed against any other people…. We do not aspire to return to the land of Israel with which we have inseparable historical and spiritual ties in order to suppress another people or to dominate them…Our return to the land of Israel will come about through increasing immigration and constant growth….Our settlement which is exclusively devoted to the rescue of our people and their renewal is not aimed at the capitalistic exploitation of the region-nor does it serve any imperialistic aims whatsoever.” (See: “Rede dif dem XII, Zionisten congress in Karlsbad, 2 September, 1921,” in Martin Buber, Kampf un Israel: Reden und Schripten (Schochen, Berlin, 1933), p. 225-42.)
Buber, Magnes and other colleagues became fully aware shortly after 1921 that the majority faction of the Zionist movement agreed with the Herzlian political approach, which demonstrably had little regard for another peoples rights. The Buber-Magnes group at first attempted to change the Zionist movement from within. They advocated a bi-national state, maintained that the Arabs were and would remain the majority in Palestine and opposed the establishment in a part of Palestine of a state with a Jewish majority. Disheartened by their being unable to change the movement from within, they established the League of Jewish-Arab Rapprochement and Cooperation in 1942. The league’s platform called for a bi-national state in Palestine with equal rights for Arabs and Jews.
A few, small Zionist parties joined the league. At a political gathering on August 11, 1942 Buber, Magnes and others in the League reorganized and established Ihud, a separate political party. From 1943 until the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 Ihud members argued that neither the Jews nor the Arabs needed a separate state of their own in Palestine in order to develop freely their potential. Buber, speaking for Ihud, in a brilliant 50-minute presentation in June, 1947 on Dutch radio stressed Jewish-Arab cooperation and the concept of a bi-national state.
After the creation of the Jewish state, Buber and his friends, individually and jointly as members of Ihud, strongly criticized the government of the state of Israel for expropriating Arab lands and denying basic human rights to Palestinians. Throughout the remainder of his life, Buber continued to criticize the Israeli government for its treatment of the Palestinian minority in the state. As Buber grew older, he worried increasingly about the horrendous potential of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He emphasized the great need for peaceful reconciliation between Arabs and Jews along the lines he had advocated for many decades. In his last published essay in New Outlook in February, 1965, shortly before his death, he wrote: “Undoubtedly the fate of the Near East depends upon the question whether Israel and the Arab people will reach a mutual understanding before it is too late. We do not know how much time is given us to try.”
Ahad Ha’am, Buber, Magnes and a few of their colleagues influenced some people with their advocacy of humanitarian Zionism, but they failed to thwart the growing acceptance of Herzlian political Zionism. Before the 1930’s most Zionist theoreticians and advocates believed and emphasized that the Jewish problem could only be solved by establishing a Jewish state in which Jews would constitute the majority of citizens and maintain control. After the Holocaust large segments of the world-wide Jewish population and impressive numbers of non-Jews, who had previously either rejected or had not concerned themselves with Zionism, accepted this idea and aided the Zionist movement.
The crowning achievement of the Zionist movement was the establishment in 1948 of the state of Israel in the Zionist image. The Zionism of Israel’s character has since then remained basically unaltered in essence, even though the state has expanded territorially, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has worsened and Israeli demands that Arabs accept the legitimacy of Zionism have increased. This character has created the conceptual framework for severe oppression of the indigenous population of Palestinians, which in turn has at times stimulated militant, terror attacks against Israeli Jews by some Palestinians.
Viewed from any reasonable perspective, the Zionism of Israeli character is not a positive expression of Jewish nationalism. The state of Israel is exclusive, discriminatory, and anti-democratic. The Zionist emphasis upon the continued existence of a demographically Jewish state, which is embodied in Israel’s framework, makes it so. The Israeli Declaration of Independence does not declare the existence of a sovereign, independent state of those who live there. Rather, it declares a Jewish state for all the Jews of the world.
In logical sequence the state of Israel, lacking a constitution, has by legislation created two classes of citizenship: one for Jews and another for non-Jews. Jews can become citizens of Israel merely by going there and opting for this citizenship. Non-Jews must apply formally for citizenship; their applications are then either accepted or rejected by the government, often without explanation. By Zionist definition, therefore, the state of Israel’s citizenship or nationality base cannot allow any significant numbers of non-Jews to become citizens—something more non-Jews might do were the procedures for obtaining citizenship more democratic. (The exception here is that children of Palestinian citizens of Israel become citizens automatically.)
In Zionism the demographically Jewish character of the state cannot be threatened. Moshe Dayan, for example, made this clear after the June, 1967 war in replying publically to a news reporter’s questioning about Israel’s ability to absorb the Arab population in the recently occupied territories. Dayan Said: “Economically we can, but I think that is not in accord with our aims in the future; it would turn Israel into either a bi-national or poly-national Arab Jewish state instead of the Jewish state. We can absorb them, but then we won’t be the same country.” (Quoted by I.F. Stone in “For a New Approach to the Israeli-Arab Conflict,” in the New York Review of Books, Aug. 3, 1967, p.3.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, stated the same idea earlier: “…Israel is the country of the Jews and only of the Jews. Every Arab who lives here has the same rights as any minority citizen in any country in the world, but he must admit the part that he lives in a Jewish country.” (Ibid.)
Prime minister Golda Meir put it even more clearly in a debate in the Knesset, (the Israeli parliament) on June 25, 1969: “I want a Jewish state with a decisive Jewish majority which cannot change overnight… I always believed [this] was plain Zionism.” (As quoted in the Jerusalem Post, June 16, 1969, p.8.)
What occurred between March and September, 1948 provides a major example of Zionist oppression of the Palestinian indigenous population. On March 10, 1948 a group of Zionist leaders and young military officers finalized and began to institute “plan dalet” in order to cleanse Palestine of hundreds of Palestinians and to lay the groundwork for the confiscation of their land by the government of Israel after that state became a reality. As Ilan Pappe, an Israeli Jewish Historian, has written in his well-documented book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine: “…This plan was both the inevitable product of the Zionist ideological impulse to have an exclusively Jewish presence in Palestine, and a response to developments on the ground once the British Cabinet had decided to end the mandate. Clashes with local Palestinian militia provided the perfect concept and pretext for implementing the vision of an ethnically cleansed Palestine. The Zionist policy was first based on retaliations against Palestinian attacks in February, 1947, and it transformed into an initiative to ethnically cleanse the country as a whole in 1948.” (p. xiii)
David Ben-Gurion in his book, Rebirth and Destiny of Israel, confirmed much of the above by candidly writing: “Until the British left (May 15, 1948) no Jewish settlement, however remote, was entered or seized by Arabs, while the Haganah captured many positions and liberated Tiberias and Haifa, Jafa and Safad… so on the day of destiny, that part of Palestine, where the Haganah could operate was almost clear of Arabs.” (p. 530)
The ethnic cleansing mission was completed in six months. More than one-half of the then indigenous Palestinian population, nearly 800,000 were uprooted, 531 villages were destroyed and eleven urban neighborhoods were emptied of inhabitants. Such ethnic cleansing is today regarded under international law as a crime against humanity. The massacres of Palestinians by Jewish militants, also well documented in both Arab and Israeli sources and written about in some detail by Arab and Jewish historians, make the case even against this Zionist endeavor even more horrible.
The traditional Israeli Zionist version of what happened underplays the massacres of Palestinians and argues that Palestinians voluntarily left their homes and properties. They were allegedly often pushed to do so by Arab governments, in order to allow Arab armies to invade and presumably destroy the Jewish state shortly after its establishment. Walid Khalidi and other Arab historians refuted this Zionist case convincingly from Arab sources before the 1980’s. Beginning in the mid-1980’s, a group of Israeli Jewish scholars, known as the new Jewish historians, were able to study Jewish militant and Israeli sources in the recently opened Israeli State Archives. These Israeli historians with Israeli State Archive sources and Arab sources have disproven the traditional Zionist version. Even Benny Morris, one of these “new” Jewish Historians, who disregarded Arab sources showing the horrible treatment of Palestinians by Jewish forces and has in the past few years argued that in 1948 more Palestinians should have been moved out of what became the state of Israel, clearly documented from Israeli sources that the argument of Palestinians leaving their lands and homes voluntarily is a myth.
Between 1950 and 1953 the Knesset passed the absent-present law (1950) and additional land requisition laws. These laws legalized the Israeli government’s take-over of Palestinian lands in 1948 by stipulating that the land, left absent by Palestinian owners at designated times, became the property of the Israeli government. Ethnic cleansing was thus given legal sanction by the Israeli government.
Palestinians regard what happened in 1948 as the “Nakba” or great catastrophe. Many of the Palestinians forced off their land went into nearby Arab countries and settled in refuge camps. Palestinian refugee camps still exist. The great majority of the people living in those camps, some of whom are grandchildren of those driven out in 1948, are poor and without citizenship. Their resentment is understandably great. They blame Zionism and the Zionist state for what happened to them, their parents and their grandparents. The consistent Israeli, Zionist rejection of any acceptance of a right of return for uprooted Palestinians or their children exacerbates the situation.
Within the Israel of pre-June, 1967 borders, moreover, over ninety percent of all arable farmland has been designated Jewish national fund land. As such this land cannot be sold, rented or leased to non-Jews, which includes the 1.4 million Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel. This type of legislation is designed to help keep Israel an exclusively Jewish state. Numerous other laws, granting Jewish citizens rights and privileges not granted to non-Jews, illustrates that in the Zionist state Jews are the favored, first-class citizens and non-Jews are at best second class citizens.
The expansionist design of Israel’s Zionist character became even clearer after the 1967 war. Israel has annexed the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, has confiscated—and continues to confiscate—Palestinian land in the West Bank, has built Jewish settlements, and moved over 500,000 Jewish settlers to the West Bank. This retention of occupied territory is in keeping with Israeli policy, expressed after the 1967 War. Both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbis stated after the war that they, speaking as religious Jews, would consider the giving up of any occupied territory by the Israeli government a sin. (There was disagreement among rabbis and religious, Israeli Jews when Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt in exchange for a peace treaty in 1979.) Moshe Dayan, presumably speaking for his government, declared to some American Jewish college students on the Golan Heights in the summer of 1968: “During the last one hundred years our people have been in the process of building up the country and the nation, of giving additional Jews additional settlements in order to expand the borders here. Let no Jew say the process has ended; let no Jew say we are near the end of the road.” (as reported in the Israeli Hebrew newspaper, Maariv, July, 1969, p. 2.)
The Israeli confiscation of Palestinian land in the West Bank, including annexed East Jerusalem, since the end of the 1967 war has steadily increased and is still occurring. The building of the wall in the West Bank has in recent years been instrumental in furthering this expansion. Palestinians have objected but to no avail. West Bank Palestinians have suffered and are still suffering from numerous human rights violations, committed by the Israeli government. Travel restrictions, enforced by the Israeli government, hinder movement of Palestinians and at times create serious problems, e.g. in transporting perishable fruit and vegetables and in bringing pregnant women to hospitals. In order to combat outbreaks of violence and/or to retaliate against Palestinian terrorist attacks, the Israeli army has often responded with excessive force, which has included killing, wounding and destroying houses of innocent civilians.
Even more than in the West Bank, the Israeli government has used excessive military force against Palestinians in Gaza. This has especially been the case since 2006, when Hamas gained political control of that area. The well-known, Israeli rationale is that the use of force is in retaliation for rocket attacks into Israel from Gaza. Israel has additionally oppressed Palestinian in Gaza by invoking a blockade that has presented importation of certain goods and has succeeded in keeping a large percentage of Gazans at or below the line of subsistence. Almost all international human rights organizations concerned with Gaza and many nation-state governments have severely criticized Israel for its actions in Gaza.
Zionists have used excessive force against Arabs, most especially Palestinians, since the 1920s when Vladimir Jabotinsky, a revisionist Zionist theoretician, devised this strategy as part of his iron wall theory. The problem for Israel and Zionism is that it has not worked successfully. Since the June, 1967 war the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza has more than doubled. There are presently about two million Palestinians in the West Bank and at least one and one-half million in Gaza. Neither the Palestinians nor other Arabs have yielded to Israel. The conflict has intensified. The Palestinians in the occupied territories are more antagonized than ever before. Israel is consistently confiscating Arab land but does not know what to do with the increasing Palestinian population, which is now nearly as large as the Jewish population in the one state of Israel and the occupied territories. And to add to the Israeli demographic concern, the Palestinian birthrate is far higher than the Israeli Jewish birthrate.
It should be obvious that Zionism is not a positive expression of Jewish nationalism. The Zionist emphasis upon an exclusively Jewish state that grants rights and privileges to Jews not granted to non-Jews is not democratic. This emphasis, moreover, establishes the context for the oppression of the indigenous Palestinian population. Indeed, policies of and actions by the Zionist state of Israel have ruthlessly and progressively oppressed Palestinians. This in turn has caused antagonism and has led to violent actions by some Palestinians. Prime Minister Natanyahu has laid down a Zionist condition for any forthcoming discussions with a Palestinian political leadership. The condition is that Palestinians and other Arabs accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state of Israel, which, if done, would undermine and threaten Palestinians even more. Natanyahu must know that his condition will not be accepted. The Zionism of Israel’s character thus blocks any real movement towards peaceful resolution of the conflict.