Zionism: False Messiah (International Socialist Review)

International Socialist Review Issue 4, Spring 1998

Zionism: False Messiah
By Lance Selfa

FIFTY YEARS ago in May, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, proclaimed the founding of the State of Israel. Immediately, Jewish commandos in Palestine launched what Israel called its “War of Independence.” When Israel concluded an armistice with the armies of Egypt, Transjordan and Syria in 1949, more than 750,000 Palestinians had been forced to flee from their homes. They became refugees from their own country, which the Jewish Zionist armies now controlled. The founding of Israel marked the culmination of a 50-year-long campaign, waged by political Zionists, to establish a Jewish state.

The Zionists claimed that they expressed world Jewry’s yearning for “national liberation.” Yet, if Zionism was a movement for national liberation, it was like no other. Rather than seeking to break free from imperialism, it actively courted patronage from imperialist powers. Rather than promising self-determination to the people of Palestine–the vast majority of whom were Arab–it expelled them. And rather than representing a widely popular expression of the fight against national oppression, Zionism counted as little more than a sect for most of its existence prior to the Second World War.

No doubt all sorts of distorted history and ideological claptrap will accompany the media’s “celebration” of Israel’s 50th anniversary. This is understandable, if only because the real history of Zionism and Israel is so sordid.

What Is Zionism?

Political Zionism, “a doctrine which, starting from the postulate of the incompatibility of the Jews and the Gentiles, advocated massive emigration to an underdeveloped country with the aim of establishing a Jewish state,”1 developed as a response to an upsurge of anti-Jewish racism (anti-Semitism) in Europe at the end of the last century. In Western Europe, the formation of openly anti-Semitic political parties challenged the assumption of many middle-class Jews that they could simply blend into (or “assimilate” into) non-Jewish society. In the Russian Empire, where the majority of world Jewry lived, Jews fell victim as the feudal order gave way to capitalist economic development. As feudalism collapsed, Jews lost the specific roles they had played as money lenders and organizers of commerce in the feudal economy. Forced out of the feudal economy, Jewish artisans and shopkeepers fell into competition with non-Jews (Gentiles). Meanwhile, capitalist development destroyed the artisanal economy, turning artisans and craftspeople into wage workers. These two processes–the destruction of the feudal economy and the undermining of the artisanal economy–combined in less than 50 years to create a massive Jewish working class in Eastern Europe. These wrenching changes in the position of Jews in society impelled millions of Jews to emigrate from Eastern Europe. Those who stayed behind often faced pogroms, anti-Jewish riots. Taking advantage of rising anti-Semitism among the Gentile middle class and seeking to keep the Jewish working class divided from its Gentile brothers and sisters, Tsarist police stirred up pogroms against the Jews.2

This atmosphere of despair and oppression stirred several responses in the Jewish population, among them a growing nationalism. Nathan Weinstock emphasizes that “…Jewish nationalism, in particular, its Zionist variant, was an absolutely new conception born of the socio-political context of Eastern Europe in the 19th century.”3 For centuries, the idea of a return to “Zion” (i.e., the “Holy Land” in Palestine) occupied a significant place in Judaism, but this belief had no political significance. Passover’s ritual toasts to “next year in Jerusalem” didn’t imply the desire to found a Jewish state with its “eternal capital” there. Jewish religious pilgrims emigrated to Palestine in the late 1800s to form religious communities, not to establish a state. Yet political Zionism had just that goal in mind.

Political Zionism received its most powerful statement in The Jewish State, an 1896 tract by Jewish Austrian journalist Theodore Herzl, considered the “father” of political Zionism. Herzl, a widely traveled man, covered the 1894 Paris trial of Colonel Albert Dreyfus, a Jewish military officer whom French military authorities framed as a spy. The Dreyfus Affair brought out shocking displays of anti-Semitism from official French society. On the other hand, it also spurred an international antiracist campaign led by the Gentile journalist and novelist Emile Zola. Mass pressure–which the socialist movement helped to organize–forced the French government to retry Dreyfus. The courts later found “extenuating circumstances” to lessen Dreyfus’ sentence. The outcry against the Dreyfus trial dealt severe blows to the French right and institutions like the army and the Catholic Church, which stoked anti-Semitism. One could have read the Dreyfus case as an example of the potential for Jews and non-Jews to unite to fight anti-Semitism. Herzl did not. As he later wrote in his Diary: “In Paris…I achieved a freer attitude toward anti-Semitism, which I now began to understand historically and to pardon. Above all, I recognized the emptiness and futility of trying to combat anti-Semitism.”4

Herzl’s “pardoning” of anti-Semitism reflected a core assumption of Zionism–a belief that all non-Jews are anti-Semites. Anti-Semitism is “like a psychic affliction, it is hereditary and as a disease has been incurable for 2,000 years,” wrote Leo Pinsker, a Zionist contemporary of Herzl.5 If persecution or death awaited Jews who tried to assimilate into largely Gentile societies, then the only solution to the “Jewish problem” would be the physical separation of Jews and non-Jews. It followed that only a Jewish state could provide a haven from persecution. On this point, the Zionists and anti-Semites converged. Both believed Jews to be a “foreign” presence in Gentile society. And both believed that Gentile society would be better off without Jews.

Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. Two hundred delegates from 17 countries authorized the creation of the World Zionist Organization to campaign for a “publicly recognized, legally secured homeland in Palestine.” Later, Herzl modestly claimed: “If I were to sum up the Basel congress in a single phrase, I would say, ‘In Basel, I created the Jewish State.'”6 Yet Herzl found one major problem in building the Jewish state in Palestine. Very few Jews were interested in it. Between 1880 and 1929, almost 4 million Jews emigrated from Russia, Austria-Hungary, Poland, Romania and other countries. Only 120,000 of them immigrated to Palestine. More than 3 million immigrated to the U.S. and Canada. In 1914, there were only about 12,000 members of Zionist organizations in the U.S. At the same time, there were as many Jewish members of the Socialist Party in the Lower East Side neighborhoods of New York’s Manhattan!7

Socialism and the Fight Against Anti-Semitism

Unlike Herzl, socialists defended Jews who faced persecution. Socialists also combated anti-Jewish racism as a poison to the workers movement. In this period, Auguste Bebel, a leader of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), denounced anti-Semitism as “the socialism of fools” for diverting workers from their true enemy, the ruling class, onto Jewish scapegoats. Karl Kautsky, another German SPD leader, argued that the differentiation of the Jewish population into classes meant that the condition of the Jews would be bound up inextricably with the overall working-class movement. Connecting the fight against anti-Semitism to the fight for workers’ power became the Marxist approach to fighting anti-Semitism.8 Because socialists stressed the need to fight anti-Semitism in the countries where most Jews lived, the socialist movement recruited Jews in large numbers.

Many Jews played active roles as founders, leaders and activists in the socialist parties in Europe. Count Witte, the Tsar’s finance minister, once complained to Herzl that Jews “comprise about 50 percent of the membership of the revolutionary parties,” while constituting only 5 percent of the Russian Empire’s population.9 One such party that earned Witte’s hatred was the General Jewish Workers League, known as the Jewish Bund. The Bund, launched in 1897–the same year as Herzl’s Zionist Congress–became Russia’s first mass socialist organization. It bitterly opposed the Zionists’ calls for a Jewish state. Over the course of the next decade, the Bund grew among Jewish workers, swelling to 40,000 members in Russia during the 1905 Russian Revolution. In the revolutionary period, Jewish socialists–both in the Bund and in the other socialist parties–assumed leadership of the working-class and communal organizations in Jewish communities.

The Bund opposed political Zionism, but it accommodated to Jewish nationalism. Because of this, Lenin and other Russian revolutionaries engaged in fierce polemics with Bund leaders. In the 1903 founding congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), Bund leaders argued for the official right to represent and to speak for Jewish workers inside the broader Russian socialist movement. Lenin and prominent Jewish socialists such as Martov and Trotsky opposed the Bund. Lenin argued the Bund was wrong to “legitimize Jewish isolation, by propagating the idea of a Jewish ‘nation'”. Socialists’ task was “not to segregate nations, but to unite the workers of all nations,” Lenin later wrote. “Our banner does not carry the slogan ‘national culture’ but international culture.” The Bund lost the vote to represent Jewish workers and subsequently left the RSDLP.10

The 1917 October Revolution showed what the socialist strategy for Jewish emancipation meant in practice. In a country where the Tsar and his henchman used anti-Semitism to divide workers, Russian workers elected to leading roles in the revolutionary government Jewish Bolsheviks like Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Sverdlov. The revolution declared freedom of religion and abolished Tsarist restrictions on education and residence for Jews. During the 1918-1922 Civil War against counterrevolutionary armies which slaughtered Jews by the thousands, the revolutionary Red Army meted out stern punishment–including execution–to any pogromists in its ranks. In the workers’ government, Yiddish was given equal status with other languages. A Commisariat of Jewish Affairs and a special Jewish Commission inside the Bolshevik Party simultaneously worked to involve Jews in the affairs of the workers’ state and to win the Jewish masses to socialism. The revolution’s early years saw an unprecedented flowering of Yiddish and Jewish cultural life. In 1926-27, over half of the Jewish school population attended Yiddish schools and 10 state theaters performed Yiddish plays. By the late 1920s, nearly 40 percent of the Jewish working population worked for the government.11

Thus, by the 1920s, the Zionists had been marginalized on all sides. The majority of the world’s Jews clearly showed their desire to emigrate to Western countries. And thousands of Jews who remained in Eastern Europe fought for a better life, winning solidarity from many of their Gentile brothers and sisters. By 1927, as many people left Palestine as migrated to it. The entire Zionist enterprise seemed in doubt.12

Appealing to Imperialism

When they embarked on their campaign for a Jewish homeland, the Zionists didn’t let any ideological attachment to Palestine stand in their way. In fact, in the first years after Herzl formed the World Zionist Organization, Zionists debated a number of alternative targets for colonization: Uganda, Angola, North Africa. In 1903, Herzl accepted a British government proposal to colonize Jews in Uganda, a decision which proved controversial in Zionist ranks. Herzl’s death in 1904 put an end to colonization schemes outside of Palestine. Yet the debate on alternative sites for the Jewish state exposed the Zionist enterprise in two respects. First, it showed that political Zionism placed the colonizing project ahead of any 2,000-year longing for Jewish people to “return” to Palestine. Second, it showed that, from its inception, Zionism depended on European powers’ sponsorship of its colonial-settler aims.

Early Zionists made no secret that they hoped the Jewish state to be what Herzl called: “a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.”13 Herzl’s writings abound with praise for the leading imperialist powers in Europe. Herzl admired the German Kaiser’s dictatorship: “To live under the protection of a strong, great, moral, splendidly governed and thoroughly organized Germany is certain to have most salutary effects upon the national character of the Jews.”14 In 1902, he wrote to Lord Rothschild, a British Zionist with connections in the highest reaches of the British state: “So far, you [the British empire] still have elbow room. Nay, you may claim high credit from your government if you strengthen British influences in the Near East by a substantial colonization of our people at the strategic point where Egyptian and Indo-Persian interests converge.”15 Zionism’s founders exuded pro-imperialist racism against what they considered the “backward peoples” of Asia and Africa.

When it came to seeking imperialist sponsors, the Zionists had no scruples about dealing with any regime, no matter how rotten or anti-Semitic. Herzl himself negotiated for increased Jewish emigration to Palestine with Vyacheslav von Plehve, the Russian Tsar’s Interior Minister and architect of one of the worst pogroms in history at Kishinev in the Russian Empire in 1903. During the First World War, leading Zionists ingratiated themselves to British imperialism. They hoped that Britain would reward them after it defeated the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Palestine. They achieved their goal with the 1917 declaration by Tory politician Lord Balfour. The Balfour Declaration proclaimed British support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” under British protection. That Balfour had sponsored legislation to bar Jewish immigrants from Britain in 1905 didn’t faze the Zionists.

The Balfour Declaration grew out of discussions between France and Britain over the carve up of the Ottoman Empire’s lands following the First World War. In 1915, British Cabinet Minister Herbert Samuel proposed that Britain establish a Jewish protectorate in Palestine. The Cabinet majority opposed the plan. “Curiously enough, the only other partisan of this proposal is Lloyd George, who, I need not say, does not care a damn for the Jews or their past or their future, but thinks it will be an outrage to let the Holy Places pass into the possession or under the protectorate of ‘agnostic, atheistic France,'” wrote Samuel.16 Yet two years later, Britain issued the Balfour Declaration. What had changed in Britain’s calculations? One clue comes from the fact that Britain issued the Balfour Declaration days before the October Revolution in Russia. Both Britain and the Zionists saw a Jewish state as a bulwark of imperialism against the spread of Bolshevism. Winston Churchill, then a Tory Cabinet Minister, later explained Britain’s motivations in meeting Zionists’ expectations: “a Jewish state under the protection of the British Crown…would from every point of view be beneficial and would be especially in harmony with the truest interests of the British Empire.” Chief among those interests was stopping Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky’s “schemes of a world-wide communistic state under Jewish domination.” Thus, Churchill showed himself to be both an ardent Zionist and a rabid anti-Semite!17

Zionism: Left and Right

Under the Balfour Declaration, Britain promised the Zionists both Palestine and Transjordan (modern-day Jordan). Pressure from Arab countries forced Britain to renege on the promise of Transjordan in 1922. The Zionist movement’s mainstream, led by David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizman, accepted Britain’s decision. Later, they agreed to accept British decisions to limit Jewish immigration into Palestine. This provoked a major split in the Zionist movement as a minority, led by Polish writer Vladimir Jabotinsky, protested Ben-Gurion’s and Weizman’s realpolitik.Jabotinsky argued that Zionists should insist on capturing “both sides of the Jordan” and refuse to abide by any limitations the British imposed. To placate Arab opinion, the World Zionist Organization called its colony in Palestine “a homeland.” But Jabotinsky insisted that Zionists speak openly of their goal to build a Jewish state in Palestine. Jabotinsky’s program amounted to a call for revising the World Zionist Organization’s strategy, thereby earning his followers the description “Revisionists” in the Zionist movement.

Jabotinsky wrote bluntly in his 1923 essay, “The Iron Wall”:

We cannot give any compensation for Palestine, neither to the Palestinians nor to other Arabs. Therefore, a voluntary agreement is inconceivable. All colonization, even the most restricted, must continue in defiance of the will of the native population. Therefore, it can continue and develop only under the shield of force which comprises an Iron Wall which the local population can never break through. This is our Arab policy. To formulate it any other way would be hypocrisy.18

Jabotinsky posed the first major challenge to the dominance in mainstream Zionism of the ideology of “Labor Zionism.” Labor Zionism, which traced its roots to the Eastern European Poale Zion movement in the early 1900s, dominated all of the major institutions of Zionism and of theyishuv, the Jewish settler community in Palestine. If the Bund represented socialists who caved in to nationalism, the Labor Zionists represented nationalists who used socialist-sounding rhetoric to win supporters away from genuine socialist parties.

The defining institutions of Labor Zionism in pre-state Palestine were the Histadrut “trade union,” the General Confederation of Workers in the Land of Israel, and the kibbutzim, a network of communal settlements which some have compared to utopian socialist communities. Both of these institutions carried over into the state of Israel. Many supporters of Israel even point to them as evidence of “socialism” in the Zionist enterprise. Yet this is another part of the Zionist story where myth collides with reality.

When it was launched, the Histadrut strictly limited its membership to Jewish workers. Only in 1960 did it it officially allow Israeli citizen Palestinian Arabs to join it. One year after its founding, it owned a holding company and a bank. The capital for these ventures came not from theHistadrut’s original 5,000 members, but from the international Zionist movement’s Jewish Agency. In other words, the Histadrut subsisted (and continues to subsist) on its role as a conduit for investment from world Zionism. The Histadrut formed the backbone of the Jewish “state-in-waiting, controlling the mainstream of Zionist colonization efforts, economic production and marketing, labor employment and defense (theHaganah).”19 One of its early leaders (and later Israeli Defense Minister) Pinhas Lavon described it this way: “Our Histadrut is a general organization to the core. It is not a workers’ trade union although it copes perfectly well with the real needs of the worker.”20

Kibbutzim also restricted membership to Jews only. Kibbutz land was defined as being the possession of “the nation,” which in pre-state and Israeli law was defined as being the property of the “Jewish people.” Therefore, no Arab can hope to join a kibbutz. What is more, in the pre-state period,kibbutzim served as forward military bases in the strategic plan of Zionist settlement. The “strategic consideration which had underlain the plan of Zionist settlement, decided, in large measure, the fate of many regions of the country” because Haganah militia detachments attacked Palestinians from kibbutz bases.21

Until 1977, when self-described terrorist Menachem Begin became Israel’s first Revisionist prime minister, the Labor Zionists effectively represented “Zionism” in most people’s minds. But Labor–the Zionist “left”–and the Revisionists–the Zionist “right”–differed on means, rather than ends. Both supported an exclusively Jewish state. Like apartheid South Africa’s rulers, the Revisionists were willing to employ the native Palestinian population. Labor sought to replace Palestinian workers with Jewish workers. Both looked for support from imperialism. Labor Zionists oriented towards British and the U.S. imperialism. The Revisionists made overtures to the Italian and German fascism.22

Colonizing Palestine

The Zionists tried to convince themselves that Palestine was an unoccupied land. Yet for more than 1,300 years, a Muslim Arab majority–living side by side with Jews and Christians–had resided in the Ottoman province. In 1882, Palestine held a population of 24,000 Jews and 500,000 Arabs. By 1922, after more than two decades of Zionist-sponsored immigration, the country had a population of nearly 760,000, 89 percent of it Palestinian Arab.23

Zionists purchased land–and a foothold in Palestine–from absentee Arab landowners in the 1920s. Later, in the 1930s, rich Palestinians sold their land to Zionists. Individual Jewish “pioneers” didn’t buy the land. Zionist organizations like the Jewish National Fund bought land to provide a foundation for Jewish settlement in the country. Zionists drove Palestinian peasants off their land, forcing them into destitution. British authorities assured the Zionists privileged access to water and other essential resources.

After establishing themselves in Palestine, the Zionists proceeded to set up a separate Jewish economy and government under the noses of British mandate authorities. They called their economic policy “the conquest of Jewish land and labor,” a flowery description for expelling the Palestinians from the country’s economic life. Under the slogan, “Jewish land, Jewish labor, Jewish produce,” the Histadrut, the kibbutzim and the moshavim(agricultural cooperatives) proceeded to drive Palestinians out of their jobs and their livelihoods. Histadrut members acted as goon squads against Palestinians:

Members of the Histadrut would picket and stand guard at Jewish orchards to prevent Arab workers from getting jobs. Squads of activists stormed through market places, pouring kerosene on tomatoes grown in Arab gardens or smashing eggs that Jewish housewives might buy from Arab merchants.24

The Palestinians fought back against their dispossession. In 1936, Palestinian organizations launched a general strike against increased poverty, the Zionists and the Zionists’ British sponsors. The strike and subsequent armed uprisings lasted for three years before collapsing under the weight of Zionist and British repression. The Zionists’ role in the Palestinian Revolt clearly showed that Labor Zionism had nothing in common with genuine workers’ solidarity. The Histadrut organized scabbing against the strike. It worked with the British to replace Arab strikers with Jewish workers in the Port of Haifa and on Palestine railroads.25 The British also armed Zionist militias to crush the Palestinian uprising. “With two divisions, squadrons of airplanes, the police force, the Transjordanian frontier forces, and 6,000 Jewish auxiliaries, British troops outnumbered the Palestinians ten to one.” Yet it still took three years to crush the Revolt.26

The Revolt’s intensity derived from the fact that the Zionist threat to Palestine was becoming clear in the 1930s. Throughout the 1930s, the Jewish population in Palestine exploded. Thousands of Jews fleeing persecution in Central and Eastern Europe–and denied admission to Britain, the U.S. and other Western countries–made their way to Palestine. Between 1931 and 1945, the Jewish population in Palestine swelled from 174,000 to 608,000. While Jews accounted for only one-third of the population of Palestine on the eve of the state’s declaration in 1948, they were a well-armed and powerful minority. As the Jewish population increased, so did Zionist provocations against the Palestinians.

The Road to al-Nakbah

Without the Holocaust, the state of Israel probably wouldn’t have been founded. Zionists recruited immigrants to the state of Israel from among the thousands of Holocaust survivors whose communities in Europe were destroyed. Perhaps more importantly, the Holocaust provided a convincing justification for a Jewish state. The Holocaust proved that Gentiles were inherently anti-Semitic, the Zionists argued. Jews living in Gentile societies, therefore, faced the constant danger of extermination. By the end of the war, most Jews agreed with the Zionists. What was more, the Nazis’ physical elimination of alternative political currents in Jewish society increased support for Zionism. While the Nazis willingly dickered with Zionist leaders throughout the 1930s and 1940s, they made sure to kill every communist, socialist or Jewish resistance fighter they could get their hands on.27

The war forced the British to evacuate much of their empire, including Palestine. Britain left to the United Nations the task of deciding Palestine’s fate. In November 1947, the UN agreed to a partition plan. The plan granted the Zionists control of 55 percent of Palestine (although they represented only one-third of the country’s population). The Palestinian majority was left with 45 percent of their own country. Jerusalem was to be an “international city” with equal access granted to Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Zionist leaders accepted the UN Partition Plan in public. In private, they planned a military assault to seize as much Palestinian land as possible. Judah L. Magnes, president of Hebrew University of Jerusalem and supporter of a bi-national Arab and Jewish state, explained the Zionists’ logic in 1947:

A Jewish state can only be obtained, if it ever is, through war…You can talk to an Arab about anything, but you cannot talk to him about a Jewish state. And that is because, by definition, a Jewish state means that the Jews will govern other people, other people who are living in this Jewish state. Jabotinsky knew that long ago. He was the prophet of the Jewish state. Jabotinsky was ostracized, condemned, excommunicated. But now we see that the entire Zionist movement has adopted his point of view…28

As Magnus predicted, the Zionist “right” and “left” united to hijack the country. They used terror, psychological warfare and massacres to instill fear among Palestinians. In the most well-known massacre, the Revisionist Irgun and the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel militias–whose chief leaders were future Israeli prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir–murdered the entire Palestinian village of Dir Yassin. The commandos “lined men, women and children up against walls and shot them,” according to a Red Cross description of the massacre.29 After Dir Yassin, Zionists used the threat of massacre to compel Palestinians to flee their homes, including those in cities like Haifa and Jaffa.

Israeli military commander and future Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin oversaw the expulsion of the Palestinian population of Lydda. He described the events:

Yigal Allon asked Ben-Gurion what was to be done with the civilian population. Ben-Gurion waved his hand in a gesture of “drive them out.” “Driving out” is a term with a harsh ring. Psychologically, this was one of the most difficult actions we undertook. The population of Lydda did not leave willingly. There was no way of avoiding the use of force and warning shots in order to make the inhabitants march the ten or fifteen miles to the point where they met up with the Arab Legion.30

For years, Zionist history asserted a number of “facts” about the 1948 war: that little Israel faced overwhelming Arab firepower; that Palestinian leaders encouraged Palestinians to leave the country; that there was no Zionist plan to drive the Palestinians out; that Palestinians rejected partition and started the war. Yet recent historical research–based on formerly top secret Israel Defense Force documents–prove that all of these assertions are lies. When the war ended, the Zionists held more than 77 percent of Palestine, including 95 percent of all the good agricultural land in the country. The state of Israel stole 80 percent of privately owned Palestinian land. More than 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes, with Jews moving into them. Palestinian society was destroyed. For this reason, the Palestinians refer to 1948 as al-Nakbah (“the catastrophe”).

In 1949, a kibbutz welcomed members of the “socialist” Hashomer Hatzair from the U.S. and Canada to colonize a Palestinian village seized in 1948. One of the kibbutz’s first acts was razing the village’s mosque. A Hashomer member wrote in his/her diary: “It had to be done. It would have been useless to preserve this symbol of a population which showed itself to be, when one views the thing factually and unsentimentally, our hardened enemies whom we have no intention of permitting to return. It’s now a mass of ruins, and yet most of us agree it’s better this way. The hovels, the filth, the medieval atmosphere–it’s gone now for the most part. Bring on the bulldozers and let’s plant trees.”31

On a foundation of war and murder, the Israeli state was built. Zionism gained its longstanding aim–a Jewish state. But as the 100-year history of political Zionism and the 50-year history of the state of Israel shows, this is nothing to celebrate. Members of the Israeli Socialist Organization, a revolutionary socialist organization, said it best in 1972:

Zionism promised national awakening and fraternal solidarity; it has produced a society of increasing inequality and of racist discrimination and cultural oppression. Zionism promised independence; it has produced a society in which the Prime Minister must periodically affirm to the people that the existence of the nation depends on the delivery of fifty or a hundred Phantom jets from the United States…. Zionism promised physical security to the Jews; Israel is the most dangerous place on earth today for a Jew, and it will remain so as long as Israeli-Jewish society retains its colonial character and its function as an instrument of imperialism.32

Zionism and the Holocaust

During Israel’s many wars with the Arab states, Israeli leaders accused Arab states of desiring a “new Holocaust.” Leading Zionists regularly called critics of the Israeli state’s repression of the Palestinians “anti-Semites,” likening them to the Nazi murderers of 6 million Jews. Zionists consciously use this sort of emotional blackmail to silence any critics of Israeli policies. “I repress the urge to shout ‘Shut up, already’ in the White House press room when [former Israeli Prime Minister] Menachem Begin toasts an American president with a 15-minute lecture on the meaning of the Holocaust,” said a Holocaust survivor and supporter of peace with the Palestinians. “Must every thought of compromise conjure up the threat of appeasement at Munich?”33

From their attacks on their political opponents, one might think that the Zionists stood up to Hitler and the Holocaust. But the history of Zionists’ inaction and their dealings with the Nazis makes a mockery of their use of the Holocaust as a political weapon.

A few months after Hitler came to power, the leading German Zionist organization sent Hitler a long memo offering formal collaboration with the Nazis. This stomach-turning memo reads, in part:

On the foundation of the new state, which has established the principle of race, we wish to fit our community into the total structure so that for us too, in the sphere assigned to us, fruitful activity for the Fatherland is possible…

For its practical aims, Zionism hopes to be able to win the collaboration even of a government fundamentally hostile to Jews, because in dealing with the Jewish question no sentimentalities are involved but a real problem whose solution interests all peoples, and at the present moment especially the German people.34

At the time, collaboration meant that leading organizations of Zionism worked to undermine a worldwide anti-German boycott called to protest the Nazis’ anti-Semitism. Instead, the World Zionist Organization worked out a “Transfer Agreement” by which money from German Jews could be sent to Palestine to finance imports into Germany. Meanwhile, inside Germany, the Nazis shut down all socialist and Jewish resistance organizations and arrested their leaders. But the Nazis allowed the Zionists to operate. An American Zionist leader confessed his embarrassment: “It was a painful distinction for Zionism to be singled out for favors and privileges by its Satanic counterpart [Nazi Germany].”35

Throughout the 1930s and the Second World War, Zionists always placed the interests of Palestine ahead of fighting anti-Semitism in Europe. Seeking allies against Britain, the Zionist militia, the Haganah, negotiated for support from the German SS. In one secret meeting in Haifa in 1937,Haganah agent Faviel Polkes told the SS’s Adolph Eichmann that “Jewish nationalist circles are very pleased with the radical German policy, since the strength of the Jewish population would be so far increased” and overwhelm the Palestinians. For a period in the late 1930s, the Nazis allowed Polkes to set up Haganah recruiting and training camps inside Germany. For a period of time, Polkes’ sole income was “secret funds from the SS.”36 The Zionists impressed Eichmann. Years later in exile in Argentina, he recalled “I did see enough to be very impressed by the way the Jewish colonists were building up their land. I admired their desperate will to live, the more so since I was myself an idealist. In the years that followed I often said to Jews with whom I had dealings that, had I been a Jew, I would have been a fanatical Zionist. I could not imagine being anything else. In fact, I would have been the most ardent Zionist imaginable.”37 This is the man who oversaw Hitler’s Final Solution!

Thousands of Jews, including the rank and file of Zionist groups, resisted Hitler’s attempt to herd them into death camps. Zionists united with Communists and Bundists in the 1943 armed uprising against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto. But even at the Holocaust’s height, Jewish Agency leaders and settler leaders in Palestine offered little help. “The disaster facing European Jewry is not directly my business,” said Ben-Gurion in 1943. Zionist leaders believed the fight in Europe diverted them from their main task: building the Jewish state in Palestine. The chairman of the Jewish Agency’s committee refused to divert Jewish Agency funds from Palestine into rescuing Europe’s Jews. “They will say that I am anti-Semitic, that I don’t want to save the Exile, that I don’t have a warm Jewish heart” said Yitzhak Gruenbaum at a 1943 Jewish Agency meeting. “Let them say what they want. I will not demand that the Jewish Agency allocate a sum of 300,000 or 100,000 pounds sterling to help European Jewry. And I think that whoever demands such things is performing an anti-Zionist act.” During the war, the Agency spent far more money to acquire land in Palestine than to mount rescues.38

Preserving the “remnant” of Jewry for transfer to Palestine, rather than saving the Jews, guided Zionist leaders. Ben-Gurion opposed a plan to allow German Jewish children to emigrate to Britain in 1938. To justify himself, Ben-Gurion said: “If I knew that it would be possible to save all the children in Germany by bringing them over to England, and only half of them to [Israel], then I would opt for the second alternative. For we must weigh not only the life of these children but also the history of the people of Israel.”39 Unfortunately, plans like the British proposal to rescue Jewish children, were few. In general, Western governments turned their backs on Jews fleeing Germany. In one celebrated case, the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939 turned away a ship, the St. Louis, carrying more than 900 refugees wishing to emigrate to the U.S. Until several European countries agreed to accept the refugees, they were destined to return to Germany–and to certain death. Still, American Zionist organizations refused to press for abolishing immigration restrictions which prevented Jews fleeing Germany to move to the U.S. Only the Left–the Trotskyist Communist League and the Communist Party–called for the lifting of all restrictions on Jewish immigration.

The wartime actions of some Zionist leaders came back to haunt them. In 1952, Malchiel Gruenwald, an Israeli hotel operator who lost 50 members of his family in the Holocaust in Hungary, accused Dr. Rudolph Kastner of collaborating with the Nazis. Kastner, a prominent Labor Party politician and spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Commerce and Industry, sued Gruenwald for libel. The subsequent trial, which became known as the “Kastner affair,” exposed a sordid history of deal making between the Zionists and the Nazis. Kastner had been the head of the Jewish Agency in Hungary, the leading Zionist representative in that country during the war. He had cut deals with leading Nazis, including Eichmann and SS officer Kurt Becher, to win passage of Jews to Palestine. But as a leader of the Jewish community in Hungary who knew about Hitler’s “Final Solution,” he helped send far more Jews to their deaths. He even appeared as a witness for the defense of Becher at the postwar Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals. Gruenwald charged:

[Kastner] wanted to save himself, so that Becher would not reveal to the international court their deals and their joint acts of robbery…Where now is the money of the Jews of Hungary, millions of which no accounting was given?…He saved no fewer than fifty-two of his relatives, and hundreds of other Jews–most of whom had converted to Christianity–bought their rescue from Kastner by paying millions! That’s how Kastner saved the members of Mapai [the Israeli Labor Party]…He saved people with connections, and made a fortune in the process.40

In the end, the court decided that some of Gruenwald’s charges were true, but that others were unproved. Yet, the court did not want to take upon itself the judgment of Kastner’s actions during the war. It left that to a government board of inquiry. Many in Israel’s elite realized that an investigation would expose dozens of leading Israeli politicians with skeletons similar to Kastner’s in their closets. A former Israeli secret service agent saved the government the embarrassment of an investigation when he assassinated Kastner in 1957. In 1993, the Tel Aviv City Council voted to name a street in Kastner’s honor.41


1 Nathan Weinstock, Zionism: False Messiah (Ink Links, London, 1979), p. 32.

2 This description of the roots of anti-Semitism in late 19th-century Eastern Europe can be found in the classical Marxist text, Abram Leon’s The Jewish Question (Pathfinder Press, New York, 1970). Leon was a Belgian Jewish Trotskyist who wrote most of the book while he conducted underground political activity in Nazi-occupied Belgium. Leon died in Auschwitz in 1944.

3 N. Weinstock, Zionism: False Messiah, op. cit., p. 32.

4 Theodore Herzl, The Diaries of Theodore Herzl (Dial Press, New York, 1956), p. 6.

5 This idea is no mere 19th century relic. Daniel Goldhagen’s recent book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, starts from the assumption that all non-Jews were culturally programmed to slaughter Jews if given the chance. See Henry Maitles’ review of Hitler’s Willing Executioners in International Socialism 77, pp. 103-110 or Annie Levin’s review in ISR 2, pp. 47-48. The Pinsker quote comes from Maitles, p. 109.

6 Herzl’s quote comes from the horse’s mouth, “Zionism: the First 100 Years,” found on the World Wide Web site of the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C.

7 Immigration figures come from N. Weinstock, Zionism: False Messiah, op. cit., p. 12. Figures comparing the number of Zionists and Jewish socialists are from Arthur Liebman, Jews and the Left (John Wiley and Sons, New York, 1979), p. 163.

8 Nathan Weinstock, “Introduction” in Abram Leon, The Jewish Question. Translated by Ernest Mandel (Pathfinder Press, New York, 1970), p. 32.

9 Quoted in A. Liebman, op. cit., p. 111.

10 Lenin quoted in Peter Alexander, Racism, Resistance and Revolution (Bookmarks, London, 1987), pp. 149-150.

11 N. Weinstock, Zionism: False Messiah, op. cit., p. 15-18.

12 Phil Marshall, Intifada (Bookmarks, London, 1989), p. 37.

13 Quoted in Maxime Rodinson, Israel and the Arabs (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, England, 1973), p. 14.

14 Quoted in Richard P. Stevens, “Zionism as Western Imperialism” in Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, ed., The Transformation of Palestine (Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Ill., 1971), p. 35.

15 Ibid., p. 36.

16 Samuel quoted in Ibid., p. 46.

17 Churchill quoted in N. Weinstock, op. cit., p. 96.

18 Jabotinsky quoted in Ralph Shoenman, The Hidden History of Zionism (Socialist Action, San Francisco, 1988), p. 13.

19 Uri Davis, Israel: Apartheid State (Zed Press, London, 1987), p. 49.

20 Lavon quoted in Jim Higgins, “The Middle East Crisis” in International Socialism 64 (Mid-November, 1973), p. 16.

21 Erskine B. Childers, “The Wordless Wish: From Citizens to Refugees” in I. Abu-Lughod, op. cit., p. 165.

22 Lenni Brenner describes the history of Zionism’s dealings with fascism in his Zionism in the Age of the Dictators (Lawrence Hill and Company, Westport, Conn., 1983).

23 Samih K. Farsoun and Christine E. Zacharia, Palestine and the Palestinians (Westview Press, Boulder, Col., 1997), p. 75.

24 John Rose, Israel: The Hijack State (Bookmarks, London, 1986), p. 33.

25 Zachary Lockman, Comrades and Enemies (University of California, Berkeley, 1996), pp. 240-265. This extremely detailed book documents many attempts by the Histadrut to organize Arab workers into “separate but equal” affiliates. The history shows that Zionists viewed Palestinian workers as “enemies” much more than as “comrades.”

26 Quoted in S. K. Farsoun and C. E. Zacharia, op. cit., p. 107.

27 In saying this, I do not mean to minimize Hitler’s determination to kill all Jews regardless of their political beliefs. But it is important to understand the Nazi regime in class terms. Long before they devised plans for the “Final Solution,” the Nazis crushed working-class and socialist opposition. The first concentration camps were set up for communists and trade unionists. The Nazis understood that only the working class held the power to break their regime. That is why they so ruthlessly crushed all working-class resistance. Only after they crushed opposition to their rule could the Nazis launch the war and carry out genocide.

28 Quoted in Maxime Rodinson, Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? (Pathfinder Press, New York, 1973), p. 68.

29 Quoted in Simha Flapan, The Birth of Israel (Pantheon Books, New York, 1987), p. 94.

30 Rabin quoted in Ibid., p. 81.

31 Joel Beinin, Was the Red Flag Flying There? (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1990), p. 81.

32 Ari Bober, ed., The Other Israel (Anchor Books, Garden City, N.J., 1972), pp. 200-201.

33 Quoted in David Schoenbaum, The United States and the State of Israel (Oxford University Press, New York, 1993), p. 322.

34 L. Brenner, op. cit., pp. 48-49.

35 Ibid., p.85.

36 Christopher Simpson, Blowback (Collier Books, New York, 1988), p. 253.

37 Eichmann quoted in Lenni Brenner, op. cit., p. 98.

38 Ben-Gurion quoted in Tom Segev, The Seventh Million. (Hill and Wang, New York, 1993), p. 98. Gruenbaum quote and comparison of Jewish Agency spending in Segev, p. 102.

39 Quoted in L. Brenner, op. cit., p. 149.

40 Quoted in T. Segev, op. cit., pp. 257-258.

41 The Kastner case is described in detail in Akiva Orr, “The Kastner Case, Jerusalem, 1955,” in his Israel: Politics, Myths and Identity Crises (Pluto Press, London, 1994), pp. 81-116.


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