We live in a world made up of different states, often nation-states and yet it is the state of Israel in particular that has been mired in controversy over its founding ideology since its modern establishment. Political Zionism is a new concept; it was advocated for in the 1890s by Theodor Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian Jew, who did all that he could to make his dream of a safe-haven for Jews away from the antisemitism he and his people faced a reality. He was not the first political zionist, merely the one who popularized it through the establishment of a zionist movement (see proto-zionism). Zionism, as a political ideology, came to be with the rise of nationalism in Europe in the 19th century. Herzl, the man who once advocated for the Jews of Europe to convert to Christianity and assimilate, realized that through “other-ing,” the Jewish faith had become the Jewish people; thus naturally coming to terms with the fact that “Jewish” refers to an ethno-religious peoplehood and not just a religion. Herzl was not religious neither were a lot of Jews in Europe, but did this really matter? — antisemitism was everywhere. If people see you, hate you and persecute you for being Jewish; then, are you not Jewish? — The strategy of “assimilation” turned out to be an absolute failure. Herzl considered options such as Argentina or the plains of Uganda, but believed Palestine would be the more natural and obvious choice as Jews have an emotional and religious connection to the place. Political Zionism was not the only Jewish ideology taking ground in the Jewish world(s); the Jewish Bund in Poland, was a political movement which aimed at the emancipation of Jews in Poland and was staunchly anti-zionist. Through the centuries, ideologies evolve and the hegemony of Zionism on Jewish political thought has been exemplified with the successes of the State of Israel and the rise in antisemitism (yet again) in Europe, North America and the World.
Zionism, today, is the simple belief that Jews have the right to a sovereign state in their ancestral homeland, the Land of Israel. Israel’s New Historians, for example, have come up with a new term: post-zionism. It is the belief that the ideology and goal of zionism was achieved in 1948 with the establishment of the state and therefore a post-zionist period is the one which Israel is experiencing now and thus this reality needs to be translated into the official policies of government. Neo-zionism, a response to the former, emphasizes on the continuity of the Jewish people in this state and the importance of preserving its Jewish essence.
Aspiring, hoping and praying to go back to Zion, history has recorded prominent Jewish figures such as Yehuda Halevi (1075-1141) who kept yearning for Zion; the Sephardi-Jewish poet who lived in 11th-12th century Spain ultimately moved to Jerusalem to fulfil this desire at a time of great uncertainty. The man was even criticized by fellow Jews who thought his dream would never become a reality. “Can we hope for any other refuge either in the East or in the West where we may dwell in safety?”, he once wrote. Halevi was one of the early ethno-religious nationalist advocates for a return to their Jewish home. Indeed, Jews at the time would pray for a return but associated their exile as punishment for their sins. Jews will only be allowed to return after the arrival of the messiah and this needs prayer and atonement…
The history of the Jewish people and in turn the general history people assume they know about Israel is that of the Ashkenazi Jews who suffered Genocide in Europe and to a lesser extent of those who suffered anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia, which many know prompted Jews to seek a safe-haven in Palestine. This is not entirely false, but is definitely not even half the story. Let us not forget how no country in the 1930s wanted to even accept Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and Austria (only the Dominican Republic’s dictator agreed to increase the quota, but for all the wrong reasons… see Evian Conference of 1938). Even when the Allies were winning over the Nazis, the US and UK refused to consider what would happen to the Jews of liberated lands (see Bermuda Conference of 1943)! – The Jews of Europe had lost contact with Jews elsewhere such as in Yemen and Ethiopia, or even as far as the Caucasus, Baghdad and Bukhara. About 1,000,000 (mostly Sephardic and Mizrahi) Jews also yearned for Zion throughout their 2,000 years in exile. After the establishment of the state of Israel, their non-Jewish neighbors and leaders turned on them, they were thus expelled from their homes in the Arab and Muslim worlds to Israel, France and less commonly to the US. The Farhud in 1941 in Baghdad, the pogroms from Tripolitania to Aleppo and Damascus passing through Cairo, the famines in Yemen and the outright antisemitism Jews faced everywhere was not only a European phenomenon — but a menace to Jewish existence worldwide. Jews had nowhere to go.
Although the early pre-state zionists who established numerous kibbutzim in Palestine disregarded or ignored the existence of non-Jews on the land they now inhabited, Ottoman Palestine and in turn Mandatory Palestine was not “a land without a people.” Indeed, the Arabs (who since the arrival of Jewish immigrants, chose to identify as ‘Palestinian’) lived and prospered on this land — until the Nakba of 1948 and the continued exodus of the Arabs from their homes through 1967. Whether they left Palestine voluntarily out of fear, or were incited to leave by Arab leaders as some Israelis would like to think or alternatively were ethnically cleansed as both Israel’s New Historians (see Ilan Pappe) and the Palestinians claim, they must technically have a right to return now, no? — well, not quite. Not only is the return of the refugees and their children an existential threat to the continuity of the state of Israel, but also a threat to the lives of the 7,000,000 Jews living in the country if it happens now. Only through the framework of a lasting peace-deal with Arab/Muslim countries, the neutralizing of terrorist organizations like Hamas, Hizbollah and other extremist groups in the region and the establishment of a Palestinian State with certain conditions and guarantees, will the conflict end and the refugee problem solved. A two-state solution is possible but only if both (all?) parties truly work for it. Currently, Benjamin Netanyahu’s revisionist zionism and Mahmoud Abbas’s incompetence and thirst for absolute power, not to mention Hamas’s complete hegemony on Gaza and the terror it inflicts on both Palestinians and Israelis, is counter-productive to any future peace agreement. One can be both zionist and pro-Palestine, but this is up to the latter camp to come to terms with. A lot of self-respecting Israelis are pro-Palestinian, but the opposite is not necessarily true. Grassroots initiatives are needed to bring people together through awareness campaigns.
Constructive criticism of Israel, its government and its numerous internal and external affairs are acceptable and even sometimes encouraged. Israel is a democracy after-all. The line between anti-zionism and antisemitism though is so thin and quite flu to cross that it rests on the agent’s intentions and choice of words to truly judge anti-Israel speech as antisemitic. In other words, anti-zionism, the aspiration/wish/demand to see an end to the state of Israel, is antisemitic; one must be able to criticize and even speak against Israel without continuously questioning its right to exist. No country on this planet is infallible.
During the latest clashes in Gaza, A diaspora Jewish woman from the United States tweeted “We are not Israel” to tell antisemites not to attack Jews living outside Israel. This person seems to ignore that the Jews in Europe have tried to assimilate for centuries, for example. Jews truly did everything they could to “fit in,” but to no avail. Distancing oneself from Israel and zionism to live in the delusion of being safe from antisemitic speech and attacks is unfortunate and does not solve the centuries old problem of antisemitism. Anti-Jewish racism exists and will exist regardless of what happens to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The phenomenon simply takes different forms; there is indeed a pattern of hatred towards this group of people from their exile from Zion to our present era.
Not only is the Zionist endeavor of establishing and securing a home for the Jewish people a response to antisemitism and a refuge to all the Jews who suffered around the world with no exceptions whatsoever (see every single rescue operation carried out by the state…), it’s also the home of their ancestors who were forcibly expelled 2000 years ago. It’s about the transgenerational trauma that this exile has been portrayed through in songs, poems, prayers and beliefs in the fabric of world Jewry. It’s about the Jewish people re-gaining the agency to decide for themselves. The world has been so used to believing the antisemitic tropes which people have professed for centuries, that seeing the Jewish State and in turn the Jewish people in any outright position of power in their ancestral land gravely irritates and confuses these same people who believe in bogus conspiracies like Jewish-world domination.
One does not need to love neither Israel nor the Jewish people, but simply to tolerate, accept and recognize the fait accompli of their existence.
(Iconic) Photo: A Yemenite family walks through the desert to a reception camp near Aden to be flown to Israel.