On Zionism

The Liberation of the Jewish People

by Adam Rubenstein

The Jewish experience, up until the creation of the modern State of Israel, was one of perpetual insecurity. The nineteenth century saw a widespread resurfacing of the Middle Age norm of Jew-hatred, and with it the blood libel, the trope that accused Jews of killing non-Jewish children for the ritual use of their blood. Throughout this period, Jews became a largely disenfranchised group, and the image of “the Jew” embodied that of “the other.” By and large, the Jew, while withstanding centuries of marginalization, exclusion, and demonization, became passive in the face of Jew-hatred and the violence it inspired.

In April of 1903, the Kishinev Pogrom, in modern-day Moldova, began with mobs tearing down predominantly Jewish neighborhoods. Hundreds of Jewish stores were looted, women were defiled and children flogged; it was the Bessarabian Kristallnacht.  This pogrom was the culmination of anti-Jewish sentiment that had been brewing in czarist-era Bessarabia. The pogrom was in response to the accusation that local Jews had killed a Christian boy and used his blood in making Passover Matzo, an iteration of the blood libel. This lie, published by prominent local newspapers and perhaps even propagated by officials in the Russian Empire, sought to divert populist discontent to a powerless, defenseless scapegoat. Drawing from this atrocity, Chaim Nachman Bialik wrote The City of Slaughter, describing the Kishinev Pogrom and the condition of the European Jew in gruesome poetic detail:

Descend then, to the cellars of the town,

There where the virginal daughters of thy folk were fouled,

Where seven heathen flung a woman down,

The daughter in the presence of her mother,

The mother in the presence of her daughter,

Before slaughter, during slaughter, and after slaughter!


Note also, do not fail to note,

In that dark corner, and behind that cask

Crouched husbands, bridegrooms, brothers, peering from the cracks,

Watching the sacred bodies struggling underneath

The bestial breath,

Stifled in filth, and swallowing their blood!

Watching from the darkness and its mesh

The lecherous rabble portioning for booty

Their kindred and their flesh!

Crushed in their shame, they saw it all;

They did not stir nor move;

They did not pluck their eyes out; they

Beat not their brains against the wall!

Perhaps, perhaps each watcher had it in his heart to pray:

A miracle, O Lord and spare my skin this day!

Bialik encapsulates the condition of the Jew as a defenseless individual who could not contend with modernity, as represented by the violence and moral decay accompanying the virulence of Jew-hatred. Bialik wrote of wives and daughters raped while their husbands, fathers, and brothers watched from beneath the floorboards, physically and mentally unable to intercede. This writing remains the seminal indictment of the passive Jewish condition, where the Jew becomes a relegated class, even in its own mind. European Jews responded to such passivity by assembling into defense groups, typically unified by socialist principles. European Jews in a sense, woke up. They knew they needed to do something—the status quo in Europe was untenable.

Visionary leaders like Theodore Herzl and Ahad Ha’am argued that European anti-Semitism would best be solved by the creation of state. To Herzl, the trial showed that “even in the home of the Enlightenment and the ideals of human equality of the French Revolution a crazy, unreasoning hatred of the Jews still persisted and came out whenever a scapegoat was needed.” He, an assimilated Jew, could no longer trust the assurances of European Liberalism, and contended that Jews would only be safe in their own state with self-governance. Was this idea not prophetic? Herzl wrote in Alteneuland (“old, new land”), that in this state, socialist Jewish Europeans facing anti-Semitism could form communes in safety and relative prosperity (think of the modern Kibbutz).

In returning to their historic homeland in Mandatory Palestine, where Jews had maintained a presence for thousands of years, Jews could, for the first time since before the reign of Hadrian, enjoy self-determination, and revive their culture while forging a refuge for other Jews facing anti-Semitism across the world. The Zionist plan, of a Jewish renaissance in their historic homeland, gave life to the disenfranchised Jewish communities of Europe and the Middle East who were suffering the spread of anti-Semitism across Europe.

In different waves of immigration, termed Aliyah (ascension), hundreds of thousands of Jews escaped hostile lands, fleeing the pogroms, the fascism and Nazism of Europe moving to what became Israel.  For those leaving Europe, Zionism meant at least the potential of safety, it meant freedom, and it meant the ultimate liberation of Jews. They dreamed of no longer living as “foreigners in a foreign land.” With the creation of the modern nation-state, Jews could defend and govern themselves, and never again embody the passivity Bialik depicted.

Why, then, does Israel’s founding nationalism, Zionism, the expression and realization of safety and self-determination for Jews, draw the hatred and disdain of so many? Why has it become acceptable in polite culture to say, “I’m not an anti-Semite, just anti-Zionist?” Because Israel is imperfect? Because it is benefitting from growth and change heretofore lacking among other developing nations? Or simply because it exists?

Perhaps those who are most critical of Zionism fundamentally misunderstand it. In 1975, U.N. Resolution 3379 proposed, “Zionism is racism.” Forgetting that Judaism is not a race, nor Israel a racially or ethnically pure nation, the anti-Zionist forces in the United Nations carried water for Arab nations that were themselves far more guilty of religious, ethnic, and racial prejudice than Israel. Ask the Kurds, the Maronite and Coptic Christians, the Yazidi, the Druze, and the Greek Orthodox throughout the Arab world about their freedoms, but do so where none of the Islamic majority is listening in. Ask the Asian and African “guest workers” in Saudi Arabia about racial equality in the birthplace of Islam.

At least the great Democratic statesman, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, came to Israel’s defense, and realized that Israel was indeed being targeted for its mere existence. Moynihan’s apology called out this accusation and resolution for what it was: “a lie, a political lie…[a] lie that Zionism is a form of racism and the overwhelmingly clear truth is that it is not.” Could the self-determination and liberation of Jews really be considered as racist and colonial? Is every other national, ethnic, religious, or racial group that forms a nation also racist? Why not?

Or maybe they do understand it. The meme of Zionism as racism proves too much about virtually every nation on Earth, if subjected to actual analysis instead of rote repetition. As the Scots agitate every few years for independence from England, as the Irish in Belfast terrorized the British for the same reason, they seek self-determination. Their reasons are their own. A simple review of the ethnic and demographic background of Palestinians reveals that a century ago, they were southern Syrian, Egyptian, Bedouin, and Lebanese. Many were nomadic. They never self-governed, they were citizens of the Ottoman Empire for centuries. Their borders, and in fact the entire existence of Jordan, were an invention of French and British mapmakers. Is their claim to all of the land by right subjected to analysis, or simply accepted out of hand?

One can hate democracy, and thus reject the United Nations partition that created modern Israel. One can hate conquest, even when perpetrated by the victim of an attack by greater numbers in 1967, and thus reject the current map. One can hate the disenfranchisement of a population, even when they self-perpetuate it by obstinate refusal to accept even the existence of the victor in their struggles. Finally, one can hate the tiny minority that clings to existence, prospering and spreading scientific, medical, and agricultural progress throughout the world, all the while under siege, because it does not fit your view of how the besieged should behave. Do all those things, if you must, but never forget: Virtually every nation on Earth was formed because people drawn together by beliefs, shared history, shared goals, or familial ties desired self-determination in some form. If you choose only to deny that option to Jews, ill-treated as guests in both the Christian and Muslim worlds for millennia, then you must confront the fundamental self-deception of that denial. And if you admit its rationality, and still cling to it, there is a name for that, too: anti-Semitism. Denial of the legitimacy of a state created by democratic process because of its imperfection is likewise irrational. If one applied that standard across the board to nations created by conquest, by royal marriage, or by the other means that litters human history, there could be no nations at all, only borderless anarchy.

Eight hundred thousand Jews from Arab lands did not leave those nations because life there was prosperous and safe. They were forced to do so. Hundreds of thousands more did not flee Europe over the centuries because they remained safe and welcome there.

Why are Jews always the exception? Why is their right to have their own state beyond the pale? The answer is: it’s not. Next time you hear someone say they aren’t anti-Semitic, just anti-Zionist, think again about what they really mean. TKO

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