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A Basic History of Zionism and its Relation to Judaism

By Hanna Braun, London

First Published: September 2001: In order to understand the circumstances that led to the birth of Zionism I shall sketch an outline of the history of Judaism and the Jews.

Since biblical times Jewish communities lived in Arab lands, in Persia, India, East and North Africa and indeed in Palestine. With the destruction of the Temple and the final fall of their state in 70 AD many Jews were taken out of Judea and hence to Rome and the Diaspora. Many poorer Judeans, however (such as subsistence farmers), were able to stay in Palestine. (Some of them had converted to Christianity and were one of the earliest Christian groups.) Modern research suggests that when Islam arrived in the area in 633 AD many of these Jews converted and that they form a considerable part of today's Palestinians. These various communities were on the whole well integrated into their respective societies and did not experience the persecutions that later became so prevalent in Europe. In Palestine, for instance, Muslims repeatedly protected their Jewish neighbours from marauding crusaders; in one instance at least, Jews fought alongside Muslims to try and prevent crusaders from landing at Haifa's port, and Salah al-Dinl-din, after re-conquering Jerusalem from the crusaders, invited the Jews back into the city.

The Jews in Spain under Moorish rule flourished and experienced a renaissance mirroring that of the great Islamic civilisation and culture at the time. As Christianity spread from the north of Spain, Jews were again protected by Muslim rulers until the fall of Granada - the last Moorish kingdom to pass into Christian hands - when both Jews and Muslims were expelled at the end of the 15th century (Jews in 1492 and Muslims 10 years later). Most of the Jews from the Iberian peninsula settled in North Africa and the lands under Ottoman rule, including Palestine, and continued their peaceful co-existence with Muslims in those countries. The bulk of Portuguese "converted" Jews (these were forced conversions and such Jews were called Marranos, i.e. pigs, by Jews who had fled or who preferred to die for their faith) settled in Amsterdam, presumably because they had long established trading connections in that city. In 1655 they were invited to Britain by Oliver Cromwell. Most of them were glad to resettle since at the time the Netherlands had just freed itself from the Spanish yoke and the shadow of the dreaded inquisition was still uncomfortably close.

The fate of Jewry in European countries was very different: persecutions, killings and burnings were widespread and Jews were forced to live in closed ghettos, particularly in the Russian Empire, where they were confined to the "Pale of Jewish" (?) settlement, an area which consisted of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Byelarus or White Russia. Anyone who wished to move outside these borders needed special permission. However, by the mid-19th century some of the more progressive Jewish communities had established themselves in the big cities of St. Petersburg, Moscow and Kiev.

In central and western Europe religious tolerance, followed by the granting of full citizen rights and emancipation, came relatively early, in the wake of general liberalization. However, Russian rulers remained opposed to any liberalization, including religious tolerance and emancipation, and as late as 1881 Tsar Alexander the third initiated a series of particularly vicious pogroms to divert unrest amongst the population, at a time when Britain, for instance, boasted of a Jewish prime minister.

Total segregation was not always imposed from outside, however; frequently it was enforced from within by highly authoritarian rabbis who exercised absolute power over their congregations, often including the right to life and the imposition of the death penalty. Thus it was a major decision for anyone to leave these congregations and to look for a broader education (known as "enlightenment"). In eastern Europe enlightenment was a relatively late phenomenon and it found expression initially in the mid-19th century, in a revival of Hebrew language and literature and in the modern idea of Jews seeing themselves as a people.

This distinction between a people and a religion was of course disapproved of by the Orthodox Jews, who still today regard Hebrew as a sacred language to be used solely for prayers and religious studies and the Jewish people and religion as indivisible. The concept of the Jews as people closely mirrored the relatively new European idea of a homogeneous nation state. An exception to this was the socialist "Bund" organisation whose members rejected nationalism and later Zionism.

Some of these early proto-Zionists, calling themselves "Hovevei Zion" (Lovers of Zion), started the first settlements in Palestine in the 1870's, and a larger number of immigrants followed after the Russian pogroms of 1881-82. These settlers distinguished themselves by their deliberate segregation from the indigenous population and their contempt for local customs and traditions. This naturally aroused suspicion and hostility in the locals. This exclusivity was largely based on a sense of superiority common to Europeans of the time, who believed they were the only advanced and truly civilised society and in true colonial fashion looked down on "natives" or ignored them altogether. However, beyond that there was also a particular sense of superiority of Jews towards all non-Jews. This belief in innate Jewish superiority had a long tradition in religious Jewish thinking, central to which was the notion of the Jews as God's chosen people. Moshe Ben Maimon (Maimonides) had been an exponent of this theory and quite often thinkers with a more humane outlook, e.g. Spinoza, were excommunicated. The accepted thinking in the religious communities was that Jews must on no account mix with gentiles for fear of being contaminated and corrupted by them. This notion was so deeply ingrained that it quite possibly still affected, albeit subconsciously, those Jews who had left the townships and had become educated and enlightened. Thus the early settlers from eastern Europe transferred the "Stettl" (townlet) mentality of segregation to Palestine, with the added belief in the nobility of manual labour and in particular soil cultivation. In this they had been influenced by Tolstoy and his writings.

The "father" of political Zionism, Theodore Herzl (1860-1904), came from a totally different perspective. Dr. Herzl was a Viennese, emancipated, secular journalist who was sent by his editor to Paris in 1894 to cover the Dreyfus affair. Dreyfus had been a captain in the French Army who was falsely accused and convicted of treason (although he was acquitted and completely cleared some years later). The case brought to light the strength of a strong streak of anti-Semitism prevalent in the upper echelons of the French Army and in the French press, with profound repercussions in emancipated Jewish circles. Herzl himself despaired of the whole idea of emancipation and integration and felt that the only solution to anti-Semitism lay in a Jewish Homeland. To that end he approached various diplomats and notables, including the Ottoman Sultan, but mainly European rulers, the great colonial powers of the time, and was rewarded for his efforts by being offered Argentina or Uganda by the British as possible Jewish Homelands.

Herzl would have been quite happy with either of these countries, but when the first Zionist Congress was convened in Basle in 1897, he came up against Eastern European Jewry, by far the greatest majority of participants, who, although broadly emancipated and enlightened, would not accept any homeland other than the land of Zion. Not only had some of them already settled in Palestine, there were strong remnants of the religious/sentimental notion of a pilgrimage and possibly burial in the Holy Land. The last toast in the Passover ceremony is "Next year in Jerusalem"; although this was a religious rather than a national aspiration, it was common amongst the Orthodox communities to purchase a handful of soil purporting to come from the Holy Land to be placed under the deceased's head. (Orthodox Jews at that time completely rejected any Jewish political movement and did not attend the congress.)

Herzl was quick to realise that unless he accepted the "Land of Zion", i.e. Palestinian option, he would have hardly any adherents. Thus the Zionist movement started with a small section of Jewish society who saw the solution to anti-Semitism in a return to its "roots" and in a renewal of a Jewish people in the land of their ancestors. In his famous book "Der Judenstaat" (The State of the Jews) Herzl wrote that the Jews and their state will constitute "a rampart of Europe against Asia, of civilisation against barbarism," and again regarding the local population, "We shall endeavour to encourage the poverty-stricken population to cross the border by securing work for it in the countries it passes through, while denying it work in our own country. The process of expropriation and displacement must be carried out prudently and discreetly--Let (the landowners) sell us their land at exorbitant prices. We shall sell nothing back to them."

Max Nordau, an early Zionist, visited Palestine and was so horrified that the country was already populated that he burst out in front of Herzl: "But we are committing a grave injustice!" Some years later, in 1913, a prominent Zionist thinker and writer, Ahad Ha'am (one of the people), wrote: "What are our brothers doing? They were slaves in the land of their exile. Suddenly they found themselves faced with boundless freedom ... and they behave in a hostile and cruel manner towards the Arabs, trampling on their rights without the least justification ... even bragging about this behaviour." But the dismay of Nordau and others at the injustices to, and total lack of recognition of, the indigenous population was silenced and indeed edited out of Jewish history and other books, as was some of Herzl's writing. The Zionist slogan of "a land without people for a people without land" prevailed and within a matter of a few years the immigrants became "sons of the land" (Bnei Ha'aretz), whereas the inhabitants became the aliens and foreigners.

Following renewed efforts and lobbying after Herzl's death, the Balfour Declaration in 1917, which granted Zionists a Jewish Homeland in Palestine, set the official seal of approval on their aspirations. Protests and representations by local Arab leaders were brushed aside. Lord Balfour wrote in 1919: "In Palestine, we do not even propose to consult the inhabitants of the country. (Zionism's) immediate needs and hopes for the future are much more important than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who presently inhabit Palestine."

Settlements grew slowly for a long time, but the systematic buying up of land, frequently from absentee landlords, which left tenant farmers homeless, contributed to the first Palestinian uprising in 1921-22 and other outbursts of hostilities. The worst was a massacre of some 65 Jews in Hebron in 1929, after orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe had founded a "Yeshiva" (a religious study centre) in the town and had aroused the suspicions and hostility of the indigenous population, who prior to this had lived in peace and harmony for hundreds of years with their non-European Jewish neighbours. Another contributing factor to growing Arab hostility was the Zionists' policy of not employing Arabs or buying their produce.

For many years Zionism remained a minority movement of mainly Eastern European Jews, excluding the whole religious establishment, most central and western European Jews and, last but not least, all non-European Jews who, unbeknown to Herzl and his co-founders, form the majority of us. These communities were ignored by early Zionists, who had little interest in their aspirations until the establishment of the state of Israel after the "independence" war of 1948-9. After this the new state unleashed a massive propaganda campaign to induce the Sephardi and Oriental Jews to "ascend" to the land of their ancestors, mainly for demographic reasons--in 1948 only about one third of the population and about 6% of the land were Jews or in Jewish hands--but also as cannon fodder. This also happened in the 1980's with the Jews of Ethiopia. However, upon arrival these non-European newcomers were treated very much as inferior second-class citizens. This European dominance is still prevalent in modern Israel where, for example, the national anthem speaks about Jewish longing for the East towards Zion, whereas for many of the non-European communities Palestine lies to the West. Sadly, this has led to some groups of Sephardi (non-European) or Oriental Jews becoming extreme right-wing chauvinists, so as to "prove" their credentials.

Immigration ("Aliyah"--ascent in Zionist parlance) took off in seriously large numbers with the rise of Hitler, who initially declared himself quite sympathetic to Zionism, as had other right-wing anti-Semites before him. New Jewish settlements mushroomed, leading to a bitter and prolonged Palestinian uprising from 1936 till 1939, when it was crushed by the British mandatory powers. But it was not until the end of the 2nd World War and the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948 that Zionism started to win the hearts and minds of the majority of Jewish society. Since that time we have witnessed an increasing and deliberate confluence of Judaism and Zionism, to the extent that today it is widely regarded as treason and self-hate for a Jew to criticise the state, let alone Zionism.

In my view, this development was almost inevitable given the preconception of an exclusive Jewish state. Could we realistically conceive of a France purely for the French? England only for the English? (Unless, of course we belong to the National Front or similar groups.) In a post-colonial world the notion is completely unacceptable and ridiculous. How then, can Israel and the majority of its citizens justify their claim and yet remain convinced that theirs is a modern, democratic society? The last resort, when all logical justifications fail, is that God has promised the land to his people, namely us. (This rather begs the question of where this leaves a non-believing Jew.) I have found over the years, and particularly in the last 30 or so years, that the numbers of young people wearing the skullcap and generally observing at least some of the religious laws has increased dramatically, and I believe this is no coincidence.

The religious establishment has gone along with the general flow and has, indeed, profited from it. Since the late 50's there has also been a notable and frightening change in the Orthodox community, which led to the establishment in 1974 of the "Gush Emunim" (the block of the faithful), initiated by Rabbi Tsvi Yehuda Kook the younger. This is the fundamentalist movement which believes in accepting the state of Israel and striving to make it entirely and exclusively Jewish. Prior to this time Orthodox Jewry played no important role in politics except in pressuring successive governments to introduce more Jewish religious regulations into state law. The ultra-orthodox group "Neturei Karta" (the landless) has never recognised the state of Israel, and its members are exempt from army service.

Although Gush Emunim is small in numbers, it wields disproportionate influence since successive Israeli governments covertly (and sometimes almost overtly) have endorsed its aspirations. Gush Emunim's followers have been allocated to special army units so as to enable them to observe Jewish religious laws and rituals in every detail (although even in the regular army only Kosher food is served and the Sabbath is observed as far as possible). These units have a reputation as dedicated, crack troops. What is less well known but silently condoned is their refusal to give medical aid or even drive wounded persons to the hospital on the Sabbath unless they are Jews.

In my view this is an extremely short-sighted and dangerous road, leading in the end to a fundamentalist theocracy much like that of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The fundamentalists' belief is that the Messianic age is already upon us and that any obstacles to a total elimination of any non-Jews in the promised land, i.e. the whole of what was Palestine including the Holy Mount, is God's punishment for sinful Jews, namely all those who are westernised and secular. This fully exonerates, and indeed sanctifies, a man like Baruch Goldstein who murdered 29 Palestinians praying in the Ibrahimi mosque, as well as the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Like the Hamas movement, which was initially encouraged by Israel's secret services, this is another genie which, having been let out of the bottle, can no longer be controlled.

It seems a bitter irony that a movement that initially saw itself as progressive, liberal and secular should find itself in an alliance with, and held to ransom by, the most illiberal reactionary forces. In my view this was inevitable from its inception although the founders, and most of us (including even people like myself, growing up in Palestine in the thirties), did not foresee this and certainly would not have wished it.

Nowadays the deliberate blurring of the distinction between Zionism and Judaism, which includes a rewriting of ancient as well as modern history, is exploited to stifle any criticism of Israel's policies and actions, however extreme and inhuman they may be. This, incidentally, also plays directly into anti-Semitic prejudices by equating Israeli arrogance, brutality and complete denial of basic human rights to non-Jews with general Jewish characteristics.

Zionism has now assumed the all-embracing mantle of righteousness. It claims to represent and to speak for all Jews and has adopted the slogan of "my country right or wrong." The West tolerates Israel's continuous breaches of human rights--violations that it would not tolerate if perpetrated by any other country. Few Western states and not many Jews dare take a stand against Israel, particularly as many of the former still feel a sense of unease and guilt about the holocaust which Zionist Jews inside and outside Israel have exploited in what to me seems an almost obscene manner. In the USA, the Jewish Zionist lobby is still strong enough to keep successive governments on board. Moreover, the USA regards Israel as an important strategic ally in its fight against Middle Eastern "rogue" states which have supplanted the Soviet Union as the great satanic enemy of the free world.

I fear that unless and until Israel is judged by the same criteria as other modern states, this is unlikely to change. It is the duty of all Jews with a sense of justice and a conscience to speak out against the falsifications of history by the Zionist lobby, and the dangerous misconceptions it has led the West to accept.

Hanna Braun, London, September 2001

Hanna Braun is a retired lecturer, living in London. She is a former Israeli, having emigrated to Palestine as a child in 1937 to escape Nazi Germany -- her grandmother later died in the Terezin ghetto. She was in the Haganah in 1948 but left Israel in 1958 for Britain, after having become disillusioned with the Israeli government. She is a signatory of The RETURN Statement Against the Israeli Law of Return - For the Palestinian Right to Return .


Bibliography:

Israel Shahak, Jewish History, Jewish Religion

Israel Shahak, Fundamental Judaism in Israel

Ilan Halevi, A History of the Jews, Ancient and Modern

Michael Prior (ed.), Western Scholarship and the History of Palestine

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