Boy, that headline should bring some of you up short. I know when I was a liberal Zionist a few decades ago, it would’ve struck me as exceedingly strange. Then, ‘Zionist’ was a synonym for ‘Jew.’ You couldn’t be a Zionist without being a Jew. And except for a few outliers who seemed beyond the Pale, you couldn’t be a Jew without being a Zionist. How things have changed.
Tony Greenstein wrote an intriguing post about this issue which noted that over the years Zionism has had some very strange bedfellows. Despite the protestations of much of the liberal Zionist intellectual class, one of those was Adolf Eichmann. He loved Zionism and even said that were he a Jew he’d be a “fanatical Zionist.” Of course, Eichmann hated Jews. That’s how he eventually became the architect of the Holocaust. But to him there was no contradiction. To him, Jews were a problem. A problem because they lived among and with Germans. But find a way for Jews to miraculously disappear from Germany and Europe–et voila, you’ve solved the Jewish Problem.
So before World War II, Zionism seemed quite a promising way to “disappear” Jews from Europe. Ship them all off to Palestine never to darken Europe’s door again. Problem solved.
If you happen to be a liberal Zionist, after swallowing your pride, consider that Eichmann’s pre-World War II views were quite in line with two prominent figures in the history of modern Zionism. The first, of course was Theodor Herzl. Yes, Herzl was the founder of Zionism and the visionary who conceived the modern iteration of the Israeli state.
But as a cosmopolitan European Jew, he knew he was in a minority. There were millions of other Jews in central and eastern Europe who were very much not like him: not cosmopolitan, not well-educated, not secular, not well-connected, not comfortable. These Jews were a problem: they were poor, they stuck out like a sore thumb in their native lands, they didn’t speak the language, they observed strange, primitive customs. Worst of all, they provoked hatred and anti-Semitism due to their alien strangeness: “The unfortunate Jews are now carrying the seeds of anti-Semitism into England; they have already introduced it into America.”
So Herzl, after originally espousing mass conversion to Christianity as the solution to this problem, later turned to a Jewish state as a way to solve the European Jewish problem. Send all the refuse from Europe’s teeming shores to the Middle East (or Uganda or Argentine–it didn’t much matter to him).
Also influenced by rising European nationalism, Herzl dreamed that Jews could take control of their own destiny in their own land. But not in Europe. Because Jews were alien to Europe and Europeans had shown themselves unwilling to absorb Jews. To Herzl, these eastern European Jews were refuse that must be cleaned up in order to permit Europe to enjoy its respective national homogeneities (French, English, German, etc.). Here is but one of many astonishingly odd statements on the subject:
We, the Jews, not only have degenerated and are located at the end of the path, we spoiled the blood of all the peoples of Europe … Jews are descended from a mixture of waste of all races.
Hannah Arendt in 1946 wrote presciently about the affinity Herzl had for the views and attitudes of the anti-Semites, who he thought could help his new movement to rid the Diaspora of Jews by transferring them to his new State:
…He was not altogether out of sympathy with the new [anti-Semitic] movements [of his era]. When he said, “I believe that I understand anti-Semitism,” he meant that he not only understood historical causes and political constellations, but also that he understood—and to a certain extent, correctly—the man who hated Jews. It is true, his frequent appeals to “honest anti-Semites” to “subscribe small amounts” to the national fund for the establishment of a Jewish state were not very realistic; and he was equally unrealistic when he invited them: “whilst preserving their independence [to] combine with our officials in controlling the transfer of our estates” from the Diaspora to the Jewish homeland; and he frequently asserted, in all innocence, that anti-Semites would be the Jews’ best friends and anti-Semitic governments their best allies. But this faith in anti-Semites expressed very eloquently and even touchingly how close his own state of mind was to that of his hostile environment and how intimately he did belong to the “alien” world.
With the demagogic politicians of his own and more recent times, Herzl shared both a contempt for the masses and a very real affinity with them…
In his own words, anti-Semitism was the “propelling force” responsible for all Jewish suffering since the destruction of the Temple and it would continue to make the Jews suffer until they learned how to use it for their own advantage. In expert hands this “propelling force” would prove the most salutary factor in Jewish life.
Thus creating a Jewish state solved two problems: it returned Europe to Christian Europeans and it permitted Jews to achieve their own separate national destiny. It was what today we might call apartheid, in which Jews weren’t just separate from Europeans while remaining in Europe, but geographically removed from them as well. Today, you might also call this a form of self-expulsion, one of the few times in which a large portion of a religious group ethnically cleansed itself from its native soil.
The third important figure in modern Zionism who shared these views was none other than Arthur Balfour. Though modern Zionists lionize him as the colonial father of the modern State of Israel, he was no Judeophile, no lover of Zion for its own sake. He wrote:
“For as I read its [Zionism’s] meaning it is, among other things, a serious endeavour to mitigate the age-long miseries created for Western civilisation by the presence in its midst of a body which it too long regarded as alien and even hostile, but which it was equally unable to expel or to absorb. Surely, for this if for no other reason it should receive our support.”
Balfour told Chaim Weizmann that he shared the “anti-Semitic postulates” of Cosima Wagner, who would become one of the first patrons of Adolf Hitler. Balfour did not believe that Jews could be assimilated into Gentile British society but he was happy to send them to Palestine.
Like Eichmann and Herzl, for Balfour Zionism solved a problem. He hated Jews. He believed, like much of the then British aristocracy, that Jews were alien to Christian-western civilization. They could never be integrated into it properly. Thus, the best solution was to remove them from the shores of England and transport them to Palestine where they could flourish on their own.
It’s not unlike the plans proposed by liberal whites in America to “solve” the “Negro Problem.” As august a figure as Abraham Lincoln (along with Thomas Jefferson) supported the mass colonization of Africa by American blacks. They offered the same arguments as Zionists, that Blacks could never integrate properly into white American society. Therefore, the answer was to send them back whence they came. In fact, this was considered a mainstream, even liberal proposal for much of the 19th century.
Returning to Zionism, you can now see that some of the founders of the modern movement either hated Jews or saw them as a fundamentally alien presence in western civilization that must be eliminated (from Europe; or eventually, in the case of Hitler and Eichmann, altogether).
This is quite important nowadays as the numbers and influence of such individuals are rising exponentially. During much of the first few months of the Trump presidency, Jews were aghast at the anti-Semitism they saw in the highest ranks of the administration: from Steve Bannon to Sebastian Gorka. Trump himself refused to acknowledge the six-million Jews who died in the Holocaust and refused to stand up for Jews in the midst of a series of egregious domestic anti-Semitic attacks which marred his early term.
What especially shocked American Jews is that these anti-Semites seemed to love Israel. They could ignore the fact that Israelis were Jews (mostly), and focus on the fact that Israel was a bulwark against the same Islamist foes they saw as threats to western civilization. In other words, for the alt-right, Israel has nothing to do with Jews or Judaism. Israel is a political entity. An enemy of Islamism (which they barely distinguished from Islam). A beacon of the west in the midst of the Middle Eastern desert.
We can’t even say that this isn’t what the early Zionists had in mind, because for some of them (specifically Herzl) it was something like what he did have in mind. They had the same colonial mindset as the nations they were leaving behind. They saw the Jews in their new homeland as a bastion of the Occident. Just as in Europe the Jews had been the underclass, in Palestine the Jews saw themselves as the harbingers of civilization and the indigenous Arabs as they primitive hordes who must be raised up (if possible) or else evicted (if necessary). Zionism became, for its early pioneers a reversal of the European model. The Jews became the enlightened Christian colonizers and Arabs became what the Jews had been to Europe.
Israel today observes these same values. Though the settlers and uber-nationalists are more Jewish than the secular socialist Zionist leadership of the Yishuv, their Jewishness is totally alien from Diaspora Jewish identity. Judaism for these Israelis is not a spiritual value, it is a physical manifestation of power in the world. These Israelis understand that not all Jews are their “brothers.” Some Jews are too effete, too liberal, too humane, too universalist. These Jews are the detritus which will be washed away by the tide of history.
Israeli nationalists need to replace these traditional Jewish allies and have done so by finding new ones: Christian evangelicals, African dictators, European neo-Nazis. Zionism as they define it is less a movement dedicated to ethics and more one dedicated to self-interest.
In short, that is why we’ve reached the strange place in history when anti-Semites can be Zionists.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.