Though I have always had sympathy for the general goals of creating a Jewish homeland for victims of persecution and genocide, I am critical of the ways in which Zionism pursued that objective. From the very beginning, even in Herzl’s writings, there are the seeds of ethnic-nationalism, racism and even anti-Semitism, which permeate Israel today. Zionism’s later leaders including its most long-serving prime ministers, espoused an amoral, Darwinian approach to building the nation, which valued survival and triumphalism over sentiment or ethical values.
This cynical approach conflicts profoundly with morally-grounded cultural (anti-nationalist) Zionism of Ahad HaAm, which declared that Zionism was meant to be a light unto the nations; and the Brit Shalom movement which sought compromise and co-existence with the Palestinian Arab majority in pre-state Palestine. Unfortunately, the Second World War and Holocaust essentially destroyed Brit Shalom, by forcing it to relinquish its agenda in the face of global Jewish catastrophe.
As I read the London Review of Books review of Tom Segev’s magisterial biography of David Ben Gurion, A State at Any Cost, it offered some shocking statements by the book’s subject on the Holocaust, which reinforced the worst elements of the Zionist ideology, forever labelling it as an opportunist movement willing to exploit the suffering of the Jewish Diaspora as long as it ultimately benefited the State of Israel. There have been many movements throughout Jewish history whose agendas espoused a grand vision of Jewish religious or secular identity. Some were generous and forward-thinking and others were retrograde and destructive. Zionism, which in theory held promise of being the former has turned into the latter.
Perhaps the most notorious of Ben Gurion’s statements was this one made before his Mapai Party in 1938:
‘If I knew that it was possible to save all the children in Germany by transporting them to England, but only half by transporting them to Palestine, I would choose the second.’
And in fact, Ben Gurion angrily rejected the saving of European Jews unless they made aliyah to Palestine. He had no interest in rescue for its own sake, unless it was tied firmly to building Eretz Yisrael. This approach was replicated in the 1970s when the Jewish Agency and Israel opposed any plan that permitted Soviet Jews to resettle outside Israel. Luckily, they were only partially successful and many such Jews did resettle in the West, outside Israel.
But Segev has discovered an equally troubling quotation from Ben Gurion which portrayed Hitler’s rise to power as “a huge political and economic boost for the Zionist enterprise.’ And indeed it was. Ben Gurion and his political rivals in Lehi both collaborated with the Nazis. As I wrote in a recent post, one of the senior leaders of Mapai, Chaim Arlosofoff, negotiated the Haavara Agreement, which sanctioned the expulsion of German Jews and the looting of their wealth and property, with a portion of it repatriated to the Yishuv by the Nazi regime. Thus Ben Gurion’s regime derived great economic benefit from the Nazi regime.
Even worse, the Agreement cut the legs out from under a successful international campaign to boycott German goods, which was organized by Rabbi Stephen Wise, an American Zionist. Ben Gurion was willing to screw anyone and even abandon European Jewry to future annihilation in order to further his own goals. All of this could be subsumed by Ben Gurion under the banner of building a state for the Jewish people. He was a man shorn of sentimentality or self-doubt when it came to pursuing these objectives.
The result of Ben Gurion’s Hobbesian approach is the Israel that we have today: a nation dripping in the blood of its enemies, imbued with an almost suicidal belief in its own racial superiority. A nation in a constant state of conflict with its neighbors and yearning with apocalyptic fervor for ultimate military triumph and messianic redemption.
The Zionist impulse to exploit the world’s suffering for its own benefit isn’t restricted to the earlier Ben Gurion era. After 9/11, Bibi Netanyahu also betrayed views mirroring Ben Gurion’s:
Netanyahu saw the 9/11 attack as a boon for Israel: “We are benefiting from one thing, and that is the attack on the Twin Towers and Pentagon, and the American struggle in Iraq,” Ma’ariv quoted the former prime minister as saying. He reportedly added that these events “swung American public opinion in our favor.”
And indeed, Netanyahu is correct. The War on Terror pursued by the Bush administration and subsequent U.S. presidents offered Israeli tremendous hasbara benefits. Whenever there was an attack by Islamist militants against western targets, Netanyahu could solemnly intone in his best I-told-you-so manner, you see, this is precisely what I warned you of. We in Israel are canaries in the coal mine for the west. Protect us here in the Middle East so that they don’t come after you there in the west.
This permitted (and continues to permit) his regime to maintain Occupation, a siege over the 2-million Palestinians in Gaza, and constant war with neighboring states–all under the guise of western solidarity with an Israel under attack from radical Islam.
However, the Israeli leader has repeated this mantra so often that its effectiveness has worn off. There are only so many times you can offer such cynical distortions of current events before the world begins to tire of them and see them for what they are.
Despite all this, one thing must be made clear: opportunism is different than criminality. Though the Zionist movement has historically engaged in criminal acts to further its interests, not this time. Netanyahu’s cynicism confers no legitimacy on theories of Israeli involvement in 9/11. Anyone who makes this leap is doing so while standing at the edge of a cliff.