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Distinguishing antizionism from antisemitism

30 November, 1999

Michael Prior CM argues that to be opposed to exclusivist, oppressive, imperialistic Zionism is not to be antisemitic but to be in favour of making a better moral future for all the peoples in the troubled region of the Holy Land.

Virtually as soon as the State of Israel begins to be criticised for its behaviour towards the Palestinians one notices two developments in the West: an immediate increase in the number of media outlets portraying aspects of the Shoah – the Nazi’s ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Problem’ – and the resurfacing of the charge of ‘antisemitism’, directed against critics of Israel’s behaviour. While these recurring tendencies are the products of a range of emotions that run deeper than logic they do lock into two common misunderstandings.

The State of Israel is frequently portrayed as simply ‘the Jewish response to the Shoah.’ Thus, the Nazis’ horrors prove that Zionism was justified, and Zionist Jews – many Jews are anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or just tired of the whole business – and the Israelis justify the displacement of the indigenous Palestinians, and exculpate Israel of virtually any maltreatment of the remaining Palestinians. The eccentric nature of such an interpretation of morality, held by even some of the most liberal Israelis, somehow escapes serious analysis.

Secondly, even while being the perpetrator of a gross and ongoing injustice on the indigenous Palestinians, Israel presents itself as an innocent victim above reproach. When criticised, Israelis, then, are casualties of perennial, ubiquitous and irridentist antisemitism. To offset even the most timid Catholic criticism, the saga of ‘the Christian contempt of Judaism’, and the allegedly despicable performance of Pius XII during the Second World War are played over, again and again.

Zionism: a substitute for Judaism
It is, however, self-deluding for Israelis and their supporters to conclude that criticism of Israel is mostly a manifestation of Jew-hatred, or that Israel is being singled out simply because it is a Jewish state. It is also naïve to present Political Zionism as a response to the Shoah, and it is less than honest to equiparate Zionism with either Judaism or Jewry. It is important to situate the birth of Zionism in its historical context. This reveals its secular, indeed anti-religious nature, evoking virtually universal condemnation from the rabbis, as well as its transparently colonialist nature.

In Der Judenstaat (1896) – more appropriately translated ‘the state for Jews’, to distinguish it from the implications of a Jewish state (Jüdischer Staat) – Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) outlined his Political Zionism, and provided the major ideological drive to establish the state for Jews. Herzlian Zionism was a secular ideology from its inception. Herzl had no sense of Jewish culture and no attachment to Judaism. Indeed, while in Vienna in 1881-82, he had considered even mass Jewish conversion to Catholicism as a solution to the problem of being a Jew in Europe. By 1895 he had lost all hope that Jews would ever be fully assimilated into European society, and judged efforts to combat antisemitism to be futile.

Herzl insisted that Jews world-wide constituted one people and a ‘distinctive nationality’, whose problem could be solved only through the ‘restoration’ of the Jewish state. Just as ‘Pan-Germanism’ proclaimed that everyone of German race, blood or descent owed their primary loyalty to the homeland, so Jews, wherever they lived, constituted a distinct nation, whose welfare could be advanced only through establishing a Jewish nation-state, preferably in Palestine.

Nation or religious community?
His project immediately ran into opposition from the religious establishment, being perceived as a conscious repudiation of the most fundamental tenets of Judaism. For Orthodox Jews the diaspora was a condition ordained by God, who alone would bring it to an end. That the Zionist movement would arrogate to itself the agency for the restoration of the Jewish people to its ancestral land – uniquely the task of the Messiah – was sheer blasphemy. Reform Judaism, for its part, viewing Jewish history as evolutionary, rejected the notion that Jews outside Palestine were ‘in exile’, insisting that Jews constituted a religious community, rather than a nation, and were citizens of many states.

Zionism was not merely a variant on the Jewish faith, but a substitute for it. Herzl and his Zionism were anathema to the most influential eastern European rabbis. In the West, his own Chief Rabbi in Vienna, Moritz Güdemann, objected that the Jews were not a nation, and that Zionism was incompatible with Judaism. Similarly France’s Grand Rabbin, Zadok Kahn, protested. The German Rabbinical Council publicly condemned the efforts of ‘the so-called Zionists’ to create a Jewish national state in Palestine as contrary to Holy Writ. Belgium’s Grand Rabbin, M.A. Bloch, also protested, describing Zionist aspirations as far from those of Judaism. The Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth, Hermann Adler, who had received Herzl in London, viewed his programme as an ‘egregious blunder’ and an ‘absolutely mischievous project.’ He considered the Zionist movement to be opposed to the teaching of Judaism.

The Zionist movement was considered to be a rebellion against classical Judaism, and with good reason. For political Zionists, religion was irrational, and a repressive and regressive force. For them, salvation lay in escaping from the prison of the sacred, and the hypnotic spell of the Bible. Judaism was a weight of lead attached to the feet of Jews. For such people, religion was a symptom of Jewry’s sickness in exile. Zionist Palestine would be new, secular, and qualitatively different from the past of the diaspora.

Agudat Yisrael, formed in Germany in 1912 to present a united Orthodox front, in the face of the dangers posed by secularisation, assimilation and Herzlian Jewish nationalism, was consistently opposed to Zionism because of its arrogating to itself the divine initiative. It considered Zionism to be a pseudo-messianic, satanic conspiracy against God whose responsibility alone it was to gather in the Jews. Moreover, Zionism was bent on removing from Jewish communal life the religious values which had united Jews down the ages. Zionism, then, strove to protect Jewish life, while abandoning the values which had sustained it. The abandonment of what was most characteristically Jewish in the pursuit of purely secular, nineteenth century European notions of nationhood, was, for them, the ultimate form of assimilation.

‘Promised land’ of Israel
Although thoroughly despised as an aspiration by mainstream Orthodox and Reform Judaism until the 1930s and 40s, Zionism, even in its most expansionist and imperialist form, now has virtually unquestioning support in mainstream religious Jewish circles, especially in the wake of the ‘miraculous victory’ of the 1967 Israeli-Arab war. For many religious Jews, formerly secular, anti-religious Zionism has been metamorphosed and even clothed in the garments of piety. Thus, the late Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, Immanuel Jakobivits, could claim that the origins of the Zionist idea were entirely religious, holding that ‘The Bible is our mandate’. And more recently, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks considers the State of Israel to be the most powerful collective expression of Jewry. Its birth was a coming to the promised land, in the line of Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Ezra and Nehemiah. The very existence of the state, he affirms, testifies to the power of hope sustained by prayer. Prayer shawls might sit somewhat uncomfortably on the shoulders of Prime Ministers Begin, Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu, Barak and Sharon.

Despite the volte-face of the establishment, both in Israel and abroad, religious opposition to Political Zionism has not altogether been suffocated. Although it still retains some of its ideological non-Zionism, and even anti-Zionism Agudat Yisrael has reached an accommodation with Political Zionism. Other more rejectionist religious groups regard the state as an abomination. For the ‘ultra-Orthodox’ movement – the most undefiled Jews in their own terms – hell had entered Israel with Herzl. Several communities in Israel and elsewhere hold that the state is an act of rebellion against God, because the initiative for ‘ingathering’ must be God’s.

In particular, Neturei Karta, founded in Jerusalem in 1938, refuses to recognise the authority of ‘the illegitimate so-called ‘State of Israel’’. For them, Zionism is the most pernicious movement in Jewish history. The miraculous event of 1967 is merely the temptation of the righteous to be lured away from authentic salvation. Unlike most participants in the debate who never consider the moral question of the impact of Political Zionism on the indigenous Palestinians, Neturei Karta is distressed at the injustices to the Palestinians in the name of Jewishness. It stresses that the Talmud and Midrash explicitly prohibit premature attempts to end exile, and insists that the ‘pseudo religion of Zionism’ is a product of the abandonment of the Torah and a demonising of all nations.

Barren, secular Zionism
World Jewry, they claim, is implicated in Israel’s violence against the Palestinians. Since Israel is now the most dangerous place in the world for Jews, Zionism’s ‘dismal failure’ in solving the ‘Jewish question’ by ‘ending exile’ should be acknowledged, and this should lead to the total dismantling of the Israeli state and the transfer of sovereignty to Palestinian rule. Already too much blood has been shed on the altar of a nineteenth century colonial nationalism, misapplied to the Jewish people. From being a people of faith, Zionism has changed Jewishness to a barren secular, ethnic identity.

True Jews, they insist, are not allowed to dominate, kill, harm or demean another people. They deplore the systematic uprooting of ancient Jewish communities by the Zionists, and the shedding of Jewish and non-Jewish blood for the sake of Zionist sovereignty. After fifty-four years, five wars, endless terror and counter-terror, innocent civilians dead on both sides, there is, they bemoan, no solution in sight. They regard Zionism as a tragic experiment. The land belongs to those who have dwelt there for centuries. Whether the Palestinians allow a few or many Jews to maintain citizenship in their state is entirely up to them.

Despite the recent adulation of Zionism in Jewish religious circles – and that constituency has, in one of the most extraordinary ideological metamorphoses of the twentieth century, moved from castigating Zionism as a heresy to embracing it, and being its most enthusiastic supporter – it hardly appears reasonable to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Judaism. Indeed, in the estimation of some religious Jews, Zionism is the very antithesis of Judaism.1

The original sin of Zionism: ethnic cleansing
The religious discourse invariably is an exclusively inner-Jewish one, scarcely moving beyond discussing ‘what is good, or bad, for the Jews’. There is inescapably, however, a fundamental moral problem at the core of the Zionist programme which no amount of special pleading, or pretence to innocence, can side-step. This relates to the Zionist determination to establish a state for Jews at the expense of the indigenous Arabs. This resolve, of course, was contrary to the basic assumption of European nationalisms – that the community/nation desiring independence from the imperial power was indigenous to the relevant territory. In Herzl’s day, Jews constituted less than five per cent of the population of Palestine. Herzl’s claim to construct a state ‘like every other nation’, then, involved special pleading, of colonial proportions.

In line with stereotypical colonialist prejudices, Herzl dismissed the impact of his plans on the indigenous people. He knew what was needed to establish a state for Jews in a land already inhabited. An entry in his diary of 12 June 1895 signals his plans. Having occupied the land and expropriated the private property, ‘We shall endeavour to expel the poor population across the border unnoticed, procuring employment for it in the transit countries, but denying it any employment in our own country.’ He added that both ‘the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly’.

Moreover, there is a ‘mountain’ of evidence in the Zionist archives tracing the consistency of this line of thinking within the Jewish leadership in Palestine. It demonstrates that the expulsion of the indigenous Arabs was foreseen as necessary, was systematically planned and was executed at the first opportunity, in 1948. From it we learn in detail how prominent was the necessity of ‘transfer’ in the thinking of the Zionist leadership from the middle 1930s, at least. We read of the establishment and comportment of the two ‘Population Transfer Committees’ (1937 through 1944) and the third Population Transfer Committee established by the Israeli cabinet in August 1948.2 The damage done to the indigenous population, then, was neither accidental nor due to the unique pressures of war, but was at the heart of the Zionist enterprise from the beginning. The Zionist archives themselves, then, fundamentally undermine the Zionist pretence that its intentions were altogether innocent, if not indeed altruistic. They demonstrate that the imperative to ‘transfer’ the indigenous Arab population was at the very core of the Zionist enterprise from the beginning, and was pursued with determination.

Expulsion of Arabs
The establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948 was preceded and followed by systematic expulsion of 80 per cent of the Arab population of what became the state, the destruction of 418 of their villages, to ensure they would not return, and the confiscation of virtually all their land – Jews owned only some 6.6 per cent of Palestine before 1948, but, through the application of various ‘legal’ enactments owned practically all of it within a short time. Of the some 750,000 Arabs expelled in 1948 some 50,000 were Christians, representing 35 per cent of all Christians who lived in Palestine prior to 15 May 1948. For the Palestinians, the Zionist War of Independence was their Nakba (catastrophe). Israel’s colonisation policy after the 1967 war has added to Palestinian disaffection to this day.

Palestinians and neighbouring Arab peoples, of course, have most reason to be aggrieved, but outsiders also have reasons for disaffection. This is particularly true of Christians who, at best, are expected either to support the Zionist conquest, even hailing it to be a miraculous act of God, and a victory for freedom and civilised values, or, at least, to remain silent about Israel’s behaviour. However, Zionists’ failure to ‘come clean’ on their ethnic cleansing imperative, and Israel’s failure to conform to UN Resolutions and an array of Human Rights Protocols are sufficient to shock many.

The ‘canonical’ Zionist version of history, of course, plays down, ignores, explains away, denies, or exonerates Zionists of any responsibility for the destruction of Arab Palestinian life. Even the late Chief Rabbi Jakobivits,a distinguished commentator on other aspects of morality, whose conscience was constantly perturbed by the Arab refugee problem, was quick to assert that ‘we are neither responsible for their being there nor have a solution for their problems’. Again, while Chief Rabbi Sacks recalls with sadness the twenty thousand who died so that Israel should exist, he spares no thought for the Arabs of Palestine and the surrounding states who have paid an even more severe price for the prize of Zionism. Instead, we learn that the Jewish pioneers created farms and forests out of a barren landscape.

A way forward
While Palestine has always been a mosaic transcending ethnic, religious, and national separations – pace the biblical legend’s embrace of the genocide of the indigenous Canaanites – the Zeitgeist since Oslo (1993) has abandoned the presumption of ethnic and political diversity. Imagination, generosity of spirit, courage, and a certain amount of moral thinking are required if Israel-Palestine is to move beyond the all too predictable politics of separation.

Why must the future settle for an arrangement which feeds off the jaded rhetoric of racist and colonialist nineteenth-century Europe? Why should the Jewish people bind itself inexorably to a controlling ideology which predicates hermetically sealed separateness as the utopian solution to neighbourliness? The aspiration to a secular bi-national state in the whole of Palestine, espoused by the PLO until 1988, has now also devolved into the option for separation, with two states side by side.

On the surface it might appear that one was dealing with two deeply-rooted, fundamentally irreconcilable nationalist aspirations. The reality, however, is that each of the nationalisms is of recent origin – the late nineteenth century in the case of Jewish nationalism; and, while the seeds were sown earlier, 1967 in the case of a distinctly Palestinian nationalism. Moreover, the two are not only recourses of desperation, but betray poverty of vision, lack of imagination and moral determination.

Bi-national option
The bi-national option within a unitary state has more to commend it in the long run. The formation of a unitary, secular, non-racial state in Mandated Palestine, with equal rights for both peoples (including returned expulsees), and all religions, as in other democracies, would be a bold solution. To achieve it, the essentially discriminatory base and structure of Zionism would have to be dismantled, and Israelis’ national goals would have to become inclusive. While not satisfying all nationalist or religious aspirations, a unitary state in Palestine beats throwing the Jews into the sea, or throwing the Palestinian Arabs into the desert. Could it ever happen?

James Diamond considered it as unlikely that Israel would disavow or move beyond Zionism as that the USA would renounce democracy or capitalism, or Russia would forsake Marxism or communism – he was writing in 1986.3 Since then, the Berlin Wall has collapsed, South African apartheid has been dismantled, and an agreed settlement in Northern Ireland is almost there. Two separated states is probably the only viable option for the moment, moving perhaps later to a federation of two states with permeable borders, and ultimately to a unified state.

Herzlian Zionism as implemented by Israel since its foundation, and by Ariel Sharon currently, is hardly a moral option for Jewry. Disdain for Zionism’s exclusivist, oppressive, imperialistic and colonialist essence should not be dismissed as an expression of irridentist hatred of either Jews or Judaism. It should be welcomed as pointing to the necessity of making a better moral future.

1. In my Zionism and the State of Israel: A Moral Inquiry (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 67-102, I trace the metamorphosis of the religious estimation of Political Zionism, from being an anathema, to occupying a position of virtual sacred significance within religious Jewish thinking.

2. See Nur Masalha’s Expulsion of the Palestinians: the Concept of ‘Transfer’ in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948 (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992), his A Land without a People. Israel, Transfer and the Palestinians 1949-96 (London: Faber and Faber, 1997), and his Imperial Israel and the Palestinians: The Politics of Expansion, 1967-2000 (London: Pluto, 2000).

3. James S. Diamond, Homeland or Holy Land? The Canaanite Critique of Israel (Bloomington Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986), pp. 126-27.


This article first appeared in Doctrine and Life (July-August 2002), a publication of the Irish Dominicans. Michael Prior CM, of St Mary’s College, Strawberry Hill (University of Surrey), is the author of The Bible and Colonialism: a Moral Critique (Sheffield 1997), Zionism and the State of Israel: a Moral Enquiry (Routledge 1999), and editor of Holy Land Studies: a Multidisciplinary Journal (Continuum, 2002).