Friday, May 3, 2024

Zionism – A case study in nationalism (2024)

From the May 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the nineteenth century there were conflicting views in Jewish communities as to how their best interests might be served. Some opted for a liberal view that assimilation was possible in an increasingly enlightened Europe.

Those favouring a reformed Judaism considered it best for the religion to be confined to the private sphere. The resolutely orthodox strove to maintain a traditional faith.

However, Europe was witnessing the emergence of an ideology that appealed to an increasing minority of Jews: nationalism.

Wider European society was embracing notions of national histories, distinctive cultures and languages, and self-determination. Jews found themselves faced with a choice between their Jewish or national identities. The latter was often compromised by persistent anti-semitism.

The concept of a Jewish national state began to emerge. Auto-emancipation was the term coined in the 1882 pamphlet of the same name written by the Russian Leon Pinsker.

Twenty years prior, in Rome and Jerusalem, Marx’s ‘communist rabbi’ Moses Hess proposed an independent Jewish socialist commonwealth, a blending of socialism with the nationalist ideas of Giuseppe Mazzini.

These declarations of Jewish nationalism did not initially attract widespread support. This began to change following the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II, the subsequent pogroms, the development of pan-Germanism voicing racist myths about all-powerful Jews, and the anti-semitism in the 1890s exposed by the Dreyfus affair.

Theodor Herzl, an Austrian journalist, began observing developments. Assimilated and relatively prosperous, he had little or no interest in the culture or religion of his forebears. His influences were Bismarck, Wagner and the pan-Germanists. However, he could not ignore the rising anti-semitic trend and came to the conclusion that assimilation had failed due to economic competition between Jews and gentiles. Liberated from physical ghettos, Jews were becoming confined socially.

Determined to free Jews from this emerging ghetto, Herzl considered both mass conversion to Christianity and socialist revolution. He eventually settled on the prevailing nationalist concept of self-determination.

In The Jewish State (1896), he argued for founding a European Jewish homeland that would remove the competition between Jews and non-Jews. Subsequently, both Argentina and East Africa were considered as possible locations. The Holy Land, Palestine, became the dream.

Palestinian Arabs, unsurprisingly, opposed this prospect. Herzl though regarded non-Europeans as backward, arguing that a Jewish homeland would be ‘a rampart of Europe against Asia’. In 1897 he organised the First Zionist Congress in Basel that established the World Zionist Organisation (WZO).

When Herzl died in 1904, his ideas were not universally accepted by all Jews. Another strand of Zionism aimed at renewing Judaism rather than confronting anti-semitism. Herzl’s supporters were accused of furthering assimilation, rejecting their forebears’ faith. This Zionist strand favoured a country that was uniquely Jewish, not a Jewish state on a European model.

Despite its disparate beginnings, Zionism gathered a momentum focused on Palestine, both as a reaction to anti-semitic nationalisms in Europe and as a nationalism in its own right.

Via the Balfour Declaration of 1917, made as the Ottoman Empire was crumbling, and the Nazi-instituted Holocaust, the Zionist cause achieved its objective in 1948 when David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the state of Israel.

However, this was by no means the beginning of Jewish settlement in Palestine. There had already been a small Jewish community in that predominantly Muslim Ottoman area. The first formal Jewish community that can be considered an expression of Zionist aspirations was a kibbutz founded in 1910. This was followed by dozens more across the area that would become Israel. The kibbutz movement is significant as it was an expression of an ideological link that was destined to become horrifically problematic. That is the linking of nationalism with socialism.

From its early days Zionism was associated by some advocates with socialism. Moses Hess regarded it as an amalgam of socialism and Italian-style nationalism. Then Theodor Herzl introduced the notion of revolutionary socialism as a potential element of Zionism. Certainly, the kibbutz movement claimed Marxist influence in its organisation of communities. The goal was collective living. There was no private property, as all of it was held collectively by the community. Meals were even taken together.

Stanford economics professor Ran Abramitzky has stated, ‘Jewish immigrants who founded kibbutzim rejected capitalism and wanted to form a more socialist society.’ The paradox the professor seems not to have realised is that socialism is not something that can become the private preserve of one ethnic group, even if they do hold their property in common.

Herzl certainly made no secret of his view of the racial superiority of a Jewish homeland as a bastion against the barbarians beyond. The exclusive nature of the kibbutz reflected this attitude.

There is also the seemingly unquestioned acceptance that taking already occupied land for living space is justified. This is an idea that can be traced back to the very earliest days when humans began to develop a stratified society.

Certainly, in modern times the European conquest and settlement of the Americas paid little regard to any sense that indigenous populations had any rights.

For European Jewry, the concept of national exclusivity tied to ‘socialism’ and lebensraum became a monumental tragedy.

Before that tragedy could fully unfold, the seemingly antagonistic nationalisms had a moment of common purpose. In 1937 two SS officers, Herbert Hagen and Adolf Eichmann, visited Palestine and met with Fevel Polkes, an agent of Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary force formed to protect Jewish communities in Palestine from Arab attacks. After 1948 it was incorporated into the Israeli Defence Force.

Polkes took the two Nazis to visit a kibbutz. In 1960 Eichmann wrote, ‘I did see enough to be very impressed with the way the Jewish colonists were building up their land… had I been a Jew, I would have been a fanatical Zionist.’

It would be a grievous mistake to equate Zionism with Nazism. But one thing all nationalisms have in common is that they pit what they see as their national collective interest against that of the ‘other’, those beyond, outside, excluded.

Whatever socialist pretensions Zionism had they have been subsumed into reformist politics that makes no claim to abolishing capitalism. Kibbutzim now only account for about 3 percent of Israel’s population. Collective living has been abandoned and the kibbutz has turned into village life.

Antagonistic nationalisms and competing economic interests are at the root of Hamas atrocities in Israel and Israeli atrocities in Gaza. While the outpouring of support for Gaza by Palestinian flag-waving demonstrators is an understandable reaction, the solution to the ongoing conflict is surely not to counterpose one nationalism with another.

A one-state or two–state solution will not remove the underlying tensions. It may ameliorate the situation for a while, but only until the next time competition flares into conflict.

To simply oppose Zionism could be interpreted as being anti-semitic. It would invite the question, why just pick on Jewish nationalism? The socialist response has to be opposition to all nationalisms.

The oxymoron ‘National Socialism’ is particularly mistaken. The definitions are mutually exclusive. Not only in the Nazi formulation, but also in such seemingly reasonable and moderate forms as ‘Scottish socialism’, a variant of Scottish nationalism.

Whatever label is attached to it, nationalism, as it arose variously in the nineteenth century, persists as an ideological shackle for the workers of the world, keeping them bound as wage slaves to capitalism. While workers continue to identify themselves with their countries of birth they will deny themselves the worldwide possibilities of socialism, without borders and the wars fought to maintain them.

The irony is that while Herzl thought Jews had been confined to an invisible ghetto, Zionism is confining them to a very visible one, Israel, even for those choosing to live beyond its borders. The way forwards is not assimilation, but socialism.
Dave Alton

No comments: