Demystifying Zionism

Yakov Rabkin
September 2009

Published in Canadian Dimension (Winnipeg), September 2009.

Demystifying Zionism

By Yakov M Rabkin[1]

The word “Zionism” means different things to different people. Some use it a badge of honour, unconditionally defending the state of Israel right or wrong. Yet, many Zionists take umbrage at the appellation of Israel as a Zionist state. They insist that it is a “Jewish state”, a “state of the Jewish people”. Quite a few people who identify themselves as Zionists, are distressed by what Israel is and does, but remain reluctant to express their distress in public. Others, including quite a few Israelis, see Zionism as the main obstacle to peace in Israel/Palestine, a path to collective suicide. And, finally, in some circles the word is used as an insult.

This article proposes to demystify Zionism by outlining the origins of the Zionist idea and of its relationship with religion. It continues with a cursory look at the evolution of Zionism, from motley seemingly incompatible ideologies to a rather monolithic political stance prevalent nowadays. The article concludes by offering answers to two questions that concern many people today: what explains the solid support that Canadian, US and other Western governments offer the state of Israel, and why rejection of Zionism and criticism of Israel are often regarded as an anti-Semitic act.


Zionism is a product of European history and one of the last movements in contemporary history that set out to transform man and society. Both Zionists and their opponents agree that Zionism and the State of Israel constitute a revolution in Jewish history, a revolution that began with the emancipation and the secularization of European Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Secularization, which affected many Jews in Europe, was a necessary, albeit not a sufficient, factor in the emergence of Zionism. Another important factor was resistance against the entry of Jews into European society, which coalesced into the secular ideology of racial or scientific anti-Semitism. Unlike Christian anti-Judaism, which aimed at salvation through conversion, modern anti-Semitism considers Jews to be a race or a people intrinsically alien, even hostile, to Europe, its population and its civilization.

Secularization also revolutionized Jewish identity from within: traditional Jews can be distinguished by what they do or should do; the new Jews by what they are. While they practice the same religion, it would be truly daring to assume that Jews from Poland, Yemen and Morocco belong to the same ethnic group, let alone are descendents of the Biblical Hebrews. Some, such as Professor Shlomo Sand of Tel-Aviv University, argue that the Jewish people, as an ethnic concept, was simply “invented” for the needs of Zionism in the late 19th century: after all, one needs a nation to be a nationalist.

In the words of the late Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz of Hebrew University in Jerusalem,

The historical Jewish people was defined neither as a race, nor as a people of this country or that, or of this political system or that, nor as a people that speaks the same language, but as the people of Torah Judaism and of its commandments, as the people of a specific way of life, both on the spiritual and the practical plane, a way of life that expresses the acceptance of  … the yoke of the Torah and of its commandments. This consciousness exercised its effect from within the people. It formed its national essence; it maintained itself down through the generations and was able to preserve its identity irrespective of times or circumstances.

Zionism rejected the traditional definition in favour of a modern national one. Thus Zionists accepted the anti-Semites’ view of the Jews as a distinct people or race and, moreover, internalized much of the anti-Semitic blame directed at the Jews, accused of being degenerate unproductive parasites. Zionists set out to reform and redeem the Jews from their sad condition.  In the words of Professor Elie Barnavi, former Israeli ambassador in Paris, “Zionism was an invention of intellectuals and assimilated Jews… who turned their back on the rabbis and aspired to modernity, seeking desperately for a remedy for their existential anxiety”. However, most Jews rejected Zionism from the very beginning. They saw that Zionists played into the hands of their worst enemies, the anti-Semites: the latter wanted to be rid of Jews while the former wanted to gather them to Israel. The founder of Zionism Theodore Herzl considered anti-Semites “friends and allies” of his movement.

Among the many tendencies within Zionism, the one that has triumphed formulated four objectives: 1) to transform the transnational and extraterritorial Jewish identity centred on the Torah into a national identity, like ones then common in Europe; 2) to develop a new national language based on biblical and rabbinical Hebrew; 3) to transfer the Jews from their countries of origin to Palestine; and 4) to establish political and economic control over the land, if need be by force. While other European nationalists, such as Poles or Lithuanians, needed only to wrest control of their countries from imperial powers to become “masters in their own houses,” Zionists faced a far greater challenge in trying to achieve their first three objectives simultaneously.

Zionism has been a rebellion against traditional Judaism and its cult of humility and appeasement. It has been a valiant attempt to transform the meek pious Jew relying on divine providence into an intrepid secular Hebrew relying on his own power. This transformation has been an impressive success.

Zionism and Religion

According to a sarcastic remark of an Israeli colleague, « our claim to this land could be put in a nutshell: God does not exist, and he gave us this land. » Indeed, secular nationalism and religious rhetoric lie at the root of the Zionist enterprise.

Indeed, Zionism turned prayers and messianic expectations into calls for political and military action. In his intellectual history of Zionism, Professor Shlomo Avineri of Hebrew University observes “Jews did not relate to the vision of the Return in a more active way than most Christians viewed the Second Coming. … The fact remains that for all of its emotional, cultural, and religious intensity, this link with Palestine did not change the praxis of Jewish life in the Diaspora: Jews might pray three times a day for the deliverance that would transform the world and transport them to Jerusalem, but they did not emigrate there.” They did not because Jewish tradition discourages collective, let alone violent, return to the Promised Land: this return is to be operated as part of the messianic redemption of the entire world.

There is little wonder that the Zionist idea provoked immediate opposition among traditional Jews. “Zionism is the most terrible enemy that has ever arisen to the Jewish Nation. … Zionism kills the nation and then elevates the corpse to the throne”, proclaimed a prominent European rabbi nearly a century ago. The Israeli scholar Yosef Salmon explains this opposition:

It was the Zionist threat that offered the gravest danger, for it sought to rob the traditional community of its very birthright, both in the Diaspora and in the Land of Israel, the object of its messianic hopes. Zionism challenged all the aspects of traditional Judaism: in its proposal of a modern, national Jewish identity; in the subordination of traditional society to new life-styles; and in its attitude to the religious concepts of Diaspora and redemption. The Zionist threat reached every Jewish community. It was unrelenting and comprehensive, and therefore it met with uncompromising opposition.

Rabbis were also concerned, long before the declaration of the state of Israel, that  “the Zionists would ultimately create a Judaism of cannons and bayonets that would invert the roles of David and Goliath and would end in a perversion of Judaism, which had never glorified war and never idolized warriors.” This has in fact happened, particularly within the National Religious movement that has been the engine of Zionist settlement in the territories conquered by Israeli troops in 1967.

Grafting traditional Jewish symbols on essentially secular Zionism, however incongruous, is very potent. Identification with Israel’s reliance on force has increased even among many observant Jews, in spite of the principled rejection of Zionism by the rabbis they continue to revere. More importantly, Zionism has replaced Judaism as a new religion for millions of secular and atheistic people. They reflexively reject disapproval of Israel and avoid unpleasant facts about it.  Believing to act as good Jews, they cherish and cheer on an ideal, virtual Israel, just as Western communists used to support an ideal Soviet Union, which had little to do with the real one.

At the same time, a broad variety of Jews continue to oppose Zionism, accusing it of destroying Jewish moral values and endangering Jews in Israel and elsewhere. It remains to be seen whether the fracture between those who hold fast to Jewish nationalism and those who abhor it may one day be mended. Or, like Christianity before it, Zionism will coalesce into a new identity independent of Judaism altogether.

While Zionism has profoundly divided the Jews, it has united tens of millions of evangelical Christians in the United States and elsewhere. Some of them claim that Israel is “more important for Christians than it is for Jews”. For the prominent evangelical preacher Reverend Jerry Falwell the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 is “the most crucial event in history since the ascension of Jesus to heaven … Without a State of Israel in the Holy Land, there cannot be the second coming of Jesus Christ, nor can there be a Last Judgement, nor the End of the World”. The coalition of Christians United for Israel claims many times more supporters than the sum total of Jews the world (between 13 and 14 million). Most Zionists today are Christian, which is hardly surprising since the very project of actually gathering the Jews in the Holy Land had emerged in Anglo-American Protestant circles well before Jews embraced it in late 19th century.

Evolution of Zionism

Political ideologies within Zionism used to vary from militant exclusive nationalism to humanistic socialism and national communism. While the former were convinced that the indigenous Palestinians would only acquiesce to Zionist colonization in the face of a overwhelming military force, the latter believed that eventual benefits of progress and modernization would lead to proletarian unity between the colonizers and the colonized. Unlike the right-wing Vladimir Jabotinsky, who openly endorsed the colonialist and therefore forceful character of Zionism, the socialist majority of the Zionist pioneers refused to acknowledge conflict over the land between Zionists and the indigenous population. Jabotinsky, an admirer of Mussolini, who called for mobilization of the Jews for “war, revolt and sacrifice,” derided the illusions of the Social-Zionists and their insistence on the “purity of arms”.

In fact, emphasis on the use of force was almost as common among the socialist Zionists. True, thousands of socialist and communist rank-and-file Zionists were opposed to the idea of a Jewish state, that they considered reactionary and even fascist in the 1920s.  At the same time, Labour Zionist leaders did not apply socialist egalitarian principles to local Arabs and Jewish immigrants from Muslim countries. Socialism was for them no more than an instrument to be used in the cause of nationalism, rather than an intrinsic social or political value. David Ben-Gurion, the future founder of the state of Israel, declared in 1922:

It is not by looking for a way of ordering our lives through the harmonious principles of a perfect system of socioeconomic production that we can decide on our line of action. The one great concern that should govern our thought and work is the conquest of the land and building it up through extensive immigration. All the rest is mere words and phraseology, and — let us not delude ourselves — we have to go forward in an awareness of our political situation: that is to say, in an awareness of power relationships, the strength of our people in this country and abroad.

According to Zeev Sternhell, Israel’s foremost historian of right-wing movements, Ben-Gurion’s socialism was inspired by the German nationalist socialism of the years immediately following the Great War. In the introduction to his book, The Founding Myths of Zionism, Sternhell goes to great lengths to come up with the term “nationalist Socialism” to avoid calling Ben-Gurion’s political outlook National Socialism. While some Zionists deplore the disappearance of the “small beautiful Israel” of the 1950s, which was admired by the international left, it was to be expected that practical Zionism, which involved displacement of local population, would evolve towards exclusive nationalism, away from socialist ideals that enthused Zionist pioneers.

Western Support

An Israeli political commentator once remarked that had Jean-Marie Le Pen transferred his party to Israel, it would find itself in the centre left of the country’s political spectrum. Media in Israel have termed as “fascist” and “racist” the parliament elected in 2009. This election came in the wake of a popularly supported massive attack on Gaza that left behind thousands of civilian dead and wounded. The new government has proposed a series of repressive legislative measures, intensified police harassment of Jewish dissident groups, and barred entry to UN officials.

However, Western governments did not react to all this with disapproval, which followed the election of Hamas in Gaza or even the ministerial appointment of Heider in Austria. Most expressed confidence in the robustness of Israeli democracy and abstained from voicing criticism. Canada’s Conservative government continued its policy of enthusiastic support and security cooperation with Israel. Why does Israel enjoy so much support from Western governments?

One of the reasons is the right wing shift in political, social and economic conditions in Israel. The gap between the rich and the poor increased, competition replaced social solidarity, and privatization encroached even on kibbutzim. This dovetailed with measures to dismantle the welfare state in major Western nations in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. As if in reaction to the Soviets’ internationalism, overt ethnic nationalism has made a comeback, first in the Baltic republics, and later in the rest of Europe. Egalitarian liberal discourse has ceded its once dominant place to attempts to exclude “the other”.

Liberal values emerged during the post-colonial period when it became no longer admissible to proclaim the superiority of one culture over another, one religion over another, let alone one race over another. Cold War made racism illegitimate as intensive struggle was conducted between superpowers for sympathies in the Third World. There was shame and regret expressed with respect to past racist practices in Europe and in the colonies around the world. The end of the Cold War reversed this process. One has begun to hear justifications of colonial rule in France, to see monuments to SS troops erected in Ukraine, and watch Roma, Africans and Asians violently attacked throughout Europe. Mass massacres accompanied the collapse of Yugoslavia, while Czechoslovakia dissolved peacefully along ethnic lines. References to national and religious “intrinsic” factors of behaviour regained legitimacy as Western nations engaged in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Here again Israel, espousing ethnic, not civic, nationalism, appeared as a trendsetter. As Zionists would not admit that injustice against indigenous population lies at the foundation of their state, they would not attribute the enduring enmity of the displaced Palestinians to grievances about their deportation and dispossession. Rather, “the Arabs” are portrayed as irrational haters, religious fanatics or even modern-day Nazis. Some would compare them to animals and insects, a zoological vocabulary being common to many colonizers. Western reaction to the events of September 11 embraced Israel’s narrative about the Arabs’ irrational hatred of progress and freedom, their inborn hostility to “Judeo-Christian” values. Moreover, Israel has come to play a major role as a privileged source of expertise and equipment in “the war on terror” conducted by Western nations, while being hailed by the evangelical right, which sees in it a harbinger of the Second Coming of Christ.

However, Western support is fragile since it suffers from democratic deficit. Public opinion in the countries, whose governments enthusiastically endorse Israel, consistently considers it a major threat to world peace. While business circles express their admiration for Israel, unions and other grass-root associations condemn it as an apartheid state and campaign for boycott, disinvestment and sanctions. Israel has firmly positioned itself as a beacon for the right.

Is it anti-Semitic to reject Zionism and to criticize Israel?

Ever since 1948, when Zionists unilaterally declared independence against the will of the majority of Palestine’s population – Christians, Muslims and quite a few Jews – Israeli leaders began to worry about ensuring a Jewish ethnic majority. They have used a range of methods to encourage immigration of Jewish citizens of other countries. Since most immigrants have moved to Israel under the threat – genuine or fake – of anti-Semitism, rather than for ideological reasons, anti-Semitism has always served Israel’s interests.

Nowadays anti-Semitism is mostly fallout from the Middle East conflict. Jews are increasingly associated with Israel’s bomber aircraft, gun-toting soldiers and Zionist settlers that fill the TV screens. However, Israeli authorities are not concerned that their policies towards the Palestinians breed anti-Semitism around the world. To the contrary, the rise of anti-Semitism supports their claim that only in Israel can a Jew feel safe, and, in practical terms, increases immigration.

At the same time, “vassals of Israel” (a term coined by the former Israeli ambassador to France Elie Barnavi for persons often mistaken for Jewish leaders), not only proclaim their loyalty to Israel, but also defiantly fly Israeli flags at the entrance of Jewish institutions, including old-age homes and hospitals. Such conflation of Israel and Jewish citizens of other countries provokes anti-Semitism and invites hostility. The standard Zionist claim that Israel – a distant and combative state most Jews neither control nor inhabit – is “the state of the Jewish people” implicates Jews around the world into what Israel is and does. Calling Israel the Jewish state predictably foments anti-Semitism and breeds anti-Jewish violence.

By stifling even the most moderate critique of Israel with accusations of anti-Semitism, these “vassals of Israel” further enhance anti-Jewish sentiment. Conversely, Jews who speak against Israeli actions – such as Independent Jewish Voices in Canada – undermine fundamental anti-Semitic beliefs. They embody the actual diversity of Jewish life – “two Jews, three opinions” – that flies in the face of the anti-Semitic canard of world Jewish conspiracy. But Jews need not be the only people “authorized” to discuss Zionism and Israel.

Conflation of Israel with Jews and their history serves to muddle and throttle rational discussion. This is why it is so important to make distinctions between the following concepts: Zionism and Judaism; Israel as a state, as a country, as a territory, and as the Holy Land; Jews (Israelis and others), Israelis (Jews and non-Jews), Zionists (Jews and Christians) and anti-Zionists (again Jews and Christians). Israel should be treated as any independent country: according to its own merits and faults, without references to the Holocaust or the pogroms in Odessa. To avoid anti-Semitic overtones in discussing Israel, it is important to remember that Zionism has been a daring revolt against Jewish continuity and to dissociate Jews and Judaism from the State of Israel and its actions.

One of Israel’s experts in Zionism Boaz Evron brings a sense of rationality to this often emotional issue:

The State of Israel, and all the states of the world, appear and disappear. The State of Israel, clearly, will disappear in one hundred, three-hundred, fi ve-hundred years. But I suppose that the Jewish people will exist as long as the Jewish religion exists, perhaps for thousands more years. The existence of this state is of no importance for that of the Jewish people…. Jews throughout the world can live quite well without it.

The author is Professor of History at the University of Montreal; his recent book, A Threat from within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (Fernwood), has been translated to eight languages and nominated for the Governor General Award.

[1] Professor Rabkin has taught contemporary history at the University of Montreal since 1973. He has studied Judaism with Orthodox rabbis in Montreal, Baltimore, Paris, Strasbourg and Jerusalem.  His recent book A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism, currently available in nine languages, was nominated for the Governor General Award.

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