Roots of Violence

Yakov Rabkin
September 2006

Published in Jewish Socialist (London) in September 2006.


By Yakov M Rabkin

The recent Israeli actions in Gaza and Lebanon have affected the image of the Socialist branch of the Zionist political establishment in Israel. Hopes were high when Amir Peretz, the veteran labour leader, was appointed Defence Minister. This Moroccan proletarian reared in the Ashkenazi Socialist mould was expected to transform the army’s bellicose instincts and divert to social priorities some of the funds and attention usually bestowed on the army. Yet, Mr Peretz has acted no differently from his predecessors.


One of the reasons this has happened can be found in the history of Socialist Zionism, the branch of the Zionist movement that triumphed both internally (by marginalising Vladimir Jabotinsky’s right-wing Zionists) and internationally (by establishing the state of Israel with the accord of the United Nations). At the same time, the Socialist Zionists failed to win acceptance from its neighbours, which worried the political scientist Hannah Arendt. Writing during the hostilities provoked by the establishment of the state by David Ben-Gurion in 1948, she observed:

And even if the Jews were to win the war, […] [t]he “victorious” Jews would live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population, secluded inside ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defence. […] And all this would be the fate of a nation that- no matter how many immigrants it could still absorb and how far it extended its boundaries (the whole of Palestine and Transjordan is the insane Revisionist demand) – would still remain a very small people greatly outnumbered by hostile neighbours.

This is the failure that continues to plague Israel in spite of its peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt: people in the region continue to resent and reject “the Zionist entity”.

Ben Gurion was bent to create facts on the ground, to prevail through power. In a speech to a congress of his political movement in 1922, he “declared the intentions which,” says the Israeli political scientist Zeev Sternhell, “he was to hold throughout his life:”

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.

Ben Gurion’s socialism, Sternhell reminds us, was inspired by the German nationalist socialism of the years immediately following the Great War. It was close to the thought of Spengler, who in turn had paraphrased remark by Heinrich von Treitschke: “Socialism means power, power and again, power.” Sternhell coined the term “nationalist Socialism” to describe Ben Gurion’s actions bent inter alia upon wresting the Jew from tradition.

While biblical Israel was conquered through war, Jewish tradition identifies allegiance to God, and not military prowess, as the principal factor in the victories mentioned in the Bible. After the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, Jewish life underwent a metamorphosis that rejected the use of force. Tradition interprets the destruction of the Temple and the ensuing exile as divine punishment. Gratuitous hatred among the Jews is held to be the cause of the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome; sexual transgressions, murder and idolatry, that of the first exile in Babylon. But are these pacifist values anchored in the Jewish worldview or are they simply an historical accident? The medieval Jewish Spanish poet Yehuda Halevi expresses this doubt through one of the protagonists of Kuzari: Such would be the case had you freely chosen humility: but you were so constrained. And should you gain hegemony, you too would kill. (Halevi, 37-38)


In the event, the shift took place well before the Jews gained any hegemony. It happened in Russia, home to millions of Jews concentrated in the Pale of Settlement. The great majority felt both impatience and exasperation at the official restrictions and unofficial persecutions they were forced to endure. The shock, anger and frustration at the pogroms found an outlet in radical, often clandestine parties that preached violence. Jews flooded into the Russian oppositionist movements, many of them firmly internationalist. But at the same time, they founded several specifically Jewish ones (including the socialist Bund, anti-pogrom self-defence groups, and the various Zionist parties). While other Jewish communities the world over remained faithful to the tradition of non-violence, that tradition came under increasing attack in Russia.

Haim Naham Bialik, a Russian author who later became a cultural icon in Israel, stoked the fires of revenge and violence. He castigated the survivors of the Kishinev pogrom, heaping shame upon their heads and calling upon them to revolt not only against their tormentors, but also against Judaism: “let fists fly like stones against the heavens and against the heavenly throne.” Joseph Brenner, another Russian poet, also rebelled against the Jewish tradition. He radically transformed the best-known verse of the Jewish prayer book “Hear, O Israel, God is your Lord, God is one!” one of the first verses taught to children and the last to be spoken by a Jew before his death. Brenner’s revised verse proclaimed: “Hear, O Israel! Not an eye for an eye. Two eyes for one eye, all their teeth for every humiliation!”

Russian Jews made up not only a majority of the founders of the State of Israel; they also became the most influential group within its military elite. The man who did more than any other Zionist to introduce unchained terror into Palestine was the Russian Avraham Stern, a member of several paramilitary groupings. Moshe Dayan, Ezer Weizmann, Isaac Rabin, Rehavam Zeevi, Raphael Eitan and Ariel Sharon are all descendents of Russian Jews, whose propensity for the use of force can only be likened to their estrangement from Jewish tradition. By completely rejecting Judaism and its cult of humility could the Russian Jews acquire a newfound confidence in their own strength, and in their capacity to re-conquer and defend Israel.

The earliest Zionist settlers projected onto Palestinian reality the clichés of bygone Russia: the Arab threat was often likened to the murderous shadow of the pogroms. But their actions were like those of all settler groups in a foreign territory: they took up arms to defend their settlements. The arrival of masses of European Jews following World War II, and the Zionist interpretation of the Shoah created a cultural fusion of immense power: a self-image of the just victim. The secular version of Jewish history had eliminated the privileged relationship between God and his people and made the Jews the victims of an historical injustice. The American theologian Marc Ellis observed that the Zionists turned “innocence in suffering into innocence in empowerment”.


Zionism has negated the traditional Jewish attitude to war. In our day, Israeli and Diaspora Jews number among the outspoken advocates of the strong-armed approach with regard to both the Arab-Israeli conflict, the intervention in Iraq and, more generally, “the clash of civilisations”. What is not clear is whether this represents a true shift toward pugnacity among the Jews. Reputable opinion polls taken after two years of the al-Aqsa Intifada (2000-2003) and hundreds of civilian victims among Israeli Jews, the percentage of American Jews in favour of force to resolve the conflict in the Holy Land hardly exceed 8%. Revulsion at the use of force continues to hold a dominant position in Jewish life, despite the incontestable cumulative impact of, first, Zionism and then, the Holocaust.

The Neturei Karta, uncompromising opponents of Zionism in all its forms, decry the use of force and express fraternal feelings towards the Arabs:

To all our Arab and Islamic brethren around the world, let the message go forth today, that your quarrel is not with the Jewish people, the people of the Torah. We stand with you in your suffering. We feel your pain. We are with you. It is the task of world Jewry to remain patriotic citizens of the lands of their dispersion and pursue peace with all men.

It would appear that the Jewish adversaries of Zionism, a clear minority today, remain surprisingly close in their commitment to peace and justice to the mainstream Jews. They focus on the root causes of the conflict, i.e. dispossession, expulsion and occupation. It remains to be seen if the split that Zionism, and its emphasis on the use of force, wrought among the Jews is ever going to be bridged. It is quite clear, however, that this emphasis is part of the legacy of Nationalist Socialism nurtured and practiced by Ben Gurion. Amir Peretz should not be blamed for remaining loyal to it.

Yakov M Rabkin, Professor of History at the University of Montreal, is the author of A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (Zed Books, 2006). His analyses of the Middle East appear on radio and television as well as in several dailies.

Recent Articles

All Articles
Roots of Violence