What is Zionism? Question & Answer

15 May 2016

By Marcus Halaby

On the 68th anniversary of the original Partition of Palestine, and in the wake of the Labour right’s smears about antisemitism on the left, we answer a few common questions about the debate on Zionism, antisemitism and Israel-Palestine

What is Zionism? Isn’t it just a code word for Jews? Why do some lefties keep going on about it?

Zionism is the idea that the world’s Jews, taken as a whole, are (or should become) a “nation” in the modern political sense, and that Palestine is their homeland.

It’s the idea that all Jewish people, regardless of their present location, citizenship or geographic or family origin, should have a common homeland in the eastern Mediterranean, and that there should be a state there that collectively belongs to them, rather than to the people (Jewish or otherwise) who actually live there.

Zionism is not (just) “Israeli government policy”, “Jewish identity”, “Israeli nationalism”, the Israeli right, the “settler camp”, ultra-orthodox Jews (most of whom aren’t even Zionists), the 1967 occupation, the use of racist language about Arabs or Muslims, the “pro-Israel lobby” or any of the more visibly objectionable expressions or consequences of Zionism.

Zionism is also most emphatically not “the Illuminati”, “the Bilderbergs”, shapeshifting lizards, the “New World Order” or “Jewish control” of the banks, the media or US foreign policy. These are all antisemitic ideas that antisemites have promoted in order to profit from widespread revulsion at Israel’s crimes to advance their own racist agenda, and which some misguided anti-Zionists occasionally fall for. In this context, “Zionism” very often is used as a barely-disguised code word for Jews. That does not however stop it from having a concrete political meaning as described above.

So what’s wrong with that then? Don’t Jewish people come from Israel anyway?

Whether the people who adhere to this idea realise it or not (and they include plenty of Jews and non-Jews), what’s wrong with it is that it is racist, undemocratic and objectively antisemitic.

Indeed, historically Zionism was a reaction to antisemitism that accepted antisemitism’s basic premise, that Jewish people somehow do not “really belong” in the countries that they live in (one of which today, of course, is Israel), and which drew the conclusion from this that Jewish people needed to have a special country of their own somewhere else, that they would “really belong” in.

Jewish people no more “come from Israel” than Catholics come from Italy, or Muslims come from Saudi Arabia. But even if this religiously-based myth were true (and there is plenty of evidence that it is not), that would make it two thousand years ago that Jewish people originally “came from Israel”, before modern nation-states even existed. On that basis, almost every country in the world today would really “belong” to some group of people who have not actually lived in it for centuries.

Whatever else they might be (and self-identified Jews are not necessarily just the adherents of a particular religion), “the Jews” collectively are not “a nation” in the sense relevant to the right of national self-determination in a democracy.

Democracy, racism, nationhood and political rights

It is undemocratic because in a democracy, political rights in the state (citizenship, residence, property rights, the right to vote etc.) belong to all of the people who live in it, and not to any group of people arbitrarily chosen on the basis of religion or ethnicity, most or many of whom don’t even live in the country and to which a large number of the state’s inhabitants do not belong.

And it is racist because the practical project of creating a “Jewish state” in Palestine involved imposing the rule of of a foreign power (Britain) on its existing Arab inhabitants, driving three-quarters of its Arab population out of the country in 1948, and stripping them of their property and citizenship.

In the present day, it means maintaining a raft of racist laws against Israel’s Arab-minority citizens (including a law that prevents Palestinian citizens of Israel from passing on their citizenship to spouses from the 1967 territories, or to their spouses’ children), maintaining the occupation of the 1967 territories so that they can be populated with Jewish settlers, granting their Palestinian inhabitants neither Israeli citizenship nor any meaningful state of their own, and preventing the return of the Palestinian refugees and their descendants while granting citizenship to anyone who fits the state’s definition of “who is a Jew”.

Aren’t there other countries like that? Why single out Israel? Isn’t that antisemitic?

There certainly are plenty of other states that have come into existence in a similar way: the USA, Canada, Australia and Argentina, to name the most obvious. These have all become “normal” nation-states by reducing their indigenous peoples to a small fraction of the population, through a protracted process of war, massacres, land-grabbing, segregation and forced assimilation.

Israel is still in the middle of this rather bloody process – or at the very best, still somewhere towards the beginning of it – and no socialist should want Israel to become a “normal” country by retracing the genocidal path taken by Australia or the USA.

Colonisation and the “normality” of nation-states

The problem is not that Jewish-Israelis are a uniquely bad people compared to the Americans or the Australians, but that Israel as a state has not yet abandoned (or completed) the colonising dynamic on the basis of which it came into existence – and “Zionism” is precisely the ideological form taken by the justification for this colonising dynamic.

There are also plenty of countries (including Britain) that have racist immigration laws – and racism is an in-built feature of capitalism and the nation-state. But Israel’s “Law of Return” is not quite the same as Britain’s immigration laws (which are designed to keep out “foreigners” looking for work, whose presence has been deemed in some way problematic or superfluous), or the nationality laws of countries like Ireland which grant citizenship to second or third generation expatriates.

It’s more like having an “Anglo-Saxon” state in southern Germany which only recently came into existence by driving out most of the German-speakers, and which granted citizenship to any English-speaking person from anywhere in the world, on the basis that “the Saxons” originally “came from Saxony”.

But don’t antisemitism and the Nazi holocaust demonstrate that Jewish people need a state of their own to be safe in?

No, they don’t. The Gypsies were nearly wiped out by the Nazis as well; and they also suffered a long history of violence and persecution every bit as pernicious as that visited on the Jews. But no-one suggests that they should “go home” to Afghanistan or northern India so that they can be safe from persecution there; or that Russia and the USA should help them to impose a “Gypsy state” on the people of Afghanistan that will be willing to receive them, and which they will rule to the exclusion of the Afghans on the basis of having an artificially-created Gypsy majority.

What both examples of Nazi genocide do prove is that the labour movement and socialists have a positive duty to defend any minority that is under attack from our ruling class – and that where they prove to be unwilling or unable to do so, the consequences can be very extreme indeed.

In the present day, there is no “Jewish question” in the Western world as there was before 1945 – tragically Hitler wiped out far too much of Europe’s Jewish population for that – despite the occasional attempts of antisemites to revive one, and despite the frequent attempts of Israel’s supporters to panic Jewish people in the West into thinking that Israel’s increasing unpopularity means that they too are “under attack”.

Racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia

In today’s Britain, however, Black African and Caribbean people are still visibly one of the most disadvantaged and discriminated against minorities. And Muslims of South Asian, Middle Eastern and North African origin are one of the most consistently vilified minorities, on account of their instinctive opposition to the wars that Western countries have waged in the Arab and Muslim world.

But the pro-Israel media pundits and the Tory, Lib Dem and Labour right figures who have been most vocal in using claims of antisemitism to attack the Labour left are not just largely silent about anti-Muslim bigotry, beyond meaningless platitudes about how they “oppose all discrimination”. Many or most of them have been in the forefront of promoting or exploiting Islamophobic ideas and state measures – including the racist Prevent programme, which encourages a witch-hunting atmosphere against alleged “Muslim radicals” and “extremists” on campus.

This doesn’t mean that we should not talk about antisemitism, or even that we should not oppose genuine instances of it when it comes from pro-Palestine activists who really should know better.

It does mean that we should oppose, quite vocally, a manufactured scare about antisemitism that is being used not just to undermine Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left, but also to stigmatise anyone who opposes Zionism as being an antisemite, and to prevent people from talking about Zionism at all.

Surely the priority should be ending the occupation and creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel? Why go on about Zionism?

Anyone who is remotely serious about defending Palestinian national rights should certainly demand the end of the occupation of the 1967 territories (Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank), as well as the siege of Gaza and the illegal programme of Jewish settlements; not just as part of some far-off “comprehensive peace settlement”, but immediately and unconditionally.

And if the Palestinian inhabitants of those territories go on to declare an independent state in them, then we should demand its immediate and unconditional international recognition, whatever views we or anyone else hold about the much-vaunted “two-state solution” of international diplomacy.

But the problem doesn’t quite end there. Israel’s need to maintain an artificial majority of voting citizens who are Jewish – something that is intimately bound up with its self-designation as “the Jewish state” and the completion of Zionism’s vision of gathering the world’s Jews onto its territory – means that it constantly has to draw upon new sources of (exclusively) Jewish immigration to win the “demographic war” against the Arab Palestinians.

Expansionism and the struggle to maintain a Jewish majority

And this in turn means that it has to keep expanding the areas available for exclusively Jewish settlement, in order to accommodate them at the expense of the Palestinians. In Israel even within its pre-1967 boundaries, this has meant the forced ghettoisation of Israel’s Arab Palestinian minority, while “Jewish-only” towns and villages are built on land that the nearby Arab inhabitants owned and lived in within recent memory. But it also means that Israel cannot break its addiction to the West Bank settlements without losing a vital safety-valve for social discontent within its Jewish-origin ethnic majority – and without also calling into question the legitimacy of its own historic and ideological foundations.

This is the real reason why there has never been and probably never will be a “two-state solution”, not the “intransigence” or the diplomatic ineptitude of either Palestinian or Israeli leaders, as is often suggested. It is also the reason why every Israel government, “left” or “right”, has expanded the settlements and continued the 1967 occupation, even when it has been in “peace negotiations” with Palestinian leaders.

Any call for “two states” in which Israel is still a Zionist state effectively amounts to trying to freeze the Zionist project of colonisation in time and space, without actually abandoning it practically or ideologically. And Israel’s settlements policy over five decades has already made a “two-state solution” on the basis of its pre-1967 boundaries practically impossible without uprooting a large number of Jewish-Israelis, something that would take an Israeli civil war that no Israeli leader wants to fight in order to achieve.

In place of this, we advocate a single secular, democratic and bi-national state in Israel-Palestine, which will grant full and equal citizenship both to Jewish-Israelis and to Arab Palestinians, because this is the simplest, the most democratic and the most likely form that the decolonisation of Israel-Palestine will take.

A “state of its citizens” and the Palestinian right of return

Of course, if Israel was no longer “the Jewish state” in the sense understood by Zionism, but merely a “state of its citizens” that happened to have a Jewish majority, then it is possible to imagine scenarios in which Israelis and Palestinians could agree to some more or less “fair” division of territory between them. But this still quite explicitly would involve the abandonment of Zionism – and even this “two state” scenario would require a recognition in principle of the right of return for the Palestinian refugees and their descendants to bring to an end the current national conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Why bring up the Palestinian refugees? Doesn’t that just complicate things?

First of all, roughly half of the Palestinian refugees actually live in the 1967 occupied territories. For them, the “right of return” is not a demand to return to a country from which they have been excluded for almost seven decades, but a demand for full political and economic rights and full freedom of movement in the country that they still live in.

As for the Palestinian refugees in the Arab states and further afield, the vast majority of these live only a fairly short distance away: in Lebanon and Syria (where Lebanese Christian extremists and Syria’s Assad dictatorship have subjected them to repeated massacres), and in Jordan (where Palestinians form a majority of the population but have largely been excluded from political power).

For as long as Israel is still a state in which colonisation and the attendant need for continued expansion are built-in features of its character as “the Jewish state”, any settlement of justified Palestinian national grievances will mean having to grant cast-iron guarantees against the Palestinians’ future displacement or dispossession in any future war or territorial expansion.

And the only way to do this effectively is by recognising the right of those Palestinians who have already been displaced and dispossessed to some form of restitution – not as an aggregate of individuals, but as a matter of their collective national rights. The Palestinians, like the Israelis and unlike “the Jews”, are a nation – and national rights by definition are collective rights.

Of course, a large number of Palestinian refugees might choose not to “return” to the exact towns and villages, or even to the country that their parents or grandparents were expelled from in 1948 or 1967. Many of them might prefer to be compensated for their property and given full citizenship in their present countries of residence.

But that should be their choice to make – and here this is not a question of “absolute morality” or “absolute justice”, but of the practical prerequisites for a genuine “political settlement” between Israelis and Palestinians.

After all, it took decades before the Chechens and other Muslim inhabitants of the Caucasus who were deported by Stalin in the 1940s were successful in achieving their right to return to the lands from which they were expelled – and the descendants of the Crimean Tartars deported to Uzbekistan are still demanding their right to return to the Crimea today.

Didn’t Arab and Muslim states drive out a lot of their Jews as well? Why not just accept an exchange of populations and call it quits?

The picture is actually a bit more mixed than that. In the 1950s, shortly after Israel’s formation, a pro-British dictator in Iraq and a pro-British feudal monarchy in Yemen actually did expel a large part of their countries’ Jewish minorities, partly with the collusion of the British and Israeli states, exploiting popular sympathy with the Palestinians to punish people who had no involvement in Israel’s crimes in the process. Many or most of these Jewish refugees ended up in Israel.

In Morocco, Tunisia and (non-Arab) Iran, sizeable Jewish emigration to Israel in the same period was mainly an economic migration to a country with a higher average standard of living. There are still significantly-sized Jewish minorities in all three countries today who show little inclination towards leaving, however much local hostility towards Israel occasionally spills over into a completely unjustified hostility towards Jews.

Indeed, many Moroccan-origin Israelis still proudly display portraits of the Moroccan royal family in their homes; and many of them complain that they have been far more discriminated against in Israel as “Moroccans” than they ever were in Morocco as Jews.

On the other hand, the Syrian Baathist regime prevented members of Syria’s Jewish minority from leaving the country at all – a policy every bit as oppressive as forcing them to leave would have been – at least until the early 1990s, when most of them were “allowed to leave” for the USA. In other Arab countries (Egypt and Libya in particular), varying combinations of all three factors were at work at different times.

But even if every Arab state had expelled the Jews as Iraq and Yemen both did, to accept the principle of “population exchange” as the basis for a political settlement of national grievances sets a very dangerous precedent, one that socialists should reject. Would the people who raise this idea still apply it in the scenario that the Arab states “drove the Jews into the sea”?

But doesn’t “one state” mean coercing Jewish-Israelis into accepting an Arab conquest?

Only in the same sense that Lebanon’s Christian Maronites were “coerced” in 1988 into accepting that they could not indefinitely maintain a Christian-dominated Lebanon against the will of a majority of its inhabitants; or in the sense that white South Africans were “coerced” in the 1990s into accepting the end of apartheid. Only a fringe minority of Lebanese Maronites today advocate redividing Lebanon to create a smaller Christian-majority state in it; and only a fascistic fringe of white South Africans today advocate a small white-ruled “Afrikaner Volkstaat”.

Jewish-Israelis today form just over half the population of Israel-Palestine as whole, and on current demographic trends will become just under half the population within our lifetimes. Within Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries, they form roughly three-quarters of the population; but most of this is concentrated in the urbanised coastal region around metropolitan Tel Aviv, while large parts of the country (western Galilee, the “Little Triangle” and the Negev desert) either have an Arab majority or a very large Arab minority that is likely to become a majority within the near future.

Some of Israel’s more openly racist politicians – like former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman – are perfectly aware of this “problem”, which is why they advocate stripping Israel’s Arab minority of Israeli citizenship, or expelling them to a future Palestinian statelet. And all of this is without even taking into account the Palestinian refugees elsewhere.

Ethnic partition versus democracy and freedom of movement

Any future redivision of the country into separate states with sizeable national majorities – not on the basis of the legal and diplomatic fiction that is the 1967 Green Line, but on the basis of where people actually live – would probably have to involve ethnic cleansing on a scale similar to what happened in Bosnia during the 1990s, or indeed on the scale of the ethnic cleansing that brought Israel into existence in 1948, and (depending on its outcome) could leave Jewish-Israelis with a fragmented and unviable state every bit as unjust (for them) as the plans for a fragmented Palestinian statelet that are occasionally advanced are for the Palestinians.

On this basis, Jewish-Israelis would more than likely accept a “one-state solution” in which they would continue to possess the full citizenship and freedom of movement that they enjoy now, over a “two-state solution” that could only be the outcome of what would be (for them) a massive national defeat – but only if they are first forced to abandon the Zionist project of a colonising state “for the whole Jewish people”, and to accept in its place the principle that whatever state exists in the country in future should be “a state of its citizens”.

Of course, if in a post-Zionist Israel-Palestine there were still sizeable regions within which Jewish-Israelis formed a majority, and if a majority of the inhabitants of those regions wanted some form of autonomy or independence within those regions, then in principle it would be entirely fair to allow them that. But that is a question for the future, and we do not regard it as an injustice in the present that Israel should be compelled to abandon the racist and colonising basis on which it currently exists.

But surely not all Zionists are frothing at the mouth racists like you seem to think? Don’t some oppose the occupation?

There is a shrinking minority of Zionists inside and outside Israel who oppose the 1967 occupation and who call for “two states for two peoples”. Their argument in favour of this is that it is a “realistic” demand that can be achieved through diplomacy – an argument that we have already dealt with above – and they are echoed in it by Palestinian leaders like Mahmoud Abbas, who have long given up the struggle for Palestinian national liberation that they once claimed to stand for, in return for limited “self-government” within the 1967 occupied territories as part of a never-ending “peace process” that allows Israel to continue the occupation and keep expanding the settlements.

A majority of Israelis who fall into this category do so out of racism – because they dread having to share the country that they live in with an Arab majority, or with a larger Arab minority than they have to “share” it with now – and because they recognise that the continued occupation of the 1967 territories is turning Israel into a “bi-national state” by default, albeit an extremely undemocratic one.

The “Zionist peace camp” and the 1967 occupation

They want to preserve Israel’s Jewish majority – and with it, its character as a “Jewish state” in the Zionist sense – by agreeing to a truncated Palestinian state before the Palestinians in the 1967 territories start calling for political rights in the only actual state that exists there.

A more principled minority within this group goes further, and resists being drafted into the army for service in the occupied territories, while some do quite valuable work in documenting human rights abuses and settlement expansion.

These people should be defended against the Israeli right and the “settler camp” where they are actually resisting the occupation or defending the Palestinians. But their problem is that they want to have it both ways – they want to maintain the “Zionist dream” of a state for the world’s Jews as a whole (regardless of whether they live there or not), while baulking at some of its worst practical consequences.

This inconsistency is the reason why the parties and politicians of the “Zionist peace camp” that they vote for (Labor, Meretz, Shinui and its successor Yesh Atid etc.) keep disappointing their expectations by behaving little differently in power to the parties of the Israeli right and the “settler camp”.

Doesn’t that mean that Jewish people won’t be allowed to move to Israel any more? Why support a right of return for Palestinians but not for Jews?

No, it doesn’t mean that at all; it just means that they won’t have an automatic right to emigrate there on the basis of being Jewish, while others are denied that right.

We should be in favour of freedom of migration as a general rule, and on that basis we should be in favour of all countries abandoning laws that restrict that freedom – starting with the world’s richest countries like our own. But it is disingenuous to defend Israel’s “Law of Return” on the basis of freedom of migration, when it grants that freedom only to members of the “right” ethnic or religious category.

Similarly, the descendants of Palestinian refugees who choose not to take up any future Palestinian “right of return” should not continue to hold that right in perpetuity either, but should lose it after one or two generations, as the expatriate nationals of most normal countries do. To do otherwise would be to turn the Palestinians into a permanently extra-territorial nationality, the same way that Zionism tries to do with the Jews.

Palestinians who remain in the diaspora will over time become Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians, Brazilians, Nicaraguans, Americans or Germans, just as anyone else who emigrates from one country to another does today in the normal course of events. But they will not cease to be “Palestinians” – at least not collectively – for as long as Palestinians are collectively excluded from their own country and denied political rights within it. That is what the “right of return” is intended to address.

And if any of the Israeli descendants of the Jewish people who were forced to leave the Arab countries ever demand a “right to return” there, then there is no sensible reason to oppose that either.

There is however a major difference between the two competing collective national claims to Israel-Palestine today. Palestinians actually do “come from Palestine”, and have been forced to leave it as little as one or two generations ago. But it is only Israelis who “come from Israel”; Jewish people “come from Israel” only in the imaginations of Zionists and antisemites. And it is Israelis, and not Jewish people in general who will have to live with whatever happens in Israel-Palestine for the foreseeable future.

In short, a democracy is “a state of its citizens”; and its citizens should include all of its inhabitants. A racist state built on colonisation imports its citizens from elsewhere, and grants them rights on the basis of ethnicity. “Opposing Zionism” means to defend this first, democratic principle against the latter, racist principle. And a just and viable end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict means actually putting it into practice.

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