Editors' note: This paper is based on a talk I delivered on March 31, 2004. It is intended as a popular summary of the historical and theoretical basis of the current conflict. I make no pretense of scholarship. I draw heavily upon the work of others, lifting or paraphrasing whole paragraphs, and I quote journals and newspapers that I have not personally checked. In some cases I have cited my source; in others I have not. The works I use most are Moshe Menuhin, The Decadence of Judaism in Our Time, Uri Davis, Israel: Apartheid State, Nathan Weinstock, Zionism: False Messiah, and Adam Sabra, “Abolish the Jewish Caste in Palestine,” from Race Traitor.
Antisemitism, and the People of Palestine
Zionism as a political movement developed in the late 19th century. Its founder, Theodore Herzl, was influenced by two phenomena: the extent of French anti-Semitism revealed by the Dreyfus Trial, and nationalist ideals then popular in Europe. Herzl held that Jews cannot be assimilated by the nations in which they live, and that the only solution to the “Jewish question” was the formation of a “Jewish state” in which all the Jews would come together. The early Zionists contemplated as the site of the future state Argentina or Uganda, among other locales. Herzl favored Palestine, because, although an agnostic, he wanted to make use of the custom, widespread among Jewish mystics, of going on pilgrimages to the “holy land” and establishing religious communities there.
In 1868, there were 13,000 Jews in Palestine, out of an estimated population of 400,000. The majority were religious pilgrims supported by charity from overseas. They encountered no opposition from the Muslims, and their presence led to no clashes with the Arab population, whether Muslim or Christian.
In 1882, Baron Rothschild, combining philanthropy and investment, began to bring Jewish settlers from Eastern Europe to build a plantation system along the model the French used in Algeria. They spoke Yiddish, Arabic, Persian, and Georgian. Significantly, Hebrew was not among the languages spoken. The outcome of Rothschild’s experiment was predictable: Jews managed the land, while Arabs worked it. This was not the result the Zionists had in mind; a Jewish society could not be based on Arab labor. Consequently, they began to encourage the immigration of Jewish farmers and workers.
In 1917 British Foreign Minister Lord Balfour, seeking support for Britain’s efforts in World War I, issued his famous declaration expressing sympathy with efforts to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The Zionists immediately seized upon this statement, which they interpreted to mean support for a Jewish state. At the time of Balfour’s declaration, Jews comprised less than 10% of the population and owned 2.5% of the land of Palestine.
The problem of building a Jewish society among an overwhelming Arab majority came to be known as the “conquest of land and labor.” Land, once acquired, had to remain in Jewish hands. The other half of this project, known as Labor Zionism, called for the exclusive use of Jewish labor on the land acquired by the Jews in Palestine. The Labor Zionists maintained this dual exclusionism (or apartheid, as we would now call it) in order to build up purely Jewish institutions.
To achieve the conquest of the land, the Zionists set up an arrangement whereby land was acquired not by individuals, but by a corporation, known as the Jewish National Fund (JNF). The JNF acquired land and leased it only to Jews, who were not allowed to sublet it. Thus land was acquired in the name of “the Jewish people,” held for their use, and not subject to market conditions. The idea was for the JNF to gradually acquire as much land as possible as the basis for the expected Jewish state.
Naturally, in order for the land to serve this function, Arab labor had to be excluded. Leases from the JNF specifically prohibited the use of non-Jewish labor on JNF plots. One way to achieve this goal was to lease land only to those Jews who intended to work it themselves. In some cases, when land was bought from Arab absentee landlords, the peasants who resided on and worked the land were expelled. Jewish landholders who refused to exclude Arab labor could lose their leases or be faced with a boycott.
The conquest of labor pertained not only to agriculture but also to industry. The Labor Zionists formed an institution to organize Jewish labor and exclude Arabs: the Histadrut. The Histadrut was (and largely is) an all-Jewish combination trade union and cooperative society providing its members with a number of services. From the beginning it was a means of segregating Arab and Jewish labor and bringing into existence a strictly Jewish economic sector. Even when Arab and Jewish laborers performed precisely the same job, Jewish workers were paid significantly higher salaries. These policies were the death knell for any attempt to organize labor on a non-racial basis. The “laborism” of Labor Zionism killed and continues to kill efforts at building a unified labor movement.
Despite these policies and even with the encouragement of the British government, in the thirty years following the Balfour Declaration, the Zionists were able to increase the Jewish-owned portion of the land of Palestine to only 7%. Moreover, the majority of the world’s Jews showed no interest in settling there. In the years between 1920 and 1932, only 118,000 Jews moved to Palestine, less than 1% of world Jewry. Even after the rise of Hitler, Jews in Europe did not choose Israel: out of 2.5 million Jewish victims of Nazism who fled abroad between 1935 and 1943, scarcely 8.5% went to Palestine. 182,000 went to the U.S., 67,000 to Britain, and almost 2 million to the Soviet Union. After the war, the U.S. began to encourage Jewish settlement in Palestine. Aneurin Bevin, postwar British Foreign Minister, publicly blurted out that American policy mainly arose from the fact that “they did not want too many of them in New York.” The Pakistani delegate to the UN was to make the same point sarcastically:
The U.S. limitation on the number of Jews allowed into the country coincided with Zionist policy, as enunciated by David Ben-Gurion, first prime minister of Israel: “If I knew that it would be possible to save all the children in Germany by bringing them over to England, and only half of them by transporting them to Eretz Yisrael, then I would opt for the second alternative. For we must weigh not only the life of these children, but also the history of the People of Israel.” (Yoav Gelber, “Zionist Policy and the Fate of European Jewry (1932-1945) Yad Vashem Studies, vol. XII, 199.)
This policy of attaching more importance to the establishment of Israel than to the survival of the Jews led the Zionists to collaborate with Nazism and even be decorated by Hitler’s government. The best known case was that of Rudolf Kastner, who negotiated the emigration to Palestine of some of Hungary’s most prominent Jews in return for his help in arranging the orderly deportation of the remainder of Hungary’s Jews to the camps. For his efforts, Kastner was praised as an “idealist” by no less an authority than Adolf Eichmann. (The best study of Zionist-Nazi relations is Lenni Brenner, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators.)
The Zionists knew they had to rid themselves of the Arab majority in order to have a specifically Jewish state. Although 75,000 Jews moved to Israel between 1945 and 1948, Jews still constituted a minority in Palestine. The 1948 war afforded the Zionists an excellent opportunity to rectify this; as a result of the war, more than three-quarters of a million Arabs fled their homes. The case of Deir Yasin, in which Israeli paramilitary forces, under the command of future prime minister Menachem Begin, massacred over 250 civilians, sending a message to Palestinians that they should depart, is the most well known example of how this flight was brought about. In his book, The Revolt, Begin boasted that without Deir Yasin there would have been no Israel, and adds, “The Arabs began fleeing in panic, shouting ‘Deir Yasin’” (quoted in Menuhin, 120). Recent writings by Israeli revisionist historians have refuted the longtime insistence of Israeli officials that the departures were voluntary. Some of the refugees went to neighboring Arab countries; others became refugees in their own country. Those 750,000 expelled from their homes and their descendants, who together total 2.2 million people, make up the so-called refugee problem. Although the United Nation has repeatedly demanded they be allowed to return, the Israeli government has refused to agree. The war ended with the Zionists in control of 80% of Palestine. In the next year, nearly 400 Arab villages were completely destroyed. This was no accident but the result of deliberate policy, as shown is the following statement by one of the most authoritative officials of the Zionist state:
Moshe Dayan, former Prime Minister, stated in a famous speech before students at the Israeli Institute of Technology in Haifa in 1969:
It is a mistake to draw a moral line between Israel and the Occupied Territories; it is all occupied territory. The 1967 war, as a result of which Israel conquered and occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank of the Jordan River, and the Sinai Peninsula, was a continuation of the process that began in 1948. It will be drearily familiar to any who know the history of the displacement of the Indians from the lands they occupied in North America. Today it would be called “ethnic cleansing.”
The first census of the state of Israel, conducted in 1949, counted a total of 650,000 Jews and 150,000 Arabs. The legal foundation for the racial state was laid down in two laws passed in 1950. The first, the Law of Return, permitted any Jew, anywhere in the world, the right to “return” to Israel. This right did not apply to non-Jews, including the Palestinian Arabs who had recently become refugees. In addition, the Absentee Property Law confiscated the property of Arab “absentees,” and turned it over to the Custodian of Absentee Property. Arab refugees within their own country were termed “present absentees” (what a phrase!), and not allowed to return to their property. A number of refugees who attempted to do so were termed “infiltrators,” and some were shot in the attempt. Confiscated property accounted for the vast majority of new settlements. These confiscated lands, in accordance with the procedures that were established in the Mandate period by the JNF, have become Israel Lands, with their own administration. This administration, controlling 92.6% of all of the lands in Israel, only leases these lands to Jews.
Unlike many countries, including the United States, the Israeli state does not belong, even in principle, to those who reside within its borders, but is defined as the state of the Jewish people, wherever they may be. That peculiar definition is one reason why the state has to this day failed to produce a written constitution, define its borders, or even declare the existence of an Israeli nationality. Moreover, in this “outpost of democracy,” no party that opposes the existence of the Jewish state is permitted to take part in elections. It is as if the United States were to declare itself a Christian state, define “Christian” not by religious belief but by descent, and then pass a “gag law” prohibiting public discussion of the issue.
If one part of the
Zionist project is the expulsion of the indigenous population, the other
part is expanding the so-called Jewish population. But here arises the
problem, which has tormented Israeli legal officials for fifty years,
what is a Jew? (For a century-and-a-half U.S. courts faced similar problems
determining who is white.) The Zionists set forth two criteria for determining
who is a Jew. The first is race, which is a myth generally and is particularly
a myth in the case of the Jews. The “Jewish” population
of Israel includes people from fifty countries, of different physical
types, speaking different languages and practicing different religions
(or no religion at all), defined as a single people based on the fiction
that they, and only they, are descended from the Biblical Abraham. It
is so patently false that only Zionists and Nazis even pretend to take
it seriously. In fact, given Jewish intermingling with others for two
thousand years, it is likely that the Palestinians—themselves
the result of the mixture of the various peoples of Canaan plus later
waves of Greeks and Arabs—are more directly descended from the
ancient inhabitants of the Holy Land than the Europeans displacing them.
The claim that the Jews have a special right to Palestine has no more
validity than would an Irish claim of a divine right to establish a
Celtic state all across Germany, France, and Spain on the basis that
Celtic tribes once lived there. Nevertheless, on the basis of ascribed
descent, the Zionist officials assign those they have selected a privileged
place within the state. If that is not racism, then the term has no
Prejudice breeds arrogance: this past January the Israeli ambassador to Sweden destroyed an art installation in a Stockholm museum which he found offensive. The work commemorated a young Palestinian woman who killed herself and nineteen others in an attack in Haifa. (It does not become Americans, who learn as schoolchildren to recite the last words of Nathan Hale, “My only regret is that I have but one life to give for my country,” to denounce Palestinian patriots as “suicide bombers.”) The museum director pointed out that if the Ambassador did not like the exhibit he was free to leave. (Agence France Press, 17 January 2004)
The Zionists are so desperate to increase the loyal population of the state that they are willing to admit hundreds of thousands of people, mainly from the former Soviet Union, who do not meet the official definition of a Jew because they have only a male grandparent or are merely married to a Jew. Since there is no such thing as Israeli nationality in Israel (there being only Jewish nationality and “undetermined”), these people, who do not qualify as Jews, are therefore registered as “under consideration.”
Those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad. Recently the Israeli press reported on a group of Indians from Peru who had converted to Judaism and moved to Israel, where they were relocated on what was once Palestinian land. Nachson Ben-Haim (formerly Pedro Mendosa) said he had no problem with that. “You cannot conquer what has in any case belonged to you since the time of the patriarch, Abraham.” Ben-Haim said he was looking forward to joining the Israeli army to defend the country. Ben-Haim and his coreligionists had moved to Israel with the agreement of the Jewish community in Peru, which did not want them because of the Indians’ low socioeconomic status.” (Ha’aretz, 18 July 2002.)
The Peruvian case points to the second criterion for being recognized as Jewish: conversion by an approved religious official, which means Orthodox rabbis only. In Israel today, Conservative and Reform rabbis are prohibited from leading their congregations, there is no civil marriage for Jews, and—in a measure reminiscent of medieval Spain—all residents support the established church, in this case the Orthodox rabbinate. The stranglehold of organized religion in a state where the majority of the Jewish population is secular and even atheistic is the price paid to maintain the Biblical justification for Zionist occupation. “God does not exist,” runs the popular quip, “and he gave us this land.”
Israel is a racial
state, where rights are assigned on the basis of ascribed descent or
the approval of the superior race. In this respect it resembles the
American South prior to the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights
acts, Ireland under the Protestant Ascendancy, and, yes, Hitlerite Germany.
But in its basic structures it most closely resembles the old South
Africa. It is therefore not surprising that Israel should have developed
a close alliance with South Africa when that country was still under
apartheid. After the first talks held in 1970 between Shimon Peres and
South Africa's defense minister, Botha, cultural, commercial, and military
cooperation between the two racial regimes developed. These relations
were publicly celebrated during the visit of South African Prime Minister
Vorster to Israel in 1976—the same Vorster who held during the
Second World War the rank of general in the pro-Nazi Organisation Ossewabrandwag
Is one permitted to say above the level of a whisper that U.S. policy toward Israel has something to do with Jewish influence in the U.S.? Perhaps Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa can get away with it: “The Israel government,” he observed, “is placed on a pedestal [in the U.S.] People are scared in this country to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful—very powerful” (Guardian 29 April 2002).
Not only does Zionism shape U.S. policy, it stifles discussion of alternatives. To cite a personal example: Two years ago a PBS reporter interviewed me on the eve of the UN-sponsored conference on racism about to be held in S. Africa. I made some remarks about Israel, and afterwards I asked her if she would use what I said. “Of course not,” she replied. “I agree with you, and so do all the journalists I know, but we can’t run any criticism of Israel without following it by at least ten refutations.” Harvard Professor Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer of the Middle East Forum have begun a website, Campus Watch,” to denounce academics deemed to have shown “hatred of Israel.” Students are to inform on professors.
The greatest ideological weapon in the Zionist arsenal is the charge of antisemitism. Students and faculty members at Harvard begin a campaign to make the university sell off its stock in companies that sell weapons to Israel (modeled on past campaigns seeking divestment from South Africa), and the president of Harvard denounces the organizers of the campaign as “antisemitic in effect, if not in intent.” A faculty committee at the Massachusetts College of Art invites eminent poet Amiri Baraka to deliver a lecture, and members of the Critical Studies faculty circulate a petition calling upon the college president to denounce Baraka as an antisemite, citing as its main evidence a poem he wrote about the historic oppression of black people in which he refers to reported actions by the Israeli government prior to the World Trade center attack. As the Israeli commentator Ran HaCohen points out:
This is ironic, he says, given present reality:
“The use of alleged anti-semitism is morally despicable,” says HaCohen.
…. People abusing this taboo in order to support Israel’s racist and genocidal policy towards the Palestinians do nothing less than desecrate the memory of those Jewish victims, whose death… is meaningful only inasmuch as it serves as an eternal warning to the human kind against all kinds of discrimination, racism, and genocide (“Abusing ‘Antisemitism’”, Sept. 29, 2003; some of Ran HaCohen’s writings can be found at www.antiwar.com).
If I accomplish nothing else in this talk, I hope to create space for some who are repelled by Israeli actions but are held back from condemning Zionism by a desire not to be antisemitic.
Does what I have just said mean that I dismiss the possibility of a revival of antisemitism? No, it does not. History shows that antisemitism ebbs and flows, and that it may return. Time prevents me from exploring that history in any depth; let me instead recommend two books: The Jewish Question by Abram Leon and The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt (in particular the first part, “Antisemitism”). For now I will say only that antisemitism (or more accurately anti-Jewish sentiment) is rooted neither in human nature or Christian theology; it is the product of social relations, including the historic concentration of Jews as representatives of commerce in non-commercial societies. The peculiar occupational distribution of European Jews led members of the dispossessed classes among the non-Jewish population to direct their animosity toward the Jews as the visible agents of oppression. “Antisemitism,” as the 19th-century German Socialist August Bebel put it, “is the socialism of fools.” It is not beyond historical explanation (as is implied by a term like “The Holocaust,” which takes antisemitism out of history and relocates it the realm of natural phenomena).
But of course the Jews by themselves could not determine U.S. Middle East policy, any more than the Florida Cubans by themselves could determine U.S. Caribbean policy. By no means does all the organized support for Israel inside of U.S. politics comes from Jews. Aside from imperialist interests—and it is not clear whether Israel is an asset or a liability in this regard—Israel has gained support from a surprising quarter. From the Guardian, Feb. 28, 2002:
These are the people my grandfather warned me about—the people who want to ban Darwin from the schools, who want to send to camps people who have sex with members of their own sex—and antisemeets (as he used to say), Jew-haters to the backbone of their souls.
Osama Bin-Laden was telling no more than the truth when he said that the Muslim world is facing an alliance of Zionists and Crusaders.
Before I get around to proposing solutions, I want to address the present state of the Israeli peace movement. As everyone knows, there are forces inside of Israel who oppose the government now in office. Some of these people, particularly the soldiers who refuse service in what they call the occupied territories or who refuse to carry out atrocities such as bombing civilians, and those who encourage them, are people of exemplary courage. Yet all of them, with one notable exception (to which I shall return), are handicapped and in the long run rendered ineffective by their acceptance of the fundamental premise of Zionism, the legitimacy of the Jewish state. “Land for peace” implies the permanent partition of Palestine. It was under the leadership of the Labour Party, with which much of the opposition is affiliated, that the initial dispossession and exclusion of the Palestinian people from their homeland took place and the expansion into the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights was carried out.
History has shown, in Ireland, India, and everyplace else it has been tried, that partition of a territory along lines of descentwhether called “racial” or “religious”is a guarantee of permanent war. It is understandable that some Palestinians, having been subjected to torture for over two generations, have reluctantly agreed to accept as a substitute for justice a Palestinian State built on less than a fourth of their original land. But they are making a mistake. Such a State, if it is ever established, will be a Bantustan, a reservation where the only attributes of a free nation will be a flag and a national anthem. I am no more a Palestinian Zionist than I am a Jewish Zionist.
What solution, therefore, do I propose? A simple and moderate one: within historic Palestine, the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, live ten million people. I propose that there be established there a single state, in which every person who declares his intention to live there and adopt citizenship be recognized as a citizen and have one vote. I propose further that the special advantages given to Jews be terminated, that the Palestinians who were forced into exile after 1948, and their descendants, be granted the right to live there, and that the state undertake practical measures to make it possible for them to do so by building housing and extending to them to right to rent or buy, if necessary providing funds to help them. I propose further that both Hebrew and Arabic be declared official state languages to be taught in the schools, that all residents be granted the right to publish newspapers and maintain cultural institutions in any language they choose, that the special position of Orthodox Judaism be ended and that the state declare freedom of worship and make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
It is a simple and, I repeat, a moderate program. It does not entail driving anybody into the sea, and it recognizes the elementary right of people to live where they choose.
Some might object that such a thing is impossible, that after all the blood that has been shed and the bitterness that has accumulated, it will not be possible for Jews and Arabs to live peacefully together. To that argument I have three responses: the first is the experience of South Africa, a place whose history of bitterness is no less than Palestine’s; there the establishment of majority rule did not cause the gods to weep or the earth to open and swallow the people. My second response comes from Sherlock Holmes: after you have eliminated all the impossible solutions, Watson, the one remaining, no matter how improbable, must be the right one. My third response is to cite recent indications that the idea of the single democratic secular state—once the official goal of the PLO and then abandoned under U.S. pressure—is once again emerging as a pole of discussion. Its reemergence is in part a response to Israel’s gobbling up so much territory that nothing is left for a Palestinian state. The new reality is acknowledged by no less than columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who quotes a prominent Israeli Arab:
Friedman reports a poll showing that 25 to 30 percent of Palestinians now support the idea of one state—“a stunning figure, considering it’s never been proposed by any Palestinian or Israeli party.” He calls it “the law of unintended consequences.” (New York Times, Sept. 14, 2003)
The one exception to my earlier generalization about the Israeli opposition is a fraction of Orthodox Jews in Israel, who reject the State of Israel on religious grounds; according to them, the exile from the holy land was divinely ordained, and therefore the Jews are to live among the nations in every corner of the earth and not attempt to establish a State before the coming of the Messiah. Allow me to read from a statement by one of them, Rabbi Mordechi Weberman:
I am not a believer, but I find Rabbi Weberman’s words moving.
One last point: I spoke earlier about the possibility of a resurgence of antisemitism in the United States. In 1991 George H.W. Bush, the father of the man who sits in the White House and the only member of his family ever to have been elected president, demanded that the Israelis stop building new settlements in Palestinian territory. Unlike previous presidents, Bush sounded serious, threatening to block billions in loan guarantees if Israel disobeyed. As might have been predicted, the dominant voices among American Jews were outraged, and Bush responded by complaining at a press conference that “Jews work insidiously behind the scenes.” On another occasion he reminded critics that the U.S. gives “Israel the equivalent of $1,000 for every Israeli citizen,” a remark that detractors took as antisemitic. Later on Bush’s Secretary of State James Baker made his famous “fuck the Jews” remark in private conversation, noting that Jews “didn’t vote for us anyway.” And it was true: when he lost to Bill Clinton in 1992, Bush got smallest percentage of the Jewish vote of any Republican since 1964.
The present occupant of the White House seems for the time being to have recouped much of his party’s loss of favor among Jews, in part due to his appointment of so many to positions of power and influence in his administration. But I will go out on a limb and make a prediction (something I rarely do because I hate to be wrong): one-sided support for Israel, while it may win votes among American Jews and some fundamentalist Christians, is not necessarily wise from the standpoint of U.S. oil interests, and may even cost votes among that increasing number of Americans who can pick up the newspaper almost any day and see another story about Israeli tanks surrounding the residence of the Palestinian president, or massacring children, or assassinating a crippled half-blind cleric. I predict that if Dubya manages to extend his control of the White House in 2004, he will present the bill to whoever is in power in Israel, and that bill will include withdrawal from some of the territories occupied after 1967. If the Israelis respond negatively to this demand, which there is every reason to believe they will, and are supported by American Jews, which there is every reason to believe they will be, the younger Bush, already born-again, will be reborn yet one more time and will start making remarks about special minorities with divided loyalties and so forth. In other words, he will stoke up antisemitism, carefully of course, as befits the leader of the free world. And he will find a tremendous response, more than anyone anticipates, from many ordinary people who are tired of picking up the tab for the number one outlaw state in the Middle East, the state that has defied scores of United Nations resolutions, been condemned by the UN more than any other member or non-member, the only state in the Middle East that possesses actual weapons of mass destruction.
Cynthia McKinney, Afro-American Congresswoman from Atlanta, was the most outspoken critic in Congress of U.S. Middle East policy, including unconditional support for Israel. As a result, Jewish groups around the country targeted her and, by channeling money to her opponent, succeeded in defeating her bid for reelection in 2002. Were they within their legal rights to do so? Of course they were; there is no law barring people in one district from contributing to a campaign in another. But do they think their intervention went unnoticed by black voters in Atlanta and around the country?
If American Jews insist on identifying themselves with Israel, equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism, should they be surprised if others make the same mistake?