By Violeta Cotoman
This article aims to analyse how Zionism is not only based on nationalist characteristics but also on a uniqueness that is not found in any other nationalist ideology of its time. Issues related to the right of national and political self-determination, the protection of the Jewish heritage, the role of biblical interpretations, and the colonialist question will be explored.
Origin of Zionism
Zionism or Jewish nationalism originated in the late 19th century when movements of secularisation and formation of nation-states started to take ground all over Europe. In the course of such movements, Jewish communities in Eastern and Western Europe were targeted by a new wave of anti-Semitism coming from the populations in which they have tried to assimilate for thousands of years (Hidayat, 2015). Historically, the Jewish diaspora has always been perceived as the ‘other’, not really part of the European collective. Thus, the European Jews were particularly vulnerable to centuries of extreme violence, mass expulsions, and marginalisation (Ben-Israel, 2003).
As a response to this new wave of anti-Semitism and lack of emancipation for European Jews in the new polities, new approaches to the ‘Jewish question’ started to emerge. Jewish intellectuals like Theodor Herzl, later known as the visionary founder of Zionism, worried about the lack of security that the Jews would have in the emergent modern world. For Herzl, the only solution to the ‘Jewish question’ was to call for the Jewish people’s return to the land of Zion, the land of Israel, and establish a political sovereign Jewish state in that territory (Amar-Dahl, 2016). Despite Herzl appeals, only after the critical events at the beginning of the 20th century, the Zionist ideology took momentum, and the Jewish state was established in Eretz Israel, with the support of not only Jews but also the international community (ibid). Nonetheless, the core basis of Zionist national identity has been criticised since the movement’s establishment, with major divisions between both supporters and opponents.
Similarities between Zionism and other nationalist movements
Modern nationalist movements started to develop in Europe beginning around the 17th century, and these movements shared great enthusiasm for liberty, humanitarian character, individual rights, and the human community as, above all, national divisions. Not only that, but these movements that formed all over Europe (in countries like the United Kingdom, France and Germany) were largely based on the acknowledgement of the right to national and political self-determination of people who shared the values of common territory, language, tradition, and descent (Cohen, 1997).
With this in mind, early Zionism, founded by Theodor Herzl, was highly influenced by the secular European-influenced terms of its time (Friesel, 2006:295). The new movement, which was based on the idea of the current nationalist ideologies of the late 19th century, alleged that the Jewish people were not only a religious movement but also a ‘people’ bounded by not only Judaism but also a common language (Hebrew), and territory (the land of Zion) which they shared historical and religious attachment (Hermann, 2013). Therefore, based on this fusion between Jewish religion and nationhood, the Zionist movement aimed for the return of all Jewish diaspora to the land they believed to be their rightful home in order to create a sovereign Jewish state in the same way as other European nations had done it in the past (Amar-Dahl, 2016).
Differences between Zionism and other nationalist movements
Apart from this nation-building goal, the Zionist movement envisioned to end to the unnatural situation in which the diaspora lived and create a new Jewish society with particular social and cultural characteristics. Through its assimilation and acculturation efforts, Herzl believed that the Jewish communities had adopted “demeaning, decadent and contrived behaviours, personality traits and lifestyles” (Greilsammer, 2011:II). In other words, European Jews often dedicated exclusively to intellectual professions that were fully detached from natural and manual work. Consequently, Zionism believed that only through the revitalisation of the Hebrew language and culture and the ‘normalisation’ of the Jewish life in a more agricultural society, a new sense of dignity, national and historical consciousness could be formed (Ben-Israel, 2003:92; Dahl, 2016). Such utopian desires had the main objective to create a new spiritual and cultural Jewish renaissance where the sentiment of solidarity, integrity, and loyalty of the Jewish race to the old home, Eretz Israel, could be preserved (Amar-Dahl, 2016). Lastly, Zionism envisioned that by creating the new Israeli state, the whole world would finally admire the new freed Jewish men with their strong ethics and intellect. These utopian dreams represent a distinctive feature between Zionism and other nationalist movements of its time.
Moreover, unlike most European national ideologies, the Jewish national movement was conceived and gained support far from its territory. Its people were not truly united by a common cultural, ethnic or linguistic feature as they were vastly different and dispersed throughout multiple territories (Lee, 2011). Instead, the movement involved shaping a secular identity from an old religious one of a non-dominant group in a faraway land. Moreover, the Israel nation-state’s roots differ from other nationalist movements because it does not have definite and legitimate territorial boundaries in Palestine (Hidayat, 2015). While there were Jewish communities who lived in Palestine before the establishment of the Jewish nationalist movement, they were regarded as an unorganised Jewish minority group rather than a dominant presence. The only binding tie between these people was the shared religious background and the sense of threat that many European Jews felt in the wake of the new modern century (Amar-Dahl, 2016:11). Zionism ultimately tried to cultivate a link with a historical and religious territory by creating a utopian vision of the future of the Jewish diaspora with little sense of national unity and belonging (Cohen, 1997).
The role of religion in Zionism
Despite the religious connotations in the Zionist ideology, Judaism only played a subordinate role in forming these Zionist utopias and notions to bring more support to the national movement. In reality, the movement originated in an anti-religious tradition that sometimes even took a hostile stance towards religion (Amar-Dahl,2016:13). Nonetheless, the movement gained broad international support after two significant events. Firstly, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 recognised the establishment of Palestine, with the support of Great Britain, as a national home for the Jewish people, which led to more international acknowledgement of the Jewish question. Secondly, with the events of the Holocaust, the state of Israel was officially established in 1948 (Brown, 1912; Prior, 1999). Such accomplishments are owed to Herzl’s genius, making it possible to turn a dream that many had before him into action through remarkable organisational and diplomatic skills. Although Israel’s birth came too late for six million European Jews exterminated during the Nazi regime, Zionism succeeded in its essential aim to create a state for the Jewish people who have been mistreated and prosecuted since the Middle Ages.
Notwithstanding, as an intellectual of the 19th century, Herzl was highly influenced by European racist imperialism and European superiority, including beliefs of biological, racial, and cultural supremacy. The founder presented the to be born Jewish state as an outpost of civilisation opposed to barbarism where the Jews would act as representatives of “western civilisation, bringing cleanliness, order and the well-established customs of the Occident to the [the] plague-ridden, blighted corner of the Orient” (Prior, 1999:4). This unchallenged sense of superiority led to little attention being provided to the impact of establishing the Jewish state on the indigenous, mainly Arab population.
Opposition to the movement
Unsurprisingly, opposition to the Zionist movement started to develop as soon as the movement was established in 1887. Early opposition was largely divided into two main objections, which will be explored further below. The religious objection came mainly from inside the movement’s people. The Jewish orthodoxy largely rejected the new secular, political and auto-redemptive character of the Zionist movement as it was perceived as a departure from religious Judaic tradition towards nationalism. More importantly, the idea that the establishment of a Jewish state could bring the redemption of the Jews was considered blasphemous, as it was by virtue of God that Jews were sent into exile (diaspora), and it was also by God that they should be redeemed from it (Jong, 2017; Prior, 1999). The ultra-religious Jews opposed enormously to the creation of this nationalistic movement to the point to declare that their people did not form a nation and should not have an independent state. This is a distinctive feature of Zionist ideology as although there were disagreements within other nationalist ideologies, Zionism ideological chasms do not appear to have ever existed in any other nation-building process.
Nonetheless, even after the break of Zionism into multiple ideological branches, the fact that Zionism, a largely agnostic and even atheist ideology, was able to mobilise Jewish orthodoxy and create a large theological basis is an indication of the unique character of Zionism when compared to other nationalist movements of its time (Prior, 1999). The national Zionist movement, which is at essence political in nature, depends on religious justification, which is highly contradictory to its secular aspirations. According to Amar-Dahl (2016:14), the state of Israel was formed into “a nation-state (…) pre-shaped in a European-style, modern and therefore secular cast (…) based on a deeply religious momentum”. Religious tradition represents the only historical line giving the Jewish nation the right to establish itself in Palestinian lands. Still, one must consider that biblical interpretations are allegorical and not literal; thus, they do not represent a legitimate nationalist expression.
The exclusion of people
Early Zionism, for some, represents an incredible success, and for others, it is an alarming reverberation of exclusion, dispossession, and oppression (Hermann, 2013; Jong 2018). The latter view is often associated with the regional problem that is still taking place today, between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. From its very beginning, Zionism, in response to European anti-Semitism, had the desire to separate Jews from non-Jews through the formation of a Jewish nation-state. Zionist Achilles’ heel laid on the fact that the land of Zion was already settled by another group that had no place in the utopian vision of the new Jewish state (Amar-Dahl, 2016). This radical vision led to the projection of a discriminatory, colonialist sentiment in Palestine, this time not directed at the Jews but the Arab populations. Even before Israel’s founding, Palestinians were seen as a challenge to the Zionist cause as they were the ethnic majority. At the time, the only solution to fight the demographic condition and preserve the interests of the Jewish minority was to establish a strict separation between the Jews and the Arab Palestinians (Wistrich, 2004). By pursuing the Zionist goal through land seizures and Jewish settlements, Israel’s foundations were seen to be based on a policy of “denationalisation and fragmentation of Palestinians” since its very beginning (Amar-Dahl, 2016:32).
This colonialist nature is also described in Wistrich (2004:30) work, where the author depicts how the wider Arab world perceived Zionism as a racist, colonialist and imperialist movement with “rootless invaders who came to Palestine to conquer the land by brute force to expel or cleanse it of its natives. They are the modern crusaders with no legitimate rights to the soil- an alien transplant, absolutely foreign to the region”. Moreover, the Israeli effort to keep the Arab Palestinians under tight control can be seen through the exclusion of Palestinians in the labour market; the social, economic, and political marginalisation of the Arabs as well as the prohibition of return to Israeli lands of Palestinian refugees while the Jews were incentivised to migrate with the promise of Israeli citizenship (Lee, 2011). The state of Israel ultimately denied the equal citizenship status of Palestinians in Israeli lands, and it has engaged in multiple efforts towards achieving a numerical Jewish majority as well as political, economic, and military superiority (Hermann, 2013:139). On the other hand, the Palestinians have claimed their own nationhood on the territory of Palestine, creating rigid tensions not only on a local level but also on a regional level with multiple wars and feuds over land, religion, and ultimate superiority. Such deep rivalries between people inside the same state territory are quite unique to Zionism.
In sum, Zionism can be described as a revolutionary power in Jewish history. It is an expression of the old spiritual ideas on the Jewry consciousness combined under European influence. Although the ideology incorporated modern nationalism elements, such as race and religion, as a unifying bond between people, it is not fair to perceive Zionism as just a nationalist ideology. Jewish history and Zionism have some distinctive features that are incomparable to any other nationalist process of its time. The main difference being that Zionism came too late. The state of Israel was established at a time when European nations were beginning to move on from the very notion of racial and colonialist dominance and were starting to respect the right of self-determination of indigenous populations. The Jewish state’s establishment was only made possible because of the movement’s ethnic-nationalist and colonialist forms that harmed the Palestinians’ identity within Eretz Israel’s territory. The movement imposed forced land acquisition, expulsion, and segregation of Arab populations in order to improve the Jewry condition at the other’s expense. Besides that, the Zionist movement, which was an essentially non-religious ideology, largely relied on the biblical narrative to build the new Jewish national identity. This confusion of identity demonstrates the Zionist movement’s pragmatic approach to maximize all symbols and myths that can revive a sentiment of Jewishness among the Jewish people around the world to support and migrate to Israel. As its founder Herzl hoped, Zionism has not yet brought peace, but it has resolved the Jewish question. The deep rifts that have accompanied the Zionist ideology since its birth are what ultimately distinguished Jewish nationalism from all other forms of nationalist ideologies.
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