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Israel’s enemies have often claimed that Zionism is a form of racism and colonialism, incompatible with the values of democracy and peace, and a recipe for inevitable and ongoing war in the Middle East.
But beginning in the 1980s, similar arguments began to circulate in Israel itself–not only in Arab nationalist or Islamic fundamentalist circles, but among Jewish academics and intellectuals, most of whom professed to be loyal Israeli citizens. These thinkers–who became known as “post-Zionists”–accepted Israel’s right to exist, but posited a concrete connection between the pervasiveness of Zionist ideology and the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Haifa University historian Ilan Pappe, for example, sees Zionism as a totalizing “grand narrative”‘ which prevents Israelis from understanding other points of view, especially that of the Palestinians. Without this ability to empathize with the other, compromise is impossible. According to Pappe, peace will never be achieved without a process of “de-Zionization,” transforming Israel into a liberal-democratic state of all its citizens.
The post-Zionists’ fiercest critics came from the Zionist Left: Zionism, they argued, is eminently compatible with peace and coexistence. The conflict with the Palestinians is rooted in realpolitik, not in ideology. Moreover, the Palestinians have to take their share of the blame for the failure to end the conflict.
The idea that Zionism is incompatible with peace has fateful significance for Israel’s future. But, as of now, the claim can only be evaluated on the basis of the past: historically speaking, what has Zionist ideology had to say about the conflict with the Palestinians?
Influenced by European Nationalism
Zionism was born in the 1880s as Eastern European Jews sought an escape route from poverty and persecution in Tsarist Russia and Jews in the West struggled to find solutions to the problems of antisemitism and assimilation. The Zionist answer was to implement the Jewish people’s right to national self-determination, “normalizing” the Jews by relocating them as a majority in their own politically, culturally, economically, and militarily independent country.
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