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.
But what about the people who already lived in the Land of Israel–the Palestinian Arabs? Thanks to a statement by Anglo-Jewish writer and nationalist leader Israel Zangwill that Palestine was a “land without a people for a people without a land,” early Zionists have been accused of ignoring the inconvenient fact that the projected site of the Jewish state was already populated.
In fact, seminal Zionist leaders were keenly aware of the Arab population. In 1902, Theodor Herzl published Altneuland (“Old-New Land”), a fictionalized description of his envisioned Jewish State. Reshid Bey, one of the book’s main characters, is an Arab member of the Jews’ “New Society” and a close friend of the story’s central Jewish protagonists.
He explains, for the benefit of the reader, how Jewish immigration has benefited the Arabs of Palestine: formerly primitive illiterates living in crushing poverty, they have received education, technology and economic opportunities. Wealthy Arabs have gained even more, their land increasing in value as more and more of it is bought up by Jews–who then admit the Arabs to their progressive, liberal society on the basis of full equality.
While Herzl’s vision has the feel of paternalistic 19th century colonialism, it was grounded in good intentions, and its naiveté only became clear as clashes between Jews and Arabs intensified with growing Jewish immigration in the 1920s. What began as localized spats over land rights, employment, and cultural differences escalated into a full-scale conflict between rival national movements.
A Painful Reality
How did the Zionists react to this unanticipated state of affairs? From the 1920s until the 1970s, the leadership of the Jewish community in Palestine and then the State of Israel was dominated by the Zionist Labor movement. In line with their socialist worldview, Labor Zionists tended to analyze the Arab-Jewish conflict in economic terms.
Until the 1930s, for example, David Ben Gurion believed that as the economic growth caused by Jewish immigration enhanced the Palestinian Arabs’ standard of living, they would gradually come to appreciate the benefits of Zionism; the conflict would thereby be neutralized. This prognosis was shattered by the outbreak of the Arab revolt in 1936, at the peak of a cycle of economic growth. The Labor Zionists had failed to take into account the nationalist, ideological basis of the Arabs’ opposition to Zionism. That reality now became painfully clear.
For the radical left–represented by the Marxist Hashomer Hatzair movement–the principle of international solidarity and the intensification of Arab opposition necessitated a reworking of Zionist goals. Hashomer Hatzair, together with Brit Shalom–a liberal, academic peace movement–abandoned the aim of exclusive Jewish independence in favor of a binational vision of Jewish-Arab coexistence within a unitary state. This plan was invalidated both by the absence of an Arab partner and by the establishment of the State of Israel as a fait accompli in 1948.
Abandoning the hope that economic benefit would reconcile the Palestinians to Zionism, the mainstream Labor movement also reluctantly recognized the need to compromise over Jewish national goals. In 1936 and then again in 1947, the Zionist leadership accepted British and United Nations plans to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states (the plans were both nixed by the Arabs).
Since the Israeli conquest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, the motto of the Israeli left has been “land for peace”–territorial compromise with Palestinian nationalism while upholding the ultimate Zionist goal of a Jewish majority within an independent state.
But not all Zionists accepted that compromise was the way out of the conflict. Vladimir Jabotinsky, charismatic leader of the right-wing Revisionist movement, constantly chided the Labor leadership for underestimating the power of Arab nationalism. What self-respecting people, he asked, would sell off their inviolable rights in return for economic gain?
Trying to bribe the Arabs–who, in Jabotinsky’s view, were a proud nation worthy of more respect–could only result in failure. And if Arab nationalism could not be appeased, it must be uncompromisingly resisted.
Seeing the conflict as a zero-sum game out of which only one winner could emerge, Jabotinksy promoted the creation of an unbreachable “iron wall” of military might. The realization that Zionism couldn’t be defeated by force, he believed, would put an end to Arab hostility, paving the way for the integration of Arab citizens into the Jewish state on the basis of individual–but not national–rights. Premature attempts at compromise would project weakness, and could only serve to encourage Arab rejectionism.
Jabotinsky’s philosophy led the Zionist right wing to reject the partition plans and–since the Six Day War–to press for the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza and the extension of Jewish rule over the “undivided land of Israel.”
Joining forces with the religious Zionist settler movement, the Right has opposed attempts at territorial compromise, asserting the Jewish people’s exclusive right to the land and arguing that any future peace agreement must be on the basis of the Arabs’ unconditional recognition of Israel.
Into the Present
The fact that all the major Zionist thinkers professed a belief in peace may be unsurprising. But beyond this commitment to an abstract value, do the various ideological formulations allow for the practical coexistence of Jews and Palestinians?
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that both left- and right-wing Zionists had important insights into the conflict between Jews and Arabs. Events–particularly the intifadas or Palestinian uprisings of 1987 and 2000–have borne out Jabotinsky’s appreciation of Palestinian nationalism’s power. But they have also confirmed the Left’s understanding that peace cannot be achieved without compromising Zionist aims.
In this light, traditional right-wing Zionism, marked by its refusal to make concessions and by its reliance on force, seems incompatible with Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. Moreover, the desire to preserve Israel’s Jewish majority without sacrificing any of the heavily populated Palestinian territories has boosted the popularity of transfer–the policy of resettling Palestinians outside of Israel.
Clearly, no compromise can be based on an ideology which denies the Palestinians’ basic rights to statehood and even to remaining in their homes.
The current peace process, from the Oslo agreements through the Road Map, has been shaped by the Zionist Left’s commitment to territorial compromise and the two state solution. The post-Zionist claim that Israel’s Zionist identity is the root of the conflict has been undermined by the PLO’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state within its pre-1967 borders. And if the conflict stems not from Israel’s existence but from her control of the Palestinian territories, then it can be resolved not by tampering with the state’s Jewish character but by addressing the situation in the West Bank and Gaza.
Such a solution is, of course, far from straightforward. Palestinian territorial contiguity is threatened by the presence of Israeli settlements whose removal remains highly controversial. By settling the West Bank, Israel may have painted itself into a corner from which implementing the two-state solution could prove impossible.
Similarly, the Palestinians’ insistence on their refugees’ right of return to pre-1967 Israel may preclude the conclusion of a peace agreement. The return of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees would shift Israel’s demographic balance and endanger its Jewish character. Yet although Zionist principles unambiguously contradict Palestinian aspirations on this issue, the responsibility devolves not upon one nationalist ideology or the other, but on the clash between them.
Still, most Zionist thinkers have been eager to find a solution to the conflict–as part of their Zionism–suggesting that failed tactics and leadership–rather than ideology–are the obstacle to peace in the Middle East.