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Zionism Will Never Be a Solution to Antisemitism

Zionism has relied on strategic alliances with antisemitic ethnonationalists since its earliest days.

Thousands of Jewish and Palestinian protesters take over the Grand Central Station lobby demanding immediate ceasefire of attacks on Gaza by Israeli forces, on Friday, October 27, 2023, in New York.

Over seven months since the start of Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza, Israel’s defenders are increasingly desperate to delegitimize the growing movement for justice in Palestine, especially on college campuses. When anti-Zionist and non-Zionist Jews are targeted by their rhetoric, we often notice something surprising — much of the slander directed at us is deeply antisemitic. MAGA politicians, Christian nationalists and even many Jewish establishment leaders call Jewish dissenters “fake” Jews or “traitors.” We are called “weak,” and we are told we would have sold our people out to the Nazis. Right-wing Zionists ally with white Christian nationalists to attack protests, and claim that student encampments are controlled by George Soros or “outside agitators” — mobilizing the very antisemitism they claim to oppose! Meanwhile, Zionists insist that “we are not the Jews of trembling knees,” as Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt put it in early May. “We will not flee — we will fight.” Beneath the hypermasculine bravado in statements like this, one senses a deep internalized shame — Jewish victims of antisemitism in the past, they seem to say, weren’t “manly” enough to fight back.

What we’re seeing today isn’t new. From the beginning, the Zionist movement inherited deep strains of antisemitism, misogyny and nationalism from its European milieu, and today, those tendencies burst to the surface as the movement goes on the offensive. A movement like this can’t keep Jews safe — only solidarity can. We discuss this relationship between Zionism and antisemitism in the following excerpt from our new book Safety Through Solidarity: A Radical Guide to Fighting Antisemitism, which will be released on June 4 by Melville House Publishing.

This excerpt was lightly edited to adapt it for publication.

A Safety of Nationalism? Antisemitism and the History of Zionism

While the Zionist Right endlessly fixates on the antisemitism that, in their view, underlies anti-Israel animus, little attention is paid to the antisemitism that, counterintuitively, has appeared in Zionism itself.

Many Jews who emigrated to Palestine before World War II were fleeing Russia, where Jews were periodically terrorized by pogroms. These mob attacks against Jews could be obscenely violent. “[They] forced unfortunates to eat their excrement. They shoveled earth over them and buried them alive,” wrote Scholem Schwartzbard about the pogroms he witnessed in Russia between 1918 and 1920.

One of the most famous of these massacres occurred in the city of Kishinev, in 1903. “Behold on tree, on stone, on fence, on mural clay, the spattered blood and dried brains of the dead,” wrote esteemed Jewish poet Hayyim Bialik in his 1904 poem “In the City of Slaughter.” Bialik’s tortured words memorialize the victims of the Kishinev pogrom, a mass slaughter of Jews committed by ultranationalist forces in imperial Russia that, determined to beat back revolutionaries, used antisemitism to blame the country’s instability on Jews. These tropes inspired barbaric attacks on Jews, in which non-Jews — often their neighbors and with encouragement by state officials — channeled a kind of sacrificial rage.

People forget, however, how Bialik’s poem also chastises the victims. “They are too wretched to evoke thy scorn. They are too lost thy pity to evoke, so let them go, then, men to sorrow born, mournful and slinking, crushed beneath their yoke.” In a different poem, Bialik criticizes Orthodox Jewish men, who, he suggests, were not manly enough, and too religion-obsessed to sufficiently protect their communities.

The Jews, he insisted, had been degenerated by diaspora life — cleaving to religious texts, passively submitting to the oppression they faced, and hiding from the world of strength, power, and self-determination. This prognosis, by Bialik and other early Zionists, centered the idea of shlilat ha’galut, negation of the diaspora, a central Zionist tenet that called for liquidating the Jewish diaspora and building a “new Jew” in the Land of Israel: the kind of Jew they could finally celebrate. Describing Bialik’s mentality, author Daniel Gordis explained that “the exile of the Jew from his own land, Bialik claimed, has more than robbed the Jew of his strength and his courage. It has eroded his capacity to feel. Exile has destroyed them . . . The Jewish tradition, Bialik essentially says, is a cancer that has destroyed the Jew’s humanity.”

These Zionists’ arguments reinforced some of the claims antisemites made about Jews. In his classic 1882 text Auto-Emancipation, Leon Pinsker, one of the earliest Zionists, lamented that “Judaism and Jew-hatred [have] passed through history for centuries as inseparable companions . . . What a pitiful figure we do cut! . . . We shall forever continue to be what we have been and are, parasites, who are a burden to the rest of the population, and can never secure their favor.”

In 1897, Zionist figurehead Theodor Herzl penned an article titled “Mauschel” — a German epithet for a haggling Jewish trader, used by Herzl to caricature those Jews in fin de siècle Europe who rejected the Zionist movement. Herzl’s Mauschel was a “spineless, repressed, shabby” figure, “a distortion of human character, something unspeakably low and repugnant” who “carries on his dirty deals behind the mask of progress and reaction alike.” Zionism is “the only cure for a sickness,” wrote journalist Arthur Koestler, and the Zionist effort to normalize the Jews by turning them into a nation “ke-khol am ve’am” or “like any other nation,” as Israel’s declaration of independence would put it, was the cure in action.

Before Herzl settled on political Zionism, one of his first ideas for the solution of the “Jewish question” in Europe involved mass Jewish conversion to Christianity. In his diary, he outlined a proposal to assemble the Jews “in broad daylight . . . with festive processions” outside St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, in a ceremony “sealed,” as author Jacques Kornberg put it, “by a historic alliance with the Pope.”

Herzl concluded … that as the Zionist movement succeeds, “the anti-Semites will become our most dependable friends, the anti-Semitic countries our allies.”

The idea, for many leading Jewish Zionists, was that Jews required an almost imperial quality to restore their dignity, to become a new nation, modeled off European masculinist ideals, where power and military strength determine our fate. Even ostensibly left-wing figures like the eco-anarchist Aaron David Gordon saw in Zionism a way to “regenerate” the Jewish soul through labor, a kind of volkisch mysticism, echoing some strains of European racial thinking prevalent at the time (while challenging others), that would anchor Jews to the land instead of the cosmopolitan exilic world of books and ideas.

This strain of muscular-nationalist thinking — with its contempt for a warped image of diaspora Jews, partially blaming Jews for their alleged perpetual victimhood, and its desire to sculpt a “new Jew” in the image of European nationalism — mirrored right-wing antisemitic, patriarchal tropes of the era. It influenced Israeli society from its beginnings, and was re- invigorated by the post-1967 occupation and the increasingly dominant role played by the Israeli far right.

From the beginnings of the Zionist movement, a few leaders sought to make pragmatic alliances with antisemitic European movements. After all, many antisemites wanted Jews out of Europe, and readily supported Zionism in pursuit of that shared goal. In one 1895 diary entry, reflecting on lessons learned during the antisemitic Dreyfus affair in France, Herzl concluded, “I achieved a freer attitude toward anti-Semitism, which I now began to understand historically and make allowances for. Above all, I recognized the emptiness and futility of efforts to ‘combat antisemitism.’”

In another entry that year, he optimistically noted that as the Zionist movement succeeds, “the anti-Semites will become our most dependable friends, the anti-Semitic countries our allies.” Antisemitic Europeans, he hoped, would happily assist the Zionist movement in transferring Jewish property and persons outside the borders of Europe.

Some antisemitic leaders of Herzl’s era seemed to share his hope. In 1897, the far right French nationalist publication La Libre Parole cheered that year’s First Zionist Congress, sneering that “not only does [La Libre Parole] offer, freely and enthusiastically, publicity for the [Zionist] colonists,” but they would also provide money to export the Jews from France.

One decade later, the paper’s editor, Édouard Drumont, whose polemics during France’s Dreyfus affair helped shape modern antisemitism, wrote that Zionism represented the “future of the Jewish Question and, consequently, the future of humanity as a whole,” speculating that, were the Jews transferred from Europe to Palestine, “this Jewish Question, which . . . dominates all human affairs, including the Social Question, would be resolved, at least for the time being, and the world would finally know a period of calm and relative security.”

Antisemitic liberal European leaders saw Zionism as a solution to their concerns. Statesmen who feared that “Jewish Bolshevism” was a growing threat, such as Arthur Balfour and Winston Churchill, eagerly supported Zionism as an alternative. Other non-Jewish leaders, equally antisemitic, courted Zionist Jewish leaders because they thought these figures possessed immense, world-shaping power and were eager to ally with this imagined power. Many Christian Zionist leaders of the era, moreover, played an important role in forming and supporting the Jewish Zionist movement due to their own antisemitic End Times fantasies.

With the growth of fascism, many Jewish Zionist leaders, wrote historian Enzo Traverso, “tried to ‘use’ antisemitism as a chance for increasing Jewish emigration to Palestine instead of fighting [antisemitism].” Many Jewish Leftists of the era condemned the defeatism and escapism of this approach.

Today, much of the European and U.S. far right is fiercely Zionist, even while their own movements are deeply antisemitic. Across the far right, a “new philosemitism,” as researcher Hannah Rose puts it, positions Israel as a garrison outpost defending the West against supposed Islamic barbarism. This conflation between Israel and world Jewry (itself antisemitic) offers conditional protection to Jews or the Jewish state, and functions as its own “good Jew/bad Jew” dynamic, demanding that the “right kind of Jew” must be Zionist and Islamophobic, and that the Muslim world writ large is the site of the only antisemitism worth mentioning.

Fighting anti-Zionism has become a proxy, for much of the Western far right, for absolving the guilt of participating in antisemitism, while at the same time advancing their own imperial interests. “As Zionism mirrored anti-Semitism in the past,” explains historian Barnaby Raine, “so the mainstream Right mirrors anti-Semites now, sharing a distorted image of Jews as representatives of the status quo but finding new love for them on that basis, rather than objecting to it.”

Many right-wing Jewish organizations and Israeli political leaders, unfortunately, are all too willing to embrace these erstwhile “allies.” For example, Netanyahu and other Israeli rightists have forged numerous alliances with antisemitic European ethnonationalist leaders, while in the United States, the far right Zionist Organization of America hosted Steve Bannon for a fiery address at their 2017 awards gala. In late 2023, after one-time Twitter CEO Elon Musk was widely condemned for endorsing an antisemitic white nationalist tweet that Jews are responsible for “dialectical hatred against whites,” Israeli leaders invited him to tour the Gaza border and meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — a grotesque attempt to repair Musk’s reputation by casting him as a stalwart defender of Israel as it relentlessly bombed Gaza.

Fighting anti-Zionism has become a proxy, for much of the Western far right, for absolving the guilt of participating in antisemitism, while at the same time advancing their own imperial interests.

Meanwhile, the Israeli far right traffics in antisemitic conspiracy theories, much like their European counterparts. Netanyahu and allies frequently rail against George Soros as the all-powerful mastermind behind liberal opposition to their ultranationalist project. Netanyahu has even dabbled in Holocaust revisionism, while his son Yair once shared an antisemitic meme depicting Soros alongside reptilian and Illuminati puppet masters behind global affairs, imagery common across 4chan.

Zionism was founded on the certainty that antisemitism is inescapable and that we can only mitigate, but can never destroy, it. But today, it’s clearer than ever that the Zionist project has failed in its supposed mission to ensure Jewish safety. More and more Jews are realizing that a nuclear-armed, ultra-militarized garrison state, founded on the unjust oppression of another people and condemned to the endless cycles of bloodshed necessary to maintain that oppression, wedged in the tightening contradictions of empire, sliding deeper into outright fascism and allying with far right nationalist antisemites, is a dangerously precarious vehicle for our people to seek dependable safety — and is certainly a far cry from the moral “light unto the nations” many of us imagined Israel to be. Zionist hegemony dominates Jewish scholarship, civic life, and religious discourses, making non-Zionist political solutions appear unrealistic or impossible. There may be understandable reasons why some cling to this belief, but we now have a choice about whether we want to reproduce this mentality or search for new strategies for combating antisemitism. As we do this, we can look to past generations of Jewish revolutionaries to lead the way.

Over a century ago, while Zionists proposed their nationalist answer to the “Jewish question,” massively popular left-wing groups like the Jewish Labor Bund in Eastern Europe countered with their ideology of doikayt, or “here-ness.” They viewed Zionism as a reactionary, bourgeois nationalist movement and insisted, as one translation of a 1931 song put it, that “we’d rather stay in the diaspora, and fight for our liberation.” Jewish progressives and leftists pursued similar strategies throughout Southwest Asia and North Africa, the United States, and even in Mandate Palestine itself. Today’s movements for safety through solidarity build from this legacy as we look toward a horizon of collective liberation and justice for all.

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