Theodor Herzl: founder of political Zionism

Contradictions of Zionism

Tony Greenstein reviews Daphna Levit's 'Wrestling with Zionism: Jewish voices of dissent'

Daphna Levit grew up as a secular Zionist who worshipped just one god: the Land of Israel. She was a good example of those early Zionists who based their claim to Palestine on the god they denied.

This book is appropriately named. It describes how Jewish anti-racists and humanists have to wrestle with the racism that permeates Zionism. I  grew up in an orthodox Jewish family and it was taken for granted that you could not trust an Arab: that they would stab you in the back when you were not looking.

Daphna grew up in the 1950s and 60s, never questioning the Zionist narrative. It all seemed so simple: god gave us the land and the Arabs tried to drive us into the sea. Despite us pleading for them to stay, in 1948 the ingrates had received orders from their leaders in Damascus and Cairo to vacate the land, so that the Arab armies could invade. When this task was completed, they could return.

Naturally the early Israelis were reluctant to take back the refugees, since they could never be sure that they would not pull the same trick again. Oh, and Israel desired nothing more than peace, but the Arabs simply would not talk - forcing Israel to attack them. Repeatedly!

It never occurred to me as a child to ask simple questions, such as, how could the Zionists create their Jewish state, when the majority of inhabitants were Palestinian? Nor did I hear of the two researchers, Walid Khalidi and Erskine Childers, who independently in 1961 examined the BBC and CIA transcripts of the Arab radio broadcasts of the time. Not only were there no such Arab orders, but, on the contrary, the Palestinians were told not to flee. One of the great skills of Zionist ideologues is to ignore the evidence and rely on assertion. Life back then was simple: even grown-ups believed in fairy tales.

I have no hesitation in recommending this short book as a good introduction to the history of Zionism through the potted histories of some of its key figures. There is a wide selection of people - from the founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, to dissident Zionists such as Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Uri Avnery. Leibowitz was the orthodox religious scholar and professor, a latter-day prophet who foresaw that the Israelis would end up worshipping the Land of Israel much as the ancient Israelites worshipped Baal and the false idols.

It is easy to quibble over Daphna’s choice of who to include. Personally I would have included Herzl’s deputy, Max Nordau - a believer in social Darwinism, who wrote a book Degeneration, arguing that ‘degenerate’ art reflected and caused a degenerate society. He attacked Oscar Wilde’s dress sense as the “pathological aberration of a racial instinct”. Influenced by the criminologist, Cesare Lombroso, who believed that criminality was an inherited disease, his ideas on art were similar to those of Hitler.

I would also have included Arthur Ruppin, the director of the Palestine Office from 1908, and the key figure of Palestinian Zionism in the pre-state period. He was responsible for the establishment of the kibbutzim, and the marriage of bourgeois Zionist capital and the collective Labour Zionist settlements. He was a social Darwinist who put his ideas into practice, in respect of the Yemenite Jews brought to Palestine to do the heavy work for the ‘socialist’ kibbutzniks.

I think Levit, like many historians of Zionism, overestimates the influence of cultural Zionism and Ahad Ha’am. Ha’am warned in his essay, ‘Truth from Eretz Yisrael’, in 1891 that the Jewish settlers treat the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, trespass unjustly, beat them shamelessly for no sufficient reason, and even take pride in doing so”.1 Ahad Ha’am had, however, virtually no influence on the development of Zionism.

David Ben Gurion and Chaim Weizmann are surprising omissions and I would have chosen Judah Magnes over Martin Buber as a representative of the peace wing of Zionism. Another particularly noticeable omission is the lack of any figure from the Zionist right, such as Ze’ev Jabotinsky, whose clear articulation of Zionism as colonialism was a contrast to the dishonest polemics of the ‘socialist’ Zionists. The latter pretended that, but for their feudal leaders, the Arabs would consent to being seduced by sweet talk and honeyed promises. In The iron wall Jabotinsky wrote:

Every reader has some idea of the early history of other countries which have been settled. I suggest that he recall all known instances. If he should attempt to seek but one instance of a country settled with the consent of those born there, he will not succeed.2

This is similar to Ben Gurion’s riposte to Martin Buber, the advocate of binationalism, when he inquired whether he had “come to Palestine with the consent of the Arabs or against their wishes”.3

However this is Daphna’s book, not mine! There is a very impressive representative of what might be called the ‘other Israel’. People such as Tanya Reinhardt and Tikva Honig-Parnass.


However, Daphna is still in thrall to some of the myths of Zionism. My major criticisms of the book is that she does not analyse Zionism as a settler-colonial movement, but in terms of its own professed goals of finding a refuge for Jews. In fact the motive of Ben Gurion and the Zionist leaders was to recreate the mythical warrior Jewish people in the image of the Macabees. Zionism was always, first and foremost, a project to resurrect the Jewish race.

Colonialism always provides justifications which are self-serving and designed to provide it with a rationale. For Britain it was the ‘white man’s burden’, while for Zionism it was ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’. One favourite, which Levit repeats uncritically, is her assertion that:

Most of the early Zionist leaders were ardent socialists and nationalists ... their secular/political Zionist hope was to create a ... Jewish homeland for a community that would discard much of its religious identity; a modernistic amalgamation of nationalism, socialism, enlightened western culture and some as yet undefined ethnic Jewish identity.

Leaving aside the amalgamation of nationalism and socialism, the myth that the early Zionists were “ardent socialists” is just that. At the first Zionist Congress the all-male participants were attired in formal dress and a white tie. No workers they.

Barely four months after the 1903 Kishinev pogrom Herzl met with its instigator, tsarist minister Vyacheslav von Plehve to secure the legalisation of the Zionist movement in Russia, which he achieved. “Help me to reach land sooner and the revolt will end,” he pleaded. “And so will the defection to the socialists.”4

In an interview with The Times in February 1904, Plehve explained that Zionism was “an antidote to socialist doctrines”. Similarly Winston Churchill, a noted anti-Semite and Zionist, wrote an influential essay ‘Zionism v Bolshevism - a struggle for the soul of the Jewish people’. In 1899 Herzl explained:

... we are everywhere engaged in battles with the revolutionaries and are actually turning the young students as well as the Jewish workingmen away from socialism and nihilism by unfolding before them a pure and national ideal.5

Ben Gurion similarly wrote of his battles with the anti-Zionist Bund. Zionism was always a reactionary movement. Socialist Zionism grew up as an attempt to reconcile the fight for Palestine with more immediate questions, such as anti-Semitism and the conditions they experienced.

Herzl went out of his way to win over the orthodox rabbis, albeit with no success. It is therefore untrue to say that “He would have been surprised, if not shocked, to learn that many of the staunchest defenders of Zionism do so in the name of religion.” Herzl was well aware that Zionism could only succeed if it could harness the Jewish religion to the Zionist chariot. Of course, when you sup with the devil, you need a very long spoon!

Daphna Levit is a student of Hannah Arendt and her portrait of Hannah - a refugee from Nazi Germany, who was an early Zionist activist - is well worth reading as an essay on its own. Arendt was amongst the greatest political philosophers of the 20th century. She describes her debate with Gershom Scholem, who accused her of having no love for the Jewish people. Her response was withering:

You are quite right - I am not moved by any “love” of this sort, and for two reasons: I have never in my life “loved” any people or collective ... I indeed love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons. Secondly this “love of the Jews” would appear to me, since I am myself Jewish, as something rather suspect ... I do not love the Jews, nor do I believe in them: I merely belong to them.6

Scholem demonstrated in his question the murky waters that Zionism fishes in. Arendt had written a series of articles for The New Yorker on the 1962 trial of Adolf Eichmann and the terrifying thing about Eichmann, she wrote, was that he was surprisingly normal. He didn’t have horns.

Arendt was also scornful of what Salo Baron called the “lachrymose version” of Jewish history - the idea of 2,000 years of unending Jewish persecution; the idea of the Jew as perpetual victim and never the actor (which is itself an anti-Semitic stereotype). Arendt was scornful of those who believed that the whole world was against us. This was a Zionist siege mentality typical of settler-colonialists. She foresaw that the holocaust would become the new Jewish religion and used to justify any Israeli aggression.


Levit quotes Yehoshua Leibowitz: “He who empties the Jewish people of its religious content turns the concepts of chosen and holy into expressions of racist chauvinism.” Leibowitz claimed that Israel could not be considered a democracy, as long as it ruled over two million people deprived of any legal or human rights. Like the late Ze’ev Sternhell, Uri Avnery and Noam Chomsky, Leibowitz saw the 1967 six-day war as one of conquest, which “changed the very foundation of its existence”. Unfortunately this is wishful thinking.

I get the feeling that Daphna has some sympathy with this view that 1967 changed the course of Israeli history. The expulsions of 1948 and onwards betrayed Israel’s settler-colonial nature. The conquest of the West Bank/Gaza simply gave expression to that. However, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, when Israel’s Arab population was under military rule, Israel was seeking any pretext to expand its borders. The 1956 Suez War was a false start. 1967 established Israel as the strategic watchdog of the west.

As Chomsky wrote, “There seems to be no room in Israel for those who try to square a universalist point of view, be it liberal or socialist, with the racist definition of Zionism.”7 The problem being that Zionism is racist by definition - there is no non-racist Zionism. Levit cites Chomsky being refused entry to Israel because of his opinions. He suggested that his interrogators “try to find any government in the world that likes anything I say”.

Professor Ze’ev Sternhell, a child survivor of the holocaust, who has only just passed away, justified Zionism by the need for Jews to find a refuge: Palestine was “the only place in the world to which European Jews could escape in the 1930s and 1940s”, and so gave legitimacy to the establishment of the state of Israel beyond any historical rights to the land.

Except it was not the only place that Jews could escape to, despite the attempts of the Zionist movement to close down alternative places of refuge. Palestine took less than 15% of the total number of Jewish refugees from Germany - although Zionist opposition to lowering the immigration barriers in America and other countries and their sabotage of the attempt to seek other havens resulted in the deaths of thousands.

Sternhell, who was a target of a fascist settler bomb in 2014, was a world authority on fascism. He wrote the defining book on the history of Labour Zionism, The founding myths of Israel. In it he traced the development of Labour Zionism, proving that it was never socialist. Instead it mobilised the Jewish working class for national goals. It was Ben Gurion who coined the slogan, ‘From class to nation’.

Daphna Levit recalls: “Sternhell points out that many of the early leaders of the Zionist revolution loathed the diaspora and its ‘weakling Jews’.” That is correct, but this also points to a fundamental weakness of the book’s analysis of Zionism. Zionism was, above all, a reaction to anti-Semitism, which in reality accepted that anti-Semitism was justified. In the words of AB Yehoshua, Jews were a “cancer connected to the main tissue of the Jewish people”, who “use other people’s countries like hotels”.8

This was why the myth that Herzl was driven by the Dreyfus affair into becoming a Zionist, which Levit subscribes to, is wrong. As Herzl wrote:

In Paris ... I achieved a freer attitude towards anti-Semitism, which I now began to understand historically and to pardon. Above all, I recognise the emptiness and futility of trying to ‘combat’ anti-Semitism.9

Uri Avnery was a ‘Canaanite’, who wanted an Israeli nation that included the Palestinians, but was separate from diaspora Jewry. Zionism, however, was founded to wind up the diaspora. Israel was to be a state of Jews everywhere, not of its citizens. Avnery, Sternhell and Chomsky all failed to understand that a Jewish state, in a settler-colonial context, could not be anything other than racist.

Levit includes many of the foremost Israeli activists, such as Tikva Honig-Parnass, who was parliamentary secretary of the leftwing Mapam party in Israel before joining the anti-Zionist Matzpen. Tikva recalls an incident in 1948, when she encountered two Jewish American volunteers in the army, who were shouting that they had just met Palestinian women and children starving to death and begging to go back to their villages. They added angrily: “If this new state cannot take care of its Palestinian inhabitants, then it has no right to exist.”

Tikva, who was then a member of Mapam, wrote to her parents: “I’m sick and tired of these American ‘philanthropists’.” The idea of them being ‘philanthropic’ to non-Jews merited an especial scorn from the racists of Labour Zionism. At that time she was contemptuous of those who showed any feeling towards the indigenous population.

Daphna describes the pivotal moment in the crystallisation of the anti-Zionist Matzpen, which had an advert in Ha’aretz three months after the 1967 war, stating that “Conquest brings in its wake foreign rule”, which “brings in its wake resistance ... oppression... terrorism and counterterrorism ... [It] will turn us into a nation of murderers and murder victims. Let us leave the occupied territories now.” This did not make them too popular!

New historians

Levit describes the rise of the new historians - Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe, Avi Shlaim, Simha Flapan and Tom Segev - in some detail. With the opening up of the archives, they began to deconstruct the founding myths of Israel. These same files are now being reclassified by Israel’s security police, Shin Bet. History is a weapon in war and Zionism seeks to change it where necessary!

Simha Flapan’s 1987 book The birth of Israel: myths and realities was groundbreaking. He was the first to expose the myth that Israel had been invaded by all the Arab armies on gaining independence in 1948. On the contrary, the Zionists had negotiated a deal with king Abdullah of Jordan to prevent a Palestinian state. The other Arab armies sought to prevent Abdullah triumphing.

As for Benny Morris, his historical researches were at variance with his political opinions after 2000. He became a supporter of transfer and criticised Ben Gurion for not having finished the job.

Levit gives us a potted history of how the state of Israel has sought to manipulate and distort its own history in a way no bourgeois democracy would contemplate. This in itself is the sign of a proto-fascist society. She focuses on Shlomo Sand, professor of history at the University of Tel Aviv, whose The invention of the Land of Israel deconstructs the myth that for 2,000 years all the Jews longed for was a Jewish homeland. He debunks, for example, the story of the exodus and casts doubt on the existence of king David, whilst showing there was no Roman expulsion of Jews in the aftermath of the destruction of the second temple. In Israel there is ‘history’ and ‘Jewish history’, and the two are distinct subjects. Universalism has been excluded from Israeli academia, as universities have primarily functioned as an ideological factory for Zionism.

Tom Segev, a journalist for Ha’aretz, wrote the seminal The seventh million about the German Jewish immigrants to Israel and the record of Zionism during the war years and after. Daphna quotes Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz, in his review of Segev’s book:

Just as the new Israelis were creating an image of a heroic, athletic, defiant Jew, they did not want to come face to face with a weak and pitiful survivor and did not want to claim him as their own. They wanted heroes, not the embarrassing reminder of Jews being proverbially ‘led like lambs to the slaughter’.

She quotes Segev, who said:

... supported by devastating evidence, ... the Jewish leaders of Palestine never made the rescue of European Jews into an overwhelming national priority ... Zionist leader Yitzhak Gruenbaum, a future minister of the interior in David Ben-Gurion’s first cabinet, considered creating new settlements more urgent than saving Jews from being sent to Treblinka and Birkenau.

Levit also quotes Uri Avnery as saying that, instead of Zionism being dispensed with once the state of Israel was created, it had continued:

When one builds a house, one needs scaffolding. When the building is finished, the scaffolding is removed ... Thus ‘Zionism’ continued to exist after its aim had already been achieved. The scaffolding became superfluous, indeed obstructive …

But Avnery failed to understand that Zionism was a settler-colonial movement, whose aim - a Jewish state as racially pure as possible - was an ongoing and never-ending process. 1948 was only a staging point. The ‘ingathering of the exiles’ was its aim. Its purpose was the rebirth of a new Jewish warrior race. Far from ‘dismantling the scaffolding’, Zionism was busy consolidating its previous work. The seizure of Arab land had only just begun. The Zionist institutions were used by the Israeli state to subcontract racism to para-state organisations.


The final chapter of Levit’s book is devoted to two brave Ha’aretz journalists, Gideon Levy and Amira Hass, as well as Ilan Pappé, whose support for boycott, divestment and sanctions resulted in his being driven from Haifa University into exile. Levit recalls a particularly disturbing case, in which Israeli academia showed that its loyalty is to the settler state.

At the University of Haifa a student named Teddy Katz presented his MA thesis in 1998. It described Tantura village in 1948, where there was a very bloody massacre. The veterans of the army unit who perpetrated the massacre sued for libel. Although Katz was pressurised into not contesting the writ, he later sought to withdraw this, but the court refused. Pappé became prominent in defending him after the court proceedings led to a suspension of Katz’s degree in 2000. In an interview Pappé explained his intervention:

No-one came to his aid. Why should they? He’s a master’s student. They’re professors. What do they care? After I sat here and transcribed the tapes ... two or three colleagues changed their mind and helped. But they didn’t endanger their careers. I knew that when I went to help Katz, I would get it in return. But I didn’t know how much … Teddy Katz suffered a stroke because of this university. He almost died. And a master’s degree student shouldn’t almost die because of a university.

A shocking incident - and an answer to those who say we should not boycott Israeli academia. Levit pays tribute to the few brave lawyers who represented the Palestinians, including the late Felicia Langer (who closed her office because justice in Israeli courts was impossible), Lea Tsemel, Avigdor Lieberman and Gaby Laski.

In the epilogue Daphna describes what she calls an incident that “forever will haunt me”:

At a border checkpoint a terrified, wide-eyed little boy was desperately clinging to his mother’s hand. He was bleeding profusely through a towel wrapped round his head. His mother was screaming uncontrollably, her face distorted with emotion ... In her free hand she held an unrecognisable red blob, her son’s dismembered ear. She was frantically trying to get into an ambulance with him, but wasn’t permitted to; only the patient was allowed in the vehicle. She was told to walk or find other transportation to cross the checkpoint to the hospital. After a storm of frantic gestures and pleas, a ride was found, and the boy and his mother were driven together to the hospital in a car belonging to an Israeli demonstrator at the crossing.

This incident is but one of many, where Israeli soldiers and checkpoints are used to delay and obstruct ambulances and Palestinian patients have died as a result of this callous cruelty.

Daphna asks:

Can this incident be included among the legends of heroic battle against the insidious enemies of the Jewish state - a battle for which every Jewish-born Israeli is trained? Or should it simply be erased, to help maintain the purity of the myth?

It is a good question.

At the end of her book is a list of individuals whom she wants to pay tribute to, including Jeff Halper, Haim Hanegbi, Adam Keller, Moshé Machover, Akiva Orr, Idith Zertal and Beate Zilversmidt. The tragedy is that these individuals, brave though each one is, represent a sliver of Israel’s Jewish population.

There is a lot that Daphna Levit has compacted into 200 pages. It is an excellent introduction to the history of Zionism, even though it seems as if Daphna is still wrestling with it herself!

Tony Greenstein

  1. palestineremembered.com/Acre/Famous-Zionist-Quotes/Story642.html.↩︎

  2. marxists.org/history/etol/document/mideast/ironwall/ironwall.htm.↩︎

  3. G Piterberg The returns of Zionism London 2008.↩︎

  4. marxists.org/history/etol/document/mideast/ironwall/02-ruszion.htm.↩︎

  5. T Herzl The complete diaries of Theodor Herzl London 1960.↩︎

  6. H Arendt Jew as pariah London 1978.↩︎

  7. N Chomsky On Palestine London 2015.↩︎

  8. Diaspora a cancer’ Jewish Chronicle December 22 1989.↩︎

  9. T Herzl The complete diaries of Theodor Herzl London 1960.↩︎