In the third of three articles by members of the Tempest Collective in the US on Palestinian solidarity and resistance against imperialism, Sherry Wolf interrogates three common claims made by supporters of the state of Israel.
Protesters at a Palestine solidarity demonstration in 2021. Source: Susan Ruggles, Wikimedia Commons.
I want to address three questions:
Does Israel have a right to defend itself?
Is the rallying cry ‘From the river to the sea’ tantamount to calling for driving the Jews into the sea?
Is Israel a global bulwark against antisemitism?
Does Israel have a right to defend itself?
The rallying cry of virtually every US politician from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders is that Israel has the right to defend itself. It’s screamed from the podiums of Congress and the Israeli Knesset in the face of an unprecedented global upheaval for Palestine. Every mainstream US media news outlet repeats this line ad nauseam, as if the mantra ‘Israel has a right to defend itself’ were a rhetorical slam dunk, irrefutable to anyone who isn’t an antisemite.
But what does it even mean to say Israel has a right to defend itself? What Zionists would like us to think it means is that Israel is the embodiment of Jewish national aspirations and the survival of Jewish people and our history is tied to the project of Zionism. Academics would say this assertion is, at best, historically inaccurate. I just call it bullshit.
Zionism is not some ‘2,000-year-old yearning’ of the Jewish people. Israel isn’t the product of a national liberation movement. Israel is the product of European society in the age of imperialism at the end of the nineteenth century. Israel is a colonial-settler state that is unapologetically racist in its legal system and denies basic human rights to its Arab population. And, of course, Israel is openly engaged in acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing.
That begs the question: What state has the ‘right’ to genocide and ethnic cleansing? What state has the right to racial apartheid and dispossession? None.
Zionism’s founders at least were honest about what they stood for. Over and over in their charters and statements and correspondence the same word appears: not national ‘liberation’, but ‘colonization’. Vladimir Jabotinsky, one of the founding fathers of the Zionist movement, wrote in 1923, ‘Zionism is a colonizing adventure and therefore it stands or falls by the question of armed force. It is important to build, it is important to speak Hebrew, but, unfortunately, it is even more important to be able to shoot—or else I am through with playing at colonization.’
They were unapologetic about their colonial aspirations. The first bank was the Jewish Colonial Fund managed by the Jewish Colonization Association.
Early Zionists, rather than seeking to break free from imperialism, sought out patronage from imperialist powers. Rather than promising self-determination to the people of Palestine—almost all of whom were Arab—Zionists expelled them. And rather than representing a widely popular expression of the fight against Jewish oppression, early on Zionism represented little more than a tiny upper-class sect for most of its existence prior to the Second World War and the Holocaust. There were, as has often been repeated, more Jewish members of the Lower East Side New York Socialist Party branches than the World Zionist Organization in the early twentieth century.
Zionists speak of the sanctity and inviolability of Israel, of its supposedly ancient Biblical roots. But the planning for the modern State of Israel was declared in New York City at the corner of 43rd and Madison in the old Biltmore Hotel at a Zionist conference of 600 people in 1942. Israel isn’t the legacy of an ancient yearning. It’s the concoction of a layer of Jewish separatists who received the backing of the world’s most powerful empires because there was a convergence of needs. Britain and later the US needed an outpost in the Middle East, where the oil was, and Zionists sought a separate homeland and were fully prepared to become an aircraft carrier for empire, populated by loyal white European Jews who would act as a bulwark against the region’s Arab and Muslim populations.
Is the rallying cry: From the river to the sea tantamount to calling for driving the Jews into the sea?
James Zogby, the founder and president of the Arab American Institute, wrote on Twitter, ‘On the “the river to the sea” controversy: 7 yrs ago we polled Israelis & Palestinians. A strong plurality in both favored 1 state. When asked how that would look: Israelis said it meant expelling all Palestinians; Palestinians said it meant equal rights in 1 state. Just sayin’.’
Yousef Munayyer explained it this way in The Nation after Congressperson Rashida Tlaib was disciplined for using this phrase:
Today between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, there is effectively one state, the state of Israel, and it rules over millions of Palestinians who are denied justice and equality. When we call for freedom from the river to the sea, it is this context we are responding to. We are calling for an end to Israeli domination, not for destruction of anyone but for the dismantling of unjust laws, systems, and practices. But to those who want to undermine our calls for freedom and support this system of injustice, it does not matter what we say our words mean.
I agree with Yousef. Israel is a colonial-settler state governed by an ethno-racial legal system. Its Law of Return allows a Jew like me born in Brooklyn to become a citizen while Palestinians whose families have lived on the land for generations have their homes bulldozed and their lives destroyed.
The claim that Zionists make about ‘from the river to the sea’ being a call to genocide for Jews instead of a call for a democratic secular state where Jews, Arabs, and everyone else live together is the projection of a ‘mirror world’. Naomi Klein writes about this in her brilliant new book, Doppelganger. The right is adopting concepts and realities from the left to concoct a victim narrative for themselves.
In the ‘mirror world’, college students fighting against the bombing of refugee camps are recast as Nazis and the Biden administration compares those marching for a ceasefire and a free Palestine to the fascist thugs of Charlottesville.
The simple fact is no organization or mass of people on the Left is calling for ‘Jewish genocide’ at these protests. And anyone arguing otherwise is lying.
I live in New York City, an archipelago of islands inhabited from the river to the sea, one might say, by 1.5 million Jews, at least 800,000 Muslims and millions of others who live together in a democratic secular state. The demand itself is not even that radical.
Is Israel a global bulwark against antisemitism?
My short answer: No!
Zionism’s reason for existing, from its founding through today, rests on the contention that antisemitism is inevitable. Zionists drew the conclusion that Jews must have a national home of our own in order to never again face a Holocaust. Zionists unapologetically accept the racialized understanding of Jews that, perversely, was most fully developed under Naziism. To them, Jews constitute a separate race of people.
Zionism’s founding father, Theodor Herzl, after covering the trial of a Jewish-French officer Albert Dreyfuss in the 1890s, wrongly accused of treason, wrote, ‘In Paris … I achieved a freer attitude toward antisemitism, which I now began to understand historically and to pardon. Above all, I recognized the emptiness and futility of trying to “combat” anti-Semitism.’
By contrast to their acceptance of antisemitism, the broader swath of worldwide Jewry supported a different vision: socialism. Socialists defended Jews who faced persecution. Socialists combated anti-Jewish racism as a poison to the workers’ movement. Socialists fought for multiethnic societies and democracy. In this period, August Bebel, a leader of the German Social Democratic Party, famously denounced antisemitism as ‘the socialism of fools’ for diverting workers’ rage away from their true enemy, the ruling class, onto Jewish scapegoats. In contrast, socialists connected the fight against antisemitism to the fight for workers’ power.
Because socialists stressed the need to fight—not accept—antisemitism in the countries where most Jews lived, the socialist movement recruited Jews in huge numbers. The Russian tsar’s finance minister once complained to Herzl that Jews ‘comprise about 50 percent of the membership of the revolutionary parties’, while constituting only five percent of the Russian Empire’s population.
Zionism’s most powerful claim to legitimacy is that the State of Israel is necessary to prevent another Holocaust. The legacy of the Holocaust is invoked, and in fact weaponized, to justify every atrocity committed by Israel. But the actual record of how the Jewish Agency, the Zionist leadership governing Jewish settlements in Palestine before the establishment of Israel in 1948, responded to the Holocaust provides the most damning evidence against Zionism.
To the leaders of the Jewish Agency, the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s had a definite upside. One leader, Menahem Ussishkin, argued, ‘There is something positive in their tragedy and that is that Hitler oppressed them as a race and not as a religion. Had he done the latter, half the Jews in Germany would simply have converted to Christianity.’
During World War II, the Rescue Committee of the Jewish Agency wrote a private memorandum about the prospects for their work. At the time this was written, it still could have been possible to save millions of Jews from Hitler’s Final Solution. But they didn’t even try.
Whom to save: Should we help everyone in need, without regard to the quality of the people? Should we not give this activity a Zionist national character and try foremost to save those who can be of use to the Land of Israel and to Jewry? I understand that it seems cruel to put the question in this form, but unfortunately we must state that if we are able to save only 10,000 people from among 50,000 who can contribute to build the country … as against saving a million Jews who will be a burden, or at best an apathetic element, we must restrain ourselves and save the 10,000 that can be saved from among the 50,000—despite the accusations and pleas of a million. (See Sumaya Awad and Annie Levin, “Roots of the Nakba,” in Palestine: A Socialist Introduction.)
Rudolph Kastner, a top official in the Israeli Labor Party and the person in charge of the Rescue Committee in Hungary during the war, had actively collaborated with the Nazis. Kastner negotiated with Nazi official Adolph Eichmann (one of the architects of the Holocaust) to get approval for a ‘VIP train’ of 1,685 Hungarian Jews to leave Hungary safely. Kastner personally selected the passengers for the train, which included several hundred people from his hometown and a dozen members of his family. He worked with SS officer Kurt Becher to make the financial arrangements. In exchange for the safe passage of the train, Kastner agreed not to warn the Jews of Hungary about Hitler’s plans for their extermination and not to take any action to protect them. Worse, he helped to deceive Hungarian Jews, convincing them that they were simply being relocated. After the war, it became clear that Kastner had not acted alone but that his plan for the VIP train had the support of the highest leaders of the Jewish Agency.
It’s not simply that anti-Zionism is not at all the same as antisemitism, but Zionism actually fuels antisemitism by fusing its project to ethnic cleansing. Israel’s need to expel, oppress, and eliminate Palestinians in order to first create and now maintain an ethnic Jewish majority absolutely guarantees that hatred toward the perpetrators, who insist their actions are in the name of Judaism, will create blowback against Jews—including those of us who abhor Zionism.
And those in government and university administrators stifling dissent who say that calling for a ceasefire is antisemitic implicitly portray Jews as bloodthirsty savages and racism as a Jewish value. In the name of my ancestors who fled pogroms, I reject this nonsense completely.
In sum, if Israel’s reason for being is to create a national home where all Jews of the world can be safe, it has failed. I will take my chances on the B39 bus in Brooklyn any day over a bus in Tel Aviv. Nowhere in the world are Jews in greater danger of being harmed, including by their own government if they dare to dissent, than in Israel. Even by its own claims to Jewish sanctuary, Israel is a dismal failure.
This article is based upon a talk given at the “75 years of colonialism, imperialism, and resistance” event and was first published on the Tempest website.