Israeli soldiers

Israeli soldiers take guard duty at a bus station in the Tapuach junction near the Jewish settlement of Kfar Tapuach south of the Palestinian city of Nablus in the occupied West Bank on October 26, 2022, while on the station are seen electoral posters for the far-right religious Zionist Tkuma (Religious Zionist) party led by Bezalel Smotrich (not pictured).

(Photo by Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images)

The Promise and Failure of Zionism

It is only through justice and equality that the Jewish homeland can become what so many hoped and dreamed it would become.

Last month, Israeli forces entered the Jenin refugee camp and killed nine Palestinians. The next day a 21 year old Palestinian killed seven Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem. The Palestinian man, named after a grandfather who had been stabbed to death 25 years earlier by a Jewish Israeli, was seeking revenge for a young Palestinian relative killed by Israeli forces two days earlier. This unending cycle of violence seems almost incomprehensible. Israel was supposed to be a safe-haven for a people forced to endure hundreds of years of dispossession and oppression, but is instead beset by almost constant and unceasing violence.

How did this happen, especially since we often hear that Zionism was a spectacular, almost miraculous success? How did Zionists create a state, accumulate enormous military strength, win almost every battle, yet still fail to create a Jewish safe-haven? Zionism was meant to be the solution to the problem of antisemitism, but has it actually solved anything?

Back in the early 20th century, there were many in the Jewish community who had grave doubts about the Zionist solution to the very serious problem of antisemitism. For example Rabbi Judah Magnes, first chancellor of Hebrew University, was a ‘cultural Zionist’ who supported ethnic equality. He was deeply concerned by the ethnic supremacy that characterized the ‘political Zionism’ supported not only by prominent Jewish Zionists, but also by non-Jewish members of the British government. In 1920 Rabbi Magnes wrote a letter explaining why he opposed Britain’s Balfour Declaration which he said “decrees into existence a Jewish ruling class from the outset”. “This gift of political primacy to the Jews in Palestine rather than political equality,” Rabbi Magnes wrote, “contains the seed of resentment and future conflict.”

If we look past the unending state propaganda, it becomes disturbingly clear that while Zionism did indeed create ‘A State’, the state it created is neither a safe-haven for the Jewish people nor has it solved the problem of antisemitism.

Martin Buber, an influential philosopher and scholar, warned that forcing Jewish rule on the Arab population would lead to permanent national instability. Buber argued that the unceasing security threats faced by a Jewish state would prevent the Jewish homeland from becoming a center of spiritual and culture revival, as so many hoped, and would instead force the new state to “apply its best forces to military activity instead of applying them to social and cultural enterprises”.

This hyper-militarized state, warned cultural Zionist and political philosopher Hannah Arendt, would bear little resemblance to the Zionist dream:

…even if the Jews were to win the [1948] war, its end would find the unique possibilities and the unique achievements of Zionism in Palestine destroyed. The land that would come into being would be something quite other than the dream of world Jewry, Zionist and non-Zionist. The “victorious” Jews would live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population, secluded inside ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defense to a degree that would submerge all other interests and activities...Thus it becomes plain that at this moment and under the present circumstances a Jewish state can only be erected at the price of the Jewish homeland.

Cultural and political Zionists would continue to debate these issues throughout the early 20th century. However all this would change with the terrifying rise of Nazism. The horrors occurring throughout Europe and the growing Jewish refugee crisis infused political Zionism with an urgency that allowed it to overtake and eventually dominate cultural Zionism. After the state of Israel was established in May 1948, cultural Zionists who supported ethnic equality either abandoned the idea or were completely marginalized.

However as Arendt and others had feared, the ethnic supremacy that political Zionists supported and implemented did not produce the safe haven that early Zionists had longed for. Instead, the new state of Israel would be beset by almost constant instability and violence. The state would engage in regional wars with Arab states in 1948, 1956, 1967-70, and 1973. From 1971-82 Israel would fight an insurgency in Lebanon and then launch two large-scale invasions against the country in 1978 and 1982. After a bloody 15-year occupation, Israel would again invade Lebanon in 2006. Internally, Israel would fight two Palestinian uprisings from 1987-93 and 2000-05, and launch large-scale attacks against Palestinians in Gaza in 2008, 2012, 2014, and 2021.

According to former speaker of the Knesset, Avraham Burg:

…the establishment of the State of Israel not only failed to solve the problems for the sake of which it was founded but, on the contrary, made them a great deal worse…Few of us know any other existential reality apart from our unrelenting war with everyone, all the time and over all issues.

Political Zionists had hoped a Jewish state would solve the problem of antisemitism. Instead the state they established is among the most dangerous places for Jewish people in the world. Even worse, through alliances with fascist regimes and ultra-nationalist groups and by undermining the human rights organizations created to protect the vulnerable and oppressed, the state of Israel undermines the safety of Jewish diaspora – the very people the state was created to protect.

The failure of Zionism to create a Jewish safe-haven is also why the state of Israel to this day continues to oppress the Palestinian people. In the West Bank, Israel demolishes Palestinian homes and denies people their most basic rights such as freedom of movement. In Gaza, Israel forces Palestinians, most of whom are children, to live under appallingly inhumane conditions. In the refugee camps around Israel, Palestinians are prevented from exercising their inalienable right to return home. Numerous human rights groups have accused Israel of committing apartheid, which is a crime against humanity. A few weeks ago Israel voted in one of the most extremist governments in its history, containing officials who openly call for ethnic cleansing.

The failure of Zionism to create a Jewish safe-haven is also why the state of Israel to this day continues to oppress the Palestinian people.

If we look past the unending state propaganda, it becomes disturbingly clear that while Zionism did indeed create ‘A State’, the state it created is neither a safe-haven for the Jewish people nor has it solved the problem of antisemitism. To the contrary, it may in fact be making the problem of antisemitism much worse. Political Zionism, we are forced to conclude, has failed to live up to its promise.

So what now? What options are left? First, it is important to keep in mind that ‘A Jewish State’ in and of itself was never the goal, but simply a means to the true goal: the safety and protection of the Jewish people. If the ethnic supremacy pursued by political Zionism has failed to create a safe-haven for the Jewish people, then the obvious alternative has always been ethnic equality. Indeed it is not idealism but simple logic that leads to the conclusion that regimes based on oppression are inherently unstable. More power, more force, and more violence are short-term solutions. A state can use force and violence to provide its citizenry with moments of brief stability, but it is only through justice that a state can offer its people a lasting peace.

Back in 1948, political philosopher Hannah Arendt foresaw the dangers of ethnic supremacy, and warned that a safe and secure homeland for the Jewish people would only be achieved once supremacy was replaced with equality:

The idea of Arab-Jewish cooperation, though never realized on any scale and today seemingly farther off than ever, is not an idealistic day dream but a sober statement of the fact that without it the whole Jewish venture in Palestine is doomed. Jews and Arabs could be forced by circumstances to show the world that there are no differences between two people that cannot be bridged.
Political Zionists believed, and continue to believe, that force and violence will lead to security and stability. History is littered with the remains of kingdoms, empires, and rogue states which shared that belief. The truth is that true peace, the peace that repeatedly eludes political Zionists, can only be found through justice. Moreover, it is only through justice and equality that the Jewish homeland can become what so many hoped and dreamed it would become: a center of culture and spiritual revival, a model of coexistence and democracy, and a safe-haven for the oppressed.

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