Stephen Chan: It’s an emo­tive term, a value-laden term, every time we men­tion Zionism. In fact, as a mod­ern doctrine—and that’s what it is, quite a mod­ern doctrine—it’s only real­ly been around a rel­a­tive­ly short time. Really it came into being at the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry, where pres­sure groups and Jewish con­gress­es led by peo­ple like Herzl began to con­tem­plate the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a home­land for the Jews.

Now, this was an inter­est­ing soci­o­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­non. It wasn’t that the Jewish peo­ple had been at that stage sub­ject in mod­ern European times to any of the pogroms and the mass destruc­tion that came about for instance dur­ing the Nazi era in Germany. But par­tic­u­lar­ly in Germany there was much res­o­nance for Herzl’s idea that there could be a Jewish home­land. Even though there was a very very exten­sive track record of assim­i­la­tion of the Jewish pop­u­la­tion, or efforts on the part of the Jewish pop­u­la­tion to assim­i­late, to acquire all the traits and all the habits of bour­geois and high-born Germans, there was still this residue of not fit­ting in and of being dis­crim­i­nat­ed against in a whole range of sub­tle man­ners. And Herzl, who had tried his best to become an assim­i­lat­ed German Jew began to feel that all the effort was not worth­while. So he began a pro­gram of what we now known as Zionism, the search for a home­land. And he cast his net far and wide. One of the results of his efforts was what we are this year in 2007 cel­e­brat­ing in terms of its nineti­eth anniver­sary. And that is the so-called Balfour Declaration.

Now, it was not a dec­la­ra­tion as such. It wasn’t even an offi­cial doc­u­ment. It was an opin­ion paper that Lord Balfour gave at a pri­vate gentlemen’s club in London to Lord Rothschild, say­ing, Do you think the Jewish pop­u­la­tion here in Great Britain would find any attrac­tive­ness in what I’ve sketched out here in the this pri­vate doc­u­ment?” And indeed they did. Because what Balfour pro­posed as a pos­si­bil­i­ty in his doc­u­ment was the par­ti­tion of Palestine into two: a home­land for the Jews along­side a home­land for the Palestinians. The prob­lem being of course that at that point in time, the entire ter­ri­to­ry of Israel and Palestine as they now are was occu­pied by Palestinians. So the sep­a­ra­tion into two would have involved from the very begin­ning depri­va­tion of peo­ple who were liv­ing in that part to be assigned to the Jewish people.

It seemed attrac­tive to the emerg­ing Zionist move­ment in Europe, who all the same were explor­ing oth­er options for this home­land. One of these options for instance was Uganda. And indeed high British offi­cials float­ed the idea with Zionist per­son­nel, well why not Uganda? The only prob­lem of course was that this would have involved dis­pos­sess­ing yet anoth­er group of peo­ple of the ter­ri­to­ry in which they lived and in which they had estab­lished their own his­to­ries and their own cultures.

The idea that this home­land should be estab­lished in real terms as sup­posed to spec­u­la­tive terms became very per­ti­nent first of all after the end of World War I with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. So that the British acquired the man­date for the Palestinian ter­ri­to­ries. They were meant to admin­is­ter it on behalf of a future gov­ern­ment of Palestine. 

And then par­tic­u­lar­ly after World War II, when the full atroc­i­ties of the Nazi treat­ment of the Jewish pop­u­la­tion in occu­pied Europe became more than crys­tal clear. And so the move­ments towards giv­ing the Jewish peo­ple a home­land of their own acquired a momen­tum which was meant to have been based on a sense of A, European guilt, but also a sense of decen­cy of pro­vi­sion for the future.

And it acquired great trac­tion well before the home­land was actu­al­ly declared as a state. Jewish migra­tion to the ter­ri­to­ry began. And the British were meant to hand over the man­date which they held on behalf of the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty to the United Nations. It was meant to become a United Nations man­date. The prob­lem being the British were very reluc­tant to entrust all kinds of sen­si­tive details to the United Nations offi­cials. So there was a peri­od in which there was no firm con­trol of the process.

In order to hur­ry the process along, Jewish mil­i­tants includ­ing peo­ple like Menachem Begin, peo­ple who formed a ter­ror­ist group called the Stern Gang, began com­mit­ting acts of atroc­i­ty towards the British admin­is­tra­tors, and towards the local Palestinian pop­u­la­tion. So that the birth of Israel when it final­ly came, came amidst much resent­ment and much con­fu­sion. The Palestinian peo­ple tried to resist. Their famous resis­tance called the Nakba,” how­ev­er, was unsuc­cess­ful. Ben Gurion declared a Jewish state, a Jewish home­land, in 1948. And the Palestinian resis­tance hav­ing being unsuc­cess­ful, all of the sur­round­ing Arab states decid­ed that they would like to see a Jewish state not locat­ed in their territory.

So in 1948 the Arab armies invad­ed the ter­ri­to­ry that had been set aside for the Jewish peo­ple. And were defeat­ed. The were two rea­sons for this. First of all there was the advent of a new men­tal­i­ty par­tic­u­lar­ly among younger Jewish peo­ple who had migrat­ed to the area. A men­tal­i­ty relat­ed to the fight­ing Jew.” In oth­er words, the recent his­to­ry of the Jewish per­son who walked meek­ly to his death in a con­cen­tra­tion camp was to be put aside and replaced by some­thing which was the polar opposite. 

The sec­ond thing was the total inep­ti­tude of the Arab armies. Not mod­ern, not well-commanded, they fell upon the Jewish resis­tance as water falls upon a rock, and the armed forces of the Arab states were dis­si­pat­ed and round­ly defeat­ed. So that the emer­gence of the Jewish state was one which was born not only in vio­lence but born amidst victory.

This psy­cho­log­i­cal sense of being able to be vic­to­ri­ous from the very begin­ning gave the new state a sense of invul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. It cer­tain­ly gave them a sense of hav­ing to strug­gle. But it also made them aware—the pop­u­la­tion aware—that what­ev­er they want­ed would have to be strug­gled for by mil­i­tary means. And these mil­i­tary means meant defeat­ing all com­ers. It meant defeat­ing its neigh­bors. So that wars ensued as a mat­ter of the mod­ern his­to­ry of the Jewish state. 

But hav­ing said that, before we have a brief look at those wars it’s impor­tant to under­stand that the birth of this new state was a sec­u­lar enter­prise. And in fact it was a sec­u­lar enter­prise much admired by the European Left. The Kibbutz Movement, com­mu­nal farm­ing efforts, for instance. These were regard­ed as prime mod­ern exam­ples of how an actu­al­ly exist­ing social­ism could exist and pros­per in adverse con­di­tions. Making the deserts bloom was part of the pro­pa­gan­da tropes of the Kibbutz Movement. The idea that this would require reli­gious over­tones that would be deter­min­ing was not on the Zionist agen­da at that moment in time. It was pure­ly and prop­er­ly, then, a nation­al­ist agen­da although one with very aggres­sive over­tones which the Jewish nation would regard as defen­sive ones.

But the wars did ensue. And so you had an inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty divid­ed in its sup­port. Should they in some way con­tin­ue to sup­port a Jewish state that was bel­liger­ent? Or should they in some way try to seek a peace in the region that would try to do jus­tice to all par­tic­i­pants in the future of that par­tic­u­lar region? But the sup­port that Israel received in its ear­ly wars was very very strong.

This was less so in 1956 with the effort to seize the Suez Canal, just then recent­ly nation­al­ized by the new Egyptian leader President Nasser. That was seen off diplo­mat­i­cal­ly, and was seen off diplo­mat­i­cal­ly because of US pres­sure. This is iron­ic in some ways as the US lat­er became a very staunch ally of Israel. But seen off by US pres­sure at that point at that point in time despite the par­tic­i­pa­tion of British and French army units on the side of the Israelis because of the cri­sis in Europe at that point in time. The inva­sion of Hungary at the same moment in time by Warsaw Pact and Soviet armies led to a sense of emer­gency that pri­or­i­ty should be giv­en to the European the­ater and not to the Middle Eastern the­ater. Besides, seiz­ing the Suez Canal, when it’d been nation­al­ized by the Egyptians, would have been an act of law against an act of nation­al­iza­tion that was ful­ly in accord with legal pro­ce­dures at that point in time. And so it would have been an out­law annex­a­tion of ter­ri­to­ry that belonged to Egypt.

This mix­ture of pro­pri­ety but also mix­ture of hier­ar­chies of need in inter­na­tion­al rela­tions would con­tin­ue to dom­i­nate the agen­da in the Middle East. So that the wars that fol­lowed afterwards—the war of 1967, almost cer­tain­ly caused by mis­cal­cu­la­tions on the part of Nasser but also on a very very aggres­sive sense of pre­empt­ing any move­ment on the part of the ene­my. The Israeli armed forces strik­ing first when it was clear that Nasser was sim­ply pos­tur­ing his armies on the bor­ders with Israel. And absolute­ly smash­ing the Egyptian army, which was in parade ground formation.

That dis­as­trous defeat basi­cal­ly broke the back of Nasser’s admin­is­tra­tion, broke his will to be a mod­ern­iz­ing, tech­no­crat­ic, and above all also a sec­u­lar pres­i­dent. It also marked the sense of in Israel a des­tiny. So that the sec­u­lar motive behind Zionism became one that began to be infused also with a reli­gious one. And the advent of ortho­doxy in large num­bers real­ly begins in the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tu­ry from the 1970s onward. And par­tic­u­lar­ly when a defen­sive dimen­sion was required once again at the 1973 war, when the Egyptians took back a lot of the ter­ri­to­ry that the Israelis had seized a few years earlier. 

That cer­tain­ly revi­tal­ized Egyptian spir­it, but it also led to the Americans decid­ing that they had bet­ter act as pow­er bro­kers in the Middle Eastern the­atre. So that the advent of the vis­it of the Egyptian pres­i­dent after Nasser, Sadat, to Jerusalem— A com­plete­ly uni­lat­er­al act which the Israelis could not refuse was some­thing that drove the Americans to con­vene both the Egyptian pres­i­dent Sadat and the Israeli lead­er­ship at Camp David. Menachem Begin came, Sadat came. Jimmy Carter and his famous walk in the woods was meant to bring peace to that region by means of an under­stand­ing between those two heads of state. The only peo­ple exclud­ed were of course the Palestinians. And of course what the Americans were inter­est­ed in was not a peace as such but a bal­ance of pow­er between Israel and Egypt. And by using a bal­ance of pow­er, the Americans hoped to main­tain peace in that part of the world.

But what this meant was that the region­al bal­ance of pow­er thus achieved became a mir­ror of the inter­na­tion­al bal­ance of pow­er. And the whole Middle Eastern ques­tion inso­far as it con­cerned Israel became part of Cold War pol­i­tics. So that Zionism as a moti­vat­ing ethos became part and par­cel of an ethos that reached into super­pow­er rival­ries, into all kinds of doc­trines of how the world should be run, heav­i­ly armed nuclear weapons, and how states that were not nuclear in any offi­cial sense could also be bal­anced, which the Americans set about try­ing to con­trol by mak­ing both Israel and Egypt the largest recip­i­ents of mil­i­tary aid from the US bud­get that had ever been up to that point in time.

Curiously but per­haps nat­u­ral­ly, the Israelis always received more than the Egyptians. But the Egyptians always received enough for the sake of the appear­ance of a bal­ance of pow­er. Zionism there­fore at this point in time, just begin­ning to apply ortho­dox over­tones, was already impli­cat­ed into mod­ern super­pow­er pol­i­tics. So that the idea of super­pow­er pol­i­tics giv­ing a bless­ing to the full-blown emer­gence lat­er of ortho­dox religiously-based Zionism was a com­bi­na­tion of attrib­ut­es, a com­bi­na­tion of images and sym­bol­isms which made today’s Zionism into some­thing incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to resist.

Further Reference

Religion and World Politics course information


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