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.
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