This article will feature in Issue 36: Ideology & Faith (May 2020)
For over 100 years, the concept of Zionism has sparked heated international debate, which shows no indication of diminishing. Now-a-days, most people are somewhat familiar with the concept of Zionism – the movement which seeks to unify the Jewish race into one nation and return them back to the Holy Land of Israel. However, Jewish control of the region did not exist until relatively recently for nearly 2000 years, thus the full implementation of Zionism would come with its controversies. Of all the movements of the 20th century, Zionism remains one of the most divisive.
The late 19th century saw the emergence of the modern Zionist movement. Popularised in Theodor Herzl’s 1896 book, Der Judenstaat (The State of the Jews), Zionism has always argued that Jewish protection from persecution can only be attained if Jews took action themselves, without relying on outside help. Herzl argued for a nation for Jewish people but did not suggest where. Israel was quickly adopted due to its religious significance, disregarding the millions of Arab-Palestinians that already lived there. Whilst Jews had been migrating back to Israel and reviving the Hebrew language since the mid-1800s, the end of the century granted Zionism the recognition it desired.
The 20th century changed the discourse for Zionism, as it moved from a grassroots movement to a nationalist one, that received increasing support internationally, particularly from European states. The Balfour Declaration issued by the British government in 1917 supported Palestine as a home for the Jewish people. This exacerbated Arab-Israeli tensions, as increasing Jewish immigration into Israel, with British assistance, appropriated Arab land. Whilst Arab resistance intensified, brutal British rule solidified the Jewish position. This eventually paved the way for the United Nations to officially recognise the state of Israel in their 1947 Partition Plan, which suggested splitting the region. This plan was accepted by the Jews but rejected by the Arab communities. The end of the Civil War, which erupted during this time, led to the establishment of Israel in 1948 with 26% more land than the UN Resolution suggested and left ongoing tensions even further from being resolved.
As Israel was founded on conflict and tension, it is important to question its acceptance amongst Western nations and the UN, who seem to have justified nouveau-colonialism and aggressive expansion. It is likely that their failure to defend the Jews from recent persecution – such as the pogroms in 19th century Russia and the devastating Holocaust – led to disproportionate support for Zionism fuelled by guilt.
For Zionist scholars, the Jewish race were eternally unsettled, serving as the primary ‘Other’ against the rest of the world, and needed protection through having their own nation. These ideas, derived from ancient Judaism, were catalysed by the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust. Secular nations supported Zionists as they feared the blood of another six million Jews on their hands. Support for Israel became synonymous with support for Zionism, as many Zionist institutions became part of Israel’s infrastructure during its creation. This includes the Israel Defence Forces which combined three Zionist militias into a new army. Thus, support for Israel was continually driven by guilt, and the new Jewish state had unwavering Western allies.
Israel’s relationship with the West, however, would not always be perfect. Support for Israel – and therefore implied support for Zionism – had become the norm for Western politicians. It is therefore surprising that in 1975, the United Nations adopted a resolution which declared ‘Zionism a form of racism and racial discrimination’. It is unsurprising that most large Western powers, such as the USA, France and the UK, voted against this resolution and then spear-headed its repeal nearly twenty years later, no doubt seeking to assist its strong ally in the region.
The resolution, declaring Zionism as racism, was sponsored by Middle Eastern states, opposing the illegal military occupation which the indigenous Palestinian population had been subjected to for nearly thirty years. Between 1947 and 1949, over 750,000 Palestinians were displaced into neighbouring states, almost half the population at the time. Zionists justify these actions by manipulating Jewish trauma, particularly the Holocaust, justifying aggression towards what they perceive as second-class citizens living on land which rightfully belongs to the Jewish race. This exploits the Jewish faith to condone the same type of targeted violence which forced the Jews out of Europe in the 1940s.
Palestinians refer to this time as ‘Al Nakba’, or ‘The Catastrophe’, whilst their backlash to aggression is deemed unjust and responded to with stronger invasion. Since the Middle East became the arena for the Cold War, there has been continuous disregard for indigenous populations, of which Palestinians were one of the first to be targeted. The Israeli occupation of Gaza has been labelled by Human Rights Watch as an ‘open-air prison’, with 1.6 million Arabs in need of humanitarian aid. These present day struggles are rooted in Zionist thought, as consecutive Israeli governments pursue bloodshed in order to secure ‘their’ homeland.
As Zionism continues to be a hot topic in the media, it is crucial to remember its origins in violence. Ultimately, the Zionist movement is successful where it needed to be, at the international level, gaining assistance whilst conducting brutal policies against the indigenous people.
The founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, once said that the solution of the Jewish question would normalise them and remove them from the pages of history. The ideas that he helped to popularise would, ironically, continue to make headline news over 100 years after the publishing of his flagship book.