Zionism and Israel: Past and Present
By Geoffrey Wheatcroft, the author of The Controversy of Zion: Jewish Nationalism, the Jewish State and the Unresolved Jewish Dilemma, which won an American National Jewish Book Award (THE GUARDIAN, 24/03/06):
With the bizarre, not to say unique, events in Jericho last week - surely the first case of a jailbreak intended to keep the prisoners inside - Israel has again shown an impressive indifference to outside opinion. “The whole world is against us,” says an endlessly popular Israeli song, and many Israelis would add the chant of Millwall fans: “No one likes us, we don’t care.”
There has, indeed, been a dramatic turn in opinion. It’s very hard to recall the esteem and goodwill in which Israel once basked, not least on the broad liberal left, where there is now a received view that Israel has deserved this change in affections: that Israel and Zionism are vicious now, having been virtuous once. The view may be almost universal - but is it true?.
You can hear echoes of the shift in these pages. It might be a columnist recalling the early 1960s, when progressive young friends (mine too) would go from London to spend the summer on a kibbutz in that heroic land. Or it might be Sir Gerald Kaufman bitterly denouncing the present Israeli government by comparison with “the beautiful democratic Israel” that he first knew in the 1950s.
In the age of Jenin, and now Jericho, of “targeted killings” and F-16s blasting refugee camps, that turn in Israel’s reputation might seem natural enough. And yet there is a contrary case to be made, that Israel has in some ways been criticised too harshly over the past 20 years, having been judged too leniently in its first 20.
It is really very hard to explain to anyone under the age of 50 just how popular Israel once was, notably among European social democrats and our own Labour party. In the 50s, newspapers such as the Manchester Guardian and the Observer (for all the trauma of Suez) accepted axiomatically that Zionism was a force for good, and David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, would be profiled in the New Statesman in what were frankly rhapsodic terms.
There were several reasons for this, from traditional liberal philosemitism to horror and shame at the fate of the European Jews. Besides that, in the nearly three decades after 1948, when Israel was run by Labour, it was widely, if myopically, seen as a model social democracy. The change began with the 1967 war, when Israel’s former admirers began to condemn the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and was accelerated when Likud took over as the dominant party.
And yet those admirers missed some salient truths. That beautiful democratic Israel of 50 years ago was founded on ethnic cleansing. The later expansion of Israel was actually less brutal: after 1967 a number of Palestinians were uprooted, but there was nothing to compare with the wholesale expulsion of three-quarters of a million Palestinians in 1948 - an event to which the right-thinking liberal west closed its eyes at the time.
Even the settlements in the occupied territories, which Israel almost light-heartedly (and in the end hubristically) began in the 1970s, were often set up on empty land, a contrast indeed to the settling of Palestine in earlier generations. “Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages,” Moshe Dayan briskly admitted about the creation of his country: “There is not one single place that did not have a former Arab population.”
In Dayan’s words you hear something else, the greater candour more often found among Israelis themselves than among their western supporters - and also the candour of the Israeli right, which was much less given to evasion and denial than the Labour establishment. In those long years of Labour supremacy, the right was not merely out of office, but was anathematised and scorned. Very few people in the west really knew much about Zionism, certainly not about a rightwing revisionist tradition “of greater intellectual distinction” than Labour Zionism; the phrase is Perry Anderson’s in the New Left Review, a tribute from an unlikely source, but perfectly correct.
The revisionist movement was founded in the early 1920s and led, until his death in 1940, by Vladimir Jabotinsky, perhaps the one man of genius to have been produced by Zionism. Not only of greater intellectual distinction, Jabotinsky was marked by his greater intellectual honesty. He argued that if the Zionist project was justifiable at all, then it had to accept that the Palestinian Arabs were not going to surrender their land without a fight - why should they? - and that force would be necessary.
Paradoxically, his honesty may have made it possible for Labour to appear enlightened and moderate by comparison, although there were always some Israelis who saw that claim as an imposture. The late Israel Shahak, an advanced radical and “non-Zionist Israeli”, used to insist not only that he himself had always been treated better by conservatives than by the official left, but also that Labour simply did not enjoy its reputation for comparative decency, and that the state Labour had created was in many ways neither democratic not beautiful.
By now, the older political distinctions have anyway largely been eroded. As the sociologist Uri Ram has said (with a touch of ethnic sarcasm): “The major players in the socio-political drama taking place in Israel today are of the right: the socio-economic liberal right of the capitalist upper classes - called in Israel ‘the left’ - and the ethno-religious fundamentalist right of the labouring lower classes - called in Israel ‘the people’.”
It is the latter right that seems certain to win the election this month, and continue its intransigent policies. One ironical outcome will be to further encourage the historically obtuse view of the conflict that liberals have long nurtured.
Hat tip: Almendron.com.
Keywords: Israel, Palestine, zionism