What was Israel supposed to be?

18 April 2023
D. Taylor

It’s hard to believe now, but some people once thought Israel was a good idea. Not just a good idea, but a great historical breakthrough that would transform the world, and the Jewish people, for the better. “A wondrous generation of Jews will spring into existence”, Theodore Herzl wrote in his 1896 pamphlet, The Jewish State. “We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes ... The world will be freed by our liberty.”

Israel was to be a society of equality and freedom, a peaceful land of brotherhood and plenty, where oppressed and impoverished people could come to build beautiful cities and lush farms in some forgotten scrap of nowhere that nobody was doing anything with—or nobody important, anyway. It would transform Jews, its founders hoped, from persecuted paupers into happy, healthy, joyful citizens, finally at peace with themselves and the world.

Yes, Israel. The same Israel that’s now one of the most unequal societies in the developed world, ranked equally with the United States in 2015 according to the OECD’s measure of economic inequality.

It’s a place where the monstrously over-funded military works hand in glove with religious lynch mobs to terrorise innocent shepherds away from their flocks. As the human rights NGO B’Tselem reported in 2021, land is stolen “from Palestinian shepherding and farming communities in the West Bank through systemic, ongoing violence perpetrated by settlers living near them, with the full support of state authorities”.

It’s a place where the far-right government, with at least one self-described fascist minister, complains that the indigenous population is being ethnically cleansed too softly and slowly. It’s a place where blowing up Palestinian schools and hospitals and banning their reconstruction is seen as a legitimate form of self-defence. It’s a place where imperialism is so deeply soaked into cultural life that the military has censored its press since the foundation of the state, a society of never-ending war to capture land from its traditional owners.

Who ever could have thought that creating this society would help anyone at all? At first, not many people did—not even many Jews, even among those who were willing to uproot their lives and try the most extreme methods to end the persecution and misery they faced at home.

The first “waves” of Jewish migration to Palestine were minuscule. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, more than a million Jews fled the pogroms of the Russian empire and the civil war there. But only around 30,000—less than 3 percent of the Jewish emigrants—tried settling in Palestine. “It was not a success story”, the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé notes in The Idea of Israel. “The vast majority of them (some 90 percent) left quickly, mainly for the United States.”

It’s easy to see why: on arrival, they found that the target location for their proposed new nation-state was already occupied by an indigenous population, who had to teach the newcomers how to tend flocks and manage farmland, and whose mere existence proved that any new Jewish state would have to be won through violence and war to drive these people out. In Pappé’s words, “even the most ignorant and defiant settlers realised that Palestine was in fact an Arab country, with an Arab human landscape”.

In the letters and diaries of early settlers, Palestine went from being a “land of nothingness” to a “hotbed of pain” infested with raa hola, “malignant evil” (the indigenous population). Few Jews wanted to flee the Russian empire only to engage in a war of colonial dispossession. For those Jews who were willing to fight and possibly die for a better future, a much more sensible and decent option presented itself: the international socialist movement, which promised a world free of racial persecution without requiring a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

To paper over the unpleasant reality, the promises and perspectives of Zionism had to be extravagant and unrealistic. To attract leftist Jews, the leading Zionists of the 1920s and 1930s presented Israel as a socialist society to be built by workers from the ground up. In the years after the Russian Revolution of 1917, David Ben-Gurion (later the first prime minister of Israel) claimed that the settlement of Palestine, not world revolution, was the way to achieve both “Jewish national redemption and the social liberation of man”.

“One class should not dominate the other classes, but there should be a working people, a liberated people free of the domination of other nations and free of class domination”, noted Berl Katznelson, the unimpressive but much-loved leader of the early Zionist trade unions. Zionists had promised to provide “a land without a people for a people without a land”. To make that seem possible without genocidal violence, the indigenous Palestinians were largely ignored: they didn’t exist, or they weren’t a real “people” with the national identity and rights of others, and would simply disappear as the new Zionist utopia was established.

Unfortunately for the colonisers of Palestine, the Palestinians insisted on their own existence. Since the 1930s, Palestinians have kept throwing themselves into heroic campaigns of mass resistance, no matter how badly they are outgunned, isolated and slandered by the increasingly powerful Israeli state: the Palestinian strikes, marches and uprisings of 1936, 1976, 1987 and 2018 have forced the world to confront the fact that Israel’s existence is premised on the oppression of a people who refuse to give up the fight. Over the decades, this resistance has ripped the mask from Israeli politics.

Israel’s founding generations presented themselves as peace-loving exiles who simply wanted their own little bit of land to work. They claimed that ultra-expansionist “revisionists” like Ze’ev Jabotinsky were an unhinged minority; Jabotinsky was denounced when he argued in 1923 that colonisation must “proceed regardless of the native population ... behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach”.

Jabotinsky’s Iron Wall meant a state based on the denial of any political influence to the indigenous population, through a mix of Zionist and imperialist military power: “the establishment in Palestine of a force that will in no way be influenced by Arab pressure”. Now the heirs of Jabotinsky dominate Israeli politics. Israel’s endless expansion, and its strangulation of the Palestinian population, are openly proclaimed as a policy goal: Israel’s current government has put expansion and annexation of illegal “settlements” at the top of its priority list. In the 2000s Jabotinsky’s dreamed-of Iron Wall was realised in a very literal sense: the giant militarised concrete “security fence” that cut through Palestinian land in the West Bank.

What became of Israeli egalitarianism? Self-proclaimed socialists dominated Israeli politics from the 1920s until the 1970s, but their “socialism” was never more than a fig leaf for state-led colonialism. Ben-Gurion admired the monolithic, state-controlled economy built in Russia during its civil war, which he visited on a trade trip in 1923. But he and the other “socialists” of his generation rejected the revolutionary confrontation with capitalism that would be needed to build a society without exploitation. Indeed, Ben-Gurion and his collaborators purged and persecuted revolutionaries in Palestine, banning them from his “socialist” union federation and blackballing them from employment.

In reality, their vision of “socialism” was a kind of totalitarian hyper-nationalism. “The meaning of socialism”, Berl Katznelson explained, “is to impose the authority of the nation on ever wider areas of life in the community, and not only to mediate between classes and achieve a compromise between them, but also to impose on them the popular will to such a degree that classes are eliminated”.

Far from building a socialist society, the early Zionists built an economy in which workers and their employers would collaborate in an ultra-patriotic project of armed state-building. Their sense of solidarity was based on a shared racial identity between workers and bosses, and they joined forces to exclude “alien” Palestinians from their new economy.

Socialism comes from class struggle and internationalism. Israel was built through class collaboration and racial chauvinism, and the fruits of this project can be seen in the modern Israeli economy. It’s a dog-eat-dog, hyper-capitalist nightmare, with levels of economic inequality similar to those in the United States, entrenched discrimination against ethnic minorities—even within the Jewish population—and a feral media landscape in which Hebrew equivalents of Fox News call for ever more brutalisation of the Palestinians and discrimination against sexual minorities.

In 1938, ten years before the state of Israel was founded, Golda Meir—later to be the country’s first female prime minister—attended an international conference convened by US President Franklin Roosevelt, which resolved to do nothing serious to help Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. “I have one ideal in front of my eyes”, a frustrated Meir told the press afterwards. “This is one thing I want to see happening before I die ... that my people will never require declarations of support.” It’s an understandable ambition for a stateless oppressed group being crushed between hostile and indifferent imperialist powers: real independence from the violence and oppression of capitalist realpolitik and racism.

But that’s not what Israel has created. Israel has become the Middle East’s most belligerent beachhead of Western imperialism, dependent on hundreds of billions of dollars of US military aid. To create the Iron Wall of a political power independent from the native Palestinian population, Zionists created a state that’s so tightly bound in networks of mutual solidarity and support with some of the most awful regimes in the world—from South African apartheid to the Sri Lankan genocide—it can sometimes seem hard to find a human rights atrocity that hasn’t been carried out with the help of Israeli training and weaponry. In the name of “independence”, Israel’s founders chose to abandon the idea of solidarity between the oppressed and find a place in the international club of oppressors.

So Israel didn’t give Jews a land of independence, equality or enlightenment. It’s a place of barbarism, discrimination and religious obscurantism, where the colonial methods that founded Australia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are still government policy.

Did it fulfil any of its promises? Perhaps one—or nearly. Many of Israel’s founders hoped to transform Jewish cultural life. They didn’t just hate the poverty and discrimination faced by the Jews of Europe. Some of them hated the way the Jews were. In language that sounds weirdly close to that of a Nazi propagandist, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, fantasising about subhuman “Yid” becoming a Hebrew übermensch:

“Our starting point is to take the typical Yid of today and to imagine his diametrical opposite ... Because the Yid is ugly, sickly, and lacks decorum, we shall endow the ideal image of the Hebrew with masculine beauty ... The Yid is despised by all and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to charm all. The Yid has accepted submission and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to learn how to command.”

There will be no social transformation: in this nihilistic world view, racial hatred and oppression will never end. But there will be a personal transformation. The outcast “Yid” who “lacks decorum” must transform into the “masculine” Hebrew who can wield the tyrant’s power of “command”. Oppressed will become oppressor. Many fascists dreamed of the spiritually cleansing influence of perpetual war; Israel has achieved that never-ending war, and the cultural transformation that comes along with it.

Jews, like any social group, have always been politically and culturally diverse. In the late nineteenth century, the stereotypes of the shtetl-bound religious maniac, the urban liberal intelligentsia, the militant unionist, the assimilated banker and the bomb-throwing anarchist all had some basis in Jewish reality. But Jews were, for a time, perhaps the most socialist people that had ever existed. It is doubtful that any single ethnic group has had such a tight connection to the internationalist, revolutionary socialist movement as Jews did from the late nineteenth century until the end of World War Two.

The Nazis came close to liquidating that tradition, and the disappointments of Stalinism—which took up many of the chauvinistic, and even anti-Semitic, traditions of the old Russian empire—helped wipe it out too. But since then, Zionists have piled on their efforts to distort and bury the internationalist and socialist traditions of Jewish life. For decades after its invention, Zionism was a fringe minority in Jewish political life; now, mainstream Jewish NGOs work hard to promote the idea that to be anti-Zionist is to be anti-Jewish. (In its 2022 anti-Semitism report, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry states flatly: “Anti-Zionism ... is the latest manifestation of antisemitism”.)

As Anshel Pfeffer explained in a 2021 Jewish Quarterly essay, “The strange death and curious rebirth of the Israeli left”, the Jewish “left” within Israel has mostly given up on Israelis: it exists mostly in the form of internationally oriented human rights NGOs documenting the crimes of the Israeli state for overseas audiences. Majority Israeli politics has gone from internationalism to nationalism, secularism to religious obscurantism, socialism to Trumpism, and young Israelis are more right wing than the previous two generations. Thanks to the aggressive efforts of Zionists to slander and silence non-Zionist Jewish voices, mainstream Jewish politics has grown up like Benjamin Button: a hundred years ago it was weirdly advanced, but now it’s shockingly primitive.

Thankfully, Zionists can’t completely control global Jewish life. They may dominate the big institutions and claim to speak and act in the name of all Jews when they oppress and slander Palestinians. But outside Israel, there are still Jews who are inspired by the implacable resistance and endurance of the Palestinians, who are influenced by the best traditions of Jewish politics and who are horrified by what Israel is.

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