The Anti-Zionist Mythology of the Left

Robert S Wistrich. Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. Volume 9, Issue 2. 2015.

Socialist and Marxist opposition to Zionism has existed ever since the modern political movement was launched by Theodor Herzl in 1897. Before World War I, Jewish nationalism was, if anything, more vigorously criticized by Jews than by non-Jews, at least outside Palestine. Jewish adversaries of Zionism at that time included much of the liberal communal establishment in Western countries, “assimilationist” Jews, religious reformers, and most of the preeminent “Orthodox” and ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Russia and Eastern Europe. On the secular Left, the Bund (the leading Jewish workers’ organization in Tsarist Russia), and later the Communists, vehemently opposed Zionism as a utopian, reactionary, “petty-bourgeois” movement. At best an unwanted diversion from the class struggle and proletarian revolution, it was also seen by leading German Marxist theorists like Karl Kautsky as being complicit in the rise of antisemitism. Kautsky even accused Zionism of putting a spoke in the wheel of historical progress. Though some European Social Democrats in the 1920s began to warm to the socialist pioneering zeal of the Zionist labor movement in Palestine, others remained closer to the pre-war anti-Zionist line. They anticipated, like Kautsky in 1921, that the Zionist experiment would inevitably collapse as soon as Anglo-French domination of the Middle East ended.

Jews, who played a remarkably prominent role in the early history of many Socialist and Communist parties, were among the most vituperative critics of Zionism from the very outset. Austro-Marxist leaders from Otto Bauer to Bruno Kreisky, revolutionary Bolsheviks from Leon Trotsky to his post-war British admirer Tony Cliff, and American leftist gurus such as Noam Chomsky or Norman Finkelstein—all of Jewish origin—have usually dismissed Zionism as a dead end. Jewish Stalinists such as the Austrian Otto Heller in the early 1930s already pronounced “the final and irrevocable bankruptcy” of the “Palestinian Jewish dream,” confidently proclaiming that the Jewish collective future lay in settling Siberian forests and the underpopulated Soviet Far East. The “Jewish question,” Heller predicted in 1931, would be solved in the USSR—in Birobidzhan, Siberia, or the Crimea—not in Jerusalem. In the 1930s most Communists were convinced that Zionism was an historic mistake, an impossibility, a totally anachronistic form of nationalism doomed to disappear along with Judaism itself, as part of the inevitable demise of world capitalism. These determinist assumptions—utterly refuted by history—broadly followed the road map sketched in 1844 by the young Karl Marx, who had already looked forward to the disappearance of the Jews in a post-capitalist society.

The Nazi mass murder of European Jewry a century later provided a truly macabre gloss on such failed Marxian prognoses. Yet it did not lead to any fundamental revision of socialist dogmas pronounced fifty years earlier on the most desirable solution to the “Jewish question.” True, Joseph Stalin had supported the establishment of Israel in 1948, primarily to help bring about the removal of British influence from the Middle East. At the same time, this did not prevent the all-powerful Communist dictator of the USSR from orchestrating a viciously antisemitic and “anti-Zionist” show trial—the Slansky Affair in Prague—or the equally monstrous “Doctors’ Plot,” in which Jewish physicians were indicted and tortured for supposedly seeking to poison the top Soviet leadership. Stalin—the godfather of post-Shoah antisemitism in its Communist form—may well have been preparing the ground for the mass expulsion of Soviet Jewry to Siberia and Kazakhstan on the eve of his death in March 1953. His stigmatization of Zionism as a “fifth column” for American and British imperialism did much to contaminate Communist and non-Communist left-wing attitudes to the Jewish State in the post-Shoah era.

Maxime Rodinson, ex-member of the French Communist Party (who had defended Stalin’s wholly fabricated charges against the Jewish physicians in 1952), was among the more scholarly of the many Marxist critics in the West of the new State of Israel. A well-known Arabist whose immigrant parents, convinced Communists, perished in Auschwitz, Rodinson insisted in an influential essay, first published in 1967, that Israel was a “colonial settler state.” From its very beginnings it had allegedly followed the European-American expansionist pattern. Rodinson claimed that in common with other forms of colonialist domination, Zionism had displaced a major portion of the “native” Palestinians in the name of what he felt were entirely spurious historic rights. However, like other anti-Zionist critics, Rodinson glossed over the fact that most Jewish settlers originated from less developed areas such as Eastern Europe (and later the Middle East), in stark contrast to the white colonists in the British, Spanish, or French Empires who came from more advanced societies, conquered the land, and swiftly obliterated or subordinated the native communities under their domination. This happened in North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, parts of Southern Africa, and in French Algeria, but not in Palestine. Jews who arrived in British Mandated Palestine manifestly did not come in order to destroy or displace the Palestinian Arab “nation”—contrary to the myth propagated by the pro-Palestine radical left, until today. Indeed, the Jewish presence and the resultant economic projects undoubtedly hastened modernization, turning Palestine into a land attracting substantial Arab immigration. In 1922, only 186,000 Arabs lived in the area that would eventually become Israel a quarter of a century later. In the entire British Mandated Territory, in the early 1920s there were 600,000 Arabs whose numbers had soared to well over a million by 1940—hardly an example of colonial dispossession of the “indigenous” population. Most Palestinian Arabs in those years were either immigrants from neighboring Arab lands or descendants of immigrants who had arrived since the late nineteenth century. Not only were they not Palestinian “natives,” but at the time of the Balfour Declaration there was no clear or distinct concept of a Palestinian Arab nation. The left-wing narrative, especially since 1967, has consistently sidelined such inconvenient realities, replacing them with ideological fictions.

The Six-Day War of 1967 was undoubtedly a turning point for much of the liberal and democratic left in Western countries in its attitude to Israel. One of its long-term consequences was to transform the Jewish State, in the eyes of both adversaries and critics, into a conquering “occupier” of Arab lands. It also began to erode an unwritten taboo against open antisemitism since the Shoah. A much harsher anti-Israel rhetoric now emerged from both the right and left, as well as from some prominent politicians and statesmen. President Charles de Gaulle’s notorious “Sermon to the Hebrews” at his November 1967 press conference in Paris, during which he referred to Israel and the Jews as “an elite people dominating and sure of itself,” was an important landmark in this seismic shift. Radical “progressives,” too, began to channel their longstanding suspicion of Jewish nationalism and of Jews in general into the direction of an increasingly aggressive and vituperative anti-Zionism. During the 1970s, Israel found itself bracketed with such widely execrated apartheid regimes as South Africa and Rhodesia or with the dictatorial and repressive military juntas in Chile or Argentina. Its policies, too, were branded as those of a “white” colonialist settler-state. Zionism was henceforth to be vilified as a peculiarly pernicious, racist ideology and partner of American imperialism in the Middle East.

For those condemning Zionism, the exodus of most of the Palestinian Arab population during the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948 was due to the hegemonial style of politics that the Jews had imported from Europe. The goal of Zionist ideology was redefined, according to this pro-Palestinian narrative, as the racial separation of Jew from non-Jew. Zionism came to be seen as an inherently isolationist, segregationist ideology dependent upon the strengthening and even encouragement of antisemitism to implement its aims. The desire of Israel to be a “Jewish” state was itself deemed to be a priori racist. The Law of Return was attacked with special vehemence as intrinsically discriminatory for granting the rights of Israeli citizenship to immigrant Jews from the Diaspora. It was also claimed that Israeli Arabs and Oriental Jews [Mizrachim] suffered from institutionalized racism within Israeli society. Finally, leftist anti-Zionists—some of them Jews—pointed to the so-called “theocratic” character of the Israeli state, which offered special privileges to Jews and allegedly obstructed the integration of Israel into the Arab world. Yet the Israeli polity has been manifestly more secular than any of its Arab neighbors, who are rarely, if ever, criticized on the left for their Islamic and exclusivist character. Such double standards have characterized anti-Zionism ever since the foundation of Israel.

It is important to realize that distorted images of Israel have themselves borrowed conspicuous features of European antisemitism. The idea that Zionism aims at racist hegemony or domination over non-Jews reproduces a classic trope of anti-Jewish propaganda. The concept of the “chosen race” is a typically antisemitic notion, not a Jewish one. The belief that the Jews are misanthropes, endemically hostile to the rest of humanity, is another ancient myth, with roots in classical antiquity.

Even before 1945, the demonology of the Jew had fused with Islamist and Arab nationalist attacks on the legitimacy of Zionism. These were led by rabidly antisemitic demagogues such as the notorious Palestinian leader and Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin El Husseini. Today, anti-Zionism has escalated, resurrecting on a collective level and within the international arena the same discriminatory principles of traditional antisemitism that historically branded the Jews an alien element in European Christian society. It is also worth recalling that before and after legal emancipation in the nineteenth century, Jews in Europe had been vilified by antisemites as “Oriental” or “semi-Asiatic” hybrids in Western culture. They were deemed to be culturally and biologically unassimilable. There is a parallel in the present-day Middle East, where Zionists are also invariably depicted by Arabs as intruders who cannot be absorbed into the dominant framework of the Muslim Middle East. The Jews, having achieved their national emancipation through Israel and the Zionist movement, find themselves labeled “European” colonialist interlopers, despite the fact that at least half of the Israeli population has its origins in the Middle East, and is historically more “indigenous” to the Levant (including Palestine) and the Maghreb than the conquering Arabs who only swept into the region from the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century CE.

This fact has not prevented the prevailing myth—that Zionism, unlike Arab nationalism, is an alien import to the Middle East, the essence of which is “racist” and intrinsically anti-Arab—from gaining traction. Zionism, historically speaking, has in fact shown little interest in race as a factor in shaping the character and ethos of Israeli society. In contrast to typically “white” colonial societies such as the United States, South Africa, Rhodesia, Argentina, Australia, or New Zealand, neither race nor color was of much importance in Israel as an indicator of social or political status, nor was there any need to use race as a legitimizing ideology—as in the American Deep South—to exploit imported slave labor. On the contrary, many modern Zionist pioneers came from Eastern Europe to Palestine in order to create their own working class. They were rarely, if ever, attracted to mystical doctrines of race purity (a typically antisemitic obsession) and they certainly did not believe in a hierarchy of “superior” and “inferior” races. Such doctrines presuppose acceptance of immutable hereditary differences between distinct races or the belief in virtues of the “blood.” They have always been alien to Judaism and mainstream Zionism—despite the countless distorted and manipulative antisemitic claims to the contrary.

Far from being based on “race,” the Zionist movement arose in part as a political answer to the racist, nationalist, and religious antisemitism created by deeply reactionary forces in European and Middle Eastern societies. European racist antisemitism in particular was a major force in pushing Jews to seek their own path toward auto-emancipation. It was the decisive factor in bringing more acculturated secular Jews such as Pinsker, Herzl, and Nordau to Zionism. Their search for a cure to antisemitism could also build on much older Biblical visions of redemption that linked all Zionist groups—secular and religious—to the Land of Israel.

Fifty years after its foundation, political Zionism itself underwent a further metamorphosis. In the 1940s, it became the first successful anti-colonial liberation struggle against the British Empire in the Middle East. It was Great Britain’s betrayal of the Balfour Declaration and its intransigent refusal to allow Holocaust survivors to settle in the Jewish National Home after 1945 that sparked the armed Jewish revolt. Indeed, by 1945, Zionism had emerged as one of the pioneers of post-war decolonization and the liberation of oppressed peoples in the Third World. Moreover, its emerging acceptance as the dominant ideology in Jewish life after 1945 was far from accidental. Zionism reflected the grim reality of the post-Shoah Jewish condition. In 1945, Jews were truly a homeless nation in Europe—the continent that had become a huge graveyard for the Jewish people. Moreover, across the Mediterranean Sea, there were nearly a million Middle Eastern Jews on the point of being ejected from an increasingly inhospitable Arab world. Not only the contemporary anti-Zionist left but many liberals today ignore these crucial facts. They have become deaf to the long history of anti-Jewish persecution and appear to be suffering from a severe case of intellectual Alzheimer’s disease in their portrayal of the origins and development of Zionism.

In this context, Fidel Castro’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic Monthly, only a few years ago, is revealing. The aging former dictator sharply criticized then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran for denying the Holocaust and advised him (and others of his ilk) to acknowledge the “unique history of anti-Semitism” if they wished to serve the cause of peace. “The Iranian government,” according to Castro, should understand “the consequences of 2,000 years of theological antisemitism…Israelis had ample reason to fear for their existence.” Castro added:

I don’t think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews. I would say they have been slandered much more than the Muslims because they are blamed and slandered for everything. No one blames the Muslims for anything.

Castro went on to remind people that the Jews “were expelled from their land, persecuted and mistreated all over the world as the ones who killed God.” Their existence had been made much harder than that of others yet “their culture and religion kept them together as a nation.” There was nothing in the annals of human suffering, Castro insisted, that was comparable to the Holocaust. He also emphasized that Israel had an unequivocal right to exist.

Castro, a long-time ally of Yasir Arafat and the Communist world, surprised many with these words of rebuke. Yet forty years earlier, he had already criticized the PLO for failing to distinguish between revolution and genocide. In fact, Fatah had constantly stressed its own commitment to destroying Israel. For example, Yasir Arafat, on December 16, 1980, bluntly declared in Caracas:

We shall never stop until we can go back home and Israel is destroyed … The goal of our struggle is the end of Israel, and there can be no compromises or mediations. We do not want peace; we want victory. Peace for us means Israel’s destruction, and nothing else.

Such Fatah declarations were commonplace, but they did not disturb the sleep of left-wing or Western “humanist” intellectuals then nor do they today. The anti-Zionist left never had any problem with the demonization of Zionism, with the libeling of Israel as a state that engages in ethnic cleansing, or with the threats to wipe out the Jewish state leveled by the Ayatollahs in Tehran or other Islamist radicals. Much the same can be said of the contemporary “liberal” mainstream in the West, including many prominent intellectuals who ridicule any concern with antisemitism as mere “scaremongering” or playing the so-called “Zionist card.”

Already in its 1974 National Covenant, Arafat’s Fatah movement and the PLO as a whole had proclaimed the elimination of the “racist” State of Israel as its central aim. Article 22 of the Palestinian Covenant denounced Zionism as “a racist and fanatical movement in its formation [and] aggressive, expansionist, and colonialist in its aims, and Fascist and Nazi in its means.” Article 20 made it plain that Israel was to be viewed as a non-nation and that Jewish nationalism had always been a false, artificial, and reactionary phenomenon. Echoing well-entrenched anti-Zionist dogmas, it claimed that “Judaism, in its character as a religion, is not a nationality with an independent existence.”

There is no doubt that the PLO ultimately envisaged transforming Israel into an Arab Palestine in which Islam would be the dominant faith and only Palestinian Arabs would possess national rights. It is clearly stated in Article 1 of the Palestinian National Covenant that “Palestine is the homeland of the Palestinian Arab people and an integral part of the great Arab homeland, and the people of Palestine is a part of the Arab nation.” This exclusivist nationalist vision of Fatah and the PLO has never been definitively repudiated. Such inconvenient facts are systematically ignored by liberal and Western leftist commentators who persist in presenting Palestinian nationalism as a “progressive” resistance movement genuinely pursuing a “two-state solution” to the question of Palestine.

This sleight-of-hand is all the more striking given the total rejection of any Jewish right to national self-determination in Israel exemplified by the Palestinian Hamas. The intransigent “anti-Zionism” of this powerful Islamic “resistance” movement is explicit in the 1988 Sacred Covenant of Hamas—which is a thoroughly antisemitic as well as a jihadi fundamentalist document. Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot of the viscerally anti-Jewish Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, has been imbued from its very birth with a thoroughly toxic ideology of Jew-hatred based on the paranoid conspiracy theories contained in the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Although the Western left does not endorse the Protocols, it has fervently embraced a softer version that depicts Israel as a major symbol of the evils of world imperialism. The radical anti-Zionist left, in particular, often portrays Israel as the product of a diabolical criminal conspiracy whose dimensions are global. The antisemitic narrative of Hamas has been given a halo of respectability by those Western intellectuals who continue to pillory Israel in the name of their own highly selective human rights credo. Even a cursory familiarity with the PA’s record of refusing to tolerate or respect the right of political dissent, or Hamas’s cruel repression of religious minorities, women, gay persons, or non-Muslims in general, should have sufficed to expose the hollow nature of such human rights rhetoric.

At the core of the anti-Zionist world-view espoused by Islamists, leftists, and many misguided Western liberals is a seriously distorted perception of Israel as the last Western colonialist project. Among the more glaring blind spots is the willful refusal to face the reality of the “ethnic cleansing” of Jews from Arab lands in the Middle East after 1945. At the end of World War II, there were almost a million Jews in Muslim countries, many of them concentrated in North Africa. As a result of Arab persecution, pogroms, and harassment, a majority of these Middle Eastern Jews were driven from their homes and sought refuge in the newly created State of Israel. There, they were finally able to enjoy full political rights and the prospect of socioeconomic mobility for the first time as a collective. For many centuries, the so-called “Oriental” Jews from Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran had been deeply rooted in the Middle East, where Jewish settlements had long predated the advent of Arab invaders from the desert. Exactly the same was true of the Land of Israel. This fact, too, has been deliberately suppressed or marginalized by left-wing and pro-Palestinian ideologues who continuously stigmatize Zionism as a Western pro-imperialist movement. It enables Palestinians and their allies to perversely misrepresent Israel as an “alien body” in the Middle East—a claim that itself reeks of antisemitism. At the same time, the Western left remains stunningly indifferent to the endemic intolerance of Sunni Muslim Arab majorities, not only to Jews but also toward Middle Eastern Christians, Shi’a Muslims, Kurds, Yazidis, Bahais, and other minorities. Indeed, the “Christian” West as a whole has little interest, it would appear, in the genocide perpetrated before our eyes by Islamists against the most ancient Christian communities of Iraq, Syria, and the Levant. The barbaric atrocities of ISIL (Islamic State) in crucifying, beheading, and executing “infidels” (including fellow Muslims) is by no means exceptional in the bloodstained history of Islam. Yet it arouses minimal indignation or protest in comparison with the imaginary “crimes of Israel.”

Despite the evidence, there are still many observers and critics who refuse to believe the reality of the antisemitic passion within the left. In truth, it has existed ever since the birth of European socialism in the 1830s and ’40s. But its revival has been accelerated by the centrifugal processes that followed the collapse of Soviet Communism after 1989. A revamped, if grossly distorted, ideology of human rights, transnational “progressivism,” post-national cosmopolitanism, and identity politics stepped into the vacuum left by the “bankruptcy of Marxism.” Anti-Americanism together with anti-globalization (sentiments also shared by much of the far right) coalesced with anti-Zionism to generate a morally relativist and even nihilist version of leftism in the West, viscerally hostile to dealing pragmatically with the world as it is. Contemporary left-wing anti-Zionism still clings to the deeply tainted and terrorist cause of Palestine, turning it into a highly emotionalized substitute for the failed “fight for socialism.” This pro-Palestinian indignation is almost entirely disconnected from class struggle, social solidarity, or any large-scale project of universal human liberation. In its place has come an increasingly mindless and insipid repetition of inflammatory and thoroughly mendacious allegations about Israeli “war crimes,” serial Israeli “human rights violations,” and the callous infringement of international law by the Jewish State. As propaganda and political warfare, this has proven to be rather effective, though it has achieved nothing constructive for the Palestinians. The net result has simply been to widen what was already a deep gulf between Israelis and Palestinians into a yawning abyss of antagonism and hatred, which will not be easily overcome.

The anti-Zionist left has consistently refused to face the reality of Palestinian rejectionism in its dogmatic picture of the Middle East conflict. This is a sure symptom of intellectual dishonesty. In its world-view, anti-Zionism has become the magnet for the free-floating Marxist debris scattered to the winds by the collapse of Soviet Communism in 1991. It is no accident that the confused ideology of the contemporary “post-colonial” left is vulnerable to antisemitism since it no longer has any anchor in the concrete, material realities or the geopolitical, security, and cultural contexts of the Middle East. Its vision of peace in the Middle East is invariably one “without Israel,” taking the kind of liquidationist position long espoused by Iran, Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Fatah, and now ISIL. Hence, it should be no surprise that so many left-wing demonstrators in the West during the summer of 2014 displayed such enthusiasm and solidarity with the Palestinian Islamists of Hamas. The ideological gulf between Islam and Western secularism, jihad and class-war, and Muslim misogyny and Western feminism has vanished into thin air—replaced by the irresistible seduction of “revolutionary solidarity” against a mythical Israeli “genocide.” Fashionable slogans like “Free Gaza” seamlessly merge into cries of “Allahu Akhbar” [God is Great] and “Hitler was right” in the streets of London, Paris, Berlin, Malmö, Sydney, Boston, and many other Western cities. “Death to the Jews” is no longer a rallying cry that lies beyond the pale.

The negative symbolization of Israel and the Jews in this abject discourse is not, of course, confined to the left. False analogies, misleading amalgams, and Orwellian doublespeak long ago replaced intellectual integrity or reasoned thought in the anti-Zionist camp—transcending older political divides. This is as true of liberals, conservatives, or proto-fascists as it is of leftists. The relentless efforts over the last forty years to equate Zionism with racism, colonialism, ethnic cleansing, apartheid, or Nazism are indeed among the more pathological symptoms of a universal pollution of contemporary political vocabulary. It is, however, the “anti-racist” pretensions of the anti-Zionist left that make their specific betrayal of socialist values particularly repugnant and shameful.