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Zionism 101: History, Theory, & Practice
Clearing up misconceptions about Zionism and explaining how it created the ongoing violence in Israel-Palestine
Hey folks! While most of my articles are about 1,000 words, this one is much longer. I’ve wanted to write about Zionism for a while, and it just can’t be done with justice with a short essay. So, if you need to read this in chunks, please do. While it is extensive, this is a very important topic that must be understood to gain an accurate understanding of the current violence in Israel-Palestine. I encourage you to read it in its entirety, even if you have to break it up bit by bit.
In Solidarity, Joe
As the global eye lingers on the ongoing violence in Israel-Palestine, a larger discourse has arisen about Israel’s existence and role in the modern world. As a result, the term “Zionism” has been reintroduced to the mainstream, bringing with it a slew of misconceptions and falsehoods that stand between the typical news observer and an accurate understanding of the conflict.
As it is in the headlines almost every day, many are just becoming familiar with the history of Israel. Specifically for Americans, it can be difficult to get an objective view of the Israeli project, as we’ve been subjected to almost a century of pro-Zionist propaganda. To help clear the fog on the term Zionism and explain how it has culminated in the ongoing attack on Gaza, here is a top-to-bottom history of Zionism, its goals, architects, and ramifications upon the modern Middle East.
Zionism Is Not Judaism
Before diving into its history, it’s crucial to clarify the biggest misconception about Zionism. Zionism is not the same as Judaism. Judaism is a religion, a culture, and as some argue, an ethnicity. Zionism is none of these things. It is a political project that seeks to build an ethnostate for the Jewish people. These may sound similar, but they are very different. Judaism is an identity. Zionism is politics. There are Jews who are not Zionists, and there are Zionists who are not Jews. As President Biden said:
“You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist.” (Source, 1:40 mark.)
A good parallel to see the differences between Zionism and Judaism is the modern Christian Nationals movement, which seeks to turn the United States into a theocracy governed by Christian canon. Of course, not every American Christian is a Christian Nationalist. They do not want the nation governed by the Bible but by secular democracy. Much like it would be incorrect to conflate Christianity with Christian Nationalism, it is incorrect to conflate Judaism with Zionism. This is even more true when we look at polling. While six in ten American Christians subscribe to Christian Nationalism, only 45% of American Jews say caring about Israel is “essential to what being Jewish means to them.” This shows that at least 55% of American Jews don’t view Zionism (measured by their fondness for Israel) as an essential part of their Jewish identity.
The nuanced distinction between Judaism and Zionism is key to understanding the conflict in Israel-Palestine, yet it is seldom discussed in mainstream media and the national conversation. That is because many Zionists, both Jews and Christians (Christianity has been integral to the Zionist project, as we’ll cover shortly), purposely blur the difference between Judaism and Zionism to give cover to their political goal of building a Jewish ethnostate. We can see this smoke-and-mirrors strategy employed by pro-Israel politicians and pundits from both major political parties.
The tactic of obfuscating Judaism and Zionism is a favorite of conservative pundit Ben Shapiro, who has long tried to claim that pro-Israel, Orthodox Jews are the only “real” Jews while Jews with different political and religious beliefs are “fake” Jews. Attempting to explain why most American Jews voted for Obama, Shapiro states:
“The vast majority of Jews don’t care about Judaism or Israel. They care about secular leftism… Most Jews aren’t Jewish in any real sense, beyond ethnic identification.”
In this quote, Shapiro is claiming any non-Zionist Jew (“Jews who do not care about Israel”) isn’t a “real Jew,” an attempt to form a purity test link between the identity (Judaism) and his political beliefs (Zionism). Former President Donald Trump recently used the same tactic, albeit more crassly than others. On the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah, Trump “truthed” (I assume that’s what you call it when you post on Truth Social) a graphic telling American Jews who voted against him to “learn from their mistakes” and support him because he is pro-Israel.
Through this warped lens, Hayley, Shapiro, Trump, political action committees like AIPAC, and the many other individuals and groups that make up the Zionist movement have convinced the American public that Zionism is the same thing as Judaism. Wanting to support a historically oppressed group, many people have succumbed to this lie, believing that Israeli imperialism is necessary to protect their Jewish brethren from the epidemic of antisemitism that has followed Jews around the world and throughout time. Not only is this objectively untrue, but it is inherently antisemitic. To preconceive all Jews as holding a certain political belief simply because of their identity is textbook racism, no different than believing all African-Americans vote for the same Presidential candidate.
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The Historical Origins of Zionism
Unlike Judaism, which originated millennia ago, Zionism is relatively modern. Its origins are accredited to Theodor Herzl, a Jewish journalist born in 1860 in the Austrian Empire. Faced with rampant antisemitism and pogroms in Europe, Herzl conceived Zionism on the basis that Jews could never fully assimilate into pre-dominantly Christian culture and would need their own separate society to exist peacefully. (As we’ll cover, the belief that Jews are a “permanent other” in need of segregation is common ground between Zionists and anti-semites, creating a strange alliance between Zionist Jews and those who persecuted them.) In 1896, Herzl published the pamphlet Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) outlining his plans for what would become modern Zionism. Der Judenstaat was an international hit, raising Herzl to prominence. He soon formed the First Zionist Congress and began pitching his idea of a Jewish ethnostate to world leaders.
While it is undoubtable that many members of the First Zionist Congress believed Yahwed (God) had given the land of modern Israel-Palestine to Jews and therefore desired their state to exist there, historic Zionism was not committed to this location. In Der Judenstaat, Herzl offers two plausible locations for his idealized Zionist state: Palestine and Argentina.
“Argentine is one of the most fertile countries in the world, extends over a vast area, has a sparse population and a mild climate. The Argentine Republic would derive considerable profit from the cession of a portion of its territory to us. The present infiltration of Jews has certainly produced some discontent, and it would be necessary to enlighten the Republic on the intrinsic difference of our new movement.”
Herzl also considered modern-day Kenya and Uganda as a potential location. After having his proposal rejected by both the German and Ottoman governments, Herzl pitched Zionism to British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain. An avowed colonialist, Chamberlain loved the plan so much that he introduced “The Uganda Scheme,” a proposal for the United Kingdom to support Jewish immigration to the colony of British East Africa, as it was then called. Though the Uganda Scheme was ultimately rejected by both the Zionist Congress (many were attached to their original locations) and the British public, it formed a link between the Zionist movement and the British Government that eventually brought the Zionist project to fruition.
The Role of the Parent State
Since the beginning of the Zionist project, Zionists have recognized the need for a parent state — a wealthy, predominantly Christian nation that would fund and support the hypothetical Jewish nation. In Der Judenstaat, Herzl wrote:
“We should as a neutral State remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence.”
From the 19th century up until the post-World War II period, this parent state was the United Kingdom. Prior to World War I, the land of modern Israel-Palestine belonged to the Ottoman Empire. However, with the dissolution of the Ottoman caliphate following their defeat in the war, the land was ceded to Britain as the “British Mandate of Palestine.” Ever since Theodore Herzl had worked with the British Government on the Uganda Scheme, British politics had been infatuated with Zionism. This support came from two places.
The first was colonialism. The British thought a Jewish state (especially one that relied on their support) would aid the commercial and militaristic ambitions of the British Empire. While many modern Zionists dispute the idea that Israel is a “colony,” Zionism’s colonial intent is made clear in the writings of both Jewish Zionists and non-Jewish sympathizers.
In Der Judenstaat, when weighing the pros and cons of emigrating to either Palestine or Argentina, Theodore Herzl writes the following in favor of the Zionist state being placed in the Middle East:
“We (Zionists) should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral State remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence. The sanctuaries of Christendom would be safeguarded by assigning to them an extra-territorial status such as is well-known to the law of nations. We should form a guard of honor about these sanctuaries, answering for the fulfillment of this duty with our existence.”
Herzl also refers to the hypothetical Zionist emigres as “colonists” throughout the document, and calls the Zionist project a “colonial task.” Outside of Der Judenstaat, Herzl courted British politicians to support the Zionist project by appealing to their colonial habitats. Appealing for support from a colonial MP, Herzl wrote:
“The idea of Zionism, which is a colonial idea, should be easily and quickly understood in England.”
The link between the need for a parent state and the explicit attempt at colonization is evident in the writings of other Zionist leaders. In 1923, Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky stated:
“Zionist colonisation … can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population—behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach. [… ] Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonised. That is what the Arabs in Palestine are doing, and what they will persist in doing as long as there remains a solitary spark of hope that they will be able to prevent the transformation of ‘Palestine’ into the ‘Land of Israel’.”
British politicians understood the importance of a sympathetic colony. Ronald Storrs, the British Governor of Jerusalem throughout the 1920s, famously referred to a Zionist state as “a little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism,” a reference to the last area of British control in Ireland following the partition of the country in 1922.
In addition to the colonial inspirations of the British Empire, there was another motivation for the support of the Zionist project. Like much of Europe, Britain’s leaders were horrible antisemites. Bigoted towards Jews, these leaders saw Zionism as a win-win. Not only would the creation of a Zionist state gain them an ally in a once-hostile region, but it would remove Jews from their country. In 1917, Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour issued the Balfour Declaration, formally announcing British support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Lord Balfour was himself an espoused antisemite. A decade before issuing the proclamation, Balfour presided over the passage of the Aliens Act of 1905, a law preventing Jewish refugees fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe from finding refuge in Britain. As had happened before and would happen again, the Zionist movement found its strongest support in those who agreed with its central belief that Jews could not assimilate into a gentile country and should live segregated from predominantly Christian populations.
As Britain resigned from the role of parent state following World War II, the United States replaced it, motivated by the same vehement antisemitism and imperialism that had inspired the British backers.
The Formation of Israel
In the lead-up to World War II, the British were stretched thin in the face of Nazi invasion. To quell the potential for revolt in Mandatory Palestine, they issued the 1939 White Paper, which limited Jewish immigration absent consent from governing Palestinian bodies. But as the war ended and the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed to the world, the British did little to uphold the agreement. With pogroms and other antisemitic attacks on the rise in Europe, Jewish immigration to Palestine increased rapidly. It is estimated by 1945, 33% of all residents of Palestine were Jewish.
Following the war, Britain was facing ruin at home and revolt abroad (both Jewish and Palestinian insurgents were fighting against British rule). So, on April 2nd, 1947, the United Kingdom formally asked the United Nations to handle the “Palestine question.” The United Nations put forth Resolution 181, which called for the partition of the land into a “Jewish state and an Arab state,” with Jerusalem being a shared capital. On November 29th, 1947 the resolution passed, and Britain began withdrawing its forces.
On May 14th, 1948, the last British troops departed and the state of Israel was proclaimed. Immediately following the declaration, the Zionist paramilitary forces in the region were organized into the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). It was this group of insurgents-turned-soldiers that then ethnically cleansed native Palestinians from Israel in what is known as the Nakba, or “catastrophe.” Approximately 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes into refugee camps, where their descendants reside today. Thousands more were massacred by Israeli troops, and entire villages were destroyed. Though many modern Zionists deny the Nakba, the atrocities are documented as historical fact. In 2022, an aging IDF veteran came clean to the Israeli Newspaper Haaretz about his role in the massacre of Tantura village, one of many late-life confessions from Nakba perpetrators.
“I was a murderer. I didn’t take prisoners. I didn’t count [how many I killed]. I had a machine gun with 250 bullets. I can’t say how many.” - IDF veteran Amitzur Cohen, admitting his role in the Tantura massacre
Following the Nakba, surrounding Arab nations refused Israel’s existence and attacked, beginning the Arab-Israeli war. The war ended with a 1949 ceasefire establishing the Green Line, Israel’s internationally recognized borders. In 1967, following the Six-Day War, Israel expanded beyond the Green Line and captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights, which it still illegally occupies today.
“The Only Democracy In the Middle East”
In the United States, Israel is often defended as “the only democracy in the Middle East.” By claiming Israel is a democracy, American politicians justify their support for the imperialist state, claiming that its strength is crucial to the espoused project of furthering global democracy. But as the founding principles of Zionism and their manifestation into Israeli law shows, Zionism never intended to create a democracy, only a segregated ethnostate.
We can see the disregard for democracy in the founding texts of Zionism, which scorns “unlimited democracy.” In Der Judenstaat, Herzl calls for the Zionist state to be governed by an “aristocratic republic” in which an elite class rules with the consent of the governed.
“Nations are also really not fit for unlimited democracy at present, and will become less and less fitted for it in the future… Hence, I incline to an aristocratic republic.”
Additionally, it is important to clarify that while there are democratic characteristics outlined in both early Zionist texts and its current manifestation in the Israeli state, voting rights were never intended for all, only for Zionist Jews. As Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote in 1923:
“All sorts of catchwords are used against Zionism; people invoke Democracy, majority rule national self-determination. Which means, that the Arabs being at present the majority in Palestine, have the right of self-determination, and may therefore insist that Palestine must remain an Arab country. Democracy and self-determination are sacred principles, but sacred principles like the Name of the Lord must not be used in vain –to bolster up a swindle, to conceal injustice.”
When taken in conjunction with Zionists’ admission that their project was a colonial one, it is clear that Zionism had no interest in democracy. While it always envisioned a state in which all Jewish men could vote, this is not democracy. Democracy is founded on the belief that all people are equal and that their disputes should be settled through majority rule via the ballot. But this is not how Israel governs itself.
In addition to the millions of Palestinians subjected to occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, millions more live as second-class citizens inside internationally recognized Israel. Israeli residents are classified by two characteristics: their citizenship, and their nationality. While there are many Palestinians who are Israeli citizens, as their nationality is classified as “Arab” (Palestinians) they have fewer rights than Israeli citizens of “Jewish” nationality. (“Druze” is the third nationality recognized in Israel.)
This distinction creates a level of second-class citizenship for “Arabs,” even those who are Israeli citizens. Though they can vote, Arab Israeli citizens face systemic barriers to equality, not too dissimilar from what Black people faced under American Jim Crowe. According to Human Rights Watch, it is much more difficult for Arab citizens to apply for housing and land permits, obtain travel rights, and engage in many other government-enabled activities. Additionally, while Israel’s 1952 Citizenship Law fast-tracks Jews for Israeli citizenship, it requires Palestinians to prove they occupied the land prior to 1948, an impossible task given the displacement Palestinians experienced during the Nakba. There are many other racist laws, such as the 2003 Citizenship and Entry Law that bars Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza from gaining citizenship through marriage.
With different levels of citizenship for its residents, it is impossible for Israel to claim itself to be a democracy. While it has the veneer of democratic values, such as a representative parliament (Knesset) and an elected Prime Minister, much like America could not be considered a democracy until the end of racial segregation, Israel cannot consider itself democratic while upholding a racial apartheid system. And, as evident by the 2018 Nation State Law, which states the nation’s “right to self-determination is unique to the Jewish people,” it is clear the Zionist leaders have no will to create a democracy — only a Jewish ethnostate that uses vaguely democratic systems exclusive to its preferred ethnic group.
In 2023, Zionism has achieved its primary goal of establishing a Jewish ethnostate. But its project is not yet complete. While not every Zionist is a religious fundamentalist, the most fervent ones are. Believing the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea was given to Jews by Yahweh, the Zionist vanguard continues to displace Palestinians who inhabit this land, seeing their presence as an affront to divine will. In the West Bank, this is done through the construction of settlements. Under IDF protection, Palestinian homes are bulldozed to build new ones for Zionist Jews. In some cases, no construction equipment is required. Palestinian families are forcibly evicted for Zionist Jews to move in.
In the Gaza Strip, there has been no attempt at settlements since 2005. Instead of being displaced, Gazans, who are descendants of those expelled from their homes during the Nakba, have been held prisoner in an open-air concentration camp. Water, electricity, medical supplies, and food are restricted to the minimum so the Israeli government can keep the population weakened. And, as made evident by the current genocide of Gaza and the rhetoric coming from senior IDF officials, it is clear that the most ardent Zionists view this as the time to cleanse Gaza of Palestinians, whether they have to be killed or driven into the Sinai desert.
While the genocidal rhetoric coming from Israeli leaders may surprise some, it is in line with what the Zionist movement has been saying for over a century. From its very inception, Zionism was designed as a racist, colonial movement that seeks to build an ethnostate. By definition, this requires members of the non-preferred ethnicity (Palestinians) to be of lower status or excluded altogether. As much as Zionism’s defenders attempt to hide this fact behind the smoke and mirrors of conflating Zionism with antisemitism, calling Israel “the only democracy in the Middle East,” and maligning criticism of Israeli policy as a form of hate, Zionism’s true nature can no longer be whitewashed As social and independent media shows the trauma of Israeli aggression via videos from those trapped in the Gaza Strip, more and more Americans are growing critical of the Zionist project.
So why is it that so many well-meaning people, who would not support race-exclusive governance in any scenario, end up supporting Zionist Israel? As the study of Zionist theory and practice has shown us, it is an inherently nationalist, imperialist, and racist project. While the effects of pro-Zionist propaganda cannot be overstated, it is common for many well-meaning Americans to support Israel on account of the historical mistreatment of Jews. With a desire to end the suffering of a historically oppressed minority, many find themselves lost, supporting the oppressive Zionist state in an attempt to end oppression.
To those who feel the legacy of anti-Jewish hate as a motivating factor in their favor of Israel, I will remind you that two wrongs do not make a right. And neither do a thousand wrongs. The Jewish people have been persecuted for all of history. There is a dire need to protect Jews from anti-semitism, all over the world. But that issue is entirely separate from Zionist colonialism of historic Palestine. Zionists and Jews should not be conflated, just as we shouldn’t confuse secular Christians with Christian Nationalists and peaceful Muslims with Al Qaeda. And here is the ugly truth about Zionism: just as it is actively destroying a Palestinian population, it is actively harming our Jewish brothers and sisters.
It’s no coincidence history’s most ardent Zionists are anti-semites — Lord Balfour, Richard Nixon, Donald Trump. This is because Zionism and anti-semitism share the belief that Jews are a population of “permanent others,” people who cannot assimilate into predominantly-gentile society. This is a notion that I reject with every fiber of my being. Jews, like any other identity group, do not need segregation or apartheid to thrive in modern society. The necessary conditions for Jewish safety and sanity are no different than those required by anyone else — respect, equality, and the inalienable right to be recognized as an individual, not a member of a foreign nation that must be separate from others.
Unfortunately, Zionism does not give this to our Jewish brethren. Just as it strips Palestinians of their human rights, Zionism reduces Jews to an archaic and vile stereotype of an “other,” members of a group that must have an exclusive territory to live separate from the rest of us. But there is no “rest of us.” Jewish, gentile, Black, and White: we are all members of humanity who thrive best in a multi-racial, pluralist, democratic society, with equal rights for all. As Zionism operates contrary to this value, it should follow other pervasive ideologies into the dustbin bin of history. Only then can all residents of Israel-Palestine, regardless of their creed or ethnicity, live in harmony and safety.
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