In Defense of Zionism I: A Crash Course in History
Pre-Post Warning: This is a controversial subject which has very vocal supporters on both sides of the issue. Please keep it civil. I will not tolerate any Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, or Islamophobia in the comment section and will delete posts that support either view.
Israel and Zionism have been in the news again recently as they are want to from time to time and often in a very heated manner. The Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement is spreading through universities with varying degrees of success and often a lot of heat. My own alma mater is sending out very judiciously worded e-mails about the spirit of debate and being able to disagree without letting emotions fly. I am assuming they are doing so because of complaints from parents and alumni. Campus university groups frequently use methods of expressing their political positions and this can lead to very fraught tensions. I did not attend NYU but there was a Palestinian-Israeli open conversation at Vassar when I was an undergrad in the early aughts. I remember a lot of screaming and not much in terms of productive conversation.
College is a safe place to express highly charged politics but the fight over Israel and Zionism happens in more places than the campus quad. France cannot seemingly control a reverse Seig Heil developed by a holocaust denying French-Cameroonian comedian. American Jews are being told that they need to choose between Note most American Jews are overwhelmingly supportive of the Democratic Party in elections despite the omnipresence and screams of Sheldon Adelson and Jennifer Rubin. Every four years, the media wonder is Jews will finally flip for the Republicans and the answer is always no.
It is a tough time in some areas to be a supporter of the Jewish State but I still think Zionism is a worthy and necessary cause despite its flaws and that the only true way forward for a peace in the Middle East that will probably always be fraught with tension.
Zionism like all other political movements is a product of a particular time period and a particular series of events.
A Brief Overlook of Jewish-European History
Jewish History in Christian Europe is largely one of fear, torture, exclusion, and isolation. The original ghetto was the section of Venice where Jews were compelled to live. The idea quickly spread. The Jews of Frankfurt lived in the Judengasse, the entrance to this ghetto was decorated with graffiti of Jews sucking the tit of a sow according to Gavin Weightman in the Industrial Revolutionaries.
Jews were emancipated during the Enlightenment by Napoleon during the course of his conquest of Europe but Napoleon’s defeat led to the reestablishment of the old laws to varying degrees. Pope Pius VII restored ghettos and identifying clothing for Jews in the Papal States after the
The question of 19th century Europe was whether Jews could be free and productive members of society with full civil rights while retaining their Jewish identity. The Enlightenment suggested that the answer was yes and gave birth to Reform Judaism. The United States government also supposed the answer was yes with the First Amendment (though the history of Jews in the 19th century United States is complicated from a practical standpoint.) Revolutionaries on the left thought that the answer was no and encouraged everyone including Christians to give up their religious identities. This is addressed in On the Jewish Question by Karl Marx. The right-wing of Europe was even more drastic as used language that has reappeared in White Supremacism again and again. The right-wing of Europe argued that Jews were an alien other that could never fully assimilate into European society. The term anti-Semitism was coined by the German writer Wilhelm Marr. Marr wrote that Germanism and Judaism were completely incompatible with each other in his work The Triumph of Germanism over Judaism. The only way this perpetual conflict would end is with the total victory of one tribe and the total defeat of another. Marr renounced and sought forgiveness for his bigotry at the end of his life according to Moshe Zimmerman’s biography of the man (Wilhelm Marr: The Patriarch of Anti-Semitism, Oxford University Press, 1987, pp.103, 135) but the danger of an idea is that it can never be contained once released into the market.
This was the environment of the European Jew in the 19th century. It is what caused many to flee to the United States despite anti-Semitism in this country and dire living conditions in city tenements and poverty wages in sweat shops. This was the environment that gave birth to proto-Zionist works like Leo Pinsker’s Auto-Emancipation which argued that Jews would not be equal to Europeans until they had a state of their own. Note that Pinsker also bought into the idea that Jews were a separate country and could not reconcile living in Europe as equals.
The Dreyfus Affair and Der Judenstaat
Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish graduate of the exclusive Ecole Polytechnique and a captain in the French Army. In 1894, he was accused of spying for Germany and sentenced to life imprisonment and exile at Devil’s Island. The general consensus was that Dreyfus was guilty but the real culprit was uncovered in 1896 as Major Esterhazy. The French General Staff refused to review the Dreyfus conviction and the the cause erupted over Europe. France and Europe was bitterly divided between the Dreyfusards and Anti-Dreyfusards. Dreyfus was not fully cleared until 1906.
Theodor Herzl was a largely assimilated, Christmas-celebrating Hungarian Journalist who was radicalized by the Dreyfus trial. Herzl wrote his famous pamphlet Der Judenstaat which took a similar line to Pinsker’s Auto-Emancipation. The Jews of Europe will always be viewed as an other and distrusted, the Jews needed their own state to be fully free. It is important to note that Herzl opposed settlement in Ottoman controlled Palestine without sanction from the Ottoman Empire.
This is the environment of 19th century Europe that caused leading Jewish thinkers to develop the Zionist movement and fight for the reestablishment of a Jewish homeland. They knew from first hand experience that they would never be totally welcome in Europe and that the United States could not and would not accept all European Jews. Neither would British controlled Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The history of Zionism can often parallel the pan-Africanism of early black leaders like Marcus Garvey. Assimilation and total acceptance were impossible, what is needed is a homeland where Jews or blacks could govern themselves. I think one of the problems facing Zionism currently is that a lot of the history of 19th Century European-Jews is largely forgotten. Jews from my grandparents and parents generation can recall direct anti-Semitism in their daily lives. Richard Feynman wrote about how the quota system kept him out of Columbia and this quota system lasted until the 1960s. William Buckley still went into a fully seething rant when the Ivy League began dismantling the quota system that barred many Jews from entry. I think that for many Americans born after 1960, Jews appear to be safe, secure, prosperous and potentially fully assimilated into whiteness. In the United States, that might be true to varying degrees and depending on parts of the country. There are still people who believe in the old .
My own experiences with anti-Semitism have been relatively minor and I wonder if that was just the luck of geography. A woman from Missouri asked “Where is your small hat?” referring to a Yarmulke when she found out I was Jewish and this is largely harmless as questions go. A guy who used to patron my coffeeshop did make occasional slips about the Rothschilds despite the fact that he admitted friends and associates called him out on said comments.
Post-WWII America was not the world that created Zionism though and a movement can only be understood by the world that created it and the experiences of the proponents of the movement. I don’t know if understanding the history of 19th century Europe will make people more understanding towards Zionism but it could not hurt.
The next essay will cover the early Zionist conferences, WWI, the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Balfour Declaration. For people interested in further reading, I recommend For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus by Frederic Brown and A People Apart: The Jews in Europe from 1789-1939.