The Anti-Semitic Roots of Zionism
Have you noticed how many anti-Semitic right wingers seem to love Israel? Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute, a white supremacist think tank, calls himself a White Zionist. Marcus Pretzell of the far-right Alternative for Germany has stated that Israel should be “seen as a role model when it comes to dealing with political Islam.” Donald Trump heads the most pro-Israel government in US history while dogwhistling anti-Jewish slurs at opponents like Adam Schiff.
Israeli leaders have returned the love, inviting far-right politicians like Geert Wilders of Holland and Heinz Christian Strache of Austria to visit the Israeli Knesset. According to the Israel Public Policy Institute, Prime Minister Netanyahu also has good relations with the Polish party Law and Justice and with Viktor Orban’s ruling party in Hungary, despite their history of anti-Semitism and the presence of openly anti-Semitic politicians in their ranks.
So, why do so many who express antipathy toward Jews endorse the self-proclaimed Jewish State? This apparently contradictory behavior makes perfect sense when you consider that Israel’s founding ideology and practice are themselves deeply anti-Semitic. While screaming “anti-Semite” at anyone who criticizes them and accusing anti-Zionist Jews of self-hatred, Israel’s founders, leaders and backers have long displayed an internalized anti-Semitic loathing for 1800 years of Jewish experience. Zionist leaders from the 19th Century on quite openly joined with European anti-Semites in disparaging oppressed Jews, their intellectualism and their clinging to tradition.
Zionist founder Theodore Herzl wrote in his book Der Judenstaat, that it “was Jews, not their Christian enemies, who cause anti-Semitism” and that “where it does not exist, [anti-Semitism] is carried by Jews in the course of their migrations.” According to Columbia University professor Joseph Massad, Herzl agreed with European anti-Semites that “Jews were a nation that should leave Europe to restore their nationhood in Palestine or Argentina; that Jews must emulate European Christians culturally and abandon their living languages and traditions.”
These ideas had some historical basis. After the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 CE, Jews developed a survival strategy of living as good citizens in other people’s countries while retaining their own religion and culture. Instructions for maintaining traditions and making a living while “living abroad” in diaspora are given in the Talmud and follow-on texts. Following them, Jews achieved material success and helped build many countries including medieval Spain and modern Germany.
But those successes were almost invariably followed by expulsions or murderous pogroms. Why? Original causes included vicious religious rivalry with Christians. But with the rise of European nation-states, anti-Semitism developed as a racist hatred of non-White outsiders who refused to assimilate. Jews were succeeding through education, trade, banking, and performing arts, all of which involved working with people of different backgrounds, promoting movement of people, goods and ideas. As nation-states became dominant in 18th Century Europe, self-identified anti-Semites started to condemn Jews for their liberalism, internationalism and alleged rootlessness, which Josef Stalin called “rootless cosmopolitanism.” As Massad wrote, “Anti-Semites argued that Jews did not fit in the new national configurations, and disrupted national and racial purity essential to most European nationalisms.”
Founding Zionists concluded that living as permanent outsiders could never work. Jews needed to be a nation with their own land and their own army. But 19th Century Jews lacked both territory and the means to get it. Zionists solved this problem by allying with people who hated them and wanted them gone.
Herzl wrote in his Diaries that, “The anti-Semites will become our most dependable friends, the anti-Semitic countries our allies.” According to British investigative journalist Asa Winstanley, for the next 70 years, Zionists collaborated with anti-Semites to worsen conditions for European Jews. When Nazis passed the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, stripping Jews of German citizenship, the Zionist Federation of Germany was the only Jewish group that supported them.
Herzl’s prediction of support from anti-Semitic imperialists turned out prophetic. Lord Arthur Balfour, whose “Balfour Declaration” promised most of Palestine for a Jewish homeland, was an extreme white supremacist and a noted anti-Semite. When Russian Jews desperate to escape pogroms fled to England in the early 1900s, then prime minister Balfour pushed through the Aliens Act, which restricted Jewish immigration. He spoke often about the incompatibility of England’s living with a large number of Jews in their midst. He preferred to send the problem to Palestine, and is now celebrated as a reluctant hero in Zionist circles.
On one important level, Zionism has worked. Jews now have a small but powerful national home, feared by the rest of the world and backed by the #1 imperial power. This has been accomplished through what Professor Massad called “Zionism’s anti-Semitic program of assimilating Jews into whiteness in a colonial settler state.” The price has been steep. Zionism has rejected 1800 years of Jewish cultural achievement and basic values such as diversity and equality that anti-Semites condemned as “cosmopolitan.” I very much doubt Zionism will give the world sciences like psychology and sociology, an Einstein or a Hannah Arendt; they’re too busy killing and otherizing Muslims.
In fairness to Zionists, those ‘Semitic’ ‘cosmopolitan’ values can get you killed. Robert Bowers, who massacred 11 Jews at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, hated the victims because they supported immigrants. As he posted on social media, they “bring in invaders who kill our people.” Killers like Bowers are not attacking Jewish religion or culture; they oppose universalist ideas that encourage immigration and integration and oppose ethnocentrism and nationalism. They call these hated changes ‘Judaization.’ Meanwhile, Israel itself is a world leader in ethno-nationalism, inspiring far right governments in India, Brazil, Europe, and other countries including the US.
Now, White nationalists hotly debate the question of whether Jews are White allies or despised Semitic enemies. Zionist Stephen Miller, Trump’s anti-immigration czar calls the President’s critics “cosmopolitans.” Islamophobia has become the new anti-Semitism. Israeli leaders openly call for ethnic cleansing or genocide of Palestinians, with wide support from Israeli citizens.
On which side of this divide do Jews want to stand? I can’t blame Zionists for wanting to be the killers rather than the victims. But having embraced Whiteness, abandoned their Semitic identity and joined the oppressors, they cannot claim their opponents are anti-Semitic. They should point that finger at themselves.