If I had a hundred rupees for every time I’ve heard the term ‘Zionist’ or ‘Zionist conspiracy’ used in everyday conversation, newspaper articles or political speeches, I’d be a rich man. But despite the term’s widespread use it is bandied about with little understanding of its meaning, origin or implications. In fact, the words ‘Jewish’, ‘Israeli’ and ‘Zionist’ are used interchangeably. Let’s try to clarify this a bit: Judaism is a religion, Israel is a state and Zionism is an ideology. Dr Alan Sabrovsky, a former US marine of Jewish origin describes modern Zionism as a “witches’ brew of xenophobia, racism, ultra-nationalism, and militarism that places it way outside of a “mere” nationalist context.”
The Road To Zion
So when did this so-called witches’ brew first start to get stirred? For that we have to travel back to 19th century Europe, where nationalistic ferment and movements were beginning to gain strength across the continent. Modern Zionism was born in 1896 with the publication of a book titled Der Juddenstaadt (the Jewish state) by an Austro-Hungarian journalist named Theodor Herzl. Herzl, who spoke no Hebrew and had little understanding of Jewish culture, was so removed from the religious aspects of Zionism that he even proposed Argentina and Uganda as proposed sites for the new Jewish homeland, and once even proposed mass conversion to Catholicism as a remedy to European anti-Semitism. His idea of a Jewish state was that of a secular nationalist one. This was the era when the ideas that would ultimately blossom into the ideologies of Nazism and Fascism first took root and it was in this atmosphere that the political movement of Zionism was born. So it’s no surprise that Zionists saw the Jews much as the Nazis later would: as a race, and not simply the followers of a religion. But where Nazis considered Jews to be the lowest form of humanity, Zionists saw them as the best the human race had to offer.
Right at the outset, the concept of racial superiority was ingrained in Zionist ideology; a concept that would later blossom into the full-blown racism that marks Zionism today.
The ‘other’ Zionists
Not all Jews are Zionists, but interestingly, not all Zionists are Jews either. It was the so-called ‘British Zionists’, who were in fact mostly Christian, who actually played the largest role in the creation of the state of Israel, and their motivation ranged from religious prophecy to imperial ambition. Prominent among them was Lord Balfour, author of the infamous Balfour declaration 0f 1917 which laid the official basis of a Jewish state on Palestinian land. The declaration reads: ‘His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object’. Ironically, a provision for safeguarding the native Arab population was added by an anti-Zionist Jew named Edwin Montagu. Even today, apart from the Jewish diaspora, a large part of the political support for Israel in America comes from the mostly Protestant, ultra-conservative Christian Zionists, who see the establishment of the state of Israel and the rebuilding of the temple of Solomon as a prerequisite to the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. The movement, according to former US ambassador William Dale, “is helping to produce a political juggernaut of such strength that it, together with Jewish organizations, has elevated the US policy of support for Israel almost above public discussion.”
Rise of the Rabbis
While religious Jews initially opposed Zionist plans, they gradually began to gain more power in the state of Israel, giving birth to the religious Zionist movement which mixes the racism of Zionism with the belief that it is God’s will that Jews occupy all the lands of Biblical Israel.
Today, religious Zionists are in ascendance in the state of Israel, using their vote-banks to propel the extreme-right parties into power. Another trend is the rise of orthodox Jews in the Israeli army. According to an ABC news report, between 40 to 50 per cent of front-line units now comprise Orthodox Jews, who only make up a quarter of the Israeli population. The increase is not without consequences, and an Israeli watchdog group composed of former soldiers warned that army rabbis painted the 2009 Gaza attack as a religious war in which the killing of civilians was justified. Israeli political scientist Yagil Levy has even written of the generals possibly “losing control” over troops for whom spiritual leaders and ideology may outrank military hierarchy.
When it comes to the settlements, it is religious Zionists that are at the forefront, with nationalism no longer enough of a driving force for settlers to endure less than ideal living conditions. While successive Israeli governments have cynically used religious sentiments to push settlements, the attempt has also backfired several times. A case in point is when religious settlers refused to evacuate settlements in Gaza. More ominously, an army unit comprised of orthodox Jews also refused to evict the settlers and was disbanded. But for all their differences, religious and secular Zionists are united in the fact that neither have any place for the Palestinians in their respective visions.
Opposing the tide
Interestingly, while today’s Zionists are a mix of religious fundamentalists and secular-nationalists, so are those opposing Israel. Ultra-orthodox groups like Neturei Karta consider the state of Israel to be against Judaic teachings and have relentlessly campaigned against it. Another Jewish group called ‘Not In Our Name’ opposes Israel’s claim to speak for all Jews and condemns the fascism and racism of Zionists.
Finally, just as we condemn attempts to depict all Muslims as terrorists, we should also take care not to paint all Jews, or even all Israelis, as Zionists. To do so only plays into the hands of those who claim to be representatives of an entire religion, and not just the spokespeople for a dangerously racist ideology.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, February 6th, 2011.