The passing of Israel’s Nation-State Law last year rekindled age-old questions about Zionism and Jewish self-determination. To unpack these issues, I sat with Professor Joseph Massad who was in London to give a keynote speech on “Israel’s fear of democracy” at a MEMO conference in the capital.
“Zionism,” he told me, “has never been a movement of self-determination. It never claimed to be. This is a new claim that began to be put forth sometime in the 60s and 70s. However, in that period, the claim was not for Jewish self-determination but something called Israeli self-determination.”
These important distinctions and the significance of what he was suggesting became clear in the course of our discussion which honed in on many of the common propaganda tropes peddled to justify the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
Joseph Massad is Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University. He offered a lengthy explanation for why the “self-determination” claim is problematic. His remarks also debunked many of the false assertions that have washed up in the current political climate, the most significant of which is the determination of pro-Israel groups to conflate Israel and Zionism with Jews and Judaism. Proponents of the Zionist state have of late pushed the narrative that its founding ideology is merely Jewish self-determination and, the argument goes, if you oppose Zionism you are in fact denying Jews a basic right that’s granted to all other nations and you are, therefore, being anti-Semitic. The sole purpose of this novel formulation seems to be to suppress criticism of Israel and Zionism, an ideology whose similarity with settler colonialism is far greater than its alleged connection to anything resembling a modern liberal democracy.
Zionism always defined itself as a settler-colonial movement
“Zionism is first and foremost a settler colonial movement; this is not a national movement, for example, by native populations that were trying to liberate their country from colonial forces,” explained Massad in tracing the history of the ideology. “This is a movement by European settler-colonial who wanted to take over someone else’s country and create a settler colony.” He explained that the founders of Zionism never shied away from admitting that the project they envisaged was a settler-colonial movement and not one for national self-determination, as we are constantly led to believe. “This is not just what the enemies of Zionism have said; this is what Zionists themselves have said.” He cited the father of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, who spoke openly about colonisation in his writings.
Unlike the current proponents of the State of Israel, Herzl felt no obligation to conceal the true nature of his project through “double speak” and pretences. Zionist organisations founded by Herzl, for example, named themselves “colonisation associations”, such as the “Jewish Colonisation Association” and “The Palestine Jewish Colonisation Association” which is also known by its Yiddish acronym PICA. Nor was there any attempt to disguise the true goal of Zionism when its leaders named the “The Jewish Colonial Trust” which was founded in 1899. The organisation helped fund Jewish settlers in Palestine. All were Zionist institutions that used the word colonial and its derivatives to explain that their project was indeed intended to establish a Jewish colony.
Jewish opposition to Zionism
Massad pointed out that from the 1890s to the 1940s the majority of world Jewry opposed Zionism and refused to endorse it. “Zionism,” he told me, “was a minority Jewish position by a minority of Jews.”
He mentioned the lead-up to the first Zionist Congress in Basle to illustrate Jewish opposition to Zionism. In 1897, when Herzl decided to convene the meeting in Munich, the orthodox and reform rabbis in the city got together and blocked it, because they viewed it as an anti-Jewish gathering. Their opposition to Zionism forced Herzl to move the Congress to Basle in Switzerland.
Zionist discourse evolves from settler colonialism to liberation
Prof. Massad described the evolution of the Zionist discourse which, he noted, mutated according to historical context. After 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Zionists began to throw out the language of settler-colonialism and started to use the terminology of “national liberation”. He explained that Zionists saw an opportunity and wanted to capitalise on the rise of national self-determination groups across the world, which was characteristic of the time. “Indeed, by the 1940s they [Zionists] realised that using the world colonial and colonising in their own literature was becoming offensive because colonialism was no longer fashionable in the age of anti-colonial movements. They immediately adopted a strategy of purging from these programmes the names of agencies that mentioned colonisation and adopted the terms of national liberation groups.”
Why then, adopt legislation like the Nation-State Law which has been denounced widely as an apartheid law? Massad said that two important things happened: In 1947/8 the Zionist colonial movement was able to expel 90 per cent of the indigenous Palestinian population and declare a state of Israel. This artificial construction of a Jewish majority enabled the settler-colonialists, who had suddenly become a majority, to speak of Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state. He emphasised the fact that only after Israel had expelled the vast majority of Palestinians did it adopt democratic procedures. At the same time, Israel was concerned about the small number of Palestinians it had failed to expel. In order to deal with their presence, lawmakers adopted a battery of racist laws to ensure that the Palestinian citizens of Israel would not be in a position to threaten Jewish and colonial privileges.
Massad believes that the Nation-State Law was adopted to address a key question that had faced every Israeli leader: how could they annex and colonise more land without the indigenous non-Jewish population? The current international atmosphere is not conducive to allowing Israel to expel Palestinians en masse, as it had done previously. The solution for Israel, he believes, is to drop its pretence of democracy and invoke the notion of Jewish self-determination. “By doing this you no longer need the question of demography; it doesn’t matter if you’re a majority or a minority. This way you can be 10 per cent of the population and still claim an exclusive right to Jewish self-determination in the so-called land of Israel.” The new law enables Israel to discriminate openly against all non-Jews even if the latter form the majority because Israel’s leaders are no longer concerned about the question of democracy. Israel, Massad insists, has dropped this pretence of being a democracy and found this “formula for coming out as a racist state.”
Can liberal Zionists maintain their support for an apartheid state of Israel?
I asked Prof. Massad what this means for liberal Zionists, especially now that Israel has crossed a moral and political red line unthinkable to progressive Jews worldwide by adopting the Nation-State Law. Was there ever any hope that Israel and Zionism could be rescued from their exclusivist impulses in the way liberal Zionists hoped?
“Yes,” he answered without hesitation. “If they had killed all the Palestinians or expelled them all then it might have become a liberal democratic state [but] for Jews only.” He admitted that he did not believe that Zionism had historically sought any kind of accommodation with the Palestinians. Israel was always, he insisted, “an exclusivist racist state” from the very beginning. “Indeed that is always what Zionism had planned in all its documents. Its founding fathers spoke about how to expel the population, and the conditions that were needed to ‘transfer’ the population.”
Population transfer: a “cosmetic” term to conceal ethnic cleansing
The conversation shifted to the term “population transfer”. Tracing its usage, Massad said that “transfer” was merely “cosmetic”, a euphemism that Zionists had always used to describe the expulsion of the Palestinian population. Plans for this were adopted in the 1920s and 1930s, not least by the head of the World Zionist Organisation, Chaim Weizmann. Prior to becoming Israel’s first President, he had hatched several plans to expel the Palestinians. According to Massad, Weizmann wanted to expel a million Palestinians to Iraq and replace them with 5 million Jews.
These plans are said to have been debated and planned openly. The Zionist movement in Palestine from the 1930s onwards, for example, set up groups called “Transfer Committees” to expel Palestinians from the country by force. “So it is not as though it [Zionism] sought to live with the Palestinians in a democratic state,” Massad insisted. “It always sought to expel them.” With policies that openly advocated ethnic cleansing, he accused liberal Zionists who try to defend the country as a liberal democratic state of being extremely hypocritical. He pointed out that apartheid laws have been in force in Israel since 1948. “The problem for liberal Zionists is that historically they could cover up the chauvinism and exclusivity that Israel sought at the expense of the Palestinians because they could get rid of the Palestinians. Today they are unable to do that so they are in a bit of a bind on how to defend Israel.”
When asked if there is a split between liberal Jews and Zionism, Massad suggested that the split is more between Zionists and anti-Zionists, including Jews who identify as anti-Zionists. Liberal Zionists, Prof. Massad said, have realised that the image of Israel which they had propagandised over many years as democratic is no longer possible. Repeating the contradiction within the liberal Zionist position, he said that their position is extremely insincere, and contrasted it with liberal white South Africans who defended apartheid but opposed occupation: “Imagine that white South Africans during the 1980s said, ‘We support the withdrawal of the South African occupation forces from occupied Namibia but at the same time support white apartheid in South Africa.’ Essentially, liberal Zionists are saying the same thing. They support Jewish racial and colonial privilege enforced by law inside Israel but they don’t want Israel to occupy the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”
Israel’s claim to be a democracy has always appeared to be more fiction than fact. The settler-colonial instinct of Zionism has been the main driving force of its policy over the past 72 years. With no indication that Israel’s appetite for displacing Palestinians and seizing territory is anywhere near sated, there needs to be a real effort by the international community to hold the state to account, end its apparent impunity and decolonise occupied Palestine with a vision that defends genuine democracy and human rights for all.