Skip to main content

In These Times - July 13, 2020

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s push to forcibly annex up to 30% of the occupied West Bank is exposing the violence inherent in imposing a Jewish ethno-state on an indigenous Palestinian population. While the plan is delayed for now, the human rights organization B’Tselem reports that, in preparation for annexation, Israel already ramped up its demolitions of Palestinian homes in the West Bank in June, destroying 30 that month, a figure that does not include demolitions in East Jerusalem.

The theft and destruction of Palestinian homes and communities, however, is just one piece of a much larger—and older—colonial project. As Palestinian organizer Sandra Tamari writes, “Palestinians have been forced to endure Israel’s policies of expulsion and land appropriation for over 70 years.” Today, this reality has evolved into an overt apartheid system: Palestinians within Israel are second-class citizens, with Israel now officially codifying that self-determination is for Jews only. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are subject to military occupation, siege, blockade and martial law—a system of violent domination enabled by political and financial support from the United States.

Anti-Zionists argue that this brutal reality is not just the product of a right-wing government or failure to effectively procure a two-state solution. Rather, it stems from the modern Zionist project itself, one established in a colonial context, and fundamentally reliant on ethnic cleansing and violent domination of Palestinian people. Jews around the world are among those who call themselves anti-Zionists, and who vociferously object to the claim that the state of Israel represents the will—or interests—of Jewish people.

In These Times spoke with Benjamin Balthaser, an associate professor of multiethnic literature at Indiana University at South Bend. His recent article, “When Anti-Zionism Was Jewish: Jewish Racial Subjectivity and the Anti-Imperialist Literary Left from the Great Depression to the Cold War,” examines the erased history of anti-Zionism among the Jewish, working-class left in the 1930s and ‘40s. Balthaser is the author of a book of poems about the old Jewish Left called Dedication, and an academic monograph titled Anti-Imperialist Modernism. He is working on a book about Jewish Marxists, socialist thought and anti-Zionism in the 20th century.

He spoke with In These Times about the colonial origins of modern Zionism, and the Jewish left’s quarrel with it, on the grounds that it is a form of right-wing nationalism, is fundamentally opposed to working-class internationalism, and is a form of imperialism. According to Balthaser, this political tradition undermines the claim that Zionism reflects the will of all Jewish people, and offers signposts for the present day. “For Jews in the United States who are trying to think about their relationship not only to Palestine, but also their own place in the world as an historically persecuted ethno-cultural diasporic minority, we have to think of whose side we are on, and which global forces we want to align with,” he says. “If we do not want to side with the executioners of the far-right, with colonialism, and with racism, there is a Jewish cultural resource for us to draw on—a political resource to draw on.”

Sarah Lazare: Can you please explain what the ideology of Zionism is? Who developed it and when?

Benjamin Balthaser: A couple of things need to be disentangled. First of all, there is a long Jewish history that predates the ideology of Zionism that looks at Jerusalem, the ancient kingdom of Judea, as a site of cultural, religious and, you can say, messianic longing. If you know Jewish liturgy, there are references that go back thousands of years to the land of Zion, to Jerusalem, the old kingdom that the Romans destroyed. There have been attempts throughout Jewish history, disastrously, to “return” to the land of Palestine, most famously, Sabbatai Zevi in the 17th Century. But for the most part, through much of Jewish history, “Israel” was understood as a kind of a cultural and messianic longing, but there was no desire to actually physically move there, outside of small religious communities in Jerusalem and, of course, the small number of Jews who continued to live in Palestine under the Ottoman Empire, about 5% of the population.

Contemporary Zionism, particularly political Zionism, does draw on that large reservoir of cultural longing and religious text to legitimize itself, and that’s where the confusion comes. Modern Zionism arose in the late 19th century as a European nationalist movement. And I think that’s the way to understand it. It was one of these many European nationalist movements of oppressed minorities that attempted to construct out of the diverse cultures of Western and Eastern Europe ethnically homogenous nation-states. And there were many Jewish nationalisms of the late 19th and early 20th century, of which Zionism was only one.

There was the Jewish Bund, which was a left-wing socialist movement that rose to prominence in the early 20th century that articulated a deterritorialized nationalism in Eastern Europe, and they felt their place was Eastern Europe, their land was Eastern Europe, their language was Yiddish. And they wanted to struggle for freedom in Europe where they actually lived. And they felt that their struggle for liberation was against oppressive capitalist governments in Europe. Had the Holocaust not wiped out the Bund and other Jewish socialists in Eastern Europe, we might be talking about Jewish nationalism in a very different context now.

Of course, there were Soviet experiments, probably most famous in Birobidzhan, but also one very brief one in Ukraine, to create Jewish autonomous zones within territories that Jews lived, or elsewhere within the Soviet Union, rooted in the Yiddish idea of doykait, diasporic hereness, and Yiddish language and culture.

Zionism was one of these cultural nationalist movements. And what made it different was that it grafted itself onto British colonialism, a relationship made explicit with the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and actually tried to create a country out of a British colony—Mandate Palestine—and use British colonialism as a way to help establish itself in the Middle East. The Balfour Declaration was essentially a way to use the British Empire for its own ends. On some level, you could say Zionism is a toxic mixture of European nationalism and British imperialism grafted on to a cultural reservoir of Jewish tropes and mythologies that come from Jewish liturgy and culture.

Sarah: One of the underpinnings of modern Zionism is that it's an ideology that represents the will of all Jews. But in your paper, you argue that criticism of Zionism was actually quite common on the Jewish left in the 1930s and '40s, and that this history has been largely erased. Can you talk about what these criticisms were and who was making them?

Benjamin: The funny part about the United States, and I would say this is mostly true for Europe, is that before the end of World War II, and even a little after, most Jews disparaged Zionists. And it didn’t matter if you were a communist, it didn’t matter if you were a Reform Jew, Zionism was not popular. There were a lot of different reasons for American Jews to not like Zionism before the 1940s.

There's the liberal critique of Zionism most famously articulated by Elmer Berger and the American Council for Judaism. The anxiety among these folks was that Zionism would basically be a kind of dual loyalty that it would open Jews up to the claim that they're not real Americans, and that it would actually frustrate their attempts to assimilate into mainstream American culture. Elmer Berger also forwarded the idea that Jews are not a culture or a people, but simply a religion, and therefore have nothing in common with one another outside of the religious faith. This, I would argue, is an assimilationist idea that comes out of the 1920s and '30s and tries to resemble a Protestant notion of “communities of faith.”

But for the Jewish left—the communist, socialist, Trotskyist and Marxist left—their critique of Zionism came from two quarters: a critique of nationalism and a critique of colonialism. They understood Zionism as a right-wing nationalism and, in that sense, bourgeois. They saw it as in line with other forms of nationalism—an attempt to align the working class with the interests of the bourgeoisie. There was at the time a well-known takedown of Vladimir Jabotinsky in the New Masses in 1935, in which Marxist critic Robert Gessner calls Jabotinsky a little Hitler on the Red Sea. Gessner calls the Zionists Nazis and the left in general saw Jewish nationalism as a right-wing formation trying to create a unified, militaristic culture that aligns working class Jewish interests with the interests of the Jewish bourgeoisie.

So that's one critique of Zionism. The other critique is Zionism, I think it's probably more contemporary to the left today, which is that they saw Zionism as a form of imperialism. If you look at the pamphlets and magazines and speeches that are given on the Jewish left in the 1930s and '40s, they saw that Zionists were aligning themselves with British imperialism. They also were very aware of the fact that the Middle East was colonized, first by the Ottomans and then colonized by the British. They saw the Palestinian struggle for liberation as part of a global anti-imperialist movement.
Read full interview at In These Times