Debate & Discussion: Zionism - In a minority of one

Submitted by Anon on 22 October, 2003 - 5:41

"Who is out of step on Zionism?", John O'Mahony asks regarding his self-identification as a Zionist. Well, you are, John, not just with the 'anti-Zionism' of the majority of the left whom you rightly attack, but also with our own organisation, the AWL. In the AWL you are in a minority of one on this issue, as far as I know - and with the tradition from which we draw our position of "consistent democracy" as the means to resolve national divisions from a socialist perspective.
Instead your view emerges as a subjective reaction to the anti-Israeli denunciations of Zionism by most of the left today. Just as gay people proudly adopt the insult 'queer', John regards the label of 'Zionist' as a badge of honour, but does not think too much about what it means.

The article contains no analysis of what Zionism represents ideologically, historically or in practice today, instead relying on an arbitrary definition of the term that, in a mirror reflection of the 'anti-Zionist' British left, identifies Zionism with the right of Israel to exist. The two are in reality distinct and in that distinction lies the difference between adopting a nationalist pro-Israeli position and 'consistent democracy'.

It is possible and desirable to support the right of peoples to self determination-and thus Israel's right to exist and a 'Two States' position-on the basis of a democratic belief in the rights of established peoples to a state without thereby adopting the nationalist ideology that is used to justify it. That presumably is what Martin Thomas meant by describing himself as 'a tiny bit Zionist'. This forms the basis of Lenin's conception of national rights: nationalism is reactionary but the right to self-determination is a democratic right which socialists support in order to undermine nationalism by advocating a programme to overcome national divisions.

No doubt John would agree with this-it is the AWL tradition. He would not describe himself as an Irish or any other kind of nationalist. Why then a Zionist? Zionism is in its origins and ideology a nationalist movement and ideology which takes a peculiar form because of the historic dispersal of the Jews, but nationalist nonetheless. A clue comes in the only definition he gives of what Zionism is:

"A Zionist is anyone who believes in a Jewish state as a solution to the age-long 'Gentile Question' which, taking a variety of ideological, political, religious, and "national liberationist" forms, has plagued the "people without a state" for 2,000 years."

That is, Zionism is an answer to anti-semitism through the creation of a Jewish state, which provides a solution to the "Gentile Question". The first thing to say is that if this is the rationale of Zionism then it has been a failure. The existence of a Jewish state has not diminished anti-semitism nor has it provided a safe haven-ironically, today it is safer for Jews to live in London, New York or Berlin than Haifa or Jerusalem. It is true that Palestine and then Israel provided a means for many Jews to survive the Holocaust and other pogroms and discrimination, though whether many who went-whether fleeing Nazism or after the fall of the Soviet Union-would have gone had there been other alternatives (such as the 'Open Door' to the US advocated by the American Trotskyists in the 30s) is a moot point. But if the

"gathering" of a diaspora people into a national state is the way to combat centuries of racism, why isn't John a supporter of Marcus Garvey and his 'black Zionism'?

In reality, Zionism is rather more complex than this. Zionism calls on all Jews to emigrate to the Jewish state or, given the historic failure of this, to hold to a particular identification with Israel by virtue of their Jewishness (however defined). Zionism defines full rights within that state on a mixture of religious and ethnic criteria, rather than of nationality or citizenship. (John dedicates a rather patronising footnote to the Israeli left who see themselves as anti- or non-Zionist, not because in most cases they oppose an Israeli state, but because they seek to remove what they see as exclusivist elements from it.) The Zionist project has meant in practice the displacement of another people.

To state this is not demonisation-it shows common features with other nationalisms-nor to fall in step with the way the rest of the left use the term to refer contemptuously to the overwhelming majority of Jews who support Israel. Seeing the Zionist project as historically and ideologically flawed is certainly not incompatible with supporting the rights of Israeli Jews to their own state, which has today existed for over 50 years. There are probably many Israelis today who would not consider themselves Zionists in the ideological sense but would oppose a threat to their national rights.

The historian Maxime Rodinson, writing way back in the 70s, sums up my position:

"Objective analysis can only dismiss both the reckless idealisation of the movement [Zionism] by the Zionists and their sympathisers and the no less frenzied 'Satanisation' often expressed by their adversariesÂ… Zionism is a very special case of nationalism. If a purely nationalist critique is disarmed in the face of it, a universalist critique is intellectually better foundedÂ… Any universalist criticism of nationalism in general will also be a criticism of Zionism."

John should not give up our socialist and universalist criticisms of Zionism in the face of the "Satanisation" of the British left.

Bruce Robinson, Manchester

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