Nathan Karp: Failures of Zionism

By Nathan Karp

The circular logic that pervades pro-Israeli rhetoric today is in fact undermining the security of the Jewish State, and feeding the fire of anti-Jewish sentiment worldwide. This logic can be traced to some of the earliest Zionist thinkers, including Leo Pinsker and Theodore Herzl, who theorized that humanism would not prevail against hatred and that it was time for Jews to form a nation-state of their own. For Herzl, the Jewish people already constituted a nation—living in Diaspora—so the formation of a Jewish State was the logical next step. Nationalism was of course the fashion of the day, and Zionism emerged as a secular-political nationalist platform intended to solve the problem of anti-Semitism in Europe by carving out a national home for Jews somewhere else. The religious components emerged later, after Palestine became the focus of the Zionist project, and political Zionists adopted the religious narrative of Zionism (exodus and return) in order to facilitate their settler-colonial project in Palestine.

Israel is nearly sixty years old, and political Zionism has been extant almost twice as long. With each passing year, the failure of political Zionism—and its implementation, in the form of the Israeli State— becomes clearer and clearer. Of course, it would be easy to see Zionism as a resounding success. Israel does, after all, exist as a Jewish State; it participates in the globalized economy, it has very close ties to the world’s only superpower, and, perhaps most noticeably, it has the fourth-largest military apparatus in the world, with which it conducts wars on a fairly regular basis. By most standards, and indeed by Israeli standards, these accomplishments are the modern day manifestation of Zionism’s success. Is this, however, the type of Jewish State envisioned by early Zionist thinkers like Pinsker and Herzl? Of course not– Zionist thinking was heavily influenced by socialist values and utopian visions of a peaceful Jewish state. As the Zionist project progressed, however, nationalist fervor seems to have clouded the minds of monumental Zionist leaders like Ben-Gurion, who failed to understand the hypocrisy, and foolishness, of trying to establish an exclusively Jewish state in a land already populated by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike.

Ben-Gurion’s famous Zionist slogan, "A land without people for a people without land" fully exemplifies the nationalist roots of political Zionism as it emerged at the end of the 19th century and began to blossom in the early years of the 20th.The reality is that Palestine was already densely populated and heavily cultivated before the arrival of any Zionists, with British Census records indicating a Palestinian population of 600,000 in 1920. More than just a clever slogan, Ben Gurion’s statement is instead an indicator of Zionism’s nationalist-inspired interpretation of citizenship and nationhood. In 1937, Ben Gurion argued that "We must expel the Arabs and take their places," acknowledging the presence of Arabs on the land, but also denying the presence of Palestinians.

His statement regarding a "land without people" is justified, therefore, on the grounds that Palestinians are not in fact Palestinian, but Arab. As Arabs, they have no particular claim or connection to the land which they occupy—after all, how can there be a Palestine without Palestinians? According to this logic, those who lack a nation-state of their own and so do not qualify as citizens of any particular country, are in fact not "people" at all, so their human rights, such as the right to exist, can be freely trampled upon by phrases like "A land without people for a people without land"

The bankrupt values of nationalism, which privilege nation-states and their citizens above all else, including other peoples and even other nations, have been used to justify colonial endeavors (especially in the Middle East) and countless wars and violence. In this regard, Zionism cannot bear all the blame for the failures of nationalism—it is just one of many doomed nationalist projects, not just for its moral and ethical misgivings, but because of its misdirected implementation in the form of the Jewish state of Israel.

In 1969, then Prime Minister Golda Meir reiterated Ben Gurion’s racist-nationalist philosophy in a famous statement to The Sunday Times in 1969, saying "There is no such things as a Palestinian people…It is not as if we came and threw them out and took their country. They didn’t exist." And in the same year, revisionist Zionist leader Menachem Begin explained to Kibbutz members the importance of denying presence to Palestinians and Palestine by refuting their very existence:

My friend, take care. When you recognize the concept of “Palestine,” you demolish your right to live in [Kibbutz] Ein Hahoresh. If this is Palestine and not the land of Israel, then you are conquerors and not tillers of the land. You are invaders. If this is Palestine, then it belongs to a people who lived here before you came.

Thus, Zionism was transformed from a utopian ideal to a colonial movement that sought to rid Palestine of its Palestinian inhabitants in order to facilitate close settlement of the land by Jews, for Jews. Since its formal creation in 1948, the fundamental principle of the Jewish State has been exclusion, not acceptance. Even Palestinians who are Israeli citizens (about 20% of Israel’s population) do not enjoy the same privileges and benefits bestowed upon their Jewish neighbors—they are in effect second class citizens.

Many countries in the world have a history of exclusionary and discriminatory policies—Israel is not alone on this front. One of the most problematic aspects of Israel’s policies, and those hardliners who support them, is the issue of religion. The Jewish character of Israel has falsely been used as an excuse for The Jewish State to act in the name of Judaism, as a faith, and therefore in the name of Jews worldwide¬¬—even thought the population of world Jewry outside Israel is nearly twice the Jewish population of the Jewish state. The question then becomes, how, exactly, do pro-Israeli pundits use Israel’s Jewish character as a means of defending Israeli government policies, therefore damaging the reputation of Jews worldwide?

Perhaps the clearest example of this practice is the way in which any anti-Zionist discourse is immediately labeled anti-Semitic by the Zionist/pro-Israel community. This presents two problems. First of all, it indicates a degree of stupidity, given that anti-Semitism indicates any prejudicial or hateful thoughts or actions toward any Semitic person, Jew or Arab. Simply because anti-Semitism is equated with anti-Jewish sentiments, it does not mean the two terms are interchangeable. Of course, the charge of anti-Semitism is a powerful one, and carries an especially potent moral and ethical charge considering the clear association with the holocaust.

As Normal Finklestein articulates very well in his book Beyond Chutzpah, Israeli apologists are quick to sound the alarm of "anti-Semitism" whenever Israel’s actions illicit opposition, condemnation, or accusations. When scholars Mersheimer and Walt dared to state the obvious in their 2006 paper regarding the power of the Israel lobby in America, they were condemned as "bigots," "Nazis", and of course, "anti-Semites". The smear campaign launched against these respected professors indicates the dismal state of Israel and the Israel-firsters who die heartedly support its every action without even paying attention to the facts. After investigating Israel’s recent whole-sale assault on Lebanon, America’s largest human rights organization, Human Rights Watch, criticized Israel for its indiscriminate killing of civilians, and various other war crimes. HRW executive director Kevin Roth, who is Jewish and who’s father fled Nazi Germany, was quickly labeled by a variety of pro-Israel pundits as a terrorist sympathizer, and an anti-Semite. The conservative pro-Zionist New York Sun accused Roth of having an "anti-Israel bias" and also said that he was involved in the "de-legitimization of Judaism, the basis of much anti-Semitism". This odd marriage, between neoconservatives and Zionists, and their joint effort to hijack Judaism, and in turn, the threat of anti-Semitism, as a way of defending Israel’s criminal actions in the world community, is going to damage Israel’s ability to survive in the long run.

The truth is that American Jews, and most Americans, passively accept Israel’s actions because the strength of the Jewish Lobby in America prevents any other voices from being heard. Now, more than ever, Jews worldwide, especially those in America, must realize the atrocities that Israel is committing and defending not only in the name of Judaism but in the name Jews worldwide. The injustice is clear for anyone who is able to visit and see the facts on the ground, but this too is becoming increasingly difficult as the Israeli government seeks to limit the international presence in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories as it continues its process of separation, exclusion and expulsions—in other words, apartheid and ethnic cleansing.

The political Zionism that inspired early thinkers like Herzl has of course taken on much stronger religious tones over the years, transforming Zionism from an exclusionary movement in part of Palestine into an aggressively hateful movement in all of historic Palestine. This is of course embodied by Israel’s ongoing occupation and increased settlement buildup in the occupied Palestinian territories. Regardless of the countless violations of international law, many pro-Israel zealots have turned to religious law and intangible notions like "God’s promise" as a way to justify old-fashioned colonialism. In 1971, then-Prime Minister Golda Meir told Le Monde that "This country exists as the fulfillment of a promise made by God Himself. It would be ridiculous to ask it to account for its legitimacy". If Zionism already stood on shaky ground with a nationalist foundation, then the religious narrative does not exactly place it on higher moral ground.

The ultimate failure of Israel, however, lies in its failure to secure peace. Israel, in fact, does not want peace. Even a large portion of the peace camp in Israel only seems to want peace when it is convenient and on their terms. For example, during the assault on Lebanon, more than 80% of Israel supported the war, and even the most dovish of Israelis still maintained that Hezbollah had provoked the Israeli army. In fact, Hezbollah and Israel had been involved in low intensity skirmishes since Israeli withdrawal in 2000, and there is substantial evidence that Israel had carefully planned a detailed assault plan/invasion of Lebanon prior to the July 12 raid in which two IDF soldiers were kidnapped. Recent reports also show that Military Intelligence had clear knowledge of impending plots to capture IDF soldiers and failed to act on them. Of course, the cross-border raid and subsequent rocket attacks gave Israel much needed excuse (and international legitimacy) to conduct their large-scale assault; a preemptive strike of such scale would hardly have been acceptable. With the world’s permission, Israel unleashed a military assault of such obvious disproportion that even many of Israel’s allies had to question its actions. What had happened? Israeli generals had seen an opportunity to flex militarily, something they had been aching to after several years of low-intensity conflict in the occupied territories involving little more than small scale raids and the occasional missile or bomb. The result, massive civilian losses in Lebanon, an already war-torn country reduced to rubble, and yet the kidnapped Israel soldiers remain in captivity and Hezbollah (already having claimed victory) is more powerful than ever, not just in Lebanon and Syria and among Palestinians, but in Jordan and Egypt as well.

And somehow, ongoing conflict with Israel’s neighbors is going to help secure the future of a Jewish State? Israel and her neocon friends in Washington have grown very accustomed to using apparent "threats to the Jewish State" as justification for aggression and violence in the name of "defending" Israel. This policy of course has reached unprecedented levels in the post-9/11 world, as Israel declared itself an ally of the US in the "War on Terror". For example, Israel and her supporters, most importantly the US, have drawn such a misleading picture of the Iranian nuclear issue, one might think that Israel’s destruction by a nuclear missile…or perhaps even Iranian soldiers, marching on Jerusalem…is imminent. Not even imminent, perhaps it is happening as we speak! The level of awareness among the American public is so low that they will swallow-whole any ‘information’ that is provided to them, no matter how incorrect or biased..

Israel has made strong connections with the Untied States, particularly with the neoconservative movement, and has made little to no connections with its Arab neighbors. This is particularly problematic, given that the United States will not enjoy its hegemony of the region forever. Given the present imbroglios in Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s ‘moment’ appears to be on the verge of expiring. Ultimately, Israel has done almost everything wrong to secure its own future. Furthermore, if Jews who have no connection to Israel realize what crimes are being committed in their name, they too will distance themselves from the so-called "Jewish State". Zionism may have been a noble idea in its earliest stages—to protect European Jews from the threat of European anti-Semitism—but the creation of an illegitimate state in Palestine completely failed in this regard. Today, Zionist hardliners (especially in the form of settlers) espouse the same brand of hatred against their Arab neighbors today that originally prompted the development of the Zionist movement. Anyone who visits Hebron today can see graffiti messages, written by (American) Israeli settlers, declaring the need to "GAS ALL THE ARABS"—a horrific statement, the irony of which is enough to make anyone sick and scared. Israel has misused accusations of anti-Semitism, and the legacy of the holocaust, to justify its criminal acts. Somehow, Israel has managed to place itself above the law, untouchable by international conventions, UN resolutions, or basic ethical and moral standards. Perhaps then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon articulated the hypocrisy of the Jewish State best in 2001, when he expressed that "Israel may have the right to put others on trial, but certainly no one has the right to put the Jewish people and the State of Israel on trial".

-Nathan Karp is a student at Brown University concentrating in Middle East Studies. He is currently an intern for MIFTAH’s Media and Information Programme. He can be contacted at
© MIFTAH (, September 20, 2006.  

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