‘Religious Reckoning’ in the Time of Genocide: Who Invented Zionism? – ILAN PAPPE

An old Palestinian woman and a Nakba survivor sitting in front of her humble dwelling in the Shati Refugee Camp in the besieged Gaza Strip. (Photo: Mahmoud Ajjour, The Palestine Chronicle)

By Ilan Pappe – The Palestine Chronicle  

As soon as Israel declared war on besieged Gaza on October 7, Western leaders solidified behind their favorite Middle Eastern state. Most enthusiastic support came from Britain. 

Though other Western countries showed immediate sympathy and support for Israel, Britain’s support in particular, is worth a pause. 

Israel is not simply a British ally. It is also a British creation. In the article below, written only a few days before the start of the war between Israel and Palestinian resistance, historian Ilan Pappe argues that Zionism was actually an outcome of a Christian historical process, as opposed to being a purely European Jewish phenomenon. 

The West in general, and Germany in particular, have tried to make amends for centuries of antisemitism as indeed they should. Rather than contemplate the ills of racism that continue to guide Western societies, their penance usually translates to blind support for the state of Israel and its policies.

What the West – and in particular Britain and the USA – abhor is to assume any responsibility for Western Islamophobic historical attitudes that shaped the Zionist project. Nor have the British ruling classes – including parts of Anglo-Jewish aristocracy – recognized the role their imperial and antisemitic worldview played in facilitating and expanding the Zionization of Palestine.

The intriguing application of the settler colonial paradigm in the case study of Palestine has somewhat neglected to consider the imperialist contexts in which this settler colonial project operated. Without imperialist backing, settler colonialists could not have set foot in the countries of the indigenous people which they later dispossessed. 

The responsibility for what the late Patrick Wolfe called ‘the elimination of the native’ rests solely on the settler colonial movement, but the coalition of Evangelical Christianity (on both sides of the Atlantic), the British political elite and aristocracy (and in particular the Anglo Jewish members of this community) provided the imperial justification for a project that would result in disaster for the indigenous people of Palestine.

The Zionist settler colonial project led to the Nakba of 1948. This  ethnic cleansing continues to this very day, and was originally enabled by a strong coalition in the West that provided the infrastructure for the dispossession of Palestinians.

When the decolonization and liberation of Palestine turns from a dream into a reality, it will be achieved through other means. When this dream comes to fruition, a Western recognition would be enhanced by an Evangelical Christian willingness to be accountable for the role it played in the destruction of Palestine.

It is not always recognized that Zionism was originally a Christian Evangelical project. This genealogy of Zionism is usually overlooked when historians consider why Britain decided to support the Jewish Zionist project of colonizing Palestine and creating a Jewish state there. 

This is an important historical dimension that is crucial for understanding the Zionist’s success ever since 1917. Israel’s preparation for and conquest of Palestine had no need to defend moral and political challenges, even in a time when most of the world regarded colonialism as a stark violation of international law.

There were many factors that contributed to the success of Zionism and the international support enjoyed by the newly formed Zionist state. The Holocaust, and in particular Western guilt, Islamophobia, capitalist and industrialist interests, and American support, all played their role. But these were factors that sustained and protected the project rather than facilitating its very inception. The alliance between Evangelical Christians, on both sides of the Atlantic, the British ruling classes (and in particular the Anglo Jewish leadership and aristocracy) was there to enable the inception of the Zionization of Palestine.

This alliance is still alive today, and it continues to safeguard Israel and prevent just and moral pressure from the outside to stop the genocidal policies against Palestinians.

This alliance was forged between 1850 and 1918 and pushed Imperial Britain not only to covet a British Palestine – when it had still been part of the Ottoman Empire – but also to imagine it as a Jewish Palestine as well. 

The motives of Evangelical Christians were theological and were a strange mix of anti-Semitism and Philo-Semitism. There was both a theological admiration for the role Jews play in God’s plans for the future on the one hand, and hatred to Judaism as a heretic religion, on the other (with many subscribing to the notion that the Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death). In order to reconcile the two, the Jews had to atone by playing a role in a divine scheme that would lead to the return of the Christian messiah, the resurrection of the dead and the end of times.  

Another way to reconcile the animosity and admiration was the tendency of Evangelical Christianity, particularly in Britain, to forsake the depiction of Judaism as a religion and to frame it as a race, nation or as a people. This Philosemitic depiction of Judaism had two conflicting outcomes: it influenced the emergence of similar ideas among Jewish intellectuals in mid-19th century Europe on the one hand and provided the ideological racist justification for the genocide of the Jews of Europe by the Nazis in the Second World War, on the other.

In a long process that culminated in the mid 19th century, Evangelical Christians in Britain persuaded their government that Palestine was strategically important in a post-Ottoman era. To their thinking, Palestine had to be Jewish both in order to precipitate the coming of the Messiah and as a way to rid Europe of its Jewish population.

In the early 20th century, these ideas became a strategy and were contemplated in tandem with the new political movement of Zionism, established by Theodore Herzl in 1897. Both Herzl and leading Anglo-Jewish aristocrats sold the Jewish “return” to Palestine as applying only to Eastern European Jews. The Anglo Jewish elite did not themselves welcome these Jews who fled from the east and sought refuge from antisemitism in Britain.

This resentment created an alliance between the Jewish aristocracy with political leaders such as Arthur Balfour. Since 1905, Balfour lobbied ardently against Jewish immigration. He also worked closely with Anglo Jewish aristocrats such as Herbert Samual to move the British government towards a clear strategy of ceding Palestine from the Ottoman Empire, in order to create a Jewish state there. 

These two recruited David Lloyd George, an Islamophobic and Francophobic Prime Minister, who dreamed of reinstituting the crusader glory in the “Holy Land”, before the French could. He was later rewarded when a Jewish settlement was named after him, built on the confiscated land of the destroyed village of Malul in Marj Ibn Amer Valley (Ramat David).

Turning Palestine into an Anglo-Jewish state was already an official British policy in 1915 before it was publicized in 1917 in the infamous Balfour Declaration.

The Zionist dream came about after seventy years of lobbying in Britain. Lobbying efforts were passed on like a baton in a relay race. The lead on the colonization project of Palestine was taken over from the Evangelical Christians, who handed it over to the Anglo-Jewish aristocracy. This group – with the help of leading British politicians –  created an effective Zionist lobbying machine that helped to generate a pro-Zionist British policy that would eventually allow the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. 

Their success – which already matured in 1915 –  had disastrous consequences for the Palestinians. The Nakba, the Palestinian Catastrophe of 1948 was not just an outcome of Britain’s decision to take over Palestine, but to make Palestine a Zionist state.

Apologizing and making amends for antisemitism in the West is morally just and necessary. But at this moment in time, a Judeo-Christian reckoning of its role in the destruction of Palestine and its people is even more urgent.

– Ilan Pappé is a professor at the University of Exeter. He was formerly a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Haifa. He is the author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, The Modern Middle East, A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples, and Ten Myths about Israel. He is the co-editor, with Ramzy Baroud of ‘Our Vision for Liberation.’ Pappé is described as one of Israel’s ‘New Historians’ who, since the release of pertinent British and Israeli government documents in the early 1980s, have been rewriting the history of Israel’s creation in 1948. He contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

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