Reboot the Left on Palestine

Worldwide, it is Israel Apartheid Week, 2013, a worthy expression of solidarity with the Palestinians suffering under Israel’s occupation of the territories it conquered in the June 1967 war. However, the leading lights of the anti-apartheid struggle said a decade and more ago that Israel’s regime is much worse than South African apartheid. After 46 years, “the occupation” is clearly not temporary as the word implies. It is wrong to use this language, which privileges the oppressors and further oppresses the victims. This language is universal and long-standing, reflecting habits of thought and action long overdue for replacement.

Classical Liberal Views of Zionism

The Enlightenment and emancipation ended the subjugation of west European Jews to Judaic authorities, and to gentile regulation. Jews were admitted, gradually but inevitably, to liberal citizenship. The US was created on a modern, liberal basis, with no trace of pre-modern Jewish status.

Reform Judaism modernized traditional Judaism and allowed religious worship with the social status of Christianity. Many Jews abandoned religion for secularism, after Spinoza. Jews contributed disproportionately to modern liberal culture and left and liberal politics.

Zionism was dismissed as reactionary and atavistic. American Reform Judaism in 1885 expressly disavowed it. The Marxism of the Second International period viewed nationalism as reactionary and Zionism as a tool of imperialism. The Yiddish labor movements in the Russian Empire and their immigrant offshoots also opposed Zionism.

Zionism was a marginal, declining cult until World War I, which led to the Balfour Declaration, the British conquest of Palestine, and growth of the “Jewish national home.” Even then Zionism was a minority current, until the rise of Nazism. Yet classical anti-Zionism survived all the changes of World War II.

Elmer Berger, an American Reform rabbi, led a rearguard action against Zionism in the 1940s, and remained an avowed critic of Israel until his death in 1996. Isaac Deutscher and Maxime Rodinson, raised in Marxist internationalism, remained critics of Zionism and Israel until their deaths (Deutscher in August, 1967, Rodinson in 2004).

The Israeli Socialist Organization (Matzpen) attempted to reconstruct internationalism in the 1960s. Israel Shahak cited what he called the “modern, secular Jewish tradition,” which he traced from Spinoza, against Zionism. Shahak and Matzpen put the atrocities of Israel’s occupation on the map from the Israeli side. Shahak died in 2001; some senior Matzpen alumni are still active.

Obviously, these currents have different social bases, and different politics, aside from their rejection of Zionism. Yet they constitute the basis of modernity and any critique of Zionism must derive from them. The people cited were well to the left of what the US has produced since 1967, precisely because the US left has ignored classical sources.


Zionism is the Jewish contribution to right-wing politics and ideology, nothing more or less; it opposed liberalism and embraced anti-Semitism. Zionism agreed that “the Jews comprise a distinctive element among the nations… and as such can neither assimilate nor be readily digested by any nation.” “The only solution is in the creation of a Jewish nationality, of a people living upon its own soil, the auto- emancipation of the Jews; their return to the ranks of the nations by the acquisition of a Jewish homeland.” (Pinsker, Auto-emancipation) This was the view of bourgeois Jewish society in the Pale of Settlement, not the impoverished masses, who left by the million for the US.

Zionist “Jewish nationality” was not nationalism; it rejected the actually existing Yiddish nation in eastern Europe, including the Yiddish language, in anti-Semitic terms. Modern Israeli Hebrew was not “revived” but largely invented; modern Hebrew culture is inextricably Zionist, bound up with its conquest and dispossession. The alleged unitary history and historiography of the Jewish people have, unsurprisingly, been demolished by authors like Shlomo Sand, archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman, linguist Paul Wexler, and others.

Racialism in Zionism dates to the proto-Zionism of Moses Hess; the chauvinism of Heinrich Graetz contributed to German anti-Semitism; German Zionism was Jewish Romantic nationalism, embracing Jewish Blut und Boden. Herzl was steeped in the racism of European colonialism. Zionism was a fraternal twin of anti-Semitism, and cooperated with it practically, down to the Nazi regime itself.

Elmer Berger co-authored the UN resolution on Zionism as a form of racism, and wrote on that theme. Noel Ignatiev called the Zionist “Jewish people” idea Jewish race doctrine. “Jewish genetics” tries to build a biological basis for Zionism. Zionism is much more than settler colonialism; its fundamental opposition is between Jew and gentile everywhere.

Zionism was an elite project of national renewal, concerned with “the problems of Judaism, not the problems of Jewry,” in Ahad Ha’am’s lofty phrase. It always placed its designs ahead of the fate of European Jewry. Hitler might have conquered the Near East; the Judeocide happened because of Nazi Germany, not because there was no Jewish state.

“Cultural Zionism,” “binationalism” and “socialism” were simply Zionism by other means. The culture of Zionist Jewish nationality was racialism. The binationalists wanted Jewish immigration leading to demographic parity and eventually majority, when Jews were a minority. The kibbutz was a means of Jewish settlement and was inspired by 19th c. German settlement plans to counter a Polish “demographic threat” in the eastern Reich.

Today the state of Israel is waging a race war, as fanatical as Nazi Germany, against the enemies of the Jewish people. This potential was inherent in Zionism from the start, though obviously many contingencies have enabled its fruition. Israeli Hebrew nationality is the replacement for Zionist Jewish nationality, secular and open to all, as Boas Evron argued in Jewish State or Israeli Nation?.

Zionism in the US

The core of Zionism in the US is organized Jewry, gathered in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Many of these groups arose to meet the needs of the Russian Jewish migration before 1914. By the 1930s, this organized Jewish culture inspired the idea of “Judaism as a religious civilization,” and in the postwar period was called a “Jewish polity.”
The polity, and the Jewish public, supported Jewish statehood in the 1940s, but were still mainly concerned with integration and acceptance in American life. In the early 1960s, as this was achieved, liberalism was seen as threatening “Jewish continuity,” just as it was feared by the bourgeoisie in the Pale who founded Zionism. This chauvinism was fatally supercharged by Israel’s dramatic victory in June 1967.

The Jewish polity is the core of US support for Israel, which includes institutions and individuals throughout US culture; the “Israel lobby” is an inadequate term; “Zionocracy,” after the 19th c. “Slaveocracy” that wielded immense power in national politics until the Civil War, better describes it.

The Zionocracy has exercised quasi-sovereign power from the 1940s, when it overturned US diplomatic and military opposition to US support for a Jewish state in Palestine. The US did not create Israel, and does not commission its deeds, for its own purposes. Rather it has adapted to Zionist faits accompli in western Asia and in the US, and pursued its interests in their light.

Since the end of the Cold War Zionism has been the chief driver of US militarism at home and abroad. The Zionocracy influenced the Congressional vote for the Gulf War in 1990, the closest since the War of 1812. The crippling sanctions on Iraq and the “dual containment” of Iran and Iraq in the 1990s were largely by and for the Zionocracy, against substantial business opposition. The 9/11 terrorist attacks, with all their momentous consequences, were chiefly a strike against US patronage of Israel. The 2003 invasion of Iraq would not have happened without the neoconservatives.  Only the Zionized left sees “oil” as necessarily and obviously requiring the US to invade Iraq, which has led to the present dissolution of Syria. The end of centuries of Sunni rule in Iraq and the Shia ascendancy there brought the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, to oppose actively the “Shia axis” from Hizbollah to Alawite Syria to Iraq to Iran. The Gulf states are the chief patrons of the armed rebellion in Syria.

Zionism has turned western Asia into the eastern front of the US empire, like the eastern front of the Third Reich, site of its most depraved deeds and ideologies—the annihilation of Arab and Muslim societies, and the Islamophobic “clash of civilizations” and “war on terror.” Disputes over Middle East policy between the miltarists (gentile radicals, and Jewish neoconservatives) and the realists, are like the differences between Nazis and non-Nazi conservatives in Germany.

Zionism on the Left

In the early 1960s the Jewish members of the New Left were universalist, had little interest in “Jewish identity” and identity politics. After the June, 1967 war, there appeared a “Jewish left,” which combined Jewish affirmation with criticism of “the occupation” and support for “Palestinian rights.” This has produced a truncated, minimal critique: “anti-occupation” rhetoric, but no critique of Zionism; “solutions” discourse, of maps and treaties, and false Zionist precedents, rather than overcoming Zionism; ahistorical “law and rights” discourse; the “strategic asset” view of the US-Israel relationship, with little attention to US Zionism; anti-anti-Semitism, but no critique of Jewish chauvinism. With variations, this outlook is hegemonic on the white bread left, including the US Campaign to End the Occupation. It has even absorbed and neutered the “Israel lobby” critique. Phyllis Bennis, long-time “strategic asset” proponent, now dominates Code Pink’s annual anti-AIPAC program, while excluding knowledgeable people like Jeff Blankfort, Janet McMahon, Grant Smith, Stephen Sniegoski, and Alison Weir.

This Orthodox Critique is a form of Zionism. Limiting criticism to “law and rights” trivializes the crimes and diminishes the victims, like calling Nazi aggression and the Judeocide a violation of collective security and minority rights. Referring to Israel’s “occupation,” after nearly 46 years, and to “Israeli apartheid,” when Israel’s regime is much worse than apartheid, is lying. Such apologetics about Zionism, clearest in the “strategic asset” dogma, are Jewish privilege and anti-gentilism, comparable to anti-Semitic essentialism about Jews. The Orthodox Critique replaces a universalist critique from classical sources, which would reject Zionism in its entirety, in Israel, and in the US Zionocracy, and affirm the values of Spinoza, Luxemburg, Berger, et al. against it. Zionism threatens all of us.

Identity can empower the oppressed, but identitarian struggles succeed on broader terrain. The Risorgimento succeeded because national rights were seen as legitimate. The struggles of women and minorities have succeeded because the sphere of rights was broadened. Identity categories are not political, because people have different politics, beyond their universal rights. Past a certain limited point identity politics is chauvinism. Garibaldi recognized the limited progressive value of nationalism. Compare Judith Butler’s attempt to derive liberal obligations from “diasporic Jewish identity,” in the Brooklyn College BDS event, to David Landy’s critique of “diasporic identity” in Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights.

Strategy and Tactics

The Orthodox Critique has deprived us of the most basic vocabulary and analysis. We are missing decades of literature on Zionism as reaction and racialism, on Zionist radicalization of the US, and on the universalist antipodes, and political organizing on those lines. Meanwhile, Zionism has become ever stronger and more destructive. This is the greatest disaster on the left since the German Communist Party misread Nazism.

The chief concern of US citizens must be the special role of the United States, the indispensable economic, military and political support it provides Israel. To the extent BDS sanctions the state of Israel directly, by boycotting its products, or its institutions, it at least stigmatizes Israel, and raises questions about US policy. BDS directed against “companies profiting from the occupation” implies that corporate profits drive US policies and diverts attention from the real actors.

The Zionocracy is not appeased by such limited terms, which Israeli diplomats and organized Jewry oppose fiercely. We can only gain by calling for Israel to be sanctioned, and by opposing Zionism forthrightly as the chief source of Islamophobia, our Middle East wars, 9/11, and our domestic police state. We should consider “Anti-Zionism Week”.

BDS in the US can be educational, but Europe is the chief market for Israeli products, and BDS is most effective there. Zionist domination of US politics must be our highest concern. Zionism is not a tool of the US, but a quasi-sovereign power in the US, which has activated the worst potentialities of US society. The classical anti-Zionists saw Zionism obviously as an attack on liberal modernity, to be rejected categorically. Liberal traditions allow us—obligate us—to reject Zionism and all its works, and also obligate us to distinguish adherents of Jewish people ideology from Jewish liberal citizens and their rights. They also obligate the latter to join unequivocally a common struggle against Zionism, which threatens us all.

Harry Clark is an independent student of the Palestine question. He can be reached at his website The Question of Palestine. Read other articles by Harry.