The history and development of Zionism

Zionism, belief that all Jews throughout the world constitute a nation that requires its own homeland, is a relatively recent ideology. It is a direct product of capitalism and it is important to understand Zionism, its fallacies and development in order to understand the struggle of the Palestinian people for national self-determination and to understand the ideological basis of the apartheid state of Israel.

Origins of modern anti-Semitism

In the latter half of the 19th century, Eastern European society found itself in continuous crisis. Feudalism began to rapidly decay, but at the same time capitalism didn’t develop quickly enough to take its place, as had occurred in Western Europe. Weaker and distorted, Eastern European capitalism was unable to expand vigorously enough to absorb the influx of peasants into the cities and towns. European Jews under feudalism were traditionally already urbanised as small merchants, moneylenders, and artisans. The newly emerging non-Jewish urban middle class sought to enrich itself in a limited market at the expense of Jewish traders and artisans. The big landowners and capitalists sought to divert the discontent of non-Jewish workers and peasants from themselves toward a convenient scapegoat. This resulted in a violent rise in anti-Semitism with continual anti-Semitic riots characterised by killings and mutilations of Jews, and the destruction of Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues.

To flee this persecution, 3 million Jews left Eastern Europe, mostly for Western Europe and the US. The arrival of these immigrants coincided with worsening conditions for the Western middle classes who were threatened with bankruptcy by the rise of powerful capitalist monopoly corporations. The ruling classes in the West saw the opportunity to divert the growing discontent of the ruined Western middle class away from themselves onto the large numbers of Jewish immigrants. The result was a rise in Western European anti-Semitism in the last quarter of the 19th century.

The Zionist movement

The Zionist movement was created by a minority of the Jewish middle classes in response to this wave of anti-Semitism. It was founded on the false claim that Jews around the world constituted a single nation. A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people formed on the basis of a cohesive economic life based on capitalist economic relations within a common territory, giving rise to a common language and common culture. But there is no national cohesion between Jews living in different countries, between for example, Australian, Iranian, Russian or US Jews. They have no shared history, speak different languages and are integrated into the economic life of these nations. All they have in common is their religion. It would be just as ahistorical to say that all the world’s Muslims constitute a single nation.

The founders of Zionism falsely believed that anti-Semitism at that time was not due to particular historical processes like the crises of capitalism, but that this anti-Semitism was an inevitable outcome when Jews lived among non-Jews. The idea of creating a Jewish “national homeland” was raised in 1882 by Leo Pinsker in his pamphlet The Self-Emancipation of the Jews. Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl, expanded on the theme in his book The Jewish State in 1896. Herzl chaired the first congress of the World Zionist Organisation in Basle (Switzerland) in 1897.

The same processes that had created modern anti-Semitism and Zionism had also given rise to imperialist capitalism. By 1897 virtually the entire world had been divided up by the developed capitalist powers. Within the imperialist countries, Jews constituted a persecuted religious community, not an oppressed national group. If they had constituted oppressed national groups then a movement for Jewish national self-determination would have directed itself against the imperialist ruling classes, as the Irish national movement did against British rule over Ireland.

By contrast the Zionists, as a middle-class movement seeking to create a homeland for a religious group, sought to persuade the imperialist powers to support the creation of a Jewish state within the imperialist-dominated colonial territories as a bulwark of pro-imperialist rule. At the second Zionist Conference in 1898 the Zionists were split. One group led by Ben Gurion and Ze’ev Jabotinsky advocated a Jewish homeland in British-ruled Uganda. The other group, led by Orthodox Rabbis, insisted on Palestine as a Jewish homeland. The latter group later convinced the Zionists.

Herzl petitioned the Russian tsar, the German kaiser, the British king, even the Pope, to obtain support for a Jewish state in Palestine, which was then part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. In return for their support, Herzl promised these rulers Jewish backing for their imperial aims in the Arab east. In a letter to the German Duke of Baden in 1898, Herzl declared: “With the Jews a German cultural element will enter the East. The fact that the Zionist movement is headed by German writers even though of Jewish origin can serve proof of this. The [Zionist] Congress language is German. The great majority of the Jews belong to the German culture. We need protection. German protection is therefore the best for us: we alone cannot do this.”

‘Historical claim’ to Palestine?

A central element of Zionist ideology has become the claim that all Jews have a historical right to live in and control Palestine. Zionists claim that the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70AD was the cause of Jewish dispersion, yet in 70AD three-quarters of the Jewish population lived outside Palestine. As for the indigenous Jewish community, neighbouring populations during the following centuries gradually absorbed it.

For nearly 2000 years there was not a concerted, conscious effort by Jews from communities scattered all over the world to return to Palestine. The claim that Palestine was the Jewish “national homeland” only appeared with the birth of Zionism, a direct reaction to capitalist anti-Semitism. And despite its secular nationalist gloss, the Zionists’ claim to Palestine is fundamentally based on religious mythology: “God gave the land of Israel (Palestine) to the Jews”.

In 1917 in the Balfour Declaration, Britain declared its support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jews in Palestine”. This was designed to win Zionist backing for Britain in the First World War. Britain had also promised independence to the Palestinian Arabs, but at the end of the war the Arab east was carved up between Britain and France. Britain received a mandate from the victorious allied powers grouped into the League of Nations to rule over Palestine and to establish a Jewish “national homeland” there.

The Zionists wanted an exclusively Jewish state in Palestine. The Jewish National Fund purchased land from absentee Arab landlords and then evicted the Arab tenant farmers. The Zionists prohibited Jews from selling or leasing Jewish lands to Arabs. The JNF opposed land reform, as this would have put land into the hands of the Arab farmers who worked it and who, unlike the landowning sheiks, would refuse to sell. A policy of “Jewish labour” and “buy Jewish” was established by the Zionists. The Jewish settlers boycotted Arab labour and production. This meant that Arab farmers who were evicted from their land were unable to find work in Jewish-owned businesses. This process of colonisation, initiated in 1917, culminated in 1948 with the establishment of the Israeli colonial-settler state.

The Holocaust and Zionism

There is a common misconception that it was because of the Nazi Holocaust that the “need” for a Jewish state in Palestine arose. But the Zionist colonisation of Palestine began long before the rise of Nazism in Germany. During the 1930s the Zionist leaders actively opposed Jewish resistance to the Nazis and refused to launch a campaign to force the Western “democracies”, particularly the US, to open their borders to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism. Mass immigration to the US would have destroyed the Zionist goal of creating an exclusively Jewish state in Palestine. It is the Western “democracies” which, by systematically refusing to open their borders to the Jews in the 1930s, condemned millions of European Jews to the Nazi genocide.

Washington was the main driving force for the establishment of Israel in the late 1940s. The US rulers saw the military benefits of having a Jewish colonial-settler state in the Arab east. Since then Israel has become Washington’s “big stick” in the region. “Do what we say, allow our corporations to take what they want or we’ll unleash Israel on you”, is the US threat to Arab nations.

Since 1948, when 725,000 Palestinians were driven from their national homeland, Zionism has been the justification for the brutal and expanding dispossession of Palestinian nation. Zionism attempts to justify Israeli apartheid - institutionalised privileges for Jews, systematic discrimination against Palestinians. Zionism attempts to justify Israel’s policy of ethnic cleansing in historic Palestine to create a Jewish-only state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. It is no wonder that Zionism, premised on racist ideas, has created the distorted, brutal, militarised, apartheid state of Israel.