The picture above of two teenage Zionists was taken in 1906 in Kamenetz-Podolsk, Ukraine, in what was then the Russian empire. On the right is my wife’s, Susan Blum’s, paternal grandmother, Rose Resnick. On the left is a friend, name unknown, holding a Yiddish publication entitled Der Nayer Veg, or the New Way—the organ of the central committee of the Zionist Socialist Workers Party, founded in Odesa in 1905. It published twenty-five issues between May 1906 and January 1907, when it was closed by the Czarist authorities.
In the wake of Hamas’s October 7 attack in Israel, debates about Zionism and colonialism have exploded everywhere, from university campuses to the UN General Assembly. These girls, at least, were not settler colonialists; their Zionism was a response to the intensified persecution of the Jews in late nineteenth-century Europe. At the time about half of the world’s Jewish population lived under the rule of Russian Czars, and they were subjected to bloody pogroms. Rose recalled one in which the pogromists cut off the hands of a Jewish baker and tossed them in his oven so he could never again knead bread. My wife’s maternal grandmother, Pauline Unger, recalled the Odesa pogrom of 1905, the year before this photo was taken, when her neighbors saved her family’s lives by meeting the pogromists outside the building with a cross and swearing there were no Jews inside.
Der Nayer Veg was a product of the fervor that swept over the Jews of Russia after the 1903 Kishinev pogrom (some forty killed, hundreds raped) and the countrywide pogroms of October 1905 (several hundred killed), the latter following the failed Russian revolution of that year. In the wake of these waves of revolution and reaction, Jewish youth became increasingly radicalized. “To them,” writes historian Jonathan Frankel, “the revolution meant a struggle not only for social equality and political freedom, but also for national, for Jewish, liberation.”
This is the tradition that was transmitted to me and many American Jews my age about the origins of Zionism through education, folk memory, and artifacts like the photograph above. For many who grew up in this tradition, it is inconceivable that this ideology of liberation and self-determination could have anything in common with colonialism, any more than Rose and her friend did. In this light, the founding and repeated military victories of the State of Israel have formed an emotionally compelling historical narrative, echoing the praise of God in the Passover Haggadah: “He took us from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to joy, and from mourning to festivity, from deep darkness to great light and from bondage to redemption.” The Holocaust becomes in retrospect the “birth pangs” of the messiah—the pains and tribulations that the Jewish people will suffer before the ingathering of the exiles and their return to the Land of Israel, as foretold by the prophet Jeremiah: “it is a time of trouble unto Jacob, but out of it shall he be saved.”
This drama of Jewish history, however, was and remains embedded in world history, even if news of the latter was sometimes slow to reach Kamenetz-Podolsk. Zionists ultimately succeeded in transposing their efforts at self-liberation from Jewish into world history as no Jewish activists had done since the early Christians. But in the process, Zionism became something fundamentally different from the visions of Kamenetz-Podolsk.
Jewish history records two exiles from Palestine/Eretz Yisrael. The first, the Babylonian captivity, occurred after 586 BCE, when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem and exiled the Jews to Mesopotamia and Persia. In 538 the Persian emperor Cyrus decreed that the Jews could return to Judea and rebuild the Temple. Nonetheless, many Jews remained in Mesopotamia, Persia, and cities around the Mediterranean (such as Alexandria) and along the Silk Route (such as Bukhara). By the time of the Jews’ second exile from Palestine, a majority were already living in the diaspora.
The second exile occurred after the defeat of the Great Revolt against Rome, which was set off by a conflict between Jews and Greeks in Caesarea in 66 CE and ended with the destruction of the Second Temple by Titus in 70 CE, a victory memorialized by the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum. The exodus of most of the remaining Jews in Palestine accelerated after the defeat in 136 CE of the revolt against Rome, led by Bar Kokhba, whom Rabbi Akiba declared to be the messiah. An account of Akiba’s cruel execution is told in “Eleh Ezkerah,” the elegy of the ten martyrs executed by the Romans that became part of the additional service on Yom Kippur in the Eastern Ashkenazi liturgy.
Throughout the long second exile, Jews preserved an attachment to Palestine/Eretz Yisrael even as they developed rich and varied diasporic cultures. The daily liturgy repeated the prayer that God would gather the exiles together and lead them in return to their homeland. Through pilgrimage and centers of study in Palestine, Jews maintained ties to the land without coming into conflict with its inhabitants. Over the course of centuries, those inhabitants replaced the Aramaic and Greek of their Babylonian, Persian, Hellenist, Roman, and Byzantine conquerors with the Arabic brought by the second successor (caliph) to the Prophet Muhammad, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, who captured Jerusalem and brought Islam to Palestine in 638 CE.
The Jewish hope of salvation from exile by the messiah sometimes erupted in popular movements led by what have come to be known as pseudo-messiahs, like David Reubeni in the sixteenth century, Sabbatai Zevi in the seventeenth century, and Jacob Frank in the eighteenth century. Repeated in every era, this grand narrative—slavery to freedom, exile to redemption—was the constant, if sometimes barely audible, background music of the Jewish people’s understanding of their encounter with history.
The Jews of Europe had placed great hopes in the emancipation that followed the Enlightenment and the French revolution. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, with the upsurge of racial anti-Semitism throughout Europe, they started to fear that emancipation transformed rather than ended anti-Semitism. Indeed, it was the 1894 spectacle of an anti-Semitic mob baying for the blood of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in France, where the emancipation of the Jews began, that convinced Theodore Herzl, the Viennese founder of political Zionism, that Jews would need their own state. Ethno-national states excluding Jews seemed to be the future norm. Late nineteenth-century European political Zionism was a secularized version of religious and messianic tradition, fused with the ethno-nationalist and revolutionary hopes that captured the imaginations of many peoples experiencing the decay of the Romanov, Habsburg, and Ottoman empires.
Some Jews retreated into pious quietism, awaiting the Messiah’s arrival, whenever God should choose to send him. Others opted for revolutionary movements, ranging from the Jewish Socialist Worker’s Bund to the Russian Bolshevik party and its many precursors and competitors. The greatest number, like my ancestors—eventually including Rose Resnick—packed their grand schemes in the bags they dragged into steerage compartments en route to America, where these tendencies took on new forms. They were able to do so only because the United States had an open door for “white” immigrants until 1924, when Congress enacted the anti-Semitic and racist Johnson-Reed immigration act, slamming shut the Golden Door.
Zionism saw the ultra-Orthodox reliance on prayer and piety as a passive doctrine of the ghetto that left Jews defenseless. Zionism was thus as much a revolt against that passivity as against anti-Semitism. Instead of waiting for a messiah, it sought redemption through collective action. Other political solutions, the Zionists argued, relied on the forbearance of others, whether the Jews’ fellow citizens, revolutionary comrades, or countries that would welcome immigrants. They contended that Jews needed to rely on their own strength to establish a state that would enable them to defend themselves.
In Eastern-Central Europe, mainly on the territory of the old Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth spanning the borders of Russia, Austria, and Prussia in the nineteenth century, the Jews had many characteristics of a self-governing group with a distinct culture and language, Yiddish. But they shared that territory with multiple majorities and minorities and had no control over their security. Since the Jewish people had no land on which to establish a state, the Zionist movement went searching for a territory—as well as a sponsor that could assure their access to it. That was how Zionism became entangled with colonialism.
For the Kamenetz girls and thousands like them, Zionism was an empowering movement of self-reliance and self-determination. But Herzl claimed that the unarmed Jewish people could only gain access to a territory through high-level diplomacy with great powers. The search for such a sponsor took up nearly all Herzl’s time and energy, from before the First Zionist Congress in 1897 to his premature death in 1904. In those seven years Herzl traveled from capital to capital, seeking the backing of the equivalent of a “mother country” to support what he unabashedly called the Jewish “colonization” of Palestine.
This was the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. For Europeans, “colonialism” was not a derogatory term but the basis of world order, under which the “civilized” nations of Europe ruled the rest of the world without a thought that non-white peoples had rights or political agency. Herzl wrote that Zionism would establish a Jewish state, “secured by public law,” which at that time meant the international colonialist order.
Zionism explored alternatives to Palestine—Argentina; Sinai and Uganda, both under British protectorates—but none worked out, and the Jewish masses longed for Palestine, as they had for centuries, even if the Palestine they longed for was the embodiment of their hopes, rather than a few provinces of the Ottoman empire with Arab Muslim and Christian populations.
Even before the First Zionist Congress adopted his program, Herzl proposed that the Ottoman sultan grant a territory for the Jewish state in return for Jewish financiers’ paying off portions of the Ottoman debt—though there is no evidence that Herzl had secured any commitments from financiers to do so. In 1896 Herzl passed this proposal to Sultan Abdul Hamid through intermediaries. At that time the Sublime Porte was under pressure to concede portions of its sovereignty to many European states, and rising nationalist movements of Arabs, Armenians, Bulgars, and even Turks were starting to destabilize the empire. Moreover, the Sultan was not just the ruler of a teetering empire; he was also recognized as the caliph, the leader of the faithful (amir al-mu’minin), by hundreds of millions of Sunni Muslims. The Ottoman sultan had claimed this pan-Islamic office in 1517, the same year that the Ottomans conquered Palestine from the Mamluks; it had been vacant since the Mongols sacked the Abbasid caliphate’s capital Baghdad in 1258.
This context shaped the Sultan’s thinking. He told Herzl’s emissary:
I cannot sell even a foot of land, for it does not belong to me, but to my people. My people have won this empire by fighting for it with their blood and have fertilized it with their blood. We will again cover it with our blood before we allow it to be wrested away from us. . . . Let the Jews save their billions. When my Empire is partitioned, they may get Palestine for nothing. But only our corpse will be divided. I will not agree to vivisection.
Herzl tried other approaches to get to the Sultan. In 1898 he traveled to Istanbul just as Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany was about to meet the Sultan. The Kaiser was building a German colonial empire to compete with Britain and wanted Germany to get its share of the declining Ottoman empire. When Herzl met the Kaiser in Istanbul, he asked him to propose that the Sultan authorize a chartered company modeled on the East India Company to sponsor Jewish colonization in Palestine. The proposal was modeled in part on the “capitulations” that were gnawing away at Ottoman sovereignty, which granted European states privileged relations with Ottoman Christians, as in Lebanon and exempted their citizens from the jurisdiction of Ottoman laws. Jewish immigrants had been welcomed as individual Ottoman subjects or citizens since the expulsion from Spain in 1492, but Herzl proposed that Jewish immigrants to Palestine enjoy privileges through a capitulation arrangement under which they would be citizens of the great power that sponsored them.
The Kaiser halfheartedly pitched the idea to the Sultan, who rejected it, as he had two years earlier. Wilhelm’s main interest in Zionism was that it promised to rid Germany of Jews. His anti-Semitism was of a piece with his colonialist racism. Between 1904 and 1908 his troops carried out a genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples in Southwest Africa (now Namibia). This first genocide of the twentieth century was a dress rehearsal for the Holocaust.
Herzl, meanwhile, traveled from Istanbul to Palestine, where the Kaiser was also headed. The Kaiser gave Herzl an icy audience in Jerusalem informing him of the Sultan’s indifferent reply. Herzl finally managed to meet the Sultan directly in 1901. He tried to persuade him that his proposal of debt relief in return for a Jewish capitulation in Palestine was the only way to rescue the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan told Herzl that the question of the Ottoman debt could not be linked to territorial concessions. He rejected the proposal, just as he had five years earlier.
In a last attempt to find a mother country to sponsor Zionism, Herzl met with the Colonial Office in London in 1902, asking the United Kingdom to promote Jewish colonization in Sinai—part of the UK’s Egyptian protectorate. Herzl next sent a representative to negotiate with the British-controlled Egyptian government in Cairo. The Egyptians offered to encourage and sponsor Jewish immigration so long as the new arrivals adopted Ottoman citizenship, which Egyptians retained under the British Protectorate. Herzl rejected the offer of equality and insisted on a capitulation under which the Jews would enjoy foreign citizenship—which the Egyptian foreign minister, Boutros Ghali, the grandfather of UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, rejected.
During his October 1903 passage through the port of Alexandria on his way back to Europe, an already ailing Herzl attended a “dreadfully boring” lecture by the world’s leading authority on irrigation. He turned his attention to the audience:
What interested me most was the striking number of intelligent-looking young Egyptians who packed the hall. They are the coming masters. It is a wonder the English don’t see this. They think they are going to deal with the fellahin [peasants] forever.
This blindness of the British, he remarked, would “make them lose their colonies later.” Herzl died nine months later, on July 3, 1904, apparently without having considered the implication of this observation for the Zionist project in Palestine.
A year after Herzl’s death, Rose Resnick and her friend subscribed to Der Nayer Veg, where they found articles on the oppression of the Jews of Russia and the need to build a Jewish working class as the foundation of a nation. What summaries of its content I have found suggest that it contained little if anything about Herzl’s diplomacy, Palestine, or political developments in the Ottoman Empire.
The same year that the Zionist Socialist Workers’ Party was founded—1905, about a year before the picture of Rose and her friend was taken—Naguib Azoury, a Lebanese Christian who had been deputy governor of Ottoman Jerusalem, published his manifesto of Arab nationalism, Le réveil de la nation arabe. Azoury opened his book with an eloquent warning to Arabs about the danger of Zionism, which he defined as an attempt by the Jews not to free themselves from anti-Semitism but to re-establish the ancient Kingdom of Israel on a grand scale, just as the Arab nation was trying to free itself of Ottoman domination in the same territory. “The fate of the entire world,” Azoury wrote, “will depend on the final result of this struggle between these two peoples.”
A decade later, the great powers went to war. The Ottomans were allied with Germany and Austria, the Central Powers, against the UK, France, Russia, and, eventually, the United States. The Armenian genocide had already revealed the explosive potential of national issues in the Ottoman empire. The British exploited the movement of Arab nationalism against Istanbul.
The British Army crushed the Ottoman forces. On September 24, 1918, my mother-in-law’s first birthday, the front-page headline of the New York Times proclaimed, “Turks Lose 2 Palestine Armies, 40,000 Men.” Under a series of subsequent treaties, the British and French drew the borders that created the modern map of Middle Eastern states and abolished the caliphate, reshaping the religion of Islam by force of arms.
This decision reverberated throughout the Islamic world. It triggered a mass movement in India—the khilafat movement—demanding restoration of the caliphate, which lasted from 1919 to 1922. The Indian National Congress under Gandhi supported this demand as part of their general anticolonial non-cooperation movement. On October 7, 2001, while I was in a television studio in New York with ABC news anchor Peter Jennings, Osama Bin Laden appeared on the screen with a message to the American people:
What America is tasting now is only a copy of what we have tasted. Our Islamic nation has been tasting the same for more than eighty years of humiliation and disgrace, its sons killed and their blood spilled, its sanctities desecrated.
About eighty years before 2001 was the 1923 Conference of Lausanne, which abolished the Ottoman sultanate and caliphate, preparing the ground for the colonial redrawing of the map of the Muslim world.
Even before that, in November 1917, Zionist diplomacy led by Dr. Chaim Weizmann had persuaded the British cabinet to issue the Balfour Declaration, which stated that the government “view[ed] with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” From the Jewish point of view, this amounted to the fulfillment of prophecy and hopes. For the British such a homeland would secure British colonial rule in Palestine and Syria after the defeat of the Ottomans, protect the Suez Canal (essential to connecting Britain to its Asian colonies), gain the support of the Jewish population caught between anti-Semitic Russia (Britain’s ally) and the Central Powers, and realize aspirations of Christian Zionism.
The abolition of a major Islamic institution was thus closely linked to the adoption of Zionism as an official doctrine of the British empire, and both resulted from the British policy of defeating and dismembering the largest and most powerful Muslim state.
This was the moment that Zionism became a partner of British colonialism, even as the partnership inevitably frayed. Neither the British nor the Zionist movement considered the views of the people who lived in Palestine, 96 percent of them Arab. By Herzl’s own account in his diary, he did not speak to a single Arab during his 1898 visit to Palestine.
As historian Rashid Khalidi documents in The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine (2020), Balfour wrote in a 1919 memo to the British cabinet that “in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country. . . . Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.” Winston Churchill, in his 1937 testimony to the Peel Commission appointed by London to make recommendations on Palestine, was more emphatic:
I do not admit that the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to those people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race, or, at any rate, a more worldly-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.
Why did Zionism and many Jews accept this bargain? As Europeans, even if oppressed ones, they largely shared the virtually unchallenged assumptions of European colonial thinking. Circumstances also provided them with little choice. Given the opportunity, many—perhaps most—of the Jewish refugees from Hitler would have gone to the United States rather than Palestine. But by the 1930s, the tightening grip of anti-Semitism on the Western world convinced even erstwhile Jewish opponents of Zionism that they had no choice. Zionism’s claim that Jews could never be safe among other nations was proving true, not only in Nazi Germany but also in the “liberal” west. Jews trying to flee Nazi anti-Semitism butted up against anti-Semitic immigration laws in the United States and UK. The British—indeed Home Secretary Balfour himself—had enacted the Aliens Act in 1905, introducing immigration restrictions. The U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 was explicitly intended to stop the massive immigration of Eastern European Jews, among others. In July 1938, thirty-two nations assembled on Lake Geneva at the Evian conference to consider what to do about the mounting tide of Jewish refugees. Every delegate expressed sympathy for the refugees, but only Ecuador and the Dominican Republic offered to admit any of them.
The Mandate for Palestine given by the League of Nations to Britain in 1920—which came into effect in 1923—gave the Zionist organization legal status as “a public body for the purpose of advising and co-operating with the Administration of Palestine in such economic, social and other matters as may affect the establishment of the Jewish national home and the interests of the Jewish population in Palestine.” It also provided that the mandatory authorities “shall facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions and shall encourage . . . settlement by Jews on the land.” The mandate forbade discrimination by the British in Palestine against other members of the League of Nations but offered neither protection nor any form of representation to the Palestinian Arabs.
As colonial subjects, the Palestinian Arabs, unlike the Americans or British, had no sovereign power to regulate immigration into their territory. The combination of the Nazi regime, the exclusionary consensus expressed at the Evian conference, and the British mandate on Palestine together imposed a disproportionate burden of accepting Jewish refugees on the Palestinians, whose tiny country had nothing to do with the origin of the crisis and was deprived of any means of self-government.
The rapid increase of Jewish immigration, from 4,075 in 1931, to 66,472 in 1935—a sixteen-fold increase in a few years in a country whose total population barely exceeded a million in 1931—was one of the triggers of the 1936 Palestinian Arab revolt against the British. It began with a six-month general strike—the longest in colonial history, as Khalidi relates. When the Peel Commission appointed by the British to recommend a solution endorsed a partition of the country in October 1937, it triggered an armed uprising.
Zionist historiography presents this as the first case of the Palestinians’ “never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” It figures on the list of occasions that the Palestinians rejected “compromise” in favor of conflict. But from the Palestinian point of view, a colonial empire had arbitrarily decided to confiscate part of their national territory after making at most token efforts to consult them. It was not a “compromise”—a mutually agreed outcome of negotiations—but an imperial diktat that showed neither respect for the Palestinians’ right to self-determination nor any willingness to share the burden of welcoming refugees from Nazism.
The uprising targeted both British rule and Jewish communities. To suppress the revolt, British troops not only carried out bloody massacres, arbitrary killing, and massive imprisonment of the civilian population; they armed Zionist militias to serve as auxiliaries of the colonial army. Previously there had been clashes between settlers and the local population over land rights and rumors of defilement of holy places, but this was the first occasion when the Zionist movement was mobilized and armed by a colonial power in their common interest of suppressing Arab resistance. The effort was led by Orde Wingate, who tutored Zionist forces in tactics of counterinsurgency, such as the use of summary execution of some prisoners as a technique for interrogating others. This established a precedent still in force today, of first the Yishuv and then Israel being armed by great powers to defend Western interests in the region.
The reality of a colonial enterprise, bloody conflict, and decades of living at close quarters with a hostile population had its own logic, independent of Herzl’s utopian visions or any doctrines or analyses published in Der Nayer Veg. When the British left Palestine and withdrew their troops, the Nakba—or first Nakba, as some are now calling it after Israel’s assault on Gaza following October 7—was as inevitable as the massacres that accompanied the partition of India. There was no mechanism to implement the partition decreed by the British and enacted by the United Nations. Communal battles erupted between Arabs and Jews, but only the Yishuv had an effective military organization and coherent leadership.
Palestine was partitioned not according to the UN plan but according to the balance of power among the Haganah, Jordan’s Arab Legion, and the Egyptian army. The Yishuv claimed to accept partition, which granted it a sovereign territory—“secured by public law,” in Herzl’s words—for the first time, while expelling most of the Arab population from areas it controlled. It also expanded its territory from the areas allocated to the Jewish state in the partition plan to include areas allocated to the Arabs, including, among others, West Jerusalem and the densely populated corridor between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Both West Jerusalem and the corridor were ethnically cleansed.
There has been an organized effort to deny that the Nakba took place—to claim that the Haganah and other Zionist armed forces began operations only in response to the invasion by the armies of Arab states, that Palestinians fled under instructions to vacate areas until all the Jews were killed, and, in general, that the Nakba’s Palestinian victims were perpetrators of aggression against the Jewish population, and that the Zionist/Israeli forces were fighting only in self-defense.
Decades of scholarly research have proved all these assertions false, and I shall not rehearse matters of settled fact. Nakba denial is no more credible than Holocaust denial. Israeli officials, who once denied the Nakba, are now explicitly advocating a “second Nakba.” In any case, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948, states in Article 13, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” There is no dispute that the Palestinian refugees have not been allowed to “return to their own country.” Indeed, defenders of Israel sometimes treat the “right of return” as a denial of the state’s right to exist or an incitement to genocide, apparently unaware there might be doubts about the legitimacy of a state whose existence requires ethnic cleansing.
That does not mean that a settlement requires the return of all 1948 refugees and their descendants to “Israel,” however that state may be defined by a settlement. The implementation of recognized rights is a legitimate subject for political negotiation. Not all refugees would choose to return; under a two-state solution, many might return to a Palestinian state rather than to Israel, and others would be entitled to compensation.
As for whether the State of Israel is a product of colonialism, it certainly is, unless the British Empire had nothing to do with colonialism. Without the Allied dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the British Mandate imposed by the League of Nations, and the official status that the mandate granted to the Zionist Organization in Palestine, Israel could not have come into existence. The League of Nations Covenant wrote colonialism and racism into international law when it defined mandates as an institution through which “advanced nations” would be entrusted with the “tutelage” of “peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world.”
But the State of Israel is not the product only of colonialism. Without Jewish persecution in Europe, the intellectual and political effort that this formerly defenseless people made to place itself permanently on the map of the world, and the long Jewish historical and religious attachment to the land, there would also have been no Israel. It is also the case that without the violent expulsion of Jewish populations from the Arab world in reprisal for the founding of the state and the violence of the Nakba, the Israel of today would not exist.
Are Jews “indigenous” or settler colonialists in Palestine? They are both. The Jewish people originated in this land, and after two thousand years of exile, they developed an ideology and a political rather than purely religious movement of “return.” But their historical memory was not shared by the land’s inhabitants. The historical memory of the Jewish people did not create the right or capacity to confiscate or occupy a single dunam of land against the will of its possessors. The historical memory of one people, however tenacious, creates no right to rule over another.
Israeli Jews are settler colonialists with a historical memory of indigenous origin. This includes the Jews who fled or were expelled from Arab and other Muslim countries. They were indigenous to the region but not to Palestine, except in their own historical memory. That historical memory distinguishes Israel from other settler colonial states. So does the fact that the nation founded through settler colonialism has no “mother country” to which its members might return, as the French did from Algeria. Today’s settlers in the West Bank and the Golan Heights could indeed return—their “mother country” is Israel—but the same is not true of the citizens of Israel as a whole. They cannot return to the scenes of the Holocaust or to the Arab and Muslim states that expelled them. Great Britain, and then the United States, played the role of mother country by conquering the land, facilitating its settlement, and arming the settlers, but they have assumed no responsibility for the fate of Jewish refugees—whether from Hitler, from the persecution of Jews in Iraq in the early 1950s, or from a future conflagration in Palestine.
Instead, the Zionist movement and the Jewish state succeeded in building a new nation that is now indigenous to the land—though to what parts of the land, and with exactly what rights, is the core of the dispute over whether Israel is an apartheid settler state. The question “does Israel have the right to exist?” could have been meaningfully debated before the state existed, but now the only answer is, “Israel exists.” As a member of the United Nations, it has the right to continue to exist and to exercise the right to self-defense against other states. According to the UN charter, it also has the right to defend its territorial integrity, but implementation of that right requires defining the borders of the State of Israel. This depends on a peace settlement recognizing Palestinian national rights. Only such a settlement can establish Israel’s security as a state.
Genesis is not destiny. Documenting the historical fact that Israel came into existence in part through Zionism’s collaboration with colonialism does not mean that the only solution is a “decolonization” that would destroy the state and expel its inhabitants. What is objectionable about colonialism is not the immigration or settlement of a population of a different ethnic or national origin, or of people that are in some sense non-indigenous, but the domination of one group over another. It is impossible to rewind and rerun history. But it is possible, indeed necessary, to assure a future where Palestinians and Israelis have equal rights. Both peoples must be able to participate in choosing the government that rules them. Palestinians and Israelis must live either in two sovereign, equal states, or in one state as individuals with equal rights. The international consensus (excluding the government of Israel) in favor of the former—and the apparent impossibility of Israelis and Palestinians sharing a common sole polity—make the former the apparent choice.
The current war in Gaza exemplifies some of the worst that colonialism has to offer, including both Israel’s indiscriminate massacre of civilian populations, justified as self-defense, and Hamas’s indiscriminate massacre of civilians, justified as resistance. The indiscriminate use of force has been matched by the deployment of falsified history and distorted concepts in defense of the violence—falsehoods and distortions that perpetuate the conflict. Israel is a product, in part, of colonialism, but colonialism is a contingent historical reality. The motives that make some people colonialist and others anticolonialist are not always so different. People are victims or perpetrators in the present because of their relationships with other people in the present, not because of whatever history they may have as victims or perpetrators under other circumstances. “Victim” is no one’s permanent identity, but a role in relation to others—a role that can and must be transformed.
Herzl’s utopian novel, The Old New Land (1902), addressed the messianic origins of Zionism. In his narrative of a 1923 visit to a futuristic—yet very Viennese—“Jewish Palestine,” the narrator visits the magnificent Opera House in Jerusalem to attend a performance of an opera based on the life of Sabbatai Zevi. In 1648, during massive massacres of Jews in Ukraine, which some Jews saw as the “birth pangs of the messiah,” Sabbatai proclaimed his messianic calling in a synagogue in Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey). He gathered a following among Jewish communities worldwide. Many sold off their belongings and prepared to move to Palestine, until their messiah was summoned by the Ottoman sultan, in whose presence he converted to Islam in September 1666.
In the novel, during the opera’s intermission, the audience puzzles over the history. How had such a con man gathered such a following?
“There seems to be a profound reason for that,” remarked David. “It was not that the people believed what they said, but rather that they said what the people believed. They soothed a yearning. Or, perhaps it would be more correct to say, they sprang from the yearning. That’s it. The longing creates the Messiah.
You must remember what dark days those were when a Sabbatai and his like appeared. Our people was not yet able to take account of its own situation, and therefore yielded to the spell of such persons. It was only at the end of the nineteenth century, when the other civilized nations had already attained to self-consciousness and given evidence thereof, that our own people—the pariah—realized that its salvation lay within itself, that nothing was to be expected from fantastic miracle-workers. They realized then that the way of deliverance must be paved not by a single individual, but by a conscious and alert folk-personality.”
Zionism aspired for the Jews to assert their “folk personality” to become one of what Europeans then called “civilized nations.” The distinction between civilized nations and others contained the essence of colonialism. In his manifesto, The Jewish State (1896), Herzl wrote, “We [the Jewish state in Palestine] should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.” That concept of salvation as domination ultimately proved to be yet another false messiah.
Without that salvation, the narrative of modern Jewish history loses its essential arc. Israel continues to lurch headlong into an offensive that leading scholars of the Holocaust have warned appears to be on the path to genocide. The transformation of victim into perpetrator does not inspire hope or give suffering meaning. Nor does comparing current events to the Holocaust amount to equating the two. As Masha Gessen has argued, it is impossible to learn lessons from an event if all comparisons to it are forbidden.
The destruction of the Second Temple, reversing the return of the Babylonian exile, destroyed the previous narrative of Jewish history as well. Third-century Palestinian rabbis had recent and bitter experience of failed messiahs. The Tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud records that Rabbis ‘Ullah, Rabbah, and Johanan all said of the messiah, “Let him come, but let me not see him.” Reish Lakish, another rabbi of that generation, asks whether it is because of the birth pangs of the messiah, as told by Jeremiah. Rabbi Johanan answers: “God says, These [the Gentiles] are my handiwork, and so are these [the Jews]; how shall I destroy the former on account of the latter?” Without justice, God himself cannot bear to see the salvation of Israel.