Zionist Anti-Semitism, Published in Return magazine, December 1990
Published in Return magazine (
Zionism has always purported to be the prime or ultimate
protector of Jews from anti-Semitism. The proposed solution has been mass
emigration to what the Zionist's term Eretz
Many critics have shown how advocacy of this solution has
undermined any struggle against anti-Semitism. Some critics have even shown how
Zionist leaders have collaborated with anti-Semitic persecutors for the sake of
that aliyah (as in Nazi Germany), or for the sake of
This essay takes the argument further, to the cultural field, by arguing that the Zionist mission involved suppressing or denying all Jewish identities other than the 'New Jew' who conquers Palestine.
In practice, this has meant that:
· Zionist culture 'assimilated' European anti-Semitism from the very start;
· the State of Israel eventually extended that discrimination to Oriental Jews, seen as a Jewish-Arab (or 'Levantine') threat, within a wider framework of Western colonial racism;
· the anti-Arab racism endemic to Zionism incorporates aspects of European anti-Semitism; and
· Zionist paranoia towards Palestinians expresses internal anxieties about the disintegration of Jewish identities which Zionism itself has helped to destroy.
As largely or potentially assimilated Jews, the early Zionists of Western Europe came to doubt the possibility – or even desirability – of their full assimilation, as they encountered prejudice and barriers. They came to accept anti-Semitic racial concepts of the Jews as inherently incapable of integrating into the Western nations as full citizens. This fatalism was expressed by doctor Leo Pinsker, with a suitable medical metaphor, when he declared that 'Judeo-phobia is a disease; and, as a congenital disease, it is incurable' (in Hertzberg, 1966).
Early Zionists also accepted – implicitly or explicitly –
prevalent stereotypes of backwards and/or subversive East European Jews, whose
migration to Western Europe (or the
At the same time, Zionists justified themselves in terms of uplifting the backward East European Jews. Moses Hess, describing the economic structure of East European Jewry as 'parasitic', described the future Jewish state as 'the basis on which European Jewry will be able to climb out of the dustbins' (quoted in Halevi, 1987, p.153). The alliance which Zionism sought with European imperialism arose from the cultural chasm which they perceived between Western and Eastern Jews.
Indeed, locating their solution in a Jewish state based on European models, Zionist leaders regarded the Eastern European Jews' culture as an obstacle. David Ben-Gurion referred disparagingly to their 'Diaspora mentality' and 'Jewish cosmopolitanism'. With the rise of fascism in the 1930s, the term 'cruel Zionism' described those who justified sacrificing the many – especially East European Jews - for the sake of the few who would establish a Jewish state. Chaim Weizmann (1937) promoted such a mentality with his poetic flair: 'The old ones will pass; they will bear their fate, or they will not. They were dust, economic and moral dust in a cruel world...' Thus, although Zionism arose in response to anti-Semitism, it did so by assimilating crucial elements of anti-Semitism, while appropriating the religious connotations of 'human dust' in racist terms.
Zionism defined a secular Jewishness negatively, in terms of the Jews' eternal persecution by anti-Semitism, seen as the world's main evil, and eventually epitomised by the Arabs. Just as this ideology saw anti-Semitism as a normal, expected reaction to the presence of Jews out of place in the Diaspora, so it saw the Jewish state as fulfilling the normal division of the world's territorial spaces according to ethnically defined national groups. Moreover, it incorporated anti-Semitic myths of the Jews as defined by race or language, and turned these into counter-myths defining the Jewish nation that needed to be built (see Halevi, 1987, chapters 5-6).
Within this framework, racist distinctions among Jews were
Even new lullabies and new 'ancient legends' were synthesised by eager writers... Folk song and dances that require the officially trained guides who.... are teaching the folk how to sing and dance properly! (translated in Bresheeth, 1989, p.130)
Jewish Arab threat
Shortly after the state of
When the Israeli government realised in the early 1950s that
few Jews would emigrate from Western countries, it resorted to inducing
Oriental Jews to do so. It then used them to populate dangerous settlements
along cease-fire lines to consolidate
Although the mass emigration of Oriental Jews served several
Zionist purposes, the Ashkenazi establishment saw it as a potential cultural
threat. Israeli publications have abounded with racist language - animal
metaphors, 'savages', 'superstitious', 'diseased', etc. - describing the
Oriental Jews. Official Israeli language bans the Yiddish term 'Schwartze' commonly
used in conversation to disparage Oriental Jews as 'blacks'. Yet the official
euphemism for them, Jewish 'people of African and Asian origin', excludes South
African Jews, who are instead categorised along with Jewish 'people of European
and American origin' (Halevi, 1987, p.207). That anomaly reveals the racial,
rather than geographical, basis for the Zionist categorisation of Jews. Halevi
further notes the irony that
The Ashkenazi perception of internal threat has been
insightfully analysed by Ella Shohat (1988). She quotes Prime Minister David
Ben-Gurion, whose 1964 book described the Oriental Jews as lacking 'the most
elementary knowledge', 'without a trace of Jewish or human education'.
Similarly, Abba Eban warned that
Shohat describes the Zionist project of turning the Oriental
Jews into true Ashkenazi Israelis: By distinguishing the 'evil East' (the
Moslem Arab) from the 'good' East (the Jewish Arab),
The grand project of assimilation has succeeded in constructing a putatively eternal antagonism between Arab versus Jew, particularly erasing the memory of the original Palestinian Jews. Likewise it has generated a syndrome of self-hating Oriental Jews, who can win acceptance only by disavowing their previous cultural identity. For them, Shohat argues, "existence under Zionism has meant a profound and visceral schizophrenia, mingling stubborn self-pride with an imposed self-rejection, typical products of a situation of colonial ambivalence...In fact, Arab-hatred, when it occurs among Oriental Jews, is almost always a disguised form of self-hatred." (p.25)
Thus their resentment against Palestinians expresses an internalised Western racism. When some Orientals formed the Black Panthers in 1970-1 and declared their solidarity with the PLO, the Israeli government attacked the movement as an expression of 'neurosis' or 'maladjustment'. That is, precisely when Oriental Jews attempted to overcome the psychopathology induced by Zionist anti-Semitism, their attempt was labelled pathological and suppressed.
Eventually their resentment became decisive in Israeli politics. Having been treated as second-class citizens by the Histadrut (Israel's second largest employer doubling as a 'labour movement'), Oriental Jews directed their hatred against 'socialism' and the Labour Party in particular, to the point of largely voting for Likud alignment in the 1977 election. Although Oriental Jews apparently support harsher measures against the Palestinians, the repressive vanguard among the army and settlers has always had an Ashkenazi leadership. While colluding with the latter, the Labour Party (and others) conveniently blame the 'backward' Oriental Jews as a major obstacle to peace.
As Shohat argues, this blaming "has the advantage of placing the elite protesters in the narcissistic posture of perpetual seekers after peace", who must bear the hostility of the government, the right wing, the Oriental Jews and recalcitrant Palestinians. In that way, even the most enlightened Ashkenazi Zionism can absolve itself by blaming less civilised Semitic peoples for perpetuating irrational conflicts. At the same time, Zionism conceals the institutional racism which engendered that conflict.
Palestinians as persecutors
Zionism often portrays the Palestinians as agents of an
international Arab conspiracy dedicated to destroying
Moreover, Zionist paranoia bears parallels to European anti-Semitism, in two senses. Palestinians are almost racially defined as anti-Jewish, as persecuted German Jews were labelled 'anti-German'. And their anticipated attacks on Jews help displace subconscious guilt about Israeli pogroms committed against Palestinians.
This displacement or projection of persecution can be seen in the portrayal of Arabs in Hebrew-language children's literature, as analysed by Fouzi al-Asmar (1986). In these stories Israelis face a mortal threat from Arabs who vent a racial hatred for the Jews, as a result of being incited by agitators sent by Arab governments. Of course such fictional Arab characters make no distinction between Jews and Israelis. Somehow the State of Israel always escapes imminent annihilation because the irrational Arabs lack effective organisation, and because Israeli supermen-soldiers (or even children) heroically protect the country from the threat. Despite such reassurance, the threat should be considered paranoid by virtue of projecting aggression and potential guilt upon the Arabs, as well as containing anxieties about the Israelis' national identity.
El-Asmar observes a change in demonological terminology
according to the period being described. In these stories, pre-1948 Arabs are portrayed
as mainly nomadic Bedouins with no particular attachment to
After the 1948 war and the establishment of the state of
In all cases, this children's literature portrays Arab
attacks as seeking only to raid, steal and kill. Apparently they are motivated
by jealousy against Jews who have brought 'human standards' and modern
prosperity to the
While the Israeli characters ultimately triumph in these children's stories, the omnipotence fantasy becomes somewhat dented by the 1973 war. In one story a child is taking cover from a MIG [jet] bombing. He hears a terrible noise "as if I were a loyal grain ground between huge millstones, as if the land is trembling under me and I will soon fall into a deep and black pit" (p.119).
In that fantasy of being reduced to nothingness, the child
expresses a widespread 'victim complex', whereby Israelis imagine themselves as
facing a perpetual threat of annihilation, from which they are saved by
superior moral character and/or military defence. The fantasy serves at least
two crucial functions. It displaces subconscious guilt about the persecution of
Palestinians; and it externalises the internal threat to Jewish identity by the
Zionist project itself. The displacement involves a psychic continuum, in which
anxiety over social identity is experienced as a threat to one's physical
existence – "falling into a deep and black pit". The unavoidable
anxiety arises in turn from
Having constructed the 'New Jew' as the born-again goy, Hebrew-speaking gentile, Zionist has further constructed the Palestinian Arab on the stereotypical model of the European Jew. Even a humanist, Left-Zionist writer like Amos Oz (1983, pp.157, 164) found himself likening the office of Al-Fajr [a Palestinian East-Jerusalem newspaper] to that of an Eastern European Yiddish newspaper. And in all seriousness he saw the paper as a sinister front for an anti-Zionist, Islamic, Soviet Communist conspiracy. Thus Arabs are despised not simply as the enemy 'other', but as a reminder of a hated and abandoned Jewish identity, 'the suffering Jew'. Moreover, European anti-Semitic conspiracy theories find their counterpart in Israeli fears of Palestinians: the persecuted are experienced as the persecutors.
Projecting Zionist anti-Semitism
A Jewish Israeli academic, educationalist Dr Adit Cohen (Ha'aretz, 30.6.76) once warned about this racist portrayal of Arabs as "it was in this way that the image of the Jew was presented in anti-Semitic Christian literature" (quoted in El-Asmar, p.125). Certainly an historical parallel can been drawn between Zionist paranoia and its anti-Semitic antecedents. As capitalist market relations destroy autonomous cultural identities, "people begin not to know who they are" (Kovel, 1983, p.238). As a psychic defence against this threat, modern racism must go further than to project onto the victim; to protect the self from annihilation, this racism tends towards physically removing or destroying the victim.
Given that the Holocaust and then
In conclusion, then, Zionism attempted to substitute a European nationalism for the traditional religious basis of Jewish identity, as well as for the diverse 'Diaspora' cultures which European racism denigrated. While claiming to protect Jews from anti-Semitism, Zionism actually undermined the basis for any coherent Jewish identity, while attributing the threat entirely to external enemies of the Jews. Thus, through a self-perpetuating illogic, Zionism presents itself as the only saviour from a malaise which it brought about and sustains.
Bresheeth, H. (1989) 'Self and Other in Zionism:
El-Asmar, F. (1986) Through the Hebrew Looking-Glass: Arab
Stereotypes in Children's Literature,
Halevi, I. (1987) A History of the Jews,
Hertzberg, A. (1966) The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis
Kovel, J. (1983) 'Marx on the Jewish Question', Dialectical
Anthropology 8: 31-46; reprinted in Joel Kovel, The Radical Spirit: Essays on
Psychoanalysis and Society,
Louvish, S. (1985) The Therapy of Avram Blok.
Orr, A. (1983) The unJewish State: The Politics of Jewish
Oz, A. (1983) The Dawn: In the
Shohat, E. (1988) 'Sephardim in
Weizmann, C. (1937) Dr Weizmann's Political Address – 20th Zionist Congress, New Judea, August, p.215
 Published during the first intifada, Return magazine opposed the 'Law of Return' for Jews and counterposed the Palestinian right of return. Its Editorial Board members included Jews and Palestinians. They were also involved in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, several on the National Executive Committee.
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