Israel’s political philosophy is usually described as “Zionism”. This is a partly religious and partly historical idea that the world’s Jewish population has a claim on part of that territory of the Middle East that had been occupied by Palestinian Arabs for well over a thousand years. It was an idea of no significance whatsoever, until sustained outbreaks of anti-semitism (organised anti-Jewish feeling) in Europe in the late nineteenth century.
The religious origin of the idea is rooted in a series of Biblical myths that the Jews are God’s chosen people, that their dispersal at the time of the Roman Empire would only be temporary, and that the arrival of the Messiah (a role denied in Judaism to either Christ or Mohammed) would signal the regrouping of the Jews in Palestine, the land of their forefathers.
However powerful the myths might have been, at no time over the centuries have the Jews shown the slightest inclination to uproot themselves and return to the land of their religion’s founders. This is true notwithstanding the occasional pilgrimage to the “Holy City” of Jerusalem and the continuous restatement of the myths in the form of prayer.
In fact by the time the Zionist idea began to take shape as a modern movement of Jewish political conquest of Palestine in the 1880s and 1890s, no less than 90 per cent of the world’s entire Jewish population lived in Europe and Russia, and had been settled there as communities for centuries. In other words, they were distinctly European in both culture and physical appearance, and, of course, had made important contributions to European culture in the arts, in literature and in science.
Yet throughout this period the Jews often found themselves the victims of hatred and persecution. This was not simply a religious difference – though it often took a religious form. At bottom it was economic. The Jews were always a trading community, with their own religion and culture, which had developed in major towns of the Roman Empire and which persisted into feudal Europe. They played a role somewhat similar to the Chinese in South East Asia or the Asian communities in East Africa. And like these other ethnic groups, they were a convenient scapegoat for rulers wanting to divert popular hatred from themselves. So it was in medieval Europe that Jews were excluded from agriculture, the guild occupations and the professions and forced to act as moneylenders and “middlemen” – typically, in Poland, the richer Jews became managers of estates for absentee landlords, the poorer Jews became tinkers and petty traders – and both were regularly subject to the wrath of an oppressed peasantry. 
At the time of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, and especially after the French Revolution, the Jews were progressively released from all these restrictions and began to play a full part at every level of society. However in Poland and in Russia, where a majority of the Jews were concentrated, all the backward features of feudal Europe clung on, despite deep convulsions for social change. Soon the deep revolutionary changes that had transformed the rest of feudal Europe would catch up with these countries. But the outdated rulers resisted this in any way they could. And one way was to make the Jews take the blame for the plight of the masses, for keeping them in fourteenth-century conditions. The Russian Czars, in particular, became expert at this. The pogrom, inciting the poor and wretched to massacre the Jews, became the standard mechanism used by the landlords and the Tsars of Russia for diverting hostility away from themselves.
A mass Jewish exodus began which would carry on into the twentieth century. The land of opportunity – indeed the promised land not only for the Jews but for millions of others fleeing persecution in Europe – was traditionally America. By the late 1920s more than three million Jews had quit Eastern Europe and Russia for America, over a 40-year period. Nearly half a million fled to Western Europe. By comparison, the 120,000 Jews who had arrived in Palestine by 1930 were a small minority.
However the unfortunate Jewish immigrants who arrived in Germany, France and Britain in the late nineteenth century confronted a new kind of crisis. This was the heyday of imperialism for these countries, when Britain’s grip on a great part of the world was about to be challenged by Germany.
The imperialist mentality had divided the world into “races” both at home and abroad. This ideological device both served to avoid a crisis of conscience in the European attitude to the “dark races” who, living outside Europe and lacking “civilisation”, could thus be exploited and abused in an entirely uncivilised way. It also offered an alternative picture of the world to that of Karl Marx, who had all too accurately identified a world divided into social classes, not races, and whose ideas were rapidly inspiring the growing workers’ movements in these industrialised countries to challenge the imperialist ruling classes and to demand a classless, hence equal, society.
The imperialist rulers used the idea of “race” and “nation” to divide the working-class movements. By selling the idea that there was something “special” about being “British” or “French” or “German” they could bind their populations behind patriotic flag-waving in the face of adversity. This could take the pressure off the ruling classes at times of economic crises, when cuts in living standards had to be ordered, by identifying an enemy whether at home or abroad.
“Foreigners“ were the enemy abroad and “foreigners” arriving as immigrants became a useful enemy at home. Jewish foreigners were particularly useful as scapegoats because dim memories of the role they had been forced to play as moneylenders, centuries before, could be successfully stirred up.
Western Europe’s already well-established Jewish communities looked on with mounting concern as their poorer brethren arrived in their countries, often sparking waves of anti-semitism. They had known nothing like it before and many recognised that some form of political intervention was essential. Some recognised anti-semitism for what it was, a cruel mechanism of social control which protected the status quo and divided the opposition. Hence, both they and many of the new immigrants joined socialist movements as the best way of fighting this divisive form of racism.
But others drew very different conclusions. Some – like the principal architect of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl – came to the conclusion that anti-semitism was inevitable and that the Jews should withdraw from Europe altogether and find their “own” homeland.
Herzl was an Austrian Jewish journalist who covered the famous Dreyfus trial in France in 1895. The trial provoked an outburst of anti-semitism in France. Shortly afterwards Herzl began to formulate his theories. His argument seemed to concede the anti-semitic case. In an infamous passage, he wrote:
In Paris ... I achieved a freer attitude towards anti-semitism, which I began to understand historically and pardon. Above all, I recognised the emptiness and futility of trying to combat anti-semitism. 
This bleak and pessimistic perspective would effectively provide a justification for not only “pardoning” anti-semitism but even collaborating with it, since anti-semites would themselves later prove willing cynically to promote the Zionist cause.
Herzl was not particularly religious – in fact he was not particularly concerned at first even to make Palestine the target area for the new Jewish “homeland”. He considered Argentina at one stage. However it soon became obvious that the Jewish Biblical myths were a potent source of inspiration for developing an exclusivist and highly nationalistic Jewish identity.
And again, while Herzl was not the first person in this period to formulate the “Zionist solution” to anti-semitism, he was the first to link it deliberately to European imperialism, of which he was a great admirer, as the only means of withdrawing the Jews from Europe.
Hence he set about seeking assistance from the great imperialists of his day. He wrote to Cecil Rhodes, the founder of Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe) whom he thought of as a “visionary”. Rhodes had become identified with the mass white settlements in central Africa after countless bloody battles with the African population. Herzl wrote to Rhodes:
You are being invited to help make history. This cannot frighten you ... it does not involve Africa but a piece of Asia Minor, not Englishmen but Jews ... I turn to you ... because it is something colonial ... 
Interestingly enough, Rhodes also recognised the role imperialism could play in drawing off an “unwanted” portion of the population who might otherwise become a source of instability:
I was in the East End of London (a working-class quarter) yesterday and attended a meeting of the unemployed. I listened to the wild speeches which were just a cry for “bread”, “bread”! ... I pondered ... and became more and more convinced of the importance of imperialism ... In order to save the 40 million inhabitants of the United Kingdom from bloody civil war we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced in the factories and the mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists. 
Herzl regarded the previous efforts to gain entry into Palestine as hopeless. He argued the only guarantee of an eventual Jewish state would be one based on what he called “assured supremacy”. This meant obtaining imperialist backing. He recognised the ultimate importance of Britain:
England with her possessions in Asia should be most interested in Zionism, for the shortest route to India is by way of Palestine. England’s great politicians were the first to recognise the need for colonial expansion ... And so I believe in England the idea of Zionism, which is a colonial idea, should be easily understood. 
Meanwhile the deepening crisis in pre-revolutionary Russia gave its own momentum to the new Zionist cause. In 1903, two years before the first mass revolutionary uprising in Russia, the Tsar, sensing the impending threat to his rule, ordered a new wave of pogroms. His Interior Minister, the notorious anti-semite Wenzel von Plehve, made the necessary arrangements.
On 6 April 1903, Tsarist police stood by with folded arms while a mob attacked Jewish homes and stores in the town of Kishenev. The mob was inflamed by articles in the province’s only newspaper, which was funded by Von Plehve. In two days of rioting hundreds of Jews were killed, wounded or crippled. There were stories of Jews being torn in two and babies beaten in the street. News of the outrage spread far and wide. There were large protest demonstrations across America. By 1900 already almost one million Jews had settled in America.
(There is a macabre comparison between the massacre at Kishenev in 1903 and the massacre at Sabra and Shatila in Beirut in 1982. In both cases the authorities looked on as the murders took place.) 
Yiddish was the most widely-spoken language among Russia’s Jews. All Yiddish publications were banned in the Kishenev region – except one. Just before the pogrom Von Plehve had given his blessing to a Yiddish Zionist paper which portrayed Jews as “aliens” in Russia and called for a mass Jewish exodus to the ancient “homeland”. All other voices opposing anti-semitism were hounded by the Tsarist police, particularly the revolutionaries who played a leading role in organising the underground resistance to Tsarism in all its forms.
As Lenin, who became the leader of the Bolsheviks, put it:
The Tsarist police, in alliance with the landowners and the capitalists, organised pogroms against the Jews. [They] try and divert the hatred of the workers and the peasants against the Jews ... It is not the Jews who are the enemies of working people. Their enemies are the capitalists of all countries. 
In fact the revolutionary movement attracted an increasing number of Russian Jews. In 1903 Chaim Weizmann, a leading Zionist, sent a report to Herzl: “The Zionist movement has not succeeded in attracting the best of Jewish youth ... Almost the entire Jewish student body stands firmly behind the revolutionary camp.” 
A month after the Kishenev pogrom, in May 1903, Herzl went to Russia as a representative of what was now the World Zionist Organisation. He met Von Plehve. But he did not demand that Von Plehve condemn the pogrom. Rather, he pleaded his help in persuading the Tsar to intervene with the Sultan of Turkey – at this time Turkey controlled the Ottoman Empire, which included the land of Palestine. The Sultan had slowed Zionist emigration to Palestine. If the Tsar did intervene then Herzl would return the favour: he would cut out any attacks on the Tsar at the forthcoming Zionist Congress. Herzl recorded in his diary:
Von Plehve attached much importance to the forthcoming Zionist Congress, obviously because he saw that the Kishenev business was bound to come up there for a frank hearing. When this happens, I could be in the position of doing him a service by cutting the thing short. 
After the First World War Britain took control of Palestine after stimulating an Arab revolt against Turkey. Chaim Weizmann, who replaced Herzl after his death as the most prominent Zionist leader, had anticipated this probable outcome. In a letter to the Manchester Guardian in 1914, Weizmann wrote:
Should Palestine fall within the British sphere of influence and should [they] encourage Jewish settlement ... [we could] develop the country, bring back civilisation and form a very effective guard for the Suez Canal. 
In 1917, before the British had assumed control of the area, Weizmann was invited to secret discussions with the British government. These led to the famous “Balfour Declaration”, which both expressed British support for Zionist settlement in Palestine and Zionist acceptance of British control of Palestine. The Declaration promised a “national home for the Jewish people”. Winston Churchill understood the significance of a “national home for the Jewish people” only too well.
... a Jewish state under the protection of the British Crown, which might comprise three or four million Jews ... would from every point of view be beneficial and would be especially in harmony with the truest interests of the British Empire. 
The shadow of anti-semitism as a partner of Zionism rather than its polar opposite, as the Zionists would claim it to be, hung over the Balfour Declaration. Lord Balfour, the British minister in whose name the declaration was signed, had enthusiastically campaigned for the introduction of the British Aliens Act in 1905 – which aimed deliberately at stemming further Jewish immigration into Britain.
Meanwhile, Arab resistance to British control in the Middle East was half-hearted. The Arab leadership, made up largely of feudal sheikhs and kings, was in awe of the British and incapable of challenging them (though there was and would continue to be mass loathing and rebellion by the region’s poor, the vast majority). By 1920 Palestinian leaders had accepted the inevitability of British rule. However at their first all-Palestinian congress in December 1920 at Haifa they formulated three demands which remained constant throughout the period: for an end to British support for Zionism; an end to Jewish immigration; and the formation of a representative national government.
There were 56,000 Jews and about a million Palestinians in Palestine at the end of the First World War. It doesn’t take mathematical genius to calculate which national group had the natural majority. Even though Jewish immigration more than doubled in the next five years, they were still a tiny minority. Yet the Arabs felt threatened by the jews and cheated by the British, who had always promised them that their demands would be taken seriously.
Arab fears were more than justified. As Lord Balfour put it in a confidential memorandum in 1919:
In Palestine we do not propose to even go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants ... The Four Powers are committed to Zionism. 
And as a young Zionist settler from America and future Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, wrote in a letter in 1921:
If we dig in here, England will come to our aid. It is not the Arabs who the English will pick to ... colonise Palestine, it is we. 
From the start, the leaders of the Jewish community set out to exclude Palestinians from as many areas of life as possible. The leaders of “Labour Zionism” founded the exclusively Jewish trade union, the Histadrut, in 1920. It rapidly became the spearhead of anti-Palestinian activity.
The Histadrut called its programme “socialist”. It said that the Jewish state had to be built by the toil of Jewish workers. In lofty statements, the Histadrut insisted that Jews should not exploit native Palestinians by hiring them to work in fields or factories. Histadrut leaders coined three slogans to guide the Jewish colony: “Jewish Land, Jewish Labour, Jewish Produce”. Following these slogans, Zionist agencies leased land only to Jews; Jewish agricultural settlements and industries hired only Jews; and Jews boycotted fruits and vegetables from non-Jewish farms. Thus Palestinians were excluded from the Jewish sector of the economy.
Jewish businesses, tempted by cheap Palestinian labour, sometimes violated the “Jewish Labour” principle. But the Histadrut programme appealed to the large numbers of new settlers who often arrived penniless from Europe and anxious to find work. Only exclusive Jewish control over the sale of labour would guarantee reasonable wages. This fused with feelings of European superiority and the Zionist “mission” of returning “home” into a potent and fanatical movement.
Members of the Histadrut would picket and stand guard at Jewish orchards to prevent Arab workers from getting jobs. Squads of activists stormed through market places, pouring kerosene on tomatoes grown in Arab gardens or smashing eggs that Jewish housewives might buy from Arab merchants. The Jewish National Fund gave its agents large sums of money to buy land from rich absentee landowners or to pressure small farmers who were deeply in debt to sell their land. Zionists would then evict the Arab peasants who lived on the newly-purchased land.
Increasingly, the leaders of the Histadrut became leaders of the Zionist movement. Three future prime ministers came from the ranks of this “trade union”. In fact the Histadrut more and more became the infrastructure of the future state. Of particular importance were the developing kibbutzim, the agricultural communes. An outward show of equality and freedom for its Jewish members concealed the fact that Arabs were excluded (the same is of course true today) and that each kibbutz was also a small military base of the Haganah, the Zionist militia, founded in 1923.
And of course each kibbutz stood on land that had been farmed by Palestinians for a thousand years.
1. This argument forms part of the basis for Abram Leon, The Jewish Question (New York 1970).
2. The Diaries of Theodor Herzl, p.6, cited in Our Roots, p.21.
3. Cited in Our Roots, p.24.
4. Quoted in Our Roots, p.24.
5. Herzl, quoted in Our Roots, pages 25-6.
6. For a detailed comparison, see Chomsky.
7. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, p.94.
8. Quoted in Our Roots, p.20.
9. Quoted in Our Roots, p.20.
10. Manchester Guardian, November 1914, quoted in Our Roots, p.29.
11. Winston Churchill, Zionism versus Bolshevism, in Illustrated Sunday Herald, 8 February 1920.
12. Memorandum by Lord Balfour, Foreign Office document FO: 371/4183/2117/132187, cited in Our Roots, p.29.
13. Quoted in Our Roots, p.38.
Last updated on 4.8.2001