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The Ass and the Red Heifer
Original article can be found here: https://monthlyreview.org/2020/02/01/messianic-zionism/?v=79cba1185463
The relation between Zionism and Judaism (the Jewish religion) is paradoxical and complex. In its early days, Zionism was apparently a thoroughly secular political movement. Apparently. In reality, while its ego was secular, its id has always been religious. And in recent times, the latter has emerged from its hidden recess and is parading in full view. A form of religious Zionism has gained influence in Israel, which shares with militant Christian evangelism and Islamic jihadism the character of political movement with fundamentalist religious ideology.
From its very beginning in 1897, political Zionism regarded itself as a national movement of political self-determination. Its ideology is based on two central tenets. First, that the totality of Jews the world over is a single national collectivity—a people (ethnos). Second, that this national entity has a valid claim of ownership over its ancestral homeland, Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel).1 Both of these tenets are rooted in religious myths.2
Let me start with the first. It is, in a sense, a seemingly secular version of the biblical notion of the Children of Israel as “the people of Yahweh.”3 A worldwide Jewish people is fundamentally a religion-based concept; as Sa’adia Ga’on, one of the highest authorities of Judaism, put it: “Our people is a people only because of the Torah (religious law).”4 The totality of Jews clearly do not constitute a single nation in the modern secular sense of this term, nor have they been a nation in any contemporary meaningful sense for well over two thousand years (if ever).5 Jewry has long comprised many distinct ethnic communities, whose only common attribute is Judaism, the Jewish religion. A necessary and sufficient condition for a non-Jew—a person whose mother is not Jewish—to become a Jew is religious conversion. Conversely, a Jew who adopts another religion is no longer considered to be a Jew, except by racists, for whom Jewishness is a matter of race.6 To be sure, there are people who do not practice Judaism nor believe in its god, but who regard themselves and are regarded by others as Jews. But outside Israel—I will return to this significant exception later—secular Jewish identity tends to dissipate after two or three generations.
The Pittsburgh Platform, a founding document of the U.S. Jewish Reform movement—to this day the largest denomination within American Judaism—dates from 1885. Although the Zionist movement had not yet been officially founded at the time, Zionist ideas were already being discussed. The Platform’s attitude to these is stated bluntly: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”7
In western Europe, the Zionist claim that Jewishness was a national rather than a religious category was vigorously contested by leading Jews. To them, this sounded dangerously like the anti-Semites’ view of the Jews as a foreign element.
For example, the French politician and scientist, Alfred Naquet, polemicizing in 1903 against the Zionist Bernard Lazare, pointed out that the claim that Jews are a separate nation was not very different from the preaching of leading anti-Semites such as Édouard Drumont, founder of the Antisemitic League of France.
If it pleased Bernard Lazare to consider himself a citizen of a separate nation, that is his affair; but I declare that, although I was born a Jew…I do not recognise Jewish nationality.… I belong to no other nation but the French.… Are the Jews a nation? Although they were one in the remote past, my reply is a categorical negative. The concept nation implies certain conditions that do not exist in this case. A nation must have a territory on which to develop, and, in our time at least, until a world confederation has extended this basis, a nation must have a common language. And the Jews no longer have either a territory or a common language.… Like myself, Bernard Lazare probably did not know a word of Hebrew, and would have found it no easy matter, if Zionism had achieved its purpose, to make himself understood to his congeners from other parts of the world.…
German and French Jews are quite unlike Polish and Russian Jews. The characteristic features of the Jews include nothing that bears the stamp of nationality. If it were permissible to recognise the Jews as a nation, as Drumont does, it would be an artificial nation. The modern Jew is a product of the unnatural selection to which his forebears were subjected for nearly eighteen centuries.8
When the Zionists, led by Chaim Weizmann, were lobbying for what was to become known as the Balfour Declaration in 1917, leading British Jews—who represented a consensus of the Board of Deputies of British Jews—rejected the claim of Jewish nationhood on very similar terms, that is, pointing out its affinity with anti-Semitism.9
This view reflected the real situation of the Jews in most western countries, where they had won legal equality. In the United States, they had had equal rights since 1789, and the French Revolution emancipated the Jews in 1791. Napoleon Bonaparte freed the Jews in the countries he conquered. This was extended to other western European countries during the nineteenth century. In the United Kingdom, the process was gradual, and Jews achieved full legal equality relatively late, under the 1858 Oath Bill. In all these countries, the Jews were rapidly assimilating culturally and linguistically to the respective host nations and were concerned to overcome anti-Semitic opposition to their right to be regarded as belonging to these nations.
The situation in eastern Europe, in the European part of the Russian empire and its periphery, was quite different; here the myth of Jewish nationhood had some credence. By the late nineteenth century, the Jews in that part of the world, largely unassimilated and subject to legally sanctioned discrimination, had evolved into something like a nation or a quasi-nation, with its own secular culture and literature in its distinct language, Yiddish. Moreover, Yiddish speakers made up a high proportion, in some cases a majority, of the population in quite a few rural enclaves, towns, and cities in the western parts of the Russian Empire.10 Although this quasi-nation did not include the established Jewish communities in western Europe and the United States, let alone those in other continents (not even those in the Asian part of the Russian empire!), it did constitute a considerable majority of world Jewry. It is therefore not surprising that eastern European Jews by and large took the notion of Jewish nationhood for granted, although only a small minority subscribed to Zionism.
The Bund, the foremost Jewish workers’ organization in the Russian Empire and fiercely anti-Zionist, was formed in 1897. A year later, when it helped found the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), it demanded and was initially granted the right to be an autonomous national section within the new party. In the 1903 Second Congress of the RSDLP, the majority (Bolshevik) faction of the party, led by V. I. Lenin, had that right revoked and the Bund thereupon split from the RSDLP. (It rejoined the party in the 1906 Sixth Congress, in which the Bolshevik faction was a minority.) Among Lenin’s arguments was the claim that the Jews were not a nation. In support of this claim, he invoked the opinion of “one of the most prominent of Marxist theoreticians,” Karl Kautsky, as well Naquet’s (aforequoted) polemics against Lazare.11
However, Lenin’s argument on this particular point is rather weak: Kautsky and Naquet showed, in effect, that there does not exist a pan-Jewish nation, encompassing all Jews around the world. But the Bund was not concerned with world Jewry, only with the Jewish workers in the Russian Empire, as its full name made clear: General Jewish Labour Bund (Federation) of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia. Kautsky and Naquet based their denial of pan-Jewish nationhood on the observation that world Jewry lacks a common language and is not territorially localized. But the Jews with whom the Bund were concerned did have their own distinct language: Yiddish. And while they were not a majority of the population in a single contiguous territory, they did not differ very much in this respect from some other national groups in the mosaic of eastern Europe, where nationhood tended to be primarily a linguistic-cultural category.
A New Hebrew People
The Yiddish-speaking national community of eastern Europe is no more. Beginning in the 1880s, large waves of its members migrated to other parts of the world and millions who chose not to leave or failed to find a safe haven perished in the Nazi Judeocide.
In the meantime, Jewish settlers in Palestine were being formed into a new Hebrew settler nation. This brings us to the second central tenet of Zionist ideology: the claim of ownership over the ancestral Jewish homeland.
Recent propagandist assertions of this tenet tend to pass in silence over the fact that implementing the claimed right has necessarily involved colonization by Jews of the land in question (consisting at the very least of pre-1948 Palestine), populated by Palestinian Arabs.
In earlier times, the indisputable fact that the Zionist project was one of colonization was not felt as an embarrassment. It is how political Zionism described itself right from the start. Thus, the Second Zionist Congress (1898) adopted the following resolution, (supplementing the Basel Program adopted at the First Congress a year earlier):
This Congress, in approval of the colonisation already inaugurated in Palestine, and being desirous of fostering further efforts in that direction, hereby declares, that
- For the proper settlement of Palestine, this Congress considers it is necessary to obtain the requisite permission from the Turkish government, and to carry out such settlement according to the plan, and under the direction of a committee, selected by this Congress.
- This committee to be appointed to superintend and direct all matters of colonisation; it shall consist of ten members, and have its seat in London.12
The Congress also resolved to establish a bank, the Jewish Colonial Trust, to finance the activities of the Zionist movement and it was duly incorporated in London in 1899.13 Well into the twentieth century, Zionists continued to describe their project unabashedly, in a perfectly matter-of-fact way, as one of colonization. A prime example is the right-wing Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky’s famous 1923 article “The Iron Wall.”14 Later that century, this usage became a public-relations liability and the term was discreetly replaced by various euphemisms.
Since the Zionist project aimed to create a Jewish nation-state with a Jewish majority, and since in every country the direct producers are a majority of the population, it was fairly obvious to its more astute leaders that the Jewish colonists’ political economy must not depend on the labor power of the indigenous people. Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, outlined the project of the Jewish state in an extended entry in his diary, dated June 12, 1895. It includes the oft-quoted passage: “The private lands in the territories granted us we must gradually take out of the hands of the owners. The poorer amongst the [indigenous] population we try to transfer quietly outside our borders by providing them with work in the transit countries, but in our country we deny them all work.”15
So, from its very inception Zionist colonization deliberately followed the model of what Karl Marx had called “colonies properly so-called” (as distinct from “plantation-colonies” and colonies “in rich and well-populated countries…given over to plunder”).16 Kautsky called them “work colonies” (as opposed to “exploitation colonies,” which depend on exploiting indigenous labor).17 This model is, roughly speaking, what academic postcolonial discourse refers to as settler colonialism. (Only roughly speaking, because non-Marxist academic typology focuses on the relative number of settlers and the displacement of the indigenous people, but does not always insist, as a principal criterion, on the political economy’s dependence on the labor of settlers.)
There are not many general laws of history, but here is one: In modern times, wherever sizable colonization followed this model, in which the direct producers of the settlers’ political economy were mainly themselves settlers, a new settler nation—rather than a settlers’ caste, stratum, or quasi-class—came into being.
The causality behind this is pretty obvious. Zionist colonization is unique in many ways.18 But it is not an exception to this law: a new national formation, referring to itself as Hebrew, began to emerge in Palestine from the early days of Zionist immigration, some 120 years ago. However, Zionism has had a conflicted attitude to this new national entity and has eventually come to deny its very existence.
The conundrum that faced Zionism is the relationship between the worldwide Jewish nation posited by its ideology and the real nation that was a product of its project. Zionist ideologues were, of course, aware that world Jewry did not satisfy the usual criteria of nationhood. They resolved this difficulty by asserting that it was an anomalous nation.19 This was often coupled with contempt for diaspora Jews, using expressions hardly distinguishable from anti-Semitic stereotypes.20 In contrast, the emerging Hebrew settler nation was regarded with some pride as a normal, modern, territorially anchored nation, with modern Hebrew as uniquely its own language of secular everyday discourse. It was seen by Zionists as part of the worldwide Jewish nation, but a very special and distinct part.
Before the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jewish settler community in Palestine was referred to as the “Hebrew Yishuv” (settlement), as distinct from the “old Yishuv,” the small pre-Zionist religious Jewish community. The label Hebrew was proudly attached to all institutions created by the settler community. Thus: the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Eretz Yisrael (founded in 1919); the General Organization (Histadrut) of Hebrew Workers in Eretz Yisrael (1920); the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1925); and so on and on (there was even a short-lived party of Hebrew Communists). In 1937, Jabotinsky published a programmatic book entitled A Hebrew State—Solution to the Jewish Problem. And the demand “Hebrew State!” served as one of the main slogans raised and chanted in mass Zionist demonstrations that I personally witnessed in the last years of the British Mandate, following the rift between the Zionist movement and Britain.21
This usage of Hebrew is unmistakably deliberate in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, promulgated on May 14, 1948. The person mainly responsible for finalizing the text of this document was Moshe Sharett—an accomplished linguist and stickler for terminological precision—who was about to be Israel’s first foreign minister and later its second prime minister. The Declaration makes an unambiguous distinction between the terms Jewish and Hebrew. The former occurs many times and consistently refers to world Jewry; the latter occurs three times, referring in each case to the settler community in Palestine/Israel. Here are the final two paragraphs:
We extend our hand to all the neighbouring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighbourliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the independent Hebrew people in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.
We appeal to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Yishuv in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by it in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream—the redemption of Israel.22
The Strange Disappearance of the Hebrew People
The distinction in Israel’s founding document between the Hebrew people—also referred to as the (Hebrew) Yishuv—and the Jewish people dispersed around the world could hardly be clearer. And yet, at the very moment when the existence of a Hebrew people “independent in its own land” was formally celebrated, it began to be downplayed. It seems that David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, felt uncomfortable or ambiguous about it. According to the original voice recording of Ben-Gurion proclaiming the Declaration at the meeting of the Provisional Council of State on May 14, 1948, he deviated from the official written (and published) text: instead of “independent Hebrew people” he read out “independent Jewish people.”23
This highly significant alteration may have been a Freudian slip. But the official English translation of the Declaration, published by the Israeli government, is certainly guilty of deliberate falsification. It replaces Hebrew everywhere with Jewish. In the first of the paragraphs previously quoted, it replaces “independent Hebrew people” with “sovereign Jewish people” and, in the second paragraph, it replaces “Yishuv” (which earlier in the original Declaration is “Hebrew Yishuv”) by the spurious “Jews of Eretz-Israel.”24 The subtle intention behind the official falsification is instructive: while the local Hebrew people can only assert the mundane fact of its political independence, it is the worldwide “Jewish people” that is claimed to have sovereignty of “its own land,” which must be the whole of Eretz Israel, that is, Palestine.
In fact, within a few years following 1948, Hebrew as referring to the new nation, previously ubiquitous, virtually disappeared from Israeli public discourse, which is firmly guided by the Zionist ideology that permeates the media and the educational system. The name was still used to refer to the everyday language of the new nation, but no longer to the nation itself.
Obliterating the distinctness of the Hebrew nation was motivated by the need to legitimize the Zionist colonizing expansionary project, past, present, and future. The Hebrew nation is a new formation. What national rights could it possibly claim? It could appeal to the right to national self-determination as commonly understood, but this would at most apply to the territory where it was a majority of the population. In May 1948—in the midst of the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian Arab population—this was a rather modest part of Mandatory Palestine. Or it could appeal to the UN Assembly resolution 181 (November 29, 1947) on the partition of Palestine, which would legitimize possession of 56 percent of Mandatory Palestine, including areas populated exclusively or mainly by Arabs. In either case, this claim would have to confront and be reconciled with the stronger claim to national rights of the indigenous Palestinian Arabs.
But mainstream Zionism, led by Ben-Gurion, its most astute and determined strategist, had no intention of confining colonization to a mere part of Palestine/Eretz Yisrael. (Indeed, Israel has studiously avoided specifying its borders, either in its Declaration of Independence or ever since).25 Nor did it leave room for Palestinian Arab statehood: on this there had never been any difference between Ben-Gurion’s and Jabotinsky’s brand of Zionism.26 But this meant that invoking the existence of the new Hebrew nation and claiming national rights for it would fall far, far short of legitimizing Zionist appetites. Something much grander was needed. As the Zionist historian Yigal Elam put it:
Zionism could not appeal to the principle of self-determination and rely on it in Palestine. This principle worked clearly against it and in favour of the local Arab national movement.…
From the viewpoint of national theory, Zionism needed a fiction that was incompatible with the accepted concepts of national theory.… [It] needed a much broader conception than the simplistic one. In this other conception…referendum of the world’s Jews superseded referendum of the population of Palestine.27
This “fiction” is the claim that world Jewry is a national entity that has a supposedly historical (read: divine) right to possess the whole of Palestine and colonize it. The spurious “right to self-determination of the Jewish people” is a marketing jingle for this fictitious claim. Outrageous as it is by any rational standard, it has nevertheless been very potent. It certainly managed to persuade not only a large number of Jews, but also elites of western imperialist countries who found it politically useful as well as congruent with their Christian faith.
But for this self-legitimation of the Zionist state to work smoothly, use of the term Hebrew as denoting a new Israeli settler nation, or even a semidetached part of world Jewry, had to be abandoned. And abandoned it was. It has become virtually disused, except as a means of making some deliberate political point.28 The Hebrew nation still exists, but—to borrow Marx’s famous distinction regarding class—it is a nation in itself but no longer for itself.
An effective way of obscuring the existence of an entity is to deprive it of a name. The nameless is only faintly thinkable. Having lost the memory of its proper name, the Hebrew nation has been reduced to referring to itself by confusing and ill-fitting monikers.
In informal discourse, the Hebrew nation is often referred to by its own members and by others simply as Israeli. But this is confusing, because Israeli law recognizes this term as denoting citizenship, not ethnicity or national identity. Moreover, there are clearly two Israeli national groups: Hebrew and Palestinian Arab.29
In official and most public discourse in Israel, members of the Hebrew nation are called Jews (while outside Israel they are usually called Israeli Jews). But this designation is ill-fitting, because there are in Israel hundreds of thousands of persons who are not Jewish but are well assimilated into Hebrew society and are not regarded by themselves or by most (nonreligious) members of that society as belonging to a different nation. Many of these are close relatives of Jews who were allowed to immigrate to Israel and be naturalized under the Law of Return, such as a non-Jewish spouse or child of someone who has a Jewish grandparent.30 There are also Israeli-born children of foreign workers, whose only language is Hebrew. In addition to these Hebrew non-Jews, there are persons in Israel who are regarded by themselves and by most people as Jews, but whose Jewishness is somehow not quite kosher by Israeli legal standards. Such are converts to Judaism whose conversion was officiated by a non-Orthodox rabbi, who might well be—what sacrilege!—of the female gender. Their Jewishness is not recognized by the Orthodox rabbinate, which enjoys monopoly in Israel.
Thus Zionism, having first reinvented Judaism as an imaginary nation, went on to squeeze the real Hebrew nation into a religious procrustean bed.
Induced into a state of collective amnesia and disremembering its own proper name, the Hebrew nation has become uncertain about its identity—which is just fine as far as Zionist self-legitimizing propaganda is concerned—it can go on claiming that “Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people.”31
But on rare occasions the old memory resurfaces and the officially fostered confusion is lamented even by some old-time Zionists, such as the Hebrew poet Haim Guri, the title and subtitle of whose article on the subject speaks for itself: “Israelis Used to be Hebrews, Now What Are We?: More Than Six Decades After Their State Was Founded, Israelis Still Grapple with Their Identity.”32
By deliberately suppressing Hebrew national consciousness, which was essentially secular, and promoting “Israeli-Jewish” faux-national consciousness, the Zionist regime granted religion an unassailable and potentially decisive ideological position. As I have argued, Jewishness is essentially a religious determination, a precinct whose boundary is patrolled and controlled by rabbis as border guards and gatekeepers.
By Other Means…
Settler colonialism is like a gas: it expands to fill all available space. But unlike a gas, it needs an ideology and preferably a strategy. In the case of the United States, the ideology went by the name of Manifest Destiny and appealed to divine providence. In the case of Zionism, the claim over Eretz Yisrael was of course always dependent on divine promise, but in former times this was disguised by secular self-deception. Not any longer. In a cringe-inducing scene that went viral, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations was recently seen waving the Bible as Israel’s title deed over the whole of the Holy Land.33
As for strategy, the Zionist movement had a very clear one. It was most succinctly formulated by its supreme strategist, Ben-Gurion, in a letter to his son Amos, dated October 5, 1937. In this letter, he explains why he was ready to accept the Peel Commission report, which offered the Jewish settlers a state on a portion of Palestine. (The portion was considerably smaller than the one offered some ten years later by the UN Partition Plan.) The letter in its entirety is compulsory reading for anyone interested in the issue of Palestine. Some words of this hand-written text are contested because of messy crossings-out, but here is an uncontested key passage:
My assumption (which is why I am a fervent proponent of a state, even though it is now linked to partition) is that a Jewish state on only part of the land is not the end but the beginning.
When we acquire one thousand or 10,000 dunams, we feel elated. It does not hurt our feelings that by this acquisition we are not in possession of the whole land. This is because this increase in possession is of consequence not only in itself, but because through it we increase our strength, and every increase in strength helps in the possession of the land as a whole. The establishment of a state, even if only on a portion of the land, is the maximal reinforcement of our strength at the present time and a powerful boost to our historical endeavours to liberate the entire country.
We shall admit into the state all the Jews we can. We firmly believe that we can admit more than two million Jews. We shall build a multi-faceted Jewish economy—agricultural, industrial, and maritime. We shall organize an advanced defence force—a superior army which I have no doubt will be one of the best armies in the world. At that point I am confident that we would not fail in settling in the remaining parts of the country, through agreement and understanding with our Arab neighbours, or through some other means.34
During the war of 1947–49, Ben-Gurion applied this strategy with a large measure of success: Israel annexed additional areas of Palestine over and above the part allocated to it by the UN Partition Plan. Some of these annexations occurred through secret “agreement and understanding” with one of the “Arab neighbours,” Abdullah I of Jordan.35 The rest were achieved “through some other means”—namely by force of arms. But Ben-Gurion was not an adventurist; he exercised some restraint in not trying to push Israeli conquest further than political constraints allowed.
This still left some 22 percent of Mandate Palestine unavailable for Zionist colonization. Israel’s most hawkish leaders felt that there was still some unfinished business left.36
After June 1963, when Ben-Gurion finally left office and his restraining authority was no longer effective, the hawkish faction became more assertive and there was frequent open discussion of what had been unfinished by the 1947–49 war. Thus, on January 31, 1964, the evening newspaper Ma’ariv published a series of interviews on this topic with leading public figures, conducted by Ge’ulah Cohen, an extreme right-wing nationalist politician and former terrorist.37 All interviewees shared the view that the existing borders of Israel (which had in fact never been finalized and were merely armistice lines established in 1949) fell short of encompassing the “entire homeland.” Some accepted these borders as an inevitable compromise, but others were not resigned to this reality. While Shimon Peres opined that “Israel can exist even within the present borders,” Moshe Dayan asserted that “the present borders are an outcome of the  war, not an achievement of [our] objective.” And Aryeh Ben-Eliezer, a leader of Herut (forerunner of the Likud), was even more explicit: “Israel’s existence depends on not giving up on the entire country.”
A few months later, Yigal Allon—like Dayan, a prestigious general turned politician and a prominent hawk—declared:
The country has remained divided and its borders distorted not due to lack of correct strategic planning or lack of military capability, but only because of political restraint for which prime minister and defence minister D Ben-Gurion was responsible. Indeed, when [he] ordered our army to halt, we were at the peak of our victories in all the decisive fronts, from the Litani river in the north to the heart of the Sinai desert in the southwest. With just a few days of fighting it would have been possible to achieve the final defeat of the invading Arab armies and liberation of the country in its entirety.38
Allon, like Dayan, was in the June 1967 war cabinet, and both pushed for implementing their hawkish line at the time of the war and in the following period.
The Messiah’s Ass
From a historical perspective, the extension of Zionist colonization to the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel in 1967 was virtually a foregone conclusion: a matter of fulfilling a supposed manifest destiny. But the groups of militants that sprang immediately to action and established Jewish outposts, surrounded by a hostile and traumatized Palestinian population, were fired by an explicitly religious-messianic ideology that was historically quite novel.39
In the pre-1948 phase, the ideology that motivated the pioneers of Zionist colonization, although of ultimately religious derivation, was avowedly secular. It was all about nation-building, the birth—or, as they saw it, phoenix-like rebirth—of a sturdy Hebrew nation out of the ashes of deformed diaspora Jewry. They were laying the foundations of a future Hebrew state. That most of them were self-styled leftists, professing so-called socialist Zionism may seem odd today, following the decolonization of the second half of the twentieth century. But in those days, a combination of professed socialism with colonialism was not exceptional. A draft resolution presented at the Seventh Congress of the Socialist International (Stuttgart, 1907) asserted that “Congress did not in principle condemn all colonial policy, for under socialism colonial policy could play a civilizing role.” Its author was the International’s most prominent spokesman on colonial issues, the Dutch delegate Hendrick van Kol, who was a racist and owned a plantation in Java, Indonesia.40 (Kautsky, against the majority of the German delegation, urged the Congress to reject van Kol’s draft resolution. His intervention—approvingly reported by Lenin—carried the day and the revisionist motion was narrowly defeated by 128 votes to 108, with the ten Swiss delegates abstaining.)41
In 1967, that pre-1948 pioneering ideology was long out of date: the nation had been built and Israel was a nuclear power albeit an unofficial one. Socialist Zionism was no longer an inspiring idea.
From 1948 to 1967, the role of any pioneering ideology as justifying and motivating Zionist colonization was not much in evidence; there was not much call for it. The massive ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Arabs during 1947–49 and the large wave of Jewish immigration that soon followed reduced the indigenous Palestinian population of Israel in 1949 to a mere 14 percent: 159,100 out of a total of 1,173,000. By 1967, the population more than doubled, but the proportion of Palestinians hardly changed: 392,700 out of 2,776,300, with the natural reproduction of Palestinians having compensated for additional Jewish immigration.42 Outwardly, Israel could look superficially like a normal nation-state, with a not very large ethnic minority; its legitimacy not apparently problematic. True, Zionist colonization continued relentlessly. Arab-owned land, for example, both belonging to the ethnically cleansed refugees and to those who escaped ethnic cleansing, was expropriated by the state and given over to Jewish settlers.43 But this colonization was internal, within internationally accepted Israeli territory, and did not require justification in what counts as world public opinion, which largely ignored or forgot all about the evicted Palestinian refugees. The settlers were for the most part poor new immigrants from Asia, Africa, and eastern Europe, dumped on the stolen lands by the state bureaucracy. They were not, and did not need to be, ideologically driven militants.
Until 1977, all Israel’s governments were coalitions dominated by the Israeli Labor Party (ILP).44 And during the whole of this period (with two brief interruptions), they included the ILP’s loyal ally, the National Religious Party (NRP).45 Unlike the ultra-Orthodox religious parties, whose attitude to Zionism was at best lukewarm (and which spent much of the 1948–77 period in opposition or as very junior coalition partners), the NRP’s ideology combined moderately Orthodox Judaism with Zionism. Until 1968, the NRP’s brand of Zionism was of the mild variety. Its leader, Haim-Moshe Shapira—a cabinet minister in all Israeli governments from 1948 until his death in 1970—was generally regarded as the most dovish and conciliatory senior minister on questions of war and peace and attitude toward the Palestinians.
But behind the scenes, a younger generation of NRP members and supporters were being inculcated with a very different sort of doctrine. Its prime pulpit was in a Jerusalem yeshiva (religious college), Mercaz HaRav Kook, established in 1924. Its founder, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), was a Zionist of a kind very rare in his day. While most Zionists were unbelievers, and most Orthodox rabbis were adamant in opposing Zionism, Kook was a Messianic Zionist. According to his theology, Zionist colonization of Palestine and the eventual founding of a Jewish state were part of a divine plan, culminating in the coming of the Messiah. His sophisticated political doctrine advocated alliance with the secular Zionists, tolerating their godlessness. They should be humored, even indulged: he compared them to the Messiah’s ass—a dumb brute but a divine instrument, bearing the savior on its back.46 This doctrine, in a cruder and more extreme form, was preached by his son and disciple, Zvi Yehuda Kook, who headed the yeshiva in the crucial years between 1951 and 1982. In that nest were hatched vipers such as Moshe Levinger, Hanan Porat, and other main leaders of the post-1967 fanatic religious settlers. Many others were influenced by its theology. Following the June 1967 War, the NRP was soon taken over by this cohort of Messianic zealots. In 2008, it merged into the ultranationalist religious party HaBayit HaYehudi (The Jewish Home).
The guns of war were still smoking when these militants sprang into action. Israel had just seized the sacred heartlands of the coveted country—including the holy sites of Jerusalem and Hebron—which evaded capture by it in 1947–49. The religious chauvinists lost no time in setting up outposts in the newly occupied Palestinian territories. Since then, Israeli colonization, inspired and led by them, has metastasized on stolen land, encircling Palestinian population centers confined to isolated corrals.
The conquests of 1967 provided the Messianic Zionists with a historical opportunity to practice what their rabbis had been preaching. Equally, their ideology supplied a bespoke justification—the irrational rationale—for what was historically the next phase of the Zionist colonization project, an enduring goal on its long-term agenda. It was a match made in heaven.
Marxists will not be surprised to find that an ideology that surfaces and gains influence in a society is one suited to its material reality. In the present case, the material reality is military possession by Israel of adjacent colonizable territories—an almost irresistible attraction for a settler state that enjoys overwhelming advantage in the local and regional balance of power, as well as unstinting support by the global hegemonic empire. In this dialectic, Messianic religious ideology provides not only an impetus and motivation for colonization, but—as Amira Hass has observed—also a guise of a war of religion to what in reality is a relentless political drive of dispossession and ethnic cleansing.47
From 1967, Messianic religious Zionism has provided the zeal needed for implanting colonizing outposts in hostile ground stolen from its indigenous people. Moderate Zionists have no effective intellectual or moral weapon against this ideology. Thus, in the public controversy that erupted in Israel after the 1967 War, moderate, “left” Zionists found themselves at a disadvantage faced with the hawkish annexationists.
For example, Amos Oz, worried by the demographic peril posed to the Jewish state by a large Arab population, came out against the horrifying overtones accompanying the expansionist annexationist orgy. He described the arguments citing Jewish “historical” rights over the “entire Land of Israel” as “hallucinations of a myth.” He went on to assert that territorial rights and political borders can only be based on the demographic principle: every people has a right over the territory it inhabits and in which it constitutes a majority. Any other principle is baseless.48
An annexationist polemicist had no trouble pointing out the weakness of Oz’s position:
This criterion, “who inhabits this piece of land today,” can in no way be the sole criterion. Because if Amos Oz would apply it, and it alone, Zionism has no justification at all.
If Amos Oz approves of the borders within which we existed so far because they have a demographic rationale, he should ask himself whether that demographic situation that determined the borders had always existed or was created in a colonising process. Indeed, according to a demographic criterion, we did not have, at the start of the realization of Zionism, any right over this country! The entire right followed from hallucinations of a myth. This is what the anti-Zionists have always claimed. Nevertheless, we were not prepared to accept a given demographic situation as the sole criterion. We did everything to alter the demographic situation. Is it permissible to do this? If it is not—there is no justification to our very existence here. If it is—there is nothing sacred about the borders determined by one specific military confrontation [i.e., the 1948 war], and it is permissible to alter the demographic reality in other zones as well.49
Since 1967, the Messianic Zionists have gained political influence disproportionate to their number. They share power as coalition partners of the nominally secular right, while the demoralized Zionist “left” has dwindled to the point of disappearance.
During the last few years, there has been a steady process of religious coercion and retreat of secularity in Israeli-Jewish society as emboldened zealous religious ministers and officials foist their norms on the ideologically submissive secular majority. Recent reports in Haaretz reveal frequent cases of gender segregation in public transport, conferences, the military, and higher education.50 A religious Zionist minister of education has insinuated religious indoctrination in secular schools.51
Dark Side of the Myth
The pernicious effect of the Messianic Zionists on Israeli society gives cause for concern, but a far greater danger is posed by their grander plans and projects. As these zealots have been gaining political influence, their outré projects should not be dismissed lightly.
All brands of Zionist ideology are ultimately rooted in religious myth, but the Messianic variety is explicit about it and takes it as literal truth. The best-known part of that narrative is that the Land of Israel is the ancient homeland of the Jewish people, who are descendants of the ancient Israelites. It is not often noted, however, that according to that same sacred history, as narrated in the holy books, the Israelites were not indigenous to that land, originally called the Land of Canaan, but invading conquerors. They were descendants of a patriarch, Abraham, a native of Mesopotamia, to whom the Land of Canaan was promised by Yahweh. After spending a few generations, first as seminomadic herdsmen in Canaan, later as state slaves in Egypt, and then as nomads in the Sinai desert, they took actual possession of Canaan, under the leadership of Joshua son of Nun, by military conquest and ethnic cleansing.
It hardly matters that this story, as just summarized here, has little if any factual historical basis. What matters is that the religious Zionist fanatics take the Book of Joshua literally and regard it as a positive precedent, virtually a template.
Thus, a September 2017 conference of the National Union faction of HaBayit HaYehudi Party, which was part of the ruling coalition, unanimously adopted a Decision Plan promoted by Bezalel Smotrich (who was then deputy speaker of the Knesset and is at the time of writing a cabinet minister). The Smotrich plan presents a surrender-or-deportation ultimatum to the Palestinians in which “two alternatives will be offered to the Arabs of the Land of Israel”:
- Anyone who is willing and able to relinquish the fulfilment of his national aspirations will be able to stay here and live as an individual in the Jewish state.
- Anyone who is unwilling or unable to relinquish his national aspirations will receive assistance from us to emigrate to one of the Arab countries.
There is also a third option.
Anyone who insists on choosing the third “option”—to continue to resort to violence against the Israel Defence Forces, the State of Israel and the Jewish population—will be determinedly handled by the security forces with greater force than at present and under more comfortable conditions for us.52
In presenting the plan, Smotrich referred explicitly to the Book of Joshua as precedent and inspiration.53
I will leave it to Daniel Blatman, a historian of the Holocaust and genocide at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to comment on this plan. Here are a few excerpts:
Smotrich relies on the biblical Book of Joshua as his model. Researchers of genocide in the ancient world have already determined that the Book of Joshua is an important document for examining the characteristics of genocide in the ancient world.… [It] describes actions that were explicitly defined as genocide in the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.…
Smotrich’s admiration for the biblical genocidaire Joshua…leads him to adopt values that resemble those of the German SS. Naturally, he didn’t take the trouble to make such comparisons, since someone who supports genocide doesn’t try to understand the worldview of the genocidaires who preceded him.…
Does Smotrich believe the ethics of the Book of Joshua could serve as an example for how the Palestinians should be treated today?…
One obviously can’t expect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to do anything about this. But the real danger to Israel comes from the hundreds of Knesset members and public figures from other parties—including Likud, Yesh Atid and even Zionist Union—who understand quite well where Smotrich and his colleagues in HaBayit HaYehudi Party are dragging the state, but are afraid to stand up, form a united front with the Israeli left and tell the public the truth: Smotrichism, like Hitlerism, Stalinism and Maoism before them, is an ideology that leads to the perpetration of genocide.54
Breeding a Red Heifer
At the ultra wing of Messianic Zionism are true believers who are now openly represented in the Knesset and are considered possible partners in the ruling coalition.
These activists differ in one crucial respect from other followers of Orthodox Judaism: they are determined to take actual steps to bring about the establishment of a renewed biblical Jewish kingdom. A key part of this plan is the building of a third Jewish temple on the old hallowed hill. (The first two were destroyed respectively by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the Romans in 70 CE.) An obvious obstacle in the way of the Third Temple is that the Jews’ Temple Mount happens to be the Muslims’ Haram al-Sharif, Islam’s third holiest place, site of al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. These will have to be demolished to make way for the Third Temple.55
Plans to bring this about are by no means new. From 1979 to 1984, a secret cabal of settlers, known as the Jewish Underground, engaged in terrorist attacks against Palestinian civic leaders. It also hatched a plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock, but just in time members of the group were arrested and brought to trial on charges of terrorism. Most served short terms and the ringleaders were pardoned in 1990.
Unrepentant, the zealot leader Yehuda Etzion and his mates continued to make plans for the Third Temple. But now their numbers have multiplied and they have moved from the margins into the centers of political power.56 A recent television documentary series has drawn attention to an extensive network of activists making practical preparations for building the Third Temple and performing the rituals in it.57 These include detailed architectural drawings and models for the temple itself, sewing and embroidering vestments for the priests that will officiate in it, and practicing animal sacrifices in the vicinity of the holy site. In order for the priests to be allowed to enter the temple and perform their rituals, they must first be purified with the ashes of a burned, unblemished red heifer. Red means totally red—even two black hairs disqualify it. A cattle rancher by the name of Menahem Urbach, who lives in the Israeli-occupied Golan, has been commissioned to produce a red heifer by selective breeding. Interviewed on television, he claimed that the desired animal is expected to be delivered quite soon.
It Will Be Televised
Explosives are easily accessible to the activists, who reside in armed settlements, and some are no doubt stashed away for use as and when required. Of course, the Muslim world is likely to react violently to the destruction of the holy mosques. This can easily escalate to a major conflagration in the entire region and possibly beyond. The Messianic zealots are not particularly bothered by this prospect: they regard it with the same kind of hopeful anticipation that extreme Christian evangelicals have for Armageddon. In fact, both bunches of dangerous nutters, Jewish and Christian, share many beliefs (except that the former are expecting the first coming of the Messiah, while for the latter it is going to be the second—following which the Jews will have to convert or die). As the Daily Express reported recently,
Biblical conspiracy theorists believe the construction of a third Holy Temple in Jerusalem will precede the imminent return of Jesus Christ. Jewish eschatology concerning the end times claims the Holy Temple will rise up from the ground for the third time when the apocalypse nears. Talk of a third temple being built emerged this week in response to a letter penned by the powerful Jewish assembly of rabbis known as the Sanhedrin.
Jerusalem is heading into a mayoral election next week and the Sanhedrin urged both running candidates, Ofer Berkovich and Moshe Lion, to rebuild the temple.…
The Holy Temple plays a crucial role in Jewish tradition and is a central player in prophecies and tales concerning the apocalypse.
Christian pastor and doomsday preacher Paul Begley has now claimed the signs of the end times are coming to fruition.
The Indiana-based preacher said: “The rabbis of the Sanhedrin court are calling both mayor candidates to include in their plans for this city the rebuilding of the third temple.”…
According to Irvin Baxter of the EndTime Ministries, the third Holy Temple will be rebuilt in the last seven years of the world’s existence.
The doomsday preacher said this will happen in the first three years of the end times and will be the “most visible sign” of the end times finally arriving.
Mr Baxter said: “As that cornerstone is laid on the Temple Mount, every network on Earth will be televising this incredible event.”58
Will Israel’s security services act in time to prevent an explosion on the sacred site, as they did back in 1984? I do not wish to sound too alarmist, but when watching Israel careering to extremes of racist populism and annexationism, we should also keep an eye on the movement of Messianic fanaticism.