The Formation of the Jewish State: History, Ideological Perspectives and its Relation to the Present Conflict
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By: Nima Shirali
“But if you will it, it is no fable”—Theodor Herzl
As the ideological founders of Zionism found it necessary to defend their new idea of a Jewish state against charges of utopianism, the mere thought of a return to Palestine and an independent [Jewish] political entity created a new inspiration. It was this inspiration, the seemingly unrealizable task of achieving statehood, which led to the ideological and economic mobilization of Jews around the world. In studying the formation of the Jewish state, it is imperative to shed light upon and analyze the historical causes responsible for such an indescribable feeling of wanting to colonize Palestine as illustrated through the annually-cited phrase, “Next year in Jerusalem!”
This paper is concerned with shedding light on these causes, which include anti-Semitism, alienation, along with religious and social intolerance. To place this discussion in a contemporary context which is of relevance to the present Israeli-Palestinian issue, this essay will assert that the Jews’ belief and longing for statehood and the mere right to exist are not ideological obstacles to realizing prospects for reconciliation. As Alan Dershowitz points out, “A substantial majority of Israelis have already accepted this compromise [the two-state solution]. It is now the official position of the Palestinian Authority as well as the Egyptian, Jordanian, Saudi Arabian, and Moroccan governments”[i].
What is important here is to realize the importance of so many important political entities converging on the same idea. It is this convergence, without regard to the Jews’ longing for a state, which should be exploited to bring about reconciliation between the two sides. Those who disagree with the two-state solution and totally reject the other side’s claims are often amongst the extremists on either side. As Dershowitz continues, “Only the extremists among the Israelis and Palestinians…claim that the entire landmass of what is now Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip should permanently be controlled either by the Israelis alone or by the Palestinians alone”[ii].
The goal of this paper is to emphasize the importance of the existing points of convergence despite the ideology and history which formed the Jewish state. This is to say that most of Israel’s Arab neighbours along with the Palestinian Authority have accepted the existence of the State of Israel and are ready to speak about the possibility of a two-state solution. Therefore, Zionism and Zionist state theory do not impede the willingness of the political leaders to sit and negotiate. Rather, the Zionist ideology has been used to seemingly validate the fanatical religious claims of a minority of extremists. After a discussion on the history of the Jewish state contextualized in the present issues, the essay hopes to advance the idea that reconciliation is still possible, even given the history of Jewish political thought and its success in achieving statehood.
The Causes for Desiring Statehood
The plight of the Jews as seen through the pogroms in Ukraine and tsarist Russia created a sense of social subjugation. Moreover, the Jews were systematically prevented from making progress in the countries they inhabited. Howard Sachar writes:
"the pogroms of 1881-82 and their aftermath shattered Russian Jewry’s final lingering illusions of equality and achievement under tsarist rule. Even their faith in the redeeming value of enlightenment was blasted, for Russian academicians and university students, no less than government officials and illiterate muzhiks, joined enthusiastically in the new anti-Jewish campaign."[iii]
Sachar’s characterization of the experience of Russian Jewry is situated and contextualized in the period when Alexander III reigned over the tsarist throne. Upon the murder of his father at the hands of revolutionaries, he acceded to the throne in 1881 and “Saw national homogeneity as the foundation of imperial power”[iv]. He therefore launched an oppressive campaign against Jews and other ethnic minorities in order to socially marginalize them. For example, the monarch’s new decrees prohibited Jews from occupying certain employment positions and prevented them from cultural self-expression. In addition, as Theodor Herzl asserted in the Jews’ State, the victims felt that their attempts to assimilate with the Russian population were betrayed by the anti-Semitic violence. Lev Levanda, a secular Jew and a proponent of the creation of a Jewish state expressed his sadness in the Russian Jewish Journal Rassviet (Daybreak):
"When I think of what was done to us, how we were taught to love Russia and the Russian word, how we were lured into introducing the Russian language and everything Russian in our home… and how we are now rejected and hounded… my heart is filled with corroding despair from which there is no escape"[v].
This is a clear exemplification of anti-Semitic behaviour by what Herzl refers to as the
“host population”[vi]. By this he is referring to the populations of a country which comprise the majority and hence “host” the Jews as the alien element in their societies. In fact, Zionist thinkers and scholars such as Herzl, Arthur Hertzberg and Shlomo Avineri have all thought that the host populations have historically viewed the Jews as what Sachar calls the “social parasites”[vii]. According to Herzl, such derogatory views held by the host populations along with sentiments of alienation and subjugation held by the Jews had made the possibility of honour, freedom and happiness a very desirable one. Though the desire for a better life was commonly-held among the Jews, how to obtain it stirred significant debate within the Jewish communities of Europe. An analysis of the relevant history suggests that the main disagreement was whether to remain in the host countries until equality brought about positive change or to embark on a more radical project such as building an independent state for the Diaspora Jews.
Deeper scrutiny of the history allows for discerning the fact that the latter idea appealed most to the Jewish proletariat (working class) and the most poverty-stricken sections of Europe’s Jewry. Herzl suggests that the increasing desperation amongst these Jews made the prospect of radical change attractive. His idea was that the economic pressures, in addition to the social intolerance experienced by the Jewish working class would create the thought that they had nothing to lose from emigration, and everything to gain. Understandably, Herzl referred to this idea as an “ascending class movement”, which meant that the lower strata of the class structure [i.e. the proletariat] would begin the movement into Palestine. Subsequent to their emigration, the well-off, then the wealthy would follow. It is important to point out that although Herzl laid significant emphasis on class structure, and hence class hierarchy within Europe’s Jewry, he was not a socialist. He asserted strenuously that,
"we wish to protect and foster the individual and his rights. Private property, the economic basis of independence, will be developed in our society freely and respected by all. Indeed, we even permit our unskilled laborers to advance immediately into ownership of private property."[viii]
The question of private property and the freedom to engage in free enterprise wasan issue of importance to the Jews, particularly to the middle-class and wealthy business owners. Their bitter experiences with efforts to force them out of the business world in Germany provides an example of their desire to run their businesses without fear of persecution or divestiture. Martin Philippson reports that in February 1889 gangs of four to five hundred youths roamed the streets of the southeastern suburbs of Berlin vocalizing their contempt for Jews with the slogan “Juden raus [Away with the Jews]” and looting Jewish shops.[ix] Moreover, he points out that during the Christmas season of 1892, leaflets which read “Kauft nicht bei Juden [Don’t buy from Jews]” were distributed in a number of towns in northern Germany.[x] Needless to say, this created both panic and resentment amongst Jews toward the host German population. The report Philippson provides is an example of the failure of the Emancipation Movement in the 18th and 19th centuries to give Jews equal rights as citizens in European countries.
Zionist State Theory
What began as a single vision of freeing the Jews from their historical oppression culminated in Herzl’s practically viable Zionist state theory. The central premise of this theory was that the issues historically confronting Jews demanded a political solution. More specifically, it demanded a move toward statehood; a movement which would see the gradual migration (Aliya) of Jews to a piece of sovereign territory. Hence, the question of political sovereignty was seen by Herzl as a remedy to the social and cultural issues facing the Jews. Indeed, he asserted that “emigration is only sensible if it is based on our [the Jews] secured sovereignty.”[xi]
One of the basic tenets of his “plan” for emigration, colonization, and securing sovereignty was the division between two important entities: the Jewish Company and the Society of Jews. His theory asserted that the Jewish Company would be in charge of practically implementing what the Society of Jews had prepared “intellectually and politically”.[xii] In other words, the Jewish Company handled all resources and aspects of organizing the economic structure in the new land. The Society of Jews could be seen as an entity which provided the moral foundation on which the Jewish Company would facilitate the move to statehood. For example, this entity would transfer assets, purchase the land through a chartered company, and would provide housing for laborers.
This is undoubtedly an important and fundamental part of Herzl’s theory. Though he was of the notion that the two organizations be kept separate, he persistently asserted that they be complementary in achieving statehood.
Jewish Settlement in Palestine
Between 1880 and 1914 over 60,000 Jews entered Palestine, mostly from Russia, Galicia, Romania, and Poland.[xiii] They sought a new homeland under Turkish rule with the hope of living without the fear of persecution or discrimination. Many of them settled on wastelands, sand dunes and marshes where malaria was virtually unavoidable. They worked arduously in draining, irrigating and cultivating these areas and many were successful in their efforts. The Jewish migrants purchased land from Arab landlords, usually at extremely high prices.[xiv] During this period of time, Jewish settlements such as Hartuv, Bat Shelomo and Ein Ganim began to appear with increasing populations. By 1880 the Jews had comprised the majority of Jerusalem’s population and in 1909 the Jewish population had become large enough in the sandhills north of Jaffa that the new, entirely Jewish town of Tel Aviv was founded.[xv] Between 1904 and 1914 the first Jewish political parties were formed in Palestine and the foundations of a Hebrew press and modern Hebrew literature were laid.
The Balfour Declaration and the Peel Commission
On November 2,1917, British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour issued a statement to Lionel Walter Rothschild, a leading figure of British Jewry. This statement, later to become known as the “Balfour Declaration”, announced that “His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”[xvi] The basis of this statement was the British anticipation that their forces would occupy Palestine after WWI, which would lead to the creation of a British mandate there. In return for Balfour’s pledge, the British hoped they would win Jewish pubic support against the Axis powers.
Later in the same year the British anticipation was realized with the Allied occupation of Jerusalem, which was made the capital of the new mandate. However, it was not until 1937 that the British took any significant action to help the creation of a Jewish state. In this year, the Peel Commission was appointed to make recommendations as pertinent to the issue of a Jewish state. The Commission reached the conclusion that a partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states was the most viable solution to establishing a Jewish state without undermining the possibility of an Arab state. It stated that
"there is little moral injury in drawing a political line through Palestine if peace and goodwill between the people on either side of it can thereby in the long run be attained…Partition seems to offer at least a chance of ultimate peace. We can see none in any other plan."[xvii]
This plan neared implementation until fear and distrust led to its eventual ineffectiveness. The Jews accepted the Plan and viewed the proposal as an opportune moment to establish a Jewish state. However, the Palestinian Arabs felt threatened by the proposal as they feared domination and a precedent which would lead to eventual Jewish rule over Muslim areas. At this point, massive violence broke out and many lives were claimed. The consequences of this outcome included an increased level of fear, distrust, and lack of understanding, which would be responsible for further violence in the future.
Lessons From History
The history of Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel are more elaborate than the brief synopsis provided above. However, even given this limited summary, one can discern the fact that no part of it points to the impossibility of Arabs and Jews living together. Needless to say, the Arab-Israeli wars paint an ugly part of the history and provide a reason for hating one another. However, there are also reasons for loving one another. If one drives or walks past almost any street in the occupied territories, the word salam (“peace”) can be seen painted on the walls.
On the Israeli side, groups such as Shalom Ashchav (“Peace Now”) represent the desire of the Israeli population to have peace. This, clearly, is a point of convergence. It is a place where two sides, however ugly their history, agree on something. Professor Saeed Rahnema of York University mentioned at one of his talks that neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis ought to allow the past mistakes of their leaders shape their future in a way that would make peace seem impossible. Hence, why not look toward the future without perpetuating the ugly memories of the past? It would be ridiculous for Germans to be hostile toward the French or British and refuse to cooperate in any way with them because of the mistakes of Adolf Hitler. Instead, the countries which once fought the bloodiest war in human history have now formed the European Union and look toward a bright future together.
The Japanese and Koreans have pursued a similar path by reconciling and engaging in economic plans together.[xviii] It is unquestionable that the Arab-Israeli conflict extends further into history and has deeper causes than mere territorial ambitions (i.e. wanting to control the land because of its religious significance). However, those affected by longer conflicts should have more of an inclination to reconcile. With regards to the religious significance of the land, history shows that it is not impossible to share places such as Jersualem, Safed, Hebron, Tiberias, and many other sites deemed “holy”. In fact, the 1911 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica described the population of Palestine as being comprised by differing “ethnological” groups speaking “no less than fifty languages”.[xix] These groups included Druzes, Circassians, and Egyptians amongst others.
Today, ethnic and religious minorities such as the Bahais not only live in Israel but have formed their headquarters there.[xx] The point here is that it is not only desirable but necessary to have all these groups live together in peace and harmony. We should look at the history of the region very carefully and learn that peace is not impossible. To realize this requires strong moral and political leadership both on the Israeli and Palestinian sides. Instead of wasting the anger that is so vital to success, both sides ought to channel their energy in the direction of peace.
The Israeli leadership must dismantle all settlements in the occupied territories and withdraw its military from these areas. The occupation of the Sinai and the dismantling of the settlements which Israel had built there proves that getting rid of these “strategic outposts” is not impossible, even in the face of opposition from the settlers. Furthermore, Israeli politicians need to realize that erecting a physical barrier between the territories and Israel will not prevent terrorism, but only exacerbate it because of the resentment it will cause. The Palestinians need to support a selfless leader who is not a puppet of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbolla, or any other such terrorist group which does not want to see a Palestinian state.
The people of Palestine need a leader who is unafraid of peace and who does not prioritize preserving his wealth and power over the freedom of his people. The Palestinians need a leader who would dedicate his life and soul to his people, not to his multi-million dollar Swiss bank account. Most importantly, this leader must not support the extremist groups mentioned above which have their own political and economic agendas. Instead, like David Ben-Gurion stopped his support for Jewish paramilitary groups such as the Irgun[xxi], this leader must also stop his support for the Islamic fundamentalists.
As I have mentioned on many occasions, this is important because these groups do not want the establishment of a Palestinian state. Rather, they want to see the absolute and total destruction of Israel, which they aim to achieve with the extermination of all Jews in Palestine. This extreme, racist, and idiotic ideology has only hurt the Palestinians. It has brainwashed desperate Palestinian children to become “martyrs” by way of suicide bombing, which is also anti-Islamic as Islam prohibits suicide. This has invited brutal retaliations from the Israeli military which have done nothing but invite more terrorism.
Given the ineffectiveness of military retaliations in stopping terrorism, Israeli politicians have used their brilliant creativity to put together a new form of retaliation, what Dershowitz calls “Israel’s economic deterrent to terrorism”.[xxii] What he is referring to here is the demolition of Palestinian homes as punishment for those who may have harboured an individual whom the Israeli government chooses to label as a “terrorist”. This means that if a suicide bomber slept at the home of his sister before he conducted his attack, the sister’s home, even if she knew nothing of the attack, can be destroyed as a form of punishment for harbouring terrorism. In addition, the Israeli government heavily relies and acts upon gathered intelligence.
This creates the possibility that many Palestinian homes have been destroyed as a result of inaccurate intelligence. If Israel’s intelligence-gathering abilities were perfect, there would be no suicide attacks carried out against its population. The point here is that terrorism, counter-terrorism, military retaliations, or “economic deterrents” all serve to impede peace. By looking at one another we will realize that we have more in common than we may have imagined. History teaches us that if we do not act for peace, conflicts will go on, even for millennia. So let us look at one another and see the humanity in each other’s eyes. Let us remember Gandhi’s phrase, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”
This paper has been the product of an attempt to shed light on a brief history of Zionism and the formation of the state of Israel. However, the purpose of this essay has not been to merely talk of the history but rather contextualize it in today’s Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More specifically, I’ve endeavoured to point out the lessons we must learn from one of the world’s longest ongoing conflicts. By doing so we would realize that without an initiative for peace the conflict would continue, as it has since the time of King David’s war with the Philistines in the 10th century BCE.
We would also realize that our desires, hopes and visions come together to form a commonality of aspirations. These aspirations are of peace, reconciliation, mutual respect, and harmony. We must think, and we must do so rationally. There are those who profit from war, those who attach the name of “honour” to killing innocents, those who control the minds of the masses in an effort to perpetuate hatred and disdain. It is our moral responsibility to resist these self-interested politicians and “rational-minded economists” and to facilitate a revolution: a revolution of ideas, a revolution which would transform hope into reality. Let us rid ourselves of the bigotry which has been found in religious texts, let us form a new religion, that which would be called “humanity”, with “peace” as its prophet. Let us become inspired by inherent beauty and not impassioned by manufactured hate.
Let us dream.
i Alan Dershowitz (2003), The Case for Israel,3
iii Howard M. Sachar (2003), A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, 13. For a dramatic account of these pogroms conveyed through poetry, particularly in tsarist Russia, see Chaim Nahman Bialik’s Ir HaHareigah, “City of Slaughter”, which provides a heartbreaking account of the Kishinev pogroms.
iv Ibid, 12
v As Quoted in Sachar, 13
vi Theodor Herzl, The Jews’ State, translated by Henk Overberg (1997), 127
vii Howard M. Sachar (2003), A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, 10
viii Theodor Herzl, The Jews’ State, translated by Henk Overberg (1997), 168
ix Martin Philippson (1910), Neueste Geschichte des judischen Volkes, II, 43
x Ibid, II, 48
xi Theodor Herzl, The Jews’ State, translated by Henk Overberg (1997), 148
xii Ibid, 146
xiii Alan Dershowitz (2003), The Case for Israel, 34
xiv Although the Jewish migrants principally bought land from Arab landlords, they also engaged in land transactions with European and Turkish [Ottoman] landlords. In addition, they seldom found themselves having to give bakhshesh to corrupt Ottoman officials for permission to purchase land. This was nothing short of bribing the officials in addition to paying high prices for land.
xvi Ibid, 35
xvii Ibid, 49
xviii For instance, the Japanese government provided loans to the South Koreans in the 1960s with the intention of helping the Koreans build a national automobile industry. In addition, they offered technical expertise from such companies as Mitsubishi to build what culminated as automobiles such as Hyundai and Kia. One of the reasons explaining this new cooperation was Japan’s desire to leave the history of the two nations (colonization between 1910-45) behind and look toward a promising future with warm relations between the two former enemies.
xix Alan Dershowitz (2003), The Case for Israel, 26
xx Haifa is the world headquarters of the Bahai movement, a faith which emerged with Baha Ullah’s assertion that he was the messenger of God in 1863. This faith has been brutally persecuted since Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979.
xxi This group, also known as Etzel, engaged in terrorist activities against the British as well as the Arab inhabitants of various villages during the war of 1948-9.
xxii Alan Dershowitz (2003), The Case for Israel, 171
Nima Shirali is Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Middle East Reconciliation Journal (MERJ), www.merecforum.org