The Timeless History of Zionism: A Response to Nima Shirali
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By: Michael Ettedgui
While the overall tone of Nima Shirali’s essay on the history of Zionism is commendable in that it envisions the possibility of a peaceful resolution between Israelis and Palestinians, the work as a whole falls drastically short of an adequate representation of Zionist history. This response will highlight some areas of contention in his essay, as I, an active Zionist see them.
Initially, Shirali fails to comment on the biblical and historical union between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. His essay passes Zionism off as a modern ideology. Granted the political expression of Zionism can be attributed to Theodore Herzl and the World Zionist Congress of 1897, but the phenomenon of Zionism as a theological and social tenet is among the founding pillars of Judaism. Let’s not forget that the Hebrew Bible clearly promises this land to the Jews and recounts Jewish settlement there as far as 3500 years ago. Please do not misunderstand me, I am not suggesting that other people, namely the Palestinians, have no legitimate right to this land. What I am asserting is that Zionism is ancient and sacred for Jews and actually transcends politics.
Furthermore, Shirali’s treatment of the Arab riots during the Mandate period is insufficiently brief in my opinion. In order to understand the evolutionary process of modern Zionism, an adequate account of Jewish/Palestinian relations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries must be forwarded. These riots were unlawful, brutal and numerous. Hundreds of Jews were pillaged, injured and killed during the riots of the 1920s and 1930s. While I do agree with him that the people of the Middle East must surpass their collective past, the impact of chronological terrorism (especially when perpetrated against religious sights) in response to a commissionary proposal of dividing the land is hard to forget.
Shirali’s piece attempts to “place this discussion [Zionism] in a contemporary context which is of relevance to the present Israeli-Palestinian issue.” It seems to me that when placed in a contemporary context, history is repeating itself—terrorism is still a common tool among Palestinians and the Palestinian leadership still refuses to divide the land. This was made apparent by Chairman Arafat’s refusal to accept the Barak-Clinton proposal. This is an undeniable fact of life for Israelis and has been for over 80 years. Nima Shirali claims that the word “salam” appears throughout the Occupied Territories but I can testify, from first hand experience, that pictures of dead suicide bombers being praised as martyrs are just as frequent.
I, like Shirali, find no hope in the Palestinian leadership but he places no blame on the Palestinian population. True, the majority of Palestinians probably condemn terrorism and would like to live in peace with their Jewish neighbours. They are honest, hard working people that must be fed up with centuries of fighting. But the fact remains that many of them are taking matters in their own hands and killing innocent civilians, outside the government’s auspices. The same cannot be said of the Jewish extremists. While they too are an impediment to peace, they act in accordance with government regulations (settlements) and are subject to governmental authority as is being witnessed by the current disengagement plan of Prime Minister Sharon.
I share Shirali’s optimism and I applaud his vision but historical realities cannot be omitted. His portrayal of Zionism as a modern, political phenomenon is not fair to the Jewish people and his oversight of empirical Palestinian terrorism is not fair to Israelis.
Michael Ettedgui is a fourth year political science student at York University, Toronto, Canada. He has also extensively studied the history of the Middle East and Israeli politics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Nima Shirali is Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Middle East Reconciliation Journal (MERJ), www.merecforum.org