The official ideology of the Israeli state, Zionism, has been a disaster for Jews and Arabs alike, which ignores the history of peaceful co-existence that was once the norm across the Middle East.
Zionism claims that Jews have the right to return to the land where their religion, Judaism, took root, in order to create an exclusive Jewish state.
The land of Palestine is a vital centre for all of the three great monotheistic religions with roots in the Middle East – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. None of them can have an exclusive claim of ownership of the land.
Zionism claims that the Jews were exiled when the Roman Empire overthrew the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in AD70. In fact most Jews were already living outside the land of Palestine at the time of the Roman Empire. There was a flourishing Jewish diaspora throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. There was a thriving Jewish religious, commercial and crafts centre in the great Egyptian port city of Alexandria long before the Roman Empire. And the great Jewish religious centre in Babylon began 500 years before the Roman Empire and continued for hundreds of years after it. Jews living among non-Jews form the real and dynamic basis of Jewish history.
Zionism claims that the only answer to anti-Semitism – hatred of the Jews – in Europe is migration to Palestine. It sees anti-Semitism as inevitable.
Christian Europe persecuted Jews for both religious and economic reasons. Judaism threatened the Christian version of the bible stories. But, more importantly, Jews in medieval Europe had a distinctive economic trading role. They were not allowed to own land but as merchants and traders they serviced the closed feudal economies. Europe’s Christian rulers used and abused them. Jews were sometimes given privileges causing immense resentment among the peasantry. But this also meant that Jews provided an excellent scapegoat for those rulers whenever their own oppression of the peasantry sparked riots and wider upheavals.
The Enlightenment and the 18th century American and French Revolutions laid the basis for overcoming anti-Semitism. These revolutions guaranteed formal equal rights for Jews. And, indeed, though Jews had to struggle to enforce these rights, in western Europe they began to thrive. The creative collision between emancipated Judaism and the Enlightenment produced some of the greatest minds of 19th and early 20th century Europe – Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. European culture has been enormously enriched by its Jewish contribution.
Zionism’s real roots are in Eastern Europe. At the end of the 19th century, more than half of the world’s Jews lived in the crumbling empire of the Russian tsars. European modernisation challenged these feudal rulers. Revolution threatened to sweep them away and the Jews provided the scapegoat. Violent and widespread pogroms against the Jews were deliberately whipped up by the tsars. Jews began to migrate, mainly to western Europe and the US. But a tiny minority accepted the growing appeal of the Zionists and went to Palestine. These Jews formed the core of the Zionist settlements. Zionism was a colonial movement backed by the Western imperial powers.
There is no such thing as colonial socialism. The Zionist settlers began to displace the Arab peasants who had tilled the land for centuries. The kibbutz ‘communes’ were for Jews only.
Zionism is also a project for Western imperialism. Britain occupied Palestine as a result of its victory in the First World War. The Zionist settlements became a device for securing its rule. As Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary, put it in 1921, “Zionism is good for the Jews and good for the British empire.”
After the Second World War, the US became the dominant force in the region, supporting Israel. As US president Ronald Reagan explained in 1981, “With a combat experienced military, Israel is a force in the Middle East that is actually a benefit to us. If there were not Israel with that force, we’d have to supply it with our own.” By the end of the 20th century, the US had spent $100 billion supporting Israel.
The Nazi Holocaust cannot justify the right of the Jews to their own exclusive country in Palestine. Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 explicitly uses the Holocaust as justification. In the same year, nearly a million Palestinians were forced to flee their homes to make way for the Jewish state. In other words, the Palestinians were forced to pay the price for this European slaughter.
The Jewish state depends upon this exclusion of the indigenous Palestinian Arab population. This is its ultimate flaw – a wrongdoing that has to be addressed in any lasting peace settlement. The Zionists use the Holocaust as ideological and moral blackmail to justify their robbery of Palestinian land. This is a serious misuse of the memory of one of the worst crimes in history. Zionism prevents a just settlement between Arabs and Jews. But such a settlement certainly is possible.
The Zionist state structure prevents a proper peace because it privileges the Jew at the expense of the Arab. Arab-Jewish relations were far better before the arrival of the Zionist settlements and we have much to learn from this earlier history.
Even the right wing scholar Bernard Lewis acknowledges what he calls an Islamic Arab Jewish‘symbiosis’ at the height of Islamic civilization, a flowering of relations between the two peoples and a common ‘Islamic-Judaeo’ culture. And we have even forgotten just how deep was the Jewish attachment to Arab lands in the last century. In Iraq, after the Second World War, there was a mass insurrection, al-Wathbah, (The Leap), against the British puppet monarchist government. Many young Iraqi Jews took part, so much so that even the Zionists admitted that this was ‘era of brotherhood’ where the idea of emigrating to Palestine looked ‘so remote’.
Alas, the movement was defeated and the Zionists, the US, the British and the Iraqi government then helped to force the migration of Iraq’s ancient Jewish population. This is one of the lesser known tragedies of the last century.
Earlier in the century, no less than one third of Iraq’s top 100 musicians had been Jewish. There are here sparks of hope from a little understood common Arabic Jewish past, sparks, which, nevertheless, can help throw light on a very different future.