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Zionism, Palestine
& the Spirit of the Warsaw

Brian Kelly • 12/6/2002

The supreme irony of Israel’s recent re-invasion of Palestinian towns in the West Bank is that its incursions coincided with the anniversary of another hopeless confrontation between an impoverished and vastly outgunned population and a racist occupying army-the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In April and May of 1943, a handful of Jewish socialists and militants trapped in the crumbling Polish ghetto resolved that, although they could not possibly defeat Hitler’s war machine, they would go down fighting, inflicting “maximum damage” in the process. The key question for militants, one of the few survivors recalled, was “How should we die?” Today it is the Palestinian fighters in towns like Jenin, Ramallah and Bethlehem who best epitomize the spirit of the Warsaw resistance. The actions of the Israeli Defence Forces, by contrast, confirm that the Zionist state has adopted the bone-crushing tactics and the xenophobic mentality of the most vicious Jew-haters in history.

The founders of the Israeli state, from its very beginning in 1948, have attempted to wrap themselves in the legacy of the victims of the Holocaust. Zionists claimed, for example, that the aim of the ghetto fighters was to reach Palestine, and cited the example of the ghetto fights to demonstrate that Zionism had resisted the Nazis. Both claims were false: the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) went out of its way to ensure that no preparations were made for refuge in the non-Jewish neighbourhoods of Warsaw, for fear of undermining the fighting spirit of its militants; and while a handful of left-wing Zionists did fight valiantly, the backbone of the resistance came from the left, most of whom were anti-Zionist Jews: the left had won a majority in every major Polish Jewish constituency in the last pre-war elections in Poland. When ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the Ghetto Fights were held in Poland in 1993, Israeli Zionists refused to take part unless the last surviving member of the ZOB, Jewish socialist Marek Edelman, was excluded from the platform. And in an unconscionable reminder of how little the modern Israeli state can claim a link to the Jews who stood and fought in the 1940s, an IDF commander reminded his fellow officers on the eve of the recent onslaught:

If our job is to seize a densely packed refugee camp or take over the Nablus casbah…without casualties on both sides, [we] must before all else analyse and bring together the lessons of past battles, even…to analyse how the German army operated in the Warsaw ghetto.

For many people around the world, including young activists attracted to anti-capitalism, Israel’s recent atrocities are difficult to reconcile with its claim to represent the descendants of those victimized by the most horrific crime in the history of capitalism-Hitler’s “final solution,” aimed at the physical elimination of European Jewry. Some see the recent events as an aberration, the result either of the maniacal militarism of Ariel Sharon or of the new excesses America’s allies are permitted in the so-called “war on terror.” For socialists, however, the roots of Israeli aggression run much deeper: a colonial project founded upon the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, Israel’s essential function over many years has been to frustrate-both in its own interest and on behalf of western imperialism-any attempt at democratisation in the region. Organized terror on the scale seen in recent months has been a recurring feature of that effort.

But how did it develop that the descendants of those who suffered such unspeakable horror under fascism could contemplate the brutality now being inflicted, with such enthusiasm, upon dispossessed Palestinians? The answer lies in the triumph of Zionism as an ideology that would come to dominate world Jewry in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Israel’s rulers today proclaim their “Jewish homeland” the realization of a centuries-old longing for a return to Palestine, but in actual fact Zionism remained, well into the twentieth century, a messianic strain confined to a small minority of Jews: the vast majority of Jews (90% of whom resided in Europe and Russia) looked to assimilation on the basis of equality, and not physical separation, as a solution to their oppression. Many fought alongside non-Jews in the left-wing and working class movements in central and eastern Europe and viewed the Zionists as a crackpot, reactionary cult without any serious prospects for success.

The rising tide of anti-semitism and an intensification of nationalist feeling throughout Europe gave rise to a new, political strain of Zionism in the late nineteenth century that looked to the actual setting up of a Jewish state. Its founder, Theodore Hertzl, who had only several years earlier dismissed the possibility of “return,” reacted against the anti-semitism revealed in the notorious Dreyfus trial (1895) by soliciting support among European elites for the creation a Jewish homeland. In Hertzl’s approach we can identify all of the essential features of modern Zionism: its acceptance of the racialist logic; its capitulation to-even collaboration with-anti-semitism; and its organic dependence upon imperialism and alliance with the powerful against the oppressed.

Far from presenting itself as a formula for the liberation of Jews, Zionism was based on a profound sense of pessimism and despair. Hertzl absorbed the racial outlook popularised in the pseudo-science of the day, even describing anti-semitism as “an understandable reaction to Jewish defects.” He accepted the eternal inevitability of anti-Jewish prejudice, declaring that during the Dreyfus affair he had “achieved a freer attitude towards anti-semitism” and “recognised the futility of trying to combat [it].”

Hertzl’s attempt to win support for the Zionist project was an explicitly colonial undertaking. After earlier considering the establishment of “homelands” in Uganda and Argentina, Hertzl settled upon the idea of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East, retroactively supporting the project with Biblical argument and arguing, ominously, that Jews would there construct “a rampart of civilisation in a sea of Arab barbarism.” Naturally, it was not initially among the European masses-Jewish or Gentile-that he sought support, but among the imperial powers of the day who, even before the discovery of oil in the region, shared his interest in controlling and stabilizing the Middle East.

Thus the list of public figures approached by Zionists reads like a Who’s Who of European reaction. Hertzl was a great admirer of Cecil Rhodes, the British founder of white Rhodesia, and believed that “in England the idea of Zionism, which is a colonial idea, [w]ould be easily understood.” In Russia he met with Wenzel Von Plehve, the interior minister who had orchestrated pogroms against the Jews, and agreed to squelch any criticism of the Tsar at the 1903 Zionist Congress in return for Russian intervention with Turkey in favour of the Palestine project. The appeal to imperialism outlived Hertzl: his successor Chaim Weizmann continued to solicit British support, particularly important after the collapse of Ottoman rule in the region. The Balfour Declaration declared British support for a “national home for the Jewish people,” an outcome recognised by Winston Churchill as “beneficial” and “especially in harmony with the truest interests of the British Empire.” And in their most despicable act, Zionists in Germany sent Hitler a memorandum seeking Nazi support for a Jewish homeland, declaring that

Our acknowledgment of Jewish nationality provides for a clear and sincere relationship to the German people, and its national and racial realities. Precisely because we do not wish to falsify these fundamentals, because we too are against mixed marriage and are for maintaining the purity of the Jewish group…

Even with imperialist support for their project, as late as the 1930s Zionism had failed to win the support of one crucial constituency: the mass of the Jewish people themselves, still concentrated in Europe. Jewish emigration to Palestine accelerated after Balfour, but most Jews who did choose emigration as a means of escaping the poverty and persecution they suffered still chose overwhelmingly to emigrate westward-to western Europe or, especially, the United States. In Palestine itself, tensions arose between ardent Zionist settlers and the native Arab population, tensions that inevitably increased as Jewish demand for Arab land grew.

Supporters of the Israeli state today project backwards through the mists of time an eternal antagonism between Palestinians and Jews to justify Zionist militarism. Besieged by hostile Arab neighbours throughout history, they argue, Jews have been compelled to arm themselves to protect against anti-semitic outrages directed at them by Palestinians. In reality, Arabs and Jews had shared the land of Palestine for centuries in peace until right-wing Zionists began constructing an “Iron Wall” of separation to subjugate the Arabs and facilitate the influx of Jewish immigration from the 1920s onwards. Israeli journalist Tom Segev has recently described 800 years of friendly relations between Arabs and Jews in Hebron, and a recent history of Jerusalem argues that 1300 years of Islamic rule in the city had been marked by “tolerance of both Judaism and Christianity.” John Rose has concluded that “the virulence of European anti-semitism, with its roots partly in the medieval Christian conception of the Jew, had no echo in the Arab world.”

Two key developments disrupted these relations and transformed the Zionist dream into reality. The massive trauma inflicted on European Jewry by the Holocaust cut the ground from underneath the assimilationist argument and elevated the appeal of Zionism among survivors: as Rose writes “the world after 1945 did actually appear to confirm the Hertzl prognosis.” In retrospect, mainstream Zionist organizations behaved despicably throughout the war: early on they attempted to cut deals with the Third Reich; and even when the scale of the horror became clear, they refused to criticize their powerful patrons-the US and Britain-for failing to rescue Jews being sent to the gas chambers. Leading Zionists blocked attempts to allow refugees into the US and western Europe out of fear that this would upset their plans. But in the wake of the Nazi horror, the pessimism intrinsic in Zionism matched the mood of deep despair-understandable in the new context-among Holocaust survivors.

Crucially, the Zionist project at the end of the war complemented the desire of the leading imperial powers, Britain and especially the United States, to shape the post-war world in their economic and strategic interests. Control over the vast oil reserves in the Middle East demanded that the imperial powers find a means of projecting their military power in the region. With the acquiescence of a United Nations dominated by the US, Palestine was partitioned in 1947, with 55% of the land assigned to Jews-then only 30% of the population-and the remainder assigned to the large Palestinian majority. From this point until today, the realization of Zionist aims has been built upon the continued expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland. Through the deployment of terror on a massive scale-including the infamous massacre of some 2-300 Palestinian civilians in the village of Deir Yassin-700,000 Palestinians were driven out of their homes into exile, and by 1949 Israel controlled 80% of Palestine. Those who resisted were denounced as terrorists, but privately Israeli officials acknowledged otherwise. David Ben-Gurion noted privately the truth that “politically we are the aggressors and they defend themselves.” He noted “an active resistance by the Palestinians to what they regard as a usurpation of their homeland by the Jews… Behind the terrorism is a movement which though primitive is not devoid of idealism and self-sacrifice.”

Then, as now, Israel could not have gotten away with such atrocities without the support of American imperialism. Within three years of the founding of the Zionist state, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz spelled out the role the new state would play in securing US interests in the region:

The feudal regimes in the Middle East have had to make such concessions to the [Arab] nationalist movements…that they become more and more reluctant to supply Britain and the United States with their natural resources and military bases… Strengthening Israel helps the Western powers maintain equilibrium…in the Middle East.
Israel is to become the watchdog. There is no fear that Israel will undertake any aggressive policy towards the Arab states. When this would explicitly contradict the wishes of the US and Britain. But if for any reasons the Western powers should sometimes -refer to close their eyes, Israel could be relied upon to punish one or several neighbouring countries whose discourtesy to the West went beyond the bounds of the permissible.

America’s watchdog. That is the essential role that the state of Israel has played throughout its history, and explains why George Bush considers it such a crucial ally in his so-called “war on terror,” continuing to bankroll its military adventures and lauding the war criminal Ariel Sharon as a “man of peace.” Along with the reactionary Arab regimes, also supported by Washington, Israel is poised to lash out against any attempts by the Arab masses to challenge the string of feudal dictatorships that exploit them. In defending the world order further afield, Israel has made allies of some of the bloodiest dictatorships in the world: trading arms and nuclear intelligence with the apartheid regime in South Africa and arming and equipping murderous right-wing regimes in Central and South America, Africa and Asia. One could hardly imagine a more insulting testament to the Jewish victims of fascism in Europe than allowing Zionism to bury its atrocities under cover of the world’s outrage at the war crimes of an earlier generation. The spirit of the Warsaw Ghetto lives today in Jenin, not Tel Aviv.

The Author is a member of the Socialist Worker's Party



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In order to rally people, governments need enemies. They want us to be afraid, to hate, so we will rally behind them. And if they do not have a real enemy, they will invent one in order to mobilize us.
- Thich Nhat Hanh

Index: Current Articles

16 June 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Zionism, Palestine & The Spirit of the Warsaw Ghetto

Brian Kelly

Avoiding Park Benches
Anthony McIntyre


A Case For Change
Ciarán Irvine


The Terrifying Power of Life and Death
Brendan Hughes


13 June 2002


Interface Violence

Billy Mitchell

What Chance Socialism?
Anthony McIntyre


Was Monday 29th April the day democracy died in the ATGWU?
Sean Smyth




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