A Brief History of Zionism

A.K Gupta Aug 11, 2006

Like the United States, South Africa and Australia, Israel is a classic settler state. Its foundational ideology is Zionism, which developed as both a secular political movement and ideology in the late 19th Century to create either a “national homeland” for Jews or a “Jewish state.”

Russian Jews began arriving in the 1870s, often in response to anti-Semitism and pogroms in their homeland. The first Zionist Congress was organized in 1897 by Theodor Herzl, considered the father of Zionism, in Basel, Switzerland.

From the beginning, Zionism both sought an imperial sponsor and defined Arabs as savages. Herzl wrote in The Jewish State, that the Zionist movement could serve the interests of the Ottoman Empire in Palestine and “form an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.”

Emigration remained limited for decades, however. There were perhaps 20,000-25,000 Jews in Palestine in 1890, growing to only 56,000 by 1917, a pivotal year in Middle East history. For years, many Zionists had been seeking favor from the British Empire, which obliged with the “Balfour Declaration” on Nov. 2, 1917. It put England on record to use its “best endeavors” to facilitate “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish People.” British troops arrived shortly thereafter in Palestine, and England carved up the Middle East with France.

The interwar period saw a huge rise in Jewish emigration along with the development of the two major schools of Zionism: Labor and Revisionist. Both variants are exclusionist. According to Ralph Schoenman, author of The Hidden History of Zionism, one influential Labor Zionist “wanted every tree and every bush to be planted by Jewish ‘pioneers,’” and demanded that European plantation managers in Palestine “hire Jews and only Jews.” Boycotts were organized against “any Jewish enterprise which failed to employ Jews exclusively.” Labor Zionism saw itself as a socialist movement that would “redeem” the land through agricultural labor.

Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism, criticized Labor Zionists for hiding the real agenda – a Jewish state – and for thinking that the Arabs loved their land less than the Jews. He recognized the fundamental humanity of the Palestinians, who “look upon Palestine with the same instinctive love and true favor the Aztecs looked upon Mexico or any Sioux looked upon his prairie.”

But as a colonialist, he argued that Arab patriotism “can not be bought, it can only be curbed.” In a famous essay published in 1923, he called for an “Iron Wall” that will destroy even “a gleam of hope that they will succeed in getting rid of us.”

During the interwar period, Jewish ownership of land grew dramatically. The land was owned by the Jewish National Fund, and reserved exclusively for the use of Jews. To this day, 93 percent of Israel’s lands is reserved for Jews through what one critic describes as “procedural and bureaucratic measures.”

The notion of “transfer” is central to Zionism. One, the transfer of Jews to Israel and two, the transfer of Palestinians out of their native lands. Even before the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Jewish forces had expelled at least 200,000 Palestinians. By the time the war was over, at least 700,000 Palestinians had been forced off their lands. Perhaps another 200,000 were cleansed during the 1967 war.

Israel is expansionist from its roots. Prior to the 1948 war, its leaders planned to seize most of the rest of Palestine not allotted to it by the United Nations, increasing its landmass from 53 percent to 78 percent. Of course since then, Israel has invaded and occupied for years all of Palestinian and parts of Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. Many modern Zionists still have ambitions of the biblical “Eretz
Israel” that stretches from the Nile to the Euphrates River, meaning all of Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, most of Iraq and huge swaths of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Ultimately, Zionism is in the same family as manifest destiny and apartheid. It seeks to exterminate the native people’s history, culture and presence from the land. While Israel can’t use outright genocide as America did during the “Indian Wars,” it repressive methods rivals apartheid. And just like its cousins, Israel’s sense of self is fueled by endless wars in which it is the eternal victim seeking to only defend itself as it expands its empire.