Zionist Extremism as Outcome of the Internal Dynamics of Judaism, Part 1 of 5

The U.S. abstention on the UN resolution on West Bank settlements continues to reverberate. Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech defending the U.S. position that included the following:

The Israeli prime minister publicly supports a two-state solution, but his current coalition is the most right-wing in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by its most extreme elements. The result is that policies of this government — which the prime minister himself just described as “more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history” — are leading in the opposite direction, toward one state.

Obviously, the U.S., along with the rest of the world, sees through the Israeli lies that it has been pursuing peace and a two-state solution in good faith — after nearly 50 years of occupation. But what I want to focus on is his statement that the current Israeli coalition has “an agenda driven by its most extreme elements.” This was too much for British PM Theresa May, whose spokesman responded that “We do not believe that it is appropriate to attack the composition of the democratically elected government of an ally.”

But of course, it’s quite possible that a government fall into the hands of fanatics, and that may well be a problem for the rest of the world, especially in the age of nuclear weapons. The fact that fanatics are in charge in Israel is particularly a problem for countries like the U.S. where the Israel Lobby commands so much political and media support, with the result that the U.S. has often been in the position of giving diplomatic and military support to a government run by fanatics. This has meant either actively caving into their pressure (e.g., the Iraq war, promoted by Israel, the Israel Lobby, and neocons in the Bush administration) or turning a blind eye to Israeli actions (as with the decades-0ld official U.S. condemnation of West Bank settlements while doing absolutely nothing to curtail their diplomatic and financial support of Israel).

In the case of Israel, I think that the fact that the government has taken over by extremists is entirely comprehensible in terms of an understanding of the internal dynamics of Judaism. The following are excerpts from an article I wrote for The Occidental Quarterly in 2003, “Zionism and the Internal Dynamics of Judaism.”

Zionism is an example of an important principle in Jewish history: At all the turning points, it is the more ethnocentric elements—one might term them the radicals—who have determined the direction of the Jewish community and eventually won the day.3 As recounted in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Jews who returned to Israel after the Babylonian captivity energetically rid the community of those who had intermarried with the racially impure remnant left behind. Later, during the period of Greek dominance, there was a struggle between the pro-Greek assimilationists and the more committed Jews, who came to be known as Maccabeans.

At that time there appeared in Israel a group of renegade Jews, who incited the people. “Let us enter into a covenant with the Gentiles round about,” they said, “because disaster upon disaster has overtaken us since we segregated ourselves from them.” The people thought this a good argument, and some of them in their enthusiasm went to the king and received authority to introduce non-Jewish laws and customs. They built a sports stadium in the gentile style in Jerusalem. They removed their marks of circumcision and repudiated the holy covenant. They intermarried with Gentiles, and abandoned themselves to evil ways.4

The victory of the Maccabeans reestablished Jewish law and put an end to assimilation. The Book of Jubilees, written during this period, represents the epitome of ancient Jewish nationalism, in which God represents the national interests of the Jewish people in dominating all other peoples of the world:

I am the God who created heaven and earth. I shall increase you, and multiply you exceedingly; and kings shall come from you and shall rule wherever the foot of the sons of man has trodden. I shall give to your seed all the earth which is under heaven, and they shall rule over all the nations according to their desire; and afterwards they shall draw the whole earth to themselves and shall inherit it forever.5

A corollary of this is that throughout history in times of trouble there has been an upsurge in religious fundamentalism, mysticism, and messianism.6 For example, during the 1930s in Germany liberal Reform Jews became more conscious of their Jewish identity, increased their attendance at synagogue, and returned to more traditional observance (including a reintroduction of Hebrew). Many of them became Zionists.7 As I will discuss in the following, every crisis in Israel has resulted in an increase in Jewish identity and intense mobilization of support for Israel. Today the people who are being rooted out of the Jewish community are Jews living in the Diaspora who do not support the aims of the Likud Party in Israel. The overall argument here is that Zionism is an example of the trajectory of Jewish radicalism. The radical movement begins among the more committed segments of the Jewish community, then spreads and eventually becomes mainstream within the Jewish community; then the most extreme continue to push the envelope (e.g., the settlement movement on the West Bank), and other Jews eventually follow because the more extreme positions come to define the essence of Jewish identity. An important part of the dynamic is that Jewish radicalism tends to result in conflicts with non-Jews, with the result that Jews feel threatened, become more group-oriented, and close ranks against the enemy—an enemy seen as irrationally and incomprehensibly anti-Jewish. Jews who fail to go along with what is now a mainstream position are pushed out of the community, labeled “self-hating Jews” or worse, and relegated to impotence.


  • 1. Zionism began among the more ethnocentric, committed segments of the Jewish community (1880s).
  • 2. Then it spread and became mainstream within the Jewish community despite its riskiness (1940s). Supporting Zionism comes to define what being Jewish is.
  • 3. Then the most extreme among the Zionists continued to push the envelop (e.g., the settlement movement on the West Bank; constant pressure on border areas in Israel).
  • 4. Jewish radicalism tends to result in conflicts with non-Jews (e.g., the settlement movement); violence (e.g., Intifadas) and other expressions of antiJewish sentiment increase.
  • 5. [As a result of these conflicts,] Jews in general feel threatened and close ranks against what they see as yet another violent, incomprehensible manifestation of the eternally violent hatred of Jews. This reaction is the result of psychological mechanisms of ethnocentrism: Moral particularism, self-deception, and social identity.
  • 6. In the U.S., this effect is accentuated because committed, more intensely ethnocentric Jews dominate Jewish activist groups.
  • 7. Jews who fail to go along with what is now a mainstream position are pushed out of the community, labeled “self-hating Jews” or worse, and relegated to impotence.

The origins of Zionism and other manifestations of the intense Jewish dynamism of the twentieth century lie in the Yiddish-speaking world of Eastern Europe in the early nineteenth century. Originally invited in by nobles as estate managers, toll farmers, bankers, and moneylenders, Jews in Poland expanded into commerce and then into artisanry, so that there came to be competition between Jews and non-Jewish butchers, bakers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, and tailors. This produced the typical resource-based anti-Jewish attitudes and behavior so common throughout Jewish history.8 Despite periodic restrictions and outbursts of hostility, Jews came to dominate the entire economy apart from agricultural labor and the nobility. Jews had an advantage in the competition in trade and artisanry because they were able to control the trade in raw materials and sell at lower prices to coethnics.9

This increasing economic domination went along with a great increase in the population of Jews. Jews not only made up large percentages of urban populations, they increasingly migrated to small towns and rural areas. In short, Jews had overshot their economic niche: The economy was unable to support this burgeoning Jewish population in the sorts of positions that Jews had traditionally filled, with the result that a large percentage of the Jewish population became mired in poverty. The result was a cauldron of ethnic hostility, with the government placing various restrictions on Jewish economic activity; rampant anti-Jewish attitudes; and increasing Jewish desperation.

The main Jewish response to this situation was an upsurge of fundamentalist extremism that coalesced in the Hasidic movement and, later in the nineteenth century, into political radicalism and Zionism as solutions to Jewish problems. Jewish populations in Eastern Europe had the highest rate of natural increase of any European population in the nineteenth century, with a natural increase of 120,000 per year in the 1880s and an overall increase within the Russian Empire from one to six million in the course of the nineteenth century.10 Anti-Semitism and the exploding Jewish population, combined with economic adversity, were of critical importance for producing the sheer numbers of disaffected Jews who dreamed of deliverance in various messianic movements—the ethnocentric mysticism of the Kabbala, Zionism, or the dream of a Marxist political revolution.

Religious fanaticism and messianic expectations have been a typical Jewish response to hard times throughout history.11 For example, in the eighteenthcentury Ottoman Empire there was “an unmistakable picture of grinding poverty, ignorance, and insecurity”12 among Jews that, in the context of high levels of anti-Semitism, effectively prevented Jewish upward mobility. These phenomena were accompanied by the prevalence of mysticism and a high fertility rate among Jews, which doubtlessly exacerbated the problems.

The Jewish population explosion in Eastern Europe in the context of poverty and politically imposed restrictions on Jews was responsible for the generally destabilizing effects of Jewish radicalism in Eastern Europe and Russia up to the revolution. These conditions also had spillover effects in Germany, where the negative attitudes toward the immigrant Ostjuden (Eastern Jews) and their foreign, clannish ways contributed to the anti-Semitism of the period.13 In the United States, radical political beliefs held by a great many Jewish immigrants and their descendants persisted even in the absence of difficult economic and political conditions and have had a decisive influence on U.S. political and cultural history into the present. The persistence of these beliefs influenced the general political sensibility of the Jewish community and has had a destabilizing effect on American society, ranging from the paranoia of the McCarthy era to the triumph of the 1960s countercultural revolution.14 In the contemporary world, the descendants of these religious fundamentalists constitute the core of the settler movement and other manifestations of Zionist extremism in Israel.

The hypothesis pursued here is that Jewish population dynamics beginning in the nineteenth century resulted in a feed-forward dynamic: Increasing success in economic competition led to increased population. This in turn led to anti-Jewish reactions and eventually to Jewish overpopulation, poverty, anti-Jewish hostility, and religious fanaticism as a response to external threat. In this regard, Jewish populations are quite the opposite of European populations, in which there is a long history of curtailing reproduction in the face of perceived scarcity of resources.15 This may be analyzed in terms of the individualism/collectivism dimension, which provides a general contrast between Jewish and European culture:16 Individualists curtail reproduction in response to adversity in order to better their own lives, whereas a group-oriented culture such as Judaism responds to adversity by strengthening group ties; forming groups with charismatic leaders and a strong sense of ingroup and outgroup; adopting mystical, messianic ideologies; and increasing their fertility—all of which lead to greater conflict.

There is an association between religious or ethnic fanaticism and fertility, and it is quite common for competing ethnic groups to increase their fertility in response to perceived external threats.17 Ethnic activists respond to the perceived need to increase the numbers of their group in several ways, including exhorting coethnics to reproduce early and often, banning birth control and abortions, curtailing female employment in order to free women for the task of reproducing, and providing financial incentives. In the contemporary world, Jewish activists both within Israel and in the Diaspora have been strong advocates of increasing Jewish fertility, motivated by the threat of intermarriage in the Diaspora, the threat of wars with Israel’s neighbors, and as a reaction to Jewish population losses stemming from the Holocaust. Pro-natalism has deep religious significance for Jews as a religious commandment.18 Within Israel, there is “a nationwide obsession with fertility,” as indicated by the highest rate of in-vitro fertilization clinics in the world—one for every 28,000 citizens. This is more than matched by the Palestinians. Originating in the same group-oriented, collectivist culture area as the Jews, the Palestinians have the highest birth rate in the world and have been strongly attracted to charismatic leaders, messianic religious ideology, and desperate, suicidal solutions for their political problems.19

For the Jews, the religious fundamentalism characteristic of Eastern Europe from around 1800–1940 has been a demographic wellspring for Judaism. Jewish populations in the West have tended to have low fertility. Beginning in the nineteenth century, Western Jewish populations would have stagnated or declined in the absence of “the unending stream of immigrants from Jewish communities in the East.”20 But the point here is that this demographic wellspring created the stresses and strains within this very talented and energetic population that continue to reverberate in the modern world.

Go to Part 2 of 5.


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