Zionist Extremism as Product of the Internal Dynamics of Judaism, Part 3: A Risky Strategy Becomes Mainstream

Start with Part 1; Part 2.


Zionism was a risky strategy—to use Frank Salter’s term62—because it led to charges of dual loyalty. The issue of dual loyalty has been a major concern throughout the history of Zionism. From the beginnings of Zionism, the vast majority of the movement’s energy and numbers, and eventually its leadership, stemmed from the Eastern European wellspring of Judaism.63 In the early decades of the twentieth century, there was a deep conflict within the Jewish communities of Western Europe and the U.S., pitting the older Jewish communities originating in Western Europe (particularly Germany) against the new arrivals from Eastern Europe, who eventually overwhelmed them by force of numbers.64 Thus, an important theme of the history of Jews in America, England, and Germany was the conflict between the older Jewish communities that were committed to some degree of cultural assimilation and the ideals of the Enlightenment, versus the Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe and their commitment to political radicalism, Zionism, and/or religious fundamentalism. The older Jewish communities were concerned that Zionism would lead to anti-Semitism due to charges of dual loyalty and because Jews would be perceived as a nation and an ethnic group rather than simply as a religion. In England, during the final stages before the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, Edwin Montagu “made a long, emotional appeal to his colleagues [in the British cabinet]: how could he represent the British government during the forthcoming mission to India if the same government declared that his (Montagu’s) national home was on Turkish territory?”65


Since the Second World War, there has been a long evolution such that the American Jewish community now fully supports the settler movement and other right-wing causes within Israel. Zionists made a great deal of progress during the Second World War. They engaged in “loud diplomacy,” organizing thousands of rallies, dinners with celebrity speakers (including prominent roles for sympathetic non-Jews), letter-writing campaigns, meetings, lobbying, threats against newspapers for publishing unfavorable items, insertion of propaganda as news items in the press, and giving money to politicians and non-Jewish celebrities in return for their support.80

By 1944, thousands of non-Jewish associations would pass pro-Zionist resolutions, and both Republican and Democratic platforms included strong pro-Zionist planks, even though the creation of a Jewish state was strongly opposed by the Departments of State and War.81 A 1945 poll found that 80.5% of Jews favored a Jewish state, with only 10.5% opposed.82 This shows that by the end of the Second World War, Zionism had become thoroughly mainstream within the U.S. Jewish community. … What had once been radical and viewed as dangerous had become not only accepted, but seen as central to Jewish identity.

Since the late 1980s, the American Jewish community has not been evenhanded in its support of Israeli political factions, but has supported the more fanatical elements within Israel. While wealthy Israelis predominantly support the Labor Party, financial support for Likud and other right-wing parties comes from foreign sources, particularly wealthy U.S. Jews.84 The support of these benefactors is endangered by any softening of Likud positions, with support then going to the settler movement. “Organized U.S. Jews are chauvinistic and militaristic in their views.”85 Within Israel, there has been a transformation in the direction of the most radical, ethnocentric, and aggressive elements of the population. During the 1920s–1940s, the followers of Vladimir Jabotinsky (the “Revisionists”) were the vanguard of Zionist aggressiveness and strident racial nationalism, but they were a minority within the Zionist movement as a whole. Revisionism had several characteristics typical of influential nineteenth-century Jewish intellectual and political movements—features shared also with other forms of traditional Judaism. Like Judaism itself and the various hermeneutic theories typical of other Jewish twentieth-century intellectual movements, the philosophy of Revisionism was a closed system that offered a complete worldview “creating a self-evident Jewish world.”86 Like the Hasidic movement and other influential Jewish intellectual and political movements, Revisionism was united around a charismatic leader figure, in this case Jabotinsky, who was seen in god-like terms—“Everyone waited for him to speak, clung to him for support, and considered him the source of the one and only absolute truth.”87 There was a powerful sense of “us versus them.” Opponents were demonized: “The style of communication…was coarse and venomous, aimed at moral delegitimization of the opponent by denouncing him and even ‘inciting’ the Jewish public against him.”88

Jabotinsky developed a form of racial nationalism similar to other Zionist racial theorists of the period (see above). He believed that Jews were shaped by their long history as a desert people and that establishment of Israel as a Jewish state would allow the natural genius of the Jewish race to flourish. “These natural and fundamental distinctions embedded in the race are impossible to eradicate, and are continually being nurtured by the differences in soil and climate.”89

The Revisionists advocated military force as a means of obtaining a Jewish state; they wanted a “maximalist” state that would include the entire Palestine Mandate, including the Trans-Jordan (which became the nation of Jordan in 1946).90 In the 1940s, its paramilitary wing, the Irgun, under the leadership of Menachem Begin, was responsible for much of the terrorist activities directed against both Arabs and the British forces maintaining the Palestinian Mandate until 1948, including the bombing of the King David Hotel and the massacre at Deir Yasin that was a major factor in terrorizing much of the Palestinian population into fleeing.91

Over time, the Labor Party has dwindled in influence, and there has followed the rise and ascendancy of the Likud Party and ultra-nationalism represented by Begin, who came to power in 1977 and began the process of resurrecting Jabotinsky,92 by Yitzhak Shamir (commander of LEHI [the Stern Group], another pre-1948 terrorist group), and now by the government of Ariel Sharon, whose long record of aggressive brutality is described briefly below. Fundamentalists and other ultranationalists were a relatively weak phenomenon in the 1960s, but have increased to around 25% in the late 1990s and are an integral part of Sharon’s government. In other words, the more radical Zionists have won out within Israel. (As Noam Chomsky notes, there has been a consensus on retaining sovereignty over the West Bank, so that the entire Israeli political spectrum must be seen as aggressively expansionist.93 The differences are differences of degree.)

The connections between Jabotinsky and the current Israeli government are more than coincidental: Just before Israel’s election in February 2001, Sharon was interviewed seated

symbolically and ostentatiously beneath a large photo of Vladimir Jabotinsky, spiritual father of militant Zionism and Sharon’s Likud party. Jabotinsky called for a Jewish state extending from the Nile to the Euphrates [as promised by God in Genesis]. He advocated constant attacks to smash the weak Arab states into fragments, dominated by Israel. In fact, just what Sharon tried to do in Lebanon. Hardly a good omen for the Mideast’s future.94

Sharon has been implicated in a long string of acts of “relentless brutality toward Arabs,” including massacring an Arab village in the 1950s; the “pacification” of the Gaza Strip in the 1970s (involving large-scale bulldozing of homes and deportation of Palestinians); the invasion of Lebanon, which involved thousands of civilian deaths and the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees; and the brutal Israeli response to the recent Palestinian intifada.95 The Kahan Commission, an Israeli board formed to investigate the Lebanese incident, concluded that Sharon was indirectly responsible for the massacre, and it went on to say that Sharon bears personal responsibility.

The intention of the Sharon government is to make life so miserable for the Palestinians that they will voluntarily leave, or, failing that, to simply expel them. Ran HaCohen, an Israeli academic, sums up the situation as of June 2002:

Step by step, Palestinians have been dispossessed and surrounded by settlements, military camps, by-pass roads and checkpoints, squeezed into sealed-off enclaves. Palestinian towns are besieged by tanks and armed vehicles blocking all access roads. West Bank villages too are surrounded by road blocks, preventing the movement of vehicles in and out: three successive mounds of rubble and earth, approximately 6 feet high, with 100 metre gaps between them. All residents wishing to move in and out of the village—old or young, sick or well, pregnant or not—have to climb over the slippery mounds. At present, this policy seems to have been perfected to an extent that it can be further institutionalised by long-term bureaucracy: a permit system, considerably worse than the “pass laws” imposed on blacks in Apartheid South Africa.96

Little has changed since this assessment. Recently this state of affairs is being formalized by the construction of a series of security walls that not only fence in the Palestinians but also result in the effective seizure of land, especially around Jerusalem.97 The wall encircles and isolates Palestinian villages and divides properties and farmland in ways that make them inaccessible to their owners.98

The current state of affairs would have been absolutely predictable simply by paying attention to the pronouncements and behavior of a critical subset of Israeli leaders over the last fifty years. Again, they have been the most radical within the Israeli political spectrum. The clear message is that an important faction of the Israeli political spectrum has had a long-term policy of expanding the state at the expense of the Palestinians, dating from the beginnings of the state of Israel. Expansionism was well entrenched in the Labor Party, centered around David Ben-Gurion, and has been even more central to the Likud coalition under the leadership of Menachem Begin and, more recently, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon. The result is that the Palestinians have been left with little hope of obtaining a meaningful state, despite the current “road map to peace” efforts. The next step may well be expulsion, already advocated by many on the right in Israel, although the strategy of oppression is in fact causing some Palestinians to leave voluntarily.99 Voluntary emigration has long been viewed as a solution by some, including Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (on the more “liberal” end of the Israeli political spectrum), who urged that Israel “create…conditions which would attract natural and voluntary migration of the refugees from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to Jordan.”100

“Transfer,” whether voluntary or involuntary, has long been a fixture of Zionist thought going back to Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, and BenGurion.101 Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary in 1937: “the compulsory transfer of the Arabs from the valleys of the projected Jewish state… we have to stick to this conclusion the same way we grabbed the Balfour Declaration, more than that, the same way we grabbed at Zionism itself.”102 A prominent recent proponent of expulsion is Rehavam Zeevi, a close associate of Sharon and Israel’s Minister of Tourism as well as a member of the powerful Security Cabinet until his assassination in October, 2001. Zeevi described Palestinians as “lice” and advocated the expulsion of Palestinians from Israeli-controlled areas. Zeevi said Palestinians were living illegally in Israel and “We should get rid of the ones who are not Israeli citizens the same way you get rid of lice. We have to stop this cancer from spreading within us.” There are many examples, beginning no later than the mid- 1980s, of leading Israeli politicians referring to the occupied territories on the West Bank as “Judea and Samaria.”103

The point is that movements that start out on the extreme of the Jewish political spectrum eventually end up driving the entire process, so that in the end not only American Jews but pro-Israeli non-Jewish politicians end up mouthing the rhetoric that was formerly reserved for extremists within the Jewish community. In 2003, at a time when there are well over one hundred Israeli settlements on the West Bank and Gaza filled with fanatic fundamentalists and armed zealots intent on eradicating the Palestinians, it is revealing that Moshe Sharett, Israeli prime minister in the 1950s, worried that the border settlements were composed of well-armed exsoldiers—extremists who were intent on expanding the borders of Israel. Immediately after the armistice agreement of 1948 Israeli zealots, sometimes within the army and sometimes in the nascent settler movement, began a long string of provocations of Israel’s neighbors.104 An operation of the Israeli army (under the leadership of Ariel Sharon) that demolished homes and killed civilians at Qibya in 1953 was part of a broader plan: “The stronger the tensions in the region, the more demoralized the Arab populations and destabilized the Arab regimes, the stronger the pressures for the transfer of the concentrations of Palestinian refugees from places near the border away into the interior of the Arab world—and the better it was for the preparation of the next war.”105 At times the army engaged in provocative actions without Prime Minister Sharett’s knowledge,106 as when David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, led a raid in 1955 which resulted in a massacre of Arabs in Gaza. When confronted with his actions by an American Jew, Ben-Gurion “stood up. He looked like an angry prophet out of the Bible and got red in the face. He shouted, ‘I am not going to let anybody, American Jews or anyone else, tell me what I have to do to provide for the security of my people.”107

The war to occupy the West Bank did not take place until 1967, but Sharett describes plans by the Israeli army to occupy the West Bank dating from 1953. Throughout the period from 1948–1967 “some of the major and persistent accusations” by the Israeli right were that the Labor-dominated governments had accepted the partition of Palestine and had not attempted to “eradicate Palestinian boundaries” during the 1948 war.108 The annexation of East Jerusalem and the settlement of the West Bank began immediately after the 1967 war—exactly what would be expected on the assumption that this was a war of conquest. Menachem Begin, who accelerated the settlement process when he assumed power in 1977, noted, “In June 1967, we again had a choice. The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that [Egyptian President] Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.”109

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