Zionism, Colonialism, and the Toxic Conversation On Israel

The New Republic’s John Judis is the latest recipient of over-the-top right-wing attacks on any who would question Israeli policy.  Judis’ book, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israel Conflict has been attacked as part of a “new worldwide effort to question the legitimacy of Israel” (Ronald Radosh in the Jerusalem Post) and the work of a “faux Elder of Zion” (Rick Richman in Commentary) who “deploys the bigotry of yesteryear” (Jordan Chandler Hirsch in the Wall Street Journal) and insists that Arab massacres against Jews are “justified” (Hirsch and Radosh).

I haven’t read Judis’ book yet, and I can tell that these sentiments are nonsense. Judis is a fair-minded writer; it beggars belief that he would justify Arab massacres against Jews.  More sober reviewers such as Jonathan Kirsch in the Jewish Journal and Gershom Gorenberg in The American Prospect have a lot of trenchant criticisms of it, but they are intelligent enough not to have a conniption fits about policy disagreements and nowhere mention the sorts of absurdities that Judis is accused of.

That said, Judis’ attempt to defend himself gets him into trouble, and does lead me to wonder whether this book is the masterpiece that some are hailing. In particular, I noticed this paragraph in Judis’ response to his critics:

Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann and the British Zionists who helped draft the Balfour Declaration did not aspire to create an empire like that of the British or French, but to be junior partners of the Western imperialist powers. Herzl, who admired Cecil Rhodes, described the Jewish state as “a part of a wall of defense for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism.” The Zionist movement established “colonies” and aspired to create a Jewish state in a territory where, at the beginning of the Zionist movement, Arabs made up 95 percent of the population. American Zionists compared the Zionists in Palestine with American colonial settlers. At the time, colonialism and imperialism were not dirty words they way they are now. So yes, I think much of the Zionist movement—with the exception of Ahad Ha’am and his followers—saw themselves engaged in a mission that could be described as settler colonialism.

Now, I realize that these replies cannot go on too long, and that thus nuance gets lost, but if this response accurately and completely reflects Judis’ views and the message of the book, then that represents a real problem. Whatever Herzl might have thought, the man died in 1904 (13 years before the Balfour Declaration), and the British Zionists who helped draft the Balfour Declaration were nowhere near the core of the Zionist movement that actually created the state in the 1930’s and 1940’s.  David Ben-Gurion and the rest of the Yishuv institutions and leadership had no interest in being junior partners of western imperialism: they loved working with Orde Wingate in the late 1930’s, but basically detested the British and other imperial powers. “We must assist the British in the war as if there were no White Paper and we must resist the White Paper as if there were no war,” said Ben-Gurion. That is not someone who wishes to be the junior partner of imperialism. Indeed, the Mapai leadership was shocked when Israel was not invited to the Bandung Conference in 1956 and Israel’s government leaped at any chance to establish strong relationships with African governments as soon as they were independent.  (The much-ballyhooed Israel-South Africa relationship really did not get going until 1976, after the rest of Africa cut off ties with Israel following the Yom Kippur War).

Thus, “colonialism” represents a deeply flawed view of the Zionist project.  “Colonialism” assumes a metropole to which one is loyal.  The Zionists who actually built the state had little for any metropole and saw themselves as a nationalist movement.  Gershon Shafir, one of the best scholars out there working on this, makes an absolutely crucial distinction between “colonialism”, which Zionism was not, and “colonization,” which it clearly was.  Any time  a group of people moves from one part of the world to another, in one sense it is “colonization.” But to see Zionism as a “colonialist” movement is at best imprecise and misleading.

None of this excuses the hysteria against Judis in the right wing press. But Judis isn’t doing himself any favors in his response — and very possibly, he won’t be doing it in his book, either.