by Gilad Atzmon
It occurred to me recently that the Palestinian solidarity discourse is spiritually, ideologically and intellectually driven by some very misleading terminology: crucial notions such as Zionism, colonialism and apartheid (heard in every discussion, and present in every text book about the conflict), are either confusing, or even delusional: I believe that they are there to actually block any attempt to grasp the true spirit and ideologies that drive the Jewish State rather than to clarify the situation.
Many of us tend to refer to Zionism as the ideological driving force behind Israel.
But make no mistake: Israel is not Zionism, and Zionist ideology and politics have very little at all to do with Israeli politics or practice.
It must be understood that Israel and Zionism are, by now, two distinct categories. While Zionism was defined by its founders as an attempt to ‘transform the Diaspora Jew into an authentic and civilised human being’, Israel can, nowadays, only be seen as the pragmatic product of such an ideology.
It may surprise many of you to hear that these days, Israel is not driven or even particularly inspired by Zionism any longer -it is, instead, engaged in self-maintenance. More so, Israelis are hardly even that familiar with Zionist ideology. For most Israelis Zionism is little more than a dated and archaic concept – it may have historical significance -but it has zero meaning in daily life.
Zionism is, in fact, a Jewish Diaspora discourse. It is there to differentiate between world Jewry that largely supports Israel, and a few sporadic Jewish secular voices who want to maintain their Jewish national identity while opposing the Jewish State.
The Zionist/ anti Zionist debate is, in fact, a debate that takes place within the Jewish Diaspora, and not within Israel itself. It belongs to the realm of Jewish identity politics. It has very little political significance out of that context.
Because Israel and Israelis are actually impervious to Zionism, ‘Anti Zionist’ activity and ideology have very little impact at all on Israel and Israelis. Israelis are only concerned with direct actions against their Jewish State, and for them, sanctions are a matter that concern and worry them a great deal. Israelis though, are hardly concerned at all with seeking solutions to the so called ‘Jewish Question.’ From an Israeli perspective the Jewish state is the ultimate solution for the ‘Jewish Question.’ I guess that from a realistic and pragmatic perspective, one may have to agree, Israel didn’t really solve the ‘Jewish Question’ it just moved it to a new place.
Why do we then, continue to make this crude mistake, and always refer to Israeli crimes as a Zionist symptom? Why don’t we refer directly and openly to the ‘Jewish State’, because at the end of the day, this is how Israel defines itself.
The answer is simple: it is because we really do not want to offend anyone. We accept that Jews have suffered all through their history and we accept their unique sensitivities. Hence, voluntarily, we self-censor ourselves. We voluntarily give up on our capacity to think freely, coherently, openly and critically.
Zionism is not colonialism either. As much as many activists around us insist that we must regard Zionism as a colonial project, the truth must be stated: colonialism defines itself by having a clear material relationship between a ‘mother state’ and a ‘settler state’. In the case of Zionism however, it is impossible to determine what was, or is, the ‘Jewish mother State’. In fact there is no Jewish mother State and there has never been one. Zionism is not a colonial project and it has never been one. It is indeed true that the Jewish State exhibits some colonial symptoms. But then, some brain cancer patients also exhibit some symptoms of migraine. A proper diagnosis aims at discovering the true cause behind symptoms. To diagnose is to trace a true disease rather than provide a superficial explanation that may be linked to a number of sporadic symptoms.
But it is also clear why so many of us love the colonial paradigm, despite it being flawed: the followers of the colonial paradigm accept that Israelis are not different from the British, French or Dutch; they just happen to celebrate their ‘colonial’ expansionist symptoms ‘100 years after everyone else’. Also the colonial paradigm promises a ‘solution’ at the end of the road — a post colonial reconciliation is just a matter of time, they stress.
Again, I am sorry to disappoint so many people I really care about, but I have to say it: Zionism is original and unique of its kind, and it has no precedent in history. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit into any materialist model, for the aspiration behind Zionism was, and still is, spiritually driven.
So why do we continue to make this crude mistake, and always refer to Zionism as colonialism? Why don’t we refer to Zionism as what it is; a totally unique Jewish ideological project? Simple, because we do not want to offend some of the very few Jews who are kind enough to support Palestine. We accept their sensitivities, and voluntarily remain quiet about it all. We would do whatever it takes to keep everybody happy. After all, we are a peace movement.
And what about apartheid? Is Israel an apartheid State? In Israel we clearly witness racial separation and legal discrimination. However, I would argue that Israel is not an apartheid system for apartheid was set in place to exploit the indigenous peoples, yet, to keep them living on the land. Israel, on the other hand, is there to destroy the indigenous population – the Israelis would be relieved if they woke up one morning to find out that the Palestinians had simply left the region.
Those who are Naïve enough to buy into the apartheid narrative probably believe that Israel may collapse soon, because this is what history teaches us about apartheid. Again, we like the apartheid model because it makes Israel look (relatively) ‘ordinary’. We do not want to offend anyone, especially the few Jews who support us.
But here is a question that I must address to righteous Jews and fellow Palestinian supporters around the world: do you really believe that the discourse of the struggle against the Jewish State should be shaped by ‘Jewish sensitivities’? Was the fight against Nazism shaped by German sensitivities? Did we take on board the Afrikaners’ touchy spots when campaigning against the apartheid? Isn’t the time ripe to call a spade a spade? I do accept the crucial importance of Jews in this movement and I try to work with as many Jews as possible. Yet, I wonder, isn’t it time for Jews to overcome their sensitivities and look into the subject with open eyes? Isn’t the time ripe for all of us to do the same? Shouldn’t we question the supporters of the Jewish State, and ask exactly what Jewishness stands for?
I believe that this is exactly what we have to do-for the sake of a better future in Palestine, we must openly engage in these crucial questions. I also believe that more than anyone else, it is Jews who must confront these questions. I would expect Jewish activists within our movement to lead this move rather than trying to silence it.
 Zionism may be a useful term when referring to Jewish lobbying around the world. It may throw light on the activity of Sayanim around the world, and it may explain the inclination of some Brooklyn Jews to make Aliya. It may also explain why some Jewish Leftists join forces with rabid Zionist institutions as soon as someone questions what Jewishness stands for.
 It can be reasonably argued that the relationships between Israel West Bank Settlers and the indigenous peoples could be understood in colonial terms.
In the case of Zionism however, it is impossible to determine what was, or is, the ‘Jewish mother State’.
Actually, that’s an easy one: The United States of America.
@ishamid: I would have to disagree here. If the USA were the mother state then the policies of Israel would be primarily aimed at benefiting the USA, which is not the case, quite the opposite in fact. The relationship here is much more one of a parasite and a host, or one in which Israel is the mother state and the USA an exploited colony. The latter was well illustrated by the 26 standing ovations Netanyahu got in Congress :-)
Colonies/colonial states have their own interests as well, so it is not the case that a colony necessarily seeks to benefit its “mother”. Let’s look at this again:
The Zionist control over the US is relatively complete. There are more Jews in the US than in Israel. Without the US — and Zionist control over it — there would be no Israel. If Israel fails as a state, the US will remain as the promised land of Zionism. And that will happen in part when American Jews decide that Israel is more liability than asset. Same as other colonial projects: Let them go when the cost becomes too high.
In that sense I agree with Gilad that Zionism is in some sense becoming irrelevant in Israel itself. What’s missing in the analysis is the movement of Zionism to the US: it has now become an American ideology. Put another way, the ideology of Zionism is, in a fundamental way, decoupling itself from the Israeli state and taking over the American state. But that decoupling has by no means run its course and has a ways to go.
Gilad’s article is good, but no need to push mutually exclusive categories. Israel is a colonial state, just not a traditional colonial state. The meta-ideology of secular racist expansionist nationalism (with a religious veneer) is largely a West-European invention adopted by secular European Ashkenazis. Sure, it is a “Jewish ideological project”, even a unique one, but “totally unique” is a bit of an exaggeration. It remains an instantiation of the secular racist expansionist nationalism (with a religious veneer) that comes out of Western Europe. The American colonial project was unique in ways; same for the South African one, etc.
In the case of the Zionist State: Sure, there was no national original motherland in the traditional sense, but that’s irrelevant since the degree of the ideology’s control within the Euro-American homeland — where the ideology originated — extends so deeply.
The USA as the de facto motherland of world Jewry seems as obvious as the Sun to me :-) Sure, the relationship is dialectical in ways, but the fact is that Israel depends on the US — and Zionist control of the US — for its existence, not the other way around. For sure, international Zionism will let go of Israel before it lets go of the US.
So we have to distinguish at least three things that remain in dialectical tension: Israel, international/American Zionism, and the US. Like the three blind men and the elephant, the relationship between these three can be looked at in different ways (US is colony of Israel etc). But at the end of the day, Israel needs the US Motherland more than the other way around, and international Zionism understands that quite well, no matter how many ovations their lackeys in Congress gave to Netanyahu.
Put another way, the 26 standing ovations were out of allegiance to American Zionism, not to Israel per se. When American Zionism lets Isreal go, so will Congress. The slow but steady decoupling of Israel and Zionism is key to the analysis.