Zionism and liberalism: complementary or contradictory?

The longish episode of left-wing, racist and militarist étatisme, has been replaced by a no less militaristic, neo-liberal racist state, which while professing liberal values, is continuing the illegal occupation and war crimes in Gaza.

Haim Bresheeth
31 October 2014

Like many other ‘national’ movements of the late nineteenth century, political Zionism was originally presented as part of the European liberal tradition, which reaches an important pitch in 1848. Mainly developed into a vibrant political movement by the author and journalist Theodor Herzl, a somewhat typical product of the Viennese Jewish bourgeoisie of the fin de siecle, Herzl was also a typical liberal of his period. It is of course the period which sees general suffrage in some countries (though not that of women), a large number of new nation-states being established in Europe, and also the promising height of modernism, a crucial trend in the arts, theatre, literature, architecture, and also early cinema – the art-form of modernity.

This growing democratisation of the European polis is the fruit of the liberal development of a couple of centuries, at least. The apparent lessening of traditional anti-Semitism and the gradual endowing of Jews with human rights has also been paralleled by the growth of new forms of anti-Semitism, supposedly ‘scientific’ and using such approaches as phrenology to develop new Judophobia for the modern age; such were the attempts of the Action Francaise in France, for example, or the politics of the anti-Semitic Karl Lueger, who became mayor of Vienna just as Herzl was about to publish his Judenstaat, his seminal Zionist text, in 1896.

Typically, liberals in Europe, like Gladstone, supported some freeing of colonial societies, like in the case of the debate about Irish Home Rule during the 1880s, but never opposed new colonial ventures by Britain, such as the occupation of Egypt in 1882. The focus of such liberals was on free-trade, laissez-faire economics, minimal government intervention and individual freedoms. Of course, the individual was European by definition, and most of humanity living elsewhere and in many cases under the control of European powers, were widely considered as ‘natives’ and inferiors - hence not eligible for the same rights as the ‘civilised nations’.

This portfolio of policies suited Herzl perfectly. His Zionism was presented as a project of freeing the Jews of Europe from centuries on racism by removing them to their ancestral home, whereby they will build a liberal European society in the midst of ‘Asiatic despotism’ and will serve as the modern, European imperialist wedge in the backwards Middle East.

As part of taking over Palestine, Herzl describes (in his Complete Diaries (1960) p. 88) the process of emptying the country of its ‘paupers’, meaning most of the indigenous population, in order to create a Jewish state. This blueprint of early Zionism has been the mainstay of political Zionism ever since, and implemented in 1948, when the newly created IDF has ethnically-cleansed four fifths of Palestine of around 750,000 Palestinian inhabitants. In this whole period only the brief episode of Brit Shalom, a left-leaning group of German liberals based in Jerusalem, and advocating a bi-national state and open relationship with the Arabs of Palestine, has offered anything but subjugation to the local population. Alas, they never accounted for more than a hundred people, and had no effect whatsoever on Zionist policies.

On the face of it, Herzl’s political attitude has affected Zionism even after his death. However, this is somewhat inaccurate when one considers the history of Zionism in detail. It was indeed in 1905, a short time after Herzl’s death, that the future route of Zionism was changed dramatically by the arrival of few hundred Jewish socialists from Russia, after the failure of the 1905 revolution. This group, which was to be greatly strengthened over the next two decades, would become the dominant force of Palestine Zionism, pushing the Herzlian liberal Zionism into a historical corner which it only escaped after 1977, when the first Begin government took power.

The interregnum of seven decades would give birth to some innovative social formations, such as the Kibbutz, which were crucial for the capturing of Palestinian land and expanding the land-base of Zionism, as well as to its military expansion. In this long and troubled period, Zionism has abandoned its liberal roots, preferring instead a left-wing rhetoric of the industrial and agricultural working class, but clearly excluding any opportunity of rapprochement with the indigenous population, and acting as the core of a herrenvolk democracy - a democracy for Jews only.

On achieving statehood in 1948, Israel embarked on an anti-liberal agenda – an omnipresent, militaristic state, instigating mass ethnic cleansing, and placing the Palestinians left within its enlarged area under severe military government which lasted until 1964, when the statist (a practitioner of the French politics of étatisme) Ben Gurion left the political scene. During this period, the Histadruth, the federation of trade unions, owned and controlled up to two thirds of all production, export and import, and was the largest employer in the country. The liberal Zionist project seemed at an end, and some naïve European socialists mistook this militaristic colonial state for a socialist polity, unaware of the background described. The Kibbutz gap-year became de rigueur for young European lefties.

The political upheaval of 1977, when the castigated Israeli liberal right has captured power from the collectivist left, has seemingly changed Zionism forever. Even when governments of the ‘left’ were in power since 1977, the (neo)liberal social politics of laissez faire, mass privatisation of socialised resources and services and support of deep inequalities has not been rescinded. Post 1977, the massive social structures of left Zionism were quickly and efficiently taken apart, the union movement decimated, and the Kibbutzim, which helped to steal so much of Palestine’s land, became some of the richest landowners in Israel - employers of gastarbeiters from across the globe, on punitive and inhuman terms.

Israeli capitalism, under this new social regime, became the strongest in the Middle East, controlling massive empires of media, building, armaments and new tech industries. The Israeli neoliberal economy is one of the strongest in the world, based on the captive market of six million Palestinians, two thirds being stateless and lacking any human or employment rights, and the insatiable global thirst for arms and new technologies. The longish episode of left-wing, racist and militarist étatisme has been replaced by a no less militaristic, neo-liberal racist state, which while professing liberal values is continuing the illegal occupation, barbaric war crimes in Gaza and elsewhere and the denial of rights to millions, as well as squeezing its own citizens, while serving the narrow financial elite ruling the country.

All of which never stopped Israeli propaganda using liberal intellectuals as the mainstay of its work abroad, of course. Audiences in many countries are aware of the trio of authors – David Grossman, A B Yehosua and Amos Oz, who are the permanent whitewashers of Israeli policies, travelling around the globe, financed by various Israeli Ministries, as evidence of the open-minded Israeli society, and allowed their mild critical edge as proof. Israel has realised a long time ago that it is better defended by mild critics, than by fervent ideologues.

The attack on Gaza in summer 2014 is a case in point. Throughout the murderous onslaught on a large civilian conurbation, Israeli propaganda used the mantras “Israel has a right to defend itself” and “thousands of rockets are raining over Israel”. These were uttered not only by the IDF spokespersons, but also by the seasoned liberals whose voice carries more weight abroad. Listening to them, one could imagine that Israel was under the Blitz, and had no choice but to react and defend itself.

The realities were different, of course – the ‘thousands of rockets’ harmed some six people in Israel, (66 soldiers were killed in fighting with resistance fighters inside Gaza) while the bombing of Gaza, in 51 days, amounted to twice the weight of high explosives dumped on London during the Blitz, and killing over 1200 people, injuring over 13,000, and making 110,000 people homeless. In the best liberal traditions of disregarding the humanity of indigenous populations, the trio of liberal musketeers and their allies in academia and the arts, found it acceptable to defend the war crimes of their government. It must be a unique object lesson in how far the term liberal may be stretched.


This article is part of the Gender and Race strand of the Liberalism in neoliberal times series that OurKingdom is running in partnership with Goldsmiths, supported by the Department of Sociology. You can read Gholam Khiabany's introduction to the whole series here.

Liberalism in neo-liberal times - an OurKingdom partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London

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