“The founding and development of the State of Israel is one of the greatest success stories of mankind in the 20th century, and any flaws along the way or in the final analysis can in no way detract from this enormous achievement.”
This rather emphatic statement was the contribution of Amos Schocken, editor of the prestigious and liberal Israeli daily, Ha-aretz, to a panel discussion marking the 61st anniversary of state. This view was common to most of the participants in the discussion – and, probably, to the vast majority of the liberal Israeli public.
“Mankind” today numbers some seven billion human beings and one can assume that most of them have never even heard of Israel. The peoples of the Third World, who account for the vast majority of this world, think of Israel, if they bother to think about it at all, critically, even harshly. This, at least, is the impression one gets from the many resolutions adopted by various UN conferences and committees condemning Israel’s wars and conquests. One such resolution, subsequently canceled under pressure from the West, went so far as to equate Zionism with racism, and the recent Conference against Racism (the so-called Second Durban Conference), held in Geneva, criticized Israel sharply and accused it of a racist attitude toward the Palestinians.
To be sure, when talking about “mankind” Amos Schocken does not really mean the entire human race. He means “the civilized world,” that is, the peoples of Europe or, more specifically, the peoples of Western Europe. One can refine this even further: he means, actually, Europe’s imperial, colonialist powers. In this respect he is true to Zionist tradition from its earliest days, from the days of Herzl’s most significant and programmatic Jewish State, whose publication in 1896 heralded the birth of political Zionism.
Herzl and Colonialism
“We should there form a part of a wall of defense for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism. We should as a neutral state remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence.”
When we read these words of Herzl’s today they sound like a bitter prophecy whose fulfilment we have witnessed before our very eyes. Israel indeed became an outpost, ready and willing to serve the imperialist powers in the region, and – alas! – a country whose existence still has to be guaranteed by Europe and America.
Still, we must admit that Herzl possessed an unusual acumen of realpolitic. He knew exactly to whom to turn if desirous of establishing a new European colony in the region. (One should take no offence at the use of the word “colony.” That was the term used by the settlement authorities in those days.) He was indefatiguable in seeking audiences with kings, sultans and ministers who might help him or give him Palestine so he might settle Jews there. The last thing that could ever have occurred to him would have been to seek an audience with representatives of the colonial peoples themselves, the Palestinians – to “move over a little” in order to make room for the Jews.
In time spokesmen for Zionism would defend Herzl’s statements by declaring that Zionism had to be judged according to the standards of those days, when such pronouncements were in vogue. Such reasoning, of course, only confirms the fact that, indeed, Zionism was born in the spirit of colonialism of the time. The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th marked the period of the apotheosis of imperialism (which had begun its worldwide conquests long before). It was then that Europe decided that the time had come to divide up the continent of Africa.
In 1884 – not long before the First Zioniast Congess was convened (1897) – the chancellor of Germany. Otto von Bismarck, convened a conference of European states in Berlin (in which the United States also took part), during which Africa was dissected and its parts distributed. At this conference Germany and Italy were finally given a share of the spoils which the older imperialist nations of Europe had long enjoyed. Leopold II, king of Belgium, was given complete and absolute sovereignity over the Congo.
It is somewhat difficult to describe the horrors inflicted upon the native populations of Africa by the “progressive and civilized” Europeans in their respective colonies. And if I do mention them it is only in order to provide the background against which Herzl offered to provide Europe with a civilzed “outpost against barbarism.”
The Belgian king exploited the Congo in order to obtain rubber for the production of tires, an industry which was spreading rapidly over Europe. He himself became one of the wealthiest men in the world and the Belgian economy was rated the sixth highest in the world (after Britain, the United States, Germany, France and Holland). A Belgian publication described the “indolence of the colored races” as a “genetic burden.” In order to overcome this burden it was necessary to employ force and to that end the “Congo Free State”, as it was now called, killed and tortured the natives who weren’t able or refused to work. Militias were formed whose aim was to terrorize the natives into working, even if it killed them. And it did. The population of the Congo was reduced by ten million in the years between 1885 and 1908. One of the favored methods of getting the natives to work faster and harder was to cut off the hands of those who failed adequately to comply. One regional head of a militia received 1308 hands in one day from one of his men. This form of “inducement” was explained as a humanitarian method: I killed one hundred people in order to enable another 500 to live.
On the background of Belgian-British rivalry at the time, the British Foreign Ministry tepidly criticized the Belgians for the way they treated the natives. King Leopold was furious and replied by calling the British hypocrites. The fact is, of course, that everyone was doing it, one way or another: The American United Fruit Company in Central America, the Portuguese in Angola, the French and the Germans in the Camaroon, and so on. It was the nature of the “march of civilization”.
It was against this background that Herzl promised to defend the West against the barbarians. Is it possible that Herzl had no knowledge of the way things were done by colonial expansion? He was a well-known journalist and traveled widely. What about his friend and colleague, Max Nordau, who declared in a speech at the First Zionist Congress in Basel that the Africans and Asians were “moribund”. The fact of the matter is that the Zionists accepted the premise of Europe’s leaders at the time: Europeans had the right to occupy and settle anywhere in the world and it was unthinkable that the inferior natives should interfere with them.
Herzl and his colleagues in the Zionist movement, who were ostensibly representing a Jewish public beset by anti-Semitism, were unable to grasp the fact that colonialism also provided the basis for the birth of modern-”scientific” racism – which resulted many years later in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. To show consideration for the rights of native peoples was, at the time, a notion beyond comprehension for most, though advocated by some of the leading minds of the time (Mark Twain, for example). Consequently, it was no wonder that most of the early Zionists simply ignored the presence of the Palestinians in Palestine. One remembers the famous slogan of Israel Zangwill: “Give the land without a people to the people without a land.”
Anyone interested in a serious discussion of the establishment of the State of Israel cannot ignore the political background against which Zionism was born, that is, during the period of rampant colonialism. This entire chapter in Zionist history, however, seems to have been wiped off the slate. Herzl is remembered for saying “If you will it it is no legend,” and writing Altneuland, a description of a state in which equality and a perfect democracy prevail. Such a state, he failed to mention, could only come into existence in Palestine after the displacement of the Palestinians who were then living there.
Nor do Israelis like to remember the famous picture of Herzl bowing to the German kaiser at the gates of Jerusalem. The right-wing Herzlians didn’t find it particularly offensive but the “Zionist left” explained it away by presenting Herzl largely as a diplomat given to declarations. Chaim Weizmann, on the other hand, was presented as a practical Zionist, dedicated to the creation of hard facts – “another tree, another house, another dunam.” It was convenient to forget that Weizmann continued, more successfully than Herzl, to seek the intercession of the big powers on Zionism’s behalf. Weizmann, it should be noted, did more for Zionism than ten Ben-Gurions put together by “obtaining” the Balfour Declaration from the British. This declaration provided the infrastructure for the British Mandate without which the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine, with its ever-growing cities, towns and agricultural settlements, and the State of Israel which followed,would not have been possible. Which of of course, was at the expense of the Palestinian people.
“One of the greatest success stories of mankind” began with early Zionist settlement, taught in the schools as the indefatiguable efforts of pioneers to dry the malarial swamps while bearing arms against the hostile Arab marauders. Very few Israelis have ever heard any other narrative, not even another Zionist testimony. There is, for example, the testimony of Yitzhak Epstein, a member of the “Lovers of Zion” from Odessa. Epstein was an educator who came to Palestine in 1885 with the First Aliya. Unlike his fellows he was very much aware of what was happening to his Arab neighbors and in 1907 published an article called “The Hidden Question.” He describes the purchase of land in Metullah, where 100 families of Druze fellahin were living on land leased from a certain pasha.
The pasha tried to sell the estate, but found no buyer, because no one wanted to take on, or expel by force, such tenants who had grown old on the land (they dwelled there some ninety years). And behold the purchase was proposed to the pekidut [the administration of Baron Edmund de Rothschild of Paris]. I recall that I went with a settlement official to see the village for the first time, the young Druze men gathered in the courtyard of theirprayer-house and called to us: ‘If you dare to buy Metullah we will slaughter you!’ The pekidut was then at the peak of its power, while the local government and the Arabs loked upon it as a mightly force that could sweep all obstacles aside.
According to Epstein, the negotiations continued for four years and were only concluded because the pekidut took advantage of the last Druze rebellion (1895-6) when the tribal chiefs were exiled to Constantinople. Even after the elders of the village were “given substantial rewards,” many refused to leave. Finally the purchase was finalized when the pekidut appeared with “bags of gold” and forces of the Turkish army. “Within a week some sixty Jewish farmers… gathered there and occupied the Druze houses.”
Still, writes Epstein, the villagers were destitute and after being ousted from the pleasant village of their birth, they succumbed to various illnesses in the marsh-like areas where they were subsequently relocated. From time to time, the evicted Druze would return and fire on the village. “In no way could these people come to terms with the idea that they must forget Metullah…”
In another place in his article, Epstein wrote that the lament of Arab women on the day that their families left Ja’uni – Rosh Pina – to go and settle on the Horan east of the Jordan still rings in my ears today. The men rode on donkeys and the women followed them weeping bitterly, and the valley was filled with their lamentation. As they went they stopped to kiss the stones and the earth
This, in short, is the story of “how the West was won” in Palestine. Or, at least, this was the situation until the state was founded. After that Palestinian lands were simply confiscated by the state, and in 1967 war all of Palestine came under Israel’s control.
Much water has flowed under the bridge since Herzl wrote the Jewish State but the same justification that he gave Zionism at the beginning continued to prevail down the years of the existence of the State of Israel. “The Conquest of the Land” ramained the natural core philosophy of Zionism. It is interesting to note that in his famous book Herzl dealt with the assertion that rich Jews would never come to settle in Palestine, that only the poor would be prepared to do so. “On the contrary,” he averred, “those are precisely the people we need at the beginning! Only desperados are capable of conquest.” From that time on the word “conquest” entered the Zionist vocabulary. We have heard it from the well-known historian-turned-militant-Zionist, Benny Morris, and from the liberal historian, Ze’ev Sternhel – who was attacked in his home by right-wing Jewish terrorists. They both agree that we were obliged to conquer the land. Even Martin Buber, the famous moralist thinker and member of the Brith Hashalom (which sought rapprochement with the Arabs) wrote (in 1986): “As we came to secure a place for our coming generations, we were forced to reduce the space for the coming generations of the Arab people.”
Amos Schocken is proud of the achievements and success of the State of Israel. But one may ask: Is the establishment of any state per se to be considered a success story? Even by those who were sacrificed on the altar of its birth?
A state in itself is not a particularly remarkable achievement in our world. All the states established in the wake of colonialism “succeeded” in maintaining their existence – Australia and New Zealand, most of the countries of Latin America and, of course, in first place, the United States of America.
The question that we must ask ourselves before preening our feathers is: what is the quality of life in the Israeli state and what kind of a mark have we left in the years since we came into existence. For Schocken and, I assume, for the vast majority of Israelis, the eviction of the Palestinians, the Nakhbah, the confiscation of Arab lands and the creation of millions of refugees, the present occupation and the daily oppression and humiliation of the Palestinians, are but “flaws along the way.” This would be the opinion of any conquering nation which consideres only the well-being of its own people and suffers no pangs of conscience towards its victims.
Israel today still counts on its superior military power, including its unconventional arsenal, for its well-being. This is not the most promising of safeguards, as can be seen from the frightful misgivings of the Israel leadship at the prospect of an atomically-capable Iran.
The right of Israel to exist today is not called into question but its past and present conduct cries out for radical change. It must cast off its present posture, so pithily described once by Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz: a country with a clenched and armored fist, swathed in dollars.
Israel’s iron fist is probably its really greatest achievement and the main source of the pride Israelis take in their country. It is unsheathed from time to time and employed against the national movements in the area in the service of its overseas patrons. Israel stands poised for action on Europe’s battlefront against the Third World, more or less as Herzl had envisaged.
To extricate ourselves from this situation is fairly simple – although completely unacceptable to the Israeli government. It would begin by acknowledging our colonial past and our responsibility for turning the Palestinian people into a people of refugees. It would continue by an attempt at genuine integration into the Middle East, an end to our European sanctimoniousness, and our immediate withdrawal from all the occupied territories. Such steps would be paving stones in the road to peace.
Translated by Chaya Amir
On the Congo: The Darker Nations, by Vijay Prashad, 2007, The New Press, New York/London.
“The Hidden Question,” by Yitzhak Epstein (1907), in Prophets Outcast, ed. Adam Shatz,2004, Nation Books, New York