Useful facts and useless spleen

October 16, 1996

The Controversy of Zion: How Zionism tried to Resolve the Jewish Question
By Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996. 396 pp., $39.95 (hb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

Israel is at the heart of Zionist politics, but the attempt to realise Jewish nationalism through a Jewish state has quite failed to counter the "Jewish problem" and has created its own Palestinian problem, not to mention a world peace problem and assorted other problems.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's new book traces the history of Zionism, which ceased to be a minority movement amongst Jews only after Hitler's slaughter of 6 million Jews and the west's refusal to take in more than a trickle of refugees. What turned this movement into political reality in 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel, was the imperialist needs of Britain and the US in the Middle East.

A Budapest journalist, Theodore Herzl, was the prime mover behind the Zionist movement, which kindled into life late last century. Herzl saw the anti-Semitic pogroms of eastern Europe and anti-Semitism in the West as evidence that anti-Semitism was ineradicable; only the removal of the Jews to a country of their own would provide a solution to the murders and discrimination.

Most Jews, however, saw this as an "admission of defeat", and it was ignored by most Jews, who believed in assimilation. Large numbers of Jews, particularly in eastern Europe, politically opposed Zionism and subscribed actively to revolutionary socialism, believing that the overthrow of capitalism was necessary to the liberation of Jews.

Those Jews who did escape Europe overwhelmingly went to the US and other western countries rather than to Palestine. Herzl himself had no fixed preference for Israel (the Biblical Land of Zion) over other countries such as Argentina. Palestine got the nod only when Britain established a Jewish homeland in that country in 1916 as a counter to the anti-colonialist agitation which was spreading to the oil-rich and strategically vital Arab Middle East.

After World War II, the US pushed aside the worn-out British and quickly supported Israel after a terrorist war against the Palestinian Arabs founded the Israeli state in 1948.

Born in violence and the dispossession of three-quarters of a million Palestinians, the new state has been marked by violence, terror, regional imperialism and racism ever since. Wheatcroft relates some of the activities of later Israeli leaders who cut their mustard in the 1948 terror, such as Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, who led massacres of whole Arab villages.

At least they were up front about the Zionist project, recognising that Palestine was not "a land without people for a people without land" and that the Palestinians who had occupied the land for over a thousand years would have to be forcibly removed.

Israel today is a watchdog for the US in the Middle East, surviving only on massive US economic and military aid — $75 billion in the quarter century to 1991 and running at $2-3 billion a year.

If this was all that Wheatcroft's book contained, it would be worth the dough, but it comes packed with dross. In his introduction, Wheatcroft worries that on such a contentious issue as Zionism and Israel he may be "too cool and detached". Hot and bothered, more like it, especially when he turns to putting the polemical boot into the left, especially the fiendish Marxists.

He treats us to all the superficial, tedious and ill-researched slanders about Karl Marx's "abuse of the Jews" and his "self-tormenting Jew-hatred". His fervour continues against the "cruellest of all first dawns" that the "Bolshevik/Leninists" offered in Russia before showing their true anti-Semitic stripes. The New Left cops it, too, for having displayed its "gravely malicious and deeply offensive Jew-baiting" by supporting the "malice and malignancy" of the Arab world in sponsoring a UN resolution that equated Zionism with racism. The left is also accused of falsely impugning Zionism with collaboration with the Nazis during World War II.

It may be fashionable to kick the left when it's down these days, but some honesty is called for.

Marx was not opposed to Jews but to the historical role they had been forced to play in the money economy of capitalism.

All 650 laws limiting Jewish rights in tsarist Russia were abolished after the Bolshevik Revolution, and anti-Semitic propaganda was suppressed. In response to the ingrained anti-Semitic prejudices of the Russian peasantry (who had often been in hock to Jewish money-lenders to pay the exploitative rents of landlords) the Bolsheviks even experimented with a limited form of Jewish separatism through the creation of autonomous agricultural settlements. It took Stalin's defeat of the revolution to turn the tide.

As for the UN resolution equating Zionism with racism, the legal core of Israel — the Law of Return — gives the right to any Jew anywhere in the world to settle in Israel but refuses that right to the original Palestinian occupants and their descendants. If this is not institutionalised racism of the first order, then nothing is.

Zionist collaboration with the Nazis in World War II is a difficult issue, but in the occupied countries, the Nazis organised Jewish Councils to manage and police the ghettoes. Their tasks included the round-up of Jews for deportation to the death camps and the suppression of anti-Nazi Jewish resistance.

This was an active choice made by a strand of extremist Zionist leaders who were following in the steps of their founder Herzl, who had argued that "anti-Semites will be our most reliable friends" in supporting the creation of a Jewish state where they could dump their Jewish population. Abraham Stern, Shamir's predecessor in the terroristic Stern Gang, offered a military alliance with Hitler if Germany were to support a Jewish state.

With the left dispatched by Wheatcroft, the way is clear for him to blather on in windy and sonorous tones about the "breathtaking achievement" of 1948, "a triumph of will and human spirit", Israel's "free and open democracy" (tell that one to the nuclear engineer, Mordechai Vanunu, abducted and imprisoned in solitary confinement for revealing the existence of Israel's nuclear weapons), and the "collectivist socialism" of the kibbutz movement (which set up settlements on recently "vacated" land, operated as a forward line of defence in 1948, and which excludes Palestinians).

Despite Wheatcroft's wackier effusions, the venting of much anti-leftist spleen and the lack of any half-way decent political analysis or strategy, Wheatcroft's book does contain enough accurate historical material on Zionism to be serviceable — if used cautiously! — for demonstrating the political bankruptcy of Zionism as a solution to anti-Semitism, and that no appeal to Biblical antiquity, or the grotesque horror of the Holocaust, can justify the expulsion and continued oppression of the Palestinians by Zionist Israel.