In the post-war era, Zionism is an ideology that has dominated the political landscape. Movements on the radical Left and radical Right have come to be defined by either their support or opposition to this cause, whilst what can only be described as zealously enthusiastic Zionism has become government policy for most European states. It’s also led to much contention. For instance, it is often alleged by Zionists that opposition to their ideology equates to holding anti-Semitic beliefs. What exactly is meant by the term, too, is a point of fierce debate. In this essay, I will attempt to define what Zionism is, what it isn’t, and how modern Zionist ideology compares and differs with the historical meaning of the term. Throughout this exercise, I will endeavour to present the information as I find it without prejudice.
In the beginning, what European Jews termed Zionism literally referred to returning to Zion, which can be defined as present day Jerusalem or the entire area of the State of Israel. Up until the post-war period, Jews were a stateless diaspora who resided predominantly in Europe and Russia, and throughout the 19th century the desire for a nation state of their own gathered momentum as a reaction to real or perceived antisemitism. Theodor Herzl, an influential Jewish journalist from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was the first to congregate the divergent elements of Jewish nationalism into a coherent organisation and strategy for the future, and in 1897 he was elected President of the First Zionist Congress. The Congress gathered influential Jews from across Europe to, unsurprisingly, organise their desire for a Jewish homeland and turn the dream into reality. Around this time, Herzl began to court the support of England’s powerfully rich Jewish nobility, and the English branch of the Rothschild banking family became early supporters of the Zionist aims. Interestingly, the land of Palestine was not the only option mused by the Congress and its supporters. Various delegates were interested in the colonial property of European nations, whilst a segment of Argentina was also looked at. This was a matter of feasibility, for the land that is now Israel was under the jurisdiction of the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the century. Herzl did visit Jerusalem in 1898 (for a well-publicised meeting with Kaiser Wilhelm II), but in 1901 Sultan Abdulhamid II rejected his overtures regarding the Holy Land.
It’s rather an oddity that it took until the late 19th century for Jewish nationalism to gain traction. Throughout the preceding 1500 years, Jews had been the victims of expulsions and pogroms, justified or unjustified, in over 100 different European countries. Indeed, by the late 19th century they had attained a relatively safe position in European society, even if some passive anti-Semitic sentiment still remained. Jews had risen to positions of power and influence in a number of countries, enjoying strong representation in banking, journalism and cultural pursuits in Poland, Germany, Austria and the United Kingdom. However, nationalistic sentiment was increasing throughout Europe in the decades leading up to The Great War, which may well have been the catalyst for an upsurge in reactionary Jewish nationalism. It’s also true that despite many centuries of life in Europe, a large proportion of Jews were still not assimilated into society. They remained markedly different from the native population of the host country, both culturally and religiously. Additionally, the Jewish populations were beginning to become resented by certain sections of European society for their actual or perceived domination of certain industries, most notably finance. It’s also worth noting that at this time Palestine already had some Jewish residents, but they numbered no more than 20,000 at the turn of the century.
The major breakthrough for the Zionist cause came in 1917 when, after capturing (or planning to capture) large portions of the Middle-East from the moribund Ottoman Empire, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour promised Palestine to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in a communiqué to Lord Rothschild, an influential member of Britain’s Jewish community. This became known as the Balfour Declaration and the beginnings of the nascent State of Israel. Unsurprisingly, the Jews of Europe’s Zionist Congress were exceedingly excited by the prospect of a state of their own, but they soon encountered a problem most unfortunate to their cause, namely that the majority of European Jews had no desire to move there. Indeed, between 1919 and 1923 when one would imagine enthusiasm for emigration to the newly found Promised Land, just 40,000 of Europe’s nearly 9 million Jews actually moved there. This is because many Jews were thriving in post-war Europe. In Germany, a few hundred thousand Jews had taken advantage of the economic situation and found themselves at the helm of the banking industry, the judiciary, general business, pornography, fashion, medicine and journalism. In Russia, 80% of the leading Bolshevik revolutionaries were Jewish themselves, thus Russia’s 4 million Jews saw a complete reversal of the anti-Semitic sentiment commonplace under the Tsarist regime. Ironically, it was Poland that became most uncomfortable for the Jews, and the majority of emigres to the British mandate of Palestine were from there.
This trend persisted throughout the remainder of the 1920s. Between 1924-29, just 82,000 European Jews emigrated to the new homeland. The real breakthrough for the Zionists came in the 1930s, where 250,000 European Jews emigrated to Palestine by 1939 as a response to growing antisemitism and the advent of National Socialism. The Ha’avara Transfer Agreement also assisted with the Zionist Plan – this was the agreement between the German authorities, the Anglo-Palestine Bank and the Zionist Federation of Germany to provide German Jews with assisted passage to Palestine. However, despite this breakthrough, Jews in the British Mandate of Palestine still numbered well below a million – they were vastly outnumbered by the native Arabs – thus they did not have the capacity to build a fully-fledged nation state. The real breakthrough came in the immediate aftermath of World War Two. As the dust settled in Europe, the Holocaust gave the Zionists a rather more persuasive argument in favour of settling in Palestine. News of the alleged massacres in Europe turned settler Jews against British rule and encouraged large numbers of illegal immigrants to flock to the Homeland. The newly independent State of Israel recorded high levels of immigration in its formative years – 723,000 Jews moved to the country between 1948-53, more than doubling the state’s Jewish population. Thus, in theory, the aim of the original Zionists was complete. World Jewry now had a state of its own, and therefore the requirement for its advocacy should have ceased – yet, as we know, it did not.
Part 2 – Modern Zionism, American Foreign Policy and its Implications
The reason for Zionism’s continuation after and in spite of the creation of an independent Jewish homeland is what marks it out from the vast majority of nations on earth. Almost from the minute it began to exist as an independent nation, Israel has been in perpetual conflict with its Arab neighbours. In 1947, after independence was agreed upon, civil war between Arab and Jewish militias ensued which later escalated into conflict with its neighbouring states. An uneasy peace was established in 1949, but since then we’ve had the Yom Kippur War, the Six-day War, the Suez Crisis and many other conflicts between Israel and its neighbours. Whilst some of these incidents have been initiated by Israel itself, many have been wars of aggression instigated by her Arab neighbours which has led to a siege mentality developing amongst both Israelis and the remaining Jewish diaspora worldwide. This has led to both groups feeling a requirement to consistently justify and lobby in favour of the existence of Israel as a Jewish State.
This is where it perhaps gets somewhat complicated. In the modern era, American foreign policy and Zionism are inextricably linked, so much so that one could accurately describe an amalgamation of the two as a worldview all by itself. This is what separates the different stages of Zionism, which can themselves be summarised in the following way:
Stage 1 – Laying claim to a homeland and enticing support for Jewish emigration to Zion.
Stage 2 – Establishing an independent Jewish nation state and the security thereof.
Stage 3 – Maintaining (and enlarging) Israel and establishing close relations with the world’s premier superpower.
Israel courted America’s support from the beginning, but it may come as a surprise to many given the latter’s zealous support for the Jewish state today that the American government was initially hesitant to embrace a close relationship with them. The most important reasoning behind this was America’s reliance on oil imports from Israel’s Arab neighbours, many of whom were hostile to the Jewish state. However, American policy changed rapidly in the early 1960s. Indeed, it was the Americans that forced the Israelis to withdraw from Egypt at the height of the Suez Crisis in 1956 – a situation that we could scarcely imagine today.
Lyndon Johnson assumed the Presidency after the murder of President Kennedy, and American foreign policy quickly shifted from acquiescence to unquestioning loyalty and support. Around this time, American foreign aid to Israel increased, overtaking the French as the Jewish State’s largest financial contributor. Additionally, arms sales to Israel began to increase. The circumstantial change in the murky world of geopolitical alliances is unclear; perhaps the Americans had come to an arrangement with their oil-rich Arab allies? What’s certain is that the various despots of the Middle-East benefited from US support, such as the Shah of Iran who remained largely silent over the Arab-Israeli conflicts in return for American assistance in retaining domestic power. This tradition has continued up until the modern era. Saudi Arabia, for instance, never speaks a bad word about Israel as a result of its strong alliance with the United States. The Saudis play ball when it comes to Israel and oil exports, so the Americans turn a blind eye to the Arab state’s dissemination of Salafist Islam and covert destabilisation of Europe. These alliances, determined by United States foreign policy, can be considered a key tenet of modern Zionism.
This has a strong implication for Europe. The vast majority of European nations, or at least those bound by NATO treaties, are in effect vassals of the United States, a status that has been firmly entrenched since the days of the Cold War. The United States retains 53,000 troops in Germany, 10,000 in Italy – presumably to ensure that the defeated Second World War peoples don’t “try anything” – and regularly stages provocative military drills on Europe’s Eastern borders. The foreign policy of European nation states is, for the most part, dictated to them by the United States, particularly the United Kingdom’s. This means that their allies are our allies, so the impact of their Zionist geopolitical strategy is felt keenly by our nations in Europe. The vast majority of European nation states have adopted Zionism as official foreign policy, which means a deep allegiance with Saudi Arabia, supporting Islamist and terroristic groups in the Middle-East and opposing secularists and Shia who themselves oppose Zionism. Again, this can be considered an important element of modern Zionism.
Perhaps the most contentious aspect of modern Zionism is the implications for military involvement in the Middle-East. The 21st century has been defined thus far by regime change and perennial war in the region, despite there being no obvious strategic benefit to those involved, such as the United Kingdom or the French Republic. And in recent years, it’s becoming apparent that Israel is wholeheartedly supportive of these endeavours. A possible source of this enthusiasm is what has become known as the Yinon Plan; the expansion strategy, followed by some in the Israeli administration, that would see Israel’s borders expand south through the Sinai Peninsula, and north and eastwards into Syria, fulfilling the biblical pursuit of a Holy Land stretching ‘from the Nile to the Euphrates’. The theory goes that they desire the depopulation of vast portions of the Syrian country in order to fulfil their expansion. This isn’t conspiracy; it’s a well-documented aspect of post-modern Zionism. This has led to the speculation that much of the West’s military endeavours in the Middle-East are aimed, either consciously or via manipulation, at fulfilling Israel’s expansionist plan.
The final aspect worth noting is the phenomenon of sycophantic support for Israel amongst certain communities in the United States, most notably the evangelical Christian communities. Spiritually, they believe the Jewish people to be “God’s chosen people”, which significantly influences their voting patterns. For instance, it would not be a stretch to suggest that some of these communities put Israeli interests before that of their own or their country, so that a President of Congressman may be elected purely on the grounds of his foreign policy platform being supportive of the Zionist worldview. What attracted many of these people to Donald Trump in 2016 was the then-candidate’s pledge to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a move keenly welcomed by Benjamin Netanyahu and his Party who seek an exclusively Jewish Jerusalem. This sort of fanaticism for the State of Israel that has developed within American communities is what has ensured that the Zionist worldview remains in power in America, to the great benefit of Israel. It’s also worth noting that a lot of the most powerful people in America, from media moguls to film producers to authors and politicians, are themselves Jewish. This gives them immeasurable power to shape public opinion in the most powerful country on earth. Additionally, this media power combined with the unquestioning loyalty of large segments of America’s Christian community ensures that the United States invariably overlooks some of the more questionable elements of Israeli foreign policy – inevitably, there will be people who claim Israel’s nobility in relation to its Arab’s neighbours in this domain.
This concludes the discussion on Zionism, and one hopes that the reader now possesses a greater understanding of what Zionism was, is and will continue to be going forward. This should also illuminate the “problem” of anti-Zionism, which many falsely claim to be opposition to Israel’s existence – it’s most often referring to what modern Zionism has become, with the Western foreign policy connotations accompanying that. As to whether Zionism is a force for good or evil, that is for the reader to decide. One thing, however, is already certain beyond doubt: the debate over the merits (or otherwise) of Zionism will continue to divide those of both the left and right of the political spectrum for many years to come.