What is Zionism? Q&A (short version)

A longer version of this article published for the 68th anniversary of the 1948 Partition of Palestine appears here. This shorter version was edited down for print. By Marcus Halaby

What is Zionism? Isn’t it just a code word for Jews?

Zionism is the idea that all Jewish people, regardless of their present location, citizenship or origin, should have a state in the eastern Mediterranean that collectively belongs to them, rather than to the people (Jewish or otherwise) who actually live there.

So what’s wrong with that then? Don’t Jewish people come from Israel anyway?

What’s wrong with it is that it is racist, undemocratic and objectively antisemitic.

Zionism was a reaction to antisemitism that accepted antisemitism’s basic premise, that Jewish people did not “really belong” in the countries they lived in, and that they needed a special country of their own, somewhere else. But Jewish people no more “come from Israel” than Catholics come from Italy, or Muslims come from Saudi Arabia.

It is undemocratic because, in a democracy, citizenship and all the rights that go with it belong to all the people who live in it, and not to any group of people arbitrarily chosen on the basis of religion or ethnicity.

And it is racist because the creation of a “Jewish state” in Palestine involved imposing the rule of a foreign colonial power (Britain) on its existing Arab inhabitants, and forcing most of them out of the country in 1948.

In the present day, it means a raft of racist property and citizenship laws directed against Israel’s minority Arab citizens, continuing the 1967 occupation to accommodate Jewish settlers, granting occupied Palestinians neither citizenship nor any state of their own, and preventing the return of the Palestinian refugees while granting citizenship to anyone who fits the state’s definition of “who is a Jew”.

Aren’t there other countries like that? Why single out Israel?

There are plenty of other countries that came into existence in a similar way: the USA and Australia, for example. These have all become “normal” nation-states by reducing their indigenous peoples to a small fraction of the population, through a protracted process of war, massacres, land-grabbing and segregation.

Israel is still in the middle of this bloody process, and no socialist should want Israel to become “normal” by retracing the genocidal path taken by Australia or the USA.

But doesn’t the Nazi Holocaust demonstrate that Jewish people need a state of their own?

No, it doesn’t. The Roma were nearly wiped out by the Nazis as well; they also suffered a long history of violence and persecution. But no one suggests they should “go home” to Afghanistan or northern India.

What both genocides prove is that the labour movement has a positive duty to defend any minority under attack. Where it fails in this task, the consequences can be very extreme indeed.

In today’s Britain, Black African and Caribbean people are still among the most discriminated against minorities. Muslims of South Asian, Middle Eastern and North African origin are one of the most consistently vilified, on account of their instinctive opposition to the wars Western countries have waged in the Arab and Muslim world.

But pro-Israel journalists and politicians who have used claims of antisemitism to attack the Labour left are not just largely silent about anti-Muslim bigotry. Many of them have been in the forefront of promoting or exploiting Islamophobia and state measures – including the racist Prevent programme, which encourages a witch-hunting atmosphere against alleged “Muslim radicals” and “extremists” on campus.

We should certainly oppose genuine instances of antisemitism, even when it comes from pro-Palestine activists. But we should also oppose the manufactured scare that is being used to stigmatise anyone who opposes Zionism as an antisemite, and to prevent people from talking about Zionism at all.

Surely the priority should be ending the occupation and creating a Palestinian state?

Anyone who is serious about Palestinian national rights should certainly demand the end of the 1967 occupation, not just as part of some far-off “peace settlement”, but immediately and unconditionally. And if the inhabitants of the occupied territories declare an independent state, then we should demand its immediate and unconditional recognition.

But the problem doesn’t end there. Israel’s need to maintain an artificial Jewish majority means that it constantly has to encourage new (and exclusively) Jewish immigration, and to accommodate the newcomers at the expense of the Palestinians.

This forces it to keep expanding the areas available for exclusively Jewish settlement. Even within Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries, this has meant the forced ghettoisation of Israel’s Arab Palestinian minority, to make way for new “Jewish-only” towns and suburbs.

But it also means that Israel cannot break its addiction to West Bank settlements without losing a vital safety-valve for social discontent – and without undermining its own historic and ideological foundations. This is the real reason why there has never been and probably never will be a “two-state solution”.

We advocate a single secular, democratic and bi-national state in Israel-Palestine, which will grant full and equal citizenship to both of its peoples, because this is the simplest, the most democratic and the most likely form that the decolonisation of Israel-Palestine will take.

Of course, if Israel was no longer “the Jewish state” in the Zionist sense, but merely a “state of its citizens” that happened to have a Jewish majority, then it is possible to imagine scenarios in which Israelis and Palestinians could agree to a fair division of territory between them. But even this “two state” scenario would require a recognition of the right of return for the Palestinian refugees.

Why bring up the Palestinian refugees? Doesn’t that just complicate things?

For as long as Israel is still a state in which the need for continued expansion is a built-in feature of its character as “the Jewish state”, any settlement of justified Palestinian grievances will require cast-iron guarantees against the Palestinians’ future displacement by it.

And this involves recognising the right of Palestinians who have already been displaced to some form of restitution – not as an aggregate of individuals, but as a matter of their collective national rights. The Palestinians, like the Israelis and unlike “the Jews”, are a nation – and national rights by definition are collective.

But didn’t Arab and Muslim states drive out a lot of their Jews as well? Why not just accept an exchange of populations?

The picture is actually more mixed. Iraq and Yemen both did expel their Jewish minorities in the 1950s. Syria prevented its Jews from leaving the country at all, while Jews from Morocco, Tunisia and Iran emigrated to Israel for much the same reasons as economic migrants in general do, in search of better prospects in a country with a higher standard of living.

But even if every Arab state had expelled the Jews as Iraq and Yemen did, to accept the idea of “population exchange” sets a very dangerous precedent that socialists should reject. Would its advocates still apply this idea in the scenario that the Arab states “drove the Jews into the sea”?

But doesn’t “one state” mean coercing Jewish-Israelis into accepting an Arab conquest?

Only in the sense that Lebanon’s Christian Maronites were “coerced” into accepting that they could no longer dominate Lebanon against the will of a majority of its inhabitants; or in the sense that white South Africans were “coerced” into accepting the end of apartheid.

Of course, if in a post-Zionist Israel-Palestine there were still sizeable regions whose inhabitants wanted some form of autonomy or independence, then that would be entirely fair in principle. But it is not an injustice in the present that Israel should be compelled to abandon the racist and colonising basis on which it currently exists.

In short, a democracy is “a state of its citizens” and its citizens should include all of its inhabitants. A state built on colonisation imports its citizens, and grants them rights on the basis of ethnicity. “Opposing Zionism” means defending this former, democratic idea against the latter, racist one. A just and viable end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict means putting it into practice

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