In order to examine properly the assumption that Zionism is the same as Judaism, one has to begin with the historical context in which it was born. Since its inception in the mid-nineteenth century, Zionism was only one, inessential, expression of Jewish cultural life. It was born out of two impulses among Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe. The first was a search for safety within a society that refused to integrate Jews as equals and that occasionally persecuted them, either through legislation or through riots organised or encouraged by the powers that be as a diversion from economic crises or political upheavals. The second impulse was a wish to emulate other new national movements mushrooming in Europe at the time, during what historians called the European Spring of Nations. Those Jews who sought to transform Judaism from a religion into a nation were not unique among the many ethnic and religious groups within the two crumbling empires—the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman—who wished to redefine themselves as nations.
The roots of modern-day Zionism can be found already in the eighteenth century in what was called the Jewish enlightenment movement. This was a group of writers, poets, and rabbis who revived the Hebrew language and pushed the boundaries of traditional and religious Jewish education into the more universal study of science, literature, and philosophy. Across Central and Eastern Europe, Hebrew newspapers and journals began to proliferate. Out of this group there emerged a few individuals, known in Zionist historiography as the “Harbingers of Zionism,” who showed greater nationalist tendencies and associated the revival of Hebrew with nationalism in their writings. They put forward two new ideas: the redefinition of Judaism as a national movement and the need to colonise Palestine in order to return the Jews to the ancient homeland from which they had been expelled by the Romans in 70 CE. They advocated for “the return” by way of what they defined as “agricultural colonies” (in many parts of Europe Jews were not allowed to own or cultivate land, hence the fascination with starting anew as a nation of farmers, not just as free citizens).
These ideas became more popular after a brutal wave of pogroms in Russia in 1881, which transformed them into a political program propagated by a movement called “The Lovers of Zion,” who dispatched a few hundred enthusiastic young Jews to build the first new colonies in Palestine in 1882. This first phase in the history of Zionism culminates with the works and actions of Theodor Herzl. Born in Pest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1860, but resident for most of his life in Vienna, Herzl began his career as a playwright interested in the status and problems of the modern Jew in his society, asserting at first that full assimilation into local society was the key to this predicament. In the 1890s he became a journalist and, according to his own version of his life, it was at this time that he realised how potent anti-Semitism was. He concluded that there was no hope for assimilation and opted instead for the foundation of a Jewish state in Palestine as the best solution to what he defined as the “Jewish Problem.”
As these early Zionist ideas were aired among Jewish communities in countries such as Germany and the United States, prominent rabbis and leading figures in those communities rejected the new approach. Religious leaders dismissed Zionism as a form of secularisation and modernisation, while secular Jews feared that the new ideas would raise questions about the Jews’ loyalty to their own nation-states and would thus increase anti-Semitism. Both groups had different ideas about how to cope with the modern-day persecution of the Jews in Europe. Some believed that the further entrenchment of Jewish religion and tradition was the answer (as Islamic fundamentalists would do at the same time, when faced with European modernisation), while others advocated for further assimilation into non-Jewish life.
When Zionist ideas appeared in Europe and the United States between the 1840s and the 1880s, most Jews practiced Judaism in two different ways. One involved entrenchment: living within very tight religious communities, shunning new ideas such as nationalism, and indeed regarding modernisation as such as an unwelcome threat to their way of life. The other way involved living a secular life, which differed from that of the non-Jewish communities in only very minimal ways—celebrating certain holidays, frequenting the synagogue on Fridays, and probably not eating in public during the fast of the day of atonement (Yom Kippur). Gershom Scholem, who was one such Jew, recalled in his memoirs Berlin to Jerusalem how, as a member of a young Jewish group in Germany, he used to dine with his friends in the same restaurant in Berlin during Yom Kippur; on their arrival, the proprietor would inform them that “the special room for the fasting gentlemen in the restaurant was ready.” Individuals and communities found themselves between these two poles of secularisation on the one hand and Orthodox life on the other. But let us look more closely at the positions they adopted towards Zionism in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Jewish secularism is a slightly bizarre concept of course, as is Christian secularism or Islamic secularism. Secular Jews as described above were people with various degrees of connection to religion (very much as a secular Christian in Britain celebrates Easter and Christmas, sends his children to Church of England schools, or attends Sunday mass occasionally or frequently). In the latter half of the nineteenth century, this modern form of practicing Judaism became a powerful movement known as the Reform movement, which looked for ways of adapting religion to modern life without succumbing to its anachronistic aspects. It was particularly popular in Germany and the United States.
When the Reformists first encountered Zionism, they vehemently rejected the idea of redefining Judaism as nationalism and the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. However, their anti-Zionist stance shifted after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. In the second half of the twentieth century, the majority among them created a new Reform movement in the United States, which became one of the strongest Jewish organisations in the country (although not until 1999 did the new movement officially vow allegiance to Israel and Zionism). However, a large number of Jews left the new movement and set up the American Council of Judaism (ACJ), which reminded the world in 1993 that Zionism was still a minority view among Jews, and which remained loyal to the old Reformist notions about Zionism.
Before that schism, the Reform movement in both Germany and the United States had provided a strong and unanimous case against Zionism. In Germany, they publicly rejected the idea of a Jewish nation and proclaimed themselves “Germans of the Mosaic faith.” One of the German Reformists’ early acts was to remove from their prayer rituals any references to a return to “Eretz Israel” or the rebuilding of a state there. Similarly, already in 1869, American Reformists stated in one of their first conventions that the messianic aim of Israel [i.e. the Jewish people] is not the restoration of a Jewish state under a descendant of David, involving a second separation from the nations of earth, but the union of the children of God in the confession of the unity of God, so as to realise the unity of all rational creatures, and their call to moral sanctification.
In 1885, another Reformist conference stated: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and we therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any laws concerning the Jewish state.”
One famous leader in this respect was Rabbi Kaufman Kohler, who repudiated the idea “that Judea is the home of the Jew—an idea which ‘unhomes’ [sic] the Jew all over the wide earth.” Another leader of the movement at the end of the nineteenth century, Isaac Mayer Wise, often ridiculed Zionist leaders such as Herzl, comparing them to charlatan alchemists claiming to contribute to science. In Vienna, the city of Herzl Adolf Jellinek argued that Zionism would endanger the position of Jews in Europe and claimed that most of them objected to the idea. “We are at home in Europe,” he declared.
Apart from the Reformers, liberal Jews at that time rejected the claim that Zionism provided the only solution for anti-Semitism. As Walter Lacquer shows us in his book, The History of Zionism, liberal Jews regarded Zionism as a fanciful movement that provided no answer to the problems of the Jews in Europe. They argued for what they called a “regeneration” of the Jews, involving a display of total loyalty to their homelands and a willingness to be fully assimilated into them as citizens. They hoped that a more liberal world might solve the problems of persecution and anti-Semitism. History showed that liberalism had saved those Jews who moved to, or lived in, the UK and the USA. Those who believed it could happen in the rest of Europe were proven wrong. But even today, with hindsight, many liberal Jews do not see Zionism as the right answer then or now.
Socialists and Orthodox Jews began to voice their criticisms of Zionism only in the 1890s, when Zionism became a more recognised political force very late in the decade, thanks to the diligent work of Herzl. Herzl understood contemporary politics and wrote utopian stories, political tracts, and newspaper reports summarising the idea that it was in Europe’s interest to help build a modern Jewish state in Palestine. World leaders were not impressed; neither were the Ottomans, as the rulers of Palestine. Herzl’s greatest achievement was bringing all the activists together at one conference in 1897, and from there building up two basic organisations— a world congress promoting the ideas of Zionism globally, and local Zionist outfits on the ground expanding the Jewish colonisation of Palestine.
Thus, with the crystallisation of Zionist ideas, the criticism of Jews opposed to Zionism also became clearer. Apart from the Reform movement, criticism came from the left, lay leaders of the various communities, and from Orthodox Jews. In 1897, the same year as the first Zionist conference was convened in Basel, a socialist Jewish movement was born in Russia: the Bund. It was both a political movement and a Jewish trade union. Bund members believed that a socialist, even a Bolshevik, revolution would be a far better solution to the problems of Jews in Europe than Zionism. They regarded the latter as a form of escapism. More importantly, when Nazism and Fascism were on the rise in Europe, Bundists felt that Zionism contributed to this brand of anti-Semitism by questioning the loyalty of Jews to their homelands. Even after the Holocaust, Bundists were convinced that Jews should seek a place in societies that cherish human and civil rights, and did not see a Jewish nation state as a panacea. This strong anti-Zionist conviction, however, slowly subsided from around the mid-1950s, and the remnants of this once- powerful movement eventually decided to support the state of Israel publicly (they even had a branch in the Jewish state).
The reaction of the Bund did not trouble Herzl as much as did the lukewarm response of the Jewish political and economic elites in places such as Britain and France. They saw Herzl either as a charlatan whose ideas were far removed from reality, or worse as someone who could undermine Jewish life in their own societies where, as in Britain, they had made immense progress in terms of emancipation and integration. The Victorian Jews were disturbed by his call for Jewish sovereignty in a foreign land with an equal status to other sovereign states in the world. For the more established sections of Central and Western European Jewry, Zionism was a provocative vision that called into question the loyalty of English, German, and French Jews to their own home nations. Thanks to their lack of support for Herzl, the Zionist movement failed to become a powerful actor before World War I. Only after Herzl’s death in 1904 did other leaders of the movement—in particular Chaim Weizmann, who immigrated to Britain in the year Herzl died and became a leading scientist there, contributing to the British war effort in World War I— build a strong alliance with London that served Zionism well.
The third critique on Zionism in its early days came from the ultra- Orthodox Jewish establishment. To this day, many ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities vehemently oppose Zionism, although they are much smaller than they were in the late nineteenth century and some of them moved to Israel and are now part of its political system. Nonetheless, as in the past, they constitute yet another non-Zionist way of being Jewish.
When Zionism made its first appearance in Europe, many traditional rabbis in fact forbade their followers from having anything to do with Zionist activists. They viewed Zionism as meddling with God’s will to retain the Jews in exile until the coming of the Messiah. They totally rejected the idea that Jews should do all they can to end the “Exile.” Instead, they had to wait for God’s word on this and in the meantime practice the traditional way of life. While individuals were allowed to visit and study in Palestine as pilgrims, this was not to be interpreted as permission for a mass movement. The great Hasidic German Rabbi of Dzikover summed up this approach bitterly when he said that Zionism asks him to replace centuries of Jewish wisdom and law for a rag, soil, and a song (i.e. a Fag, a land, and an anthem).
Not all the leading rabbis opposed Zionism however. There was a small group of quite famous authoritative figures, such as the rabbis al-Qalay, Gutmacher, and Qalisher, who endorsed the Zionist program. They were a small minority but in hindsight they were an important group as they laid the foundation for the national religious wing of Zionism. Their religious acrobatics were quite impressive. In Israeli historiography they are called the “Fathers of the Religious Zionism.” Religious Zionism is a very important movement in contemporary Israel, as the ideological home of the messianic settler movement, Gush Emunim, which colonised the West Bank and the Gaza Strip from 1967 onwards. These rabbis not only called on Jews to leave Europe but also asserted that it was a religious duty, not just a nationalist one, for Jews to colonise Palestine through the cultivation of its land (not surprisingly the natives of the land do not feature in their writings). They claimed that such an act would not be meddling with God’s will; on the contrary, it would fulfil the prophecies of the Prophets and advance the full redemption of the Jewish people and the coming of the Messiah.
Most of the leading lights in Orthodox Judaism rejected this plan and interpretation. They had another axe to grind with Zionism. The new movement not only wished to colonise Palestine; it also hoped to secularise the Jewish people, to invent the “new Jew” in antithesis to the religious Orthodox Jews of Europe. This culminated in the image of a new European Jew who could no longer live in Europe, because of its anti-Semitism, but had to live as a European outside the continent. Thus, like many movements during this period, Zionism redefined itself in national terms—but it was radically different because it chose a new land for this conversion. The Orthodox Jew was ridiculed by the Zionists and was viewed as someone who could only be redeemed through hard work in Palestine. This transformation is beautifully described in Herzl’s futuristic utopian novel, Altnueland, which tells the story of a German tourist expedition arriving in the Jewish state long after it had been established. Before arriving in Palestine, one of the tourists had run into a young Orthodox Jewish beggar—he comes across him again in Palestine, now secular, educated, and extremely rich and content.
The role of the Bible within Jewish life offered one further clear difference between Judaism and Zionism. In the pre-Zionist Jewish world, the Bible was not taught as a singular text that carried any political or even national connotation in the various Jewish educational centres in either Europe or the Arab world. The leading rabbis treated the political history contained in the Bible, and the idea of Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel, as marginal topics in their spiritual world of learning. They were much more concerned, as indeed Judaism in general was, with the holy writings focusing on the relationship between believers, and in particular on their relations with God.
From “The Lovers of Zion” in 1882 to the Zionist leaders on the eve of World War I, who appealed to Britain to support the Jewish claim for Palestine, reference to the Bible was quite common. In pursuit of their own interests, Zionist leaders fundamentally challenged the traditional biblical interpretations. The Lovers of Zion, for instance, read the Bible as the story of a Jewish nation born on the land of Palestine as an oppressed people under the yoke of a Canaanite regime. The latter exiled the Jewish people to Egypt, until they returned to the land and liberated it under Joshua’s leadership. The traditional interpretation, in contrast, focuses on Abraham and his family as a group of people discovering a monotheistic god rather than a nation and a homeland. Most readers will be familiar with this conventional narrative of the Abrahamites discovering God and through trials and tribulations finding themselves in Egypt—hardly a story of an oppressed nation engaged in a liberation struggle. However, the latter was the preferred Zionist interpretation, which still holds water in Israel today.
One of the most intriguing uses of the Bible in Zionism is that practiced by the socialist wing of the movement. The fusion of socialism with Zionism began in earnest after Herzl’s death in 1904, as the various socialist factions became the leading parties in the World Zionist movement and on the ground in Palestine. For the socialists, as one of them said, the Bible provided “the myth for our right over the land.” It was in the Bible that they read stories about Hebrew farmers, shepherds, kings, and wars, which they appropriated as describing the ancient golden era of their nation’s birth. Returning to the land meant coming back to become farmers, shepherds, and kings. Thus, they found themselves faced with a challenging paradox, for they wanted both to secularise Jewish life and to use the Bible as a justification for colonising Palestine. In other words, though they did not believe in God, He had nonetheless promised them Palestine. For many Zionist leaders, the reference in the Bible to the land of Palestine was just a means to their ends, and not the essence of Zionism. This was clear in particular in texts written by Theodor Herzl. In a famous article in The Jewish Chronicle (July 10, 1896) he based the Jewish demand for Palestine on the Bible, but expressed his wish that the future Jewish state be run according to the European political and moral philosophies of his time. Herzl was probably more secular than the group of leaders who replaced him. This prophet of the movement seriously considered alternatives to Palestine, such as Uganda, as the promised land of Zion. He also looked at other destinations in the north and south of America and in Azerbaijan. With Herzl’s death in 1904, and the rise of his successors, Zionism homed in on Palestine and the Bible became even more of an asset than before as proof of a divine Jewish right to the land.
The new post-1904 fixation on Palestine as the only territory in which Zionism could be implemented was reinforced by the growing power of Christian Zionism in Britain and in Europe. Theologians who studied the Bible and evangelical archeologists who excavated “the Holy Land” welcomed the settlement of Jews as confirming their religious belief that the “Jewish return” would herald the unfolding of the divine promise for the end of time. The return of the Jews was the precursor of the return of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead. The Zionist project of colonising Palestine was well served by this esoteric religious belief. However, behind these religious visions lay classical anti-Semitic sentiments. For pushing Jewish communities in the direction of Palestine was not only a religious imperative; it also helped in the creation of a Europe without Jews. It therefore represented a double gain: getting rid of the Jews in Europe, and at the same time fulfilling the divine scheme in which the Second Coming was to be precipitated by the return of the Jews to Palestine (and their subsequent conversion to Christianity or their roasting in Hell should they refuse).
As we have seen, once all other territorial options were ruled out and Zionism focused on the reclamation of Palestine, the leaders who took over from the early pioneers began to inject socialist, and even Marxist, ideology into the growing secular movement. The aim now was to establish (with the help of God) a secular, socialist, colonialist Jewish project in the Holy Land. As the colonised natives quickly learned, ultimately their fate was sealed regardless of whether the settlers brought with them the Bible, the writings of Marx, or the tracts of the European Enlightenment. All that mattered was whether, or how, you were included in the settlers’ vision of the future. It is telling therefore that in the obsessive records kept by the early Zionist leaders and settlers, the natives featured as an obstacle, an alien and an enemy, regardless of who they were or of their own aspirations.
The first anti-Arab entries in those records were written while the settlers were still being hosted by the Palestinians on the way to the old colonies, or in the towns. Their complaints stemmed from their formative experiences, searching for work and a means of subsistence. This predicament seemed to affect them universally, whether they went to the old colonies or whether they tried their luck in the towns. Wherever they were, in order to survive they had to work shoulder to shoulder with Palestinian farmers or workers. Through such intimate contact even the most ignorant and defiant settlers realised that Palestine was totally an Arab country in its human landscape.
David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Jewish community during the Mandatory period and Israel’s first prime minister, described the Palestinian workers and farmers as beit mihush (“an infested hotbed of pain”). Other settlers talked about the Palestinians as strangers and aliens. “The people here are stranger to us than the Russian or Polish peasant,” wrote one of them, adding, “We have nothing in common with the majority of the people living here.” They were surprised to find people in Palestine at all, having been told the land was empty. “I was disgusted to find out that in Hadera [an early Zionist colony built in 1882] part of the houses were occupied by Arabs,” reported one settler, while another reported back to Poland that he was appalled to see many Arab men, women, and children crossing through Rishon LeZion (another colony from 1882).
Since the country was not empty, and you had to overcome the presence of the natives, it was good to have God on your side—even if you were an atheist. Both David Ben-Gurion and his close friend and colleague Yitzhak Ben-Zvi (who along with Ben-Gurion led the Zionist socialist factions in Palestine and later became the second president of Israel) used the biblical promise as the main justification for the colonisation of Palestine. This remained the case for the ideologues who succeeded them in the Labor party into the mid-1970s, and up to the very shallow secular Bible-ism of the Likud party and its offshoots of recent years.
The interpretation of the Bible as the divine justification for Zionism helped the socialists to reconcile their adherence to the universal values of solidarity and equality with the colonisation project of dispossession. Indeed, since colonisation was the main goal of Zionism, one has to ask what kind of socialism this was. After all, in the collective memory of many, the golden period of Zionism is associated with the collectivist, egalitarian life embodied in the establishment of the Kibbutz. This form of life lasted long after Israel was founded and it attracted young people from all over the world who came to volunteer and experience communism in its purest form. Very few of them realised, or could have known, that most of the Kibbutzim were built on destroyed Palestinian villages, whose populations had been expelled in 1948. In justification, the Zionists claimed that these villages were old Jewish places mentioned in the Bible, and hence that their appropriation was not an occupation but a liberation. A special committee of “biblical archeologists” would enter a deserted village and determine what its name was in biblical times. Energetic officials of the Jewish National Fund would then establish the settlement with its newly recovered name. A similar method was used after 1967 by the then minister of labor, Yigal Alon, a secular socialist Jew, for building a new town near Hebron, since it “belonged” to the Jewish people, according to the Bible.
Some critical Israeli scholars, most notable among them Gershon Shafir and Zeev Sternhell (as the well as the American scholar Zachary Lockman), have explained how the colonial appropriation of land tainted the supposed golden era of socialist Zionism. As these historians show, socialism within Zionism, as a praxis and way of life, was always a conditional and limited version of the universal ideology. The universal values and aspirations that characterised the various ideological movements of the Western left were very early on nationalised or Zionised in Palestine. No wonder then that socialism lost its attractiveness for the next generation of settlers.
Yet religion remained an important aspect of the process even after the land had been taken from the Palestinians. In its name you could invoke and assert an ancient moral right to Palestine that challenged every other external claim to the land in those dying days of imperialism. This right also superseded the moral claims of the native population. One of the most socialist and secular colonialist projects of the twentieth century demanded exclusivity in the name of a pure divine promise. The reliance on the sacred text proved highly profitable for the Zionist settlers and extremely costly to the local population. The late and brilliant Michael Prior’s last book, The Bible and Colonialism, showed how the same kinds of projects were pursued around the globe in ways that have much in common with the colonization of Palestine.
After Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967, the Bible continued to be used to similar ends. I have already mentioned Yigal Alon, who used the Bible to justify building a Jewish town, Qiryat Arba, on land expropriated from the people of Hebron, the nearby Palestinian town. Qiryat Arba quickly became a hotbed for people who took the Bible even more seriously as a guide to action. They selectively chose those biblical chapters and phrases that in their eyes justified the dispossession of the Palestinians. As the years of the occupation continued, so too did the regime of brutality against the dispossessed. This process of drawing political legitimisation from a sacred text can lead to fanaticism with dangerous consequences. The Bible, for instance, has references to genocide: the Amalekites were killed to the last by Joshua. Today there are those, thankfully for now only a fanatical minority, who refer not only to the Palestinians as Amalekites but also to those who are not Jewish enough in their eyes.
Similar references to genocide in the name of God appear in the Jewish Haggadah for Pesach (Passover). The main tale, of the Passover Seder—where God sends Moses and the Israelites to a land inhabited by others, to possess it as they see fit is of course not an imperative issue for the vast majority of Jews. It is a literary text, not a manual for war. However, it can be exploited by the new stream of Jewish messianic thinking, as was the case with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and, in the summer of 2015, the burning to death first of a teenager in one incident, and then of two parents and their baby in another. Israel’s new minister of justice, Ayelet Shaked, entertained similar ideas, so far only for Palestinians who have died in their attempts to resist Israel: their whole family, she said, should “follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.” For the time being, this is just a warning for the future. Since 1882, as we have seen, the Bible has been used as a justification for dispossession. However, in the early years of the state of Israel, 1948–67, reference to the Bible subsided and was only employed on the right-wing margins of the Zionist movement to justify their depiction of the Palestinians as subhuman and as the eternal enemies of the Jewish people. After the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967, these messianic and fundamentalist Jews, growing up in the Religious National Party, MAFDAL, seized the opportunity to transform their hallucinations into real action on the ground. They settled everywhere in the newly occupied territories, with or without the consent of the government. They created islands of Jewish life within Palestinian territory, and began to behave as if they owned all of it.
The most militant factions of Gush Emunim, the post-1967 settlement movement, took advantage of the very particular circumstances created by the Israeli rule over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to go wild in their license to dispossess and abuse in the name of the sacred texts. Israeli law did not apply in the occupied territories, which were ruled by military emergency regulations. However, this military legal regime did not apply to the settlers, who were in many ways immune from sanction in both legal systems. Their settling by force in the middle of Palestinian neighbourhoods in Hebron and Jerusalem, uprooting of Palestinian olive trees, and setting fire to Palestinian fields were all justified as part of the divine duty to settle in “Eretz Israel.”
But the settlers’ violent interpretation of the biblical message was not confined to the occupied territories. They began to push into the heart of the mixed Arab-Jewish towns in Israel, such as Acre, Jaffa and Ramleh, in order to disturb the delicate modus vivendi that had prevailed there for years. The movement of settlers into these sensitive spots inside the pre-1967 Israeli border had the potential of undermining, in the name of the Bible, the already strained relations between the Jewish state and its Palestinian minority.
The final reason offered for the Zionist reclamation of the Holy Land, as determined by the Bible, was the need of Jews around the world to find a safe haven, especially after the Holocaust. However, even if this was true, it might have been possible to find a solution that was not restricted to the biblical map and that did not dispossess the Palestinians. This position was voiced by a quite a few well-known personalities, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. These commentators tried to suggest that the Palestinians should be asked to provide a safe haven for persecuted Jews alongside the native population, not in place of it. But the Zionist movement regarded such proposals as heresy.
The difference between settling alongside the native people and simply displacing them was recognised by Mahatma Gandhi when he was asked by the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, to lend his support to the Zionist project. In 1938, Buber had been asked by Ben-Gurion to put pressure on several well-known moral figures to show their public support for Zionism. They felt that approval from Gandhi, as the leader of a non- violent national struggle against imperialism, would be especially useful, and were prepared to leverage his respect for Buber in order to get it. Gandhi’s major statement on Palestine and the Jewish question appeared in his widely circulated editorial in the Harijan of November 11, 1938, in the middle of a major rebellion by the native Palestinians against the British government’s pro-Zionist policies. Gandhi began his piece by saying that all his sympathies lay with the Jews, who as a people had been subjected to inhuman treatment and persecution for centuries. But, he added, ”My sympathy does not blind me to the requirements of justice. The cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me. The sanction for it is sought in the Bible and in the tenacity with which the Jews have hankered after their return to Palestine. Why should they not, like other peoples of the earth, make that country their home where they are born and where they earn their livelihood?”
Gandhi thus questioned the very foundational logic of political Zionism, rejecting the idea of a Jewish state in the promised land by pointing out that the “Palestine of the Biblical conception is not a geographical tract.” Thus, Gandhi disapproved of the Zionist project for both political and religious reasons. The endorsement of that project by the British government only alienated Gandhi even further. He had no doubts about who Palestine belonged to:
“Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs . . . Surely it would be a crime against humanity to reduce the proud Arabs so that Palestine can be restored to the Jews partly or wholly as their national home.”
Gandhi’s response to the Palestine question contains different layers of meaning, ranging from an ethical position to political realism. What is interesting is that, while firmly believing in the inseparability of religion and politics, he consistently and vehemently rejected the cultural and religious nationalism of Zionism. A religious justification for claiming a nation state did not appeal to him in any substantial sense. Buber responded to this article by trying to justify Zionism, but Gandhi had apparently had enough and the correspondence petered out.
Indeed, the space the Zionist movement demanded for itself was not determined by the need to rescue persecuted Jews, but by the wish to take as much of Palestine as possible with as few inhabitants as was practical. Sober and secular Jewish scholars attempted to remain “scientific” in translating a hazy promise from an ancient past into a present fact. The project had been started already by the chief historian of the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine, Ben-Zion Dinaburg (Dinur), and was continued intensively after the creation of the state in 1948. Dinur’s task in the 1930s, like that of his successors ever since, was to prove scientifically that there had been a Jewish presence in Palestine ever since Roman times.
Not that anyone doubted it. Despite the historical evidence that the Jews who lived in eighteenth-century Palestine rejected the notion of a Jewish state, as did the Orthodox Jews in the late nineteenth century, this was rejected out of hand in the twentieth century. Dinur and his colleagues used the statistic that Jews made up no more than 2 percent of the population of eighteenth-century Palestine to prove the validity of the biblical promise and of the modern Zionist demand for Palestine. This narrative has become the standard, accepted history. One of Britain’s most distinguished professors of history, Sir Martin Gilbert, produced many years ago the Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, published across several editions by Cambridge University Press. The Atlas begins the history of the conflict in biblical times, taking it for granted that the territory was a Jewish kingdom to which the Jews returned after 2,000 years of exile. Its opening maps tell the whole story: the first is of biblical Palestine; the second of Palestine under the Romans; the third of Palestine during the time of the crusaders; and the fourth, of Palestine in 1882. Thus, nothing of importance happened between the medieval era and the arrival of the first Zionists. Only when foreigners are in Palestine— Romans, Crusaders, Zionists—is it worth mentioning.
Israeli educational textbooks now carry the same message of the right to the land based on a biblical promise. According to a letter sent by the education ministry in 2014 to all schools in Israel: “the Bible provides the cultural infrastructure of the state of Israel, in it our right to the land is anchored.” Bible studies are now a crucial and expanded component of the curriculum—with a particular focus on the Bible as recording an ancient history that justifies the claim to the land. The biblical stories and the national lessons that can be learned from them are fused together with the study of the Holocaust and of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. There is a direct line from this 2014 letter back to the evidence given by David Ben-Gurion in 1937 to the Royal Peel Commission (the British inquiry set up to try to find a solution to the emerging conflict). In the public discussions on the future of Palestine, Ben-Gurion waved a copy of the Bible at the members of the committee, shouting: “This is our Qushan [the Ottoman land registry proof], our right to Palestine does not come from the Mandate Charter, the Bible is our Mandate Charter.”
Historically, of course, it makes no sense to teach the Bible, what happened to the Jews of Europe, and the 1948 war as one historical chapter. But ideologically the three items are linked together and indoctrinated as the basic justification for the Jewish state in our time.
Ten Myths about Israel is out now on Verso Books.