A century of challenges to Zionism

Zionism and its Discontents: A Century of Radical Dissent in Israel/Palestine by Ran Greenstein (Pluto Press, 248pp)

During Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014, an estimated 10,000 Israelis took to the streets of Tel Aviv chanting “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies” and “Gaza, Gaza, don’t despair, we will end the occupation.”

They carried signs that read “Stop the Massacre, End the Siege,” while demanding an immediate ceasefire by their government. They were often surrounded by thugs who yelled “Death to Arabs, Death to Leftists” and occasionally initiated physical attacks on the protestors.

Who were these protestors?

Ran Greenstein, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, would likely call them the spiritual, if not the political, descendants of a culture of dissent going back more than 100 years. In his new book, Zionism and Its Discontents: A Century of Radical Dissent in Israel/Palestine (Pluto Press), Greenstein examines the ideas that various organized groups raised in opposition to political Zionism, including those espousing liberal-humanist, secular nationalist and Marxist-Leninist positions.

Greenstein has written extensively on the differences and similarities between South African and Zionist settler-colonialism. He has noted, in particular, that settler-colonialists in South Africa always intended to exploit the indigenous black labor whereas Zionists sought to dispossess the indigenous Palestinian Arab population and replace it with “Jewish labor.”

Nevertheless, the possibility of applying an anti-apartheid perspective to the Palestinian struggle, rather than viewing it solely through a nationalist lens, is an underlying theme that runs throughout the book.


Greenstein’s opening chapter brings fresh insights into some of the early dissident movements against mainstream Zionism in British Mandate Palestine, beginning with the liberal humanist or binationalist movement that gathered around Brit Shalom in the early 1900s. This organization represented Jewish settlers in Palestine who opposed the idea of establishing a Jewish state and sought instead a neutral state that would uphold universal principles of equality but guarantee cultural autonomy and limited, local self-government for Jews and Arabs.

He shows how cracks soon developed within the Brit Shalom movement in the figures of Arthur Ruppin and Hans Kohn. Ruppin came to adopt the liberal Zionist position that rejected the idea of Jews being a national minority within Palestine, while Kohn scolded the settlement movement for never seeking “‘the consent of the indigenous people.’”

Although Greenstein believes that many of the binationalist advocates were in fact dissidents from political Zionism, he maintains that they were never seen as such by Palestinian nationalist leaders who concluded that they were part of an overall Zionist strategy to dispossess them. The mainstream Zionist slogans of “Redemption of Land” and “Conquest of Labor,” with their exclusivist strategies of land and labor only for Jews, set the stage for this suspicion.

After some within the binationalist movement went back on their promise not to expel Arab peasants from land acquired from rich landlords, distrust was sown. That, along with a number of other factors, accounted for the failure of the binationalist movement of the time, Greenstein argues.

Communism in Palestine

Greenstein next directs his attention to the early communist movement within Palestine. The Palestine Communist Party was initially made up almost entirely of Jewish workers and intellectuals. It sought to unite Arab and Jewish workers in a socialist revolution that would expel British colonialists and establish a workers’ state.

This thinking persisted until the executive committee of the Communist International (Comintern) recast the conflict as a national liberation struggle of the mostly peasant Arab masses against British and Zionist colonialism, which both sought to position the Jewish national minority as a “’privileged layer’” against the Arabs.

The Comintern instructed the party to “Arabize” — that is, to become a party made up primarily of the indigenous Palestinian Arabs and to make agrarian revolution its primary political goal.

This reshaping of the theoretical framework yielded numerous practical consequences for Jewish members of the party, including opposing Jewish immigration to Palestine, calling on Jewish workers to provide armed support to Arab tenant farmers fighting dispossession, and fighting their own Jewish bourgeoisie by firmly aligning with the indigenous Palestinian Arab national struggle.

Although the party succeeded in recruiting more Arabs and began to bring Arabs into leadership roles, it lost many Jewish cadre who were expected to work within the Jewish-only labor federation, the Histadrut, where they were perceived as an “alien force.” Following the Arab revolt of 1936, the party reorganized into two separate groups, the Arab section and the Jewish section, and this led ultimately to its demise in 1948 when the Jewish section supported the creation of the Zionist state.

“A state for all citizens”

Greenstein next discusses the development of the Palestinian secular nationalist movement. Here he introduces a theme that carries through the rest of the book and reflects to a significant extent his immersion in the South African anti-apartheid struggle.

He critiques nationalism for failing to “break away from racial or national group identification as the basis for social and political rights, but rather seeks to reinforce boundaries between groups” and largely fails “to offer a vision of a shared future within the same framework in order to overcome ethnic or national distinctions.” He cautions that “this does not make it [nationalism] illegitimate or invalidate its cause” but that it lacks an anti-apartheid perspective.

What brought the Palestinian struggle “closer to the anti-apartheid” movement, he says, was the 1968 Palestinian National Charter adopted by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

For the first time, he maintains, the Palestinian national movement recognized Jews residing in historic Palestine as “legitimate members of the national community.” Nevertheless, he finds the PLO’s call for Jews to renounce Zionism as a condition for citizenship in a Palestinian state “delusional.”

Greenstein then segues into an examination of a relatively new development within the Palestinian movement — the emergence of the National Democratic Alliance (Balad) and the “vision documents” that followed the 1993 call by Palestinian intellectual Azmi Bishara for transforming Israel into a “state of all its citizens” and a “homeland for both Palestinians and Jews.”

But he finds that even this development remains within a nationalist framework and does not fit the anti-apartheid paradigm that he appears to be seeking. That paradigm, he says, has opened up as a realistic prospect only in the last decade. Rather than explore it further, however, he simply announces that it merits “a study of its own.”

Perhaps Greenstein’s next book will address that issue. In the meantime, he has done an admirable job in writing a history of anti-Zionist ideas, many of which remain as relevant today as when they were first expressed.

Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He is active with Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace-Portland Chapter and the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign.