Disengaging from Zionism

Mohamed, 13, runs with the Palestinian flag on a beach near the former Israeli settlement of Neve Dekalim, 12 September 2005. Mohamed said this was the first time he had been to the beach since he was born. Thousands of residents of the Southern Gaza Strip town of Khan Younis came to the coast which is just some 3 km (2 miles) away. (Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)

As the so-called “disengagement” from Gaza has come to an end and the Israeli government turns its hawkish eye towards consolidation in the West Bank, the lines of debate over the motives and value of the pull-out have been drawn. But whatever the future may hold, the redeployment has contributed to a pernicious vein of thinking about the colonial settlers and their relation both to the Israeli state and to Zionism itself.

When the press and pundits are not busy depicting the settlers as innocent victims of necessary political evils, they portray them (very occasionally), as misguided extremists, outside the mainstream of Israeli society. Under the latter viewpoint, the settlers represent a deviation from or perversion of true Zionism.

The theme underlying some of the reportage and commentary on the redeployment is that they have “hijacked” Zionism. Generally more popular among the so-called left, this argument sees the process of colonizing the West Bank and Gaza as a tragic mistake that endangers not only the physical Israel, but the spiritual Israel as well. The settlements are more than just a security risk, the argument runs; they are a danger to the fundamental principles of Zionism. Let us get out before this misadventure corrupts the heart of Zionism.

While this argument may have great intuitive appeal to those who believe in the essential goodness of Zionism, and though it may furnish a degree of political traction, it is an ill-conceived and harmful distortion of history. And it is likely to feed the violent path of oppression and resistance that has marked Palestinian-Israeli history. A closer look at the historical record reveals that, far from being a bastardization of Zionism, the maximalist colonization of the West Bank and Gaza is part and parcel of the Zionist project.

The desire for control over all of historic Palestine has been shared by most Zionist leaders for over a century. We need not delve into the details and evolution of thinking on the question of Israel’s borders, as there has been a good deal of disagreement over a wide variety of questions (such as the nature and pace of settlement, relations with the British during the Mandate, and how properly to “deal” with the indigenous Palestinian Arab population). But from Herzl, Ben Gurion, and Weizmann, to Begin, Sharon, and Barak, expansionism, and even the idea of forcible population transfer, has been a hallmark of the Zionist movement.

During the time of the British Mandate, David Ben Gurion viewed plans for a Jewish state in part of Palestine as merely a precursor to “the ingathering of the exiles in all of Palestine” (see ”Revisiting the UNGA Partition Resolution” by Walid Khalidi.) In a similar vein, Chaim Weizmann wrote of proposals to partition Palestine developed in the 1930s that, “In the course of time we shall expand to the whole country … this is only an arrangement for the next 15-30 years” (see “Zionism and Its Impact,” by Ann M. Lesch). Thus, even when the early Zionist leadership expressed a grudging willingness to settle for less than the whole of Palestine for the state of Israel, their moves were part a strategy to obtain as much land as they could in anticipation of later expansion. They were not “compromising” in any real sense.

Another telling statement is that of Menachem Begin upon winning the 1977 Israeli election, when he proclaimed in reference to the territories occupied in 1967, “What occupied territories? These are liberated territories!” Later, even as Begin negotiated with Egyptian President Anwar Al-Sadat over the Sinai Peninsula, he staunchly refused to budge on the question of the West Bank and Gaza (and the Syrian Golan Heights), where settlements were already expanding. And let us not forget the now famous quotation by the former Israeli general and defense minister Moshe Dayan that Israel should make it clear to the Palestinians that “we have no solution, you shall continue to live like dogs, and whoever wishes may leave.”

More recently, as the Oslo process slouched toward its violent end, the colonial expansion under both Labor and Likud Ministers — Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu, Barak, and Sharon — reached a fever pitch. Throughout the last century, the Zionist movement has made abundantly clear their designs on Palestine through these and countless other words and deeds.

Moreover, the Zionist leadership does not stand alone in its maximalist claims. Though a majority of Israelis voiced support for the “disengagement,” the will to remove the colonies of the West Bank is drastically weaker. Expansionism in Israel arises from complex socio-political phenomena and has a long, tangled history. And however much some adherents of Zionism may object to control over the West Bank, we ignore the harsh realities of Zionism at our own risk.

Notwithstanding, none of these facts relieves the student of Israeli politics from explaining the sincere debate among many over the meaning and direction of Zionism. Like all bodies of thought, Zionism is a political language. And adherents of Zionism are currently conducting a genuine (if hopelessly ill-begotten) debate over the boundaries and nature of the Zionist project. Within that debate, various ideals compete with one another for supremacy, but as yet the voices calling out for an end to the occupation, a repudiation of racism, and a just peace are woefully few in number.

The lessons we must learn from these facts are that we cannot escape the consequences of our system of beliefs. One who supports an ideology of racism and militarist expansionism cannot ignore the suffering that results. Despite the protestations of the Zionist left that Zionism should be taken back to its pure, just roots, Zionism is a captive of its own tragic flaws. There is no such thing as a “just Zionism,” just as there is no such thing as a “just white supremacism” or “just colonialism.” A system that enshrines bigotry, that establishes one people as the chosen people of a state, whatever the putative justifications, cannot but discriminate and oppress.

But just as the racism of the Zionism system generates oppression, its claims to justice and democracy cannot be ignored either, especially by those who are the staunchest supporters of bigotry and privilege. A system that makes racist claims will be called upon to be racist, while a system that claims to be just and democratic will be called upon to be just and democratic. From Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, to the Palestinian citizens of Israel, to the Druze, to the Ethiopian Jews, the downtrodden have and will continue to come knocking on the door of the Israeli state to cash in on the promises it has made. And as their calls grow louder, Zionism’s contradictions will grow all the more apparent. Like ideas, people have an uncanny way of refusing to disappear.

Issa Mikel is a Palestinian-American lawyer currently freelance writing and engaging in non-profit work in Palestine.

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