In the first part, I tried to show the role neoliberalism played in deepening the Israeli occupation in the territories designated for a Palestinian state. Now, we can go further back in time and question the nature of Zionism.
Zionism: between nationalism and settler colonialism
Zionism has become an obscene word in the circles of the international left. Admittedly, the Zionists have honestly earned it to a considerable extent, as more aggressive and nationalist currents of Zionism have more than once had the upper hand, whether due to external circumstances or internal struggles. Even within Israel, especially in recent years, the term has become almost completely devoid of content. Nothing is left of it except the code word that marks the superiority of Jews over Palestinians, whether they are Israeli citizens or not. But here also lies the fallacy of a teleological and deterministic, almost ahistorical understanding of Zionism, which sees the existing as an eternal expression of the unchanging essence.
Zionism was a product of its time. It emerged against the backdrop of the crisis in which the Jewish people found themselves in the second half of the 19th century, in the face of the rise of industrial capitalism in Eastern Europe and modern anti-Semitism. Modernization led to the dissolution of traditional communities, and the Jews, who had previously not been predominantly peasants but a “people-class” of small traders, found themselves in an existential crisis, unable to integrate into the developing capitalist world system. 90% of the world’s Jews lived in Europe at this time, the vast majority in its eastern part. The European Jews found four solutions to their situation: immigration, which was an individual solution, Zionism and Bundism, which were collective national solutions, and socialism or communism, which were both collective and universalist. The struggle between the different responses to this crisis meant there were mutual influences between these currents. It is therefore not surprising that the hegemonic currents within Zionism were for a long time on the left and influenced by various strands of socialism, especially Marxism, anarchism and Russian populism (narodnichestvo).
Jewish nationalism emerged in Central and Eastern Europe, areas that were dominated by multinational and multiethnic empires. Like many minority national movements, it therefore developed not on the basis of an existing state structure and state apparatus but in opposition to them. Such movements typically define themselves primarily in ethnic and cultural terms. In fact, Zionism was only one, albeit not particularly large, current within the nascent Jewish nationalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Another national project was more popular, represented by the Bund (the General Jewish Labor Alliance) in Lithuania, Poland and Russia, which advocated extraterritorial national-cultural autonomy in the spirit of Austro-Marxism. The Zionists, on the other hand, adopted a concept of territorial nationalism. Here, too, the ideological models prevalent in Europe at the time were adopted: he meaning of national liberation was independence or autonomy in a specific territory. In contrast to most Eastern European ethnic and cultural groups, however, this territory was far away. The historical memory, tradition and mythology of the Jews beckoned them to the Land of Israel or Palestine.
There is an old claim that denies Jewish peoplehood (and thus potential nationhood). It has been reinforced in recent years by Shlomo Sand’s famous book The Invention of the Jewish People. The book suffers from a fundamental flaw: its basic premise already defines its conclusion. All modern nations are comparatively late social constructs: “imagined communities,” in the words of Benedict Anderson. Therefore, the modern Jewish people is an invention — but no more and no less than any other modern nation. Many on the Israeli right also claim that there is no Palestinian people at all, referring to rather dubious studies; yet here, again, it is the premise itself that is flawed. Interestingly, unlike the radical anti-Zionists who seek the abolition of the Israeli state and the establishment of a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea” (and praise Sand’s book), Sand himself recognizes the existence of an Israeli nation and advocates a two-state solution.
This combination of the centrality of the Land of Israel (Palestine) in the collective imagination of the Jews and the fact that the majority of Jews lived in Eastern Europe led the Zionists to practices of settler colonialism. The concept of settler colonialism is widely discussed in research, especially in leftist circles. The case of the Zionists does indeed have important features that justify its inclusion in this category. But it is necessary to pay attention to details.
Settler colonialism is a confusing term because it is fundamentally different from regular colonialism, although the two were sometimes intertwined. In political discussions, the term is usually used as a pejorative. The claim that Zionism was colonialism has been voiced for many years, and the label was all too easily updated by the adjective “settler.” While “regular” colonialism aims to exploit the resources of the colony and the labor of its inhabitants for the benefit of the metropole, the goal of settler colonialists is to become natives. This aspiration to become a native can be achieved through a wide range of measures — from ethnic cleansing and even genocide at its most violent extreme, to attempts to create a social system that includes settlers and natives with various degrees of equality. Typically, these options are not mutually exclusive and in each concrete case one can find a unique combination of the entire spectrum that can also change over time.
Zionism thus was simultaneously a national liberation movement for the Jews and a settler colonial movement for the native Arab inhabitants of Palestine. As a settler movement, it had two unique characteristics: it appeared late on the stage of history and it had no metropolis on which the movement could base its conquests. The transformation of Palestine into a British colony (as the mandate from the League of Nations) brought a further complication into play. The British Empire had its own interests in the Middle East and used the Zionists, the Palestinian Arabs and their contradictions to achieve its imperial goals. Moreover, Zionist settlement can be seen as an organized refugee migration. Almost every major wave of Zionist immigration coincided with shocks in the lives of Jews in Europe (pogroms, revolutions, world wars and the establishment of new nation states in Eastern Europe). Europe pushed the Jews out of itself. The immigration to Palestine became more significant when the preferred option for most Jews was closed: immigration to the United States became almost impossible for Jews with the tightening of immigration laws in 1924.
Here one may ask: how did the Zionists intend to create a Jewish national home in the land that they considered their historical homeland? First of all, they were aware of the existence of the Arab population in Israel-Palestine, who developed their own national consciousness. Zionism, as a national movement that emerged on the European soil, absorbed the entire European political spectrum of its time, depending on where activists and thinkers had grown up. It was therefore possible to see a range of possible solutions. Contrary to what is commonly believed among opponents and critics of Zionism, in the early stages of the Zionist movement, a large proportion of its leaders and thinkers did not envision an ethnonational state. Instead, as Dmitry Shumsky shows in his book, they had plans in which the Jews would not have exclusive sovereignty: from autonomy within a regional federation to a binational state in Israel-Palestine.
This does not suggest that a historic opportunity has been missed there. My aim is merely to show a wider range of possibilities once existing under the umbrella of Zionism. The course of historical events went in a different direction. A violent conflict took place between the Jewish settlers and the Palestinian Arabs. Since it is not possible to describe the entire course of events here, we can say schematically that there were two factors at work. The first was related to the fact that the Zionist movement was also a diasporic national movement. As exclusivist ethnonationalism grew stronger in Eastern and Central Europe and the status of Jews as a national minority with rights deteriorated, this influenced the Zionists to move in the same direction. But the second factor, Palestinian resistance to Jewish settlement, was more significant.
One can understand the resistance of the Palestinians to the settlement of Jews in their country. It is difficult to expect a nascent national movement, operating in a world of accelerated change, to welcome without fear organized immigrants seeking to establish their national home in the same land. The first major violent explosion (although there had been violence between Jews and Arabs before) occurred in 1929. Hillel Cohen, who analyzes these events in his Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict: 1929, relying on sources from both sides, sees these events as a turning point in the history of relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel-Palestine. The hostility and violent dynamic intensified from then on until it reached climax in 1948.
War broke out immediately with the UN partition resolution on 29 November 1947, after the Jewish leadership accepted the UN partition plan while the Palestinian leadership rejected it (a partition proposal had also been made in 1937, and also then, the Jewish leadership accepted partition in principle, in contrast to the Palestinian rejection of it). In the first months, the war was waged as a civil war between two ethnic-national communities of Mandatory Palestine. In May 1948, after the declaration of independence of the State of Israel and the invasion of the armies of five Arab countries (Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq), it turned into a war between Israel and the neighboring states. It was a war to the death for both sides. In places where the Israeli army was victorious, the Palestinian population fled or was expelled, and in the (far fewer) places where the Arab armies were victorious, the entire Jewish population fled or was expelled. Massacres were committed by both sides. For the Israelis it was the War of Independence, while for the Palestinians it became a national catastrophe, the Nakba, a partial ethnic cleansing in the course of which some 700,000 Palestinians were displaced and had fled the territory of Israel by the end of the war. These refugees were not allowed to return to their homes after the end of the fighting.
After the war of 1948, known as the War of Independence on the one hand and the Nakba on the other, the State of Israel was founded with around 600,000 Jews and 170,000 Palestinians. In the first two decades of its existence, Israel experienced a dynamic and contradictory development. Despite the socialist ideology of the Zionist left, accelerated economic growth led to the emergence of inequalities along the ethnic fault lines between the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs at the bottom of the social ladder. After the establishment of the state, a new wave of Jewish immigrants came to Israel. These were Holocaust survivors from Europe who had previously entered the country illegally, and Jews from Arab countries, in the first phase mainly from Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Syria, who arrived en masse. Some of them came because of their Zionist convictions, many others were actually refugees expelled from some Arab countries whose regimes identified them with Zionism or saw them as “foreigners.” These immigrants, who later became known (and identified) as “Mizrahim”, the Oriental Jews, suffered from intentional and unintentional discrimination. This created a complicated triangle of relationships in Israel between Ashkenazi Jews, Mizrahi Jews and Palestinians (although tensions between these three groups existed since the early days of Zionism).
The Palestinians who remained inside Israel were immediately granted Israeli citizenship, in part because Israel wanted to be admitted to the United Nations. But even if there was an intention for the equal integration of Palestinians into the Israeli order, this remained a merely formal promise for the future. The state imposed a military regime on the majority of its Palestinian citizens and turned their citizenship into one that was second class: their freedom of movement was restricted and almost every aspect of their lives was subject to the supervision of the military governor. The official and most important reason for the establishment of the military rule were security considerations, especially in the border areas. In addition, the new state enforced mechanisms for the expropriation of land and the settlement of Jews in areas where the Palestinian population was still in the majority. This military regime met fierce resistance from the Jews, both on the right and the left, while the Palestinian citizens of Israel endeavored to penetrate the cracks of the flawed Israeli republic. Thus, the military regime gradually waned and was officially abolished in December 1966.
More than fifty years have passed since then. There is still no full de facto equality between Jews and Palestinians within Israel. Of course, the situation of Palestinian citizens of Israel is closely linked to Israel’s unresolved issues with the entire Palestinian people, who are not included within the borders of Israeli citizenship. The situation of the Palestinian citizens of Israel has evolved in a dialectical way: increasing integration of the Palestinians into social and economic life entailed explicit racism towards them. Today it is clear that there will be no revival of the Israeli left, including the Zionist left, without cooperation with the political representatives of Palestinian Israelis. And it is no coincidence that the Israeli far right, the people behind the parties of Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, is making an enormous effort to spark a conflagration between Jews and Palestinians within Israel. The Palestinian citizens of Israel pose a great and positive challenge to Zionism.
This reveals an urgent need for a totally new kind of Zionism, grown from those seeds that have not sprouted and lay dormant. It must be a Zionism without any kind of discrimination or superiority, seeking a true partnership with the Palestinians, a Zionism of shared sovereignty. Ameer Fakhoury, a Palestinian-Israeli political sociologist who recognizes some signs of such a demand and has identified an already existing tiny political trend, called it “re-Zionism”. One can understand why this kind of underground current is not reflected in the global discussion on Israel-Palestine, especially in these days of terrible war. Even for quite a few Israelis, Zionism is synonymous with exclusive Jewish sovereignty and absolute or relative Jewish supremacy. But the picture is more complex and the burden of proof is on us, the consistent Zionist left. Above all, for the majority of Israeli Jews, Zionism is ultimately a modernized Jewish identity (which has also become important for Jews in the diaspora since the founding of the state), and in order to save it, we must renounce supremacy and exclusivity.
Decolonization or peace?
The cruel attack by Hamas on Israeli villages and towns and the unimaginable massacre in which around 1200 Israelis (Jews, Palestinians and migrant workers) were sadistically killed and 240 kidnapped has shocked people in Israel. There are many reasons for this failure and the government will surely pay the political price, even if it takes time. Israelis woke up on 7 October to a reality in which the state of Israel almost ceased to function. They felt most clearly what happens when the state apparatus is starved for years due to an extreme neoliberal austerity policy and the army is busy controlling and oppressing the Palestinians in the West Bank for the benefit of extremist settlers instead of guarding the border with Gaza.
In the meantime, Israeli society is busy mobilizing itself through civil organizations and grassroots initiatives (an optimistic sign indeed). Alongside this, there are alarming signs that hope for peace between the Jews and the Palestinians has been completely lost, as evidenced by a growing sentiment of revenge and harsh statements toward the Palestinians in general, not to mention attempts by the Israeli far right to incite and further inflame the entire country, including the West Bank and Israel itself. It’s also clear that the war will likely intensify the intra-Jewish divide in Israeli society over the question of responsibility (and guilt) for the Hamas attack. The big question is how this will affect the willingness of Israelis to engage in dialogue with Palestinian representatives in order to break the intolerable cycle of occupation, oppression and terrorism. The answer is difficult to predict so far.
Meanwhile, a debate has erupted within the shrinking Israeli left over the reaction of some leftist circles in the West to what happened on that terrible Sabbath of October 7. These reactions have been described and received an appropriate response (for example, here and here). And while I was finishing my text, I came across a relevant analysis of the phenomena by Anatoly Kropivnitskyi. In light of all that has been said here, I would like to emphasize a few points on the subject, even if others have already said it better than me.
Of course, the heavy bombardment of Gaza and the huge, unprecedented number of innocent casualties have drawn most of the attention to what is happening there. Besides, Israel is run by a dangerous government that many do not trust. The indiscriminate bombing of civilians is a serious crime. The war also endangers the lives of Israeli hostages. I therefore support the call for a ceasefire. This does not mean that there should be no fight against Hamas but Israelis should approach this fight intelligently and in cooperation with the international community. And above all, this struggle should include a political solution for the Palestinians.
Precisely because of such a stance, even if it is a minority position in Israel at the moment, the reactions of some potential comrades in the international left circles cause disappointment. We need a protest and a movement demanding a mutual cease fire, the release of all hostages and a peaceful solution for Israel-Palestine. Unfortunately, with few exceptions (like the UK-based Jewish group Na’amod) there are no worldwide demonstrations demanding a ceasefire and the release of hostages, and we do not see demonstrations for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, instead either pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli manifestations. Is this only due to Israeli policy in recent years? That certainly explains a lot1. But the impossibility of international solidarity with the victims of violence on both sides also has to do with the situation of the left around the world.
Today some left-wing intellectuals and many ordinary activists still tend to think and act according to a campist logic that is deeply rooted in the Cold War era. During this period, the Soviet Union appropriated anti-imperial discourse (just as the West appropriated human rights discourse) and subordinated it to its geopolitical needs. It created a Manichean worldview in which there are only two parties: Good and Evil, Light and Darkness. In such a perspective, each side of a conflict looks like a monolith: without internal struggles, class differences and social dynamics that are also influenced by what’s happening on the opposite side. It is enough to position oneself as an anti-imperialist to be included in the camp of the “progressives” or “global left”, even if it is a reactionary regime such as the Iranian theocracy and the theocratic movements it supports, or the conservative autocracy of Putin and co. in Russia (at least before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine). And perhaps it is not surprising that one can find a structural analogy (limited, like any analogy) between the discourse on Israel (and Zionism) and the discourse on the Soviet Union during the Cold War. There are only two binary options: either one supports Stalinism as the embodiment of socialist ideology or one supports the capitalist system as the only guarantee of democracy. Any other position, whether taken by democratic socialists or liberal critics of capitalism, has virtually no place.
Israel is an easy target for this kind of binary criticism. It is a small country in a predominantly hostile environment, supported by the United States, known for its arms industry and keeping the Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories under a regime of direct and indirect military oppression. All of this has intensified over the past 14 years, during which Israel, under Netanyahu’s leadership, has rejected every attempt to move forward in peace negotiations, encouraged division among Palestinians, and directly and indirectly supported the rise of Hamas in Gaza. But there could be another, deeper reason for the special attention paid to Israel by various left-wing groups and movements. Some people belonging to the leftist groups in the West may feel guilty for the many years of anti-Semitism that have led, among other things, to the solution of the “Jewish question” at the expense of the Palestinians. Others may feel guilt or anger over the bloody history of European colonialism and project all this onto Israel, as if the “abolition of the Zionist state” should atone for their own historical sins. The latter is especially true for the descendants of settlers in the New World, whose countries also emerged from settler colonization.
This guilt issue is in fact closely related to the question of decolonization, which has become increasingly discussed in other contexts (e.g. Russia), and in academic theories related to it (postcolonialism, decoloniality, etc.). While the fact that clearly reactionary and repressive forces like the Putin regime or movements like Hamas manage to cynically exploit decolonial discourse might suggest that there are also some theoretical problems, the main problem here is political.
At the political level, certain currents in decolonial thought inspire thinking in two essentialist antagonistic categories — “natives” and “settlers”. But how can the tension between them be resolved? What’s the political program of decolonization? Does decolonization mean ethnic cleansing of the settlers? Their expulsion and mass murder? And if not, how can settlers become natives? After how many generations? Do they deserve recognition of their collective rights? In the Israeli case, are about half of the Jews in Israel who originate from the Middle East and North Africa also settlers or could they be considered natives? These are not theoretical questions but practical political ones.
One can avoid these questions by claiming that demonstrations are neither a theoretical seminar nor a body for writing a political platform. Especially when there is war and a major catastrophe occurs. This is obviously true. But demonstrations and statements by key activists and well-known figures express not just temporary anger, but also years of intellectual and political discussions that suggest possible answers to all these questions.
If a well-known and respected intellectual writes about the massacre on the same day and claims: “There is no moral, political or military equivalence of both sides” while calling the murdered civilians “settler population”, then this sounds as a justification for the mass murder of Israelis. When interpretations, half-truths, allusions to conspiracy theories and ideological positions are presented as facts, a big question mark arises about whether a Jewish collective has a right to exist as a political entity. When protesters chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and some of them hold protest signs “by any means possible,” we must ask: what do they mean? Are they calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel? Or for a form of shared Jewish-Arab sovereignty? Or perhaps they demand the elimination of Israelis as a national collective? When such slogans are uttered together with an explicit or implicit justification of Hamas’ actions, fear arises that the latter option is the answer to the question. The reason for this fear is simple: Jews have no place where they are considered indigenous people, or at least not as a collective with any sovereign status.
The failure of many on the left around the world is not only a moral failure (an inability to empathize with the Israelis, to oppose the reactionary Hamas and the like) but mainly a political failure. Instead of showing empathy for both Jews and Palestinians and supporting those who work for peaceful solutions in our small country, the demonization of Israel drives the Israeli public even further to the right and puts further obstacles in the way of the Israeli left gaining political influence. It would be better for everyone not to listen to the rioters celebrating “false decolonization” but to the voices of local peace activists. For example, Samah Salaime, who writes about her double pain. Or Inon Maoz, whose parents were murdered by Hamas and who called to avoid revenge. And there are many others who, even if they believe that it is impossible to cease fire immediately, understand that the war with Hamas requires other means and, above all, a political horizon and a peaceful solution between Israel and Palestine.
In the midst of the current horror that both peoples are currently experiencing, the only real and consistent left position (in the short term) is to demand a mutual ceasefire together with the unconditional return of the Israeli hostages. Any attempt to contextualize only one side’s atrocities would be apolitical moralizing. Of course, this is not enough. The fight against reactionary groups, especially armed terrorists, is necessary. But beyond that, we must find a way to live here in peace with each other, even if that seems a long way off. It is true that the history of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel-Palestine is a painful one. It is true that any serious historical analysis will recognize colonial traits in the Zionist past and present. But even if the balance of power is not symmetrical today, any peaceful solution requires recognition of the collective rights of the two nations that have emerged here through a traumatic process for both. We could imagine two states, a confederation or a federal binational state.
Another point to consider is the possibility of a stable solution within the disintegrating neoliberal order. It could only be achieved in parallel with the establishment of a renewed welfare state in Israel-Palestine. We need public investment in education, health, infrastructure and in tackling the climate crisis. A welfare state would make it possible to liberate the Jewish lower classes from dependence on colonial compensation mechanisms and an ideology of Jewish supremacy. More generally, a stable peace in Israel-Palestine and the broader Middle East requires a kind of “Marshall Plan”, a massive investment plan that will create a material infrastructure for the various peace initiatives. Of course, this is not a mechanistic process, and it also requires a process of reconciliation on an ideological level. To achieve this, we need to marginalize forces like Hamas and the Israeli far-right parties, which means abandoning binary discourse and Cold War logic. For all this we will need a lot of support from true friends of both nations. So, please, do not be pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, be pro-peace and pro-equality.
- It is important to add that a crucial part of these policies is the practice of detention and incarceration of Palestinians, not all of whom are security prisoners, by the Israeli security forces, that predates the war with Hamas and has massively accelerated since the attacks on the 7th of October 2023. ↩︎