An introduction to Zionism and its Discontents: A Century of Radical Dissent in Israel/Palestine

By Ran Greenstein

‘Rumours about the imminent demise of Zionism are premature, but there is little doubt that it is entering a new stage of crisis. Three issues in particular stand out in this respect: a Zionism and its Discontents - Available from Pluto Pressdiplomatic crisis reflecting a rapid decrease in the support given by the global community, a crisis of control reflecting intensification of resistance by Palestinians, and an internal crisis of legitimacy reflecting growing polarisation within Israeli society itself. None of these aspects has reached a point of no return that signals a state of terminal decline, but the direction is clear. Only a radical change of Israeli policies would be able to reverse these trends.

But what precisely do we mean by Zionism? The term has been used both by its adherents and its opponents in various ways to refer to firstly the Jewish settlement project in Palestine since the late 19th century, to the quest for Jewish statehood in the 20th century, to the notion of Jewish self-determination, to Israeli policies of ethnic cleansing and military occupation and finally to expressions of support for the State of Israel as a focus of identification for Jews throughout the world. These definitions are not mutually exclusive, of course, but they do have different implications which have been manifested in Jewish and Israeli politics.

This diversity of meanings has given way, however, to a much narrower definition in practice. As Antony Lerman recently has put it: “there is only one form of Zionism of any consequence today, either in Israel or in the Jewish diaspora: right-wing, exclusionary, discriminatory ethno-nationalism, inspired by religious messianism”

To be critical of Zionism today, then, means above all to oppose the aggressive, reactionary, ethnocentric policies that have inspired the Israeli regime since 1967, in its quest to take over and settle as much territory with as few indigenous people as possible and, in the process, to suppress any resistance to this expansionist project.

In a sense, that has always been a core aspect of the critique of Zionism. But, as explored in this new book, Zionism And It’s Discontents, historically there were different ways of conceptualising political and cultural alternatives and organising to realise them. The book examines Zionism through the conceptual lenses used by movements that sought to challenge its foundations as well as confront its practices on the ground. These include the bi-nationalist movement of the British Mandate period; the Palestinian Communist Party of the same period; the Palestinian national movement in various permutations and the radical left-wing Matzpen group of the 1960s to 1980s.

Zionist activists and scholars may find it strange to see their movement reflected through the eyes of its critics and opponents. This is an essential operation, however, to avoid the usual writing of history from the perspective of victors, and to provide a counter-view that examines political alternatives as they unfolded in their own time.

Inevitably, we tend to look at historical developments in retrospect, knowing how they turned out at the end and what their outcomes were. Avoiding this approach means looking forward, from the temporal perspective of the direct actors rather than the vantage point of the present. None of these actors managed to achieve their primary goals, but they all made valuable contributions – by way of analysis and practice – which may serve us today in charting a new course of action. Hence, the importance of their stories. In their different ways they provide essential starting points for a critique of the present. This should be of interest to scholars but also to activists who seek to learn the lessons of the past in order to shape their struggles in the present and achieve greater success in the future.

Why study these movements specifically? The choice was made with a view to identifying comprehensive responses to the rise of the Zionist settlement project, which remains the crucial actor shaping the history of Israel/Palestine for the last century. With the exception of the bi-nationalist movement, all the others offered alternatives that criticised Zionism from the outside and sought to replace its policies and principles with a completely different orientation, rather than suggest internal correctives. Even bi-nationalism involved a radical rejection of the notion of a Jewish state, which increasingly became the goal unifying all other Zionist movements, and still is the crucial common denominator of Zionism today. Examples set by these radical currents serve as a form of ‘subjugated knowledges’ that have experienced a degree of ‘insurrection’ in the last two decades. This book aims to assist this process further.

In this respect, this book joins the wave of studies that challenge the central assumptions of mainstream Zionism from within Israeli society as well as from outside its boundaries. Many scholars have contributed to this wave, and some identify their perspective as post-Zionist rather than anti-Zionist. To an extent at least they all follow in the footsteps of the pioneering critiques examined in the book, particularly those developed by Matzpen (discussed in chapter 4 of the book), without necessarily being aware of their debt to it. Critical questions about the structures of domination of Israeli state and society, the relations between Zionism and colonialism, and the role of Israeli policies in entrenching imperial control in the Middle East, which were considered radical heresy when raised in the 1960s, are being raised openly in respectable public and academic forums. The answers may differ but the willingness to raise difficult questions is a testimony to the spread of dissent beyond the margins.

What can the activist/scholar expect from this book? Two things in particular:

(1) a concise but thorough review of the ideas and historical records of the movements in question, written from a sympathetic perspective that identifies the ‘best case’ that can be made for each of them. I do not always agree with the positions developed by these movements but strive to present them so that they make sense to readers remote in space and time. And,

(2) an analysis that places these movements in their historical and theoretical contexts, while examining their relevance for their times and ours. The answers they offered are not always suitable for us today (and some answers may not have been suitable for them either), but the questions they raised are still relevant as ever. Above all, the goal is to enable readers to look at contemporary political and cultural issues with the benefit of historical depth.

Although the book is not about contemporary politics or solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is driven by an overall bi-nationalist perspective. It may be of interest to outline it.

In Israel/Palestine today there are two ethno-national groups. Israeli Jews are unified by their legal status as full citizens. Palestinian Arabs are divided by their legal status into citizens in pre-1967 Israel, resident non-citizens in the Occupied Territories, and non-resident non-citizens in the Diaspora. The two groups are distinct by virtue of their language, political identity, religion and ethnic origins. Only about 10% of them – Palestinian citizens – are fully bilingual. Many Jews have Arab cultural origins, but their legacy has been erased through three generations of political and cultural assimilation. The delusion that these ‘Arab Jews’ share any political consciousness with Palestinian – even if in a dormant form – must be laid to rest. On the face of it, this seems an ideal argument for a two-state solution, but things are more complex than that.

Jews and Arabs live together in the same country, separately within homogeneous villages and towns in some areas, but also mixed to varying degrees in other areas. Historical patterns of demographic engineering that resulted in forced population movement and dispersal – most notably the 1948 Nakba and the post-1967 settlement project – have created a patchwork quilt of mono-ethnic and bi-ethnic regions, separated by political intent rather than by natural or geographical logic.

Acknowledging this bi-national reality is not an argument for a particular form of state. Rather it is a call to base any future political arrangement on the need to accommodate members of both national groups as equals, at individual and collective levels. In the words of the radical Jewish activists who put together the Olga Document of 2004, “this country belongs to all its sons and daughters—citizens and residents, both present and absentees (the uprooted Palestinian citizens of Israel in ’48) – with no discrimination on personal or communal grounds, irrespective of citizenship or nationality, religion, culture, ethnicity or gender.” This formulation draws on the Freedom Charter of 1955, which asserted, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white”. But, the simple elegance of the formula changed into comprehensive but cumbersome language, a testimony to the difficulty of conveying unity in the face of fragmentation. But, it is not difficult to convey unity – as a first step – among Israeli citizens. Making Israel a state of and for all its citizens is both logical and just, and politically feasible though by no means easy.

We must recognise that people seek incorporation as individuals and as groups. In the Vision Documents of Palestinian citizens of Israel, the quest for equality is combined with the call for recognition as a national collective. The tension between a democratic state with no ethnic character, and equality between ethnic groups, is unresolved. Bi-nationalism is compatible with either option: a non-ethnic state, and a state that enshrines equality between individual citizens and provides structured representation for groups in fields such as education and culture. Both must lead to the removal of all forms of ethnic domination. Democratising Israel in this way is important in its own right and also as a way to reinforce other campaigns. If Palestinian citizens are no longer ostracised as political actors, the struggle against the occupation would receive a big boost by escaping the confines of the shrinking progressive Jewish Left.

Making Israel a state of all its citizens would not change the boundaries of political sovereignty, would have no demographic implications, and would require no negotiation with external forces. It would not challenge ‘the right of Israel to exist’ but rather seek to modify the internal basis for its self-legitimation. In other words, it would be a process carried out by citizens, over a period of time. Making Israel/Palestine as a whole a state of all its residents, by establishing common citizenship, is different. It would mean a fundamental change in the boundaries of citizenship and the allocation of power, requiring a radical re-alignment of the political scene. It is not feasible in the short term as there are no serious political forces advocating it, and it cannot be a substitute for the ongoing struggle against the 1967 occupation and for restoring refugees’ rights.

By way of broad conclusion, a viable political strategy would anchor the concerns above in the language of democracy, equality and human rights, instead of that of diplomacy and statehood, thus overturning the Oslo approach. The advantage of this strategy is that it could associate itself with the global justice movement and struggles of diverse independent forces, civil society organisations, and media activists. The guiding principle for a solution is common to all these forces: treating members of each ethno-national group equally, as individuals and as collectives. The combination of a political approach operating on many different but related fronts, with a new mode of activism focused on direct action and creative media, educational, and legal strategies, may be the best way forward. There are no obvious answers here, but posing the right questions is a crucial first step towards a solution.’

Ran Greenstein is Associate Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. He studied at the University of Haifa and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is author of Genealogies of Conflict: Class, Identity and State in Palestine/Israel and South Africa (1995), and editor of Comparative Perspectives on South Africa (1998).

To buy a copy of Zionism and its Discontents: A Century of Radical Dissent in Israel/Palestine with 10% off, please visit the Pluto Press website.

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