Palestine bloodied

December 3, 2023

Despite opposition from orthodox Jewish factions, the Balfour Declaration granted legitimacy to the Zionist ideology, shaping the trajectory of Palestinian affairs with enduring effects

Palestine bloodied


efore diplomatic efforts halted the reign of terror unleashed by Israel on Palestinians (which began on October 7), each day had felt like an International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Massive gatherings from Istanbul to Jakarta and Africa to Latin America had vehemently protested Israeli brutality, often implicating the United States.

The sheer scale and frequency of these protests proved overwhelming, compelling many political entities to clarify their positions on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The demonstrations yielded three outcomes: a surge in pro-Palestine and anti-war sentiment; increased activism, particularly among trade unionists halting goods shipments to Israel; and a political movement challenging the West-led ‘rules-based international order.’ There were calls to indict Israeli leaders through the International Criminal Court.

The conflict, more ruthless than all recent wars including the 2003 US campaign in Iraq, was marked by a horrifying toll on the civilians, with over 5,800 children among the 14,000 murdered. Despite Israeli propaganda, global opinion has rejected the notion that this violence was justified. Images from Gaza have vividly portrayed the disproportionate and asymmetrical nature of Israel’s actions.

The surge in acts of conflict involving Israel has appeared to create a perceptible disconnect between Jews residing in Europe and America and the nation of Israel. Furthermore, the boycott of products associated with perceived support for Israel has witnessed heightened enforcement. This article aims to furnish a historical survey of the Zionist movement, tracing its origins, development and ultimate realisation in the establishment of the state of Israel. The primary objective is to present a nuanced perspective.

When repackaged as ideologies, religions tend to become rigid and exclusionary. Over the past 150 years, the reimagining of religion in the context of modernity has led to a literalist version that often manifests as xenophobia, particularly when intertwined with territorial nationalism. Notable examples of this transformation are Zionism and Hindutva.

Zionism, evolving into an ideology even before the conception of fascism, played a role in shaping the latter. While fascism’s replication of Zionism requires further research, it’s evident that Zionism preceded fascism. Hindutva, on the other hand, drew inspiration from fascism.

Both ideologies share a distant connection with the religions they claim to represent. To clarify the distinction between Zionism and Judaism, it’s essential to explore the genealogy of Zion. The term’s uncertain etymology dates back to the Old Testament, appearing in various biblical books. Zion is mentioned 152 times in the Hebrew bible, predominantly in prophetic and psalmic books, shedding light on its historical significance.

Of the 152 mentions of Zion, 26 refer to the Daughter of Zion, personifying Jerusalem or its inhabitants. In Islamic tradition, sahyun is the Arabic and Syriac term for Zion. According to biblical tradition, the name is attributed to Jerusalem in Arabic and Islamic contexts. The term Zion-ism was coined in 1890 by Nathan Birnbaum, a Viennese Jew and co-founder of Kadimah, the first organisation of Jewish nationalist students in the West (1882).

Birnbaum’s publications, including Self-Emancipation! (1884-1894), anticipated ideas later promoted by Theodore Herzl. His works aimed to revive the Jewish people and advocate for the resettlement of Palestine, building upon the ideas of Leon Pinsker. Pinsker, born in Tomaszów Lubelski, had faced restrictions on practicing law due to anti-Jewish occupational constraints. He coined the term Judeophobia, that later became anti-Semitism.

Zionism, initially focused on re-establishing and now developing and protecting a Jewish nation in Israel, emerged in 1897 under Theodor Herzl. It was later led by Chaim Weizmann. A Zionist believes that Israel belongs to the entire Jewish people. The idea finds formal expression in the Law of Return. The First Zionist Congress in Basel formalised the movement’s goals, including promoting Jewish settlement in Ottoman-controlled Palestine.

The Second Congress strategised to gain Ottoman and “colonisation society” support. Juxtaposed with Judaism, which emphasises spirituality, Zionism is criticised for perceived racism and expansionism.

Judaism centres on Moses’s revelation at Sinai, describing exile as a punishment for Jewish sins. In contrast, Zionism believes military action can end Jewish exile. Rabbi David Weiss notes Rabbinical disapproval of Zionism for conflicting with Mosaic Commandments.

Michael Walzer sees Zionism as a paradox to Judaism, adopting foreign values contrary to Torah principles. Before delving into this debate, let’s explore the role of early Zionists like Herzl, Weizmann and Ben-Gurion, and the influence of the Dreyfus Affair on political Zionism.

Theodor Herzl, hailed as the founder of Zionist ideology, wrote The Jewish State at age thirty-six, emphasising the preservation of Jewish nationality through political solutions on the global stage. The inaugural Zionist Congress in 1897 at Basel established the World Zionist Organisation, advocating for a Jewish home in Palestine, led by Herzl. He founded Die Welt as the official Zionist mouthpiece and lobbied the Ottoman sultan for Jewish settlement. Herzl also sought German support, proposing a Jewish charter company under a German protectorate.

The surge in Jewish activism in the late 19th Century was fuelled by anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, particularly Russia. The atrocities against Jews, documented by Jewish history scholars, fuelled the formation of Zionist ideology in response to pogroms and massacres.

Paul Johnson in A History of the Jews highlights the first modern pogrom against Jews in Odessa, Russia, orchestrated by Slav nationalists. Following Tsar Alexander II’s assassination in 1881, Jews lost their patron, leading to major pogroms instigated by Interior Minister Ignatiev.

Anti-Semitic sentiment persisted until 1911, marking 1881 as a pivotal year comparable to the Cossack riots of 1648. The relentless pressure on Russian Jewry triggered a mass exodus westward. Despite challenges in Romania, Austria and Poland, a significant number migrated to the US. However, the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906) emerged as a turning point, compelling European Jews to invest in Zionist ideology, surpassing the impact of regional pogroms.

Captain Alfred Dreyfus, from an old Jewish family in Alsace, faced false treason charges in 1894, leading to his court-martial, demotion and imprisonment on Devil’s Island. In 1906, evidence emerged, and novelist Emile Zola’s denunciation prompted Dreyfus’s exoneration. The Dreyfus Affair symbolises discrimination against Jews, lamented by Jewish historians.

Amidst this, the 1903 pogroms in Russia intensified the Jewish question. Herzl’s negotiation for a settlement in Uganda was rejected by Russian Zionists in 1904, emphasising their preference for Palestine. Despite Herzl’s death that year, Zionism thrived, becoming a powerful organisation with funding from the Jewish National Fund and the Palestine Foundation Fund. In the US, Zionist recruitment focused on Eastern European Jews fleeing Russian persecution. Spanish and German Jewish communities, more prosperous, were also involved.

Zionist organisations, backed by influential financiers like the Rothschild family, received a significant endorsement in 1917 with the Balfour Declaration. Walter Rothschild, a British banker and politician, was the addressee of the declaration committing the British government to establish a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. Despite opposition from orthodox Jewish factions, the Balfour Declaration granted legitimacy to Zionist ideology, shaping the trajectory of Palestinian affairs with enduring effects.

The writer is a professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

Palestine bloodied