Questioning Zionism

Since the beginning of modern Zionism, some Jews have stood in opposition to it.

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Buber recognized that from the Palestinian point of view, Jewish settlement was neither benevolent nor benign. He acknowledged that the Jews were somewhat culpable in soliciting Arab scorn. In regard to the riots of 1929 that left more than 100 Jews dead, Buber wrote, "perhaps we ourselves provided the motive for the religious fanaticism of the masses."

After the 1948 war, Buber continued to critique Israeli policy, even urging the government to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Israel. Still, Buber decided to support the Jewish state, particularly in light of the Holocaust.

After the Holocaust

Indeed, the Holocaust and the rise of European anti-Semitism that preceded it changed many opinions about Zionism. As dreams of universal brotherhood crumbled, the Reform movement embraced the idea of a Jewish state. In addition, a religious Zionist theology emerged that put active settlement of Israel into a messianic context unconcerned with the problem of "hastening the end."

Once the state was established, even Agudat Israel, the political arm of ultra-Orthodoxy, began participating in the Israeli government. In response to this, a radical anti-Zionist group known as Neturei Karta broke from Agudat Israel. To this day, Neturei Karta vehemently rejects a secular Jewish state on the age-old grounds that Jewish sovereignty prior to the messianic era is a rebellion against God. 

The New Historians

Beginning in the 1980s, the critique of Zionism found a new home: the Israeli academy. Israeli scholars began questioning Zionist histories of the pre-state and early state years.

Tom Segev, a journalist with academic training, was one of the first such writers. In 1949: The First Israelis, Segev suggested that certain accepted truths of Israeli history were at best historically simplistic, and often false. These included the near-universally held beliefs that: the Jews exhausted all efforts for peace in 1948; Israel was a weak "David" to the Arab "Goliath; and the Palestinians who fled their homes during the 1948 war did so primarily at the insistence of Arab leaders.

Benny Morris famously took up the last example in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949. Morris studied the exodus of Palestinians from more than 350 villages, looking at the reasons for their flight. He determined that there were a variety of stimuli, including forced expulsion by Jews, and in certain instances, even massacres. Morris described his work, as well as the work of Ilan Pappe and Avi Shlaim, as "new historiography."

The emergence of these New Historians was facilitated by recently declassified documents, but it was also a generational phenomenon. The New Historians grew up in a state that held established power, not in the pre-state period of Jewish vulnerability. Additionally, many of these scholars were affiliated with the political left who had become disillusioned by Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Finally, Morris, Pappe, and Shlaim were all trained in England, which may have given them the distance they needed to be critical of classical Zionist narratives.

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Daniel Septimus

Daniel Septimus is Executive Director of The Sefaria Project. Previously, he served as Chief Executive Officer of MyJewishLearning, Inc.