Zionism, the Palestinians, & Peace

Do the various ideologies of Zionism allow for the practical coexistence of Jews and Palestinians?

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Israel's enemies have often claimed that Zionism is a form of racism and colonialism, incompatible with the values of democracy and peace, and a recipe for inevitable and ongoing war in the Middle East.

But beginning in the 1980s, similar arguments began to circulate in Israel itself--not only in Arab nationalist or Islamic fundamentalist circles, but among Jewish academics and intellectuals, most of whom professed to be loyal Israeli citizens. These thinkers--who became known as "post-Zionists"--accepted Israel's right to exist, but posited a concrete connection between the pervasiveness of Zionist ideology and the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

israel and peaceHaifa University historian Ilan Pappe, for example, sees Zionism as a totalizing "grand narrative"' which prevents Israelis from understanding other points of view, especially that of the Palestinians. Without this ability to empathize with the other, compromise is impossible. According to Pappe, peace will never be achieved without a process of "de-Zionization," transforming Israel into a liberal-democratic state of all its citizens.

The post-Zionists' fiercest critics came from the Zionist Left: Zionism, they argued, is eminently compatible with peace and coexistence. The conflict with the Palestinians is rooted in realpolitik, not in ideology. Moreover, the Palestinians have to take their share of the blame for the failure to end the conflict.

The idea that Zionism is incompatible with peace has fateful significance for Israel's future. But, as of now, the claim can only be evaluated on the basis of the past: historically speaking, what has Zionist ideology had to say about the conflict with the Palestinians?

Influenced by European Nationalism

Zionism was born in the 1880s as Eastern European Jews sought an escape route from poverty and persecution in Tsarist Russia and Jews in the West struggled to find solutions to the problems of antisemitism and assimilation. The Zionist answer was to implement the Jewish people's right to national self-determination, "normalizing" the Jews by relocating them as a majority in their own politically, culturally, economically, and militarily independent country.

But what about the people who already lived in the Land of Israel--the Palestinian Arabs? Thanks to a statement by Anglo-Jewish writer and nationalist leader Israel Zangwill that Palestine was a "land without a people for a people without a land," early Zionists have been accused of ignoring the inconvenient fact that the projected site of the Jewish state was already populated.

In fact, seminal Zionist leaders were keenly aware of the Arab population. In 1902, Theodor Herzl published Altneuland ("Old-New Land"), a fictionalized description of his envisioned Jewish State. Reshid Bey, one of the book's main characters, is an Arab member of the Jews' "New Society" and a close friend of the story's central Jewish protagonists.

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Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.