by João Bernardo
Reflecting on the recent Israeli aggression against the Mavi Marmara and the feckless impunity with which this country spreads terror in its region, I thought that most commentaries limited themselves to the obvious but fell short of the most important conclusion.
Everyone knows that Jews were the victims of great persecution, the Nazis making anti-semitism one of their main ideological bases. From the first day of his regime Hitler persecuted Jews and during the Second World War attempted to exterminate them. It is also widely known that the State of Israel inflicts suffering on the Palestinians, dispossessing them and subjecting them to a system of terror beyond even what the South African racists could achieve in the Apartheid era. Between these two moments: Jews as victims and Israel as aggressor, there is not a contradiction but rather a logical nexus, which this article seeks to explain.
Opposition between assimilationists and Zionists
First of all it is worth distinguishing Jews from the Zionist movement. Jews are a people defined by commonality of traditions and cultural features – of which religion is one part, but not an indispensable one. Zionism is a political movement which sought to mould a nation from the Jewish people, although dispersed for many centuries amongst other societies; the Zionist objective was to separate Jews from the societies where they lived and lead a migration to Palestine, with the ultimate goal of establishing the State of Israel.
When Theodor Herzl founded the Zionist movement at the turn of the century, he was only able to attract the interest of a small minority of Jews, winning almost no support from important Jewish intellectuals. The crushing majority of Jews were assimilationists, who although maintaining their right to their cultural autonomy also defended their full integration into the societies where they lived. In the German Reich the great majority of Jews were patriotic – to the brink of chauvinism – while Austrian Jews, rather than considering themselves one of the nationalities of the empire, considered themselves an integral part of the German population. Just before the First World War the Zionists were marginalised in their own communities, even in eastern Europe despite the particularly violent anti-semitic sentiments of part of the population there, and the isolation of Zionists on both sides of the Atlantic continued through the 1920s.
In Germany after the First World War, during the Weimar Republic, the assimilationists accounted for at least 95% of members of Jewish organisations, and in the first half of the 1920s more than 40% of Jewish marriages were with non-Jews. In Poland, although it was the country where Zionism was most developed, before the Second World War the largest Jewish political organisation was the Bund (Algemeyner Yidisher Arbeiter Bund in Lite, Poylin und Russland: General Jewish Workers’ Union in Lithuania, Poland and Russia), the partisan of equal rights, socialism and active opposition to the Zionists. Commenting on the fact that in 1942 the use of Polish rather than Yiddish was ever more common in the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Jewish historian Emmanuel Ringelblum observed that the language assimilation movement was already strong indeed before the war. Indeed, Ringelblum was particularly well placed to appreciate the situation, since he was able to organise a clandestine network of witnesses and informers which allowed him – at the cost of his life – to preserve for posterity a narrative of the Nazi atrocities in Poland.
Even the electoral victories of the National Socialists could not prevent the fact that, even just before Hitler was nominated Chancellor, the Zionists were reduced to a tiny proportion of the Jewish population in Germany – as in other countries – 1-2% according to their own figures. An internal SS dossier of spring 1934 reported that most German Jews were still in favour of assimilation. From June-July 1934 when Röhm and the SA were liquidated and the strictly racial fascism of Hitler and Himmler triumphed over the social-type fascism of their far-right rivals, one of the principal preoccupations of the Nazis was to exclude Jews from German society. The assimilationists were banned and persecuted while the Zionists were promoted: yet in spite of this German Jews did not display enthusiasm for Palestine. The British authorities in Palestine fixed annual quotas for the number of immigrants permitted. The Jewish Agency, the main Zionist authority in the region, distributed the immigration certificates among the Jews of various countries: yet in the 1930s only 22% of the certificates were given to German Jews.
In Germany Zionism only triumphed over assimilation because the Nazi regime persecuted the assimilationists. Zionism considered the assimilationists their main enemy and looked kindly upon anything – persecution or even occasional massacres – which broke Jews from the societies where they lived. For this reason the Zionist leaders sought deals with governments hostiles to Jews, to convince them that both had the same immediate objective. If the anti-semites wanted to get rid of their Jewish compatriots and the Zionists wanted to increase the number of Jews in Palestine, why not join forces?
Zionist collaboration with Nazism
During the Weimar Republic the German Zionists maintained a passive attitude towards the rise of Nazism, considering their hostility to Jews as logical as their own refusal to integrate into German society. For them the solution consisted of emigration to Palestine and not to confront anti-semitism in their country of birth: from the establishment of the Nazi regime in 1933 until the beginning of the Second World War few Zionists participated in the clandestine resistance. Moreover, prominent figures of German Zionism publicly expressed the view that Hitler’s arrival in power was a good thing for Jews because it decisively undermined the assimilationists, forcing Jews into a single unit and reinforcing the notion of a Jewish racial identity.
The well-known Jewish intellectual Hannah Arendt recalled that “at the time it was daily repeated that only the Jews could negotiate with the German authorities, for the simple reason that their main rivals, the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith (Central-Verein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens), to which ninety percent of members of Jewish organisations in Germany then belonged, specified in their statutes that their primary objective was “the struggle against anti-semitism”. Suddenly it thus became an “Enemy of the State” […] in the early years Hitler’s rise to power was seen by the Zionists mainly as “the decisive defeat of assimilation””. With ideas of integration banned, subscriptions to the German Zionist weekly, whose circulation had oscillated between 5,000 and 7,000 copies, rose to around 40,000 in the early months of the new regime, while the funds collected by the Zionist movement in 1935-36 were triple what they had been in 1931-32.
Germany’s Zionist Organisation saw in the Nazis’ active anti-semitism an opportunity to increase the rate of emigration to Palestine; the world Zionist leaders approved this orientation repeatedly in spite of the protests of grassroots members, including in Palestine itself. Even in the early days of April 1933, more than eight years before the Reich authorities made compulsory the wearing of a yellow star, an article signed by the editor-in-chief of the German Zionist weekly appealed for Jews to take this measure of their own initiative, displaying their desire to exclude themselves from German society. The progress of settlement in Palestine depended on diaspora Jews feeling rejected by their countries of birth, and thus the same process of gradual Hitlerite destruction of Jews allowed the Zionists to defeat their assimilationist rivals. “From the outset the Zionist leadership de facto refused to oppose the Nazis’ expulsionist ideology”, Edwin Black wrote, adding that this attitude meant “indicating to the Nazis that Jews themselves were ready to organise their own expulsion”. There could only be one conclusion: “The Nazi leaders […] were delighted by the fact that the Zionists accepted the expulsion of the Jews”. This was not just any expulsion, but rather the concentration of refugees in Palestine. The logic of Jewish sovereignty over Palestine was the flip-side of the Nazi logic of persecuting Jews.
Black summarised this situation: “Zionism had become an instrument of the anti-semites”. Nazi slogans and publications continued to follow the positions of old, attacking all Jews without distinction, yet in practice their methods were more subtle in creating a curious situation where the Zionists were privileged, even in legal terms. The fact that the crushing majority of German Jews were integrated into the country’s social fabric, making difficult the application of anti-semitic measures, made the assimilationists the main enemy; while the Zionists, who sought to separate Jews from the rest of the population, appeared to be a precious allies and received leading positions in the new institution designed to control the Reich’s Jews. The greater part of anti-semitic measures were concentrated against the assimilationists, such that the Zionist movement could keep its headquarters open until November 1938, and despite the restrictions imposed on its activity, in 1935 it received authorisation for its youth organisation to wear its own uniforms; while the Zionist press, despite the censorship to which it was several times subject, was the only one in the whole Reich exempt from the obligation of conformity to National Socialist doctrine. As well as pressuring Jewish communities in the main cities to use the Hebrew language, during the first years of the regime Nazi leaders encouraged religious, cultural and sporting festivals under the aegis of the Zionist movement, with the backing of Gestapo functionaries.
This convergence of interests was clear for certain contemporaries, and indeed it is attacked in the diaries kept by Victor Klemperer, a German university professor of Jewish origin, a linguist and specialist in French literature. He did not hide his criticisms in describing the Zionist colonisation of Palestine in an October 1933 paper expressing sympathy for the Arab Palestinians’ revolt, comparing their fate to that of American Indians. “Why are the Zionists any different from the Nazis?” Klemperer exclaimed in 1936, and in early 1939 asserted that Zionism was “pure Nazism”. “There is no Jewish question in Germany or western Europe”, he wrote a few days later, “and whoever says there is accepts and reinforces the false ideas of the NSDAP [Nazi Party] and serves its cause”. Klemperer invoked the high number of marriages between Jews and non-Jews as proof that Jews had been entirely assimilated by German society and added that the tensions in which Jews were involved before Hitler’s arrival in the Chancellery were no greater than those between Catholics and Protestants or Prussians and Bavarians. “There is but one solution to the Jewish question in Germany and western Europe: the defeat of those who have invented it […] the Zionist cause, about race as much as religion, only interests fanatics and not the majority”. In mid-1940 Klemperer returned to equating Zionism and Hitlerism. “Hitler is the most important promoter of Zionism”, he exclaimed in late 1941. Klemperer observed the affinity between the political writings of Theodor Herzl, founder of Zionism, and Hitlerite doctrine. “We can only resolve the Jewish question if we free ourselves from those who have created it”, he asserted in early 1939. But this all came too late.
Before initiating the “Final Solution” and systematically slaughtering the Jews, Nazi leaders played a double-game, on the one hand gradually reducing the professional and civil rights of Jews and confining them to concentration camps, and on the other hand encouraging migration to Palestine. The close collaboration between Zionists leaders and the relevant SS department resulted in the creation of an emigration system which continued until the outbreak of war. The Jewish authorities in Palestine regularly sent emissaries to contact the SS or the Gestapo itself, such as to increase the flow of migrants. These Zionist recruitment agents were even sometimes allowed to visit concentration camps and collect those prisoners they wished to take to Palestine, such as businessmen and healthy young people. In the words of Hannah Arendt, “the majority of Jews who were not selected were inevitably confronted by two enemies – the Nazis authorities and the Jewish authorities”. The apparent Nazi endeavour to aid the success of Jewish colonisation even reached the point where the SS helped establish experimental farms where candidates for emigration were taught modern agricultural techniques which could then allow them to efficiently and productively cultivate the land taken from the Arabs.
Relations were so friendly that in April 1933 Baron von Mildenstein, SS specialist for the Jewish question, visited Palestine on the invitation of the World Zionist Organisation with the express authorisation of the Nazi Party. Passing through Tel Aviv and visiting colonists, von Mildenstein was so interested that the next year he published a series of reports on his trip. A medal was coined in commemoration of the event, with the swastika cross engraved on one side and the star of David on the other. Von Mildenstein’s visit was echoed four years later when his former subordinate Adolf Eichmann, now promoted to SS specialist for the Jewish question and charged with organising Jewish emigration – and later their extermination – was invited by Zionist leaders to visit Palestine and its colonists. However, upon arrival in Haifa Eichmann and his superior could not obtain visas from the British authorities and were forced to return to Egypt, where they had a series of meetings with a Zionist representative. According to a report produced by two SS members, the Zionist agent communicated to them the Jewish nationalists’ appreciation for Nazi policy encouraging Jewish emigration to Palestine, and as a symbol of his gratitude supplied them with information on the secret activity of communists, including German communists.
This policy of co-operation reached its highpoint in the Ha’avara, meaning transfer, the name given to a collection of clearing institutions which resulted from a series of commercial and financial accords the Zionist authorities agreed in August 1933 with the Reich’s Ministry of the Economy and the Ministry of Foreign Goods to allow the transfer of German Jewish funds they wanted to bring to Palestine. This accord was in place until the start of the Second World War: to summarise its terms, the potential émigré could deposit a sum in Marks (the German currency) in a frozen account in a German bank; then they signed a contract with a German exporter to send goods abroad – largely to Palestine although other places too; the German exporter was paid in Marks, with the money in the frozen account; the Jewish Agency in Palestine would take charge of selling the exported goods; and upon disembarking in Palestine the new arrival would receive the sales money in pounds sterling from the Jewish Agency. The Nazi authorities imposed harshly unfavourable terms on the émigrés and the German economy profited from the balance of payments. But for their part the Jews who had the good fortune to participate in Ha’avara reduced the losses incurred in abandoning the country, which were three times greater, or five times greater in the case that emigration happened outside this system.
At the same time, immigrants became owners of significant holdings in their new country of residence. Of course in view of the assets of the German Jewish community as a whole the effects of Ha’avara were not very important, but they were considerable indeed from the point of view of the Jewish economy in Palestine. Around 60% of total investment in Palestine between August 1933 and September 1939 resulted from transfers under the account, capital principally invested in metallurgy, textiles and the chemical industry, but also the production of cement, fertiliser and agricultural machinery. This was the basis for the emergence of some of the future State of Israel’s main industrial firms. This investment meant great prosperity in Palestine at a time when the whole world, except the Soviet Union, was suffering a very deep and prolonged economic depression. A significant banking and commercial institution, Ha’avara employed 137 people in its Jerusalem offices. With a detailed study of this issue, Black concluded that Ha’avara was indispensable to the later establishment of the State of Israel.
The conversion of persecution of Jews in the Reich into investments in Palestine became even more characteristic with the creation of the International Agency for Commerce and Investments. The funds sent from abroad with the aim of helping Jews resident in the Reich were no longer given directly to their intended targets, but rather, via this Agency, they would be given to a department of the Zionist Organisation in Palestine and be organised under the mechanisms established by Ha’avara. Thus more than 70,000 donations, amounting to a total of almost $900,000, rather than being used to alleviate the suffering of persecuted Jews were used for economic development in Jewish Palestine.
This meant a paradoxical situation where at the same time as Jews in various countries were doing all they could to organise a boycott of the produce of the Reich, the World Zionist Organisation was breaching its terms and Palestine was thus inundated with German goods. “It seems economic relations between Nazi Germany and the Jewish community in Palestine were excellent”, wrote Raul Hilberg, the leading authority on the genocide, whilst another who analysed in some detail the negotiations leading to the establishment of Ha’avara summarised, “In brief, the Zionist leaders understood that the economic success of the future Jewish Palestine would be inexorably linked to the survival of the Nazi economy”.
But the sympathy fascism enjoyed from Zionist leaders was not limited just to the Reich.
Zionist collaboration with Italian fascism
Initially Mussolini believed that Jewish settlement in Palestine would reinforce Great Britain politically, and for this reason posed a risk to Italy’s imperial ambitions in the Mediterranean. In the first audience he gave to Zionist representatives, in December 1922 soon after reaching power, Mussolini told them that he considered any such movement a tool of London. Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organisation, visited Mussolini for the first time in January 1923, but was unable to change his position as regards Jewish settlement in Palestine.
However, the Duce’s attitude changed and in 1926, upon again meeting with Weizmann, he was convinced no longer to oppose the Zionist project and that he would help to install Jewish sovereignty in Palestine given that it did not seem dependent on British influence. In 1926 Mussolini found that he could use Zionism to create difficulties for Great Britain. From then onwards the main Zionist leaders maintained regular contacts with Rome and the Zionist press worldwide expressed its appreciation of the fascist regime. Receiving Chaim Weizmann in 1934, Mussolini promised him support, affirmed that Jerusalem could not become an Arab capital and declared himself favourable to the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine, on the condition that it was not dependent on Great Britain. In return, Weizmann, who was a university professor and specialist in organic chemistry, apparently of some quality, offered Mussolini his services to develop a chemical and pharmaceutical industry in Italy, independently of Germany. However, although he promised to recruit personnel and seek investment, ultimately it was never realised.
A Zionist fascism
On the Zionist Executive, Vladimir Jabotinsky led the radical-right-wing opposition to the presidency of Chaim Weizmann, which was moderate and conciliatory. Jabotinsky distanced himself more and more from the Executive, resigning in 1923 – two years after his election to this body – and in 1925 launching the Union of Revisionists-Zionists, which later became the World Union of the Revisionist Movement, as an internal tendency of the Zionist movement. At the World Zionist Congress of 1931 the revisionists accounted for 25% of the delegates and were the third largest tendency, demonstrating that they had been underestimated and had an effective capacity to exert pressure. At the subsequent congress, in 1933, in spite of internal divisions they won the support of around 20% of delegates and continued to represent the third largest tendency. Following this congress they abandoned the Zionist Organisation and in 1935 founded the New Zionist Organisation, although continued to be widely designated as ‘the revisionists’.
The belief that revisionism was a type of fascism was commonplace at the time, but to me it does not seem useful to investigate whether Jabotinsky was subjectively a fascist, or only sought to use fascism for his own ends, since the effects were the same whether or not his followers were convinced fascists. Wolfgang von Weisl, financial director of the New Zionist Organisation, declared in a 1936 interview that “even if there were diverse views among the revisionists, in general they sympathised with fascism” and that “he personally was a supporter of fascism”. Mussolini, rather a specialist in the subject, classified Jabotinsky as a “fascist” during a conversation he held in 1935 with the man who would briefly become the leading figure of the Roman synagogue.
Opposing the class struggle, socialism and economic planning, Jabotinsky argued for the establishment of an economic and social order based on a corporatist framework and the arbitration of labour conflicts by the State. His youthful supporters were organised in a militia, Betar, inaugurated in 1923 and deeply militaristic in ideology as well as structure. After Jabotinsky broke with the Zionist Organisation, these young people were his main political support. In terms of its social base, the revisionists found support among the layer of small and middle bosses who were then beginning to appear among the Jews settled in Palestine: clearly they served their interests, since Betar were several times used by Jewish capitalists to break strikes called by Zionist trade unions. Like all its kind, this militia specialised in pummelling left-wing and socialist trade unionists, such that in October 1934 1,500 working-class activists attacked their head quarters and left dozens injured, firing a shot across their bows. Nevertheless, in the early 1930s the revisionists founded a National Labour Federation, which sought to apply the principles of anti-socialist trade unionism and class collaboration, but its having only 7,000 members – compared with 60,000 in the socialist union federation – showed the lack of sympathy such a programme found among workers.
Jabotinsky proposed an extreme version of Zionism, and what interested him above all was that the majority of the population in Palestine and Transjordan should be comprised of Jews. His more violent and daring followers created a clandestine terrorist organisation in 1931, devoted to armed actions against the Arabs and the British, later adopting the name Irgun (Irgun Z’vai Le’umi, National Military Organisation) most of whose members came from Betar. As a strategy inevitably leading to war with the Arabs it could not count on British support, since it upset the balance of British imperialism in the region, and thus needed the patronage of another power. For their own internal reasons as well as international politics, Jabotinsky and his followers had every reason to look kindly upon Mussolini.
Although the Italian partisans of Jabotinsky’s ideas had begun to organise autonomously in 1925-26, only in 1930 did they have their own publication and only in 1934 did they establish significant relations with the fascist authorities. But they made up for lost time, and at the end of that year the naval academy run by the National Fascist Party in Civitavecchia, not far from Rome, became home to dozens of members of Betar, who participated in the same courses as their Italian colleagues and even had the honour of parading before the Duche. In total 134 Jewish cadets were trained, this collaboration only ending in 1938 when Mussolini decreed new race laws. Jabotinsky tried to string out the relationship, seeking authorisation to establish in Italy a school of instruction where young revisionists could receive military training. Although he did not achieve this, it is wrong to underestimate the important of the cadet training, since these formed the first units of what would become the Israeli navy, ultimately founded thanks to Mussolini.
Zionist collaboration with Nazism during the genocide of the Jews
The ever-more drastic and all-encompassing measures the Nazi authorities took against the Jews, including deciding upon genocide, could only be applied because the Jews were successively divided into groups, the one spared and the other martyred: then those who for a time had benefited were split into two groups, and then again and again until there was no-one left. But the principal division, the only constant, without which the others would have been unworkable and the one which sustained them all, was the division between the mass of Jews and a Zionist elite which collaborated with the Nazi authorities at every stage of the process, right until the end.
This and only this can explain the ease with which the Nazis could progressively exclude Jews from professional life, imprison more and more of them, force them into labour battalions in which they died of exhaustion, and finally embark upon systematic extermination. During the first days of the Nazi regime, the Zionists took the initiative to centralise the Jewish community organisations, previously autonomous in each city, into one body, the Reich’s Deputation of the German Jews (Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland). The justification for this decision was the need for “open discussion” and “fair debate” with the new authorities over the Jewish question. The Zionist obsession with reaching an understanding with the anti-semites was a trap imprisoning all Jews, and when in July 1939 the police took control of the Deputation, making it an Association (Reichsvereinigung) the Nazis now had at their disposal the bureaucratic mechanism which later allowed them to implement the “Final Solution”. In 1941, when the massive deportations to the concentration camps began, the Jewish functionaries of the Association who until then had dealt with the emigration of their co-religionists, took charge of compiling lists of those who would be deported and notifying them of the decision, whereas the Jewish functionaries of the Association’s statistics office kept the Gestapo up to date as to the demographic changes of Jewish communities.
An administrative edict of October 1939 declared that in the Reich and in militarily occupied areas Jewish communities should establish Jewish Councils (Judenräte), whose leaders received ever more powers, often behaving like true autocrats. “The Führerprinzip [leadership principle, whereby all institutions had to have a command hierarchy led by a single leader] attracts many Jews”, Emmanuel Ringelblum commented in October 1940, having come up against such people, and six months later he accused the Council of the Warsaw Ghetto of having “fully adopted the Führerprinzip”. The Nazi authorities stipulated the total numbers of Jews who would have to form unpaid labour brigades and who would be sent to the concentration camps, just as later they would determine how may should be included in each successive wave of the extermination programme. But it was the Jewish Councils who distributed the yellow stars among Jews, starting from the point when it became compulsory to wear this symbol; it was they who organised recruitment for forced labour; it was they who listed the names of those who would be interned in camps and later taken to their collective deaths; it was they who painstakingly compiled inventories of the assets of the victims, helping the relevant Reich bodies sequester and expropriate these; it was they who controlled the greatly powerful, many-tentacled Jewish Police, who helped detain many hundreds of thousands of Jews and lead them marching to the railway stations, where they were taken to the camps, to their deaths. Observing that it would have been possible for the Jewish Councils, rather than consenting to this infamous collaboration, to instead leave the Nazis to pick their victims, Simon Wiesenthal – A Jew who dedicated his life to hunting down those responsible for the genocide – concluded, desolately “Only in exceptional cases did the Jewish Councils prefer suicide to collaboration”.
For such reasons the song of the Warsaw Ghetto, a hymn composed in late 1940, attacked the members of the Council, accusing them of being worse than the Nazis. In April 1943, when the most radical – or simply bravest – survivors decided to put an end to the submissive behaviour which had already seen 85% of the ghetto inhabitants die of hunger, disease or being taken to their deaths, they began by politically isolating the Zionist leadership of the Council. Subsequently, as they moved to take action, the first targets were the collaborators, especially the Jewish Police, further weakening the Council’s power. Only after destroying the network of repression and patronage which had assured the Zionist chiefs control of the Warsaw ghetto could the insurrection break out.
It is wrong to think the Jewish Councils only sustained themselves thanks to their police’s truncheons and the massive force the Nazi authorities put behind them: they were also based, indeed above all, on their influence and patronage. Their members were generally people who had already held prominent roles in the Jewish community, whether by profession or by religious functions, such as rabbis and other people traditionally held in great prestige. Without the political and social conservatism of a large number of Jews it would not have been possible to so easily dominate the whole Jewish population nor massacre them in such great numbers. Simone de Beauvoir explained this question very clearly, “The collaboration of the notables who comprised the Judenräte with the Germans is a well known and easily understandable fact. In every era and in every country, with a few rare exceptions, notables have always collaborated with the conquerors: it is a question of class”.
The Hitlerite strategy consisted of using an elite of Jews to carry out an agenda which sought, ultimately, to exterminate them all. “Wherever Jews lived”, Hannah Arendt sharply observed, “there were Jewish leaders of recognised prestige; and this leaders, almost without exception, co-operated in various ways and for various reasons with the Nazis. The complete truth is that if the Jewish people had been deprived of all organisation and leaders the situation would have been chaotic and there would have been all sorts of suffering, but the total number of victims could hardly have reached the same level of four to six million”. She furthermore accepts the very plausible calculation that while 99% of those persuaded by the Jewish Councils and taken to the camps died, among the fugitives only around half could be found and eliminated.
Zionist fascism in Palestine during the Second World War
In 1939 Jabotinksy incited his followers to form an army to support the British military forces, considering that victory for Hitler would pose the greatest danger to Jewish Palestine. But what kind of situation could push this fascist to decisively break with the fascist camp? By the time of his death in the United States in 1940, Jabotinsky was considerably isolated.
In these circumstances the majority of Irgun members came under the wing of Avraham Stern, or Yair, a radical fascist who adopted a strictly pro-Mussolini and anti-British orientation, trained in techniques of sabotage and insurrection. In 1940 Stern founded a new Irgun, and if this was little-differentiated from its predecessor in name, it distinguished itself with an explosion of attacks and assassinations against the British occupation. Taking this strategy to its extreme, Stern proposed an alliance to the Reich. Even in a long history of contradictions, the missive a representative of Stern handed to a German army secret services agent and a high functionary of the Reich Foreign Ministry in January 1941 can be classified as the most aberrant expression of Zionism. However – or for this reason – it was absolutely logical, because the Zionists had always placed hopes in anti-semitism as a motor driving migration to Palestine. Hitler, the worst anti-semite, could thus be presented as a useful resource for Jewish Palestine. We can read it in this missive, “the ONM [Stern’s majority faction in Irgun], which is not unaware of the good faith demonstrated by the German government and its authorities towards Zionist activity in Germany and to plans for Zionist emigration, considers that (1) There could exist common interests between the establishment of a New Order in Europe, in conformity with Germanic conceptions, and the true national aspirations of the Jewish people, as represented by the ONM; (2) That there is a possibility for cooperation between the new Germany and a rejuvenated national and racial Judaism; and (3) The maintenance and reinforcement of future German power in the Middle East would be aided by the foundation of the historic Jewish State on national and totalitarian bases, linked by treaty to the German Reich”.
The missive continued with the statement that the organisation led by Stern “puts itself forward to play an active role in the war, on the German side”, and concludes, “In ideology as well as in its structure the ONM is very close to the European totalitarian movements. The fighting strength of the ONM will never be paralysed or seriously compromised, whether by the defensive measures of the English administration and the Arabs or by the measures taken by Jewish socialists”. The Nazis refused this proposal and Stern was killed by the British police in early 1942: but the story did not finish there.
Genesis of the current political forces of the State of Israel
More than half a century later, the cleavage which separates the two great camps of Israeli politics continues the old opposition between the two wings of Zionism. The Labour Party continues the majoritarian tendency, with its own social-democratic-type character, whereas Likud is the successor of the fascist tradition. The first Likud head of government, Menachem Begin, Prime Minister between 1977 and 1983, was in his youth one of the leaders of the revisionist youth militias, and although he remained loyal to Jabotinsky he went far beyond his master’s attitudes to terrorism and supported the ideologically most radical forces. Jabotinsky named him chief of Irgun in 1939, launching violent attacks against the British. In 1948, together with representatives of the fascist wing of revisionism, Begin founded the Freedom Party, which assured the old Zionist far-right a new place in the political life of the State of Israel. Not long afterwards various pre-eminent Jewish figures, including Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt, published a letter in the New York Times, writing “One of the most disturbing political phenomena of our time is the creation of the Freedom Party in the recently created State of Israel, a political party which in its organisational form, methods, political philosophy and social base has a very close resemblance to the Nazi and fascist parties. It owes its formation to members and followers of the former Irgun Z’vai Le’umi, a right-wing and xenophobic terrorist organisation”. But neither this protest nor the many others impeded the rise of the old revisionists.
Begin’s successor at the head of the Israeli government, Yitzhak Shamir, was among the members of Irgun who had rallied behind Stern, in protest at Jabotinsky’s decision to build relations with the British during the Second World War. It is hardly believable that Shamir was not aware of Stern’s sinister contacts with the Nazis, given that he occupied a sufficiently important position as to belong to the triumvirate who reconstituted the organisation a few months after the killing of its leader.
But if the current political divide in the State of Israel has its roots in the period before the Second World War, the agreements between the main parties also share the same origins. Without the fascistophilia displayed the majoritarian tendency in Zionism it would be difficult to understand the Labour Party’s adoption of Jabotinsky’s proposed strategy as regards the Arabs. The convergence of the two great political camps over this fundamental question is the product of the era when Mussolini gave an audience to Weizmann and at the same time subsidised Jabotinsky. Ultimately, the Labour Party implemented the fascist project. The recent aggression against the international flotilla which sought to break the blockade imposed on Gaza is just one example in a long series, which here I have attempted to place in a historical context. But this is not the most important lesson.
Can the reader see where I am going?
It is not only in the case of Jews that among the persecuted there can be created a nationalist reaction which, finding favourable opportunities for development, is converted into an imperialism of its own. This is a trap which nationalism drags the whole left into, all those who support nationalism when it appears to be the defence of the oppressed, without seeing that if it managed to succeed in practice, this nationalism would end up revealing itself to be another imperialism. My summary is that those ideological currents who once supported the Zionist nationalism of Jews, with the argument that they were persecuted by the Nazis, would today support Arab nationalism on the basis that the Palestinians are persecuted by Israel – but who will they support tomorrow, and on what basis?
The great lesson to take from the genesis and development of Zionism must not limit itself to a critique of the State of Israel. To this we must add a critique of all nationalisms which, justifying themselves with progressive arguments, convert themselves into imperialisms as soon as they can. Zionism, as a means of passage from the oppression suffered by Jews to the aggression of the State of Israel, shows that the struggle against the oppression a people suffered must be inseparable from struggle against the exploitation suffered by that people’s working class. The Palestinian people has to defend itself against Palestinian aggression, but this does not mean that Palestinian workers do not have to defend themselves from their bosses, whether Israeli or Arab, or that Palestinian women do not have to defend themselves against the patriarchal oppression which has so imbued Islamic tradition.
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Hannah ARENDT (1994) Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Bernard AVISHAI (1985) The Tragedy of Zionism. Revolution and Democracy in the Land of Israel, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Simone de BEAUVOIR ‘Preface’, in Jean-François Steiner, Treblinka. A Revolta de um Campo de Extermínio, Lisbon: Bertrand.
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4 thoughts on “from persecuted to persecutors: the lessons of zionism”
Fantastic article (essay?!). A lot to take in, but brilliant to read. This was clearly a thoroughly researched piece work; rich in analysis and was tackled with sensitivity. I couldn’t agree more with the conclusion – it is a shame (to use an understatement) that hatred over the oppression of a people can easily be utilised by nationalists and patriots as a force which, working under the guise of a protecter and defender of the affected peoples, soon becomes the oppressor. Every action has a reaction, this is a dispondent fact, but a fact none the less.
I’m not an expert about this topic by any means. However I think in some places, perhaps the article oversimplifies things. For example: “Only after destroying the network of repression and patronage which had assured the Zionist chiefs control of the Warsaw ghetto could the insurrection break out.” However while I’m sure that many collaborators were Zionists so were many resistance figures. For example, Mordechai Anielewicz was commander of the ZOB at the start of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. He was a Zionist, as were many of the rank-and-file – probably more than were Bundists. In fact, the Bund only joined the fighting organisation in October 1942, it was set up in July. I agree with the general thrust of the article, and all of its conclusions, but perhaps it is somewhat one-sided on Zionism as a concrete movement. It didn’t only include cowards and proto-fascists.
The Irgun represented about 5-10% of the Zionist Movement in 1940s. The Stern Gang, was about 50 people.
The Left-Zionists who opposed a Jewish State and against building on arab land got 20% in the elections too.
Mentioning mostly Irgun and Stern gang in Zionism is like only talking about BNP in article about british politics.
That’s a really lame defence of Zionism, since what the article demonstrates is the utterly reactionary character of Jewish ‘separateness’ across the Israeli political divide
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