Excerpted from Israeli Exceptionalism (Palgrave: 2009).
by M. Shahid Alam
“My God! Is this the end? Is this the goal for which our fathers
have striven and for whose sake all generations have suffered?
Is this the dream of a return to Zion which our people have
dreamt for centuries: that we now come to Zion to stain its soil
with innocent blood?”
Ahad Ha’am, 1921
This study has employed a dialectical framework for analyzing the destabilizing logic of Zionism. We have examined this logic as it has unfolded through time, driven by the vision of an exclusionary colonialism, drawing into its circuit – aligned with it and against it – nations, peoples, forces, and civilizations whose actions and interactions impinge on the trajectory of Zionism, and, in turn, who are changed by this trajectory.
It would be a bit simplistic to examine the field of interactions among the different actors in this historic drama on the essentialist assumption that these actors and their interests are unchanging. Instead, we need to explore the complex ways in which the Zionists have worked – and, often have succeeded – to alter the behavior of the other political actors in this drama: and, how, in turn, the Zionists respond to these changes. Most importantly, we need to explore all the ways in which the Zionists have succeeded in mobilizing the resources of the United States and other Western powers to serve their specific objectives.
Consider a list of the political actors who have had more than a passing connection to the Zionist project and, who, at one time or another, have affected or have been affected by this project. First, there are the different Zionist factions, the Jewish diaspora and, later, the state of Israel. These entities are overlapping, with the degrees of overlap between any two of them changing over time. The second set of actors consists of Western powers – especially, the United States, Britain, and France – the Christian Zionists especially in the United States, the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe. Finally, there are actors who are the direct and indirect victims of the Zionist project, those who have paid the costs of Zionist success. They form four concentric circles around Israel, including the Palestinians, the Arabs, the Middle East, and the Islamicate. These three sets of actors make up the dramatis personae in the unfolding tragedy of the Zionist project.
Clearly, the number of actors involved, their variety, and, not least, the multilayered power commanded by the Zionists and their allies would indicate that Zionism is no sideshow. Directly, it has involved much of the Western world, on one side, and the global Islamicate on the other side, who will soon make up one-fourth of the world’s population.
Many white settlers established colonies in Africa during the nineteenth century. In Palestine, the Jews established the only white settler colony to be established in the Middle East – or for that matter, anywhere in Asia. Of all these colonial settler projects, only the Jewish settlers in Palestine have endured. In 1948, only three decades after they gained British backing for their project, the Jewish colons created their own state, Israel, which, almost overnight, became the dominant power in the region, capable of defeating any combination of the military forces of the neighboring states. Within two decades of its founding, the ‘tiny’ Jewish state had also acquired an arsenal of nuclear weapons, the only country in the region with such weapons of mass extermination. In recent decades, militarily, Israel has ranked behind only three other countries, the United States, Russia, and China. In addition, Israel has forged a special relationship with the United States, which finances its military, arms it, and shields the country from the sanction of international laws, leaving it free to expand its colonial project, and threaten and attack its neighbors at will. After September 11, Israel and its allies were a major—if not decisive—factor in pushing the United States to invade and occupy Iraq. For several years now, they have been itching to instigate the United States into a war against Iran.
How did the Zionists manage to do all this?
In part, the answer to this question lies in taking a measure of the forces that underpin Israel’s capacity to endure. Had the French colons survived in Algeria, had they partitioned the country to create a white colonial settler state along the Mediterranean coast, like Israel, this settler state too would be armed to the teeth, backed by a special relationship with France, and perpetually at war with Algerian refugees and with its Arab/African neighbors. In 1960, David Ben-Gurion had urged Charles De Gaulle, the French president, to create a colonial settler state in Algeria in the rich agricultural areas along the Mediterranean coast. In the Algerian civil war, Israel had supported the faction within the Organisation Armée Secrete (OAS), the underground militant organization of the colons in Algeria, which wanted to partition Algeria. Had it gone through, the partition would have prolonged the conflict in Algeria, created an Israeli twin in North Africa, and deepened the bond between France and Israel. Unluckily for Israel, de Gaulle firmly rejected partition. He was convinced that French rule could not be maintained in Algeria and conceded independence to the Algerians.
How did the Jewish colons in Palestine succeed in creating an exclusionary colonial settler state in the middle of the twentieth century, and continue to grow with support from a surrogate mother country, while the French colons in Algeria, the Italians in Libya or the British colons in Kenya had to give up their colonial projects?
The answer to this question is simple. The white colons in Algeria, Libya, or Kenya simply did not have enough influence over the mother country—over France, Italy, and Britain—to overrule what the elites in the mother country had decided was in their interest: to pull out of their colonies. The Jewish colons in Palestine had more power than the white colons in Algeria, Libya, and Kenya. Where did their power come from?
The success of Jewish colons in Palestine and the failure of the colons in Algeria, Libya, or Kenya is a paradox. The French, Italian, and British settlers had a natural mother country, a country of origin, with whose people they shared an ethnic bond. The Jewish colons in Palestine did not have a natural mother country, a powerful Jewish state to support their colonial project. Yet, their colonizing project succeeded, and they drove out the Palestinians to create a nearly pure Jewish state in Palestine. The Jewish colons did not pull off this feat on their own; they succeeded because of their ability to recruit the greatest Western powers, and many others besides, to support their colonial project. Somehow, the Zionists turned what could well have been a fatal deficiency for their colonial project – the absence of a natural mother country – into their greatest asset. They gained the freedom to pick and choose their mother country.
How did the Zionists bring this about? The Jews were not a majority in any country, but there existed a Jewish minority in nearly every Western country. In itself, the presence of Jewish minorities could not have been a source of strength; a weak Jewish minority in any country could do little to help their coreligionists in another country. What made the Jewish minorities different was that they carried a weight that far outweighed their numbers. Over the course of the nineteenth century, they had become an important, often vital, part of the financial, industrial, commercial, and intellectual elites in several of the most important Western countries, including Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States. Moreover, the most prominent members of these elites had cultivated ties with each other across national boundaries.
Once these Jewish elites, spread across the key Western countries, had decided to support the Zionist project, they would become a force in global politics. On the one hand, this would tempt the great powers to support Zionism, if this could buy them the help of the Jewish communities, based in a rival or friendly power, to push their host country in a desirable direction. Conversely, once the Zionists recognized this tendency, they too would seek to win support for their cause by offering the support of Jewish communities in key Western countries. It would be in their interest to exaggerate the results that Jewish communities in this or that country might be able to deliver. During periods of intense conflicts – such as World War I – when the fate of nations hung in the balance, the competition for Zionist support became more intense than ever. This placed the Zionists in a strong position to trade their favors for the commitment of the great powers to their goals. In September 1917, this competition persuaded Britain, at a difficult moment in the execution of its war, to throw its support behind the Zionist project.
The Zionists continue to market their colonial project as a haven for Jews, fleeing anti-Semitic persecution. This is misleading. Overwhelmingly, Jews fleeing persecution in Europe have stayed away from this ‘haven’ when alternatives were available. On the contrary, the Zionists were counting on support from the anti-Semites to propel their nationalist-cum-colonial project. They were counting on anti-Semitic persecution to send Jewish colons to Palestine; and they were counting on the European anti-Semite’s desire to be rid of Jews to recruit Western powers to support their colonial project in Palestine. Zionism was primarily a nationalist movement, whose origins predated the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the late nineteenth century. Even then, most Jews sought to combat anti-Semitism through assimilation, Jewish autonomism, and socialist revolutions. When forced to emigrate, they overwhelmingly preferred destinations outside Palestine. The fortunes of Zionism improved only when most Western countries closed their doors to Jewish immigrants. When these doors were closing in the early 1900s, it was little opposed by the Jewish diaspora, whose leadership now identified increasingly with Zionist goals. Little pressure too was applied to reopen these doors before the 1960s.
The Zionists have received support, since the launching of their movement, from the dominant Protestant segment of Christianity, whose theology reinstated the Jews to their covenant with God. As a result, a few Protestants began calling for the ‘restoration’ of Jews to Palestine in the seventeenth century; at the time, Jews looked upon these proposals with deep suspicion. Since the nineteenth century, a new group of evangelical Christians began to support the ‘restoration’ of Jews, because they believed this was a necessary prelude to the Second Coming. From its home in Britain, this movement spread to the United States, where, in recent decades, cheered by Israeli victories, it has become an important source of support for Zionism in the United States.
In no small measure, the success of the Zionist colonial project was magnified by the weakness of the Arabs in the Middle East. Unlike Algerians in the nineteenth century or Libyans between the two World Wars, the Palestinians were slow in resisting Jewish colonization – the first serious resistance was mounted in 1936 – and, once beaten, in 1939, they could not reorganize for more than two decades. More fatefully, the Jewish colonization of Palestine did not evoke a response in the larger Arab/Islamicate world that was commensurate with the scale of the Zionist threat to the Islamicate. This period is marked by the absence of any concerted efforts in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, or the Arabian Peninsula to resist Jewish colonization before it would become undefeatable. The Arab nationalists began to stir when it was too late, after Israel had established itself and soon would be in a position to smash them before they could build their strength.
Anxious to conceal the power of the Jewish lobby, Zionists often argue that the Western powers supported Zionism only because the Jewish state served their strategic interests in the Middle East. We have shown that Zionism was in conflict with the long-term interests of Britain and the United States. Exigencies of war and the presence of a strong contingency of Christian Zionists in the cabinet of Lloyd George explain British support for the Balfour Declaration in 1917. On the other hand, the strong U.S. support in 1948 for the partition of Palestine – and later – was the product of a domestic Jewish lobby.
In the 1940s – and even later – the United States commanded considerable goodwill in the Arab world. The populist movements in the Arab world directed their anticolonial animus against the British and the French, not the Americans. In addition, the Arab dynasties and petit bourgeoisie, who expected to gain power after the departure of the colonial rulers, would have been quite happy to work with their former rulers and the United States. Arab and local nationalisms—weakly founded, in any case – had no radical thrust. It takes little prescience to see that the insertion of Israel in the Middle East – far from serving Western strategic interests – was certain to create threats to these interests, where none existed before. Nor was this prescience lacking in Washington. The officials at the State and Defense Departments saw this clearly, but they were overruled by the exigencies of presidential politics.
Once created, however, Israel had the resources to create and entrench the perception that it is a strategic asset, that it defends the vital interests of Western powers in the Middle East. The creation of a Jewish colonial settler state in the Arab world – one that would have to engage in massive ethnic cleansing – was the perfect incitement for starting a rising spiral of anger against Israel’s Western backers, chiefly, the United States. Arab anger over Israel, exacerbated by Israel’s truculent policies, would continue to fuel Arab nationalism and push it in a radical, anti-Western direction. Even so, the United States persisted in its doomed efforts, during the 1950s, to bring about peace between the Arabs and Israel. Israel would ensure that these efforts would not succeed, forcing the Arab nationalist states to turn to the Soviet Union. Inevitably, at this stage, Washington would see radicalized Arab nationalism as a threat to its interests in the Middle East. The first circle was complete. Israel had manufactured the threats that would make it look like a strategic asset. In a preemptive strike in June 1967, Israel confirmed this by defeating Egypt and Syria, the two leading Arab nationalist states.
Once this paradigm was in place, Israel and its Jewish allies in the United States worked hard to ensure that it stayed in place. Jewish Zionists in the United States, working both inside and outside the Jewish community, worked to whittle down the ability of the American political system to take any positions contrary to the interests of Israel. In the aftermath of the victory in the June War, and Israel’s new policy of expanding its frontiers to incorporate the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights, a new, more aggressively pro-Israel cadre of Jews took over the leadership of the mainstream Jewish organizations in the United States. They worked to suppress dissent within the Jewish community, used campaign contributions to elect the strongest pro-Israeli candidates to the Congress, and maintained discipline inside the Congress by punishing dissenters at the next election. They cultivated the Christian Zionists, who were being energized by Israeli successes. At the same time, pro-Israeli think tanks produced hundreds of position papers, journal articles, magazines, reports, and books, resurrecting atavistic fears of a dangerous, resurgent, anti-Western Islam that was the greatest threat to the power of the United States.
The secret of Zionist success, then, lies in the manner in which it overcame the chief flaw in its design: it did not have a natural mother country to support its colonial project. By winning over the Jews in the Western diaspora, and galvanizing them to use their wealth, intellect, and activism to promote Zionist causes, the Zionists succeeded in substituting the West for the missing natural mother country. Over time, nearly every major Western country (including the Soviet Union) has offered critical help in the creation, survival and success of Israel. Most importantly, the two greatest Western powers, Britain and the United States, successively, have placed their military might squarely behind the Zionist project despite the damage that this inflicted on their vital interests in the Middle East.
The United States has already paid dearly for its pro-Zionist policies since 1948. Over time, these costs would include the hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to Israel and its Arab allies, the alienation of the Arab world, an oil embargo, higher oil prices, the rise of Islamic radicalism, and several close confrontations with the Soviet Union in the Middle East. After September 11, 2001, under strong pressure from Israel – working in league with their neoconservatives allies – the United States launched a costly but unnecessary war against Iraq. In turn, this war galvanized the Islamist radicals, giving them a new theater where they could engage the United States. The United States has financed this war – and the war in Afghanistan – by borrowing from China and the oil-rich Arabs. We must also add two other consequences of the Iraq War to the debit in America’s Israeli account: the rise of Iran and the growing challenge to U.S. hegemony in Latin America.
The costs that the United States – and the rest of the Western world – might incur in the future are likely to be much greater. We can only speculate about these costs, or when they will come due. The repressive, pro-American regimes in the Arab world are not sustainable. When these unpopular regimes begin to fall, and are replaced by Islamist governments, it may become difficult for the United States to maintain its presence in the region. Indeed, it is likely that the United States itself or Israel might trigger this outcome with an attack on Iran. In the opinion of some, this is an accident waiting to happen.
Should Israel wither away, the United States will bear much of the collateral damage of this collapse. The withering of the Jewish state could occur due to international pressures against its apartheid regime, a slow loss of nerve as Jewish settlers lose their ‘demographic war’ with the Palestinians, or loss of deterrence as Israel continues to engage in failed attempts to destroy the Hizbullah and Hamas. Israel and the United States have been joined at the hip for many years. In America’s public discourse, the two have become more and more like each other: they are two exceptional societies, marked by destiny, chosen by God, created by brave pioneers, who have shaped and continue to shape their common destiny through territorial expansion and ethnic cleansing. Should the Jewish state wither away, its much larger twin may begin to wobble.
Some consequences of the withering away of Israel might be easy to predict. Over the past century, the successes of the Zionist movement have galvanized many American Jews and Zionist Christians; they will now be disillusioned, in despair, confused, and angry. Probably, most Israeli Jews will want to migrate to the United States, which most Americans will be loath to refuse. Yet, this will give rise to frictions between some sections of Gentiles and Jews and may give rise to pockets of anti-Semitism. Tensions will also rise between Jews and Muslims in the United States. The disillusioned Christian Zionists too may seek to scapegoat all peoples of color, but especially Arab-Americans and Muslims. In all likelihood, the United States will experience growing conflicts among different sections of its population; there will be more racism, hate crimes, and, perhaps, worse. None of this will be good for America’s image as a great country.
Although the domestic fallout of the withering of the Israeli state will be serious, the more serious losses for the United States will flow from the erosion of its control over the oil-rich states in the Persian Gulf. It would be foolhardy to predict the contours of the new map that will eventually emerge in the Middle East and the Islamicate. Whatever new structures emerge, these transformations are likely to be violent. On the one hand, the fragmentation imposed on the Islamicate has created local interests that will seek to maintain the status quo. These local interests now will confront Islamist movements that seek to create more integrated structures across the Islamicate. These conflicts will be deeply destabilizing, as India, China, Europe and Russia may choose sides, each eager to replace the United States. Once the U.S.-Israeli straitjacket over the region has been loosened, it will not be easy to fashion a new one made in Moscow, Beijing, Brussels or New Delhi. The Islamicate world today is not what it was during World War I. It is noticeably less inclined to let foreigners draw their maps for them.
M. Shahid Alam is professor of Economics at Northeastern University, Boston. He is author of Challenging the New Orientalism (IPI: 2007). You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website – http://qreason.com.