To understand Zionism, we must listen to the voices of its victims

Prime Minister David Ben Gurion visits the agricultural settlement of Be'er Ora, north of Eilat, June 13, 1957. Photo: Moshe Pridan/GPO

JVL Introduction

Alon Confino and Amos Goldberg, authors of this essay, are both experts in the field of Holocaust studies.

The story of Zionism, they argue, involves a double narrative. Explaining “why Jews fleeing antisemitism and discrimination in Europe immigrated to Palestine, while at the same time telling the story of the consequences of this act for Palestinians over the past century”

As Israel moves towards annexation of parts of the West Bank, they argue with conviction that Palestinian voices must be brought into the conversation:

“Listening to them and being accountable to them, “ they say, “ makes us more, not less, Jewish. It makes all of us more, not less, human.”

This article was originally published by +972 Magazine on Wed 3 Jun 2020. Read the original here.

To understand Zionism, we must listen to the voices of its victims

The debate on antisemitism often ignores Zionism’s settler colonial features and exceptionalizes Israel. Challenging that discourse is not antisemitic.

Last month, Felix Klein, Germany’s Commissioner for the Fight against Antisemitism, accused the eminent Cameroonian historian and philosopher Achille Mbembe of antisemitism. Along with other groups and figures, Klein attempted to bar Mbembe from delivering an opening talk at a major festival in Germany, sparking a fierce public debate.

As Mairav Zonszein reported in +972, Klein’s accusation was based on Mbembe’s comparison between Israeli policies toward the Palestinians and the apartheid regime in South Africa, as well as his comparative approach to studying the Holocaust, which his accusers claimed amounted to trivializing the genocide.

The affair has revealed the ways in which the discourse on the relationship between postcolonial studies and the study of antisemitism is both important and in need of development.

One of the criticisms voiced against Mbembe was that postcolonial analysis tends to ignore the unique aspects of antisemitism compared to other forms of racism. Yet this argument ignores the other side of the equation: that the contemporary discourse on antisemitism ignores the colonial aspects of Israel and Zionism, and produces an exceptionalist view of antisemitism and Israel as entities unto themselves in an isolated history.

It was not uncommon for Jews to recognize as early as the 1920s and 1930s that Arab resistance to the Zionist movement, and later Israel, did not derive from antisemitism but rather from their opposition to the colonization of Palestine. For example, the Zionist leader and founder of the Revisionist movement, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, recognized Zionism’s colonial features and offered an honest explanation of the Palestinians’ motivations for rejecting it.

“My readers have a general idea of the history of colonization in other countries,” Jabotinsky wrote in his 1923 essay “The Iron Wall.” “I suggest that they consider all the precedents with which they are acquainted, and see whether there is one solitary instance of any colonization being carried on with the consent of the native population. There is no such precedent. The native populations […] have always stubbornly resisted the colonists.”

Palestinian Arab militia members, next to a burnt truck on their way to Jerusalem, circa 1948. Palmach Photo Gallery: Wikimedia Commons)

Haim Kaplan, a devoted Zionist from Warsaw, wrote in his diary in the same spirit in 1936. Reflecting on the Great Arab Revolt in Palestine, where his two children lived at the time, Kaplan observed that the talk of a renewed Arab antisemitism was little more than Zionist propaganda. From their perspective, the Arabs were right: Zionism dispelled them from their land, and the movement’s adherents should be regarded as the side that waged war on the local population.

Despite these assessments, figures like Jabotinsky and Kaplan still had their reasons for justifying Zionism. In many countries today, including Israel, their critical observations of the movement would have been denounced as antisemitic. But they were right.

Robust scholarship has shown that Zionism has featured settler colonial elements. Zionists sought to build an overseas community, bounded by ties of identity and a shared past, in a land they viewed as empty or inhabited by natives that they regarded as less civilized than themselves. They wanted not so much to govern or exploit the natives, but to replace them as a political community. A key question that many historians are debating is how dominant settler colonialism has been compared to Zionism’s other characteristics.

Approaching Zionism as one settler colonial movement among others does not necessarily negate the pursuit of justice embedded in Zionism, in which the Jews deserve a homeland of their own in the modern world. It also does not necessarily deny Israel’s “right to exist,” just as the recognition of the United States, Canada, and Australia as settler colonial states does not negate their right to exist.

It does, however, make Zionism’s duality clear: it is both a national movement designed to provide a sovereign haven for Jews fleeing antisemitism, and where Holocaust survivors could rebuild their lives; and it is a settler colonial project that has created a hierarchical relationship between Jews and Palestinians based on segregation and discrimination.

llustrative photo of kibbutz ceremony, July 1951. (פוטו ארדה)

The settler colonial prism is valid for understanding other historical cases in the world, and there is no reason not to debate — even when the discussion gets emotional — the case of Israel-Palestine along these lines, including the concept of apartheid.

Understanding Zionism means embracing the complexity of two narratives that seem irreconcilable, but are in fact complementary: to tell the story of the reasons why Jews fleeing antisemitism and discrimination in Europe immigrated to Palestine, while at the same time telling the story of the consequences of this act for Palestinians over the past century.

The Palestinian intellectual Raef Zreik described this duality poetically: “Zionism is a settler-colonial project, but not only that. It combines the image of the refugee with the image of the soldier, the powerless with the powerful, the victim with the victimizer, the colonizer with the colonized, a settler project and a national project at the same time. The Europeans see the back of the Jewish refugee fleeing for his life. The Palestinian sees the face of the settler colonialist taking over his land.”

In the same vein, understanding antisemitism also means embracing its complexity: Jews today are victims (or potential victims) of antisemitism in many parts of the world, sometimes under the guise of anti-Israel or anti-Zionist speech, and at the same time, Israel is a powerful state, a wrongdoer, and an occupier. Jews, like all human beings, can be both victims and victimizers.

This does not diminish Jews. Rather, it bestows on them a double responsibility: to fight antisemitism worldwide while, as Israelis, to bear responsibility for crimes against the Palestinians.

Politically, therefore, any discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that confers full political, national, civil, and human rights to all the inhabitants between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea — whether in the form of one state, two states, or a binational federation — should be welcomed and not deemed antisemitic.

Palestinian citizens take part in a protest against the Jewish Nation-State Law, central Tel Aviv, August 12, 2018. Photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org

Germany has been in the last two generations — despite its shortcomings and complex postwar history — a model of coming to terms with its past. We now wonder whether this road has reached a dead-end that requires careful rethinking. The situation in Germany today is absurd. Any harsh critique of Israel’s occupation or its policies is deemed antisemitic. Is this really a lesson Germans want to draw from the Holocaust? That Jews can do no wrong? This kind of philosemitism is disturbing.

As scholars of the Holocaust, one of the things our research has taught us is the importance of listening to the victims’ voices. This sensibility, from the Eichmann Trial to Saul Friedlander’s books on the Holocaust, reflected the general public’s and scholarly recognition of the value of incorporating the voices of victims into the historical narrative. A similar moral demand was posed by Gayatri Spivak in the field of postcolonial studies when she asked: “Can the subaltern speak?” Stemming from the Holocaust and from the experience of European colonialism, listening to these voices has been acknowledged as a universal moral imperative beyond the Holocaust.

Who are the subalterns and who are the victims in this case? From the perspective of the Holocaust and antisemitism, they are Jews, but from the perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they are Palestinians, whose voices therefore demand great attention.

It was Palestinians who identified early on the colonial features of Zionism. They contested the claim that the local Arab population voluntarily left in 1948, documenting that they were in fact expelled during what they describe as the Nakba. They are today witnesses to the Israeli occupation: the plunder of land, the establishment of settlements, the killing of innocents, the demolition of houses, and more. They are seeing the shattering of any possibility of an independent Palestinian state as Israel prepares to formally annex large parts of the West Bank.

We ought to listen to these voices. Not because they are always right (who is?), and even if they are heated (the occupied have a right to be angry), but because we have an obligation to listen to witnesses of injustice. These voices are part of the conversation and cannot be reflexively dubbed antisemitic. Listening to them and being accountable to them makes us more, not less, Jewish. It makes all of us more, not less, human.


Alon Confino is Pen Tishkach Chair of Holocaust Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His most recent book is “A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide.”

Amos Goldberg is a professor of Holocaust History. His most recent books are “Trauma in First Person: Diary Writing during the Holocaust” and a co-edited book with Bashir Bashir, “The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History.”

Comments (15)

  • Harry Matwetwe ( Soweto ) says:

    A balanced and scholarly analysis of Zionism devoid of the rhetoric of hatred usually associated with JVL commentators on this vexed history.

  • RH says:

    The key underlying issue is that of exceptionalism – something that is liable to afflict all cultural and religious groups. It forms the basis of all prejudice and the oppression that flows from it – including the exaggerated ‘philosemitism’ identified in Germany by the authors.

    A sense of a common egalitarian humanity, not just victimhood and denial is the only remedy. This has to be linked to a practical expression that starts from the reality of ‘Now’ rather the righteousness of historical narratives, whether based in a former reality or framing mythology.

  • Richard Kuper says:

    Perhaps Harry Matwetwe can give examples of this “rhetoric of hatred” he claims to see from JVL commentators. Yes, many express a strong condemnation for the violent actions – including crimes against humanity – for which IDF troops are responsible, as well as for the Zionist dispossession of the Palestinian people. Are you saying, for example, that this isn’t continuing to happen? Is it a “rhetoric of hatred” to deplore it?

  • RC says:

    Confino, Goldberg and Zreik merchandise ‘perspectives’ regardless of their truth. Jews throughout the world have no moral right to emigrate to Israel, especially not on the basis of ‘justice’ for the Jewish people – or rather peoples.The rights of the Hebrew people in Israel are a different matter. It is the Palestinian expellees and their descendants who have the moral right to return to their ancestral homes. European guilt at the holocaust contributes nothing to understanding of the racist Israeli state – their ‘perspective’ is merely a propaganda asset assiduously used by Zionist propagandists – quite cynically in many cases such as Ben Gurion. What guilt did Balfour, supporter of the antisemitic 1905 Aliens Act, feel for the holocaust – or indeed antisemitism in general? And yet he was, if anyone was, the main initiator of the project of dispossessing and expelling the Palestinians – and both he and Churchill boasted about the irresponsibility and immorality of the policy. What moral value do their ‘perspectives’ have, any more than Eichmann’s boast of having consigned five million ‘enemies of the German people’ to the grave?

  • David Hawkins says:

    “One of the criticisms voiced against Mbembe was that postcolonial analysis tends to ignore the unique aspects of antisemitism compared to other forms of racism.”
    Socialists and people of good will aught to resist the segmentation of racism. While of course racism against different groups have different characteristics and we should always listen to victims, racism is racism and is ideologically interconnected. I also believe that we aught to passionately assert that all human life is equally valuable. It was the Nazis that believed that some human lives were valuable whereas other human lives were so much trash and the Shoah should have taught us to to utterly reject that. The Nazis treated Jews and the Roma equally brutally so why did it take Germany until 1982 to fully recognise their crimes against the Roma ?
    The fragmentation of racism produces the situation where Margaret Hodge can sign up a petition supporting Black Lives Matter. Do you also think Palestinian Lives Matter Margaret ? If so perhaps you could be a bit more vocal in your support for Israel removing it’s knee from Palestinian necks.

  • Benny Ross says:

    Thank you for this thoughtfully written and balanced account! Among the hundreds of angry voices, I treasure this appeal for listening and understanding as the precondition for dialogue.

  • ‘Zionism’s duality clear: it is both a national movement designed to provide a sovereign haven for Jews fleeing antisemitism, and where Holocaust survivors could rebuild their lives; and it is a settler colonial project that has created a hierarchical relationship between Jews and Palestinians based on segregation and discrimination.’

    I completely disagree with this thesis. Zionism isn’t and never did have a duality. It’s simply not true and the author mistakes myth and rhetoric for reality. Zionism always was a settler colonial movement. It was NOT a refugee movement.

    Indeed the Zionist leadership during the holocaust and immediately b4 went out of their way to war that Zionism was not a refugeeist movement. By that they meant supporting the emigration of refugees to any country that would have them.

    The appalling memo from Ben Gurion to the Mapai Central Committee in the wake of Krystalnacht and the British acceptance of the Kindertransport is well known, not least from Shabtai Teveth’s biography:
    ‘If I knew that it would be possible to save all the children in Germany by bringing them over to England, and only half of them by transporting them to Eretz Yisrael, then I would opt for the second alternative. For we must weigh not only the life of these children, but also the history of the People of Israel.’

    However Teveth goes on to quote Ben Gurion as saying that where there was ‘a conflict of interest between saving individual Jews and the good of the Zionist enterprise, we shall say that the enterprise comes first.’

    This was ALWAYS the policy of the official Zionist movement. That and only that explains Haavara, the trade agreement between the Zionist Organisation and the Nazi state.

    It is totally untrue this romantic fog about how Israel was ‘designed to provide a sovereign haven for Jews fleeing antisemitism, and where Holocaust survivors could rebuild their lives’. Simply and utterly untrue. When the only neo-Nazi regime in the post-war world, in Argentina under the Junta between 1976 and 1983 ruled, Israel turned down anyone the Junta defined as subversive.

    Despite all the rubbish talked about antisemitism in the Labour Party the Knesset authorities refused to even discuss a situation where up to 3,000 Jews were tortured to death. The priorities of the Israeli state, the anti-Communist Condor Alliance in South America and its lucrative arms trade took priority.

    As it happens holocaust survivors were NOT made welcome in Israel post-45. The Jewish Agency certainly sought to ensure that Displaced Persons only went to what became Israel but that was because Israel needed manpower, not least men to fill the armed forces.

    Some 1/3 of those who died in the War of Independence were holocaust survivors.

    The reality, which the authors clearly don’t accept, was that the Zionist movement, using all the religious and racial myths they could summon, were intent on building a Jewish Racial State in Palestine. That explains the obsession with demographic purity, the refusal to allow Israeli Palestinians to marry anyone from the Occupied Territories and much more.

    People should also get out of their head that Zionism was a solution to persecution.

    When Hitler came to power Jews everywhere were horrified and reached for the Boycott. With the exception of the Zionist leadership (and I mean leaders not the rank and file). Berl Katznelson, Ben Gurion’s deputy and the editor of Davar, was of the opinion that this was ‘“an opportunity to build and flourish like none we have ever had or ever will have”.

    You can find this quote in Francis Nicosia’s ‘Zionism and Nazi Germany’ p.91. Nicosia for those who don’t know is the Raul Hilberg Professor Holocaust Studies at Vermont University. He is no anti-Zionist. Similar quotations could be culled from Ben Gurion too.

    This ‘duality’ nonsense seeks to suggest that Zionism has a good as well as a bad side. I disagree. Zionism is without any merit.

  • Just one additional point to my previous comment. If Zionism displayed a dualism it was between diaspora Zionism and Palestinian Zionism. Never in Palestine. Thus there grew a major cleavage between Polish Zionism pre-war and Palestinian Zionism which resulted in Poale Zion splitting in two with Left PZ much the stronger. As the fight against antisemitism grew in Poland so Zionism weakened.

    Without Palestine Zionism would have been just one more false messiah but the alliance with imperialism meant that it took on all the features we see today

  • Dee Howard says:

    Unfortunately it seems to be ‘The bullied become the bullies’. The Labour Party openly opposed the apartheid regime in South Africa and yet when it comes to opposition of the apartheid regime in Israel/Palestine members are suspended and expelled from the party, accused of anti-Semitism. Nobody should have to fear for their lives, for their homes being taken, not being able to decide on their futures because they don’t have a vote. It is wrong, whoever is the victim or perpetrator.

  • Ezra Kaplan says:

    My Bobba who was exiled from Judea in 586BCE gave me a key to her house in Jerusalem.
    I will therefore be claiming my right of return to Judea next week!!

  • Richard Kuper says:

    To Ezra Kaplan. No need to be snarky. You don’t need a key to your Bobba’s house to be able to claim your right of return to “Judea”. You have that “right” already as a result of Israel’s expansionist policies.

  • Susan Joffe says:

    Ezra’s Bobba lived in West Jerusalem so Richard Kuper’s response is typical of his biased and dogmatic agenda

  • Joyce Lorimer says:

    Hi Richard Kuper you sound like the typical dour, humourless jargon laden leftist, dogmatic and holier than us mortals.

  • Richard Kuper says:

    To Susan Joffe and Ezra Kaplan: The only Jerusalem that existed at the time would have been the Old City which is now part of East Jerusalem.
    And, thinking about it, why didn’t Ezra’s Bobba return in 539 BCE like other exiled Judeans instead of leaving it to poor Ezra in 2020?

    To Joyce Lorimer: I’ll match you Jewish joke for Jewish joke anytime!

  • Gary Martin says:

    Mr Kuper your comment that you would “ match them Jewish joke for Jewish joke” is a parochial and sectarian view which betrays your so called universal beliefs

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