In the early years of the 20th century, once significant Jewish emigration had begun from oppressive Europe to a new life in the historical homeland of the Jewish people, a study of Palestine was commissioned to assess the viability of the Zionist project. Despite the attractiveness of the “bride,” it claimed, “the beautiful girl is already engaged.” In more recent times commentators on Zionism have compared the centuries-old plight of the Jews to escaping a burning building and falling on somebody’s head.
Both of these analyses are recounted in Colliding Dreams, a new documentary film written and directed by Joseph Dorman and Oren Rudavsky about the ever more hotly debated subject of Zionism. The filmmakers weave a narrative from historical clips and present-day interviews with Israelis and Palestinians, native-born and immigrant, from many different (though not all) points on the socio-political spectrum. At every historical moment since the Zionist dream first entered the world stage as a movement to normalize Jewish existence, it met with resistance on the ground. Some of what follows is prompted by the “colliding” conversation in the film.
In the years following the first Zionist Congress in 1897, European Jews faced essentially three options: A majority chose to stay in their birthplaces – even though national borders around them often changed hands. Some joined socialist or other left movements to fight anti-Semitism at home and usher Jews into the modern world. A second choice was to stay, but assimilate, intermarry and not remain Jewish. Third: emigration. Millions left old Europe for new worlds in the Americas, South Africa and Australia. A tiny minority embraced Zionism, willing to face the harshness of life in Palestine, then under Ottoman control, clearing deserts and marshlands for agriculture and light industry. Sprawling Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city, dates from only as recently as 1909.
The first generation or two of Jews emigrating to the “Holy Land” probably never thought in terms of an independent national state. Escaping pogroms in Europe, they followed the old precept uttered year after year during the Passover festival, to enjoy freedom “next year in Jerusalem.”
Early settlers from Europe lived alongside the Arabs, much as the small Jewish community already extant in Palestine did. Their children played together, they adopted a similar diet, they shared the labor on the land. Many found sufficient spiritual value in merely inhabiting the land of their ancestors. Some Orthodox Jewish movements opposed Zionism – and still do – as a political movement. For them the establishment of a secular Jewish state is premature: The redemption they seek is not territorial but messianic.
A questionable foundational document
The 1917 Balfour Declaration was a letter from the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to 2nd Baron Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, offering “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” It has become a cornerstone of the mythology that is essential to every national expression. The very same sentence, rarely quoted by Jewish nationalists, goes on to say: “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
Balfour did not promise a state. The British, at the height of their global imperial enterprise and masters of the theory of “divide and rule”; and, in the throes of world war, also favored Arab interests. One reason for this may have been because not far from Palestine, Arabs had oil. In any case, what right did the UK have to sign and assign away the land on which other people were living? So what authority does the Balfour Declaration, cited as a foundational document for the future State of Israel, actually hold? At the time Jews constituted only 6 percent of the population.
With all the post-World War I population displacements and new national states, Jews remained minorities in their countries, and often unwelcome. The largest Jewish populations in the world lived in Poland, the USSR, and the U.S. The USSR attempted to counter emigration by establishing a Jewish Autonomous Region in Birobidzhan in Siberia next to the Chinese border, with Yiddish as an official language. This project, however much it helped to secure an underpopulated area of Russia’s Far East, never succeeded in attracting large numbers of Jews, who preferred the more cosmopolitan life in the European part of the country.
After the rise of fascism in Europe, when borders were closed to Jews in most of the rest of the world, immigration to Palestine increased. Piece by piece, Jews bought up land and evicted tenants. By the mid-1930s Jewish population in Palestine doubled. That generation of immigrants escaping immiseration in Europe entertained clear socialist dreams. Many established rural collective communities called kibbutzim: On the kibbutz they reinvented themselves as sane, healthy, productive Jews purifying themselves on the land. The much studied kibbutz movement served several generations as a model of socialism in practice.
There were scattered attacks. Already by the 1920s Arabs truly felt threatened by the massive influx of new immigrants – and had no idea what was yet to come.
There is no Palestinian people?
At the same time there were strains of Zionism, particularly one led by the right-wing militant Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, that embraced complete Jewish occupation of the land by military force. At first a minority view, this became the de facto principle of the 1948 War of Independence, characterized by widespread massacres, evacuations and ethnic cleansing, whose extent may never be entirely documented. The 1948 Arab refugees, referring to 1948 as the Nakba (the Disaster or Catastrophe), were disallowed from returning to their homes. They became stateless refugees living in camps in neighboring countries, with no legal existence.
Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir famously once said, “There is no Palestinian people,” a proposition that has, ignoring overwhelming evidence to the contrary, become deeply embedded in Israeli thinking.
As the French writer Jean-Paul Sartre ironically suggested, centuries of persistent anti-Semitism sustained the Jewish people; in a parallel way, perhaps the expulsion and mistreatment of the “majority minority” in Israel is what essentially created the Palestinian political identity.
Historically, where population adjustments have taken place, it is the majority that expels the minority, except in the case of Israel/Palestine. Now the children and grandchildren of immigrants who truly had nowhere else to go except Palestine are asking, “Is what we now see what we wanted to happen?”
In 1947 the Arabs, still an overwhelming majority on the land, were profoundly disillusioned by what they saw as the cavalier UN proposal to partition the land, granting vastly disproportional territory to the Jewish minority. By 1949, Israel was one-third larger than the UN partition plan.
As increasing political discomfort troubled the lives of Jews in Muslim countries after 1948, when over 700,000 Arabic-, French- or Farsi-speaking Jews emigrated to Israel. The post-WWII refugees came as well. The number of immigrants kept rising. The new influx of a million Soviet Jews beginning in the 1980s, as well as the Ethiopian Jews, added demographic elements of a decidedly illiberal political cast.
Zionism as a national philosophy returned forcefully after the 1967 war, when Israeli forces captured the Old City and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem that had been under Jordanian control. With all of Biblical Palestine under Israeli administration, a new religious Zionism came into power. Now control over the land was no longer just the establishment of a national refuge but an expression of redemptive messianic fantasies. West Bank and Gaza settlers became the new Zionists, reclaiming places whose names appeared in the Bible. Israel stopped referring to the Occupied Territories, and now called them by the ancient names of Judea and Samaria, “cleansed” for Jewish resettlement. For without the Bible as the word of first and final resort – under the belief that God had promised this land to the Jewish people – this would after all just be stolen property. The settlements, and their military and political defense, became the new symbol of Israel, displacing the benign image of the early, and fast-disappearing kibbutzim.
Up to 1967, the new State of Israel claimed the loyalty not only of the Western powers, but also the entire Soviet Bloc of socialist countries. In part, this came out of recognition that the Jews had been treated so terribly in Europe: Israel was both recompense for that history and a means of lowering their Jewish populations through emigration. The CPUSA at that time had a large number of Jewish members – at one time a majority or close to it – and the image of the Jewish people claiming or reclaiming what appeared to be historical national rights appealed to some of them, particularly as Israel may have looked like a new nonauthoritarian type of socialism. The concept of Jewish nationhood conformed with Marxist definitions in all respects – language, literature, culture, religion, tradition, history – even if the territory question might have been a little shaky.
In any case, a viable state had joined the community of nations, and if there were multiple tribes, religions and ethnic groups cohabiting within its borders, well, that was also true of many other nations emerging out of colonialism. A global consensus had been reached to largely respect old colonial borders, and not attempt the impossible, with its own new problems – to redivide the world by ethnicity, culture, and language. New facts on the ground, however they got there, exert incontrovertible authority. Ask the Native Americans.
We are forced to ask, of Zionism and of the film, whose colliding dreams? Was it the divergence between a homeland vs. a state? Between a humanitarian socialist Zionism cooperating with Palestinians already there and a military Zionism seeking to expel non-Jews? The trajectory of Zionism points more toward “evolving dreams” – which could be read as “nightmares” in someone else’s sleep.
Many voices in the world today, and in the film too, declare the basic conception of Zionism to be racist, and that the Zionist project won’t last. It appears that long-term stability is now next to impossible. The “two-state solution,” going back to the 1947 UN partition with many later iterations, and still preferred by the world community as well as most Jews and most Palestinians, is ever more elusive. Who will bring it into being? The Communist Party of Israel is among the few civic entities in the country which maintain egalitarian non-sectarian principles, and also continues to endorse the two-state solution.
Growing numbers of Jews in Israel now favor complete transfer of Palestinians out of Greater Israel, transforming the country into one state without non-Jews. Right-wing militaristic nationalism, egged on by Benjamin Netanyahu at the time, was responsible for the assassination of the pro-peace Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, and now Prime Minister Netanyahu has adopted what has been called a new Israeli McCarthysim. It is dangerous now to “delegitimize” Israel by questioning the state’s policy or actions, most especially by challenging Israel’s control over the Occupied Territories. It is a dire time for basic democratic rights.
What about the U.S. influence?
Although in its early years the dominant Labor Party was affiliated with the Socialist International, now basic working-class interests have been buried under an avalanche of the Likud’s, and other nationalist parties’, anti-Arab hatred. The new mood in Israel suggests that the heightened right-wing influence from America, from evangelicals as well as from major Netanyahu backers such as American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, has effectively transformed the body politic.
U.S. policy has become inextricably committed to the occupation. Palestinians – and the world community – rightly question whether the U.S. can rightly present itself as an honest broker in trying to restart peace negotiations. Support for the Netanyahu ideology – the new Zionism – is shown by recent American efforts: to legally curtail expressions of support for the campaign titled “BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions)” targeting the Occupied Territories; to support Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem; to recognize Israeli-occupied territories as part of Israel; to move the Israeli capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; to punish companies that have divested from West Bank interests; and even to define criticism of Zionism as punishable anti-Semitism. The implications on American freedom of speech are incalculable and will certainly wind up in the courts.
In Israel’s veer toward acceptance of U.S. hegemony and protection, the country has embraced the kind of jungle 1-percent capitalism that the early Israeli state seemed to eschew. Israel has lately entered into open alliance with the American right wing and its representation in the Republican Party. (Remember Netanyahu’s speech to Congress at the invitation of the GOP without even informing President Obama.) The absence of a serious commitment to peace is obviously a good deal for the U.S. military-industrial complex: The billions of dollars in U.S. aid that goes to Israel annually is essentially a subsidy for U.S. arms manufacturers. And Israel itself has become a major arms and security systems developer and seller. Among leading American political figures only Sen. Sanders – who is Jewish and lived for two years on a kibbutz in his youth – has articulated a commitment to respect Palestinian rights; all the rest are wholly in the thrall of the “Israel can do no wrong” American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
American Jews, among the most liberal voters, in the main are more in tune with Bernie Sanders’ viewpoint than with AIPAC. Jewish public opinion in the U.S. is vastly different from Israel’s, and also quite divergent from the organized, but unrepresentative Jewish “establishment.” American Jews value civil liberties and minority rights and feel uncomfortable with what many have called Israeli “apartheid.” Some Jews are active in BDS movements or campaigns to make Israel more democratic. Others, probably more, are simply turning indifferent to Israel, incapable of rescuing it from its own mistakes and allowing it to endure the consequences. Politicians pandering to the Jewish vote have less and less appeal with each passing electoral season.
Whatever the future may hold, discussion of the Israel/Palestine issue cannot end with the dismissive declaration, “It’s complicated.” Superficially that stance appears to show a sophisticated awareness of the thousands of interlocking pieces in this history. But effectively it abandons further responsibility for trying to figure out a just way forward.