In 1881, anarchists killed the mildly liberal Russian Tsar Alexander II with a well-placed bomb. His brutish son and successor, Alexander III, joined with the most reactionary elements in the Russian ruling class to place the blame for that bombing on the Jews. This marked the beginning of an escalating tendency of European, and especially Russian, ruling elites to use anti-Semitism to deflect the anger of the people.

In Russia, where most European Jews lived, restrictions on economic and educational life were tightened. Jews were expelled from certain areas. Wild anti-Jewish fictions such as the ‘Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion’ were cooked up by the Tsar’s secret police. Under Nicholas II, the ‘Black Hundreds,’ proto-fascist gangs, were given free rein.

The decaying Russian empire was sucked into a war with Japan in 1904, and was decisively defeated. The Jews were blamed for that, and more pogroms ensued. Jews were blamed for the abortive 1905 Revolution, followed by even more pogroms.

Before this, few European Jews saw emigrating to Palestine as a solution for their problems. Some Jews thought things were going to get better and they should stay where they were. Those who wanted to emigrate mostly thought of the United States, Canada, South America or Australia. But as the anti-Semitic frenzy was whipped up in Russia, certain groups of Jews were beginning to organize a ‘return to Palestine,’ or ‘Zionist’ movement. They had the financial backing of the wealthy Rothschild interests, but little support among the mass of European Jews.

Then came the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War. In the Civil War, tens of thousands of Jews were massacred by the pro-tsarist White-guard forces. Similar assaults happened in Hungary and elsewhere. So the desire to leave Europe became far more compelling. Then, after the First World War, the United States slammed the door shut to further immigration of poor Eastern European Jews. This door remained barred by U.S. racists and anti-Semites, even while Hitler was coming to power and proclaiming the coming extermination of the Jews.

The Zionist movement now gained popular support that it never would have gained had it not been for the fact that mass murderers were driving the Jews out of large areas of Europe.

In Palestine, Jewish settlers quickly ran into friction with the native Arabs. The Zionist organizations began to buy land from landowners in Palestine, many of whom had themselves appropriated, not too long before, what had been for centuries village commons. Arab tenant farmers were evicted and plunged into dire poverty. This continued through the entire period of Jewish immigration to Palestine, and quickly led to violence.

Some early Zionist leaders were bothered by the ethics of displacing Palestinian Arabs. However, many Zionist leaders openly declared that their eventual purpose was to expel all Arabs. Sometimes they tried to assuage tender consciences by suggesting that just compensation should be paid to those displaced. At other times they simply stated that other Arab states should absorb the displaced Palestinians. Early Jewish settlements sometimes at least gave jobs to the Arab farmers who had lost their land, but the labor Zionists, in spite of their pseudo-socialist phraseology, advocated expelling all non-Jews from such employment to make jobs for Jewish immigrants.

Expelling native farmers from their land was not a practice unique to the Jewish settlers. Every other European group had done this, or was in the process of doing it. In Kenya and Southern Africa, British and Afrikaner settlers were doing exactly this to African farmers. In Australia and the United States, entire native peoples had been not just displaced, but in some cases actually massacred. French colonists were ousting native farmers in North Africa and the Pacific.

Thus, there was no indignation on the part of the European powers at the displacements and expulsions in Palestine. The Zionist project pleased British imperialism particularly well. Statesmen such as David Lloyd-George, Winston Churchill, and Arthur Balfour thought having a Jewish state in Palestine, allied with Britain, would protect British control over the Suez Canal and of course also over the oil that was just being discovered in the area. Therefore, when the Zionists approached Balfour, then British foreign secretary, during World War I, he was happy to give them his famous ‘declaration’ which is so much resented by the Arabs and which set the stage for the creation of the State of Israel.

These events produced the situation in the Middle East today.

Zionism is a nationalist ideology based on dubious, mystical interpretations of ancient texts, and its impact has been the gross violation of the most basic rights of the Palestinian people. Yet we must not forget that Zionism did not drop from the sky, nor was it simply a monstrous conspiracy cooked up by British and U.S. imperialism to control the Middle East. In the latter case, it would never have got mass support from the Jewish people.

Zionism was made possible because the European ruling classes, using the Jews as scapegoats for their own rapaciousness and misrule, were driving millions of Jews out of Europe. And at that critical moment, the United States, which could easily have absorbed the entire Jewish population being thus driven out, chose to shut its gates in the faces of the Jews in their hour of greatest need, because anti-Semitism was strong here as well as in Europe. Thus Zionism was also a product of European and U.S. anti-Semitism. Lest we forget, the Kishinev pogrom in Tsarist Russia helped propel the history that led to the massacres of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila.

Emile Schepers is a contributor in Chicago. He can be reached at