Since its founding, political Zionism has had two distinct and contradictory personas. One portrayed it as a national liberation movement that was liberal, democratic, tolerant, and inclusive. This was the face its adherents saw when they looked in the mirror, and it was how they wanted to be seen by the rest of the world.
For Palestinians, on the other hand, the dream of Zionism proved to be a nightmare. They were seen merely as an obstacle to be dealt with in order to pave the way for a Jewish homeland. All this was made more tragic by the fact that their plight was ignored by Western powers who were so enthralled by the vision of a liberatory Zionism that they were blinded to the dispossession being experienced by its victims.
Political Zionism emerged in reaction to anti-Semitism and the resultant ghettoization and pogroms that victimized European Jewry. It promised an alternative for Jews in which they would be free to realize their full potential as a people, practicing the values and fruits of liberalism in a home of their own. In reality, the European liberalism on which political Zionism was modeled was rooted in colonial subjugation and exploitation of conquered lands and the natives on those lands. And so, it was without hesitation or embarrassment that early Zionists saw themselves as an extension of the European colonial enterprise. Palestine was projected as “a land without a people, for a people without a land.” It was this mindset that led the “father of Zionism,” Theodor Herzl, to seek guidance on how to secure support for his proposed colony from Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes; or why he would write in “The Jewish State” that the enterprise he wished to establish would serve as “a rampart of Europe against Asia…and outpost of civilization against barbarism”; or why he proposed using the natives that his followers might find in their new colony to clear the land and engage in menial labor before evacuating them to other lands.
These two sides of political Zionism, the dream and the nightmare, have always coexisted, with the upside acknowledged and celebrated and its reverse ignored and/or denied. This was true not only for the founders of Zionism but also for its most recognized “liberal” champions: Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, and Golda Meir. Even Benjamin Netanyahu made his name in Western political circles as a proponent of the cause of “liberal Western democracy” versus the authoritarian, savage, terrorist Arab world.
Because such a worldview was so ingrained in the West’s dominant sense of itself, the two faces of Zionism (the liberal and the racist) never caused an outrage. It was, if anything, understood and embraced by the British and French (and later by the US) who saw the need for, as Herzl had envisioned it, a civilized outpost to protect Western values and interests from the so-called barbarians. Not to mention that Israel’s propaganda machinery has been quite effective, and there is the very real fear that pointing out the obvious (i.e., that Israel is engaged in oppressive and racist subjugation and dispossession of Palestinians) will result in the accusation of anti-Semitism.
In this context, it may be considered ironic that it was Israel’s own democracy that finally exposed, for all to see, its underbelly of intolerance. The election of a far-right coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line Likud party, including fanatic nationalists and intolerant ultrareligious parties, serves as a clarifying moment for the political Zionist movement, and for its enablers.
The newly elected Netanyahu government will include bigoted and violence-advocating ministers and deputy ministers who will oversee police, settlements, administration of the occupied territories, finance, and “Jewish identity.” They include ideologues who advocate expulsion of Arabs from Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories; support rapid settlement expansion and annexation of the West Bank; back settler violence against Palestinians to demonstrate who’s boss; adhere to a theology that maintains that while Jews are full human beings with souls, Arabs are not; claim that human rights organizations pose an “existential threat” to Israel and therefore want them banned; maintain that only their rigid interpretation of Orthodox Judaism is true religion, and deny other Jews their rights; and insist on altering the status quo at the Haram Al Sharif, turning Jerusalem into another Hebron.
With ministers and policies such as these, the mask is off. This is political Zionism, without the frills. It is intolerance, bigotry, repression, and aggression without the accompanying rhetoric of “liberalism” to smooth things over for the world.
It’s been equally concerning to watch how the major pro-Israel US groups have responded (or failed to respond) to this challenging situation. There were immediate protests over the ultra-Orthodox push to change conversion law, outlaw LGBTQ rights, restrict which “legitimate” Jews could immigrate to Israel, and require the segregation of Jewish women at prayer. But these same leaders have been silent in reaction to the bigoted anti-Arab beliefs being espoused by key members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition and the policies they seek to implement that will further dispossess Palestinians.
It’s true that many of these ugly attitudes and policies have shaped the Palestinian reality for decades, but they were always covered by the pretty words and the outward face of Zionist liberalism. But now, those who have been covering for Israel have the responsibility to acknowledge the reality their silence has allowed to fester. Can they continue to insist that Israel is a “vibrant democracy” when it only protects the rights of Jews—and not all Jews? Can they continue to supply Israel with billions in weapons and other forms of aid when it is clear that these weapons and aid are being used to maintain an occupation and the oppression of a captive people? Can they continue to block efforts to hold Israel accountable in international forums for its human rights violations, when it is so patently obvious that these crimes are being committed?
Now that the mask is off, the West may finally be able to deal with Israel as a normal state that can be criticized and called to account for its violations of laws. It may also create the conditions where the West sees and treats Palestinians as real people who are as deserving as Israelis of, as the Biden administration is fond of saying, “equal measures of security, freedom, opportunity, and dignity.”