Zionism and the Perpetual Myth of Insecurity

From a Jewish perspective, the earliest roots of the Israel-Palestine go back to the mid-19th century, far away from the Middle East, in Russia and other lands of Eastern Europe. There some number of Jews looked westward and saw Jews in Germany and other Western European lands beginning to enjoy legal and social equality with their gentile neighbors. The Eastern European Jews hoped that the wave of modernization moving eastward would bring them the same equality. They were prepared to pay the same price their fellow Jews in the West had paid: giving up traditional Jewish beliefs and practices (what’s now called Orthodox Judaism) as a relic of the medieval past, which they associated with Jewish oppression and weakness.

These modernizing, secularizing Jews in Eastern Europe saw their hopes dashed in 1881, when a wave of Pan-Slavism—nationalism and chauvinism, accompanied by anti-semitism—swept across Russia and other eastern European lands.  This crushed the hopes of Jews who believed that their gentile neighbors would adopt the modern Western idea of tolerance and accept Jews as equals.  Some Jews left Russia. Some became revolutionaries.

But a small number took a different approach, articulated most famously in Leo Pinsker’s pamphlet “Self-Emancipation,” published in 1882.  Pinsker argued that as long as Jews lived as a minority in diaspora, they would always be “hated rivals” and victims of anti-semitism, no matter where they lived and no matter what they did. Pinsker told the Jews:  “You are foolish because you stand awkwardly by and expect of human nature something which it has always lacked—humanity.  You are contemptible, because you have no real self-love and no national self-respect.” The Jews would continue to hate themselves and embrace their own degradation, he wrote, as long as they remained as a minority living in exile.  Only when the Jews became normal, “a nation like the others,” would they find self-respect and “rise manfully to [their] full height.”

Theodore Herzl, who led the creation of a Zionist political organization, saw things much the same way. His Israeli biographer, Amos Elon, wrote that Herzl, a famous newspaper columnist, was motivated above all by “wounded pride”—being denied what he thought was his rightful place among the elite of European society simply because he was Jewish. Like virtually all the early Zionists, Herzl had no attachment to Jewish religious tradition. He was well aware that he was making national pride the sacred center of Jewish identity. So he urged the early Zionists to “turn the Jewish question into a question of Zion.”

Pinsker’s and Herzl’s views laid an enduring foundation for Zionism. For most Zionists, security was always more than a geopolitical and military category.  It was a psychological and even moral concept.  Zionist theory held that, everywhere in the world, Jews would be threatened by the fatal combination of anti-semitism and self-doubt.  Jews had learned from centuries of oppression to feel vulnerable, inadequate, and incapable of standing up for themselves, the Zionists said. Therefore they would feel insecure and powerless before the gentile onslaught.  But It is shameful and contemptible to let oneself fall victim to inhumane persecution. Since gentiles would always be inhumane persecutors, Jews would always feel inferiority, shame, and self-contempt as long as live in Diaspora, ruled by gentiles.

There was only one remedy, Zionists argued: a nation of their own, a Jewish state.  As they looked at Western Europe, they saw modern political nationalism becoming the norm. The Greeks had won their independence from the Turkish empire. Germany and Italy were unifying. Every normal ethnic group, it seemed, had its own political state. Only nationhood would make the Jews normal, giving them the psychological security that comes from self-respect and leads to geopolitical security. This “normalization” was their guiding ideal. By making themselves a normal nation, like all the other nations, they expected to earn the world’s respect and be treated as equals in the family of nations.

Unfortunately it did not work out that way, because there were fatal flaws in the theory of “normalization.”  Any normal nation in late 19th century Europe viewed it history as a seemingly endless conflict between “us” (and “our” allies) and “them,” the real or potential enemies.  A normal nation assumed that it would always have to be militarily prepared to defend itself against its foes. Being afraid of enemies was a part of being a normal nation.

So the earliest Zionists who left Eastern Europe to settle in the Turkish colony of Palestine were stuck in an impossible contradiction. Most of them assumed that gentiles would always harbor an irrational, implacable hatred of Jews, a hatred that the Jews had done nothing to create. So Jews could do nothing to remove or reduce it.  Jews could only escape the gentiles to create their own normal nation. In order to be normal, though, they would have to assume that, once they created their own nation in Palestine, they would still have enemies who hated them. Thus the early Zionist settlers brought with them a deep sense of vulnerability, a conviction that they were passive victims of historical forces beyond their control.

Even if they hoped that some day things would change, they were still trapped in a catch-22. In order to feel normal and secure they had to be free of anti-Semitic persecution. So their test of the success of Zionism was how well the Jewish state was received by the gentile world. Even if they broke free of the political grip of the gentiles, they would always be watching over their shoulders to see how the gentiles were viewing them. Thus they could never escape the sense that their self-worth depended on the judgment of others. Even if they got political freedom, they could never break from the feeling that they were passive victims of the gentiles in a social-psychological way.

What’s more, they did not have a very clear vision of the intermediate steps in their political progress.  Their dominant ideology suggested that they could would not have the power to shape their own fate until they had achieved the goal of statehood.  Until then, they would feel like passive victims.

In fact, from the very beginning, Zionists were agents of historical change.  They did whatever they could to achieve their ends by political, economic, and sometimes violent means: they bought land, built farms and villages, created political structures, and negotiated with the Palestinian Arabs about all sorts of things. The negotiations sometimes led to relatively amicable relations between Zionists and Palestinian Arabs.

Sometimes though, inevitably, there was conflict. Sometimes parties on both sides resorted to violence to get their way, which intensified the conflict.  A few Zionists saw that the Palestinians were responding to specific policies that the Zionist movement had chosen. A few understood that the Zionists had become part of a vast relational network of Middle Eastern peoples. In any such network, the words and actions of each actor impact all the others; no one is merely a passive victim of others’ choices.  In this particular network, some Arabs as well as Jews sought to emulate the secular nationalist model they saw dominating Europe. An Arab nationalist movement seeking independence from the Turkish empire was already well underway.

But most Zionists could not see this because they had become locked into, and blinded by, their dominant narrative. Their consciences did not want to admit that they were now empowered historical actors, because they would mean they bore some responsibility for eliciting enmity from others.  It was easier to charge the enmity to an irrational antisemitic hatred of the Jews, a hatred beyond their control. If their actions could neither evoke, intensify, or alleviate their enemy’s attitudes, then they could not bear any responsibility for the ongoing conflict. All they could do was to defend themselves by force. So it was appealing to interpret any Palestinian Arab resistance as evidence of sheer antisemitism.

However the tradition that started with Pinsker said that when Jews were attacked by antisemites, the insecurity and powerlessness they felt were evidence of their moral weakness, self-doubt, and self-hatred.  Every hint of weakness reminded the Zionists that they had not yet fully answered Pinsker’s call to stand up proudly and manfully.  So they fought back, not only to protect themselves physically but, even more, to protect themselves from their own self-doubts. Each time the Zionists asserted themselves against the Palestinians they could feel reassured that they were genuinely proud and self-reliant, that they were “rising manfully to full height.” At the same time, they could feel reassured that they were morally innocent victims of anti-semitism.

But that interpretation created more problems than it solved. If the Zionists were still victims of an anti-semitism beyond their control to influence, then they were not yet agents of their own history. They were insisting on their passivity, the very condition they had hoped to escape. So they only heightened their negative self-image, their sense of powerlessness and insecurity. That, in turn, heightened their doubts about their own self-worth, wondering whether they could ever be normal. The natural response was to take more actions that would assuage self-doubt. They had to go on showing that they were capable of exercising power, prove that they could hit back, like normal people.

Of course every time they hit back, the Palestinians were likely to hit back in response. The Zionists interpreted each new confrontation as further evidence of the Jews’ vulnerability, passivity, and insecurity, which only intensified their feeling of self-doubt.  And that, in turn, intensified their conviction that antisemitism was eternal, that they would always be insecure. The only possible response was to strike back again—which locked them more firmly into their narrative and generated ever more insecurity. This narrative became so basic to their movement that it functioned as their foundational myth. The Zionists were trapped in a myth of national insecurity.

This myth was already firmly in place during the early years of Zionist immigration to Palestine. (The first major wave of immigrants came around 1905.) It was cemented by the tragedy of World War I. In 1917 Britain’s foreign secretary, Lord Balfour, declared that his government would “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” though he added that Britain would not want to “prejudice the rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” At the same time, the British used T. E. Lawrence to promise the Arabs independence from the Turks in return for the Arabs’ help in fighting the war.  But after the war Britain itself took charge of Palestine under a League of Nations mandate. It is no coincidence that the first large scale violence between Zionists and Arabs broke out in 1919, fueled by the frustrations of seeing their nationalistic hopes dashed.

Throughout the British mandate period (1919 – 1947) most Zionists continued to interpret their own acts of force as the regrettably necessary actions of innocent victims. This gave them a satisfying conviction that all their actions were morally righteousness.  But it also reinforced the fundamentals of the Zionist myth of insecurity: Our enemies threaten our very existence; we are wholly innocent, having done nothing at all to evoke such enmity; we must inflict enough defeats on our enemies to prove to them—and ourselves—our indomitable strength.

An important difference developed among them, though. The mainstream of Zionism, led by David Ben Gurion, tried it best to appear moderate, willing to make compromises, and hoping to limit violence. A new group known as Revisionists, led by the Vladimir Jabotinsky, asked (in effect), Why bother even thinking about the world’s response? The world hates us anyway; nothing we do now can make the gentiles hate us more. Since we are surrounded by eternal enemies, the only way to insure our survival is to make it clear that we want all of Palestine, refuse any compromise, and maintain our strength and dominance Since the Arabs only understand force, we must use force to insure our control of Palestine, by any means necessary.

A third and much smaller group, led by the philosopher Martin Buber, preached that it was wrong to blame the Arabs, as if the Jews’ behavior had nothing to do with it. A central theme in Buber’s philosophy was the freedom, and the obligation, to make moral choices and take responsibility for one’s choices. He told the Zionists that the fate of their movement would be decided not by their opponents but by the choices they made.  “It depends entirely on us,” he said, “whether the Arabs treat us as welcome friends or hated enemies.” By the late 1930s Buber was leading a small group of Jews committed to creating a single bi-national state, giving equal rights and equal power to both Jews and Arabs.

The horrors of the Nazi Holocaust locked mainstream and Revisionist Zionists even more tightly into the myth of insecurity. By the mid-1940s, it seemed all too realistic to fear that the Jewish people might be, not just grievously harmed, but annihilated by antisemites. The Zionist premise of eternal antisemitism seemed much more convincing, too. The fear of antisemites and annihilation spurred the Jews to demand their own state. So their fear was deeply embedded in the foundations of the state of Israel, which declared its independence in 1948. Having a Jewish state did not bring any sense of real normalization. It merely created a new stage on which to play out the myth of insecurity.


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