Nathan Thrall’s Cartoonish Anti-Zionism

Nathan Thrall (pictured) is a gifted writer who, unfortunately, embraces extremist views. While his NY Review of Books article “A Day in the Life of Abed Salama,” provides a window into Israel’s violation of Palestinian human rights, his baseless allegations against liberal Zionism must not go unanswered.

To begin with, a couple of problematic quotes made by pre-state Zionist leaders do not justify sweeping accusations against Zionism.  Zionist leaders, including Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, dreamed of a “Greater Israel” and population transfers. Ben-Gurion, however, was willing to compromise and divide the land, even going so far as to request U.N. Security Council forces on the ground to enforce the partition to give it “teeth.” Only after the UN refused and the Palestinians attacked, did Israelis feel no longer bound by the UN partition plan. Ben-Gurion further offered to create a Jewish-Arab “Semitic” confederation in the 1930s, with a guarantee of displacing no one. Had Israelis not been attacked in 1947, no one would have been displaced.

Thrall also depicts Israel’s founding fathers as colonialists. However, this was no longer the case by the Second Aliya[1].  In 1917, a leading Zionist thinker of his generation, Ber Borochov, declared “it is clear that this colonization has nothing in common with the politics of colonial conquest, expansion, and exploitation… The Jewish people aims at creating a secured place of employment for its déclassé, wandering masses: it seeks to increase the productive forces of the country in peaceful cooperation with the Arab population.”

In 1940, another prominent Labour-Zionist leader, Berl Katznelson, said “we have never been a colonialist movement: we are a movement of colonization.[2]” Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann, and others have also referred to Zionism as a colonization movement without colonialism.

Thrall denies any defence of Zionism on universal and moral grounds. Israel’s founding fathers, however, believed that leaving the Jews homeless would be a greater injustice than depriving the Palestinians of part of their homeland, as a homeless people cannot exercise its right to self-determination. This argument, based on the principle of the redistribution of wealth, also justifies land reforms for landless peasants in developing countries. One can disagree with this logic by arguing that distributive justice applies to the economy but not to national rights, or that the integrity of a territory takes precedence over the right of self-determination for a minority. Nevertheless, there is no need to call Zionists “racists.”

Moreover, even if Thrall rejects the idea that Jews have a natural right to self-determination, he should know that most justice systems recognize a “defense of necessity,” allowing people in distress to do things that are not acceptable in normal circumstances. After Western countries closed their doors on Jewish immigration in the 1920s, Zionism became a life raft saving some 500,000 Jews who had nowhere else to go. Whether or not Zionist thinkers predicted the Holocaust, they did foresee an alarming increase in antisemitism, and that Western countries would reject most Jewish refugees, leaving those fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe with nowhere to go.

Anti-Zionists, such as Shlomo Sand, argue that the Jewish state should have been established in Germany, even though Israel’s pre-state society existed before the Holocaust. Others, like Ilan Pappe, say that the Jews who found refuge in Palestine should have remained there as a minority. In other words, diaspora Jews should have been abandoned to their fate.

It was impossible to predict in the late 1940s the vast improvement of the fate of Jewish people during the second part of the 20th century. Arguing against Zionism by invoking the decline of antisemitism after the war is, therefore, anachronistic. If Thrall believes Zionism was wrong, the onus is on him to explain what the Jews should have done to escape persecution — unless he doesn’t care about their predicament.

Thrall’s claim that the Zionist left opposes equal rights for Palestinian-Israelis is baseless. A major reason that Israel has never fully enacted equal rights for all its citizens, as guaranteed in its Declaration of Independence, is because Israel is still a country in an existential conflict with the kin of its Arab minority population. Nations at war don’t normally transcend tribal loyalty. 

Moreover, the status of the Arab minority improved dramatically during Yitzhak Rabin’s leadership with the introduction of affirmative action programs for Palestinian-Israelis.  Prime Minister Olmert expanded this program — 30% of new hires in Israel’s civil service must be part of the Arab community. Even the founder of the Zionist right, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, sought a binational structure for the Jewish state with a Jewish prime minister and an Arab deputy prime minister (and vice-versa).

Finally, Thrall blames Israel exclusively for the conflict with the Palestinians, ignoring the key reason for the decline of Israel’s peace movement since the mid 1990s: Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians, especially (but not exclusively) by Hamas. Thrall also ignores the Palestinian rejection of the Clinton Parameters in 2001, Olmert’s peace offer in 2008, and the Kerry-Obama framework in 2014.

Liberal Zionists and Palestinian moderates, while often disagreeing, still see this conflict as a clash of rights — not unlike a Greek tragedy. While partitioning the Palestinian homeland was a bitter pill for Palestinians, leaving the Jews homeless would have been morally unacceptable. The re-emergence of confederal ideas provides hope (possibly reconciling Israeli sovereignty with a right of return for Palestinian refugees), there is no easy solution to this conflict.  Still, people should express their disagreements respectfully without calling each other “racists.”  This is all the more ironic, given that pro-Palestinian activists complain bitterly when Israel supporters call them “antisemites.”

[1] The Second Aliya was the second wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine (between 1904-1914).

[2] Sternhell Zeev. The Founding Myths of Israel: Nationalism, Socialism, and the Making of the Jewish State, Princeton University Press, p. 173.