What Anti-Zionist Leftists Get Wrong

Loathing Israel has become a religion in a large segment of the left – especially the far-left, which has always been anti-Zionist, but even in much of the liberal left. Questioning Israel’s existence is no longer taboo. According to left-wing anti-Zionists, Israel is a “colonial-settler” state that should be dismantled to repair the wrongs done to the Palestinians. Yet this anti-Israel left doesn’t question the existence of other states whose creation entailed much more violence and injustice. 

Some argue that there is another historical precedent to invoke to justify denying Israel’s legitimacy – the apartheid regime in South Africa. This analogy is problematic, as the South African apartheid regime wasn’t a democratic nation-state; it was a regime based on the rule of the majority by a minority. 

Of course, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank tarnishes the country’s reputation and fosters this anti-Israel sentiment. Still, there is a major difference between criticizing Israel’s policies and questioning its very existence. 

Furthermore, Israel is not the only one responsible for the stalemate. The Palestinian Authority has been difficult to deal with, both when led by Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas; it has arguably either rejected or ignored peace plans that would have allowed the Palestinians to recover the overwhelming majority of the occupied territories in 2001, 2008, and 2014.  (Readers are invited to consider a detailed analysis in the form of a recent book review at the Fathom journal website by Yair Hirschfeld, a veteran of Israeli peace efforts going back to the Oslo process.) 

The Second Intifada destroyed the electoral power of the Israeli left, which had led the government in 2000. Suffering the worst wave of terrorism that has ever struck Israel, most Israelis moved to the right. This was a tragedy for the Palestinians as well; despite flaws cited by Hirschfeld, among others, Ehud Barak as prime minister ultimately accepted the “Clinton Parameters” for an equitable two-state solution.

Other than antisemitism, which does not completely explain anti-Zionism, why today’s anti-Israel frenzy? Prominent Israeli scholar and left-wing activist Zeev Sternhell once remarked that left-wing anti-Zionists in the West don’t understand that the intense antisemitism of the first half of the Twentieth Century made Zionism an existential necessity. 

Trained historians warn their students not to analyze the past with today’s lenses, a common mistake called “presentism.”  So let’s set the record straight: Zionism was not a matter of choice for most of the Jews who found shelter in Palestine; it was a necessity because they had nowhere else to go. Should the Jews who found refuge in Palestine in the 1920s and ‘30s have accepted oppression and massacre for the sake of preserving the territorial integrity of a non-sovereign Palestine at the time? 

Many leftwing anti-Zionists argue that a Jewish state should have been created in Europe (preferably in Germany), since  Europeans (especially Germans) inflicted the worst suffering on Jews, not Palestinians. They fail to understand that the Europeans who persecuted their Jews would have never agreed to allocate part of their own land. Maybe, one can speculate, that the Germans were so discredited by the Holocaust that the international community might have carved out a piece of Germany for the Jews.  Yet those who make this claim (for example, the anti-Zionist historian Shlomo Sand) fail to consider that over 600,000 Jews already lived in Palestine in 1947. 

It is also noteworthy that in the late 1940s, most Holocaust survivors were not even allowed to move to the West. They were left to rot in Displaced Persons camps until the creation of Israel. It made sense for Jews to believe that they could only be protected within the framework of their own nation-state. Calling the Jewish refugees who found shelter in Palestine “colonial-settlers” is rather simplistic to say the least – they did settle in a land inhabited by another people, but they did not do so to enrich themselves or a mother country, the usual purposes of colonialism.

Furthermore, if all peoples are entitled to self-determination, it is legitimate for a homeless people to want to return to its ancient homeland.  There was enough room in Palestine for both Jews and Arabs.

That said, the Palestinians’ refusal to share their land with the Jews was totally understandable, as they were the ones forced to pay for European antisemitism and Jewish homelessness.   Nevertheless, it’s about time for the Western left to fully appreciate that Jews immigrating to Palestine were not going on vacation; they were running for their lives. 

Opposing the occupation of the West Bank is totally legitimate.  It is also necessary to look for a just solution for Palestinian refugees – such as a confederation that would allow Palestinians and Israelis to live on both sides of the border.  However, fully opposing the legitimacy of Zionism allows for the dubious proposition that Jews were wrong to seek a safe haven from persecution. 

The late Israeli author Amos Oz defended Zionism with the following parable: “[Zionism’s] justification in terms of the Arabs who dwell in this land is the justness of the drowning man who clings to the only plank he can… And the drowning man clinging to this plank is allowed, by all the rules of natural, objective, universal justice, to make room for himself on the plank… But he has no natural right to push the others on that plank into the sea.”  Alas, nowadays, much of the left seems to believe that it would have been right for the Jews to have been pushed into the sea.