An effort to salvage the reputation of Zionism

August 22, 2014
Sarah Benton

SEEKING EMANCIPATION: Intellectuals, from left, Leon Pinsker, Marcus Garvey, WEB du Bois, Anton Lembede, Steve Bantu Biko and Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. Above is a cartoon of Russia’s oppression of its Jews

African nationalism and Zionism have same source

By Benjamin Pogrund
August 16, 2014

AFRICAN nationalism and Zionism spring from the same source: the desire of oppressed people for freedom.

It begins in the mind: self-regard, to believe in yourself, to have confidence in yourself as a human being and thus to overcome the humiliation and debasement inflicted by others.

For Jews, Zionism is their national liberation movement. It emerged from the fiery ideas of freedom during the French Revolution of 1789.

It grew during the 19th century with the rise of nationalism in Europe and advanced in response to the rise of modern anti-Semitism.

It flourished during the 20th century alongside liberation movements in Africa and Asia.

It triumphed in 1948 with the creation of the State of Israel in the era that saw dozens of countries achieve independence.

Zionism was the ultimate answer to the centuries of the persecution suffered by Jews, often through false accusations against them as “Christ-killers”.

Their oppression was at a peak in Russia during the late 19th century, ranging from quotas for universities and professions to mass expulsions and murders.

In 1882 hundreds of thousands of Jews were expelled from their rural homes. Out of the despair came the voice of Leon Pinsker. He had served as a doctor in Russia’s army in the Crimean War and had even been decorated by the emperor, the Tsar, an unusual distinction for a Jew.

Pinsker began, as did many Jewish intellectuals in Russia, by believing that their suffering could be ended by working with non-Jewish Russians.

But their Russian colleagues viciously turned on them and refused to help. Disillusioned, Pinsker argued that seeking emancipation – freedom – by others was a pipe-dream. Jews had to emancipate themselves through creation of a Jewish national home.

He used the phrase “auto-emancipation” and wrote: “The great ideas of the 18th and 19th centuries have not passed us by without leaving a trace. We feel not only as Jews; we feel as men.

“As men, we, too, wish to live and be a nation as the others. And if we seriously desire that, we must first of all extricate ourselves from the old yoke, and rise manfully to our full height. We must first of all desire to help ourselves and then the help of others is sure to follow. . . . “The lack of national self-respect and self-confidence of political initiative and of unity are the enemies of our national renaissance. . . . Help yourselves, and God will help you!”

Pinsker opened entirely new ways to overcome the centuries of oppression. He fed into the concept of Zionism which was developing in Eastern Europe at that time.

The Zionist aim was to create a homeland for the Jewish people. Various places in the world were considered but it soon came down to the Land of Israel, then part of the Ottoman Empire but the traditional territory from which the Romans had expelled Jews nearly 2000 years before.

Jews had never stopped viewing it as their God-given home.

The idea of self-liberation was as excitingly relevant for Jews then as it was for black people in the mid-20th century – and into the present time – and especially in the segregated United States, apartheid South Africa and colonised Africa.

It is known by other names – black power, African nationalism, black nationalism, and black consciousness. But auto-emancipation has been and is the starting point for blacks, as much as it has proved itself for Jews.

It was enunciated in specific terms for blacks by WEB du Bois in the United States and by Anton Lembede, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe and Steve Bantu Biko in South Africa as the way to achieve mental, and then physical, freedom.

In regard to securing freedom, Sobukwe got to the heart of it with these stirring words (on August 2, 1959, at a celebration of national heroes): “Now for over 300 years, the white, foreign, ruling minority has used its power to inculcate in the African a feeling of inferiority. This group has educated the African to accept the status quo of white supremacy and black inferiority as normal.

“It is our task to exorcise this slave mentality… It must clearly be understood that we are not begging the foreign minorities to treat our people courteously. We are calling on our people to assert their personality… We are reminding our people that acceptance of any indignity, any insult, any humiliation is acceptance of inferiority.

“They must first think of themselves as men and women before they can demand to be treated as such… Once white supremacy has become mentally untenable to our people, it will become physically untenable too, and will go… “

A signal difference between blacks and Jews is that while Jews had to struggle to return, blacks were already at home, in Africa (but not entirely, of course, because of the millions who had been carried as slaves to the Americas. Trinidadian-born Marcus Garvey began a “Return to Africa” movement in 1920 and some people still speak in those terms today).

Arising from this, blacks have had to overcome the oppression of colonial powers whereas Jews have had to counter accusations of colonialism.

This is easily refuted: Jews had no mother country for whose benefit they were working and they did not exploit local resources for an outside power. They initially bought land on the normal willing buyer-willing seller principle, then gained United Nations approval for their own state, and then had to fight for their right to it when the armies of neighbouring Arab states attacked.

There was no colonialism in the founding of the state of Israel.

Its occupation of the West Bank is a separate issue.

These differences apart, the basic story of Jews and blacks is identical: striving for freedom is universal and it begins with believing in yourself.

Benjamin Pogrund is a South African journalist who has lived in Israel for 16 years. This extract from Drawing Fire: Investigating the accusations of apartheid in Israel (Rowman & Littlefield, distributed in southern Africa by Juta)

Some  of the biggest demonstrations in the world this summer have been  in Cape Town as tens of thousands of South Afrivans have marched in protest against the  Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Photo by Schalk van Zuydam / AP.

Dispelling Israel’s myths

By Ran Greenstein, Dispatch Live
August 18, 2014

WHEN tens of thousands of people poured into the streets of Cape Town 10 days ago, they were expressing their solidarity with the people of Gaza, victims of a series of devastating attacks by Israeli military forces. In all likelihood, nothing was further from their minds than the association of Zionism – the guiding ideology of the State of Israel launching these attacks – with notions of freedom, national liberation, and human rights.

And yet, this is precisely the association that author Benjamin Pogrund advances, in an attempt to salvage the reputation of Zionism in South Africa (“African nationalism and Zionism have same source”, DD August 18, above).

Why is this necessary? In the last decade, among large sections of the South African population, Zionism has become increasingly synonymous with notions of colonialism and apartheid. Pogrund seeks to reverse this trend by presenting a different, more appealing, image of Zionism, as a movement akin to black liberation, expressing desire of oppressed people for freedom.

This is a novel approach, clearly defying conventional opinion and seeking another way of looking at things beyond easy slogans. But can he hope to succeed?

In order to answer that, we must examine his core argument, leaving aside many false historical claims: Zionism, in fact, did not emerge in the wake of the 1789 French Revolution as he argues, but a century later, and in direct defiance of its liberal spirit of equal rights to all citizens – including Jews – wherever they resided.

His central contention is that Zionism was the ultimate answer to centuries of the persecution suffered by Jews, and in that it is equivalent to other liberation movements, such as African nationalism and black consciousness.

But, Pogrund continues, “while Jews had to struggle to return, blacks were already at home, in Africa”. As a result, “blacks have had to overcome the oppression of colonial powers whereas Jews have had to counter accusations of colonialism.” Are these valid arguments? Let us start with Zionism as the answer to persecution. In fact, most Jews faced with persecution in 19th century Europe found a better answer: they moved to relatively prosperous countries that granted them equal rights and allowed them to flourish as individuals and communities: the United States primarily, but also Canada, Australia, the UK, France, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa.

This solution did not address Jews as a national group, but most of them did not mind – nationalism was part of the problem that forced them to leave Europe rather than the solution.

A minority of Jews, not satisfied with rights and equality in liberal democracies, insisted on their own national state. Palestine (later Israel) was their answer. They regarded Zionism as the way to realise their national identity, inspired in this by other movements emerging in Eastern Europe at the same time. But, with a difference. They were physically absent from the country they identified as their future state, and their chosen homeland was occupied, thus introducing a fundamental flaw in the slogan of “land without people for a people without land”.

As early as 1891, before the establishment of the Zionist movement, local Arab residents appealed to the Ottoman government to stop the immigration of and transfer of land to foreign Jews. In the same year the great liberal Zionist thinker, Ahad Ha’am, prophetically wrote: The Arabs “understand our deeds and our desires in Eretz Israel [Palestine], but they keep quiet and pretend not to understand, since they do not see our present activities as a threat to their future … However, if the time comes when the life of our people in Eretz Israel develops to the point of encroaching upon the native population, they will not easily yield their place”.

And indeed, once it became clear that the goal of the Zionist movement was not to settle Jews on the land as individuals, but to take over the country, the local Arabs began to organise and resist. In a nutshell, this is the story of the IsraeliPalestinian conflict over the last century: an ongoing attempt by the Zionist movement and the State of Israel to settle the country and establish political and military control over it, countered by the resistance of the local Palestinian Arab population.

Not surprisingly, this population is completely invisible in Pogrund’s account. This makes it possible to argue that “there was no colonialism in the founding of the state of Israel”. It’s logical indeed: if there were no indigenous people, Zionist settlers did not violate anyone’s rights and were simply realising their national goals as was their right.

The problem with this pretty picture is that it bears no similarity to reality. Whether due to ignorance or deliberate distortion, Pogrund omits large parts of the relevant history:

● That Zionist settlement proceeded against the wishes of the local population, who formed their own national liberation movement;
● That the British Empire colluded in denying Palestinians their freedom;
● That many thousands of Arab tenants lost their land even before 1948;
● That the ethnic cleansing of 1948 (the Nakba) resulted in hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, about 60% of the original population, losing their land and homes (as well as their homeland) and not being allowed to return to them to this day;
● That hundreds of Arab villages were demolished to remove traces of prior Palestinian existence and clear the way for new Jewish settlements;
● That millions of Palestinians live under Israeli rule devoid of access to basic human and political rights;
● That an elaborate system of segregation controls many aspects of life of Palestinians under occupation, making it impossible for them to move around, trade, study and worship freely without permission from the Israeli military authorities.

And all this has nothing to do with colonialism and oppression, if we believe Pogrund’s story …

Let us be clear: it is not “Jews” in general who face accusations of colonialism, but the Israeli state and its agencies. We must not conflate the two. The ethnic cleansing of 1948, the occupation of 1967 (still ongoing), the attacks on Gaza – all have been carried out by a specific set of state institutions and military personnel, not by Jews or Zionists as a group.

This distinction is important both for purposes of analysis and for action. Many South Africans have expressed solidarity with Palestinians fighting for national liberation, seeing their struggle as similar to the anti-apartheid campaign in this country. And indeed, historical apartheid in South Africa was not identical to the system of military control, legal segregation and informal discrimination practised in Israel/Palestine, but there are many family resemblances between them.

The South African Jewish community is largely Zionist, regarding this as a form of identification with the State of Israel – an expression of Jewish independence. They do not necessarily support Israel’s policies in relation to Palestinians.

A smart strategy of solidarity should aim to create gaps between this general identification with Israel and support for its oppressive policies. Lumping them together in the name of opposition to Zionism serves to unify the community around its right-wing leadership, which offers blind loyalty to the Israeli government.

A new generation of progressive Jewish activists is emerging – they need to be encouraged by proper analysis and guidance for action. Criticising the apologetic myths disseminated by Pogrund is a good start.

Ran Greenstein is an Israeli-born associate professor of sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand. His most recent book is “Zionism and its Discontents: A Century of Radical Dissent in Israel/Palestine” (Pluto Press, 2014)

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