Zionism’s uneasy relationship with anti-Semitism

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The Israeli embrace of Christian evangelicals — whose plans for Jews are conversion or a fiery death — mirrors the warm relationship that Zionists had with antisemitic leaders in Germany and Italy.

By Alice Rothchild | Mondoweiss | Nov 19, 2019

[Herzl] would declare in his foundational pamphlet that ‘the Governments of all countries scourged by Anti-Semitism will be keenly interested in assisting us to obtain [the] sovereignty we want’; and indeed that not ‘only poor Jews’ would contribute to an immigration fund for European Jews, ‘but also Christians who wanted to get rid of them.’
— Columbia University professor Joseph Massad

I grew up with a deep love for Israel, the redemptive, out-of the-ashes, kibbutz-loving, feisty little country that could do no wrong, fighting for its life in a sea of hateful Arabs and Jew-haters. I learned that Jews were a people dedicated to worship and the study of Torah and this identity kept us alive during the centuries of antisemitism in Europe. If I was not able to dedicate myself to the religiosity of my davening grandfather, tfillin and all, I understood that as a people, we were deeply committed to healing the world and working for social justice, an equally virtuous and inherently Jewish task. After all, we were naturally good, or as my mother explained, Jews bore the responsibility of being chosen for a uniquely positive role in this world.

As the decades passed, this mythology shattered against the hard rocks of reality. One of the most difficult contradictions I now face is understanding the perverse relationship between Zionism and antisemitism. I was sold the story that political Zionism developed as a response to antisemitism and as a modern, liberating movement in the backward Middle East. But in 1897 as modern Zionism was born, it adopted the trope of the diaspora Jew as a pale, flaccid, yeshiva bocher, a parasite, an eternal alien, a nebbish. That Zionism embraced the idea that this pathetic weakling (who was often to be blamed for antisemitism) needed to be Aryanized into the bronzed, muscular Hebrew farmer/warrior tilling the soil in the Galilee is a chilling realization. The evolution of Jews as a people who lived by Torah and its commandments into a biological race with distinct characteristics, (the money Jew, the ghetto Jew, the swarthy, hook-nosed Jew) mirrors the worst canards of anti-Semites, European fascists, and white supremacists.

This story is complicated by the relegation of European Jewish communities to limited and disreputable professions and the societal resentment towards the “parasitic,” “non-productive” money lenders and peddler/merchant class. As modern capitalism developed, even socialist Zionists worried that there was some kind of an economic deficiency within the Jewish people which led to antisemitism that could only be cured by working the land of Palestine.

It should then not come as a surprise that the founder of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl, looked at anti-Semites as “friends and allies” of his movement. Zionists and antisemitism shared a common goal: One group wanted all the Jews to emigrate to Palestine to establish an ethnically pure Jewish nation-state and the other group wanted to get rid of all their Jewish countrymen. Emigration was indeed a splendid solution to the eternal Jewish problem.

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