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Zionism: the root of the crisis in Israel-Palestine

The regime of Jewish supremacy, based in Zionist ideology, upon which the state of Israel has been built, must be torn down

Middle EastWar ZonesHuman Rights

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu displays a map of Israel omitting the occupied Palestinian territories during a speech at the United Nations General Assembly. Image from YouTube.

The following is a transcript of a presentation made by Sid Shniad in Castlegar, British Columbia on March 24, 2024. Shniad is a founding member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV), a national human rights organization whose mandate is to promote a just resolution to the dispute in Israel and Palestine through the application of international law and respect for the human rights of all parties. Founded in 2008, IJV has local chapters in Halifax, Montréal, Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Victoria.

Canadians have been given a false picture of reality in Israel-Palestine, in which the Zionist settlers are portrayed as victims of an intransigent Palestinian opposition. In reality, the situation there bears strong resemblance to the circumstances here in Canada, where settler colonists have seized the land and treat the Indigenous people who have been ethnically cleansed and subjected to oppression with disdain.

In order to understand the basis for the misplaced sympathy that Israel enjoys and to situate what is happening today in Gaza, I want to provide some background on the subjects of antisemitism and anti-Zionism.

Antisemitism is hatred, hostility, prejudice or discrimination against Jews because they are Jews. It is a form of racism, akin to Islamophobia and hatred of people of Asian, African or LatinX descent.

The use of the word “Semite” in the phrase antisemitism gives the false impression that it is directed against Semitic peoples. When he coined the term in 1879, however, the German journalist and white supremacist Wilhelm Marr intended it to be a scientific-sounding term he could use to legitimize his hatred of Jews. The expression has been used this way ever since.

Anti-Jewish prejudice had its origins in the conflict between Christianity and Judaism, when the Church blamed Jews for the killing of Jesus. Since its inception, antisemitism has manifested itself in different ways, ranging from expressions of hatred or discrimination against individual Jews to organized pogroms by mobs, the police, or military forces against entire Jewish communities.

Antisemitism often flares up in times of social and economic crisis, when Jews are scapegoated as being responsible for society’s prevailing troubles.

Major instances of anti-Jewish violence and persecution include the Rhineland massacres that preceded the First Crusade in 1096, the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, the 1348–1351 persecution of Jews during the Black Death, the massacres of Spanish Jews in 1391, the persecutions of the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion from Spain in 1492, Cossack massacres in Ukraine from 1648 to 1657, anti-Jewish pogroms in the Russian Empire in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the Dreyfus affair in France, and the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War.

Antisemitism is a societal ill that should be combatted by progressive activists for the same reason that they resist all forms of racism and discrimination.

“Christ Among the Doctors,” Albrecht Dürer, 1506. In this oil painting, Jesus appears light skinned with fair hair while the rabbis appear like devils, or animals, with evil countenances. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Zionism is an ideology which arose among Jews in the late 19th century in Central and Eastern Europe in reaction to recurring waves of antisemitic violence. It espouses the establishment of and support for a Jewish state in Palestine as a means of escaping the scourge of Jew hatred.

Seen as a creed promoting the creation of a place where Jews could enjoy refuge, Zionism seems unobjectionable. But from its inception, Zionism was a European ideology that was fundamentally similar to other forms of nationalism. Its proponents had no desire to share the land with the inhabitants of Palestine, the place they chose to situate their state. Rather, Zionists cast themselves as partners of European societies, promoting the Jewish state they envisioned as the European rulers’ regional ally in the Middle East.

In his seminal book, The Jewish State, Theodore Herzl—the father of modern Zionism—was explicit about this. He wrote:

We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral State remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence.

The parallels to all forms of colonialism enunciated by Herzl could not be clearer. In this brief statement, he encapsulated two key characteristics of the Zionist project. First, that the Jewish state would be an outpost of Europe in the Middle East and second, that it would be dependent upon the world’s great powers to provide it with the political and military backing necessary for its establishment and continued existence.

Supporters of Israel often express outrage if the country is described as an example of settler colonialism. But Herzl used the terms “settler” and “colony” to describe the project he was promoting in the book that inspired the Zionist movement. We shouldn’t find this surprising, given the fact that Zionism arose in the era when European colonialism was in full bloom and that Herzl drew inspiration for his planned Jewish state from other instances of colonialism.

Zionism was initially highly unpopular among Jews, who saw it as undermining the legitimacy of their right to live in the countries where they already resided. When the British government came out with the Balfour Declaration in 1916, supporting the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, Jews rejected it overwhelmingly. Zionism remained in disfavour in the ranks of Jews for the next 30 years.

It wasn’t until the Holocaust that the establishment of a Jewish state, portrayed as a refuge from antisemitism, became widely accepted among Jews. Ever since then romanticized, highly idealized visions of a Jewish state providing a sanctuary for Jews have been promoted in Jewish communities and institutions. But the impact that the creation and maintenance of a state privileging the position of Jews would have on the lives of the indigenous people who were already living in Palestine has been systematically ignored by the proponents of Zionism.

In recent decades, however, there has been a growing awareness of Zionist reality, characterized by the ever-expanding Israeli occupation, the apartheid political system that institutionalizes discrimination against non-Jews in the country, and the devastating impact that all this has had on Palestinian society. Instead of addressing the substance of the criticism that this growing awareness has generated, however, Israel and its defenders have chosen to smear its critics by labeling their criticism of Zionism as manifestations of antisemitism.

The growing strength of international campaigns in solidarity with Palestine, particularly the rise of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS movement, has generated considerable concern in Israel and in the ranks of its Zionist supporters. Israel has gone so far as to create a government ministry to wage war on BDS. Deploying hasbara, a Hebrew word connoting propaganda, it carries out campaigns to whitewash the actions of the Israeli state and brand criticisms of Israel as manifestations of antisemitism.

In the past several years, this strategy has been aggressively promoted through an organization called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which adopted a definition of antisemitism that focuses overwhelmingly on criticisms of Israel. The goal of those who are promoting this bogus definition is to have activities like BDS condemned as manifestations of antisemitism and to subject those who engage in them to legal sanctions. Kenneth Stern, the man who originally drew up the definition, wrote an article in the Guardian newspaper headlined, “I drafted the definition of antisemitism. Rightwing Jews are weaponizing it.”

I am proud to say that our organization, Independent Jewish Voices Canada, embraced BDS in 2009 as a legitimate, non-violent tactic. Furthermore, IJV is playing a leading role, both nationally and internationally, in opposing the IHRA initiative.

Ironically and dangerously, at a time when real antisemitism has reared its ugly head in the world, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as many other prominent Zionists, have embraced outright antisemitic Jew haters like Donald Trump and Victor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, because these same people are enthusiastic supporters of Israel. At their core, what all of these political figures share is a white supremacist view of the world.

The problems with Israel are not confined to the current, ultra-right wing Israeli government, however, led as it is by Netanyahu and including people like Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who brags about being a fascist homophobe. Nor can they be restricted to criticism of its genocidal actions in Gaza. The roots of these problems can be traced to the fact that, since its inception in the late 19th century, the goal of Zionism has been to establish a state in which Jews would constitute a numerical majority, where Jews from anywhere in the world would be encouraged to emigrate and enjoy privileged social and political status.

From the beginning, with few minor exceptions, all strands of Zionism shared the view that the creation of a Jewish state—a state in which Jews constituted the overwhelming majority and enjoyed the attendant privileges—required the displacement of the indigenous population that was already living in Palestine. There were tactical differences among various parts of the movement as to how this goal was to be achieved. Some hoped to convince the Palestinians to leave willingly; others wanted to buy them out; still others believed in expelling them by force of arms. But all shared the view that the task of ridding the region of its indigenous population was integral to the creation of a Jewish state.

While there was general agreement among Zionists that this goal was not to be discussed publicly, Zionist leaders endorsed the compulsory transfer of the Palestinian inhabitants of the region as essential to the creation of a Jewish state. The Twentieth Zionist Congress meeting in Zurich, Switzerland in 1937, went so far as to create a ‘transfer committee’ of experts whose task was to look into the practical aspects of the matter.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Zionist leaders played on the world’s guilt for having failed to save Europe’s Jews from the Nazi Holocaust. The Zionists exploited the attendant sympathy for the plight of Jews, using it to get international support for the creation of a Jewish state. They succeeded in 1948, when the United Nations voted to establish the state of Israel by dividing the territory of Mandate Palestine, giving 55 percent of it to the Jews and 45 percent to the Palestinians.

Zionist propagandists argue that their movement was reasonable and accommodating because they accepted the UN’s partition plan, while the Palestinians rejected it. But the Zionist leaders’ acceptance of the UN partition was strictly tactical. They never lost sight of their ultimate goal: annexation of the entire region.

Furthermore, the UN’s partition of Palestine in 1948 was no more legitimate than the bequeathing of the lands of North America by the monarchies of France and England to their respective colonists. In each of these instances, title to lands were granted by institutions that did not have the right to grant them.

The ensuing displacement of Palestinians by Zionist forces in 1948, which Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, or disaster, should be seen as the logical outcome of longstanding Zionist policy. Although Zionism’s defenders argue that the Palestinians who fled were responding to the call of surrounding Arab regimes to evacuate the area, there is no documentation of this in the historical record. What motivated the Palestinians to flee was the fact that the Zionist paramilitary organization known as the Haganah, as well as the terrorist Irgun and Stern groups, terrorized them into leaving by carrying out a number of massacres. As a result, in the course of the ensuing war more than 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes and more than 500 Palestinian villages were physically destroyed to prevent their residents from returning to them at a later date.

In other words, to create and maintain a Jewish majority in Palestine, Zionist forces pursued a policy that has been described in other, similar situations as “ethnic cleansing.” By the time the ostensibly defensive 1948 war had ended, the portion of Palestinian territory controlled by Israel had increased to 78 percent from the 55 percent stipulated in the UN partition plan.

The Zionists proceeded to build a Jewish state—granting privileged status to Jews, consolidating their control over the land and the people, and consigning the remaining Palestinians to second-class status.

In 1967, Israel fulfilled the Zionist dream of controlling the entirety of Mandate Palestine, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, by launching a pre-emptive war that captured the remaining 22 percent of the territory. It was at that time that Israel installed the military occupation that has controlled the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza ever since.

In the early 1970s, Zionist militants began building Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank in order to consolidate Zionist control there, a process that continues today, with more than 700,000 Israelis living in Jewish-only settlements there.

Frustrated with their status under Israeli rule as well as Israel’s adamant refusal to address issues related to the occupation or their plight living under military rule, Palestinians took to resisting the occupation, both peacefully and via armed struggle. Israel responded by tightening its control over the Palestinian population, imprisoning increasing numbers and subjecting them to ever harsher conditions, including torture.

In Gaza, where the population voted for the Hamas organization in 2006, Israel imposed the comprehensive blockade that has existed for the past 18 years, creating the world’s largest outdoor prison.

Through their comments and their actions over the years, Israel’s political leaders have made it clear that their intention has remained constant: to adhere to the original Zionist vision by gaining and maintaining control over all of the territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean and forcing the Palestinians to live as second-class citizens and under perpetual occupation.

The system of control that Israel has imposed on the Palestinians from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean has been described by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem as as apartheid. Others have labelled it a classic example of settler colonialism.

In an appearance before the UN last September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu erased any pretense of a willingness to negotiate a settlement with the Palestinians when he brandished a map of the region depicting the fulfillment of the Zionist dream: a map of Israel encompassing the entire territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean.

On October 7, the world witnessed the Palestinian response to this Israeli intransigence when an armed attack was mounted to break the Israeli blockade on Gaza and compel the world to address the plight of the people living there. Israel reacted by unleashing the genocidal attack on the people of Gaza that has killed more than 30,000 civilians, including 14,000 children.

Many of us are hard at work, trying to bring an end to the nightmare of the genocide that is being wrought in Gaza, with the active cooperation of the Canadian government. As important as it is to bring an immediate end to this slaughter, however, the long-term solution to the ongoing crisis in Israel-Palestine requires that we address the root of the problem: the institutionalization of Jewish supremacy, based in Zionist ideology, upon which the state of Israel has been built.

Independent Jewish Voices urges you to join us in this effort.

Sid Shniad is a founding member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada, an advocacy group formed in 2008 on principles of peace and justice in Israel-Palestine. He lives in Vancouver.


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