“Zionism is racism and is somehow comparable to Nazism.” How often have we read that online? People assuming that Zionism is pure evil, without even knowing what Zionism really is and the political context in which it is born. But let’s take the argument seriously and see if it is the case that Zionism isn’t a form of nationalism, like so many anti-Zionists claim.
Before I go any further, this article doesn’t deal with left-wing anti-Semitism, but more with the main political argument made against Zionism. For left-wing antisemitism, please read Contemporary Left Antisemitism by David Hirsh, which deals with this question brilliantly.
The main point, and potentially the only one that seems to be valid against Zionism, is that it isn’t comparable to any form of nationalism, as Jews don’t speak but one language. This is one of the points often made by some sections of the left.
Let’s be clear: it is stating the obvious to say that the Jewish community is as diverse as any other community, and therefore Jews across the world do speak different languages and have different cultures too.
After all, the French or British Jewish community have many differences and the language is one of them. One community speak English, the other one French. But claiming that Zionism isn’t a form of “nationalism” because of the difference of languages that exists amongst the Jewish Community across the globe is simply considering that a shared language or dialect is the only criterion that distinguishes different nationalism between themselves.
This also denies the fact that other factors, such as shared political experience, religion, or even the identification to a specific region can all play a part in the birth of any nation or “political national revival movement”.
Let me give you some examples. It is a fact that the main European nations are identified by their languages. French people do speak French; therefore, the language has helped to create a French identity. Germany or Italy managed to unify their territory using their distinctive language too.
However, other factors have also played an equally important part in the birth of those nations.
French nationalism, for example, was built around the language, shared common political values and history. Wars have played their part in shaping the territory and to fix the borders between France and its neighbours with the help of geography. The Pyrenees became a natural border after successive wars with Spain, the Alps were divided between Switzerland, Italy and France with the conquest of Savoy by the French, whilst the river Rhin was used as a natural but disputed border with the German Empire.
But political events such as the French Revolution, have also created mainstream shared political values that, through the spread of national education public services, have helped to create the country that we all call France today. Let’s not forget that Catholicism has also played its part too, by organising communities and building monuments that are regarded as national treasures in France, such as the cathedrals.
Germany and Italy went through an identical process but the unification of those countries was also helped by the need of creating a national economic space for the German and Italian ruling classes.
In other words, and through a painful process, those nations were also created to help capitalism to flourish by connecting resources and products with their customers. The political divisions in many different small states in both countries, was standing against the establishment of national capitalism that needed a national space with no internal borders to grow.
Therefore, in all those main European countries, history, religions, economy and geography have all played their part in the birth of modern European nation and in the “European political revival movement” of the 19th Century.
So, what about Zionism then? What the anti-Zionists seem to ignore is that the Jewish community went through a very similar process. At the time of the birth of those modern nations (18th to early 20th centuries), the same political awakening happened amongst Jewish community across Europe, but escalated dramatically by the second part of the 19th Century.
Yes, the Jewish community doesn’t have in common a language that is widely spoken by all Jews across Europe, and not all Jews speak Yiddish. However, the Jewish community has in common a shared history of persecutions and pogroms. This element was a key determinant in the birth and expansion of Zionism.
Anti-Semitism was part of Christianity since the very beginning, and Jews were still considered as “slaves amongst the other nations” that would “remain in the dispersion until the end of the world” by the Catholic Church at the end of 19th century.
The reaction of the Catholic Church shortly after the Basel Conference in 1897 would have been quite rightly qualified as anti-Semitic today, but it wasn’t seen as such back then. The Church reminded the world that the Jews should not be permitted to return to Palestine with sovereignty, but must live like “vagabond”, “slaves” as they were “all responsible for the murder of Jesus Christ”.
What we have here is the foundation on which any kind of Anti-Semitism has been built on: the collective responsibility of the Jews. Therefore, denying them the right to have their own separate nation, is intrinsically linked to the supposedly collective responsibility of all Jews for the death of Jesus Christ.
And yet, it is this widespread anti-Semitism that has helped to shape Jewish own form of political national revival movement. Of course, it isn’t the only element that came into play here. Politics also played its part too. But mainly it is this common experience of exclusion, felt by many European Jews in the country of their birth that has slowly led many Jews to consider Zionism as a credible alternative.
Complete integration into European society was made nearly impossible in the late 19th Century due to a wave of anti-Semitic crimes in Europe that only stopped after WW2 with the consequences that we all know. If Russia was seen as the main anti-Semitic state in Europe, other countries such as France, Germany or Austria weren’t far behind.
(Antisemitic caricature shortly after the big bang at the stock exchange in Vienna (9th May 1873)
For example, Vienna was famous for its anti-Semitism. It was very common in Austria to depict “rich Jews” making money in anti-Semitic caricature for newspapers using the “distinctive big nose”.
In France, Rothschild was often depicted as being the true master of the world in various French Newspapers, whilst Captain Dreyfus, a French Jewish Officer wrongly accused of being a traitor was regularly portrayed as “a rat” in the same French Newspaper.
It is this shared experience of hatred that has helped in the birth of a distinct form of what is right to call a nationalism for the Jewish community. It is in reaction to anti-Semitism that Zionism was born. Therefore, denying the fact that Zionism is a nationalism, that Jews have the right to have their won state, still constitutes today a form of Anti-Semitism.
It is the only logical conclusion we must draw. To the contrary of what many seem to believe, Zionism wasn’t created as a xenophobic movement, but found its origin in the widespread anti-Semitism that existed especially in the late 19th century in Europe, and somehow still exists today.
Of course, I know that many of those who consider Zionism as a racist movement don’t necessarily consider themselves to be anti-Semites. They often draw the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. And many truly believe it is possible to distinguishes both when it comes to Israel. After all, Zionism, like any other nationalism, is also built on the idea that Jews must have their own independent state.
What the Israeli government does can and should be criticised in the same way that we do criticise other governments too. But just as it is silly to consider that other nations don’t have the right to exist, due to the action of their own governments, why make this exception with Israel?
To understand that, we need to come back to the origin of all kinds of anti-Semitism, the collective responsibility of all Jews and therefore the denial of the existence of their own separate state. And that’s the problem with the anti-Zionist movement, as it can’t really distinguish itself with anti-Semitism.
 Also it should be pointing out that not all Catholics were anti-Semites.