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Daniel Burston: What is Zionism?

Zionism is a movement for Jewish emancipation and self-determination that arose in response to the rising tide of anti-Semitism that engulfed Europe in the mid-19th century, which resulted in a flurry of armed campaigns (called “pogroms”) that were widely tolerated, and often secretly sponsored, by European states against their Jewish citizens. Calls for the establishment of an autonomous Jewish homeland started to occur with increasing frequency after 1840, but it was not until the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland in 1897, that the Eastern and Western European branches of the movement coalesced under the leadership of Theodor Herzl (1860-1904.) Herzl was a Viennese journalist and lawyer who covered the scandalous trial of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) for the Neue Freie Presse. Prior to that historic miscarriage of justice, Herzl had begun to doubt the promises of equality and brotherhood proclaimed by progressive politicians of that era, but was still generally in favor of Jewish integration and assimilation into the European mainstream. But he was so disgusted by the deluge of venomous anti-Semitism that swept the French press at the time of the Dreyfus trial that in 1896, he composed a book called The Jewish State proposing the outlines of a secular Zionist project (Avineri, 1981.)


Despite Herzl’s leadership in the 1890’s, Zionism is not, and never was, a homogeneous ideology. Historically speaking, it began as a movement to resettle portions of the Ottoman (and later British) ruled territory known as Palestine, and eventually, to establish Jewish sovereignty over these territories, which were collectively referred to as the Yishuv. A second goal, which was ratified at the Basel Congress, was to revive Hebrew, then a moribund language, giving Jews from vastly different cultures a common tongue to unify them socially and politically. A third goal shared by all Zionists was the desire to “normalize” relations between Jews and non-Jews. They believed that Jews’ lack of national/territorial sovereignty made them exquisitely vulnerable to marginalization, scapegoating, ridicule and worse. A fourth goal shared by Zionists was to reverse the process of deforestation and desertification that had engulfed the entire region, and to restore the once flourishing eco-system that had been devastated by the Ottoman Turks in the preceding two centuries. To that end, many Jews flocked from around the world to create agricultural communes known as “kibbutzim.” A kibbutz is an autonomous, self-governing community based on socialist ideals of direct participatory democracy, economic equality and gender equality. (The first kibbutz, Deganyah, was founded in 1909, and many others soon followed.)

These were the beliefs and aspirations that defined the Zionist consensus before WWII. However, in the war’s aftermath, after some long and contentious debates, the United Nations finally declared that a substantial portion of what would soon become the state of Israel should become a Jewish homeland on November 29, 1947. The leaders of the Yishuv accepted the territories allotted to them by the UN, but were immediately invaded by the armies of King Abdullah of Jordan, King Farouk of Egypt and militias organized by Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, who joined forces to drive the Jewish settlers out. (A large Iraqi contingent was also mobilized for this purpose.) Thanks in part to the experience and determination of many seasoned WWII veterans from the diaspora, who flocked to join the Yishuv’s defense force, the Hagannah, the Arab armies were soundly defeated, and David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), leader of Israel’s Mapai (Labour) Party declared statehood on May 14, 1948. Subsequent to that event, called the War of Independence by Israelis, and al nakbah (“the catastrophe”) by Palestinians, Zionists have agreed that Israel is entitled to retain the additional territories that were secured in what became the first Arab-Israeli war. These territorial boundaries were unchanged till the Six Day War in 1967.

Traditional Debates

For the sake of clarity, it is useful to distinguish between debates within Zionist circles and those that take place outside of them, among Zionists and non-Zionists. It is also important to remember that some Jews are not Zionists. Within the Jewish world, debates about Zionism have been shaped historically by differences between religious and secular Jews, left and right-wing Jews, and Jews who emigrated from Europe and America, on the one hand, and from Arab lands, on the other. For example, the kibbutz movement drew inspiration from socialists like Moses Hess (1812-1875) and David Aharon Gordon (1856-1922.) While a few kibbutzim had a religious orientation, most were committed to a secularized, democratic ethos, so many religious Jews opposed them at first. Most orthodox (and ultra-orthodox) Jews regarded the early Zionists as heretics and apostates who were trying to force God’s hand by hastening the arrival of the Messiah. Despite the example of Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), a Jewish poet, feminist and early Zionist in New York, many Reform Jews, particularly in the USA, argued that the Zionist project was impractical, and that the promises of equality in their host countries would be fulfilled in the fullness of time. In fact, many orthodox and Reform Jews remained uncommitted (or even anti-Zionist) until after the Holocaust, and to this day, several ultra-orthodox sects of Judaism remain non-Zionist (or anti-Zionist.)

Another longstanding debate in Zionist circles concerns the proper posture toward the Arab inhabitants of the Jewish homeland. These debates were shaped by too many factors to explore in detail here. Suffice it to say that Jews constituted a rapidly growing minority in Palestine between the 1880’s and WWII, but that they had also lived in the region since 13,000 BC. In 72 AD, Roman legions crushed a popular insurrection led by Bar Kochba, and sent most of the region’s surviving Jews into exile. Jews managed to maintain a small but continuous presence there, but suffered intermittent (and often vicious) persecution from Christian and Muslim rulers, who increasingly barred access to many of Judaism’s holiest places. Meanwhile the dream of returning to their ancestral homeland, inscribed in the liturgy of diaspora Jews, inspired hopes of their eventual return, which accelerated rapidly when it became apparent that, despite the defeat of the Nazis, that anti-Semitism was still prevalent and intense, and that most European countries were refusing to accept Jewish refugees from Germany, Poland and other European countries.

So, how to relate to the Arabs? Before WW II, Zionist leaders like Achad Ha’Am (1856-1927), Martin Buber (1878-1965), Henrietta Szold (1860-1945) and Moshe Sharett (1884-1965) all favored the creation of a bi-national state where Jews and Arabs live in harmony. Indeed, Martin Buber was profoundly disappointed by the UN partition of Palestine in 1947, and clung to the hope of a bi-national state until his death in 1965. At the other extreme were the followers of Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky (1880-1940), a militaristic right-winger who sought to expel the Arab inhabitants of Palestine and the West Bank to the Kingdom of Jordan to the East, or north to Lebanon and Syria. Jabotinsky was, among other things, an admirer of Mussolini, who founded the Irgun – a small, secretive paramilitary organization that split off from the Hagganah, in the early 1920’s. (British authorities recognized the Hagannah, but deemed the Irgun to be a terrorist organization, and rightly so.)

Meanwhile, the majority of Zionists did not embrace either the left or right-wing perspectives, but advocated a two-state solution, so that Jews might have sovereignty in areas where they constituted a numerical majority, and govern themselves according to democratic political norms. Some came to the “two state solution” somewhat reluctantly. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, supported a bi-national state at first, but opted a sovereign Jewish state after the Arab uprisings of 1936-1939. This campaign of terror against Jewish communities was sponsored and supported, at least in part, by the Nazi propaganda machine, and led by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini (1897-1974), an active and outspoken supporter of Hitler’s genocidal campaign against Jews in Europe.

Ben Gurion was not alone. As WWII commenced, attitudes towards Arabs among Zionists hardened considerably, and worsened again after the Six Day War in 1967, when Israel defeated the armies of its Arab neighbors (including Syria), and occupied Gaza and the West Bank. Despite the breathtaking speed of this historic victory, which stunned the entire world, the elderly David Ben-Gurion urged Israel’s fourth Prime Minister, Golda Meir (1898-1978), and her defense minister, Moshe Dayan (1915-1981), to withdraw immediately from the occupied territories. Ben Gurion argued that being an occupying power would gradually erode the fabric of Israeli democracy, and eventually isolate Israel in the court of world opinion – prophetic words, in retrospect. Instead, in the years that followed, Israel began an increasingly harsh and oppressive occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, which engendered much (illegal) territorial expansion in the West Bank, which continues to this day. The remainder of the occupied territories are now nominally under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority – formerly the Palestinian Liberation Organization, or PLO – and its Islamist rival, Hamas. But a real, functioning Palestinian state has yet to emerge, and one of the (many) unresolved questions that confront the world is whether Israel is really willing to relinquish the West Bank in exchange for peace.

One Zionist leader who demonstrated a genuine willingness to exchange land for peace was Yitzhak Rabin (1922-1995), Israel’s fifth prime minister. In his second term of office, from 1992 until his assassination in 1995, Rabin sought to achieve that goal by signing the (now defunct) Oslo Accords with the chairman of the PLO, Yasser Arafat (1929-2004) on 9 September 1993. For their movement toward mutual recognition, which was vigorously opposed by extremists on both sides, Rabin and Arafat were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995, and hopes for an enduring settlement among moderates on both sides were high.

Rabin’s peace efforts were supported by a small majority of the Israeli public at the time, but after Rabin’s assassination by a (Jewish) religious extremist on November 4, 1995, the (increasingly polarized) Israeli public elected Benjamin Netanyahu (1949-presnt) by a 1% margin. Under Netanyahu, leader of the Right wing Likud party, peace talks floundered, and in the wake of the second intifada in 2000, the efforts of Yossi Beilin (1948 – present), the leader of Left wing Meretz-Yachad from 2003-2006, failed to revive them, and the Oslo Accords eventually came to naught.

Traditional debates between Zionists and non-Zionists or (anti-Zionists) in the political arena tend to focus on two major issues; the Palestinians “right of return” to their pre-1948 homes and lands, and whether Israel even has a right to exist within the pre-1967 borders. These debates are all intricately intertwined, and we cannot do any of them justice here. Suffice it to say that on both these issues there is both a Zionist and a Palestinian narrative (Said, 1980; Flapan, 1987.) These narratives tend to dwell on the injustices heaped on Jews and Arabs, respectively, and unfortunately, in many instances, are riddled with distortions and omissions of various kinds. Leaving specific factual claims and omissions aside, anti-Zionists generally argue that European anti-Semitism, however dire, should have had a European solution, not one that inflicted hardships on innocent Palestinians. Zionists retort that in the wake of Holocaust, which already claimed one third of the world’s Jewish population, no European solution was forthcoming. Short of submitting to ongoing persecution and risking future genocidal campaigns, Zionists maintain, there really was no alternative but to return to the ancestral home.

Critical Debates

Critical debates on the subject of Zionism tend to dwell on whether or not Zionism is an intrinsically colonialist or racist enterprise, as opposed to a legitimate nationalist movement. Leo Lowenthal, a leading figure in the Frankfurt School, studied patterns of Zionist land acquisition before WWII, and concluded that most of the land purchases made by Jewish philanthropists and charities on behalf of displaced, destitute and persecuted Jews from Europe were perfectly legal. The problem was that thousands of tenant farmers who had lived on the feudal estates that Zionists typically acquired from the wealthy, landowning Arab elite were displaced and rendered destitute in turn. Despite his misgivings, however, Lowenthal remained a critical supporter of Israel (Jay, 1987.) Meanwhile, some Left leaning Israeli scholars and activists are enraged at the ongoing annexation of Palestinian lands, and are now thoroughly disenchanted with the Zionist narrative (e.g. Beit Hallahmi, 1993; Aloni et al., 2011.) Some diaspora Jews, like historian Tony Judt, an ardent Zionst in his youth, reject the two state solution as unworkable, favoring the creation of single, democratic state in the region that will give Arabs their full civil rights (Judt, 2003.)

For a slightly different perspective, consider the life and work of Albert Memmi (1920 – present), a Jewish native of Tunisia, and the author of the celebrated psychological study The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957.) In 1962, Memmi published an incisive study of post-WWII anti-Semitism called Portrait of A Jew, in which he pondered the possibility of Jews aligning themselves en masse with Right wing political parties. Memmi deemed the difficulty “ . . . not to say the impossibility of militating to the Right” to be obvious, writing that:

“How can a man be a Rightist when he is a Jew?. . . The alliance of Jewry with Right wing movements can never be anything but temporary . . . To preserve the existing order, the Right has to stiffen and emphasize differences while at the same time having no respect for what is different. To preserve itself as a privileged group, it must repulse, restrict and repress other groups. Now it may be that a Jew may desire the survival of a given social order in which, by chance, he is not too unhappy. But in addition, he wants the differences between himself and the non-Jews in that class to be forgotten or at least minimized. The Right, either openly or covertly, drives the Jew back to his Jewishness and can only condemn and burden his Jewishness (pp.218-219.)”

At the time these words were written, a decade after the Holocaust, the vast majority of Jews (on both sides of the Atlantic) would undoubtedly have shared this assessment. But Memmi was mistaken. Why? Because when Jews are no longer a minority, but a majority bent on territorial expansion – a development Memmi did not foresee – a drift to the Right is almost inevitable, especially under conditions of external duress, when they still comprise an embattled minority in relation to the surrounding region.

Israel’s drift to the right began after the election of Menachem Begin (1913-1992) in 1977. Though he eventually made a peace treaty with President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, Begin began his career as a leader of the Irgun, and was the principle architect – along with defense Minister and future Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon (1928-present) – of the disastrous Lebanese invasion of 1982. While some Israeli settlers had started to occupy portions of the West Bank and Gaza before Begin’s election, Begin and his successors accelerated the rate of settlement activity, complicating the prospects for a negotiated peace and a two-state solution immeasurably. He also made concessions to and coalitions with orthodox and ultra-orthodox factions, giving them unprecedented power in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. For the most part, some coalition of right (or centrist) and religious factions continues to dominate Israeli politics – and to frustrate efforts toward a meaningful and lasting peace – to this day. As a result, many readers of The Colonizer and the Colonized have taken to applying the logic of Memmi’s argument there to the Israeli/Palestinain conflict.

Not surprisingly, the Israeli electorate’s steady drift to the right, and its apparent inability to relinquish Arab lands and restore human rights, has alienated most non-Jewish Leftists in the West. Israel has justified the continuing occupation of Arab lands on security grounds, which are particularly salient with the Golan Heights, which the Syrian regime used frequently to rain artillery shells down on Israeli kibbutzim. Israel’s recent withdrawal from Gaza has also not produced the hoped for improvement in security. (Quite the contrary.) Nevertheless, international skepticism about Israel’s underlying intentions grew dramatically after the brutal (and ultimately futile) invasion of Lebanon in 1982; a war many Israelis also opposed. And as the Left’s support for Zionism waned in the West, the (previously non-existent) support from the Right waxed stronger, especially in the United States and Canada.

Despite these dramatic geopolitical shifts, Memmi still believes that Israel has a right to exist, and unlike many of his former admirers, refuses to characterize Israel as an old-fashioned colonial power or proxy (Memmi, 2006.) But the growth of Jewish settlements beyond Israel’s 1948 borders and the increasing encroachments on the human rights of Arabs is a source of continuing anguish and outrage in progressive Zionist circles, with the majority of Left-leaning Jews – including celebrated Israeli authors Amos Oz and David Greenberg – still vigorously oppose them, and advocate for a two-state solution (Goodman, 2011.)

So in the last four decades, as the Occupation grinds on, the Zionist mainstream has broken with its progressive past, shifting gradually to the right. The nightmarish scenarios that haunted the elderly Ben Gurion, then the middle-aged Yitzhak Rabin, have now become a palpable reality. Despite a fairly robust economy, economic inequality within Israel’s 1948 borders continues to deepen dramatically. The electorate is increasingly polarized, and the status of women and minorities continues to deteriorate, fostering a resurgence of authoritarianism, ethnocentrism and racism, and a drift toward theocratic modes of thinking that are indifferent if not hostile to genuine democracy. In short, despite the democratic dreams and aspirations of its founders, Israel is in imminent danger of becoming no more than a thuggish, theocratic state, like many of the Muslim regimes that control most of the region. Nevertheless, readers of Memmi are acutely aware that Muslim anti-Semitism antedates the Zionist movement by many centuries, and will therefore be wary of anti-Zionist rhetoric which claims that “Zionism is racism” or which equates Zionism with Nazism. Odd as it sounds, these claims are often made in conjunction with Holocaust minimization or frank denial – clear evidence of anti-Semitic bias.

Practical Applications

Psychology as such obviously has nothing whatsoever to say about the legitimacy (or otherwise) of the Zionist project and the state of Israel, but it can address the social psychological problems and processes that promote terrorism and prevent a peaceful resolution of the Arab/Israeli conflict from being reached. For example, in the wake of the Lebanese invasion, a lot was learned about the immediate behavioral impact of Post Traumatic Stress on combat veterans, and some work has also been done on the intergenerational transmission of trauma among Holocaust survivors and their children (e.g. Kogan, 1998.) But in the historical-political dimension, it would be instructive to know what role the prevalence of PTSD among Holocaust survivors and WWII veterans – who comprised roughly half of the fledgling state of Israel’s population – played in shaping their attitudes toward their Arab neighbors and adversaries, and Israel’s gradual transformation into an increasing polarized polity that is obsessed with security in the face of relentless terrorist attacks – car bombs, suicide bombers, rocket attacks, etc. Since PTSD and the intergenerational transmission of trauma also fosters terrorist attitudes and activities among displaced Palestinians and their offspring, more research along these lines could contribute to a peaceful resolution of the Middle East conflict, in due course (see, e.g. Volvin and Volkan, 2003.)

Future Directions

Another fascinating topic that has yet to be adequately investigated is the role which collective trauma plays in promoting self-deception and self-fulfilling prophecies. One conviction many Zionists harbor is that the Jews must be self-reliant because they are isolated; the entire world, or most of it, is already firmly against them. Among many proponents of the Zionist narrative, this (collective) preconception precludes a candid reckoning with the extent to which Israel has lost the confidence of other (non-Arab) nations and people of good will around the world. While grounded in a harrowing and tragic history, to a certain extent, this belief is also a self-fulfilling prophecy, because it generates obstinate, brazen and self-defeating policies and practices that, at a pragmatic, political level, just isolate Zionists even further.


Aloni, U., Badiou, A., Butler. J. and Zizek, S. 2011. What Does a Jew Want? On Binationalism and Other Specters. New York: Columbia University Press.

Avineri, S. 1981. The Making of Modern Zionism. New York. Basic Books.

Beit Hallahmit, B. 1993. Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel.

New York: Olive Branch Press.

Flapan, S. 1987. The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities. New York: Pantheon.

Goodman, H. 2011. The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival. Toronto: McClellan and Stewart.

Jay. M. (ed.) 1987. An Unmastered Past: The Autobiographical Reflections of Leo Lowenthal. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Judt. T. 2003. “Israel: The Alternative.” The New York Review of Books (October 23.)

Kogan, I. 1998. “The black hole of dread: the psychic reality of children of Holocaust survivors.” In Berke, J., Pierides, S. Sabbadini, A. and Schneider, S. (eds.) Even Paranoids have Enemies: Hew Perspectives on Paranoia and Persecution. London:


Memmi, A. 1957. Portrait of A Jew. New York: Viking Press (1971.)

Memmi, A. 1962. The Colonizer and the Colonized. Reprinted by Beacon Press, Boston, 1991.

Memmi, A. 2006. Decolonization and the Decolonized. Translated by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Said, E. 1980. The Question of Palestine. New York: Pantheon.

Varvin, S. and V. D. Volkan (eds.) 2003. Violence or Dialogue: Psychoanalytic Insights on Terror and Terrorism. London: International Psychoanalytical Association.

From The Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology, edited by Thomas Teo, and published by Springer Publishers, New York, 2014. Reprinted by permission of the author.

2 comments on “Daniel Burston: What is Zionism?

  1. daniel r. cobb
    November 21, 2015

    A short and incredibly educational essay. Thanks for this, Daniel Burston and VP.


  2. lostinmist
    June 2, 2015

    Reblogged this on Mindfire Cantata.


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