Zionism: Of the Jews, or for the Jews?
March 7 saw the publication of Yuval Elizur and Lawrence Malkin’s The War Within: Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Threat to Democracy and the Nation.
The way Israeli society and its constituent Zionist supporters abroad talk about the Haredi problem is reminiscent of the way Americans once spoke of Manifest Destiny, or Europeans of the “White Man’s Burden.” This debate about how best to win the “war” against this minority, which must be “assimilated” and “integrated,” goes to the heart of the definition of Zionism itself. Is Zionism for the Jews, or of the Jews? If it is for the Jews it is coercive and exclusive, if it is of the Jews then it is inclusive, whether those Jews speak Arabic, Ladino or Yiddish.
TO UNDERSTAND the roots of the current “war” elite society is encouraging people to wage against the Haredim one has to look at the roots of Zionism. In 1898 Max Nordau spoke at the Second Zionist Congress of the need for Jews to embrace physical labor and strength: “Let us once more become deepchested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men…For no other people will gymnastics fulfill a more educational purpose than for us Jews. It shall straighten us in body and in character…Our new, muscle Jews have not yet regained the heroism of our forefathers who in large numbers eagerly entered the sports arenas in order to take part in competition.”
This call to his fellow Jews was not coercive, but rather based on consensus building and the logic found in his language. However, the Zionist call for the “Conquest of Labor” in Ottoman Palestine quickly became coercive.
Haim Arlosoroff noted in 1927: “There is almost no example of an effort by a people engaged in settlement (am mityashev) with a European standard of needs to transform a country with a low wage level that is made even lower by the immigration of cheap labor into a site for mass immigration and mass settlement without using coercive means.”
In only a quarter of a century part of the Zionist movement progressed from seeking consensus to forcing a “coercive” paradigm on people. Most of this was due to the shock of having to live in the Land of Israel. The Zionist leaders from Europe sought to import a “European standard” into the country. The models they found in the country, such as Rothschild’s plantation settlements, were unacceptable and had to be brushed aside.
This had catastrophic affects on the existing Jewish structures in the land.
Much of Palestine’s economy at that time was dominated by important Sephardic families, such as the Amzalaks, Abulafias, Navons, Bechars, Valeros and others. Sephardic Jewish workers, such as the Yemenites who had settled at Ben Shemen, were not welcome on the new “European” kibbutzim that were established.
Strict “acceptance committees” were set up by the European Jewish immigrants to weed out the wrong “human material.” This was the beginning of the imposition of Zionism for the Jews, and the abandonment of Zionism of the Jews.
IT IS interesting that it is in this period that we see a vociferous rejection of Zionism by Orthodox and Reform Jews. The Orthodox understood that this new European model was not inclusive. Today the pundits speak of the Orthodox not “assimilating into Israel,” when in fact it was the Zionist European immigrants who themselves never sought to integrate or assimilate into the economy of Ottoman or British Palestine. An Orthodox or Sephardic family resident in Palestine for 13 generations is today ordered to “integrate” by those whose time in the Land of Israel might not stretch back more than a decade.
A more tragic episode followed Israel’s War of Independence. Despite the government’s desire to ingather the exiles, a deep-seated racism existed against Jewish immigrants who came from Muslim countries. Vienneseborn Labor Zionist elitist Amos Elon was sent by Haaretz to visit potential Jewish immigrants in 1953, but “portrayed the mellah [Jewish quarter] of Casablanca as a place of stench, degeneracy, disease and perversity.”
According to scholar Orit Rozen, he worried about what effect “uncontrolled fertility would have on the Jewish people’s genetic robustness,” and another Israeli claimed the immigrants “could spread disease from transit camps to kibbutzim.”
Other European-born Zionists who had only become “Israelis” several years prior claimed that the new immigrants were like a “foreign country.” Ironically, these Jewish immigrants spoke Arabic, which was the language of the Middle East, rather than the German and Yiddish those like Elon spoke, and yet they were the “foreigners” with “degenerate genetic material.”
When the Yemenite Jews arrived author Anita Shapira relates how “the teachers did not hesitate to tell students to cut off their [traditional] sidelocks, throw away their hats and turn their backs on religious tradition.”
Where the Sephardic Chelouce family had once welcomed European moshavniks into their home in Jaffa, now the Sephardim were subjected to the full weight of a racist bureaucracy intended to destroy their culture.
Yemenite girls who wore long dresses were ordered to undress and wear shorts – everything “native” had to go.
Sassoon Somekh, a Baghdadi Jew from an intellectual family who became a scholar in Israel recalls arriving in Israel and being ordered by a Yiddish-speaking Jewish Agency official into a barbed wire encircled transit camp. He remembers it “created a feeling, for the first time among many of the Iraqis, that they were second-class citizens.”
Indeed, they were second class citizens.
They could never be admitted into kibbutzim by the “acceptance committees” that Labor Zionism had set up. Their fate was to be sent to “development towns” to work as cheap labor in the place of the Arabs who had fled the country during the war.
THERE WERE many in the General Zionist and Herut parties who objected to this mistreatment.
Revisionist Zionists had incorporated Sephardic Jews into the ranks. When Menachem Begin – who the Labor Zionists called a “fascist” – toured the transit camps, he brought along an Arabic-speaking Jew to translate. Who were the real fascists, those like Elon who worried about “genetic robustness,” or those like Begin who sought to meet the Jewish immigrants who he believed deserved an equal place in the state? While the kibbutzniks were sealing the Mizrahim in transit camps and development towns another group of zealots set out to defeat the Orthodox. Yitzhak Laor recalls, “in the 1960s, when the ultra-Orthodox of Mea She’arim closed off its streets on the Sabbath, kibbutzniks came to Jerusalem wielding sticks to fight ‘the sons of darkness.’” Thus, even though almost 10 percent of the country’s land had been distributed to the kibbutzim – that put up fences to keep the rest of Israel’s citizens off their property – the kibbutzniks still felt they had to colonize through violence the remaining congested urban areas where Haredim lived.
Not all Jewish immigrants were wanted by the elites, who believed that Zionism was for the Jews, and not of the Jews. Although Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the second president of Israel, had written about the Ethiopian Jews, and even though Ethiopian Jewish leaders had sought to provide shelter for European Jews fleeing Nazism, the nascent state of Israel rejected Ethiopian Jews who wanted to make aliyah. In 1959 Ma’ariv journalist Yuval Elizur wrote that “it is an ostrich-like policy to ignore the skin color… we must consider that bringing all the ‘Falashas’ in a short period of time will create a racial problem in Israel.”
Of course, bringing as many light-skinned European Jews to a Middle Eastern country would not create a “racial problem.” It was the Africans that had to be kept out; they were not right for Israel. Is it a surprise that Mr. Elizur is also the co-author of The War Within? There are post-Zionists who have sought to dismantle Zionism. Amos Elon, the same journalist who worried in 1953 that the Sephardim would bring “bad genetics” to pollute Israel, became a post-Zionist in 2004 and moved to Italy, claiming Sephardim had ruined “his” country. Ironically, some of the leaders of post-Zionism were from kibbutzim and many initially preached an exclusivist Zionism.
But for those who are Zionist, there remains the existential issue of whether Zionism is for the Jews or of the Jews. When people start claiming Jews must “assimilate” or “integrate” into Israel, it is important to ask what that means. When people assert that “Boris is not an Israeli name,” we need to ask who defines what an “Israeli” name is. When they claim that Israel has a “war within,” we have to wonder: what kind of Zionism is it that fights a “war” with other Jews? When textbooks produced in Israel describe Ethiopian Jews as moving to Israel “for the money,” or, as Anita Shapira claimed, that Sephardim had to be “compelled to get used to physical work,” we need to demand an answer: what kind of Zionism is it that views non-European Jews in such a bigoted light? FOR SOME leaders and intellectuals, Zionism was never meant to be a movement of all the Jews. The “bad genetics” meant the Moroccans had to be kept out, the “darkness” meant the Orthodox could not be members, and the lack of knowledge of “physical work” or prevalence of “diseases” meant Iraqi, Yemenite and Indian Jews were not wanted.
But one cannot “integrate” into a Zionism predicated on the superiority of one Jew over another.
Even today Israel is haunted by the discrimination of the 1950s; we have never sufficiently confronted these statements because for many these exclusivist intellectuals are still heroes of the state. Jews abroad still buy into the rhetoric of the “war within”, so that Zionism can triumph. But Zionism cannot triumph over the Jews; it is either a movement of the Jews, or it is a disgrace to its goals.