Zionism’s catch-22: European and Middle Eastern


“Despite what many in the secular-European camp feel, it’s not the end of the world…this is the era of the Sephardim and the religious,” wrote Ravit Hecht on July 25. Her use of the term “European” juxtaposed with “Sephardim” to refer to a cultural and political struggle in Israel is part of a larger narrative that views Israel as a “European” state being inexorably drawn into its Middle Eastern milieu.

At the heart of this is a catch-22 when it comes to Zionism, the foundational movement that created Israel.  On the one hand some Zionists claim that it is a disaster that Israel is becoming less “European” and at the same time they argue that Zionism has a right to the Middle East based on Jewish ties to the Middle East.  They fear allegations that Zionism is a colonial movement, while at the same time complaining about “Middle Eastern” influences on Israel.

Zionism was born in Europe and based many of its concepts on European nationalism, but it sought to reconstitute a Jewish nation in the Middle East. Theodore Herzl wrote that Jews must “live as a free nation on our own soil” and “we aspire to our ancient land.”  David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel told the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry in 1946, before statehood, that Zionism desires “Jewish soil” and “our love for Zion.”  The declaration of independence of the new state in 1948 says that the Levant “was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped.”

A raison d’etre for Zionism was the maltreatment of Jews in Europe. Jews were perceived as oriental and foreign. Johann Gottfried Herder, the 18th century German philosopher, claimed Jews were “an Asiatic people alien to our continent.” Arthur Shopenhauer in the 19th century claimed Jews were an “oriental, alien people.” Prominent Jews such as Watler Rathenau and Arnold Zweig agreed that Jews were “an Asiatic horde” and that their home was “in Asia.”  Almost every European intellectual who considered the “Jewish question” or discussed Jews, which was a common fetish in 19th century Europe, wrote about their “oriental” ethnicity, religion, features, and origin.

But something happened when Zionism and the anti-semitism Jews had suffered in Europe met with the Middle Eastern reality. Jews in Europe were seen as “vagrant Arabs” by Europeans such as Voltaire, but Jewish immigrants from Europe were horrified by the actual Arabs they found in Ottoman Palestine. From that moment a new concept of Zionism emerged in which leading Zionist thinkers such as Arthur Ruppin created a racial and ethnic matrix based on what they had learned in university in Germany.  In their new conception Jews were divided into three major groups.  Aryeh Geldblum, a writer for Haaretz in the 1950s noted that there were “three main blocs: the Ashkenazi-European, Spanish-Balkan, and the Arab-African…should dare to say that the first bloc is the elite; the second bloc is the inferior one; and the third bloc, the Arab-African one, is even dangerous!”

The fear that Israel would become “levantine” and “Arab” was often a topic of discussion in the early years of the state.  Words such as “primitive” were used to describe the local Arab population and Jewish immigrants from Muslim countries. In 2013 Israeli writer Ari Shavit was still claiming that “Oriental Israelis are not aware what Israel saved them from: a life of misery and backwardness in an Arab Middle East.”  When he writes “Oriental” he is borrowing the old term used by Jewish immigrants from Europe for Jews from the Middle East.  Ironically even though the Jews from the Middle East were actually indigenous to the lands around what was then Ottoman Palestine, the European Jewish immigrants called them “Oriental” as if they were were foreigners, rather than locals.  One of the early acts of Zionist immigrants, especially the second Aliyah after 1904, who ostensibly sought to renew the Jewish connection to the land, was to disregard Jews from the Middle East and their connection to the land and classify them as “oriental.”

This bifurcation within Zionism of “European” and “Oriental” replicated the anti-semitic tropes then common in Europe which Jews from Europe had absorbed.  Unlike some Jewish writers in Europe who absorbed the tropes and declared that they were indeed “oriental” foreigners, in this instance the Jewish immigrants re-wrote their own history to posit that they were European migrants.  In subsequent generations the group of mostly Second Aliyah Zionists would re-define themselves as a “White tribe.”  This self-definition, a pride in being European and “white”, is articulated in his claim that “liberal, secular, Ashkenazi elites”, have “the core values of liberal democracy have become associated with the so-called ‘white tribe’ of the secular Ashkenazi ‘elite’ ”

Fear of the Arab ‘other’ and of Sephardim, Mizrahim, Ethiopians, Orthodox Jews and everyone who doesn’t fit into this small “European” bubble, is a theme in Israeli writing.  Meirav Arlosoroff wrote in 2013 that “the new Israel will be more Arab, more Haredi [ultra-orthodox], the changing population threatens economic disaster.”  Ari Shavit also thinks “Jerusalem is lost” and that “demography has had its say…Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) students currently account for 39 percent of all the capital’s school children. Arab students account for 37 percent of the capital’s school children. Zionists account for only 24 percent of the capital’s school children.” Richard Cohen articulates this fear for the declining “European” ethnicity in Israel best best when he wrote in his book: “Who will defend Israel when its national character is no longer that of the European exile, the fighting intellectual, rifle in one hand and a volume of Kierkegaard in the other? What will happen when Jews from Islamic lands, already nearly 50% of the population, become a healthy majority and change the face that Israel presents to the world, particularly America?”

Notice in most of these cases that “European” is not just a culture in Israel but also a racial and ethnic characteristic.  Those who are non-European, or non-white can never have the values of Europe, they are by their nature presented as “non-secular”, eastern and “Oriental.”

The catch-22 presented here is that the same people that want a “European” Israel tend also to walk in the same circles as those who describe Zionism as an “ethnocratic settler” movement with colonial roots.  Oren Yiftachel and other Israeli academics present Israel as a “pure settler colonialism” akin to Australia or Canada. Foreign anti-Israel activists see Israel the same way, as an artificial and anachronistic European colony in the Middle East. Many of them draw parallels with South Africa, Rhodesia and Algeria as example where European colonialism failed.

So why do some of the same voices that critique Israel for its “colonial” origins, also outrightly say that Israel is becoming less European and that this is a problem.  For Israel to be less European means that it becomes more rooted in the Middle East.  For it to become more “Oriental” and more Arab and Sephardic or Mizrahi, is a return to the actual roots of the Jewish people, the same ones that early Zionists sought to recreate.


European or Middle Eastern? (Seth J. Frantzman)

The problem facing Israel as it has this janus face of “east” and “west” was discussed at a recent meeting of the Association of Israel Studies at Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and the Menachem Begin Heritage Center on June 20-22. A “western or eastern nation,” they asked.

The western or eastern issue has two sides to it.  If it is only a cultural question or legal question, then Israel’s “European” sides are open for discussion.  But the way some Israelis think of the “European” aspect of Israel, as an iron-clad racial and ethnic club to which one is born into, is an archaic and racist concept.  It then becomes a catch-22.  If you think Israel is not “European” enough then why are you living in the Middle East?  The Middle East is not European, so Europeans should not complain that living in the Middle East entails living around “Arabs” and “orientals”.

One suspects that the same people who complain the most about the decline of “European” people in Israel don’t want to go back to Europe, where they claim to be at home, because they want to remain as a white colonialist in a foreign land and use that foil to burnish their credentials as self-critical. They don’t feel comfortable in Europe, where they are part of the vast majority and their self-flagellating and complaining about “orientals” falls on deaf ears, they can only be comfortable in an environment in which they are a supposedly elite minority preserving “European culture” agains the “oriental hordes.”  They have a second problem, which is that their view of being European as naturally superior is out of date in Europe. When writer Amos Harel notes that “Arab migrants swamp Europe,” he is repeating a very Israeli nomenclature and description of the fear of the Arab ‘other’.  Europeans once claimed also that Jewish “hordes” were “swamping Europe,” but only the radical right speaks that way today.

The fear of “Levantinization” in Israel and Arab and Mizrahi demography “changing” European Israel is a microcosm of what is happening in Europe with migration, yet the kinds of discussions and boasting about a country as a “European” state are not considered polite in a liberal context. This creates the odd result that Israel may be the last country where being “European” is spoken of with pride and a need to defend “Europeans” from “Arabs” is considered a normal discussion in a left wing and liberal context.

At the same time the more Israelis talk about themselves as proud of their “white” and “European” heritage, the more they are out of step with Europe and the West, the more they sound like Crusaders and colonialists which is what they are accused of by the left in Europe and many voices in the Arab world.  Early Zionists wanted a state among the nations, but also one rooted in its historic soil, the more “European” Israel needs to be, the less it is rooted in its Middle Eastern context, the more it is a foreign transplant, the more credence is given to the voices that say Jews should “return” to Europe.

Zionism and Israel sits on this fence between the Middle East and Europe, much as does Turkey.  In some ways it is outwardly European, such as in its architecture and its laws, its outwardly liberal culture. But it is not European in its ethnicity and parts of its mass culture. Its religiousness and high birth rates mark it as essentially different than Europe.

It is stuck in a catch-22 whereby it’s ostensibly more liberal and left-leaning voices cling to a “European” fantasy in which they are a small, insular and European minority in a Middle Eastern context, under siege by “barbarians”, in much the same way Ian Douglas Smith might have described Rhodesia or some South Africans might have described their country in 1989. Israel’s more right-leaning groups tend to see themselves as rooted in the Middle East, as less “European”, and more Jewish, and their desire to “settle the land” stems from that.  Of course a country can have a janus-faced identity just as Russia once debated between Slavophiles and Westernizers.  In general the trend is against a European and western identity, and therefore it seems clear the clinging to this identity is primarily a foil of a lost and embittered cause.  Russel Means, the American Indian leader said in 1980 that “for America to live, Europe must die” in which he articulated anti-European values and an anti-European worldview.

Zionism’s catch-22 encapsulates the problem that Means articulated.  It was a European-born movement designed to re-constitute a non-European nation in the Middle East. Having succeeded in doing so, the remnants of its European background cling to their imagined European roots, not culturally or ideologically, but ethnically. At the same time they fear, for no reason, the non-Europeans who are indigenous to the Middle East.  They often fear most of all their own Jewish brothers who are from the Middle East, which they deride as “primitive”, “oriental” and “Mizrahi-Sephardi”, which they classify as “foreigners” in their own land. They feel uncomfortable with the ethnocratic nature of Zionism, even as they preach ethnocracy.  They thrive off of hypocrisy and contradiction. They are least comfortable with what they see as the colonial aspects of Zionism, while at the same time wanting to preserve themselves as a colony, rather than integrate into the Middle East. The question is whether Zionism and the state it has created can ever feel fully rooted in the soil, or always looking over its back, worried about Europe.  Can it cut the tether, or is the tether necessary to maintain the myth of being both foreign and rooted at the same time?



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