Zionism Is an Expression of Jewish Identity

Article excerpt

BYLINE: Milton Shain

In identifying the dominant objectives of Zionism ("Zionism a 'terrible enemy' of the Jewish people", March 10), Professor Yakov Rabkin ignores the key reason for the Jewish national movement's emergence and success: to safeguard a beleaguered Jewish people and their rich culture in the wake of failed emancipation.

By mentioning "resentment by some conservative circles of the entry of Jews into European society", Rabkin chooses to ignore and distort the depth of anti-Jewish hatred that convulsed Europe from the late 19th century.

Pogroms in the Ukraine, with its three to four million Jewish inhabitants, following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, dashed Jewry's hopes of liberal reform. Although the numbers killed were insignificant when compared to mass murder in the 20th century, the state's cynical disregard for the victims shattered Jewish confidence. Some 20 000 Jews (or nearly two thirds of the community) were expelled from Moscow in 1891, and this was followed by the Kishenev massacres in 1903.

The notorious "Black Hundreds" rendered tens of thousands of Jews homeless following attacks launched in Russia in 1905. And tens of thousands were killed in the Ukraine during the Civil War in 1919.

Zionism challenged precisely the religious passivity that Rabkin advocates. He is evidently embarrassed and perhaps ashamed by Israeli actions today and now appears to regret that Jews did not turn the other cheek in Eastern Europe.

But it was not only in Eastern Europe that Jews were targeted. France was convulsed by the Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s, seriously challenging the gains of the French Revolution. The "Affair" attracted international attention, especially after Emile Zola's J'accuse alerted the world to the antisemitic dimensions of the charge against Captain Dreyfus. "Death to the Jews" was the public demand made by the mobs. Leading the charge was Edouard Drumont, a journalist who built on his two-volume work, La France Juive, which saw no place for Jews in France.

Drumont was capitalising on a burgeoning European-wide antisemitism. His toxic ideas merged comfortably with race thinking at that time, posing a deadly threat to Jews. Secularists (joined gradually by religious thinkers whom Rabkin ignores) read the writing on the wall. In Vienna Karl Leuger was elected mayor on a blatantly antisemitic platform in 1897, while in Romania Jews faced a panoply of discriminatory legislation.

By the early 20th century the noxious fumes of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were beginning to spread, becoming in due course a "warrant for genocide". This was not simple "resentment by some conservative circles", as Rabkin claims with breathtaking understatement. With palpable manipulation, he repeats old arguments overtaken by history and put to bed generations ago.

But besides being blind to the lived reality faced by Jews in fin de si�cle Europe, Rabkin employs Shlomo Sand's "invention" of the Jewish people as though he has discovered the elixir of truth. There is nothing new in Sand's thesis; Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger demonstrated nearly three decades ago that the invention of peoplehood is hardly the preserve of Zionists. "No one who has thought for a minute about the history of the Jews," wrote Simon Schama in his trenchant review of Sand, "would dream of taking" the position "that all Jews are descended lineally from the single racial stock of ancient Hebrews".

Jews built a sense of continuity with a past - just as other "peoples" did in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Palestinians are no different. The fact is that just as Palestinians exist today, Jewish peoplehood, too, captured in the Zionist movement, is a reality. It is well known that Zionism was a contested ideology and that not all Jews supported Theodor Herzl's initiative. …