Zionism: The 'Misfortune of Success'
Zionism has been vilified for its very success in self-transforming victims into sovereigns. But isn't the very goal of progress to move away from victim to self-determination?
Future of Jewish is the ultimate newsletter about Judaism and Israel. Subscribe to better understand and become smarter about the Jewish world.
Please consider supporting our mission to help everyone better understand and become smarter about the Jewish world. A gift of any amount helps keep our platform free and zero-advertising for all.
At its core, Zionism has always been about the liberation of the Jewish People, who lived under millennia of exile, oppression, and genocide. If this isn’t a resoundingly liberal idea, I don’t know what is.
During the 1800s and early 1900s, wealthy Western European Jewish philanthropists funded land purchases in Ottoman-era Palestine. Poor Eastern European Jews, who fled violent antisemitism across the Russian Empire, executed these land purchases, most of which were done at the individual level, although there were instances when Ottoman officials personally approved deals for Jews to buy land.
These Eastern European Jews developed the concept of a kibbutz — intentional, utopian-like communal living. Yosef Baratz, one of the pioneers of the kibbutz movement, wrote a book about his experiences, saying:
“We were happy enough working on the land, but we knew more and more certainly that the ways of the old settlements were not for us. This was not the way we hoped to settle the country — this old way with Jews on top and Arabs working for them; anyway, we thought that there shouldn’t be employers and employed at all. There must be a better way.”1
The first kibbutz was founded in 1910 in what is today northern Israel. To say the least, it was a harsh environment. The Galilee was swampy, the Judaean Mountains rocky, and the south of the country, the Negev, was a desert. And most of the settlers had no prior farming experience.
To add insult to injury, local Arabs raided farms and settlements. Irrigation canals and crops were regularly sabotaged. The sanitary conditions were also poor, and malaria, typhus, and cholera were rampant.
Ardent Zionist Dr. Israel Kligler, a microbiologist, is credited with malaria eradication in the region, which ironically resulted in a major share of the Arab’s massive population increase.
Exponentially more Jews also continued to immigrate to Palestine in the early 1900s, fleeing antisemitism-infested Europe and the Middle East, as the notion of a modern Jewish state became increasingly foreseeable.
In 1917, a senior British army officer named Edmund Allenby arrived in Palestine, defeated the Ottomans later that year, and then conquered Jerusalem. The military campaign over the Holy Land ended following the Battle of Megiddo in 1918, which essentially marked the conclusion of World War I.
By defeating the Ottomans, Allenby effectively created the modern Middle East, paving the way for countries like Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Even the extreme leftist Soviet Union seriously supported Zionism, both diplomatically and otherwise. Via Czechoslovakia, the Soviets sent arms to the Zionist militia Haganah, which became the Israel Defense Forces.
In 1948, the State of Israel was founded primarily by European socialists who politically and socioeconomically ran the country for the next three decades. Dominant thinking about Zionism could be described in three ways leading up to and after the founding of the state:
Practical Zionism – Firstly there is a need in practical terms to implement Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel and settlement of the land, as soon as possible, even if a charter over the Land is not obtained.
Labor Zionism – a desire to establish an agriculturist society not on the basis of a private-bourgeoisie society, but rather on the basis of moral equality
Cultural Zionism – The fulfillment of the national revival of the Jewish People should be achieved by creating a cultural center in the Land of Israel and an educative center to the Jewish Diaspora, which together will be a bulwark against the danger of assimilation that threatens the existence of the Jewish People.
After the State of Israel was founded, some 850,000 Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews made their way to the country, many facing expulsion from Arab and Muslim-majority countries. Many of them settled in moshavim (cooperative farming villages) throughout Israel, but a lot of them were craftsmen and merchants, meaning farm work was foreign to them.
Since the majority of them had to leave property and other assets behind in their former countries, many of these Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews suffered a severe decrease in socioeconomic status. Not to mention, aggravations from their cultural and political differences with the dominant European Jewish communities already settled in Israel.
The first identifiable Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish politics was on the Left, and arose in response to their marginalization within Israeli society.
In general, Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews are religious traditionalists and cultural conservatives. And, since they lived in relatively close proximity to the Palestinians and other unfriendly Arab neighbors by virtue of arriving to Israel later and with less money, in many ways these Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews were most affected by a poor handling of the Arab-Israeli conflict at the hands of socialist Jews in political power, from the 1950s into the 1970s.
In 1973, the formation of Likud, the political party chaired by current Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, gave more conservative-leaning Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews their first major political voice in Israel. Four years later, the share of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews in Likud’s Central Committee grew from 10 to 50-percent.
The biggest difference between liberal-leaning Jews and conservative-leaning Jews is that, predominantly, the former considers themselves Israeli Jews, whereas the latter sees themselves as Jewish Israelis.
Laly Derai, a Likud activist whose parents who emigrated from Tunisia, explained it as such:
“Living in Israel is for us, coming from Arab countries, the continuation of our Jewish identity. Whereas the program presented by the Left is cosmopolitan — in which nationalism is overcome — we, Mizrahi Jews, do not relate at all to this discourse, in which human and civil rights come before our Jewish identity.”
And yet, Likud has never had a Mizrahi or Sephardic Jew as its leader, only European (Ashkenazi) Jews.
“But that is not the problem at all,” Derai said. “It’s not a meritocracy, it’s not at all a question of a Mizrahi being elected to head the party or not. What matters is that it is the movement that promotes the program that suits us, with which we feel that we are truly represented.”
Netanyahu, the current Likud chairman, is known for being religiously non-observant, but Derai said that this isn’t an issue for more religious Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews.
“Choosing Netanyahu has nothing to do with the traditional Jewish laws, but depends on one’s self-definition,” she said. “The question Netanyahu and all of us ask ourselves is: How do you define yourself? Are you first Jewish or first Israeli? If you define yourself firstly as Jewish, then we are in an identity story and not a religious one, and Netanyahu being religious or not doesn’t matter at all.”
Derai added something powerful:
“You have to understand that for us, the natives of the Arab countries, the State of Israel was not created because of the Holocaust, but because we wanted to realize a millennial dream.”
Likud also gave rise to Revisionist Zionism, a movement founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky in the 1920s and reinvigorated by Menachem Begin, who cofounded Likud and became Israel’s prime minister in 1977.
Revisionist Zionism emphasizes the romantic elements of Jewish nationality and the historical heritage of the Jewish People in the Land of Israel as the constituent basis for the Zionist national idea and the establishment of a Jewish state. Hence why Revisionist Zionism is categorized as supporters of Greater Israel, the areas that the Hebrew Bible defines as the so-called Land of Israel.
In addition, Revisionist Zionists support economic liberalism, while opposing Labor Zionism and the establishment of a communist society in the Land of Israel. They are also against any restraint to Arab violence and support firm military action against Arabs who attack Israel and Israelis.
But Revisionist Zionism doesn’t get the legs it has today without a growing mess that the Israeli Left dragged the country into, beginning with the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Many Israelis perceived their country as being caught off guard by Egypt’s attack on the holiest Jewish day of the year, which resulted in heavy casualties and other significant losses during the first days of the war. Only when the Americans gave Israel a helping hand did the Israelis turn things around and emerge victorious.
Economically, the 1970s were also lost decade for Israel. Growth stalled, inflation soared, and government expenditures rose stupendously. By 1984, the economic situation became almost catastrophic, with inflation reaching an annual rate close to 450-percent and projected to reach more than 1,000-percent by the end of the following year.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Israeli Left was back in governing power, Palestinian terrorism against the Jewish state was out of control, and Israeli leftist politicians appeared unable to stop the attacks.
The Oslo Accords, a pair of agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed in 1993 and 1995, were seen as a failure for not delivering what each side had expected from it, leading to a series of claims and counter-claims about breaches of the accords, perpetuating a downward spiral of mistrust and hostilities.
Benzion Netanyahu, the late historian, said the Oslo Accords were “a trap that the Arabs and our enemies among the Europeans set for us on purpose.” However, his complaints were not against the other sides, but against “those who entered the trap. After all, the blame lies with the mouse, not the trap. And Israeli leftist politicians entered completely blindly and were trapped. And they pulled us all into this trap with them.”2
“What they did is an act of utter madness,” Benzion Netanyahu said. “Did they not know about Arafat’s phased plan? Had they not heard of it? Although the labor movement has always failed to see what is emerging, I still did not believe that they would do such a crazy thing. I have no doubt that Golda Meir, for example, would not have done such an act. She would not have handed over the heart of the land as a base to those seeking our lives. She would not have given Arafat such an instrument of destruction, which without any doubt would be used against us.”
So much of the Israeli public felt a similar way that Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud party won the election in 1996, making him the youngest prime minister-elect in Israeli history. During his campaign, Netanyahu stressed that progress in the peace process would be based on the Palestinian National Authority fulfilling its obligations — mainly fighting terrorism.
As prime minister, Netanyahu raised many questions about central premises of the Oslo Accords. One of Netanyahu’s main points was disagreement with the Oslo premise that the negotiations should proceed in stages, meaning that concessions should be made to Palestinians before any resolution was reached on major issues, such as the status of Jerusalem, and the amending of the Palestinian National Charter.
Oslo supporters had claimed that the multi-stage approach would build goodwill among Palestinians, and would propel them to seek reconciliation when these major issues were raised in later stages.
Netanyahu said that these concessions only gave encouragement to Palestinian extremist elements, without receiving any tangible gestures in return. Despite his stated differences with the Oslo Accords, Netanyahu continued their implementation, but his premiership saw a marked slow-down in the peace process.
After being defeated by the left-leaning Labor Party’s Ehud Barak in the 1999 election, Netanyahu temporarily retired from politics. Barak participated in the Camp David Summit the following year with U.S. President Bill Clinton and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, but it failed to produce meaningful progress toward a two-state solution.
The Israelis were willing to give up 92-percent of the West Bank, as well as its sovereignty in parts of Jerusalem’s Old City and in Jerusalem’s Arab-majority neighborhoods — unprecedented concessions. Instead, Arafat not only declined; he refused to make a counteroffer.
Barak has since condemned his “peace partner.” Clinton, too, did an about-face on Arafat at the conclusion of his presidency. In his last conversation with Clinton, three days before his term ended, Arafat told Clinton that he was “a great man.”
“The hell I am,” Clinton responded. “I’m a colossal failure, and you made me one.”3
Immediately after the talks collapsed, the Palestinians launched the Second Intifada, marked by an onslaught of suicide bombings against Israelis, resulting in more than a thousand Israeli casualties, the third-most in Israel’s history, after the 1948 War of Independence and the Yom Kippur War. It was at this time that the Palestinian Authority started incorporating Islam into its political rhetoric, adding jihad to its agenda.
You have to understand something about the Second Intifada: It has been seared into the Jewish state’s memory. Each of Israel’s wars had their battles, but those were battles: tanks versus tanks, artillery versus artillery, even hand-to-hand combat. The Second Intifada was fought in restaurants and bars, on buses and road junctions, in the heart of the country, which constituted the “main front” in this war.
More civilians, about 70-percent of the 1,000-plus total fatalities, were killed during the Second Intifada than in any campaign, with the exception of the War of Independence.
“The Second Intifada, which for the average citizen felt very much like a war in everything but name, was a defining event in Israel’s history, akin to the War of Independence and the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars,” wrote Herb Keinon, a senior contributing editor at The Jerusalem Post. “This harrowing period fundamentally altered Israeli society because it impacted everyone. No one, regardless of their political opinions, level of religious observance or ethnicity, was left unaffected. Israel after September 2000 is not the same as Israel before September 2000.”4
Naturally, the political pendulum swung back to the Right and, in 2003, Likud won the election, this time headed by Ariel Sharon. He tapped Netanyahu to be his finance minister, tasked with restoring Israel’s battered economy from its low point during the Second Intifada.
Netanyahu’s plan involved a move toward more liberalized markets. He instituted a program to end welfare dependency by requiring people to apply for jobs or training, reduced the size of the public sector, froze government spending for three years, and capped the budget deficit at one percent.
The taxation system was streamlined and taxes were cut. A host of state assets worth billions of dollars were privatized, including banks, oil refineries, and the EL AL national airline. The retirement ages for both men and women were raised, and commercial banks were forced to spin off their long-term savings. In addition, Netanyahu attacked monopolies and cartels to increase competition.
As the Israeli economy started booming and unemployment fell significantly, Netanyahu was widely credited as having performed an “economic miracle” by the end of his tenure.
At the same time, Palestinian societies in Gaza and the West Bank became increasingly corrupt, enabled by foreign governments and international humanitarian organizations which funneled billions of dollars to the Palestinians, but rarely held them accountable for how the money was spent.
The Palestinian Authority has received an estimated $25 billion in financial aid from the U.S. and other Western countries, the highest-per-capita assistance in the world. And a European Union audit of the years 2008 to 2012 found that two billion euros of its aid were lost to corruption and misappropriation by Palestinian leaders, yet this didn’t cause the EU to scale back its aid, allocating a nearly two-billion euro budget for the Palestinians between 2021 and next year.
Even then, the Palestinian Authority refuses to use its considerable international aid to relocate more than 100,000 Palestinians from Palestinian-controlled refugee camps to residential locations in the territories, preferring to leave them confined under extremely unpleasant conditions. Hamas is guilty of similar attitudes toward Palestinian well-being in Gaza since it assumed governing power there in 2007.
The so-called Palestinian liberation movement has leveraged Palestinian suffering as an opportunity to align with liberal groups around the world. “My struggle is your struggle,” the thinking goes, effectively embedding themselves in social justice movements alongside Black Lives Matter and other progressive pipelines.
“The institutional Jewish community largely ignored these politics early on, instead focusing on building relationships with power brokers and decision makers,” according to Joe Roberts, the chairman of JSpaceCanada. “Later, as it became clear we were losing in this space, and with it support for Zionism on the progressive Left, institutions and communal politics went from ignoring intersectionality to seeing it as hostile. Our efforts to build coalitions based in it were too little too late.”5
Now, against the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war, we’re seeing the outcomes of these miscalculations play out in real-time. Progressives, with their deep pockets and loud mouths, use explosive language when talking about Israel — like apartheid, ethnic cleansing, colonialism, oppression, and white supremacy — even though these terms have zero basis in intellectual honesty.
Still, people are listening, especially on college campuses and social media, while legacy media outlets like The New York Times and the BBC are gleeful about broadcasting these intrinsically antisemitic messages far and wide.
It’s true that Israel’s current staunchly right-wing government, a combination of Revisionist Zionists and Religious Zionists, is not helping Israel’s cause among liberals and “progressives.” However, it’s also true that Zionism very much remains a liberal concept.
Zionism led to the greatest anti-imperialist, decolonization project on planet Earth.
Zionism produced a unique form of multiculturalism stemming from European, Middle Eastern, Arab, North African, and Western influences.
Zionism’s righteous resistance began in the 1800s against the Ottomans, then the British, and now a Palestinian society that, in many ways, is better at Jew-hating propaganda than were the Nazis.
Zionism created one of the few countries in the Middle East and North Africa where Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Bahai, and other religions can truly co-exist in peace.
Zionism manufactured a profoundly humanitarian society, in which Israelis and Israeli organizations routinely offer all types of support to places across the world plagued by conflict and disaster.
Zionism prepared its people to do something for their country and the Jewish People, by virtue of compulsory military service, as well as the “year of service” program for more religious individuals.
Zionism enabled tremendous contributions to a variety of fields, from medicine and agriculture, to technology and archaeology, while accumulating the world’s most museums, engineers, scientists, startups, and R&D investment per capita.
“Zionism is fundamentally a Western movement,” Benzion Netanyahu said. “It is a movement that lives on the border of the East, but always faces the West. In a well-known sense, Zionism has always been a forward position of the West in the East. And so it is today, standing against the natural tendencies of the East to penetrate the West and enslave it.”
Dr. Einat Wilf, an author and former Israeli politician, offered more of a cynical view, writing:
“Zionism is a progressive cause that had the misfortune of success. As such, it is maligned for its very success in self-transforming victims into sovereigns, now cast as ‘privilege.’ But isn’t the very goal of ‘progress’ in ‘progressive’ to move away from victim to self-possessed?”
Baratz, Joseph (1956). “A Village by the Jordan: The Story of Degania.” Tel Aviv: Ichud Habonim. p. 52.
“Ben-Zion Netanyahu in an interview in 1998.” Haaretz. https://www.haaretz.co.il/news/education/2012-04-30/ty-article/0000017f-dba2-df9c-a17f-ffbaff610000.
“2000 Camp David Summit: Background & Overview.” Jewish Virtual Library. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/background-and-overview-of-2000-camp-david-summit.
“The Second Intifada: A defining event that reshaped the nation.” The Jerusalem Post. https://www.jpost.com/arab-israeli-conflict/the-second-intifada-a-defining-event-that-reshaped-the-nation-642644.
Joe Roberts on X