Political Zionism has always had two distinct and contradictory personas. One portrayed it as a national liberation movement that was liberal, democratic, tolerant, and inclusive—what adherents saw when they looked in the mirror, how they presented themselves to and wanted to be seen by the rest of the world.
In reaction to antisemitism and the resultant ghettoization and pogroms that victimized European Jewry, Political Zionism promised an alternative for Jews, free to realize their full potential as a people while practicing liberalism in their own homeland.
But the European liberalism, on which Political Zionism was modeled, was based on a contradiction: the benefits and progress it provided for Europeans derived from the colonial subjugation and exploitation of Asians and Africans and their conquered lands. As the early Zionists were immersed in European culture and worldview, without hesitation or embarrassment, they saw themselves as an extension of the European colonial enterprise. Theodore Herzl sought guidance on securing support for his proposed colony from Cecil Rhodes, wrote that the enterprise he wished to establish would serve as “a rampart of Europe against Asia…and outpost of civilization against barbarism,” and proposed using natives of their new colony for menial labor before evacuating them elsewhere.
With this ingrained worldview, the two faces of Zionism (the liberal and the racist) never raised an eyebrow. If anything, the British and French (and later the US) understood and embraced the need for Herzl’s vision of a civilized outpost to protect Western values and interests from the barbarians.
Israeli and US leaders speak of our “shared values” because we’ve both have been able to mask the “dark side” of our behaviors with the veneer of our “claimed values” that apply to “us” not to “others.” And we’ve both gotten away with this game, until recently.
For the US, the Iraq War and its attendant horrors, the gun violence epidemic, systemic racism, and the anti-democratic, racist, and xenophobic Trump movement has begun to unravel the mask of our claim to be the bastion of “liberal ideals.” Despite Israel’s record of abominable behaviors toward Palestinians, peeling away its veneer of liberalism has taken longer, with an effective propaganda machine and the fear that pointing out the obvious oppressive and racist subjugation and dispossession of Palestinians will result in accusations of antisemitism.
Ironically, it’s Israel’s own democracy that has finally exposed its underbelly of intolerance and racist violence. By electing a far-right coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline Likud party and including fanatic nationalists and intolerant ultra-religious parties, the most recent Israeli election was a clarifying moment for the Political Zionist movement.
The newly elected Netanyahu government will include bigoted, violence-advocating ministers and deputies overseeing police, settlements, administration of the occupied territories, finance, and “Jewish Identity.” These ideologues advocate the expulsion of Arabs; support rapid settlement expansion and annexation of the West Bank; back settler violence against Palestinians; believe that Jews are full human beings with souls while Arabs are not; want to ban human rights organizations, claiming they pose an “existential threat” to Israel; deny the rights of Jews who don’t follow their rigid interpretation of Orthodox Judaism; and insist on altering the status quo at the Haram Al Sharif, turning Jerusalem into another Hebron.
With ministers and policies such as these, the mask is ofThis is Political Zionism without the frills—intolerance, bigotry, repression, and aggression without the veneer of “liberal” rhetoric.
Watching the major pro-Israel US groups respond (or fail to respond) has been fascinating. There were immediate protests over the push to change conversion law, to outlaw LGBTQ rights, to restrict which “legitimate” Jews could immigrate to Israel, and to segregate Jewish women at prayer. But there has been silence about the bigoted anti-Arab beliefs being espoused by key members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition and their policies that will further dispossess Palestinians.
It’s true that many of these ugly attitudes and policies have shaped the Palestinian reality for decades, but they were always covered by the outward face of Zionist liberalism. Now the mask is off and those who, for decades, have been covering for Israel have the responsibility to acknowledge the ugly reality their silence has allowed to fester.