Glimpses of the history of Zionism
Unfortunately, very few Zionist leaders paid heed to anti-colonial and universalist-humanist voices like Tagore and chose to follow the footsteps of their European anti-semitic tormentors. Theodore Herzl an Austro-Hungarian intellectual and journalist of the late 19th Century was the father of Zionism or in today’s parlance, political Judaism, like political Islam. Officially known as the father of modern Israel, his fellow Zionists wanted Jews all over the world, particularly the European Jewish diaspora, to be not only a religious community but also a political nation with a long history of self-rule and independent states. He took the initiative to form the World Zionist Congress, in Vienna in 1887 to promote the idea of a political homeland for Jewish people as a sovereign nation, preferably in Palestine. But they were looking for a political homeland for European Jews primarily as their quest for a territorial Jewish nation-state had begun in the context of anti-semitism in Europe itself. Christianity, which was born from the womb of Judaism, treated Jews with hostility and distrust based on socio-religious as well as economic factors for two millennia.
Herzl noted in his pamphlet [originally in German, ‘The Judenstaat’], titled, the Jewish State, that despite the Renaissance and enlightenment that had heralded the modern industrial society in Europe, anti-semitism or anti-Jewish prejudices were rampant in one form or the other in Christian dominated countries even by the end of the 19th century.. Jews could not be assimilated into their respective nation-states of Germany, France, Italy, England, Russia et al. Herzl argued that all kinds of religious, political and social persecutions of Jews would end with the establishment of their political homeland out of Europe. Even if the early seekers of the homeland were considering the idea of establishing it in spacious and less populated Argentina or British-controlled East Africa, Zionists considered Palestine as the historic land of biblical Israel which the God of Abraham, the God of Moses– Yahweh or Jehovah– had promised to them from where they were forced to move out by the various ancient foreign powers, lastly by the Romans 2000 years back. Thus they legitimized their claim to the promised land of their forefathers, primarily based on religious scriptures which were touted as ‘written on stone’ historical accounts of antiquity, Herzl and his comrades thought that European anti-Semitic people and their leaders would facilitate the migration of European Jews to Palestine to get rid of Europe’s problem.
Herzl’s ‘Jewish state,’ soon became the manifesto for generations of Zionists even though he died in 1904. Historically or biblically, Zion is referred to as Mount Zion of Jerusalem in the days of the Biblical King, David. Later, the word Zion was extended to the entire city of Jerusalem, which is considered the Holy Land for all three Abrahamic religions— Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Later, the Zionist movement in the 19th century extended the nomenclature further to the entire land of Palestine.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century Western colonial powers, particularly the Protestant-dominated European countries like Britain and their settler colonial cousins in America, Canada and Australia were promoting Jewish migration to Palestine. They believed that the return of European Jews to Palestine would help them to hit two birds with one stone. First, they will get rid of the perennial ‘Jewish question’ which has haunted Europe for two millennia. Secondly Christian Zionists, particularly the Protestants, felt that the Jewish return to Palestine would facilitate the second coming of Christ to fulfil the New Testament prophecy– that Christ will come back and establish his rule of justice and love. Before that, there will be the apocalyptical fight between Antichrist and Christ. The Antichrist represents everything evil, wrong, animalistic and satanic and Christ represents justice and all other good humane virtues. So this final battle is revealed in the Bible; both in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible prophecies as well as in the New Testament.
Like the other two Abrahamic religions, Islam and its codified scripture Quran to some extent more or less believe in the biblical prophecies. Unlike orthodox Judaism (and many Jews) which considers Jesus Christ a false prophet, Islam (and most Muslims) honours Jesus as part of their traditions of prophets before Muhammad, the creator of the last Abrahamic faith. It too believes in the second coming of Christ in the Holy Land where Al-Mehdi or the guided one – the Islamic redeemer will join Christ and both will fight the Al Dajjal or the Quranic version of Antichrist. So these beliefs provoked European Christian Zionists to support, facilitate or pressurize their governments to help the European Jews colonize in Palestine long before the rise and fall of Hitler and his holocaust.
This helps to understand the theological roots of the bloody battles among these cousin faiths and internal squabbles over the control of Jerusalem since the days of the Crusades in the Middle Ages, if not the clashes in late antiquity. So these kinds of beliefs provoked European Christian Zionists to support, facilitate or pressurize their governments to help the European Jews’s colonization in Palestine long before the rise and fall of Hitler and his holocaust.
But what is more disturbing is that neither Theodor Herzl nor his fellow Zionists recognised the presence of the Arabs and other communities in the historical place whose ancestors had been there since antiquity or settled there during the middle and modern age after the last Jewish exodus. They did not bother to initiate institutionalized and destructured dialogues even with the local black Jews who along with Christian and Muslim Arabs, Druze, Aluites and many other mixed communities ( those who inherited some of the tenets of three major religions) had been staying in Palestine for generations. Historically, different groups of people migrated from various places all over the world and gradually settled in their current locations, either by conquest or assimilation or by mixed means. But no land in history, even the most barren one, remained desolate or uninhibited totally, especially since the age of colonial modernity.
Ignoring all these historical realities, Herzl and his fellow Zionists, with their counterparts and mentors among Christian evangelicals and Missionaries of other denominations created and propagated a myth of Palestine being a Land without people waiting for colonization by a people without land. Historical records of early 20th Century Jewish migrants in Palestine showed they found not only the nomadic bedouin settlements, engaged primarily in animal husbandry In desert areas but also agriculture-based villages, even the city-based trade and business communities which had grown up along the Mediterranean coastline including Gaza and fertile areas around Jerusalem and larger West Bank of Jordan river since the middle ages to the Ottoman and British rules. But most of these early European settlers looked through the prisms of the White Western racist supremacists to the existing local population and considered Arabs and others as the barbaric savages of Asia, civilizational far inferior to be engaged in dialogue, let alone the possibility of equitable and honourable coexistence with them.
This mindset was very clear in Herzl’s writing onwards. Although he felt that Europe was pathologically antisemitic and Jews assimilation in their host countries would remain a chimaera, he asked for the support of Anti-Semitic Christian leaders and governments assuring them that the proposed Jewish State in Palestine would be a ‘rampart Of Western civilization’ at the gate of ‘Barbaric Asia’. He also promised them to secure the places of pilgrimage of the Christian world there is an oblique mention of the failed attempt of the Christian crusades against Muslim empires in and around Jerusalem. He even sought the support of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire for their migration and colonization in Palestine offering him fabulous Jewish money to take care of Turkish finance which reminds the practice of the Rothchild family and other Jewish bankers who financed war funds across the European power blocs since the days of Napoleon and Bismarck and amassed their double fortunes over the ruins of Millions of lives and homes including poor Jews.
From the present continuous to a fractured future or a seemingly impossible idea worth trying?
Tagore may still help Gazans and the rest of the Palestinians and Israelis, except the rabid mass murderers across the walls, to find an end to what the UN Secretary-General called a ‘bottomless abyss’. Notwithstanding the follies of the Eurocentrism of Zionist colonizers and denialists of history among Arabs, Tagore’s idea of the Palestinian Commonwealth of Arabs and Jews is still pertinent for many who consider the ground reality in the long term. The repeated genocides in Gaza and Israel’s gradual expansion in the West Bank of the Jordan River have made the Two-State Solution in residual Palestine– which America and its allies are still touting, a pathetic caricature of the original partition plan and Palestinian rights to their homeland. In reality, Israel has grabbed 78% of land, much beyond the 56 per cent of the undivided Palestine sanctioned by the UN partition plan in 1948, making a free, geographically contiguous, socially and economically viable Palestine state impossible, except a ‘politically Bantustan’ for resident Arabs surrounded by old and new Jewish settler colonies, a la South African Apartheid regime under overarching Israeli political-military architecture as envisaged in US-promoted Oslo and Madrid plans.
These are unacceptable to many conscience-keepers among Jews in Israel and outside, young and old, who are facing great personal perils for refusing to join or support the genocidal war on Gaza and hitting streets across the globe demanding the end of the Palestinian sufferings. They too are talking about fresh political imaginations, insights and initiatives for justice for the Palestinians including the refugees across the Arab lands who had been driven out of their homes since the ‘All Nakba’, Arabic for the Catastrophic ethnic cleansing in 1948 in order to ensure durable peace. In opposition to the plan for Greater Israel long being executed by Netanyahu and his likes, they are even favouring dismantling the Jewish majoritarian state of Zionist design. Instead, they are looking for a Greater Palestinian polity, either united under one State or in two States for Jews and Arabs with open borders for legitimate trade and cultural relations where demographics would not overrule democratic principles.
Neither the most rabid Zionists nor their Islamic counterparts will accept it. But those on both sides of the bloody divide are still willing to consider the temporal and spiritual histories of three Abrahamic religions and societies may find it worth trying. It has happened in modern history several times. During the heydays of pan-Arab nationalism under Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president of the fifties and sixties, Egypt and Syria became one state with close ties with Iraq and Sudan. Later they disintegrated again. But the idea of forging multi-national identity and polity across a larger geographical area, which has common historical, cultural, linguistic, religious economic and political affinities is not new. Examples of many regional groupings of independent neighbouring countries, best known among them is the European Union, are also in vogue.
In the Indian subcontinent, the idea of the Indo-Pakistan confederation was tinkered with when prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir. Sheikh Abdullah was alive, to end the Indo-Pak tussles over J&K. In his autobiography, Sheikh Abdullah referred to that idea. Nehru was sceptical but allowed Abdullah to try to sell it to Ayub Khan, the then Pakistani military ruler cum president. But unfortunately, Nehru died in Delhi when Abdullah was in Pakistan and the whole chapter was closed. Nevertheless, the idea was again revived decades later and supported by a few mainstream Indian politicians like Mulayam Singh Yadav, a former defence minister of India and chief minister of the UP, the most populous and politically central state in the Hindi Heartland. Similar ideas about cross-border brotherhood have cropped up over the divided Punjab and Bengal from time to time despite the increasing communal and fundamentalist influences across South Asia.
Tagore and his soulmates among great minds would find fulfilment if the current generation of incorrigible idealists in the Middle East, for whom another world is still possible, consider their ideas worth trying. They can also be the pathfinders for the realists among Jews and Arabs who are looking for new political-cultural imagination to end the bloody messes created by hegemonic global and local vested interests as well as the whirlpool of the sectarian, bigoted and vengeful propaganda on the mass psychology at both sides. Together they can flesh out actionable ideas for the future which are now seemingly impossible, even inconceivable and repugnant in the wake of insurmountable piles of dead bodies, devastated homes and fortified walls. Poets and philosophers, rather than politicians and policy mandarins, may become guides to find the proverbial Minerva’s Owl in the prevailing darkness for those who want to light up the flickers of hope for those millions whose lives are almost ruined under the cycles of violence. It will be our last tribute to those children of Gaza who have gone straight no graveyard from their cradles.