In 1901, Theodor Herzl described the “Jewish proletariat” as “the poorest and unhappiest” in Europe and “also the most restless and disquieting.” Herzl saw one solution to this Jewish problem – come home! In returning to Palestine, the Jewish homeland, these “settlers” would become “permanent dwellers on the land… real freeholders. They shall live on the land and from the land, not like helpless peddlers with an anxious eye on the market prices. They will take to the market only those products which they have in excess of their own needs…. Thus the foundation can be laid for the enduring tranquility so ardently desired by the long-buffeted Jewish people.”
These 120-year-old lines are newly-relevant. In the ideological onslaught following Hamas’s latest attack against Israel, the Blame-Israel-Firsters have mainstreamed a new libel. To keep questioning Israel’s legitimacy, academics – including some Israel Studies and Jewish Studies professors – label Zionism “settler colonialism.” Many make their case by caricaturing Herzl, distorting the definition of “settler colonialism,” and gaslighting critics.
Rather than admitting that their term brands the Jews as outsiders lacking indigenous ties to the land, and that their theorizing emboldens Palestinian extremists negating Israel’s rights to exist, these professorial propagandists claim the description is neutral. Pretending that trying to rob the Jewish people of their ties to the land doesn’t feed Palestinian terrorists’ deadly crusade to remove the Jewish people from their land, is like arsonists saying “we didn’t burn the forest down with our matches, who knew the wood was flammable?”
As the Editor-in-Chief of HERZL: Zionist Writings, the inaugural volume in Koren’s forthcoming Library of the Jewish People, appearing in 2022, I am doing a deep dive into Herzl’s writings. I acknowledge Herzl’s shortcomings, from his vanity and brittleness to his Jewish insecurity and European blindspots. Still, I am offended – not surprised — by the divergence between what Herzl actually believed and the Herzlian phrases these academics sloppily, tendentiously, cherry-pick to use against the Jewish people.
Herzl’s analysis of the state of the Jews catapults us back to the stateless Jews’ misery – mocking today’s anachronistic attacks on Jews as perpetually-privileged. Herzl’s colleague Max Nordau defined the Jewish Problem crisply: “The Jewish people can be freed from its bitter poverty only when it leads a normal economic existence on its own soil.” Subsequently, Nordau would describe the broken Jew’s purgatory: “He has lost his home in the ghetto, and he is denied a home in his native land.”
The Jews’ powerlessness, their ancestral ties to Palestine, and their intentions to live permanently on the land, all refute the trendy “settler colonialism” charge. “Colony,” from the Latin “colonia,” as in settlement or farm, is a late middle English word describing retired Roman soldiers settling freshly-conquered territory. Sometimes, the word simply means people living or farming together – which is what Herzl usually meant when he dreamed of Jewish colonies in Palestinian and the Jewish Colonial Trust.
Traditionally, settler colonialism was “extractive,” like the British in India – enriching the imperial “mother country” faraway with goodies from conquered lands. But Eretz Yisrael is the Jews’ mother country. As Herzl and other Zionists proclaimed, they moved there to build and be rebuilt, not extract and exploit. Moreover, if there was one thing Herzl was famous for, it was for giving up on Europe and the Diaspora, recognizing that Jews were not welcome there – and recognizing Palestine as their only viable long-term option. Jews weren’t sent from “home” to enrich back home – they were coming home!
Academics also describe an “eliminationist” settler colonialism, defined by Oxford Bibliographies “as an ongoing system of power that perpetuates the genocide and repression of indigenous peoples and cultures.” Beyond forgetting that genocide involves mass murder – not the population explosion Palestinians have enjoyed – and ignoring all the Jewish attempts at coexistence and peace with Arabs contrasting with colonialism – this lie highlights the core ideological conflict. To say, as many of us two-staters do, that the Jews and Palestinians are “two peoples in love with the same land,” respects the conflicting land claims. To say, as the Abraham Accords do, that Jews, Muslims, Christians share spiritual ties to these lands, seeks a very un-Palestinian vision of “coexistence.” But playing this all-or-nothing game as if there is only one indigenous people, then designating the Johnny-come-lately Palestinians as the natives, not the Jews, reads history backwards.
A famous tale claims Herzl’s successor Chaim Weizmann asked Lord James Balfour, “Would you give up London to live in Saskatchewan?” But the British have always lived in London, Balfour muttered. Weizmann replied: “Yes, and we lived in Jerusalem, when London was still a marsh.”
True, many modern academics act as politicized prosecutors not objective analysts. Still, there are many words, phrases, concepts one could use to criticize Israel and Zionism while affirming Palestinian rights. That even some Jewish Studies professors have joined the anti-Israel pile-on, feeding the delegitimization derby with demonizing distortions, is scandalous.
Most important for scholars – it’s untrue. Most important for humanists – it’s incendiary.
Zionism, meaning Jewish nationalism, is anomalous. It’s a story of powerlessness not imperialism, genuine indigeneity not colonialism. This obsessive need to impose false analogies denigrates but doesn’t illuminate.
Calling Israel racist, apartheid, genocidal, settler-colonialist and white supremacist or Jewish supremacist, is inaccurate and insulting, counterproductive and self-destructive. It encourages war not peace, Jew-hatred not reconciliation. It hardens hearts and polarizes positions. And, in demonizing the Jewish state, it encourages hooligans who target the Jews living in that state – and the Jews living everywhere else too.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.