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  • Writer's picturePerspectives: The Yale Journal on Israel and Palestine

20th Century Zionist Politics as an Adaptation of Jewish Political Tradition

Updated: Oct 12, 2020

Zachary Zabib

Since the year 70 C.E Jews have had to cope with life in an often hostile Diaspora. They were almost always the minority and infrequently were afforded any sort of minority protection. For much of Jewish history, they lived segregated from the rest of their communities. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Jewish communities sought out integration and emancipation into their surrounding societies, developing in the process a number of political tools in order to achieve this end. These tools consisted of intercession and the formation of vertical alliances.

In the late 19th century, however, the goals of the many Jews changed. Instead of emancipation, they sought out sovereignty. Zionism was revitalized, and many Jews sought to create a Jewish state in the biblical land of Israel. Because the goal of land settlement was inherently different from the goal of emancipation, the Zionists needed to retool some of their old political mechanisms, such as the vertical alliance.

They also needed to find new political tools to wield, such as active settlement, as well as political violence when deemed necessary. The combination of this new goal and these new political techniques of the Zionist project represents a radical shift in Jewish political history.

In order to understand why exactly the Zionist project needed to reconfigure the Jewish political tradition, it is important to first understand why exactly modern Zionism was different from any other project that the Jewish community had undertaken. In the past, Jews had generally amassed political power through cultivating vertical alliances and through the use of shtadlanim. When there was an injustice carried out against the Jewish community, such as that of the Damascus Affair, Jews relied on powerful elites to deal with the ruling authority.

When Jews sought to proactively secure rights for themselves, they would try to show the ruling authority their economic utility so that the authority would grant them certain protections. This worked well when Jews were minorities within foreign societies. Now the Zionists sought not to be included in a foreign society, but rather to build a society of their own.

Derek Jonothan Penslar explains how at first the Zionists relied on their old political traditions of the vertical alliance. Herzlian Zionism attempted to assert the utility of creating a Jewish state and how Jews “yearn[ed] to be mobilized in the service of the great powers.” The Zionists, however, could not only rely on the assertion of their utility and the benevolence of foreign powers in order to create the state that they had envisioned. They needed to engage in a more active political process because their goal was different from the emancipation in pursuit of which the technique of the vertical alliance had been developed.

The first tool that was moderately redefined was how the Zionist project utilized the idea of the vertical alliance. In order for the Zionists to be successful, they needed international support. The first step achieving this support was appealing to the British government for a mandate. Weizmann attempted to cultivate this alliance by convincing them that it was in their best interest to break up the Ottoman empire. At the time, breaking up the Ottoman empire in the pursuit of imperial interests was perceived as “radical” but Weizmann “embraced [radicalism], and joined the radicals in promoting it.”

The majority government at the time, the government of Asquith, was against this sort of extreme action. It is interesting that Weizmann would align himself with the opposition in trying to achieve a mandate that was favorable to the Zionists. This departure from aligning with the ruling party is an important consequence of the broad goals of the Zionist project. The Jews, in search of emancipation, had to align themselves with the ruling faction without compromise to make themselves seem loyal. The Zionists, however, could not make too many compromises, and so Weizmann settled for working with the opposition.

Weizmann held out hope that the radicals would end up seizing power. This ended up being favorable for the Zionists. During World War I, the radicals that Weizmann aligned with came into power and suddenly the British government “approached [him] and requested [his] assistance to advance radical aims.” Now instead of the Jews being at the whim of the national authority, they were able to work cooperatively with another national government in pursuit of their own goal. This interest convergence led to an interesting position for the Zionists; they felt that their claim to a national state was “both an inalienable right and [dependent] upon a great power to recognize that right and make possible its exercise.”

Besides retooling old techniques such as the vertical alliance, the Zionists also had to innovate new political tools in order to advance their goal of establishing a Jewish state. One of these new political tools was the use of active settlement. This was an entirely revolutionary political tool; never before had the Jewish community encouraged mass migration in the service of emancipation. Mass migration and resettlement would be antithetical to the goal of emancipation. In order to establish a new state, however, the Zionists needed to encourage this kind of mass migration.

Labor Zionism in particular encouraged this method of active settlement. David Ben Gurion was very adamant that Jews would need to settle in all parts of the land, saying in regard to Hebron specifically that it would be “a horrible and terrible mistake if we did not settle Hebron.” Settlement was the first step to creating a Jewish state. The next step for the Labor Zionists was labor itself.

The Labor Zionists demanded that “Jewish settlements and business in Palestine not employ Arabs if there were Jews seeking the same jobs.” They wanted to be able to show that the Jews built the state of Israel on the backs of Jewish laborers and not with Arab workers in order to produce some sort of moral claim to the land. This was inherently a political maneuver. In order to create the State of Israel, the Zionists needed to both encourage the settlement of Jews in the land in pursuit of a majority and to develop the land on their own in order to support an economic and moral claim to the land.

Finally, the most striking new innovation that the Zionists employed is the use of political violence in pursuit of a state. While not all of the Zionists believed in securing the state through violence, there was still a general understanding that there was a need for security forces. Different parties within the Zionist political sphere endorsed various security organizations such as the Haganah, the Palmach, and Lehi.

This was a revolutionary addition to the Jewish political tradition. Even in the Holocaust, armed resistance was seldom employed (in a broadly organized and institutionalized way). In the Ottoman Empire, there was a ban on Jews owning weapons. The situation was different in Palestine, however. In the waning years of the mandate, “the Zionist movement broke the cycle of dependence on other powers… in 1944 the right-wing Zionist militia Irgun Tzvai Leumi declared an anti-British revolt, and a year after the mainstream Zionist militia the Haganah also undertook armed resistance.”

Here, there was a need for security organizations to both help the British at first, and later to strategically attack them. The forces were also needed against Arab rioters as the sovereignty disputes escalated. Ultimately, political violence was used to assert the Jewish national right to a homeland. Political violence would have worked against the goal of emancipation for many Jews, and so it was not included in the political tradition. At this point, however, with a new goal and new threats, the use of violence became central and strategically advantageous.

The use of political violence was also helpful in uniting Jews around the Zionist cause. Mizrachi Jews were often ostracized from the Zionist movement because it was revitalized in a European context, and it often excluded those from lower socioeconomic classes and other areas of the world. The use of political violence, however, served to bring together all strata of the Jewish community. In fact, “many members of the Irgun and Lehi were Yemenites or of Middle East descent who had joined the organizations either as an outlet for their frustration or to find new challenges and courses of action.”

There were few economic barriers to joining the security apparatus, and so many Mizrachim joined the various security organizations out of frustration from their exclusion from other Zionist political organizations. Ben Gurion praised the security organizations as a way for all the different Jewish socioeconomic classes to “encounter each other.” This was advantageous in the creation of an “inclusive Zionism” that incorporated as many Jews as possible.

Mizrachi Jews needed to feel devoted to the Zionist cause and this became possible through creating structures for horizontal interaction such as the security forces. This was an important political strategy because, in order for the Zionist project to be successful, it would need to accommodate as many different types of Jews as possible into the majority it was trying to create.

The creation of the state of Israel was an unprecedented event in Jewish history. Never since Roman times had Jews ventured to organize politically in search of sovereignty on a large scale, and so the old political techniques of the vertical alliance proved insufficient. The Zionists needed to adapt their strategies to the end of statehood.

They devised a revolutionary new politics. They modified the vertical alliance structure to be uncompromising in its goals, and they seized upon new political tools such as the perpetuation of active settlement and the use of political violence in order to attempt to unite the Jewish community around Zionism and assert the Jewish right for statehood. The Zionist project succeeded in its aims and the modern state of Israel was born, irrevocably marked by its creation using strategies unprecedented in the whole of Jewish political history.

Zachary Zabib is a Junior in Timothy Dwight College majoring in Global Affairs, with specific interests in international security and the Middle East. He currently serves as Co-President of Yale Friends of Israel and the Yale AIPAC chapter.

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