Zionism and Islamophobia: Initial Encounters with Islam and Muslims
This is the first in a series of articles that will discuss the relationship between Zionism and Islamophobia. The impetus for this series is what many have already observed:
1.) Islamophobic polemics within trends of Zionism, the preponderance of Zionists within the Islamophobia movement, the usage of Israeli state symbols and the symbiotic relationship between anti-Muslim groups in the USA and Israel are a present-day reality.
2.) There is a confused and malformed understanding amongst some individuals of Zionism on the one hand and its relationship to Islamophobia. Zionism is not understood in its proper historical context: Why did it form? How has it evolved? What is its effect on Jewish and world history? What is its relationship with the ‘other’?
Some who are confronted with the present day reality of Zionist Islamophobia are in denial of its very existence while others propose answers to the aforementioned questions not based on facts but rather emotional, even hysterical inaccuracies and conspiracies.
The Zionist relationship with Islamophobia enmeshes the discussion of racism, nationalism, human rights and the liberation struggle of Palestinians. It will be the task of this series to clarify these concepts and provide a much-needed dose of realism to any analysis of the subject, beyond the histrionics that can at once serve as a distraction and muddle our conscience.
Initial Encounters with Islam and Muslims
“[T]he Zionist view of Palestine has always considered all Palestinians without regard to class, creed, or locations, as bodies either to be removed or ignored (if possible); and on the other hand, that the Palestinian opposition to Zionist settler-colonialism was a national struggle, enlisting, as it did, segments of political life (in various complex ways of course).” (Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims by Edward W. Said, p.10)
The quote from Edward Said accentuates an obvious truth that is important for us to comprehend from the outset: Zionists could care less what creed Palestinians followed. Ever since the publication of Theodor Herzl‘s (1860-1904) Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) and the First Zionist Congress (1897) Zionists have organized their collective energy on colonizing the land of Palestine, then a territory under Ottoman control.
The fact that a majority of Palestinians followed Islam was generally inconsequential to Zionist aims. Indeed, if the majority of Palestinians had been Hindu we may very well be discussing Zionism and Hinduphobia today.
While it is true that Zionists were not concerned with Islam as such it is vital to investigate what the early ideologues of modern Zionism had to say about Islam and Muslims; at the very least noting to what extent this has a bearing on how contemporary Zionists relate to Islam and how this relationship has developed over the years.
A necessary overview of the history of Zionism will be the subject of the next article in this series but suffice it to say that Zionism formed in the milieu of 19th century European nationalism, in the heyday of Imperialism, Colonialism–and renewed Antisemitism. Considering that Zionism was a product of 19th century Europe, it is reasonable to presume, and has served as the thesis of several historians that the Orientalist worldview with its inherent biases and prejudices pervaded the Zionist view as well.
Influence of the Jewish Golden Age
One important caveat is that there was amongst 19th century Jews Islamophile trends and a recognition of a Jewish Golden Age under Muslim rule, particularly in medieval Andalusia. Jewish historians such as the early Zionist Heinrich Graetz (1817-1891) were prominent advocates of an idealized version of the Jewish Golden Age, a history that Graetz and others used to serve as a rebuke to the Christian European treatment of Jews.
In this regard there is a glimpse into the attitude of the most pivotal leader of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, a mercurial figure whose tactics in the Ottoman Empire were well known. One would think his interaction with the Sublime Porte (the seat of Ottoman authority) would reveal much in the way of his view on Islam and Muslims, however it does not.
It is in Herzl’s Utopian novel titled, Altneuland,(Old-New Land), that we see some semblance of his views on the subject. Herzl portrayed the Arab characters such as Rashid Bey in a patronizing manner, characterizing them as being grateful to the Jewish immigrants for the “immense benefit” they have brought to the land’s Arab residents. In an echo to Graetz’s work we see Herzl describing Bey as regaling visitors to the land on the “tolerance demonstrated by the Arabs toward Jewish immigration, in the best tradition of Muslim society, which was always more tolerant of the Jews than Christian Europe.”
Another anecdote highlights that the Golden Age views were also imparted on the likes of a young Yigal Allon Paicovitch (1918-1980). In a biography on Allon’s life we are told that Allon viewed Christianity with suspicion, as an age-old persecutor of the Jewish people whereas he did not have similar “misgivings” about Islam and Muslims,
“In Allon’s imagination the Crusades were so tied to the Inquisition that when he traveled to Nazareth with his father he was careful not to bend down near a church lest it be understood as kneeling before the cross. He had no such misgivings about Islam, having learned in school that Muslims were tolerant of Jews, with the emphasis on Spain’s Golden Age.” (Yigal Allon, Native Son: A Biography by Anita Shapira p.33)
Allon who would later become the commander of the Haganah’s Palmach (strike force) between 1945-1948. During the 1948 war, he commanded several military operations (i.e. Operation Yiftah, Dani, and Yoav), and he became famous for being one of the engines behind cleansing the most populated Palestinian areas (i.e. Lydda, Ramla, Safad, Hebron hills, Faluja pocket).
Palestinian Muslims: the descendants of ancient Hebrew farmers
David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), one of the ‘founding fathers of Israel’ was a hawkish advocate of the dispossession and expulsion of Palestinian Arabs, who stated, “We must expel Arabs and take their places.” (Ben Gurion and the Palestine Arabs: From Peace to War by Shabti Zeveth, p.189)
Interestingly, in Ben-Gurion’s On the Origin of the Falahin he held the view, to be repeated later in his life (in a letter to Charles De Gaulle), that Palestinian Muslim farmers were descendants of ancient Hebrew farmers and that “much Jewish blood flows in their veins.” He describes Palestinian embrace of Islam as a “travesty of [the] times,”
The agricultural community that the Arabs found in Eretz Israel in the 7th century was none other than the Hebrew farmers that remained on their land despite all the persecution and oppression of the Roman and Byzantine emperors. Some of them accepted Christianity, at least on the surface, but many held on to their ancestral faith and occasionally revolted against their Christian oppressors. After the Arab conquest, the Arabic language and Muslim religion spread gradually among the countrymen. In his essay “Ancient Names in Palestine and Syria in Our Times,” Dr. George Kampmeyer proves, based on historico-linguistic analysis, that for a certain period of time, both Aramaic and Arabic were in use and only slowly did the former give way to the latter. The greater majority and main structures of the Muslim falahin in western Eretz Israel present to us one racial strand and a whole ethnic unit, and there is no doubt that much Jewish blood flows in their veins—the blood of those Jewish farmers, “lay persons,” who chose in the travesty of times to abandon their faith in order to remain on their land. (Leverur Motsa Ha’Falahim, Luach Achiezer, pp. 118-27, reprinted in Anachnu U’Shcheneinu, pp. 13-25.)
There is an apparent contradiction in Ben-Gurion’s statement that Arabic and Islam spread gradually and that Jewish farmers embraced Islam “in order to remain on their land.” The former implies a conscious and free conversion over a period of time and the latter forced conversion. Ben-Gurion’s 1967 letter to De Gaulle would indicate that he advocated the idea of forced conversion.
In either case, Ben-Gurion’s statement is highly interesting in light of the work of Israeli historian Shlomo Sand,
Countering official Zionist historiography, Sand questions whether the Jewish People ever existed as a national group with a common origin in the Land of Israel/Palestine. He concludes that the Jews should be seen as a religious community comprising a mishmash of individuals and groups that had converted to the ancient monotheistic religion but do not have any historical right to establish an independent Jewish state in the Holy Land. In short, the Jewish People, according to Sand, are not really a “people” in the sense of having a common ethnic origin and national heritage. They certainly do not have a political claim over the territory that today constitutes Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, including Jerusalem.
Sand’s work also concludes that the progenitors of the Palestinian Arabs were the ancient Jews.
This raises numerous questions: if Ben-Gurion held that many of the “Muslim falahin” were descendants of indigenous Jews why didn’t this factor into his ideology and how did he square this with advocating their expulsion? According to his own ideology aren’t Palestinians more entitled to live in their ancient homeland than European settlers? Do not the Palestinian refugees have a right to return to their homeland?
One can also see the kind of disdain which Ben Gurion held for the “spirit of the Levant” in popular views that he and many fellow Zionists expressed in regard to “Eastern/Sephardic Jews,”
Ben Gurion…described the Sephardi immigrants as lacking even “the most elementary knowledge” and “without a trace of Jewish or human education.” Ben Gurion repeatedly expressed contempt for the culture of the Oriental Jews: “We do not want Israelis to become Arabs. We are in duty bound to fight against the spirit of the Levant, which corrupts individuals and societies, and preserve the authentic Jewish values as they crystallized in the Diaspora.”…Ben Gurion who called the Moroccan Jews “savages” at a session of a Knesset Committee, and who compared Sephardim, pejoratively (and revealingly), to the Blacks brought to the United States as slaves, at times went so far as to question the spiritual capacity and even the Jewishness of the Sephardim. (Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Jewish Victims by Ella Shohat, p.4-5)
Imagine, if these were Ben Gurion’s views about the “Oriental Jew,” how much more magnified was his animus towards native Arabs and Muslims?
Exorcising the Islamic Soul From Palestine
Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky (1880-1940) the founder of the Revisionist movement within Zionism was perhaps the most explicitly unabashed and hawkish modern Zionist proponent of colonialism, racism and expulsion; central subjects in many of his writings and speeches. Jabotinsky is most famous for his exposition of the “Iron Wall” ideology that no compromise with the Palestinians was possible. Revisionism would eventually spawn the Irgun and Stern Gang terrorists which made names for themselves by using terrorism against innocent civilians.
Lenni Brenner, writing in 1984 noted that Revisionism, once considered the lunatic fringe of Zionism “is now the dominant ideological tendency in present-day Zionism.” (The Iron Wall: Zionist Revisionism From Jabotinsky to Shamir by Lenni Brenner)
I would argue that this holds true today as well (and add Religious Zionism is on the rise), as we have seen with the administrations of Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu, and high profile politicians such as Avigdor Lieberman and others.
Jabotinsky’s views were quite emphatic in their degradation of Arab society, especially Muslim society: here he responds in a vitriolic manner to Max Nordau’s (1849-1923) statement that Muslims and Jews share a kinship,
“When he [Jabotinsky] approached Nordau during the war about the establishment of a Jewish legion which was to fight against the Turks, he was told, ‘But you cannot do that, the Muslims are kin to the Jews, Ishmael was our uncle.’ ‘Ishmael is not our uncle’ Jabotinsky replied. ‘We belong thank God, to Europe and for two thousand years have helped to create the culture of the west.’” (A History of Zionism: From the French Revolution to the Establishment of the State of Israel by Walter Laqueur, p. 228)
In his famous “Iron Wall,” Jabotinsky alludes to his belief in the deficient “spirituality” of Palestinian Arabs,
“Culturally they are 500 years behind us, spiritually they do not have our endurance or our strength of will” (Iron Wall by Jabotinsky)
A theme in Jabotinsky’s views is his emphasis that Jewishness is opposed to the East and a “part of the West,” (of course he is speaking only of European and American Jews and completely ignoring Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews), he also alludes to Islam as some sort of demonic spirit that must be exorcized from “Eretz-Yisrael,”
“We Jews, thank God, have nothing to do with the East. . . . The Islamic soul must be broomed out of Eretz-Yisrael. . . . [Muslims are] yelling rabble dressed up in gaudy, savage rags.” (Expulsion of the Palestinians by Nur Masalha, p.29)
Anti-Judaism as Anti-Islam
Arthur Ruppin (1876-1943), one the founders of Brit Shalom, was a proponent of warped racial theories and eugenics who despite his bi-national views still supported the expulsion or in the euphemism of his day “transfer” of Palestinians. Ruppin, like many of his peers and contemporaries was very severe in his criticism of traditional Judaism. In Ruppin’s view Judaism’s main fault is that it is “similar to Islam,” in that it is supposedly anti-intellectual, opposed to criticism and modern science.
Ruppin explained the success of Hassidut as a result of the hard material conditions of the Jews in Eastern Europe: “The spiritual energy of the Jewish people created an imaginary world when the real world was lost to him.” This was the reason the Jews took refuge in the mysticism and superstition offered them by the Hassidic Rabbis.
As already mentioned, Ruppin’s views concerning the Jewish religion were identical to those of Haeckal and Bismark regarding Catholic clericalism. Ruppin, indeed, saw a similarity between Judaism and Catholicism since both of them he believed, were based on prayer, and from that concluded that, like Catholicism, Judaism was still anthropomorphic. However, the most important fault he saw in Judaism was its similarity to Islam. Jewish Orthodoxy and Islam had the same type of faith, a “blind faith,” which did not permit any critical doubts and rejected all the discoveries of modern science. These characteristics differentiated them from “the protestant skeptic type of faith of our times.” What defined the Jewish worldview, according to Ruppin, was its lack of skepticism, its fear of any doubt and its inability to cope with conflicting thoughts: “As soon as he begins to doubt, his fate is sealed, his secession from orthodoxy is a necessary result. The skeptic will never more be a pious Jew.” (Arthur Ruppin and the Production of Pre-Israeli Culture by Etan Bloom p. 79)
These views are, to say the least, overly simplistic and presumptuous, disregarding the variegated and complex nature of both Judaism and Islam.
Judah Leon Magnes
Judah Leon Magnes (1877-1948), a prominent American born Reform Rabbi, was a life-long pacifist, proponent of a bi-national state and vocal critic of attempts to create an exclusive “Jewish state.” Towards the end of his life, in 1948, he withdrew from the AJJDC for ignoring his plea to help Palestinian refugees.
Rabbi Magnes no doubt wrote the following with good intentions,
“It is in derogation of the actual importance of the living Jewish people and of Judaism to place them on one side of the scale and have it balanced by the relatively unimportant Arab community of Palestine. The true parallels and balancing forces are Jews and Judaism on the one side, and the Arab peoples and even all of Islam on the other. In this way you get a truer perspective of the whole and you increase the significance of Palestine as being that point where in this new day Judaism meets Islam again throughout all its confines, as once they met centuries back to the ultimate enrichment of human culture.” (Like other Nations? retrieved from The Zionist Idea ed. by Arthur Hertzberg p.447)
Magnes attempts to relay a hopeful and positive vision of the future in which Judaism and Islam meet together “to the ultimate enrichment of human culture,” but one cannot help but also note the glaring condescension towards Palestinians, crassly described as the “relatively unimportant Arab community of Palestine.”
Religious elements, both Orthodox and Reform were generally late to join the political Zionist caravan which was led mostly by secular and non-religious Jews. In time however the religious sects would, with notable exceptions, reconcile themselves to Zionism through compromise and accommodation with the state of Israel.
Instrumental in this process was the main ideologue of modern Religious Zionism, Rabbi Abraham Itzhak Kook (1865-1935).
“Kook saw Zionism as a part of a divine scheme which would result in the resettlement of the Jewish people in its homeland. This would bring salvation (“Geula”) to Jews, and then to the entire world. After world harmony is achieved by the refoundation of the Jewish homeland, the Messiah will come.”
Historically Judaism’s relationship with Islam and attitude towards Muslims has been unique. Maimonides formulated the decisive majority opinion that Islam like Judaism was definitely a monotheistic faith, this had all sorts of repercussions for Halacha (Jewish law). For instance Jews could worship in a mosque whereas they could not worship in a church, Jews could take benefit from wine handled by a Muslim whereas they could not by a Christian.
While Islam was viewed as special this should not mislead us into the relativist belief that Judaism advanced some sort of Perennialist theology. Indeed, like all religions Judaism in its Orthodox form is exclusivist, especially when it comes to the ‘Promised Land.’
In fact there are sources within Orthodox Judaism that can be used to dehumanize the non-Jew, to view and treat the non-Jew as inferior and unequal. We have witnessed many such cases in the past few decades with the rise and expansion of extremist Jewish fundamentalism in Israel.
Early modern Religious Zionists were not immune from expressing such racist views. Rabbi Kook has been quoted as saying that the souls of non-Jews are inferior “in all different levels” to that of Jews. (Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel by Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky, p. xix)
In the wrong hands such attitudes can reinforce the mentality and culture that produces and celebrates terrorists such as Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir, that offers no compromise when it comes to dismantling and evicting settlements and reaching a just solution to apartheid occupation.
I believe it is appropriate lastly to cite Yitzhak Epstein (1862-1943), one of the few Zionists who was a Palestinian. Epstein lived with Bedouins for eight months, an experience that led him to publish two books in Hebrew on Bedouins. At the same time he worked in intelligence gathering for the Jewish Agency Political Department and became a leading “Arab specialist.”
Epstein uttered what I believe are prophetic words regarding his belief that Zionists must reconcile themselves to the “peoples of Islam.”
“We must reconcile ourselves to all the peoples of Islam; if we don’t we are lost.” (Palestine Jewry and the Arab Question by Neil Caplan)
If one were to ask if such a reconciliation has been reached today the question would be treated as rhetorical, as present day circumstances reveal the answer to be a resounding “no.” The question is why is this the case? Why are so many Zionists today violently opposed to Islam and Muslims, in fact holding onto the belief and strategy of a war with Islam? (This will be answered in a future article in this series).
This article has not exhausted the topic of the initial encounters between modern Zionism, Islam and Muslims, for instance I have not discussed the work of Zionist authors such as Moshe Smilansky (1874-1953) who wrote a number of novels involving Arabs and Muslims. It does however uncover what I feel are fairly representative views from a wide spectrum of currents; Socialist, Revisionist and Religious–including very influential leaders of Zionism.
It is helpful in the context of the period discussed in this article to speak about Zionism in relationship to the paradigm of Orientalism, in fact there is a wealth of historical literature on this topic over the past few decades. The imagination of Zionist literature, film, ideology and political policy has been infused with Orientalisms of one variety or another from the very beginning,
“Several writers on Israel and its neighbors have suggested in recent years ways to apply Edward Said’s fascinating thesis on the connection between Orientalism as a profession and deep-seated anti-Islamic attitudes in the West in general. Aziza Khazum has shown how the history of the Jewish people in modern times can fruitfully be described as a continuous series of “Orientalizations,” that is, an elite trying to block the advance of an upcoming minority group by dubbing it “Oriental,” meaning devoid of “real” culture and hence not worthy of equal treatment. Ella Shohat has applied the same idea to the history of early Zionist films, where the Arab is depicted as a brutal and cultureless creature whose objection to Zionism lacks rational grounding. Said himself first analyzed Orientalism as a cultural outgrowth of the West and then started to apply that idea to the Zionist venture itself.” (Zionism, Orientalism and the Palestinians by Haim Gerber, p.1)
I have not in any depth covered the deep racism against the indigenous Palestinian Arabs, seeking to separate that out from views regarding Islam and Muslims; at times it is not possible, as the two are interwoven. What we have then are attitudes that comport to well known bigoted Orientalist racism, stereotypes, prejudices, and a few romanticized notions of the ‘other.’
The view of many of the early leading Zionists is a reaffirmation of the presumed ontological distinction between West and East, i.e. that the very being of Western Jews is essentially different than that of the Palestinian Arabs and Muslims.