What is Zionism?
A 1953 poster issued by the World Zionist Organization.

Editor’s Note:

This article is adapted from a 1971 book by Dr. Hyman Lumer titled, Zionism: Its Role in World Politics. Released by International Publishers, the book appeared in the aftermath of the 1967 “Six-Day War.” During that war and in the years that followed, debates around Zionism, Israel, oil, and Middle East conflict were central parts of political life.

Lumer was editor of Jewish Affairs, a Communist Party USA publication. A foe of both anti-Semitism and Zionism, he wrote his book as a primer on the historical context and ideological battles animating the events of his time. Today, in the midst of Israel’s latest war against Palestine, People’s World pulled Lumer’s book from the archives to share excerpts of his analysis with our readers. While the situation has evolved in the half-century since it was written, the book still retains valuable information relevant to understanding the current war.

This article is the first installment in a three-part series. It deals with the nature and roots of Zionism as an ideology. The second part examines the founding of the State of Israel and Zionism’s role in guiding its domestic policies and approach to relations with the Palestinian people and neighboring Arab countries. The third part lays out details of the long-running efforts of Zionist ideologues to align Israel with the interests of the big imperialist powers, primarily Britain in the early days, and eventually, the United States.


Origins of political Zionism

Dr. Hyman Lumer and his 1971 book. | Lumer photo: People’s World Archives / Book cover: Courtesy of International Publishers

The prolonged crisis in the Middle East has brought the question of Zionism very sharply to the fore yet again. It is Zionism which underlies the policies of the Israeli government, and which motivates the main body of its supporters in the United States and other capitalist countries.

Hence, to understand fully the nature of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people and between Israel and the Arab states, as well as the political and social orientation of the major Jewish organizations and spokesmen in this country, it is necessary to examine in some detail the nature of Zionism and its role in the present-day world.

Political Zionism, whose aim is the creation and perpetuation of a Jewish state, had its origins in the last decades of the 19th century, animated by the upsurge of anti-Semitism in Europe which accompanied the rise of modern imperialism. It is quite distinct from the older religious Zionism—the belief in an eventual return to the Holy Land upon the coming of the Messiah.

Its chief forerunner was Moses Hess, who for a number of years had been an associate of Karl Marx. But he later became an ardent Jewish nationalist, and in his book Rome and Jerusalem, published in 1862, he expounded such ideas as these:

“We Jews shall always remain strangers among the nations. Each and every Jew, whether he wishes it or not, is automatically, by virtue of his birth, bound in solidarity with his entire nation. Each has the solidarity and responsibility for the rebirth of Israel.”

But at the time these ideas met with little response and nothing further came of them. The rise of political Zionism as a movement was to come somewhat later.

The two classical presentations of the Zionist doctrine are Leo Pinsker’s Auto-Emancipation (1882) and Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State (1896). Pinsker’s book grew out of the sharply intensified persecution of the Jews in tsarist Russia in 1881, signalized by a wave of pogroms in Kishinev and other localities and by the imposition of a mass of discriminatory legislation, including confinement to ghettos. Shortly afterward, in 1884, there was launched in Odessa the Chovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion), a society dedicated to the establishment of Jewish settlements in Palestine.

Theodor Herzl, author of ‘The Jewish State’ and a founder of political Zionism.

It is Herzl, however, who is considered the founder of modern political Zionism. An assimilated Austrian Jew, he was deeply shocked by the anti-Semitic frameup of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in France in 1894, which he covered as a journalist. It was this which led him to develop the doctrine of Zionism, entirely independently of Pinsker and other predecessors, and to devote himself to its fulfillment.

Thus, the emergence of Zionism corresponds to a new upsurge of anti-Semitism, associated with the rise of modern imperialism and its extreme development of racism as an ideological instrument of oppression. It was a new type of anti-Semitism, not primarily rooted in religious bigotry as in the past, but essentially secular and racial in character. The historian S. M. Dubnow describes it as follows:

“The last quarter of the 19th century saw a new anti-Jewish movement in Europe. It went by the name of “anti-Semitism” and resolved itself into an attempt to revive the old Jew-baiting practices of the Middle Ages under a new disguise. The rapid progress the Jews, once emancipated, had made in all fields of social and industrial activity had aroused the jealous fear of those sections of Christian society which still clung to the idea of the social inferiority of the Hebrew people. It was declared that the Jew, being a Semite on account of his racial characteristics, was not fitted to live side by side with the Aryan Christian.” (An Outline of Jewish History, Vol. III, p. 316.)

But Zionism was not the only reaction to these developments. The masses of working-class Jews, especially in Russia, responded rather by joining the revolutionary movement and coming into irreconcilable conflict with Zionism.

Zionist ideology

Political Zionism is a reactionary bourgeois-nationalist ideology based on two fundamental fallacies: (1) that the Jews throughout the world constitute a nation, and (2) that anti-Semitism is incurable and eternal.

That the Jews on a world scale, lacking a common territory, language, culture, and economic life, do not constitute a nation in any generally recognized (let alone Marxist) sense of the term hardly needs to be demonstrated. Zionism, however, looks upon the Jews as a nation only in a biological sense: that they are presumed to be the literal descendants of the Jews of ancient times; and in a spiritual sense: that they possess a common background (as some put it, the “same historic memory”), a common religion and, arising from this, the elements of a common culture. Indeed, Zionism sees the Jews as set apart by mystical bonds which non-Jews are incapable of understanding or sharing.

Jacob Neusner, Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University, expresses it in these words:

“The inwardness of Zionism—its piety and spirituality—is not to be comprehended by the world, only by the Jew, for, like the Judaism it transformed and transcended, to the world it was worldly and political, stiff-necked and stubborn. But to the Jew it was something other, not to be comprehended by the gentile. (“Zionism and the ‘Jewish Problem,’” Midstream, November 1969.)

Closely connected with such ideas of innate distinctness is the concept of the Jews as a “chosen people,” destined to play a unique role in history, and thereby set apart from all other peoples. In short, Zionism asserts the existence of an unbridgeable gulf between Jew and non-Jew. In its own way, it upholds the racist doctrine of the anti-Semites that Jews are inherently different from other peoples and hence incapable of becoming integrated with them.

Zionism arose in response to a wave of anti-Semitism that happened concurrently with the rise of modern imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The atrocities committed by Nazi Germany before and during World War II further cemented its appeal to some Jewish leaders. In this photo, German soldiers put down the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, 1943. | Public Domain

Directly related to this is the thesis that anti-Semitism is inherent in non-Jews and hence ineradicable. Pinsker regarded anti-Semitism as biological in nature. He wrote: “Judeophobia is a variety of demonopathy with the distinction that it is not peculiar to particular races, but is common to the whole of mankind…. As a psychic aberration, it is hereditary, and as a disease transmitted for two thousand years, it is incurable. (Auto-Emancipation, p. 9.)

Herzl, it is true, viewed the roots of anti-Semitism as social rather than biological. But he saw it as being nonetheless inevitable since he regarded the social relationships between Jews and gentiles as essentially unchangeable. It was the Jews themselves, he maintained, who carried the seeds of anti-Semitism with them wherever they went. This idea was echoed 50 years later by Chaim Weizmann, then head of the World Zionist Organization, who said: “I believe the one fundamental cause of anti-Semitism is that the Jew exists. We seem to carry anti-Semitism in our knapsacks wherever we go. The growth and intensity of anti-Semitism is proportional to the number of Jews or to the density of Jews in a given country.” (The Jewish Case Before the Anglo-American Committee on Palestine, p. 7.)

Herzl wrote: “Above all I recognized the emptiness and futility of efforts to ‘combat’ anti-Semitism.” (The Diaries of Theodor Herzl, p. 6.) He concluded, therefore, that the solution to the Jewish question lies not in fighting to end anti-Semitism and to achieve full equality for the Jewish people in all countries where they live, but in separating Jew from non-Jew-in establishing a Jewish state in which the Jewish nation, scattered in exile for some 2,000 years, could be reunited.

To Herzl and many of his followers, the location of such a Jewish state was immaterial. Herzl regarded Palestine and Argentina as equally acceptable. And he fought for the acceptance of a British offer of territory in Uganda. But to others of his followers, chiefly those from Eastern Europe, a Jewish state could only mean Palestine.

For David Ben-Gurion, the primary founder of the State of Israel and its first prime minister, the basis of the Jewish state in Palestine is “the Messianic vision of the redemption of the Jewish people and all mankind.” This is “the soul of prophetic Jewry, in all its forms and metamorphoses until this day, and it is the secret of the open and hidden devotion of world Jewry to the State of Israel.” (Address to the 25th World Zionist Congress, December 28, 1960.)

Thus, political Zionism becomes joined with the older religious Zionism with its “Messianic vision” of the return to the “promised land” of the Old Testament. But it was not an ancient longing to return to Zion that gave the impulse to political Zionism; this idea had long existed only as an ossified religious ritual. “Next year in Jerusalem” was uttered yearly by innumerable Jews who had not the faintest expectation—or desire—of returning to Jerusalem at any time.

That impulse was provided rather by the rise of modern anti-Semitism of which we have already spoken, originally in the late 19th century and later, in its most hideous form, in the days of Hitlerism.

Zionism as an organized movement

David Ben-Gurion publicly pronouncing the Declaration of the State of Israel, May 14, 1948, Tel Aviv, Israel, beneath a large portrait of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern political Zionism. | Public Domain

Political Zionism is not only an ideology; it is also an organized world movement. The World Zionist Organization, launched through Herzl’s initiative, held its First Congress in 1897. That Congress stated: “The aim of Zionism is to create for the Jewish people a home in Eretz Israel secured by public law.” (Eretz Israel refers to the biblical bounds of the Promised Land, which extend further than the current borders of the State of Israel.)

The 23rd Congress, held after the establishment of the State of Israel, revised this aim as follows: “The task of Zionism is the consolidation of the State of Israel, the ingathering of the exiles in Eretz Israel, and the fostering of the unity of the Jewish people.”

Clearly, Israel is looked upon as the homeland of all Jews, to which the “world Jewish nation” scattered in exile is to be returned. Zionism regards Jews as aliens in the lands in which they live. It seeks to withdraw them from the struggles for democracy and progress in their own countries as being of no consequence to them as Jews. It strives to build a wall between Jewish and non-Jewish workers, maintaining that the only real bond of Jewish workers is that with other Jews, including Jewish capitalists.

It rejects socialism as an answer to anti-Semitism and is bitterly hostile to the socialist countries, insisting that anti-Semitism, being incurable, is no less rife in these than in the capitalist countries. It stands at the very opposite pole from the ideology of working-class internationalism, which calls for the unity of workers of all countries against their common class enemy, world monopoly capitalism, and on this basis for a common struggle against all forms of national and racial oppression as being divisive and destructive of the interests of workers everywhere.

In its extreme nationalism and separatism, in its capitulation to anti-Semitism, and in its efforts to divide Jewish workers from other workers, Zionism serves the interests of the exploiters and oppressors of all workers and all peoples.


Part 2: Zionism and the State of Israel

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Hyman Lumer
Hyman Lumer

Dr. Hyman Lumer (1909-76) was a leader on the Jewish left and in the Communist Party USA. He was a scientist and scholar, who held a PhD in biology and served as a professor at Western Reserve University. As a teacher, he helped build the Cleveland teachers' union and was active in the drive to build the CIO in the 1930s. For several years, he served as Educational Director for the Ohio-Kentucky District of the United Electrical Workers. In the 1950s, he was a victim of a McCarthyite frame-up and was imprisoned for a time. Upon release, he became a leader in the CPUSA, serving at various times as editor of Jewish Affairs and Political Affairs.