The Cost of Zionism

Jon Elmer: Israel’s raison d’etre is to be a national safe haven for Jews of the world, yet we know now that Israel is the most dangerous place in the world for a Jew to live. Elsewhere you have written that Israel is a breeding ground for anti-Semitism internationally. How has Israel helped or hindered the security of Jews, both within Israel and internationally?

Uri Avnery: There is a lot of irony in this: One of the reasons for setting up the State of Israel was to create a safe haven for the Jews of the world after the Holocaust, one place the Jews would be safe. But what actually happened – and it has been said before me by the late professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz – is that the one place in the world where the Jews are in danger is Israel. They are in danger of annihilation in the end, because if this war goes on, eventually weapons of mass destruction will be employed in the war between us and the Arabs.

Zionism was created with the idea of putting an end to anti-Semitism in Europe. Theodor Herzl – a Viennese journalist and writer, and the founder of political Zionism – wrote in The Jewish State (1896): Those who want to remain Jews will move to the Jewish state and remain Jews, and all the others will assimilate in the nations where they are living and cease to be Jews. People have forgotten this, but this was the basis of political Zionism.

Of course, the Jews did not stop being Jews. There are Jews all over the world. What the Jewish state here in Israel is creating – because we are at war with the Palestinians, the whole Arab world, and practically the whole Muslim world – is immense opposition all over the world. We are an occupying power. We are in the middle of a war in which three and a half million Palestinians are oppressed by our occupation.

Every day we are conducting operations in the occupied territories which look awful on television screens – not just in Cairo or Damascus, but in Berlin and Paris. You could say that we do not behave worse than the French in Algeria, or the British in Malayasia or Kenya, or the Americans in Vietnam. Maybe, but when you see on your television screen Israeli soldiers pushing around Palestinians, humiliating people at roadblocks, killing people in huge military actions, you get a picture of Israel as an oppressive and inhuman kind of state. The very opposite of the way Israel looked, let’s say, fifty years ago; and this creates resistance.

Now, the Jews of the world identify with Israel, and Israel relies upon the Jews of the world for support – political support and political pressure on their governments, especially in the United States. The borderline between the interests and policies of the State of Israel, on the one side, and the life of the Jewish people in the Jewish communities all over the world on the other – this borderline is being blurred. Israel is wiping out the borderline because it wants to get the support of the Jews; the anti-Semites are wiping out the borderline because they want to use the objection to Israeli actions in order to create hatred toward the Jews in general. This is a very unfortunate situation.

I have always said that we should draw a very clear line between Israelis and the Jews of the world. Israel is a state, and it acts as a state – for better or for worse. It is acting for its own perceived interests. The Jews of the world should not be involved in, or committed to, Israeli actions. There should be a clear borderline. Criticism of Israel, for good or for bad reasons, should have nothing to do with Jewish communities.

Elmer: Is Zionism in crisis? Many people have spoken of the moral decay created by the brutality of the occupation. Avraham Burg has said “the countdown to the end of Israeli society has begun.” Can you shed light on the internal debate within Israel about the crisis of Zionism?

Avnery: I think the crisis of Zionism is really more semantic than real. You will notice that people who speak of a crisis of Zionism, for or against, generally do not define what Zionism is.

What is Zionism? What is socialism? Socialism can be Stalinism, it can be social-democratic, can be Mao Tse-tung, it can be trade unionists in the United States… By saying socialism you are saying nothing unless you define what you mean by socialism. The same with Zionism. What does Zionism mean? Does it mean sympathy with Israel? Does it mean that all the Jews of the world should come to Israel, [aliyah]? Is Zionism the belief that the Jews of the world will cease to be Jews unless they move to the Jewish State? What does Zionism mean?

When an Israeli says Zionism, he means nothing. He means that he is a patriot, that he wants the state of Israel to exist and to do well. That’s all. Therefore, when you say that all, or nearly all, Israelis are Zionists, that’s what you mean.

Some Israelis who criticize Zionism say that Zionism, while doing wonderful things, also involved a terrible injustice to the Palestinian people; therefore, we must see how to safeguard Israel but put an end to this injustice. There is an old Hebrew saying: he who admits what he has done, puts an end to it and leaves it, will receive mercy from God.

If you analyze one hundred years of Zionism and say yes, we created wonderful things. Zionism created a new society in Israel, it created the State of Israel and so forth… but at the price of doing a very great injustice to the Palestinian people. If you come to this point and you say: Okay, what can we do about it? How can we achieve a solution for peace that will do justice to the Palestinians as much as possible? If this is the crisis of Zionism, it is a very good thing. I very much subscribe to this idea.

Elmer: During my time in the West Bank I interviewed several Palestinian resistance fighters who spoke of the concept of the “innocent Israeli”; they claim that in a society that prides itself on having “a people’s army”, in which there is mandatory military service for every man and woman, there really are no innocent Israelis. Can you comment on this?

Avnery: Israel is a more or less democratic society, like the United States. You have many different opinions in Israel. You have people very much committed to peace, risking their life for peace – lately, Israeli peace activists have been shot at by our army. You also have very fanatical rightwing Israelis who really want to drive the Palestinians out of all of Palestine and turn it into a Jewish state. Then you have the great mass of people in between, people who very much would like to have peace but don’t quite believe peace is possible, people who, after such a long war, are full of fears and prejudices towards the Palestinians.

I can understand the Palestinian who says that the only Israelis he meets are either settlers or soldiers who take away his land, shoot at him, who says, ‘to hell with all Israelis, let’s drive them into the sea.’ This is understandable, but I think you have the great majority of Palestinians who realize that the nation of Israel cannot be driven into the sea, and that in order to fulfill their own national aspirations and gain a measure of freedom and independence in their own state, they need to live together and work together with Israelis.

We [at Gush Shalom] meet these kind of people everyday in our actions and demonstrations. I believe that the simplistic view that exists on both sides – that all the Arabs are murderers and suicide bombers and should be eradicated, and that all Israelis are murderers or settlers who don’t respect Palestinian land – these ideas don’t represent the great majority on either side. Therefore, one should stick to the belief that peace is possible, and that peace will come.

Uri Avnery is a founding member of Gush Shalom (Israeli Peace Bloc). In his teenage years he was an independence fighter in the Irgun (1938-1942), and later a commando in the Israeli Army’s Samson’s Foxes. A three-time Knesset member (1965-1973, and 1979-1983), Avnery was the first Israeli to establish contact with the Palestinian Liberation Organization leadership, in 1974. During the war on Lebanon in 1982 he crossed “enemy lines” to be the first Israeli to meet with Yasser Arafat. He has been a journalist since 1947, including 40 years as Editor-in-Chief of the newsmagazine Ha’olam Haze, and is the author of numerous books on the conflict.

Jon Elmer is a photojournalist who reported from the West Bank and Gaza Strip from September to December 2003. He is the creator and editor of the online journal

The interview was conducted on 15 February 2004. Jon Elmer was in Toronto. Uri Avnery was in Tel Aviv.

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