RS Zionism Conversation 2

Bogusław Chrabota interviews Philip Earl Steele for Plus Minus

Author: Gidon Ariel


| Published: July 09, 2024

120 years ago this week the creator of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, died. What became of his vision?
It’s true that Theodor Herzl was the most significant Zionist leader of the 19th century. But he was not the creator of Zionism. There were very many important Zionists before him, and from literally all over Europe. That certainly includes Polish lands. There’s Rabbi Kalischer from Toruń, the newspaperman David Gordon from Ełk, Rabbi Mohylewer from Radom and Białystok… But yes, thanks to his Premier League standing among European journalists, Herzl drew unprecedented attention to the cause. He also had an organizational genius, and co-created sturdy structures that would develop into a modern Jewish state: the regular Zionist Congresses, the Zionist Organization (today the World Zionist Organization), the Jewish National Fund, and what we now call the Bank Leumi, or national bank. In the short-term following his premature death (he was only 44), the Zionist movement as such largely dried up. The Zionist Organization of course continued to exist, the Congresses continued to be held, but mass defections and general apathy plagued things to a point where one may speak of generals without armies in the period prior to the First World War. David Ben-Gurion left his Polish hometown of Płońsk in 1906 and settled in Eretz Israel as part of the Second Aliyah, or wave of immigration. In his memoirs Ben-Gurion guessed that 9 of 10 settlers during his initial years in Ottoman Palestine gave up and left – above all for America, we know. Yet the Zionist movement was not just twice-born, as it’s said about Hovevei Zionism in the 1880s and then Herzlian Zionism in the 1890s: it was thrice-born – and the third time proved a charm. For it was when the Jewish threesome Nahum Sokolow, Moses Gaster, and Chaim Weizman co-fathered the Balfour Declaration with the British government during WWI that the ball really got rolling – and this time didn’t stop.
Zionism became the cornerstone of the State of Israel. Would the birth of Israel have been possible without the Zionist movement?
No, that would have been impossible. The cornerstone of Israeli statehood was above all the existence of the Yishuv, or Jewish population, in British Mandate Palestine. The Yishuv numbered about 650,000 after WWII. On its basis the UN in November 1947 agreed its plan for a Jewish and an Arab state in Palestine. If we are to imagine a postwar world without the Yishuv, then virtually all international support for a Jewish state in Israel vanishes. I mean, even in the wake of the Holocaust the peoplehood of the Jews was not widely respected in Europe. Not even in nominally “philosemitic” circles.
In the summer of 1947 the International Emergency Conference on Anti-Semitism was held in Seelisberg, Switzerland. The participants were primarily Catholic and Protestant activists who considered themselves philosemites. The exact dates of the conference are July 30 to August 5. This means the conference commenced directly after the Exodus 1947 scandal erupted. In a nutshell, on July 18 the ship Exodus 1947, carrying some 4,000 Holocaust survivors, was forcibly seized by the British as it approached Haifa. The very next day its passengers were sent back on other vessels to – and this can still hardly be believed – camps in Germany! The story was of course everywhere covered in the press, and yet the conference in Seelisberg totally neglected to note it, along with any “solution of the Jewish question”, as was the parlance, that involved what was still Mandate Palestine. Instead, the conference came up with a list of 10 outright comical admonitions for distribution, including “Avoid using the word Jews in the exclusive sense of the enemies of Jesus”. Such were the “emergency” measures devised in the immediate wake of six-million Jews having been murdered in the Nazi-German genocide, and at the very time 4,000 Holocaust survivors from the Exodus 1947 were being sent back to Germany. Nonetheless, Seelisberg is lauded to this day here in Poland by similar such “philosemites” as a positive breakthrough in Christian-Jewish relations, something it most certainly is not. It’s a shameful embarrassment. Above all, it’s a stark reflection of sanctimonious blindness to the Jews’ peoplehood and right to a homeland. So no. Had there been no large, organized Jewish population in Palestine, thanks to the Zionist movement and the Balfour Declaration, precious few forces after 1945 would have seen fit to foster the establishment of a modern Israel.
How did Zionism make its presence felt in the early years of statehood?
It’s often said that Zionism was at bottom a national-liberation movement. And there’s a lot of truth to that. Its focus was not on individual freedoms, but on freedom and security for a people. On national liberation from the Russian Empire, the Turkish Empire, and lastly the British Empire. And that’s why so much of the élan of the early years of independence was collectivist, why socialism could be pursued so successfully. Precisely as in all the other post-colonial countries all over the world. That was the pattern. What was specifically Israeli was the notion of Geulah – that the redemption was beginning. That was widespread then, whether as a religious or secularized concept. Ben-Gurion, as many of us know, had named his daughter Geulah. After all, we’re talking about the emergence of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel after a hiatus of nearly 1,900 years. Directly after the attempt to annihilate the whole people. So, a world-historical event. Its power contributed to the Israelis’ conviction that the six attacking Arab armies could be defeated in 1948-49. And they were. David defeated Goliath.
Why was Zionism, or rather its achievement, not universally accepted by the Jewish Diaspora?
An early answer to that question was offered by rabbi Yehuda Alkalai from Serbia, who in the mid- 19th century noted that, “the messianic spirit was being diverted from the hope for redemption in the Land of Israel to the hope for redemption in the Diaspora”. Alkalai, nota bene, was the rabbi of Theodor Herzl’s father and grandfather, and so we understand how influential he is in the history of Zionism. But yes, Zionism remained a very marginal movement among the world’s Jews for long decades. American Jews, for instance, didn’t begin to support Zionism on a wide-scale until the Second World War. In 1890 the famous Reform Rabbi Emil Hirsch from Chicago bluntly told the WASPs in Chicago who were setting about to create a modern Israel, “We, the modern Jews, say that we do not wish to be restored to Palestine. We have given up the hope in the coming of a political, personal Messiah. We say ‘the country wherein we live is our Palestine, and the city wherein we dwell is our Jerusalem’. We will not go back”.
What was Herzl’s attitude toward the ultra-Orthodox? What place did he foresee for them in the Jewish State of the future?
Herzl was a highly cultured, urbane person deeply attached to modernism. Hence, like many such people, he had a strong allergy to religious belief. Whereas Herzl was quite happy to refer to his support amongst the rabbis – and to criticize those rabbis who opposed him – he never touched on their argumentation for supporting or opposing Zionism. His references were just ad hominem. Above all, Herzl assumed that religion would wither away in an Israel reborn. We see this in his utopian novel from late 1902, Altneuland – Old New Land – which describes the future Israel as a liberal paradise, where people can privately have whatever religion they want. Much the same goes for David Ben-Gurion when, in his early years as Prime Minister, he granted the ultra-Orthodox exemptions from national education and military service. He simply assumed they were destined to disappear.
I’ve been observing the changes in Israel for 30 years. The founders of the state, the Ashkenazi Zionists, have died off. Who has inherited the Jewish State?
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What were the views of the first Zionists concerning co-existence with the Arabs?
The whole matter was a blind-spot. Kaliszer, Pinsker, Herzl – they barely even noted the presence of indigenous Arabs. Though it was in fact the Christian Zionists (among them, Lord Shaftesbury of Great Britain) who around 1840 began using the phrase, ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’. One of Herzl’s biggest Jewish detractors was Ahad Ha’am, and it’s noteworthy that in 1891, when on the way home from a visit to Ottoman Palestine, Ha’am wrote a well-remembered tract casting doubt on the realism of Zionist aims. Among the barriers he cited was the presence of a native Arab population. Above all, there was no prediction of an Arab national movement on the tiny scale of Palestine. Today’s Israel, even together with the West Bank, is only about ¾ the size of the Polish province of Mazowsze. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during WWI, the British and the French and the Americans and the Zionist Jews, too, were supportive of the creation of Arab states. No-one at the time imagined that the Jewish hold of such a minuscule piece of land would meet with anything like the resistance it has.
Why does dialogue on that topic seem to have died in modern Israel?
I wouldn’t say it has. I mean, Arab-Israelis make up 1/5 of Israel’s citizenry. Their representatives have sat in the Knesset, and even in the recent Bennett-Lapid government. There are in fact many, quite different Palestinian Arab populations. Besides those in Israel, there’re those in the West Bank, those in Gaza, those in diaspora – there are also the Bedouins. I mean, the short-hand is that the current conflict in Gaza hasn’t led to another Intifada on the West Bank. About Yasir Arafat, Hamas, etc. – there’s been an undeniable intransigence toward recognizing the fact that Israel is there to stay. Time and gain Palestinian Arab leaders have been willing to forego having their own state, even on altogether favorable terms, if that meant having to recognize the Jewish state. This goes way back before the rejection of the offers of the Olmert and Barak governments in this century, before the rejection of the UN offer of a Palestinian state in 1947. It concerns the Mandate period, too. For instance, in the early 1920s the British governor, a Jew in fact, Herbert Samuel, tried to create a joint Jewish-Arab parliament, as it were. But the Arabs refused to take part. That rejectionism has got to change.
Is it accurate to deem Zionism’s outcome to be the cause of today’s antisemitism?
No. Today’s antisemitism is the outcome of traditional antisemitism. We’re faced with yet another mutation of it, though nothing of the kind had been expected. Herzl echoed Pinsker in believing that Israeli statehood would end the transmission. But the virus mutated yet again. Israel is the Jew of the nations. Hence the scapegoat for European complexes over colonialism, North American complexes over racism, apocalyptic anxieties of the young in various countries around the world. Here in Poland we see the continuity with traditional antisemitism – ironically, it’s clearest among the self-styled philosemites who piously frequent Holocaust sites with their grim faces, even black robes in the heat of summer at Jedwabne, Auschwitz, Otwock… Members of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews – of all people! – found themselves speechless and otherwise unable for over a month to mourn the mass murder of 1,200 Jews on 7 October and condemn the sadistic culprits. The International Council of Christians and Jews did so on October 10, as did the governing body of the Catholic Church in Poland on Oct. 18. Later, on Oct. 21, the world’s press noted that Norwegian student in Warsaw, marching with her antisemitic poster. But no, it wasn’t until November 13 (and at the initiative of a Jewish member!) that the Polish Council did finally issue a condemnation of Hamas. That very day, however, the former head of the Council published a votum separatum. In it he justified the silence, writing ‘we don’t pretend to be experts on the Middle East’, before nevertheless suggesting the victims of the Simchat Torah Massacre were themselves, as Israelis, to blame for their fate; stressing his wish not to have appeared to be supporting Prime Minister Netanyahu (though seemingly quite willing to risk the appearance of supporting Hamas); and paraphrasing Hamas propaganda stipulating Israel’s propensity to commit war crimes. The echo in his words of kindred comments uttered by ‘decent Christians’ in the aftermath of pogroms, Kristallnacht and worse – ‘Yes, a pity. But you know: usury, deicide, ritual killings…’ – is deafening. Nor was his an isolated voice. Two weeks later, another member of the Council took aim at Israel with an article in a Catholic weekly that equated Israeli settler violence with Putin and his war in Ukraine (sic!), sang of the greater freedoms in Bantustans than the West Bank (claiming the latter enjoys democratically elected authorities), and so on, betraying throughout an ignorance of the simplest facts, as when he stated that the Jewish settlements on the West Bank are illegal in Israeli law. The many cases like these – first a silence speaking volumes, then aggressive anti-Israeli denunciations – reveal the continuity with traditional antisemitism in a nutshell.
What are the sources of today’s pro-Palestinian antisemitism?
There’s a multitude of causes. World order is in crisis, and crises have always spawned Jew-hatred. We’ve entered the era of post-truth. Woke optics virtually deify victims – imagined ones, as well. There’s the blinding anticolonial mania, and yet Zionism may aptly be dubbed a form of anticolonialism. The newly created Israel was not an empire seizing foreign lands, but rather an asylum for persecuted refugees from dozens of countries. My own ancestors, within the scope of British colonialism, settled New England in the early 17 th century. But there in Massachusetts when they began to farm and plow their fields, did they happen to churn up coins from Anglo-Saxon times? Did they come across the ruins of the palace where Magna Carta was signed? Did they discover, let’s say, the foundations of the theater where Shakespeare staged his plays? I’m of course being facetious to stress how utterly different matters were when the new Jewish settlements in the Land of Israel began to appear in the 1880s. It was a return. The terms typically used were restoration, restorationism. The Jews were returning to their ancient homeland.
Is anti-Zionism a phenomenon created by the Arab world? Or should Tel Aviv be blamed?
The current pro-Jihadist hasbara really does take a person aback – you know, that whole accusation of Jewish “settler colonialism”. That phenomenon is after all most plainly visible here in Europe, what with the mass-immigration of people from the Middle East. Pro-Hamas opinion-makers in Europe are able to successfully spread such hutzpah only because so many Europeans mistakenly believe that Europe has a universal culture. Tel Aviv, in turn… One flashes on that meme with Einstein’s supposed remark that ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different outcome’. Specifically, the stubborn insistence on the Holocaust hasn’t paid off for Israel. Those in Poland who mourn the Jewish dead and/or seek to preserve their memory have not meaningfully (or at all) come out in support of Israel post October 7. The Holocaust Museum in the US swiftly condemned Hamas and the unprecedented slaughter. But the Museum in Auschwitz? I read an interview with Director Piotr Cywiński in late January that made my blood run cold. Namely, he suggested that Oct. 7 does not fall, together with Auschwitz, within the sweep of antisemitic genocidal crimes. That these matters are separate, adding generously: “the victims of the Holocaust [cannot] be held responsible for what another generation [of Jews] is doing 80 years later”.
I’m sure you were no less shocked at Hamas’ attack of October 7 th than I and many others were. But why has the world turned its back on Israel?
Yes, much of the world has. But that progressives have gone mad and aligned themselves with Jihadists? Well, they once blindly aligned with Stalin. With Pol Pot. Milan Kundera immortalized them in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in the chapter “The Grand March”. Collective ecstasy in self- deception.
Does Netanyahu’s war policy enjoy universal support in Israel?
There is a marked solidarity among Israelis about the need to destroy Hamas. But also open divisions over the prosecution of the war. Even Israeli military leaders have spoken out against the political leadership. Nonetheless, peaceniks are like that needle in a haystack. I’ve noticed a whole new genre in the Israeli press – “Why I am no longer a peacenik”.
What’s to be done to overcome the policies of confrontation?
That won’t happen soon, we know. And when it does, it’ll involve having expanded the Abraham Accords, i.e., isolating and containing Iran. That will first require Israeli successes against Iranian proxies both north and south, which in turn will require steady, committed US support of Israel – and of the whole future architecture of a Sunni-Israeli bulwark against Iran’s incursions. A very tall order.
What would Herzl do, if today he stood at the helm of the state he once envisioned?
He’d recognize much in today’s Israel and feel proud. The skyscrapers of Tel Aviv where he would remember only sand dunes. Herzl had a steam-punk turn of mind, and so he’d be thrilled with the Technion, that world-ranking center of technological innovation. And with the new railway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Just 30 minutes! Nonetheless, I think today he’d feel defeated, like during his last year of life when he realized he could no longer pull a rabbit out of the hat. He even wrote a letter of resignation then, one he may have been planning to submit – but his heart failed him first in the Austrian Alps. But there is no “man for all seasons”. Enough that Herzl was outstanding in his own times.
How aware was he of the chasm between ideas and political realities?
Herzl was a consummate diplomat. He deeply impressed the German Kaiser, Pope Leon XIII, Russian Minister Plehve, Colonial Minister Chamberlain. But he had no state at his disposal. He remained a visionary, a romantic who till the end believed that ‘if you will it, it is not a dream’ – his motto to Altneuland.
Who is his most direct heir today?
Wow, hard question. I mean, he remains the symbolic Father of Israel. You’ve been to Mount Herzl – he lies there all by himself at the top, with Israel’s many other distinguished leaders lying in groups, lower on the hill. From Jabotinsky to Yitzak and Leah Rabin. Actually, Ben-Gurion also lies by himself, although at Sde Boker in the Negev. But unlike Ben-Gurion, no party in Israel has special claims on Herzl. Hhmmm… maybe that’s it. Herzl uniquely belongs to all Israelis.
Is it possible that US support for Israel will change in the near-term?
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Does the occupant of the White House matter?, whether Trump or Biden?
Each of them is strongly pro-Israel. Neither however has been willing to talk with the public about the real threat to the region: Iran. Ignoring that elephant in the room does not bode well, as foreign policy is an emanation of domestic attitudes. Worse, here it is early July, and we don’t even know if Biden will be his party’s nominee.
Do you understand the arguments of the students protesting against Israel?
I understand that they’ve succumbed to delusions. And that that’s all the easier when utter ignorance lies behind the opinions I’ve heard them express. I also understand the tribal mentality so powerful especially at that age; the rapture experienced when chanting the same slogans together with others. We’re back to Kundera.
What would Herzl say to them?
Herzl moved among the like-minded. He did very little winning over, really. Pre-existing Zionists jumped on his wagon. Just once in his life did he address an angry crowd. That was the 6th Zionist Congress in 1903 – when he proposed that the Congress accept Uganda from the British for the establishment of a Jewish homeland. Most delegates considered this nothing less than blasphemy. Herzl’s response to their outrage was to back away, claim it was just a trial balloon, swear that he’d let his hand get cut off before he’d forget Jerusalem. So, if we’re to treat that case as indicating Herzl’s constitution, then I’d guess that he wouldn’t even try with any pro-Hamas crowd.
What would Philip Earl Steele say?
Generally, I have similar thoughts today as I did in 2019 when I published a paper in the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. I proposed then that a pivot be made. A pivot away from Holocausto-centrism to Zionism. That Israelis and Poles focus on the positive, usable history of the success story of Israel’s rebirth. There are, after all, over a dozen ‘fathers of modern Israel’ from today’s Polish lands who could be jointly celebrated. As it is, only one of them is: David Ben-Gurion from Płońsk. Again, Zionism precedes the Holocaust; the state of Israel arose upon the Yishuv. The recreation of Israel, a world-historical event, is an uplifting story that direly needs telling. Today more than in 2019. The story of the Holocaust blared from all sides wins Israel little support abroad, and seemingly none at all in Poland.
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