Skeletons in the cupboard: Zionism and the struggle against anti-Semitism

At the root of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the Zionist project of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. In the following article Henry Maitles looks at the origins and development of the Zionist movement and in particular the crucial question of the relationship between Zionism and anti-Semitism.

The cruel and brutal actions of Israeli governments, army and sections of the population since the formation of the State of Israel in 1948 have been well documented. From the Irgun massacre at Deir Yassin in April 1948, where several hundred villagers were murdered and survivors were used to spread panic and consequent flight into exile, to the invasion and occupation of Lebanon in the 1980s and the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatilla camps by the Israelibacked Lebanese fascists to the brutal actions against the Intifada over the last year, Israeli policy has been characterised by fierce and unrelenting reaction. It comes as no surprise that Israel has a racist Law of Return offering citizenship to all Jews in the world but refusing (contrary to UN resolutions) to allow back Palestinian refugees whose families lived in the area for generations and who fled in 1948. Of course, their return would alter the demographic and racial look of the state and would challenge the Zionist assertion to their own, exclusively ruled, Jewish state.

The formation of the state of Israel had as its underpinning the need for a force in the area capable of upholding Western oil and military interests in the Arab world; in particular a force capable of punishing or having the will and potential to punish Arab rulers or populations who may desire to challenge these interests. In the words of a British diplomat, Israel would be a "loyal little Ulster" in the area 1, a role seen by an influential Israeli newspaper of a "watchdog" in the Arab world 2. Apart from these global priorities, there was the added dimension after the Second World War of the Holocaust, the attempted genocide of European Jewry by the Nazis, and the failure of both western and eastern blocs to prevent it. This gave the Zionists the propaganda tool of a moral and ethical case for a homeland which they insisted had to be in Palestine.

Some are surprised at this, believing that Zionism, the political philosophy underpinning the state of Israel, has an anti-western and anti-capitalist agenda. But Zionism has at every juncture seen its role as collaborating and allying itself with reactionary forces in its goal of the Jewish state.


Zionism was, and is, a specific response to anti-Semitism. It argues that anti-Semitism is endemic to the gentile population; it is thus futile trying to combat it and the only strategy is to isolate Jews in their own state, arm it to the teeth and put up shutters against a hostile world. Leo Pinsker, at the end of the last century, summed up Jew-baiting as being "not a quality of a particular race but common to all mankind. Like a psychic affliction, it is hereditary and as a disease has been incurable for 2,000 years"3. Theodor Hertzl, the founder and leading theorist of Zionism, explained that "In Paris I achieved a freer attitude to anti-Semitism which I now began to understand historically and to pardon. Above all, I recognised the emptiness and futility of trying to combat anti-Semitism."4 The most obvious late twentieth-century manifestation of this attitude was Hitlers Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Goldhagen, which claims that there was endemic exterminationist anti-Semitism in almost the entire German population just waiting for the Nazis to turn it on like a tap.5

Zionism, though, was not just a theory. From its beginnings in 1895, it had practical implications. The Zionist leaders saw their role as negotiating with and compromising with the most vicious regimes. In Hertzls time this was the Tsarist empire, which organised as a matter of policy both regular pogroms and anti-Semitic laws; consequently, there was the involvement of many Jews in the social democratic movement (the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and the specifically Jewish Bund - the Revolutionary Jewish Workers League of Russia, Lithuania and Poland). In 1895, Herzl approached Plehve (the anti-Semitic Minister of the Interior) to gain his support in principle for a Jewish homeland in Palestine; Hertzls biographer claims that Plehve maintained that Herzls quid pro quo for this was that the Zionist enterprise would help to influence the Jewish masses away from social democracy. Zionism had started as it meant to continue; collaboration was in at the birth. To the various strands of social democracy, but particularly the Bund, this was treason at a high level. Isaac Deutscher explains:

"In Eastern Europe and especially in Poland, the Yiddish-speaking workers who considered themselves Jews without reservation were the most resolute enemies of Zionism. They were determined opponents of emigration to Palestine. These anti-Zionists thought the idea of an evacuation, an exodus from the countries they called home, where their ancestors had lived for ages, amounted to abdicating their rights, yielding to hostile pressure, betraying their struggle and surrendering to anti-Semitism. For them, Zionism seemed to be the triumph of anti-Semitism, legitimising and validating the old cry - 'Jews Out'. The Zionists accepted it; they wanted 'Out'."7

To Jacob Dubnow, a Bundist leader, writing in 1898, the danger of Zionism was that anti-Semites "...would then be able to say to the protesting Jews of the Diaspora, If you don't like it here, why don't you go away and live in your own state?"8


Whilst the February 1917 revolution was welcomed by Jewish organisations, the Bolshevik revolution of November passing power to the Bolshevik-dominated soviets sent shock waves throughout the world. The areas which contained more Jews than anywhere else were undergoing massive social change. Many bourgeois politicians were keen to equate Bolshevism with Jewry on the basis that, if this link could be made, it would be easier to whip up anti-Bolshevism through the use of racism. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, purporting to show a Bolshevik/banker/world Jewish conspiracy, was the lunatic fringe of this and, until its exposure as an obvious forgery, was printed in many languages. Other politicians jumped on to the bandwagon; Churchills anti-Semitic and anti-Bolshevist pronouncements are well known but he was not alone. Lord Ampthill claimed at a large meeting in London that 'Bolshevism was being carried out by international Jews'9. General H. Page Croft developed the theme further, claiming that "...the battle against Bolshevism was a battle for Christianity...Trotsky is a Jew and a journalist. Zinoviev, alias Appelbaum is a Jew and a journalist; Sverdlov is a Jew and a chemist; Uritsky is a Jew; Yoffe, Radek, Litvinoff...are Jews."10 And it was not only the London press who reported and editorialised in these terms. The Glasgow Herald described the Hungarian Soviet government as The Triumph of the Jew and continued:

"The rulers are almost exclusively young Jews. Alexander Gabary, the nominal head, is almost the only Christian...Of the rest I mean no cheap sneer when I say they recall Whitechapel Road alike in appearance, dress and their kind of ability. There has been no more remarkable government for a thousand-year-old kingdom since the first councils of the twelve tribes. "11

The response of the Zionist-influenced Jewish leaderships, who at this stage had just been promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine at some stage in the future, was extremely confused. On the one hand there was apologetic propaganda, designed to suggest that Jewry was not particularly involved in Bolshevism 12 and on the other an attempt to justify support for western anti-Bolshevism and the Whites in the civil war, despite the obvious murderous anti-Semitism of the Whites. The confusion was obvious before the revolution at the time of the attempt by reactionary General Kornilov to overthrow the Kerensky government in September 1917. Jewish World, a pro-Zionist publication, reported that circulating widely amongst Kornilovs troops was a paper called Holy Russia, which argued for the return of the Tsar as the one hope for 'land, peace and freedom from Jewish oppression', as opposed to the Bolshevist slogan of 'land, peace, bread'. In a bizarre editorial explaining this, the Jewish World launches into an attack on the Bolsheviks who stand unveiled as the Jews bitterest enemies, seemingly involved in "a joint anti-Jewish conspiracy with the Black Hundreds"13. The facts, obvious at the time, were that the Bolsheviks were precisely the strongest and bitterest enemies of the Black Hundreds and this was the reason why so many Jews were Bolshevik supporters.

With the incredible upheaval and conflicts following World War One, pro-Zionists and the assimilated Jewish leaderships found themselves uncertain of how to deal with the massive anti-Semitic policies of pro-Western forces, particularly in Eastern Europe. In the climate of support at Versailles for a Jewish homeland and the Balfour Declaration of 1917 agreeing that Palestine was a legitimate homeland for the Jews, the issue of massive pogroms in Russia against Jews by pro-Western 'White' armies came to the fore. The Jewish leaderships in the West decided by August 1918 that the White alternative was better than the Bolshevik government. The Jewish Chronicle claimed that "Clearly the disappearance of the (Bolshevik) regime...will be an immense relief to the Russian of the happiest days in Jewish life will come when this blood stained tyranny has met its deserts."14 The confusion for Western Jews was that the Bolsheviks proclaimed and tried to put into practice at that time a policy of combating anti-Semitism. The real anti-Semites in the situation were the Western-backed White armies. Alexieff, the White General, backed to the hilt by the Western democracies, said that 'he would not stop reprisals until every Jew in Russia was quartered'15. One of the Western-backed Denikin's generals vowed in Kiev in August 1919 that 'the diabolical force that lives in the heart of the Jew-Communist will be destroyed'16. Commenting on Denikins campaign, one historian wrote that Denikin "imposed a regime marked by a vicious hatred for all Jews. As the pogroms of 1919 burst upon the Jews of the Ukraine with an incredible ferocity, the enemies of Bolshevism committed some of the most brutal acts of persecution in the modern history of the Western world."17 In 1919 alone, just in the Ukraine, the Whites, it is estimated, killed 150,000 Jews, one-eighth of the Jewish population18 ; a rate exceeded only by the Nazi holocaust.

A similar pattern of anti-Semitic violence was seen in other parts of Eastern Europe. It was short-sighted, indeed treacherous, for the Jewish leaderships to suggest that Bolshevism was worse than the Whites. Even the Jewish Chronicle contrasted the honouring of a Jewish hero by the Hungarian Soviet regime with the Romanian 'tale of horror' as they threatened an invasion. The conclusion was that "no greater contrast can be imagined than that between the Rumanian Boyar, whose hatred of Jews is notorious, and the Hungarian Soviet government, which has proclaimed perfect religious and racial freedom"19. In fact, during May and June 1919, major pogroms were reported from Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bratislava and many other places. Yet, in Hungary, under the Soviet Republic, the main reported problem at that time was of Saturday (Sabbath) working20. The Jewish Chronicle itself reported a speech by Zinoviev, by this stage the President of the Third International, that "It is a debt of honour for Russian revolutionaries to combat Jewish pogroms and to show that there is no room for pogroms...In Russia all must come forward in defence of innocent people attacked by pogromists."21 Indeed, when the Party of the Unemployed issued an anti-Semitic leaflet, the Bolsheviks allowed Captain Trumpeldor to organise Jewish servicemen in Petrograd into a Jewish self-defence force.22

In this situation, the damning of Bolsheviks and Whites and, in many cases the ignoring of White anti-Semitism, showed that, either by error or for political expediency, the Jewish leaderships of the West were willing to collaborate with the conservative politicians against the interests of the Jews of Eastern Europe.23


A similar problem of collaboration was to be seen in the attitudes of Jewry to the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s. The traditional Jewish leaderships were tied in to a continuing passivity and were to be shown to be incapable of taking the kind of action necessary to attempt to stop fascism; in particular, they stressed legality and the need to avoid confrontation. This led, for example, the Centralverein (the German Jewish community leadership) to issue a statement immediately after Hitler's accession to the Chancellorship to the effect that "We are convinced that no one will dare to touch our constitutional rights...The parole today is - act calmly"24 . And this on the very day that one of the most vicious anti-Semites of all time, Julius Streicher, was appointed chief of police in Berlin! Also, had there been a massive outpouring of anger, including demonstrations in the streets, then Hitler's position was decidedly insecure at that time. This is not to say that the Jews were responsible for either the accession of Hitler or could have stopped the Nazis on their own; the responsibility for mass mobilisation rested on the Social-Democratic and Communist parties, neither of which were able to pursue the needed united front strategy and mobilisations25. Nonetheless, Jewish passivity was the antithesis of what was needed. The attitudes of the Centralverein found an echo in other Western countries. For example, the Board of Deputies of British Jews advised Jews not to be involved in activity against the British Union of Fascists and specifically urged Jews to have nothing to do with the mobilisation around the 1936 Cable Street battles that stopped the fascists marching through the Jewish East End of London and was seen by many observers to be a major factor in stopping the BUF from gaining a larger foothold in Britain26. The hard line Zionists were equally passive. An editorial in the Young Zionist spelled this out: "Once we have realised that we cannot root out the evil, that all our efforts have been in vain...the problem of anti-Semitism becomes a problem of our own education."27 In France, so tied to the French Government's policy of appeasement was the French Jewish leadership, that they found themselves supporting harsh new immigration controls and the consequent policy of sending back refugee Jews to Germany following the Kristallnacht pogroms of 1938. Julien Weills, Chief Rabbi of Paris, summed up the attitude: "No-one is more sympathetic than I am to the misery and pain of the 600,000 German Jews, but nothing seems more precious and necessary to me than the maintenance of peace on earth."28 In other words, the German Jews can only be helped if it does not provoke the Nazis; an incredibly short-sighted and idealistic hope.

For the rapidly growing, but still minority, Zionist movement in the 1930s, the Nazis offered an opportunity for arguing for Palestine, and Palestine alone, as a Jewish homeland. Saving a few, if possible, at the expense of the many became the central aim. Zionist leaders, such as David Ben Gurion argued that they would be "risking Zionism's very existence if we allow the refugee problem to be separated from the Palestine problem."29 One Israeli historian goes as far as to say that:

"From the very first moment, Zionism gave up all considerations connected with the situation of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, except in so far as they contributed to the Zionist enterprise. After the Nazi take-over in Germany, when demonstrations and protest actions against the Nazi regime of terror reached their climax, the voice of Zionism was not to be heard."30

Collaboration was central to this strategy, even to the extent, at its nadir, of organising the Ha'arev, a German-Zionist trade agreement, at a time when anti-fascists were trying to isolate the Nazi regime through an organised boycott, which seeme to be having an effect on the German economy.31 It allowed, for example, British fascists to make the following claim:

"Can you beat that! We are cutting off our nose to spite our face and refuse to trade with Germany in order to defend the poor Jews. The Jews themselves in their own country are to continue to make profitable dealings with Germany themselves. Fascists can't better counter the malicious propaganda to destroy friendly relations with Germany than by using this fact."32


This collaboration continued into the war itself. The refusal to acknowledge the extent of the barbarism of the enemy lent itself, whether for genuinely mistaken or deliberate reasons into working with the Nazis. At its worst, during the war, there is evidence to suggest that certain of the Jewish Councils, set up by the Nazis to police and run the Jewish ghetto areas, encouraged Jews to volunteer for the extermination camps in larger numbers than the Germans could deal with!33 For example, Marek Edelman, one of the leaders of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising, points out that the Warsaw Jewish leaders encouraged Jews to go to Treblinka and this, together with the Nazi bribe of bread for those volunteering, led to the bizarre spectacle of thousands of people waiting patiently in line to be deported to the death camps from the ghetto; Edelman, and others, firmly accuse the Warsaw Jewish leadership, and provide evidence for this, of knowing that Treblinka was not a 'work camp' in the sense of the word but was an extermination camp.34 It is little surprise that the first victims of the Warsaw ghetto uprising were the Jewish Council members and their police force.

Again, in Hungary in 1944, towards the end of the war, Eichmann, with a small number of SS and some Hungarian fascists, but with virtually no help from the German army, hard-pressed by the rapidly advancing Soviet forces, was able to transport some 500,000 Jews, many of them young and with military training, to the camps in a two-month period. There is sworn testimony from many sources that the Hungarian Jewish leadership had been informed of the destination of these Jews, but still collaborated with Eichmann in his plan, both because they could not envisage opposition to the Nazis and because the Nazis promised to allow some Zionists access to Palestine.35 And this is really no more than the tip of the iceberg of collaboration.

It has been suggested above that there were different motives for this collaboration, and it is important never to equate the policies of the victims, however misguided, with those of the fascists. We must always remember that had there been no anti-Semitism, there would have been no scope for the kind of collaboration shown in the twentieth century. Certainly, the Nazis were adept at 'divide and rule', appointing Councils and then threatening the families of those appointed if there was not total obedience. For example, at Dubossary on the River Dnieper in September 1941, the Nazis hanged six Jews who refused to serve on the Council, and many others were similarly executed for non-compliance36 ; certainly, many Jewish activists in the Councils believed that they were mitigating the worst effects of Nazi rule and most of these Council leaders also went to their deaths. There was rabbinical controversy over this but some held to the necessity of saving some Jews, even if this meant sacrificing others37 ; certainly, there was a feeling of powerlessness in the face of the onslaught; but also there was a Zionist minority who believed that Nazi policies would have a major beneficial effect in the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. One leading Zionist in the 1930's claimed that:

"Hitler will be forgotten in a few years, but we will have a beautiful monument in Palestine. You know, the coming of the Nazis was rather a welcome thing...Thousands who seemed to be completely lost to Judaism were brought back to the fold by Hitler, and for that I am personally very grateful to him."38

It perhaps needs to be stressed that collaboration was not the only strategy used. The misconception that Jews did not fight back or that all Gentiles were anti-Semitic has been shown to be false; Jews did resist, sometimes collectively, sometimes individually and the Nazis often did not get the support of local populations for their genocidal plans39. Zionism, however, could give no lead to this and a confused mixture of ideas, along with the, suggested above, history of collaboration with anti-Semitic forces, begins to explain why there seemed to be so much collaboration during the war.


Collaboration was one strategy, amongst other competing strategies, for dealing with anti-Semitism; unfortunately, and with disastrous consequences, it proved to be the one that the Jewish leaderships attempted to use. Far from Zionism saving Jews, it has always single-mindedly had the Jewish homeland as its end and any means, including supping with the devil of racism, was perfectly acceptable. Zionism is not an unfortunate aberration, it is a policy of despair and isolation that ensures that, armed to the teeth and racist itself towards the Palestinians, Israel is the most dangerous place in the world for both Palestinians and Jews.


[1] R. Storrs, Orientations (London, 1946)

[2] Ha'aretz, 30 September 1951

[3] l. Pinsker, Auto-Emancipation (New York, 1948), p33

[4] T. Hertzl, The Diaries of Theodor Hertzl (London, 1956), p6

[5] D. Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (London, 1996)

[6] B. Hagani, Le sionisme politique et son fondateur Theodore Hertzl 1860-1904 (Paris, 1918), p165

[7] I. Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jew (London, 1969), p67

[8] Quoted in D. Vital, Zionism, the Formative Years, (Oxford, 1982), p176

[9] The Times, 16 May 1919

[10] Ibid

[11] Glasgow Herald, 13 November 1919

[12] Jewish World, 8 August 1917, 5 December 1917; Jewish Chronicle, 4 January 1918, 25 January 1918, 8 February 1918

[13] Jewish World, 19 September 1919; The Black Hundreds was a reactionary anti-Semitic movement used by the Tsarist regime to organise pogroms.

[14] Jewish Chronicle, 23 August 1918

[15] Jewish World, 18 September 1918

[16] W.B.Lincoln, Red Victory (New York, 1989), p321

[17] Ibid p317

[18] Ibid pp319-320

[19] Jewish Chronicle, 9 May 1919

[20] Jewish Chronicle, 6 June 1919

[21] Jewish Chronicle, 10 May 1918

[22] Jewish Chronicle, 15 February 1918

[23]There were contradictions and heated debates about Jewish establishment support for the 'Whites', as the White armies were involved in anti-Semitic violence. For a discussion and analysis of the debates around this in Britain, see Sharman Kadish, Bolsheviks and British Jews (London, 1992).

[24] Jewish Echo, 3 February 1915

[25] The most scathing critique of both the KPD and the SPD's attitudes to fascism and working together is to be found in Leon Trotsky, The Struggle against Fascism in Germany (Harmondsworth, 1975)

[26] G. Lebzelter, Political anti-Semitism in England 1918-1939 (London 1978), p142

[27] Young Zionist, August 1934

[28] Vicki Caron: 'Prelude to Vichy: France and the Jewish Refugees in the Era of Appeasement', Journal of Contemporary History Vol.20, (1985)

[29] Quoted in Y. Elam, Introduction to Zionist History (Tel Aviv, 1972), pp125-6

[30] Y. Elam, Introduction to Zionist History , p113

[31] Documents on German Foreign Policy: Series D Vol.4 (HMSO 1951), p656

[32] Quoted in L. Brenner, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators (New York, 1983), p74

[33] For a discussion on this, see M. Gutsman, The Jews of Warsaw 1939-43 (Brighton 1982], Chapters 3-6

[34] M. Edelman, The Ghetto Fights (London, 1990), pp56-8

[35] For a sympathetic discussion of the evidence, see Akiva Orr, 'The Kastner Case' in J. Allen, Perdition (London 1987), pp81-105

[36] M. Gilbert, The Holocaust (London 1986), p188

[37] Ibid p222

[38] Emil Ludwig quoted in Brenner, Zionism, p59

[39] For example, even in the most difficult areas of the eastern front, a report prepared in October 1941 complained that the Einsatzgruppen operating in Estonia could not 'provoke spontaneous anti-Jewish demonstrations with ensuing pogroms'; the reason given was that 'adequate enlightenment was lacking', (John Fried, Trial at Nuremburg: Freedom and Responsibility (New York, 1973); that is, the local population were not anti-Semitic and refused to involve themselves in the murder of Jews - a novel interpretation of enlightenment! A similar response was reported by the Einsatzgruppen active in White Russia, who complained that the local population was not prepared ' take part in any pogroms'. (Gilbert, Holocaust, p217)