Is Zionism a form of colonialist nationalism? The last issue of New Left Review (62 March/April) carried a significant debate between Gabriel Piterberg, author of The Returns of Zionism (Verso 2008), and Zeev Sternhell on this issue.

Returns of ZionismIt is an important debate about the origins of Israel, and how its brutal oppression of Palestinians continues to be legitimised and justified. Piterberg argues the Zionist project must be seen in terms of colonialism. Sternhell disagrees.

Sternhell is a veteran Israeli historian and writes for the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz. His essay ‘In defence of Liberal Zionism’ absolutely rejects Piterberg’s argument, in The Returns of Zionism, that Zionism is a colonialist nationalism. Acceptance of the formulation, so Sternhell argues, de-legitimises Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state.

Among various points, Piterberg effectively demolishes Sternhell’s attempt to show that Zionism cannot be considered as colonialist, simply by making comparison with scholarship on the colonialism of the northern United States or Australia.

However, another aspect of Sternhell’s argument is left aside. This is his defence of Theodor Herzl against the charge of having ‘propounded a bourgeois settler’s nationalism, intended to create a Jewish state in a territory inhabited by non-white natives’ (NLR 62: 102).

Sternhell argues that Herzl was not a racial nationalist in the Austrian tradition but a liberal cosmopolitan, alarmed by the growing anti-Semitism of France in the era of the Dreyfus Affair.

The logic of Sternhell’s argument is remarkable in itself, whatever can be said for the argument against Herzl as a racial nationalist. The key founder of Zionism was a liberal, says Sternhell, and ‘nobody would have been happier than Herzl if the definition of the nation given by Diderot and d’Alembert was still applicable – “people who live in a certain territory bounded by certain frontiers and obey the same government” (106)’.

Taken at face-value, this Enlightenment definition was not one based on race or ethnicity. It could in theory be welcoming to Jews, or indeed anyone (perhaps we should remind the likes of Martin Amis that belief in western ‘liberal’ values are not included in the definition). However, Herzl perceived that ‘the liberal order in Western Europe was tottering and emancipation was endangered even in the country where it had been invented’ (105).

France, it seems, was facing the extinction of liberal values in the face of the proto-fascist threat from Boulangism. This account of Herzl and of pre-First World War France is certainly open to challenge, but never mind that.

The argument is that it was natural, necessary and right for an enlightenment liberal to construct an ethnically based nationalism. The aim was to establish a Jewish state somewhere outside Europe: Uganda, for example. In an environment where liberalism was under threat, the reaction of a sincere liberal, a ‘cultured journalist with an enquiring mind’ (105), was to abandon the Enlightenment principle of citizenship in favour of a racially-based one.

The logic therefore appears to be that liberals should, in circumstances where a liberal society is under threat, abandon liberalism itself. But where does that leave Liberal Zionism? It would seem that Sternhall has actually conceded the essential point that Zionism departs from the tradition of the liberal enlightenment and embraces colonialism.

Moreover there is an odd familiarity in the direction of the argument. Isn’t it today’s pro-war liberals who proclaim the need for tough anti-liberal measures in order to counter the ‘existential threat’ of the Islamist opponents of western Liberalism? Famously, Martin Amis felt the need for discrimination to deal with the danger to liberal civilisation.

Others like Christopher Hitchens, David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen have all adopted markedly un-liberal positions in defence of the war on terror. They deploy the rhetoric of the Enlightenment, of liberalism, to ideologically support invasions, occupations and the demonisation of Muslims both at home and abroad.

It seems to be a recurring habit of liberals to abandon humanistic liberalism in ‘appropriate’ circumstances. It seems likely, from Piterberg’s comments on Sternhall’s political position, that the latter wouldn’t be comfortable in such company, but that is where his argument takes him.

Sternhall’s logic would look particularly weak if it wasn’t hidden by a layer of historical pessimism. The moral weight of the impending Holocaust makes the narrative emotionally hard to escape from, for any reader who takes Europe’s historical sins seriously.

The account of Herzl in France bears the shadow of Germany forty years later. France was certainly an anti-Semitic society. So was Britain to a lesser, though still dangerous, extent. Moreover, Jewish people were massacred in some numbers in the pogroms in Tsarist Russia. Sternhall implies, without fully spelling this out, that these premises take us ineluctably to the Nazi Holocaust. How can we escape the logic of Zionism in these circumstances?

Nonetheless, Sternhall’s invocation of a somewhat unconvincing ‘Boulangist threat’ to French liberalism only carries any weight because of the Nazis’ rise to power decades, and a World War, later. Neither the Nazis nor the Holocaust were inevitable, and they cannot be used to justify positions taken so long before they were even imaginable as historical realities.

It is worth remembering that a much greater number of European Jews in Herzl’s time were involved in movements whose victory would have crushed any possibility of Fascism, and would taken those Enlightenment notions of citizenship and developed them into a social reality rather than a pious ideal.

These were the Jewish socialists of the Bund, for example, or those many Jewish members and leaders of the Bolshevik Party. The Revolution 1917 did indeed free Russian Jews from the pogroms of the Tsars, and delivered the emancipation of oppressed peoples for a short time until the Revolution was crushed by Stalin.

Lessons can be learned from history, but not if the tragedy of historical defeat is taken as an inevitable fate. This is precisely what Sternhall does.

Ever since the mid-nineteenth century liberals have been poor custodians of humanistic values. Liberals do not believe that society could and can be transformed by a social revolution that goes beyond the formal rights of enlightenment liberalism. As a result liberal thinkers look back at history with a self-defeating pessimism, and they so often find themselves on the side of colonialism or imperialist war – the very anti-humanist forces they decry.