Why are so many winners of the Nobel Prize of Jewish background?

This question is one of those dinner party, or coffee shop, conversations that rises periodically in the course of a social outing with friends. In a similar fashion to a brain-dead zombie, this question put to rest numerous times, only to rise out of its coffin to startling the unsuspecting. This topic arises because it speaks to our deepest anxieties – the seeming connection between race, intelligence and genes. Now the latter topic is too broad and wide-ranging to go into detail here, so let us confine ourselves to the immediate question, posed by the title above. However, it is a matter of record that numerous scientists that have won the Nobel Prize come from a Jewish background.

The conversation usually rears its head as the end point of a series of off-the-cuff observations – Einstein, he was Jewish, right? And Richard Feynman, co-winner of the Nobel Prize in 1965 and author of numerous popular science books – he was Jewish, right? Even scientists that are popularly known but not necessarily winners of the Nobel Prize get lumped into this topic – Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalyst, he was Jewish, right? And numerous psychologists that have followed in his footsteps, or based themselves partly on his theories – Erich Fromm, Erik Erikson – they were Jews, weren’t they?

The first observation to make in this regard is a statement by Einstein himself, commenting on the status of his theories of special and general relativity. Presenting his theories at the Sorbonne University in 1921, he stated, “If I am proved correct, the Germans will call me a German, the Swiss will call me a Swiss citizen, and the French will call me a great scientist. If relativity is proved wrong, the French will call me a Swiss, the Swiss will call me a German and the Germans will call me a Jew.” Being of Jewish origin in the scientific community was hardly a distinct advantage, given the strong anti-Semitism rampant in Europe in the early part of the 20th century.

Israeli writers have engaged in their own fist-pumping, high-five-boasting, chest-thumping commentary themselves whenever examining this question. This is understandable, given that they are trying to construct an image of the Jewish people being sturdily resilient in the face of numerous obstacles. Having been subjected to anti-Semitic pogroms, outcasts from mainstream society, educational achievement is one way to overcome the impediments of anti-Semitic prejudice.

Numerous theories are proposed to explain this apparent explosion of Jewish domination in the sciences. While there are various nuances and permutations of all those purported explanations, they fall into two broad categories. One is that Jews are possessed of super-DNA genetic material, elevating them into hereditary over-achievers. After all, DNA is the metaphor for our age, particularly since the latter half of the twentieth century is characterised by the monumental growth of genomic research, biotechnology and the human genome project? Did not former Australian Prime Minister, and leader of the Australian Labour Party, state that Australia’s support for Israel was ‘in my DNA?’

Let us dispense with simplistic and utterly ridiculous psycho-gene-babble nonsense about superior and inferior quality genes. The achievement of Jews in the sciences in a completely 20th century phenomenon. Jews were confined to ghettos, driven out of society for centuries in Europe. American psychologists, lawmakers and scientists, confronted by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and the former Imperial Russian empire, regarded the Jews, Mediterraneans, Slavs, and basically anyone who was non-Nordic as intellectual inferior. American policy-makers and educators, steeped in the newly ascendant doctrines of genetic determinism and racial eugenics, were deeply worried that this new stock from Europe would cause a precipitous decline in the American intellectual achievement if they were allowed to settle in the United States. If the Jewish people had super-genes, surely they would have been enthusiastically welcomed into the country obsessed with improving the genetic quality of its human stock.

The second broad category of theories relates to Jewish culture, more specifically to the bookish traditions of the Jewish people. Basically they like hitting the books, driving themselves to excel in education. This sounds nice, partly true by appealing to longstanding cultural traditions, but falls short of explaining why Jewish intellectuals have flowered in the sciences. Back in the ghettos where they floundered for decades, religious education was the main order of the day; studying in the Yeshiva, absorbing ancient texts and the Talmud were all well and good, but that was hardly preparation for tackling the difficult – and at the time burgeoning – scientific fields of biology, geology, and physics. As Jonathan Valk explained in his article for Haaretz magazine, Einstein did not undertake his groundbreaking scientific work on the photoelectric effect (for which he won the Nobel Prize) in the Yeshiva, nor did Sigmund Freud elaborate the basic foundations of what became psychoanalysis by studying religious texts. As Valk goes on to explain:

But we aren’t dealing with something uniquely Jewish as such. Other than a common identity, what is it that unites all of these Jewish thinkers, innovators, and doers? With only the odd and arguable exception, every Jewish Nobel Prize winner has been steeped in the intellectual traditions, mores and values of secular, non-Jewish culture, in addition to whatever attachment they may have had to their Jewish origin.

It is precisely when Jews turn away from the narrow, sclerotic world of sectarian particularism and embrace the humanitarian and educational culture of their host society that enables them to achieve in the sciences. The sciences are based – at least theoretically – on a meritocratic basis, where commitment to investigation, empirical fact-finding and rigorous impartiality allowed minority groups to escape the confines of discrimination and where intellect can grow and develop. Achieving excellence in education, while being its own reward, was also the best way to integrate into the new society of the United States, and achieve acceptance as equal citizens. As Noah Ephron, lecturer in at Bar-Ilan University wrote in his article in Haaretz magazine, education and scientific achievement was the way to achieve what they wanted to become, productive and respected members of the wider community, breaking out of the anti-Semitic confines in which they had been imprisoned in Europe for so long.

This is not to suggest that anti-Semitism and racism evaporated overnight in American universities – far from it. But is was the first place that a minority group could transcend the barriers that had held them down. The mid-twentieth century in the United States provided the first fertile ground where Jews could achieve without the traditional hostility and encumbrances of European anti-Semitism.

The United States had always had a strong scientific sector, but it was the twentieth century combination of circumstances – the wars in Europe and the resultant disruptions they caused, and the newly emerging Cold War – that spurred the US ruling class into action, pushing scientific research as a top priority. Numerous European scientists – Leo Szilard, Enrico Fermi – emigrated to the United States, elevating the scientific melting pot occurring in that country. Across the European continent, the USSR loomed large, with its remarkable scientific establishment rising into international prominence, rivaling the traditional centres of scientific research and development in Britain, France, and western Europe. Though devastated by the German invasion, Soviet science and education made significant strides in the mid-twentieth century, frightening the American ruling class with the spectre of a rival, and scientifically advanced, power bloc.

As Canadian blogger and intellectual Stephen Gowans explains:

Soviet accomplishments in space, considered in light of the mistaken view that the USSR was always a poor second-best to the supposedly more dynamic United States, is truly startling. Soviet achievements include the first satellite, first animal in orbit, first human in orbit, first woman in orbit, first spacewalk, first moon impact, first image of the far side of the moon, first unmanned lunar soft landing, first space rover, first space station and first interplanetary probe. The panic created in Washington after the allegedly innovation-stifling Soviet economy allowed the USSR to beat its much richer ideological rival into space galvanized the United States to take a leaf from the Soviet book. Just as the Soviets were doing, Washington would use public funds to power research into innovations. This would be done through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Science research and development became a multicultural agency in the United States in the wake of the Second World War.

There is one other point worth making here, one that Noah Ephron makes in his article – winning the Nobel Prize is a sensational achievement, there is no doubt. However, if a scientist does not win one, it is not worth losing any sleep over it. Nobel Prizes are given to scientists who have done remarkable work, achieved incredible discoveries or formulated revolutionary innovations. Notice that this is in the past tense – they did great work, but their best is behind them. As Ephron states, while not detracting from the importance of winning the Nobel Prize, they are a fading snapshot of bygone days for a scientist.

The current US Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter, is a physicist. A graduate of Oxford, his specialty is the field of quantum chromodynamics, a theory regarding the strong interactions between quarks and gluons that compose the hadron family of particles. He is also a representative of the military-industrial complex, pushing for a more aggressive US foreign policy, promoting the privatisation of scientific enterprises for further military research, and typifies the fusion of corporate and military power to further the agenda of the US ruling class. While working in the private sector, he held important posts in the government advisory boards promoting greater collaboration between the scientific community, the military and private companies. He speaks and works for the enrichment of defence contractors.

Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel Prize winning physicist of Jewish origin, worked on the development of military technology in the 1960s. He has since become committed to disarmament and dialogue between nations. Gell-Mann is a pioneer in the field of quantum chromodynamics, the subject in which Ashton Carter took his PhD. It is not so important to note whether a scientist is of Jewish or non-Jewish background, but to note the role that they play in the wider community – as a spokesperson for peace, or a technocrat for war and profit. Rather than look back in dismay or jealous rage about the numbers of particular ethnic groups in the sciences, perhaps we should be devoting our collective energies to providing solutions for the economic and ecological problems that confront humanity today. Scientific enquiry and achievement cannot be sustained within the diseased political and economic order of capitalism that condemns larger numbers of people to a pauperised existence.

Europe is a hotbed of ultra-right extremism

The ultra-right anti-immigrant parties are making sweeping gains electorally and politically in Europe since the economic crisis erupted in 2008. While focusing on the threat of Islamic extremism, real or imagined, we have ignored (in some cases encouraged) the growth of a greater and more urgent threat – the ultra-right parties that are targeting working people, ethnic minorities and the most vulnerable sectors of the crisis-ridden capitalist system.

Since the onset of the 2008 breakdown of the capitalist economic system, the political parties and organisations of the Left have been gaining ground. The growth of workers organisations, socialist parties and organised labour in Greece, Spain, Italy, and other European countries points to an encouraging resurgence of resistance to attacks by the capitalist financial elite. More people are recognising that austerity measures means that the burden of economic recovery will be paid by the people suffering from the economic malaise, and the people that caused the crisis are avoiding taking any responsibility.

However, while the Left has reaped rewards from the breakdown of the capitalist order, let us not be complacent – the economic crisis has also seen a surge of support for the ultra-right. The anti-immigrant parties, marketing themselves as ‘Euro-sceptics’, have exploited the grievances of workers and dispossessed people in Europe to make sweeping electoral and political gains.

As the mainstream bourgeois parties roll back the social and economic gains of the post-World War Two European system, privatising health care, education, and removing social benefits, more people are being pushed down into poverty and living in precarious financial circumstances. The ultra-right parties have gained significant traction in terms of their electoral appeal, and have mobilised thousands of members and supporters to influence the political process in various European countries.

To be sure, the ultra-right parties have been organising and active since the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc in 1990-91. They have appealed to the nationalist sectors of the population, railing against the injustices (real or perceived) of a growing European Union. Their populist opposition was always one of anti-immigration, in particular anti-Arab and anti-Islamic racism. Islamophobia is a vote-winner, and the populist appleal against the new and latest ‘outsiders’ has proven to be electorally beneficial. The French National Front has been the best exponent of this strategy.

The ultra-right parties in Eastern Europe have traditionally been anti-Semitic, drawing on the political experiences of these countries during the 1930s and 1940s when they were capitalist nation states. Anti-Semitic politics was a constant feature of the Eastern Europe nations in the inter-war years. With the reintroduction of capitalist in the early 1990s, openly fascistic and ultra-right parties started making a comeback. Cultural nationalism, and hostility to immigration, found an organised political expression. This political current has reached levels of political power in at least one Eastern European capital, Kiev, the Ukraine.

For the first time since 1945, political parties that trace their political lineage to wartime Nazi collaborators have taken key positions of power in a European country. The Kiev regime, installed in early 2014 after a popular uprising against the previous oligarchic government of Viktor Yanukovych, openly lionises those Ukrainians who fought alongside the Nazi German forces during World War Two. These ultra-nationalist and anti-Semitic Ukrainians killed Jews, Poles and anti-fascist Ukrainians in their roles as auxiliaries of the German army. The Svoboda party, which forms part of the Ukrainian Right Sector, routinely denounces the presence of Jews, Russians and other minorities in the Ukrainian polity. Stepan Bandera, the wartime leader of the Ukrainian nationalist organisation, led the pogroms against Jews, Russians, Poles and ethnically cleansed the areas he controlled as part of an effort to create a racially pure Ukrainian state. Bandera is currently hailed as a hero by the new far right Kiev government. There are positive references to the ‘Galician SS’, Hitler’s term for those Ukrainian collaborators who carried out his project of ethnic genocide during the war.

While there are no tears for the ousting of the oligarchic Yanukovych regime, who had integrated Ukraine into the capitalist system and traded with the EU and Russia, there are no celebrations for the mass fascistic parties that have taken power in the wake of the 2013-2014 putsch. The Ukraine of Yanukovych walked a fine line between the competing, balancing interests of the European Union and Russia, placating both sides and maintaining the Ukraine as a ‘buffer’. However, with the help of the EU and the United States, the most pro-Rightist forces, openly spouting their brand of anti-Semitism and white supremacism, organised the most politically active and coordinated elements of the anti-Yanukovych uprising. The neo-fascistic groups, happily displaying their white-power and swastika-resembling symbols, became the face of the pro-EU Maidan uprising. The ultra-right groups made no secret of their coordinating role in confronting the previous regime, and organising the uprising politically.

We also cannot ignore the role of the United States and European Union in financing and politically encouraging these ultra-right anti-Semitic parties, ensuring that the Right Sector were at the political heart of the Maidan protests. Imperialist-supported regime change is always a strong element in driving the political directions of mass protests in Europe. It is no secret that major US politicians, like US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, openly supported the Ukrainian ultra-right parties that formed the core of the anti-Yanukoych protests. This corresponds to the general imperialist strategy of incorporating the former Soviet republics into NATO and the western economic orbit. Politically encouraging the ultra-right as a battering ram in Eastern Europe is an integral step in absorbing these states into the imperialist economic and military network.

Not every single person that participated in the Maidan uprising was a card-carrying member of a neo-fascist party, far from it. But when the most politically organised forces are espousing a white-supremacist ideology, ranting against the influence of Russians, Jews, and ethnic minorities, advocating a Hitlerian view of history, and are friendly to the pro-business agenda of the imperialist states, it is all but inevitable that the Kiev regime will gravitate into the orbit of the EU and NATO, a regime in charge of a state right on Russia’s doorstep.

The Yanukovych regime was no friend of the working class, that is certain. That regime was responsible for corruption, maintaining the rule of the oligarchs that have left the Ukraine an economic mess. Yanukovych was part of the oligarchic capitalism that has enriched a tiny handful of billionaires, privatising state assets, and leaving the majority of the population struggling to survive in the post-Soviet capitalist economic order. However, this does not blind us to the fact that the beneficiaries of the Maidan protests have been the ultra-right, mass fascistic parties.

As Seumas Milne pointed out in his insightful article; “So in the week that the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army was commemorated as Holocaust Memorial Day, supporters of those who helped carry out the genocide are hailed by western politicians on the streets of Ukraine. “ Read the entire essay by Milne at The Guardian web site here.

It is not just in the Ukraine that the ultra-right is attaining political success. Hungary has witnessed the rise of its own homegrown variety of fascism, the Jobbik party, with its electoral wing and its paramilitary thuggish branch. Jobbik campaigns on an anti-immigrant, xenophobic platform, and not only wins seats in parliament, but also intimidates its opponents on the streets. Jobbik has contributed to the emergence of anti-Soviet and anti-Russian cultural nationalism in Hungary since the withdrawal of Russian troops in 1989. Winning further success in the wake of the growing capitalist economic crisis, Jobbik has exacerbated anti-Roma sentiments and blamed this particular ethnic group, along with the Jews, for Hungary’s economic doldrums. Any lingering doubts about the racist underpinnings of Jobbik would have been resolved by viewing the leaflets handed out by their supporters. Their campaign literature contained an image from the Easy Rider film accompanied by the slogan ‘Jews are the problem – time to step on the gas!’

Venturing further afield from Eastern Europe, we can see the emergence of a more united, coordinated ultra-right formation across the European continent – a ‘Brown International’ if you will. (Hat tip to Left Flank). In an article by the Greek socialist Thanasis Kampagiannis, the growth and cooperation of various ultra-right parties is examined. Written in January 2014, the author warned of a major electoral breakthrough by far right parties in the general European elections in May – he was proven correct, with the French National Front, exploiting anger about the mounting social costs of austerity, emerging as the big electoral winner in French elections.

After a public relations facelift, the extreme right-wing parties of the National Front led by Marianne Le Pen, and the Dutch Freedom Party headed by the execrable Geert Wilders, announced an alliance of sorts back in November 2013. Couched in the terms of Euro-scepticism, the ultra-right is using the breakdown of the capitalist order, and consequent surge in unemployment, to make significant political gains in the traditionally stable capitalist economies of Western Europe. While they distance themselves from the more openly pro-Nazi parties like the Greek Golden Dawn, they using the same anti-immigrant and populist platform to espouse their views, and they have received a friendly hearing from some mainstream bourgeois politicians as well. The ultra-right of Western Europe, including the Austrian Freedom Party, UKIP in Britain, the Italian Northern League and the Swedish far-right Democrats, have all toned down their more brazen fascistic thuggish image and cultivated an air of political sophistication. However, beneath the veneer of respectability is the strong lurch to the right.

Europe is increasingly resembling the economically and politically chaotic situation that obtained in the 1930s. We are not there yet, however, the coordination of ultra-right parties does present an urgent menace that must be confronted. The article by Kampagiannis above explains that;

If racism was the ticket for the fascist parties to pass from the margins to the central political scene, Islamophobia ensured that their seat would be Business Class. Islamophobia offered the adhesive tissue for the alliance of Le Pen and Wilders.

Open racism ensured that the ultra-right would get a hearing in the parliaments of Europe – Islamophobia guaranteed that they would receive a respectable hearing in the corporate boardrooms and political headquarters of European capital. The outsider enemy was necessary to unite all these disparate formations into a more cohesive force, as encapsulated in the following image from Left Flank;

3-faces-of-islamophobia

Hostility to Islamic migration has been the key electoral strategy that ultra-right needed to gain mainstream respectability, portraying themselves as the defenders of Western cultural nationalism from the intrusions of backward outsiders.

The legitimacy of the mass ultra-right parties must be confronted by an organised, multiethnic Left that opposes all forms of racism and xenophobia. It is not migrants or refugees that are responsible for the worst economic crisis in Europe since the end of World War Two. The capitalist class with its programme of neoliberalism and endless war is directly responsible for the privations of the workers and unemployed in Europe. As Jeremy Corbyn, a socialist politician from England explained, ultra-right populism ignores the true causes of pauperisation and war; blaming one minority group after another is a barren and futile exercise. The free-market fundamentalism that drives our economic programme is to blame. We have taken up the warnings about Islamic extremism (real or imagined) in the aftermath of September 11 and the bogus ‘war on terror’, but have ignored the rise of the greater and very real danger of an organised and politically active ultra-right.

 

Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism

In 2005, Palestinian human rights groups and civil rights organisations launched a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against the state of Israel. This campaign has multiple aims, one of them being to pressure the Israeli government to comply with United Nations resolutions, and ensure that its policies conform with international law and the Universal principles of human rights. Specifically, the BDS campaign intends to achieve the full recognition of Palestinians as equal citizens within the state of Israel, to achieve the right of return of Palestinian refugees displaced by Israel since 1948, as demanded by Article 11 of the United Nations general assembly resolution 194, and to end Israeli occupation of Palestinian and Arab land, cease the building of settlements and dismantle the ongoing Israeli West Bank barrier (also known as The Wall).

This campaign has attracted its supporters around the world, including Palestine solidarity activists in Australia. Various socialist and Left groups have strongly supported the BDS campaign. But the campaign has received strident criticism from Zionist organisations, political parties supportive of Israel and the ever-hostile Murdoch media establishment. Professor Irwin Cotler, former Justice Minister in the Canadian government, warned of what he called the ‘de-legitimisation’ of Israel, being promoted by campaigns like BDS. This de-legitimisation is nothing new, he argued, being based in anti-Semitism. Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz, long known for his support of Israel, went further and attacked the BDS campaign for ‘abetting terrorism’, and for being an obstacle to peace. The BDS campaign has faced charges of anti-Semitism by Australian politicians and trade union leaders as well. Indeed, criticism of the state of Israel, its policies and founding ideology of Zionism is routinely met with the charge of anti-Semitism.

This charge usually serves to silence any debate about Israel’s policies, slander the critic with a tag that is dripping with historic vitriol, and delegitimise any measures by Palestinian and Palestine solidarity activists to achieve full human rights for the Palestinians and the associated Palestinian refugees. If a critic of Israel is motivated by good old ethnic-racial hatred, then their claims for equal rights and statehood recognition are discredited. The supporters of the Palestinian cause can then be ignored, and their claims of Palestinian statehood rejected as the outpourings of the irrationally obsessed, mindlessly hateful partisans of anti-Semitism, motivated by revulsion of the Jewish people and their culture.

Let us examine more closely the issue of anti-Semitism, the claims of Zionism and its realisation in the state of Israel, and the tactic of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). Anti-Semitism is an irrational, xenophobic hatred of Jews as a people; regarding the Jewish people around the world as constituting one indivisible, biologically unchanging entity that comprise one nation.

Anti-Semitism is nothing new, being based in the traditional religious, namely Christian hostility to the Jewish culture and people. After the lifetime of Jesus, early Christian attitudes towards the Jews began to harden. Anti-Jewish attitudes and doctrines were part of Christian teaching and popular art from the earliest times of the established Christian church. The gospel of John, written much later than the three other gospel books, contains the most decisive comments indicating a break with Judaism, though this book is less historical than the others. This kind of religious anti-Semitism was partly based on theological differences, competition for followers, and misapprehension of Talmudic beliefs and practices.

The religious-based anti-Semitism of centuries past has been largely superseded by the more modern-sounding, pseudo-scientific anti-Jewish prejudice, which singles out Jews as incapable of assimilating into their host nation, and motivated by a tribalist-racial hostility to non-Jews, and unwilling to adapt to the secular, ‘modern’ values of the West. Modern day, nationalistic anti-Semitism adopted a particular political dimension – to exclude the Jews as a people from the political and economic life of their resident nations. Forcing Jews out of employment, business, suppressing their language and schools; these became part of the political programme of anti-Semitic parties across Europe.

In the nineteenth century, with the rise of secularism and nationalism, the religious ideologies were pushed aside and the traditional prejudice of anti-Semitism was adapted to the changing political and economic conditions of capitalism. Oppressed nations, particularly those in the Ottoman Turkish, Austro-Hungarian, and Imperial Tsarist Russian empires, were demanding their independence and fighting for it. The Jewish populations of Europe, hitherto assimilated into their respective nations, were now articulating their religiously-based teachings of a return to Zion in a more nationalistic form. The Jewish people had been taught that a divinely inspired Messiah would restore them to the allegedly historical homeland of the Jews in Palestine. Never matter that Palestine was home to thousands of Arab Muslims and Christians. This yearning was always a vague aspiration; in the context of nineteenth century nationalism and secularisation, aspirations for a homeland were to take a different turn.

Throughout Europe, nationalist groups were agitating for independence; the Greeks, Serbs, Poles, Ukrainians and other nationalities long suppressed were rising. The authorities in Tsarist Russia, Ottoman Turkey and other European states needed a convenient scapegoat to blame the rising nationalistic tensions. The growth of industrial capitalism broke the bonds of feudalism, and undermined the position that many Jewish communities held in the feudal order. The capitalist system created its own inequalities and imposed suffering on the working class. Workers in various countries, among them the Jewish workers, made common cause to fight against the social and economic oppression of capitalism.

Anti-semitism was the usual outlet to divert growing anger at the economic and political injustices of the time. Immiseration could be blamed on the ‘Jewish usurer’, the stereotype of the shifty, scheming Shylock, extorting the ‘average’ (meaning non-Jewish) worker, gained traction in times of economic distress. Pogroms against Jewish communities were a frequent occurrence in Europe, particularly in Imperial Russia under the Tsar. In this charged context, the Jewish people of Europe began to join revolutionary, nationalist and socialist groups, joining the fight for social and economic justice.

But a new response began to be articulated by a number of Jewish commentators and intellectuals in Europe. They regarded anti-semitism as the inevitable and immutable consequences of living among non-Jewish nations, and that assimilation was impossible. They began to elaborate a new nationalistically motivated yearning for a homeland – Zionism. Lance Selfa, writing in the International Socialist Review magazine in the article ‘Zionism: False Messiah’, explains that political Zionism defined itself the project of establishing an exclusively Jewish state, as a nationalist, colonialist project. Zionism maintains that Jews around the world are a single nation and thus need to establish a separate homeland. Zionism holds that anti-Semitism is an inevitable consequence of the Jewish presence in their host societies.

Moses Hess, a German Jewish contemporary of Karl Marx, was the earliest exponent of this abnormal nationalism. He wrote a book, ’Rome and Jerusalem: The last national question’ (1862), in which he expounded that German anti-Semitism was a fact of life and could not be changed. The Jews of Europe would always be regarded as the outsiders, and that assimilation had failed. He argued that Jewish emancipation by joining the revolutionary struggles of the time was impossible, and that there was only one solution – a separate homeland for the Jewish people.

However, it is with Theodor Herzl, an Austrian Jewish journalist and author fo the book ‘The Jewish State’ (1896) and modern political Zionism finds its most articulate exponent. Herzl argued that anti-Semitism was not only an inevitable product of Jews living as minorities amidst a non-Jewish population, but was also a necessary political ally, compelling Jewish communities in Europe and elsewhere to be driven out and thus further the goal of building a separatist homeland. Zionism is a particular form of Jewish communalism, very similar in goals to the Hindu supremacist and communalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that seeks to establish a Hindu-exclusive state in India by expelling Muslims and other minority communities.

Zionism shares with anti-Semitism the basic foundational premise that Jews around the world are a fixed entity, and must be separated from non-Jewish populations in order to be emancipated. This kind of abnormal nationalism, not only required that Jews dissociate themselves from the struggle for equality and economic justice in their home countries, but also find a place to call their homeland. Palestine was not the first destination chosen by the nascent Zionist movement as a homeland; Herzl and the leaders of the World Zionist Organisation (WZO) appealed to the major imperial states of the day for a territory to call their own. At various stages, Uganda, Argentina, Madagascar were all seriously considered as possible homelands for a new Jewish state.

They approached the Ottoman Turkish Sultan, the German Kaiser, and the Russian Tsar, whose regime was responsible for anti-Jewish pogroms, in the vain hope of acquiring recognition for their cause, helping to divert Jewish workers from the revolutionary struggle, and demobilise Jews in the fight against the poison of anti-Semitism. Herzl even shook hands with the Russian minister von Plehve, in 1903. Plehve was the minister of interior and director of the police who oversaw the massive pogroms against the Jews of Kiev and other cities in the early 1900s. The Zionist leaders approached all the imperial powers for favours, no matter how criminal and murderous they were in relations to the Jewish populations in Europe. Zionism, from its very inception, was always an ally of imperialism.

It is interesting to note that Herzl, Nordau, Weizmann and other Zionist politicians wrote about the Jews of Europe in the most disparaging, obscene terms, reflecting their acceptance of the basic ideas of anti-Semitism. Anne Zirin, in her article documenting the ‘Hidden history of Zionism’ notes that the writings of Herzl, Nordau, Weizmann and other leading Zionists are replete with descriptions of Jews as aliens, parasites, bacteria, poisonous elements that cause harm to their hosts. These views stem from the basic premise of Zionism – and anti-Semitism – that humans can be most logically and fundamentally divided into races, and it is useless to struggle against such genetically based racial differences. Herzl himself regarded the anti-Semite as a necessary and dependable ally; he wrote in his diaries that the anti-Semitic countries would be the most interested in expelling the Jews from Europe and assisting their emigration to a Jewish homeland. Herzl surmised that ‘the anti-Semites will become our most dependable friends, the anti-Semitic countries our allies’. Not only were Jews considered a separate race, but also had to be defined as one of the ‘superior’ races, able to build their own state.

With the end of World War One, the imperial patrons that Herzl approached had all been defeated – Ottoman Turkey collapsed and its territories divided among Britain and France; the Austro-Hungarian and Tsarist Russian regimes had been toppled, and newly independent states had taken their place. The one empire that Zionist leaders had approached during the war, and which had committed to building a Jewish national home, was Britain. The 1917 Balfour Declaration committed the British government to the Zionist project of building the Jewish population in Palestine. The British ruling class, and Balfour the then Foreign secretary, were anti-Semitic; they had their own reasons for encouraging Jewish emigration to Palestine. The British military governor of Jerusalem, Sir Ronald Storrs, bluntly declared that the Zionist movement was a useful ally of Britain, dedicated to building a ‘little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism’.

Balfour’s anti-Semitism was not out of place in the English aristocracy and ruling class. Winston Churchill, a rising star of British politics and the secretary of state for air and war, wrote an article for the Illustrated Sunday Herald in 1920 entitled ‘Zionism versus Bolshevism’. In this article, Churchill argued that Bolshevism was a devious product of the Jewish mentality, a perverted aspiration for equality that can never be fulfilled. Jewish people in Europe were gravitating towards this subversive philosophy. After all, were not leading Bolshevik figures in the Russian revolution of Jewish origin? So that is conclusive evidence; the Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy is afoot to overturn the existing social order. But there is a solution; winning Jews over to Zionism. The best antidote to the virus of Bolshevism and its misguided ideas of racial and economic equality is the doctrine of Zionism; the British government has the responsibility to build a Zionist home for the Jews in Palestine.

The goal of the Zionist project was spelled out quite clearly by its leaders – Palestine must be colonised. The migration of Jewish settlers into Palestine was conducted from the turn of the nineteenth-twentieth centuries not just for creating a new market and acquiring natural resources, important as those goals were. The Zionist movement wanted to create a new type of society, one that demolished the indigenous people – namely the Palestinians – and create a settler-colonial society that was exclusively Jewish. The Palestinian economy had to be undermined and replaced by a new, settler project. This effort undermines the myth, peddled by Zionist groups, that Palestine was a ‘land without a people’ and the Jews being ‘a people without a land’.

Vladimir Jabotinsky, a leading figure of early Zionism and the political father of the hardline right-wing ideological tradition within the Jewish state, explained quite clearly that the Zionist movement had come to Palestine to colonise it and defeat the local population. In a 1923 article entitled ‘We and the Arabs’, Jabotinsky elaborated exactly what the Zionist movement intended to achieve in Palestine: colonisation. He explained that the indigenous population would fiercely resist any attempts at colonisation, and so it was necessary to construct an ‘iron wall’ of separation, until the Palestinians either submitted, were expelled, or were simply liquidated. Jabotinsky expressed the racially biased colonial view of the Palestinians that settler advocates have had of indigenous populations.

Any native people – its all the same whether they are civilized or savage – views their country as their national home, of which they will always be the complete masters. They will not voluntarily allow, not only a new master, but even a new partner. And so it is for the Arabs. Compromisers in our midst attempt to convince us that the Arabs are some kind of fools who can be tricked by a softened formulation of our goals, or a tribe of money grubbers who will abandon their birth right to Palestine for cultural and economic gains. I flatly reject this assessment of the Palestinian Arabs. Culturally they are 500 years behind us, spiritually they do not have our endurance or our strength of will, but this exhausts all of the internal differences. We can talk as much as we want about our good intentions; but they understand as well as we what is not good for them. They look upon Palestine with the same instinctive love and true fervor that any Aztec looked upon his Mexico or any Sioux looked upon his prairie. To think that the Arabs will voluntarily consent to the realization of Zionism in return for the cultural and economic benefits we can bestow on them is infantile. This childish fantasy of our “Arabo-philes” comes from some kind of contempt for the Arab people, of some kind of unfounded view of this race as a rabble ready to be bribed in order to sell out their homeland for a railroad network.

He went on to expound on how exactly he wished the Zionist movement to treat the indigenous people of Palestine:

Thus we conclude that we cannot promise anything to the Arabs of the Land of Israel or the Arab countries. Their voluntary agreement is out of the question. Hence those who hold that an agreement with the natives is an essential condition for Zionism can now say “no” and depart from Zionism. Zionist colonization, even the most restricted, must either be terminated or carried out in defiance of the will of the native population. This colonization can, therefore, continue and develop only under the protection of a force independent of the local population – an iron wall which the native population cannot break through. This is, in toto, our policy towards the Arabs. To formulate it any other way would only be hypocrisy.

Jabotinsky founded a school of thought within Zionism that was sympathetic to the fascist powers of the time. He admired Mussolini’s Italy, and his organisation had cordial relations with leading fascist political leaders in Rome. In 1935, when Mussolini authorised a division of Zionist activists to take on military training in Italy, he described Jabotinsky to the Zionist emissaries of the time as ‘your fascist, Jabotinsky’.

Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism and precursor of the Likud party in Israel, was not the only Zionist activist that sought the collaboration of the imperial powers. The mainstream of the Zionist movement, Labour Zionism, led by figures like David Ben Gurion and Chaim Weizmann, were also applying to the various imperialist powers for their patronage. The Zionist leaders offered to make Palestine an outpost of ‘civilisation’ amidst the ocean of native ‘savages’, the Arabic-speaking peoples. Annie Zirin, in her article about the history of Zionism for the International Socialist Review, quotes the writings of Theodor Herzl, who explained that the new Jewish state in Palestine would form an outpost of European cultivated civilisation against a tide of pan-Arab barbarism. This point is important, and we will return to it later.

Britain remained the imperial patron of the Zionist project, assisting the passage of Jewish emigrants to Palestine throughout the 1920s and 30s. With the revolt of the Palestinians in 1936, Britain changed its tactics and recommended partitioning the country along ethnic lines, allocating portions of Palestine to Arabs and Jews. What is important to note that during all this time, the Zionist movements in Europe regarded the imperial states as allies, and made decisive efforts to place themselves at their disposal. Lenni Brenner documented the efforts of the Zionist leaders to ingratiate themselves with the fascist powers of the 1930s, in his book ‘Zionism in the Age of the Dictators’. Brenner examines the attempts by the German Zionist federation to undermine the campaign against anti-Semitism in Germany, find ways to cooperate with the Nazi regime, and appease anti-Semitic sentiments in Germany in order to facilitate Jewish emigration to Palestine. The visit of a top Nazi SS official to Palestine for six months, as a guest of the Zionist federation, was commemorated with the issuance of a gold medal: on one side, the Nazi swastika with the words ‘A Nazi travels to Palestine’; on the other, the Star of David. The Nazi official in question wrote several article about his sojourn in Palestine, and was enthusiastic about the Zionist project, describing “how Jewish soil under a Jew’s feet “reformed him and his kind in a decade. This new Jew will be a new people.”

Brenner’s book is available online, and makes for a fascinating expose on the willingness of the Zionist leaders to approach any imperialist regime, no matter how murderously anti-Semitic, in order to achieve their goals of colonising all of Palestine.

It is not the purpose of this article to go into a detailed examination of the 1947-48 ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Israeli forces, establishing the Jewish state. The reader can refer to the excellent book by Israeli historian Illan Pappe, ‘The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine’, which documents the plans of the Zionist movement to attain ethnic supremacy in Palestine by expelling the indigenous population. What is important to note is that after its official foundation in 1948, the Zionist state was not only dependent on imperial patronage for its survival, but also became a bulwark of reaction, establishing working alliances with other repressive regimes around the world. Zionism is an essential prop within the larger imperialist system. Nowhere is this aspect of the Zionist state more in evidence than in its extensive military, political, economic and ideological cooperation with the former apartheid state of South Africa.

In 2010, a book detailing this unspoken yet solid alliance was published, called ‘The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s secret relationship with South Africa.’ The ultra-racist regime of apartheid South Africa was subjected to sanctions and international condemnation throughout the 1960s and 1970s. United Nations resolutions called on states to terminate relations with the white supremacist state. But one state continued and even increased is economic and military cooperation with the white racist regime – Israel. The Afrikaner outpost in South Africa was not just anti-Black, but also had a history of anti-Semitism. The National Party, the South African party that implemented and extended apartheid, had sympathetic ties to anti-Semitic groups, and even supported the fascist regimes in the 1930s. Many of its leaders were themselves members of pro-Nazi groups in South Africa. Yet this was no obstacle for ties between Pretoria and Tel Aviv to flourish.

The Israel-South Africa connection was driven by pragmatic considerations – sharing nuclear technology, military training of their respective armed forces, the development of business ties, and the growth of cultural exchanges. But what is significant to note is that this axis was not just opportunistic; there was a deep ideological affinity between Zionism and white supremacist apartheid. The South African prime minister in the 1970s, John Vorster, described the common goals that both Israel and his regime had – confronting the enemies of western civilisation. Just as Israel was an outpost of white European civilisation up against an ocean of Arab-Muslim barbarism, white South Africa was engaged in a struggle against the onslaught of black African Communism. Tel Aviv and Pretoria were ‘brothers in arms’, forming a mutually beneficial and ideologically driven axis that reinforced repressive practices with regard to their respective indigenous populations.

Hendrik Verwoerd, the South African politician primarily responsible for the extension of apartheid and the creation of black African bantustans, commented in 1961 that: “The Jews took Israel from the Arabs after the Arabs had lived there for a thousand years. Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state.” John Dugard, professor of law and former UN special rapporteur to the Human Rights Council on the Human Rights situation in the occupied territories, wrote an introduction to a book published in 2009 called ‘Israeli Apartheid: A beginner’s guide’, where he examines the similarities and differences between the two societies. He should know what apartheid looks like – he is white South African. In 2009, Dugard wrote an article published in the Huffington Post that it is high time to treat the Israeli regime with the same exclusion as was apartheid South Africa. In its treatment of the Palestinians, Israel is implementing its own version of apartheid.

Understanding the history of Zionism, its regard for anti-Semitism as a cement with which to build a new state, and its role as an ally of racist and oppressive regimes, helps us to understand the importance of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, the starting point of this article. So is boycotting Israel motivated by anti-Semitism? Absolutely not says Sherry Wolf, an activist with the Socialist Worker magazine and an advocate of BDS. Zionism’s supporters use the charge of anti-Semitism to deflect debate, shut down meaningful dialogue, and downgrade the struggle by Palestinians for their rights. The BDS movement has condemned anti-Semitism and racism in all its forms. As Sherry Wolf explains it, the BDS movement is about achieving economic, political and social equality for the Palestinians. Wolf herself is of Jewish background, and she recognises the historic injustice perpetrated by the Zionist regime against the Palestinians. Brian Klug, senior research fellow in philosophy at Oxford University and a founder of the Jewish Forum for Justice and Human Rights, explains that anti-Zionism has nothing in common with anti-Semitism. Do not poison the debate on Palestine with false accusations. This does not mean that charges of anti-Semitism can be dismissed lightly – far from it. As Tony Greenstein, anti-Zionist activist in Britain elaborates;

Like the boy who cried wolf, the charge of “anti-semitism” has been made so often against critics of Zionism and the Israeli state that people now have difficulty recognising the genuine article…..One of the consequences of this abuse of the term “anti-semitism” is to devalue the currency. It renders it almost meaningless because people assume that allegations of anti-semitism are merely the last-ditch resort of those who are incapable of defending the Apartheid Wall that separates the people of the West Bank from their land, the bulldozing of civilian houses, the wanton destruction of olive groves and crops, to say nothing of the theft of their land.

Let us leave the last word to Omar Barghouti, one of the leaders of the BDS movement, who elaborated on why we should support the BDS movement:

A Jewish state in Palestine (“a state of the Jewish nation”), no matter what shape it takes, is by definition exclusionary; it cannot but contravene the basic rights of the land’s indigenous Palestinian population and perpetuate a system of racial discrimination that ought to be opposed categorically. Any other exclusionary regime in Palestine that denies citizens some of their rights based on their identity — ethnic, religious, gender, sexual, etc. — must be rejected just as strongly.

Accepting modern-day Jewish Israelis as equal citizens and full partners in building and developing a new shared society, free from all colonial subjugation and discrimination, as called for in the democratic state model, is the most magnanimous — rational — offer any oppressed indigenous population can present to its oppressors. Only by shedding their colonial privileges, dismantling their structures of oppression, and accepting the restoration of the rights of the indigenous people of the land, especially the right of Palestinian refugees to return and to reparations and the right of all Palestinians to unmitigated equality, can settlers be indigenized and integrated into the emerging nation and therefore become entitled to participating in determining the future of the common state.

It is time to advocate a secular, unitary and democratic state in Palestine, because this is the equitable, humane solution for all its people.