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Beyond the Zionist Nation-State

A new book asks if the early Eastern European proponents of nationhood saw the future Jewish territorial unit in Palestine as a province within a multinational empire

Gil S. Rubin
January 09, 2019
Photo: Library of Congress
Jewish protest demonstrations against the Palestine White Paper, Jerusalem, May 18, 1939.Photo: Library of Congress
Photo: Library of Congress
Jewish protest demonstrations against the Palestine White Paper, Jerusalem, May 18, 1939.Photo: Library of Congress

In 1930, Vladimir Jabotinsky, founder and leader of the right-wing Zionist Revisionist movement, responded to critics who portrayed him as a rabid nationalist. “This writer, as many readers may have heard, is a chauvinist and extremist and generally a political cannibal,” he cynically noted, “but he can produce documentary evidence of always having been a staunch adherent of the binational, even multinational state idea.”

In Beyond the Nation-State, Dmitry Shumsky argues that, like Jabotinsky, an entire cast of mainstream Zionist leaders and thinkers envisioned the future Jewish state in Palestine as either binational or part of a larger multinational framework. Through five biographical chapters, Shumsky shows that from the late 19th century and up until World War I, prominent figures such as Leon Pinsker, Theodor Herzl, Ahad Ha’am and David Ben-Gurion—Israel’s first prime minister—all saw the future Jewish territorial unit in Palestine as a province of sorts within the multinational Ottoman Empire. After the establishment of the British Mandate over Palestine and until at least the late 1930s, Ahad Ha’am, Jabotinsky, and Ben-Gurion all supported a future Jewish state with a binational constitution of sorts, a state in which both Jews and Arabs will enjoy extensive political autonomy.

If it is not obvious today that for much of its history mainstream Zionism was directed toward the establishment of a binational and multinational reality in Palestine, Shumsky argues, it is because of several methodological slippages. After 1948, historians wrote the history of Zionism as a teleological story leading to the establishment of an ethnocentric Jewish nation-state, overlooking and at times dismissing alternatives that lay in plain sight.

Moreover, Shumsky critiques the “conspicuous lack of interest in East Central Europe” among historians of the origins of Israel. Once we turn our gaze from the Middle East to Eastern Europe—the cradle of the Zionist movement, Shumsky argues—we can easily explain the centrality of multinational ideas to the Zionist political imagination. In the late 19th century, Zionist leaders took part in the struggle of various national movements in the Habsburg and Czarist empires to reform those polities into multinational democracies with extensive autonomy and national rights for their minorities. Zionist thinkers simply imposed their Eastern European visions on the Ottoman Empire, and, after the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, increasingly believed this formed a viable political path.

After WWI, Jews and other nationalities clamored for minority rights in the newly established states of Eastern and Central Europe. Zionist leaders insisted that Poland should be a state of all of its nationalities rather than a state in which ethnic Poles exclusively enjoyed the right of self-determination. These leaders envisioned the future Jewish state in Palestine in similar terms.

Beyond the Nation-State was published just several months after Israel passed the Nation-State Law. The law codified the exact opposite vision of Zionism than that which Shumsky describes—only Jews are allowed to pursue national self-determination in Israel. What is curious about Shumsky’s study is that the road supposedly not taken is that of the most prominent leaders of the Zionist movement. If Zionist leaders were such staunch advocates of multinational and binational visions, how did they end up creating a Jewish ethnic nation-state?

While Shumsky’s study is convincing in describing the late-19th- and early-20th-century imperial origins of multinational ideas in Zionist thought, his study is less interested in examining how a Jewish ethnic nation-state ultimately came into being, and he dedicates only several pages to elucidating this shift. For Shumsky, the idea of a Jewish ethnic state was imposed on Zionism from the outside. Zionist leaders embraced it reluctantly and almost against their will.

In 1937, in the midst of the Arab revolt, the British authorities published the Peel Commission report that recommended partitioning Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. This was the first moment in which Zionist leaders contemplated what it meant to rule over an almost exclusively Jewish polity. Then came WWII and the Holocaust, which, Shumsky argues, drove Ben-Gurion to seek the creation of a Jewish ethnic state as a form of political reward for the calamity, particularly as such states were being solidified through the expulsion of minorities throughout East Central Europe.

Yet the idea of an ethnic nation-state appears foreign to Zionist thought in Shumsky’s account because he construes too rigid a dichotomy between multinational visions and an ethnic nation-state. Shumsky portrays the interwar binationalist Zionist discourse as a moralistic vision aimed at creating a just society in Palestine. However in practice, this discourse was always subservient to, and was at times used as a direct a ploy for achieving Jewish dominance.

Ben-Gurion presents a case in point. Despite his repeated public commitment to multinational visions during the 1920s, Ben-Gurion also vigorously opposed all attempts to establish democratic institutions in Palestine that would grant Arabs actual political representation and rights. Such attempts were promoted by the binational party Brit Shalom, by members of his own party and by the British High Commissioner Herbert Samuel who called for the creation of a Jewish-Arab legislative council.

Ben-Gurion’s reasoning was simple. The small Jewish minority in Palestine should first become a majority (a process that was supposed to take several decades), and only then grant extensive autonomy to the Arabs as an expression of Jewish goodwill and benevolence. Achieving Jewish ethnic dominance was to precede the extension of equality.

Only after the 1929 Arab riots did Ben-Gurion begin to push for a political agreement aimed at creating a future binational state in Palestine. Ben-Gurion changed his position because he believed the prospects for Zionism had radically changed. The 1929 riots, he argued, galvanized serious reservations among British and international observers over the moral legitimacy and political costs of supporting continued Jewish immigration to Palestine.

Indeed, during the 1930s the British authorities started to endorse a new policy for Palestine according to which Jews would remain a minority not exceeding 30-40 percent of the total population and would never have a state at all. This policy culminated with the British government’s publication of the 1939 White Paper, which declared that the British government opposes the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, and that within 10 years it would take action to establish in Palestine an independent state with an Arab majority and a Jewish minority.

In an ironic historical reversal, it was now Jews who were imagined to be a minority enjoying autonomy in a future state in Palestine. For a long moment it seemed as if Zionism would become a failed dream, or a road not taken.

Successive British high commissioners in Palestine pushed for the establishment of democratic institutions such as a legislative council, which would have inevitably given more power to Palestinian Arabs, then the larger ethnic group. And it was in order to counter the creation of these institutions that Zionist leaders such as Ben-Gurion made the case that all institutions in Palestine should give an equal share in power to Jews and Arabs—despite the fact that Jews were a minority. Moreover, Zionists also demanded that any future council have no authority over immigration so Jews could ultimately become a majority. By 1936, this binational program of sorts, which Zionist leaders referred to as “parity,” became the official position of the Jewish Agency for Palestine.

This is not to say that Ben-Gurion or Jabotinsky did not believe in Arab-Jewish equality, or full civil rights for all citizens regardless of their ethnic group. But regardless of what they believed, they insisted that Arab autonomy would be established as a result of privilege extended by a future Jewish majority.

Shumsky is correct to emphasize the Eastern European origins of Zionist thought. But by focusing too heavily on Eastern Europe, Shumsky overlooks the radically different ways in which multinational and binational ideas operated in Eastern Europe and in Palestine. In Poland, multinational ideas were used by a minority to demand more democracy from the majority. In Palestine, these same ideas were used by a minority to thwart democracy until it became the new majority.

Shumsky also takes Ben-Gurion’s admission of support for binationalism at face value, without asking what it is that Ben-Gurion believed he gained from presenting himself in this way, while at the same time repeatedly opposing Jewish-Arab power sharing arrangements in practice. It is important to note that many Zionist leaders regarded moral capital as an important form of political capital. The interwar years saw the rise of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist sentiment and calls for self-determination of subjugated populations, primarily among socialist movements with which the Zionist establishment was ideologically and politically aligned. Moreover, the Zionist movement had to attract young Jewish pioneers from Eastern Europe, and competed for their support with the Bund and other socialist movements. Cultivating an image of Zionism as a movement that opposes all forms of oppression was a political necessity. By observing that Jewish ethnic dominance preceded the commitment of Zionist leaders to Arab equality, the shift from multinational visions to a mono-ethnic reality suddenly appears less radical.

After the outbreak of WWII, Ben-Gurion believed that the war would create millions of stateless Jewish refugees in Eastern Europe. He called for the transfer of these Jews to Palestine after the war and for the swift establishment of a state with an overwhelming Jewish majority. Though he promised full equality to Arabs in the future Jewish state, his prior commitment to political parity and Arab autonomy was gone. For a while, Ben-Gurion was convinced his future Jewish majority was set in stone.

The main catalyst for the emergence of a Jewish ethnic nation-state in Palestine was, as Shumsky notes, the Holocaust. But this is not because Zionists sought compensation for the calamity, but because a small ethnic state remained the only option Zionists had on the table in light of the new demographics of the postwar Jewish world. By 1944, Ben-Gurion had started to openly doubt that there would remain enough Jews in Europe to establish a Jewish majority in the entire territory of the Palestine mandate. Partitioning the land and getting rid of a part of the Arab population emerged as the last means by which to square the circle of a Jewish majority polity.

It is important to note that when the newly established State of Israel decided to prevent by all means the return of 750,000 Palestinian refugees that were expelled and fled during the 1948 war, it did so in large part because there were only about 650,000 Jews in Palestine when the British mandate ended. Letting the refugees return would have meant that Jews would be a minority, or only a slim majority given Jewish immigration to Palestine during the war.

By positing a rigid dichotomy between multinational visions and an ethnic nation-state, Shumsky’s account also obscures the ways in which visions of Arab autonomy remained part of the Zionist political imagination long after 1948. As Seth Anziska shows in his study Preventing Palestine: A Political History From Camp David to Oslo, in the late 1970s Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin, a devout disciple of Jabotinsky, promoted autonomy as a vision for the future of Palestinians under Israeli rule in the West Bank and Gaza. Begin acknowledged that the origins of his autonomy vision lay in Jabotinsky’s thought of the mandate period. And just as in the mandate period, Begin framed his autonomy plan as a display of Jewish goodwill—Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza would enjoy complete autonomy in cultural and economic matters while living under protective Israeli sovereignty.

As Anziska shows, in his reading of the 1978 Camp David Accords, Egypt played along with Israel in codifying limited Palestinian self-rule as an alternative to more expansive visions of Palestinian self-determination that were being promoted at the time by Jimmy Carter’s administration, such as the establishment of a Palestinian homeland within a confederation with Jordan. Just as the interwar concept of “parity” drew on the language of minority rights and equality to deny democratic institution-building in Palestine, Begin’s vision of autonomy was, Anziska convincingly shows, a plan cloaked in a liberal guise that was ultimately designed to prevent Palestinian self-determination within the framework of the Israeli state.

Shumsky’s book is framed as a history of roads not taken. But in light of Anziska’s account, it might also be read as a book about a road that was in fact taken. Indeed, as Anziska argues, the Oslo Accords that established the Palestinian Authority in 1994 “mirrored many of Begin’s original autonomy ideas.”

Today, leading members of the Israeli government continue to advocate for Palestinian autonomy as a substitute for statehood. Some contemporary Israeli autonomy plans, Anziska observes, call for an even more restrictive version of Palestinian self-rule than Begin had originally imagined.

The persistence of the idea of autonomy in Zionist thought from the 1920s to the present day should not come as a surprise. Zionist visions of autonomy were born in the mandate period, at a time in which Zionist leaders had to grapple with the question of how to rule over millions of Arabs if, and once, Jews became a majority. And though we tend to think of the mandate period as a bygone era, it is worth keeping in mind that for the past 100 years, with the exception of a short hiatus between 1948-1967, the territorial framework of Israel and Palestine had remained roughly that of the mandate years.

Shumsky’s book beautifully reminds us that the idea of autonomy originated in Eastern Europe as part of an egalitarian vision aimed at extending the right of self-determination to all minorities. But in so doing, his account obscures the fact that autonomy had been used in the past and remains today a tool designed primarily to prevent Palestinian self-determination.

Gil Rubin is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies, Harvard University.