The West’s Love for Israel Erases the Middle East’s Real History

Zionism emerged in response to 19th-century European antisemitism — but its aims in Palestine drew upon Western colonial ideologies. To present the current conflict as a timeless feud denies both European responsibility and Palestine’s multiethnic history.

Press photograph from the Palestinian revolt of 1936–39, showing Arabs arrested by the British police, April 5, 1939. (Kedem / Wikimedia Commons)

The love of Zionism in the West has always had a troubled relationship with genocide. Its origins as a political ideology lay in an era when European empires routinely justified the exterminability of what they considered to be inferior peoples and uncivilized barbarians.

The nineteenth-century European Zionist idea of implanting and sustaining an exclusively Jewish nationalist state in multireligious Palestine was a response to European racial antisemitism. But it was also premised, from the outset, on the erasure of native Palestinian history and the political significance of their centuries-old belonging on their own land.

After the Nazi Holocaust of the European Jews, Western philozionism was powerfully reinforced by a sense of guilt and empathy for the idea of a Jewish state. Now, philozionism has come full course to embrace genocide in Gaza in the name of defending this Jewish state.

In recent weeks, Western liberals and states have given overwhelming backing for Israel’s “right to defend itself.” This shrill support has barely wavered as Israel has methodically waged a scorched-earth campaign for over a month, destroying tens of thousands of homes, hospitals, schools, mosques, churches, and bakeries and subjecting Gaza’s Palestinian refugee population to an extraordinarily cruel collective punishment.

This latest installment of philozionism exposes more clearly than ever the ruthless double standard that underlies it: Israeli history and life are cherished; Muslim and Christian Palestinian history and life are fundamentally devalued.

Double Standards

This double standard has a long history. Protestant enthusiasts and theologians in Europe and North America embraced the idea of the “return” of the Jews to biblical Palestine, but had no interest in the actually existing, diverse population of contemporary Palestine. The Zionist movement itself largely ignored the native Palestinian population. Part of this was a fact of geography and history: Zionism was born not among the ancient Jewish communities of the East, but in Eastern and Central Europe. Its leaders were not Arab or Eastern Jews, but European Ashkenazi Jews. Its ethnoreligious nationalist ideology was forged not by the pluralism of the Middle East but by the competing racial and ethnic and linguistic nationalisms of Europe. The racial antisemitism evident in the West was alien to the rhythms of religious difference, discrimination, and coexistence so familiar to the diverse inhabitants of the Ottoman Islamic East.

But, at least in part, the European Zionist project’s overlooking of the native Palestinian population was based in racism. Indeed, it developed as a colonial project. While leading Zionists grappled with the racial antisemitism of Europe, they also expressed, shared, contributed to, and circulated many of the foundational racist tropes of nineteenth-century Western culture. That is, that the non-West was manifestly inferior, and that Eastern peoples were more primitive than Western ones; that the land of the indigenous peoples was largely “empty” and thus open to colonization; and that colonialism was salvation, and the removal of native peoples was either inevitable or necessary because these peoples were racially and mentally inferior, uncivilized, and thus without historical or ethical value. One of the slogans of the Zionist movement was “A land without a people for a people without a land.”

The racism inherent in this colonial Zionism was manifested in both the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the official charter of the British Mandate of Palestine of 1922. Neither of these colonial documents referred to Palestinians directly. Instead, they described them as “non-Jewish communities” who paled in historical, religious, and civilizational significance when compared to what they identified as the more important “Jewish people.”

British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour himself explained the meaning of this occlusion in a confidential memorandum in 1919. He admitted there was little point pretending that the post–World War I notion of self-determination could be reconciled with Zionism in Palestine, through which mostly European Jews would be encouraged to settle and colonize there and thus redeem what was habitually referred to as a derelict land. Balfour wrote in 1919:

For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country. . . . The four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.

But these “present inhabitants” had a real existence — and for Zionist Jewish nationalists who wanted to build a Jewish state in Palestine, it was unwelcome. Unlike the distant, academic Protestant clergymen obsessed with biblical prophecies, colonial Zionists were increasingly preoccupied with their far more secular “Arab” question: how to transform a land actually inhabited by an overwhelming majority of Arabs into an exclusively Jewish state. Muslim and Christian Palestinians were seen, in other words, as a real impediment to the successful unfolding of colonial Zionism. They had to be skirted, avoided, repressed, removed from view, and ultimately physically expelled.

The Zionist movement refused to change its fantasy of transforming a multireligious land that had for centuries enjoyed profoundly organic cultural, linguistic, religious, trade, and historical connections with the lands that surrounded Palestine into a sovereign and segregated Jewish state. Backed by their British imperial protectors, the movement doubled down on its project to systematically colonize Palestine.

In 1923, the Russian-born settler Vladimir Jabotinsky described colonial Zionism as an “iron wall” that would crush the spirit of the natives of Palestine. Behind this “iron wall,” protected by the bayonets of the British empire, Jabotinsky insisted that colonial Zionism could grow unfettered and ultimately dispossess the natives no matter how much they protested. He believed that only when the natives had given up all hopes of resistance could Zionists hope to make peace with the “primitive” Palestinians. Such callous attitudes toward the Palestinians led some prominent European Zionists such as Hans Kohn to break decisively with the movement in 1929. Kohn was shocked by the Zionist contempt for native Palestinian national aspirations. He was also appalled by the Zionist suppression of their just movement for political and national freedom. “Zionism,” Kohn insisted at the time, “is not Judaism.”

Kohn, however, was a voice crying in the wilderness. Following the rise of the antisemitic and racist Nazis in Germany, many more European Jews — who were blocked from emigrating to the United States because of that country’s racist immigration laws — sought refuge in Palestine. These refugees from Europe were quickly conscripted into the increasingly militant Zionist nationalist cause, along with many Eastern and Arab Jews who were native to Palestine and the region. In the wake of a massive anticolonial uprising on the part of the Palestinians that commenced in 1936, the British colonial authorities drew up a highly prejudicial partition plan in 1937. This scheme foreshadowed the fateful 1947 UN partition plan of Palestine. Both were predicated on dispossessing the native Palestinian majority of much of its land and homes to make way for a Jewish state. Britain’s 1937 Peel partition plan, for example, recognized the injustice of any partition to the Arab natives who owned the majority of the land. With remarkable disingenuousness, it lauded the proverbial “generosity” of the Arabs to justify their coerced role “at some sacrifice” to themselves into solving the West’s “Jewish Problem.”

The Nazi German Holocaust of European Jews and the concomitant growth of the Zionist movement in British-occupied Palestine reinforced the Western imperative to create a Jewish state at the expense of the Palestinians. Although they rejected allowing the survivors of the Holocaust into the United States, US politicians supported sending Jewish displaced persons to Palestine in the name of decency and humanitarianism. Zionist leaders and propagandists figured vastly more prominently in immediate postwar thought and, crucially, in the corridors of political power and decision-making in the West than did their Arab counterparts. Native Palestinians were entirely shut out of the decision-making process that directly affected them. In November 1947, the Western-dominated UN voted to partition Palestine and establish a Jewish state, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the population was Palestinian, and the vast mass of historic Palestine was owned by Palestinians.

From Antisemitism to Philosemitism

The Nakba, or calamity, of 1948 soon resolved the problem of Palestinians in a Jewish state. Before, during, and after the war of 1948, Zionist forces expelled well over eight hundred thousand Palestinians to neighboring lands and expropriated their homes and lands. Liberal Western states and leaders hailed this allegedly miraculous transformation. One of the famous signatories of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, put the onus of Palestinian dispossession on the Arabs themselves. She admired Israel’s allegedly youthful spirit and castigated the Arabs for their “inflexibility” toward Israel and blamed them ultimately for their own dispossession. Palestinians were consistently depicted as backward, primitive, irrational, and fanatical. The Zionists, by contrast, were represented — and very much represented themselves — as modern pioneers who redeemed an “empty” land. Edward Said described this form of racism thus: “The transference of a popular anti-Semitic animus from a Jewish to an Arab target was made smoothly, since the figure was essentially the same.”

The post-Holocaust identification with Jews and Judaism — “philosemitism” — became utterly entangled with philozionism. As historian Daniel Cohen explains in his forthcoming book Good Jews: Philosemitism in Europe since the Holocaust, for European intellectuals and politicians the latter was a function of the former. In the wake of World War II, the European philosophical, religious, and moral rehabilitation of “man” was predicated on a recognition of the history of antisemitism that had culminated with the rise of Nazism. In Cohen’s reading, Jews were not seen as archetypical victims of the West’s long prevailing racist worldview that segregated humanity into superior and inferior races. Rather, they were the victims of the distinct evil of antisemitism that was conceptually and morally bifurcated from other forms of racism. Israel represented an implied Western atonement for its own terrible past; as a Jewish state, it received reparations from Germany. In this philozionist turn, to love Jews and Judaism, therefore, was to love the new state of Israel that was established in their name. Palestinians did not even figure in this moral calculus.

The Western liberal denial of an ancient, sustained, and meaningful Palestinian relationship to Palestine has had profound effects. It led to a series of philozionist commandments that shaped the contours of postwar Eurocentric humanism. The first of these was not to question Israel as a Jewish state, no matter what it did to the native Muslim and Christian Palestinian survivors of the Nakba. To question the inherently discriminatory nature of a Jewish state in a multireligious land was tantamount to questioning the West’s own antisemitic past. In the 1950s, Western liberals and leftists overwhelmingly and enthusiastically supported Israel against its Arab enemies — trade unions, radicals, socialists, and liberals alike enthused about the new state. The second commandment was to regard Israel, unlike the Arabs, as an extension of an idealized West: it had classical music, European institutions, a modern army, pioneers fighting savages, socialist kibbutzim, and above all, a young nation that contrasted with the background images of squalid, nameless, “Arab” refugees. Israel was what the West wanted and needed after World War II: an emancipated part of itself allegedly purged of its historical antisemitism. The third commandment was to make real Palestinians unrelatable to Western humanism.

The reality on the ground for Palestinians was vastly different. At the base of this edifice of postwar Western humanism and values lay a people dispossessed by colossal injustice, whose efforts to undo this injustice was slandered and shunned in the West, and, most of all, a people devoured in the racist Western imagination of an age-old feud between now pioneering Jews and their evil Arab nemesis. In 1955, the great anti-colonial poet and writer Aimé Césaire castigated Western “pseudo-humanism,” based on a “narrow and fragmentary, incomplete and biased and all things considered, sordidly racist” conception of the “rights of man.” Césaire was disgusted by how postwar European states and societies were willing to finally condemn Hitler and antisemitism but refused to abandon most of their colonial possessions without a bitter and sustained fight.

Likewise, Césaire noted how the United States continued to uphold its pervasive domestic system of racial segregation. While Europeans and Americans were resolved to consign antisemitism to the past, they were unable to acknowledge the degree to which the racial thinking of Nazism was but one morbid and extreme expression of a centuries-old Western discourse and practice of racial supremacy. Instead, by exceptionalizing Nazi Germany, and isolating it from modern Western culture and history, and by splitting the fight against antisemitism from that of racism and colonialism more broadly, one could love Israel and Jews and still hate Arabs and black people; one could love the now largely absent Jews of Europe and love them instead in their new, and in the eyes of the Western antisemites, “proper” home in Israel, Arabs be damned.

“Men in the Sun”

The Palestinians as people were quickly forgotten by the international community. In Ghassan Kanafani’s poetic words, they became “men in the sun” — stateless and unprotected refugees who sought to rebuild their shattered lives in desperate circumstances wherever they were able to do so. They became wards of a UN-supervised regime of welfare called the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that pushed the political rights for Palestinians firmly off the international agenda. In the West, Arab and Muslim communities were either tiny or totally marginalized. They had almost no penetration in Western institutions of government, culture, or higher education.

The Zionist movement, in contrast, coalesced around the new state of Israel, and steadily invested in mobilizing Jewish communities and making Zionist ideology dominant among them: its axiom was that to be Jewish was to be Zionist, and to feel, think, and believe that the state of Israel represented the entirety of the Jewish people. The Zionist movement also built up a massive lobbying machine with a strong presence in every major Western state, especially the United States. The affective, positive, emotional relationship to Israel was reinforced by a campaign of memorialization of the Holocaust across the liberal West that exploded after 1967. The flip side of the memorialization of the Nazi genocide was the consistent elision of a hugely consequential fact, namely that Palestinians collectively were made to pay the heaviest price for the creation of a Jewish state on their lands, despite the fact that they had no history of Western-style racial antisemitism. Although Israel established diplomatic relations with penitent, reparations-paying Germans and cultivated anti-Jewish evangelical Christian zealots, it refused categorically to deal justly with native Palestinians whom it consistently, and mendaciously, depicted as antisemites at the same time as it colonized their land.

Although the overtly expansionist Israeli state began to lose some of its leftist allies after 1967, when it invaded and occupied East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, it easily maintained its liberal allies and added to them conservative and Christian Zionist ones. US financial, political, military, and political support for Israel has increased massively in the 1970s.

“Victims of the Victims”

Palestinians were out of sight and out of mind — until they were not. The emergence of Palestinian resistance and national liberation movements in the 1960s was the first sustained attempt by Palestinians to break the silence that surrounded their history and humanity since their expulsion in 1948 from their lands and from Western consciousness. But the more the abandoned Palestinians stridently and even violently inserted themselves into the international arena through revolutionary proclamations, anti-colonial armed struggle, or even spectacular hijackings, the more Western citizens ignorant of the realities of modern Palestinian history, saw them only as outrageous terrorists.

Although the Palestinians were galvanized and sustained by anti-colonial solidarity from across the Third World that peaked with Yasser Arafat’s famous speech at the UN in 1974, and the passage of the UN resolution condemning Zionism as “a form of racism and racial discrimination” in 1975, the Palestinians were firmly denied Western empathy. The powerful, rich, and militarily dominant Western world continued to resolutely uphold Israel and to look past its flagrant racism against its own Palestinian citizens and to take for granted the continuation of its military rule over the millions of Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian paradox was to be “terrorists” if they disturbed the state that oppressed them, and to be terrorized if they did not.

The demonization of Palestinian resistance as evil terrorism was added to a centuries-old genealogy of colonial and racist depictions of indigenous and slave revolts in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Each of the great upwelling movements of repressed humanity had been met with merciless suppression by the colonizers. Just in the North American context, the list includes the slave revolution in Haiti in the 1790s, Nat Turner’s revolt in Virginia, and the crushing of the Sioux in the late nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, the interwar Syrian and Palestinian anti-colonial uprisings of the 1930s and a host of other later anti-colonial revolutions from Algeria to Vietnam were similarly depicted as evil, irrational, demonic, and luridly brutal.

The Palestinians, though, have an added burden to contend with, for they were oppressed by the archetypical victim in modern Eurocentric Western consciousness. To be the “victims of the victims,” as Edward Said put it, makes the anti-colonial struggle of the Palestinians almost Sisyphean. Decontextualized and dehistoricized, Palestinian resistance against Israel state is also seen, felt, and sensed as a terrible reincarnation of a demonic antisemitic past.

Such a view relocates Palestinian action from one rooted in their own history and experience. It is reduced to a Eurocentric drama familiar to Western publics, in which the only significant actors are the Nazis, innocent Jewish victims, and their American and allied saviors. It allows Zionists to believe themselves to be the real victims even as Palestinians are being slaughtered today before the world. Israeli historian Benny Morris captured this chilling form of narcissism in an infamous interview published in 2004 in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “We are the greater victims in the course of history,” Morris insisted at the time, “and we are also the greater potential victim. Even though we are oppressing the Palestinians, we are the weaker side here.”

Supporters of Israel in the West do not see Palestinians as resisting a colonizing state that was built coercively on their land, that has devastated their lives, brutalized them and their families, and besieged, exiled, harassed, intimidated, humiliated, incarcerated, and murdered them for decades with impunity. Rather, they think that Palestinians kill Israelis simply because they hate Jews. Philozionism holds that to “stand with” the colonizing state of Israel is not to hate Palestinians but to love Jews; but to stand with the Palestinian resistance and liberation is ipso facto not to love Palestinians, humanity, justice, or freedom, but to hate Jews, and even worse, to want to annihilate them again.

As Israel carries out its bloody genocide against the people of Palestine, Western government support for Israel is staggering in its outward passion for a Jewish state and its callousness for the quality of Palestinian existence. The unhinged rage against Palestinian solidarity across the West constitutes a modern-day witch hunt, a frenzy of false accusations of antisemitism that continues to deny Palestinian history, experience, and humanity. The crucible of Gaza, however, exposes damning evidence of the moral and political failure of colonial Zionism on the ground in Palestine. It exposes, as well, the depravity of many of its secular and religious enthusiasts in the West.

The earliest consequences of the love of Zionism in the West elided Palestinians’ existence and pretended not to see their tribulations. But now, the mutilated, broken, terrorized, and traumatized bodies of Palestinians are in full view of the entire world.