When Peter Beinart, a self-described liberal Zionist, abandoned the two-state resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict and embraced one state with equal rights for all, he quickly drew the ire of orthodox Zionists, some of whom went so far as to describe Beinart as a “Nazi” who favors a single state as the “Final Solution” for the more-than-century-old problem. By this, Beinart’s critics mean that equal rights in the unified land between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River would surely bring the extinction of Jews.
It’s a repulsive smear, of course, one that well confirms what Beinart wrote in his Jewish Currents article. What gets overlooked, however, is that the early Jewish anti-Zionists, especially the founders of American Reform Judaism, warned that the incipient movement to establish a Jewish state in Palestine would nourish the anti-Semite potentially endangering Jews everywhere, including the United States, where they enjoyed unprecedented freedom. This view was no better articulated than by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900), founder of American Reform Judaism.
Wise insisted that Jews did not constitute a single people, nation, or race but rather a worldwide religious community embracing many cultures and nationalities. Embracing one of the traditions of Judaism (which for much of its history was unified on little if anything), he preached a universalist, against a separatist, conception of his religion. This entailed the view that the human race was one people deserving of equal individual rights and freedom. For Wise, Judaism and Americanism were cut from the same cloth. (Ironically, in our time Israeli geneticists frantically and futilely search for the Jewish gene, which the Nazis also believed existed.)
As he watched the Zionist movement develop, Wise was horrified at what the future held. Writing in the final years of his life, he said: “The only class that will derive any advantage from the [1898 second Basel Zionist] Congress will be the anti-Semites, whose strongest argument that the Jews the world over are mere sojourners in countries, not a constituent part of their peoples, will receive expected support from the public acts and declarations of the Jews themselves.”
He was not stretching the point. Theodor Herzl and his Zionist colleagues appealed for the support of European rulers by vocally assuming the anti-Semitic slur that Jews were a parasitic alien presence in the nations of the world and that the “Jewish Question” could be answered only by establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. All Jews could then be concentrated there and away from the gentiles. (I use the word concentrated advisedly.) Whether the Zionists believed what they said or were just lied strategically, they made a consequential move.
A year before Wise made his statement, a committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, a Reform organization Wise founded, stated: “Such attempts [to establish a Jewish state] infinitely harm our Jewish brethren where they are still persecuted [Russia and Romania, for example], by confirming the assertion of their enemies that the Jews are foreigners in the countries in which they are at home, and of which they are everywhere the most loyal and patriotic citizens.”
This point has been a staple of the anti-Zionist case ever since. It was so widely known that the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which expressed official British approval of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, lamely tried to address it by stating that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” How’d that work out, Zionists?
When Zionists today cite Hitler’s attempted Judeocide as proof that the Zionist movement should have been listened to in 1897, one can reasonably ask, in light of what the anti-Zionists foresaw: is it unreasonable to view the horrors of 20th century as resembling a self-fulfilling prophecy? In other words, notwithstanding the tentativeness of counterfactual history, might things have been different had prominent and well-connected European Jews not adopted the anti-Semites’ smear that Jews were indeed parasitic aliens who could never belong to their societies and had instead joined forces with the world’s liberals to promote equal rights for all?
Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute, senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies, former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education, and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest book is Coming to Palestine.