Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access

The Tragedies of Zionism

As a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, I read Bernard Avi­shai’s cover story [“Israel’s War Within,” Report, February] with surprise that I was encountering it at all in these pages, along with my usual despair-­producing fury at the self-­delusion of liberal Western Zionism. In it, Avi­shai posits a self-comforting idea: that from its establishment in 1948 (and even as late as his time there in the Sixties and Seventies), Israel was a land of enlightened secular democracy dedicated to equality and justice, and that only now is it in a struggle to survive a fundamentalist, anti-­democratic, ultra-­Zionist turn. But this argument—­to the extent that it isn’t rendered beyond trivial by the annihilation of Gaza and the West’s collaboration in that crime—­is ludicrous and unsupported by history. The “enlightened” secularist founders of the Forties, though more institutionally shrewd and restrained, were as dedicated to creating a Jewish state in what Israelis now call Greater Israel, and what was then called Palestine, as are the most outspoken anti-­Arab Orthodox members of Israel’s present cabinet, and as is Benjamin Netanyahu himself.

Avishai begins his piece by suggesting that what is happening in Gaza is a result of the religious right’s dominance in the current government. But the viciousness, violence, and colonial racism with which Israelis are erasing Palestinian lives, historical records, and cultural patrimony continue from the early days of the British Mandate. The Israeli national project since then has been consistent, not divided: it commenced with Jewish militant participation in the suppression of Palestinian political aspirations and institutions during the Arab Revolt between 1936 and 1939; was formalized in a 1942 international Zionist conference at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City (which Avishai cites without noting that it explicitly put forth, for the first time, what would become the sustaining Zionist goal, “that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth,” without any provisions for the political status of Palestinians in that projected state); and was reified by the horrific 1948 Nakba (the mass expulsion of more than half the Palestinian population by Zionist militias and the Israeli army, with dozens of massacres and the renaming and occupation of hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages).

There were proposals within Zionist ranks all through the Forties for the founders of Israel to take up a binational or federal arrangement between Arabs and Jews; these “pioneers,” as Avishai romantically perceives them, utterly refused. Israelis have made no meaningful provisions for Palestinian rights or statehood from 1948 to today, and many believe none was ever intended. All discussions to that end have been a sham, obviously so: contravening international law, settlement began virtually days after the end of the 1967 war—­particularly in the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem—­and has not let up since.

It was not the religious right that authored the commitment to a Jewish state alone and unopposed in Palestine, that created Menachem Begin’s Irgun or David Ben-­Gurion’s army; it wasn’t religion that stirred Golda Meir to say, in 1969, “There was no such thing as Palestinians,” or that had Yitzhak Shamir, in 1988, threaten to crush Palestinians like grasshoppers. In Israel recently, not-­so-­religious young people celebrated footage of Gaza’s flattened hospitals and schools; public joy at the violence has by all reports been widespread and secular. Avishai asks—­as if it’s still a question—­what kind of nation Israel will be. The answer’s in—­check the pictures on your phone. It’s the kind that establishes “safe zones” for civilians, and then bombs them and cheers in the streets.

Avishai writes, “About Hamas’s savagery on October 7 and the horrors endured by Gazan civilians, there seems little to add . . . ” Allow me to add a few things anyway. In the case of the events of October 7, Western leaders and media outlets have almost uniformly upheld the narrative Israel put together in the few days following the attack: that it was of unprecedented brutality and inhumanity, and that Israel is justified in any response. Within days, that narrative began to unravel. First, it became clear that there were no burned or beheaded babies, as had been claimed; there has been no credible evidence of mass rape; and while many war crimes were committed by Hamas that day in killing civilians, it soon became apparent that a great deal of the death and physical destruction was caused by the Israeli army itself, both knowingly and unknowingly firing on its own citizens. We now have testimony from Israeli civilian and military witnesses that Israeli tanks shelled houses in Kibbutz Be’eri, costing the lives of Israeli hostages. (The Israel Defense Forces has a term for this lethal approach to hostage situations: the Hannibal Directive.) There is also witness testimony that combat helicopters fired at cars fleeing the Supernova music festival, killing their own civilians.

Israel’s invasion of Gaza, neatly summarized by Avishai as “the horrors endured by Gazan civilians,” has become a means of clearing the place of its over two million Palestinian inhabitants. (Taking place as I write this is an Israeli conference promoting the resettlement of Gaza, attended by several members of Israel’s cabinet.) It is also a historic act of mind-­boggling brutality and genocide, playing out daily on our phones while most Western leaders deny that it’s happening, creating an amazing new condition for ­humanity—­an unprecedented step into full surrealism in our geopolitical life, a cognitive dissonance so intense it makes you sick.

The fundamental position of Avi­shai’s essay is that the kind of carefully maintained ignorance and distortion he lays out before us, which has nourished liberal Zionists around the world for decades, ought not have been destroyed by the revelation of Zionism’s true intentions by this group of ultra-­Orthodox conservatives. It’s a morally vacant delusion that should never have been a cover story in Harper’s. The story isn’t Israel, for God’s sake; the story is Palestine. And the soul being destroyed, being eaten alive by violence and collusion and ignorance and lies, is our own.

Vince Passaro
New Rochelle, N.Y.


In the wake of the deadliest attack on Israel to date, and while, as I write this, there remain at least one hundred innocent captives in Gaza, likely in tunnels operated by Hamas, Harper’s Magazine makes the editorial decision to run a breathless cover story about the war within Israel—a war that isn’t really a war, unlike the actual war being fought, which, if it weren’t for the defense technology of the Iron Dome, would have resulted in thousands more dead and injured Israelis.

Avishai’s essay shifts the focus away from the threats to a people and a country that have been under a sword of Damocles for thousands of years—a people that, in spite of this, have made good on being a “light unto nations,” despite what Lewis H. Lapham’s poorly aging 1988 essay [“Mists of Wish and Dream,” From the Archive, February] attests. Israel is a profound source of technology and innovation, sending aid around the world during crises. Indeed, there are disputes over how its government should run, as in any other country—­but there aren’t magazine covers dedicated to these issues in other countries while they are under attack. Where is the Harper’s cover story investigating the ideology in Iran that enables Hamas and the Houthis, who bear contempt for their own people and for democratic values?

If Hamas put down its weapons, if Iran abandoned its course and chose to live in peace and cooperation with its neighboring state of Israel, do you really think we’d be seeing any military action from Israel? That would be the responsible time to run articles about the internal strife in Israeli governance. Running this essay now raises depressing moral implications for a much-­loved magazine.

Greg Hart
Calgary, Alberta


Bernard Avishai responds:

Vince Passaro writes in a state of fury. (I suspect he is feeling better.) I do not, but I disagree with too many of his claims and elisions to pursue all of them usefully here. I will consider two matters, though, one historical and one contemporary, if only to invite readers of Harper’s Magazine to wonder what else he has left out or, indeed, whether fury helps us cultivate the sense of tragedy that the present conflict requires.

Passaro notes that Zionism’s purpose—­statehood in the whole of Palestine—­“was formalized in a 1942 international Zionist conference at the Biltmore Hotel.” What he fails to mention is that the Labor Zionist movement under Ben-­Gurion had—­at the Zionist Congress of 1931, before Hitler’s rise—­rejected statehood as an end goal (causing the ultra-­nationalist Ze’ev Jabotinsky to bolt); entered into discussions with the Palestinian leader Musa Alami in 1934 about the prospect of a federation, which Alami declined; and accepted the principle of partition offered by the Peel Commission in 1937, which Palestinian leaders rejected. Ben-­Gurion was mobilized by both the 1938 Évian Conference and the issuance in 1939 of the White Paper, which, respectively, maintained that European Jews would not have refuge in the United States or South America, and significantly restricted Zionist immigration and land purchase in Palestine for at least five years.

The Biltmore Conference, moreover, was held during the spring of 1942, after the tide of the Second World War had turned. Ben-­Gurion thought that the Jewish colony in Palestine should become a refuge for possibly millions of refugees from Central Europe who had been terrified, if not displaced into ghettos, by the Nazis and their collaborators in occupied countries. (The entire Palestinian Arab population was then about a million.) In the summer of that same year, the world began to learn about the final solution and that, horrifically, those whom Ben-­Gurion expected to join the Zionist project were either dead or about to be murdered. Nevertheless, until early 1945, Labor Zionism’s military wing, the Haganah, repressed the terrorist organization Irgun. And in 1946, the Labor Zionists again offered partition: in effect, a political border that would augment areas of Mandatory Palestine already with a large Jewish concentration to accommodate the arrival of Jewish refugees. Palestinians rejected this compromise too. Now, Passaro may simply wish, as did many Palestinians who rejected cooperation with the developing Jewish colony through the Twenties and Thirties, that Zionism had never happened and that the British had never come. I confess that there are things I also wish had never happened.

Then there is the main point of my essay, which Passaro has seemed to miss completely. It is hardly my view that Israel was a lovely democracy until Religious Zionists befouled it after 1967. In fact, I argue something like the opposite of this: that from 1948 on, the residual institutions of Labor Zionism and the rabbinic privileges inherited from the British Mandate created a medium through which Religious Zionist messianism could thrive. (I also argued this in my 1985 book, The Tragedy of Zionism, which made me few friends in the precincts of “liberal Western Zionism,” to which Passaro demotes me.) My challenge now as an Israeli liberal democrat is to both reform these institutions further and to pursue non-­violent coexistence with my Palestinian neighbors. I do, for example, fight to see a liberal-­democratic constitution promulgated, not just certain basic laws liberally interpreted by the Supreme Court; the separation of religion and state; the Law of Return replaced by a proper immigration law; and an integrated, secular school system. I doubt I shall live to see these things, precisely because of the vestigial institutions that my article pointed to. Then again, since Passaro seems to think the massacre of October 7 was largely exaggerated by Israeli propagandists and perpetrated by the Israeli army, I can see why he supposes me a Zionist apologist irrespective of what is otherwise in front of his nose.

As for Greg Hart, and speaking of apologists, it was not my intention to “[shift] the focus away from the threats,” which surround me, but rather to explore what part a certain very influential Israeli movement has had in compounding them. This same movement now expects Israelis to be cavalier about the tens of thousands of innocent Palestinians, largely women and children, who have died in consequence of the Israeli military’s attacks on Hamas, which cynically hides behind them. The movement even speaks of expelling Gazans and resettling the Strip, proposals that, according to a Hebrew University survey, a majority of Israelis reject. As I write, the U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is a mile from my home, presenting yet newer proposals for the region, including openness to an eventual Palestinian state and normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. His peace process will fail if this movement’s messianic “no” continues to preempt the militarily cautious “maybe” embraced by liberal leaders from Yitzhak Rabin to Ehud Olmert, after Palestinian leaders other than Hamas accepted the existence of Israel in 1988.



“Your Mind’s in the Hands of Everything” by Hannah Gold [Letter from Newark, December] incorrectly stated that Abraham Lincoln never disembarked from a train in Newark, New Jersey. In fact, he did. We regret the error.

| View All Issues |

April 2024

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now