Duality between the position of oppressed and that of oppressor is not rare in history. It is encountered in particular in the case of national movements embodying the quest of an oppressed nation for liberation from colonialism while this same nation oppresses in its own country a minority—be it national or racial or religious or belonging to any other identity—and while the national movement disregards this latter oppression or, worse, endorses it under various pretexts such as accusing the minority of constituting a “fifth column” of colonialism.
Reference to the frequency of such duality is often made in order to “normalize” the case of Zionism, in the sense of presenting it as ordinary and similar to many other cases. The aim is usually to belittle the wrongs of Zionism, if not to excuse them, in order to “normalize” the attitude toward the Zionist state and treat it as an ordinary one. I will seek to demonstrate here that this argument is not valid by explaining the singularity of the duality proper to the Zionist case.
It is undisputable that Zionism was born historically as a reaction to the protracted oppression suffered by Jewish minorities in European countries. As is well established, the condition of the Jews in Christian Europe in the Middle Ages and up to the nineteenth century was much worse than their condition in Muslim-majority countries. Under self-described Christian authorities, the Jews were victims of much worse persecution than the discrimination and intermittent persecution that they suffered from self-described Muslim authorities.
However, the modern era that followed the age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution of the late 18thcentury brought this persecution gradually to an end in Western Europe, with the diffusion of the modern notion of citizenship based on equal rights. With gradual democratic change, the Jews’ condition improved gradually in Western Europe between the shores of the Atlantic and the eastern borders of Germany and Austria. It evolved gradually toward integration of the Jews in local societies and the end of discrimination. But the first major crisis that affected the world capitalist economy during the last quarter of the 19th century, the Long Depression as it is called, stirred up various xenophobic tendencies. Like all social crises, it boosted the search by far-right groups for scapegoats in order to mobilize the anger of their societies at the service of their reactionary projects.
In the same period, Eastern Europe, especially its largest part contained within the Russian Empire, was witnessing a belated expansion of the capitalist mode of production. This late capitalist transformation—whose disruptive effect was increased and complicated by its contemporaneity with more advanced capitalism in the West as well as with the Long Depression—led to an acute social crisis featuring an accelerated rural exodus. The result was that xenophobic tendencies were boosted in Eastern Europe as well, the Jews being their primary victims in the Russian Empire, particularly in the areas that belong today to Ukraine and Poland. There, the Jews were subjected to successive pogroms leading them to seek to migrate to Western Europe and North America.
As a result, the Jews became a favored target of xenophobia in Western Europe, where they combined the characters of migrant foreigners and people belonging to an alien religion. Thus, on the backdrop of the Long Depression and its effects, Western Europe witnessed a revival of anti-Judaism in a new, modern guise: a racial theory pretending to base itself on anthropological sciences and claiming that the Jews, or the Semites in general including the Arabs, belong to an inferior and evil race. This was the time of the emergence of “antisemitism”, which concentrated its fire on European Jews and went along with the expansion of a fanatical brand of nationalism combined with the advocacy of colonialism. The Long Depression had indeed exacerbated the competition over the division of the globe between colonial metropolises in the age of what is called “imperialism”.
It is on this same backdrop that the modern Zionist movement was born as statist Zionism, aiming at the creation of a Jewish state unlike previous or contemporary brands of spiritual or cultural Zionism. As is well known, the founder of the movement, Theodor Herzl, was an assimilated Austrian Jew who came to his Zionist beliefs after having, as a journalist, covered in Paris the trial of the French officer of Jewish descent Alfred Dreyfus, a victim of the surge of antisemitism in his country. This affair led Herzl to write his famous book-manifesto The Jewish State (Der Judenstaat in the original German: literally, The State of the Jews) which came out in 1896 and constituted the base upon which the first Zionist congress was convened in the Swiss city of Basel in 1897, a year and a half after the book’s publication.
There lies a most significant qualitative difference between the Zionist ideology as elaborated by Herzl and the national ideologies that were born in Europe during the first half of the 19th century or in the colonial countries during the first half of the 20th century. Whereas most of these ideologies belonged to democratic emancipatory thinking, modern Zionist ideology belonged to the brand of fanatical and colonialist nationalism that was on the rise when it appeared. Indeed, whereas it is undisputable that Zionism is the result of Jewish oppression and a reaction to it—Herzl himself explained in the preface of his book how “the misery of the Jews” is the “propelling force” of the movement that he wanted to create—it is likewise undisputable that Zionism as theorized by Herzl is an ideology that is essentially framed by reactionary and colonialist thinking.
In reality, leaving aside how it was perceived by poor and harshly persecuted East European Jews who clung to it as to a rescue board, the Zionist project elaborated by Herzl was at its core a design elaborated by an assimilated secular Austrian Jew, aiming at getting rid of poor religious Jews coming from Eastern Europe whose migration to the West had disturbed the existence of their West European co-religionaries. Herzl acknowledged this with striking bluntness in the introduction of his book:
The “assimilated” would profit even more than Christian citizens by the departure of faithful Jews; for they would be rid of the disquieting, incalculable, and unavoidable rivalry of a Jewish proletariat, driven by poverty and political pressure from place to place, from land to land. This floating proletariat would become stationary. Many Christian citizens—whom we call Anti-Semites—can now offer determined resistance to the immigration of foreign Jews. Jewish citizens cannot do this, although it affects them far more nearly; for on them they feel first of all the keen competition of individuals carrying on similar branches of industry, who, in addition, either introduce Anti-Semitism where it does not exist, or intensify it where it does. The “assimilated” give expression to this secret grievance in “philanthropic” undertakings. They found emigration societies for wandering Jews. There is a reverse to the picture which would be comic, if it did not deal with human beings. For some of these charitable institutions are created not for, but against, persecuted Jews, they are created to despatch these poor creatures just as fast and far as possible. And thus, many an apparent friend of the Jews turns out, on careful inspection, to be nothing more than an Anti-Semite of Jewish origin, disguised in the garb of a philanthropist.
But the attempts at colonization made even by really benevolent men, interesting attempts though they were, have so far been unsuccessful . . . These attempts were interesting, in that they represented on a small scale the practical fore-runners of the idea of a Jewish State.
The new idea brought by Herzl in replacement of the failed “philanthropic” colonial enterprises that he mentioned—the most prominent was funded by the Rothschild family—was to shift from benevolent actions to a political project integrated in the European colonialist framework, aiming at the foundation of a Jewish state that would belong to this framework and reinforce it. For this, Herzl realized that Christian anti-Semites would be his project’s staunchest supporters. His main argument, in the section entitled “The Plan” of his book’s second chapter, is the following: “The creation of a new State is neither ridiculous nor impossible. . . . The Governments of all countries scourged by Anti-Semitism will be keenly interested in assisting us to obtain the sovereignty we want.”
All that was needed was to select the territory upon which the Zionist project will materialize:
Here two territories come under consideration, Palestine and Argentina. In both countries important experiments in colonization have been made, though on the mistaken principle of a gradual infiltration of Jews. An infiltration is bound to end badly. It continues till the inevitable moment when the native population feels itself threatened, and forces the Government to stop a further influx of Jews. Immigration is consequently futile unless based on an assured supremacy. The Society of Jews will treat with the present masters of the land, putting itself under the protectorate of the European Powers, if they prove friendly to the plan.
Toward the end of his book’s last chapter, where he explained the “Benefits of the Emigration of the Jews”, Herzl assured that the governments will pay attention to his scheme “either voluntarily or under pressure from the Anti-Semites”. His Diaries include many observations about the complementarity between his project of sending the poor Jews out of the European continent and the desire of the anti-Semites to get rid of them. He even prophesized at the beginning of his first diary (1895) that the Jews will adapt to the brutality of the anti-Semites and imitate it in their future state.
However, anti-Semitism, which is a strong and unconscious force among the masses, will not harm the Jews. I consider it to be a movement useful to the Jewish character. It represents the education of a group by the masses, and will perhaps lead to its being absorbed. Education is accomplished only through hard knocks. A Darwinian mimicry will set in. The Jews will adapt themselves.
In line with the plan devised by their spiritual father Herzl, the leaders of the Zionist movement made great efforts to get the support of one of the great European powers to their project, which had soon become exclusively aimed at Palestine. They took advantage of the land’s transfer from Ottoman domination to British domination in the context of the First World War after the division of the Ottoman spoils between the British and the French starting from the infamous 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement.
Since then, the efforts of the Zionist leaders focused on London. The leader of British Zionism, Chaim Weizmann, relied on British Jewish tycoon and former member of parliament, Lord Walter Rothschild. Their combined efforts were successful in obtaining the well-known pledge by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour on the 2nd of November 1917. In his letter, Balfour assured that “His Majesty’s [King George V] Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object…”. This infamous declaration was naturally part and parcel of British imperialist calculations of that time, in the context of ongoing competition between Britain and the two allies that shared its victory in the war—France and the United States.
The historical circumstances of the Balfour Declaration were completely in accordance with the views of Zionism’s “prophet” Theodor Herzl. Arthur Balfour himself was one of those anti-Semitic Christians of whom Herzl knew that they would become Zionism’s best allies. The British Foreign Secretary was indeed influenced by Christian Zionism, the Christian current that supports the “return” of the Jews to Palestine. The true goal of this support—undeclared in most cases but sometimes frank—is to get rid of Jewish presence in Christian-majority lands. Christian Zionists see in the Jews’ “return” to Palestine a fulfilment of the condition of the Second Coming of the Christ, which will be followed by the Last Judgment leading all Jews who did not convert to Christianity to eternal suffering in Hell. This same current constitutes nowadays in the USA the staunchest supporter of Zionism in general and of the Zionist right in particular.
When he was Prime Minister (1902-1905), the author of the infamous Declaration, Arthur Balfour himself, promulgated the 1905 Aliens Act, whose aim was to stop the immigration to Britain of Jewish refugees fleeing from the Russian Empire. It is worth pointing here to a rarely mentioned historical fact: Edwin Samuel Montagu is the only British minister who resisted Balfour’s drive toward issuing his declaration, and the only minister who manifested an opposition to the Zionist project wholesale. He happened to be the only Jewish member of the cabinet headed by David Lloyd George, to which Balfour belonged, and only the third Jewish minister in British history. Montagu warned that the Zionist enterprise would lead to the expulsion of the Palestinian natives and reinforce in all other countries the currents wishing to get rid of the Jews. In a memorandum he submitted in August 1917 to the British Cabinet after having learned about what was to become the Balfour Declaration, he declared straightforwardly: “I wish to place on record my view that the policy of His Majesty’s Government is anti-Semitic and in result will prove a rallying ground for Anti-Semites in every country in the world.”
As expected by Herzl, the Zionist project materialized under the protection of a great European power as part of its colonial-imperialist designs. This project could not have been made real without such a protection and without being integrated in a much larger colonial-imperialist framework. For the “Jewish people” that Herzl wanted to equip with a state of its own was an “imagined” people, with no political institution that would constitute it as a people and without the force required in order to take part in the colonial race of the late 19thcentury.
By founding the Zionist movement, Herzl wanted to create that missing political institution and steer it toward collaborating with one of the great powers. The Zionist project was thus, from the start, structurally dependent on the protection of a great power as Herzl had foreseen. This dependence has characterized the history of the Zionist movement and later that of its state until now. It will not end as long as the state of Israel is based on colonial oppression, for the natural consequence of this is enmity with the Palestinian people and the other peoples around Palestine to a level requiring Israel’s protection by an external great power. The United States has been playing this role since the 1960s.
In sum, Zionism is not a “normal” movement of national liberation that shares the dual character of many such movements struggling against colonial oppression while oppressing other communities, be they national or of another nature. This is the claim of those partisans of Israel who are not fanatical to the point of denying the oppression perpetrated by the Zionist state. The truth, however, is that the Zionist movement was built upon exploitation of the oppression suffered by the Jews and reliance on the help of anti-Semites in order to create a colonial state structurally integrated in the imperialist system—not a postcolonial state as it pretends.
By a most unfortunate turn of history, antisemitism reached a climax in twentieth-century Europe with the Nazis’ rise to power and the implementation of their genocidal project later on, compelling large numbers of European Jews to find refuge in Zionism since other forms of antisemitism had slammed the doors of the USA, Britain and other countries in their face. Thus was the Zionist state able to come into being and portray itself as a redemptive compensation for the Nazi genocide of the Jews. These historical circumstances have allowed this state to oppress the native Palestinians to a degree that went certainly way beyond what the founders of Zionism, Herzl included, had expected.
Today—a century after the Balfour Declaration, close to 70 years after the founding of the state of Israel over seventy-eight percent of the territory of British Mandate Palestine, and half a century after this state occupied the remaining twenty-two percent—the Zionist Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still banking on present-day anti-Semites in Western countries to get support for the arrogant colonial behavior of his state and government. From his reliance on Christian Zionists in the USA to his flirt with the anti-Semitic Prime Minister of Hungary to his silence over Donald Trump’s defense of the anti-Jewish anti-Muslim American Far Right, Netanyahu is following Herzl’s recipes, but in a yet morally uglier way as it is occurring after the Nazi genocide which showed to what horrors antisemitism and other types of racism may lead.
[This paper will be delivered in Arabic at a conference convened in Beirut on 13-14 December by the Institute for Palestine Studies on the occasion of the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. It was translated by the author from the Arabic original.]
 It is true that foreign domination over a country often seeks to use oppressed minorities whose condition improved as a side effect of its presence. This does not justify in the least, of course, that the majority oppresses the minority after liberation from foreign domination instead of limiting itself to the punishment of the individuals who collaborated with the occupiers in the perpetration of ugly crimes—be they members of the minority or of the majority—while striving to abolish the oppression from which the minority suffered historically in order to build a new society of equal citizens.
 The first exponent of this materialist analysis of the rise of antisemitism is Abram Leon, The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation (New York: Pathfinder, 1970). A Belgian Marxist anti-Zionist of Jewish descent, Leon died at Auschwitz in 1944. His French manuscript was first published as a book in 1946.
 “Memorandum of Edwin Montagu on the Anti-Semitism of the Present (British) Government”, The Balfour Project. Montagu regarded as “inconceivable that Zionism should be officially recognised by the British Government, and that Mr. Balfour should be authorized to say that Palestine was to be reconstituted as the ‘national home of the Jewish people’. I do not know what this involves, but I assume that it means that Mahommedans and Christians are to make way for the Jews and that the Jews should be put in all positions of preference and should be peculiarly associated with Palestine in the same way that England is with the English or France with the French, that Turks and other Mahommedans in Palestine will be regarded as foreigners, just in the same way as Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine.” He then added most presciently: “Perhaps also citizenship must be granted only as a result of a religious test.”