Our Roots Are Still Alive - Chapter 2

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    This land (Russia) where we have been living for many hundreds of years and to which we are bound by thousands of threads - this land is our home.
    - Jewish Workers Organization (Bund) in Russia

Jewish settlers came to Palestine under the banner of a movement called Zionism. In the Zionist view, the history of Palestine ended with the Roman conquest of the Jewish Kingdom in 70 A.D. The intervening two thousand years of Palestinian history were brushed aside by the new immigrants, eager to colonize the region. In the eyes of Zionists, Palestine was waiting for its rightful owners - the Jewish people - to return.1

The First Zionist Congress founded the World Zionist Organization at Basle, Switzerland, in 1897. The Congress proclaimed: "The aim of Zionism is to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law." The word "home" was a diplomatic way to say "state," as Theodore Herzl, the first president of the World Zionist Organization, confided in his diary. "No need to worry," Herzl wrote, "the people will read it as Jewish State."2 Zionists adopted Herzl's book, The Jewish State, as the unofficial manifesto of their movement.

The Czar Orders Pogroms

The Zionist movement to build a Jewish state in Palestine was born in response to the vicious attacks on Jews that were sweeping Russia. Economic crisis plagued the decaying feudal system of Russia in the late 1800s. The increasing misery of the Russian people led to acts of rebellion against the Czar, or king, of Russia. He organized and encouraged pogroms - mass attacks on Jews - to divert his starving subjects' anger away from the real source of their problems: his rule. The Czar's agents exploited the racism and Jew-hating that had smoldered in Christian Europe and Russia for centuries, and had flared up into anti-Semitic movements in times of crisis. Czarist newspapers and secret police provoked the desperate, landless peasants to attack the equally-starving Jews.

The pogroms forced many Jews to leave Russia. Societies known as "Lovers of Zion," which were forerunners of the Zionist organization, convinced some of the frightened emigrants to go to Palestine. There, they argued, Jews would rebuild the ancient Jewish "Kingdom of David and Solomon." Most Russian Jews ignored their appeal and fled to Europe and the United States. By 1900, almost a million Jews had settled in the United States alone.

In that same year, a new round of economic disasters struck Russia. Between 1901 and 1903, three thousand businesses shut down. Over a hundred thousand workers were thrown out into the streets, jobless and hungry. Wages were cut sharply. In the large cities, strikers confronted the police. In the countryside, the Czar's troops shot peasants who were demanding land.

By 1903, a growing revolutionary movement threatened the Czar's throne with demands for a democratic government. Czar Nicholas III and his Interior Minister, Wenzel Von Plehve, desperately ordered a new wave of pogroms. On April 6, 1903, Czarist police stood by with folded arms while a mob attacked Jewish homes and stores in the town of Kishinev. The mob was inflamed by articles in the province's only newspaper, which was funded by Von Plehve. In two days of rioting, forty-six Jews were killed and eighty-six were left wounded or crippled. Eyewitnesses told of Jews being torn in two and babies beaten to death on the street.3 The news of Kishinev rallied people to protest across Europe and in America. Large demonstrations were held in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

In the Jewish ghettos of Russia, members of the newly founded Zionist Organization clashed with organizers of Russia's growing revolutionary movement over the best way to put an end to the pogroms. Zionists controlled the only legal newspaper in Yiddish - the language which most Russian and Eastern European Jews spoke. All other Yiddish publications were banned. Interior Minister Von Plehve had given his blessing to the Zionist paper earlier in 1903. For despite their differences, Zionists and the Czar's government shared one basic assumption: both believed Jews did not belong in Russia. The paper portrayed Jews as eternal "aliens" in Russia and concluded: "Only one ray of light remains in Jewish life. That is Zionism which calls people to their old home."4

Russian workers demanding jobs confront the Czar

Revolutionary organizers attacked the Zionist viewpoint in illegal newspapers, smuggled into shops or passed secretly in the crowded streets of the ghetto. The Bund, an all-Jewish socialist organization, vigorously protested Zionism's fundamental idea of Jews as "alien." The Bund's newspaper argued:

    [O]ur ancestors came as peaceful dwellers, and in the course of a thousand years, together with the surrounding population, aided in the cultural development of the land, watering it with their sweat, soaking it with their blood, and covering it with their bones... The land where we have been living for many hundreds of years and to which we are bound by thousands of threads, this land is our home.5

The Bund's Fifth Congress called for a revolutionary solution to anti-Semitism. "Only the common struggle of the proletariat [working class] of all nationalities will destroy those conditions that give rise to such events as the pogrom at Kishinev."6 All revolutionary parties insisted that only social revolution could put an end to the conditions which fostered anti-Semitism and all forms of racism. V.I. Lenin, the head of the Bolshevik Party, organized against anti-Semitism, pointing out the hand of the Czar in the rioting:

    The Czarist police, in alliance with the landowners and the capitalists, organized pogroms against the Jews. The landowners and capitalists tried to divert the hatred of the workers and peasants who were tortured by want against the Jews... It is not the Jews who are the enemies of the working people. The enemies of the workers are the capitalists of all countries7
Russian Jews in Pinsk organized for self-defense against pogroms.

Revolutionary groups won over an increasing number of Russian Jews. In 1903, Chaim Weizmann, a Russian Zionist, sent a report to Theodore Herzl:

    The Zionist movement failed here since it did not succeed in attracting the best of Jewish youth. The lion's share of youth is anti-Zionist, not from an assimilationist point of view as in Western Europe, but rather as a result of their revolutionary mood... Almost the entire Jewish student body stands firmly behind the revolutionary camp.8

A month after the Kishinev pogrom, in May of 1903, Theodore Herzl arrived in Russia as a representative of the World Zionist Organization. He came to meet with Interior Minister Von Plehve, the man who engineered the pogroms. Herzl could have condemned Von Plehve for his crimes against Jews, but he did not come to Russia to discuss pogroms. He wanted Von Plehve's help. The Turkish Sultan had slowed down Zionist immigration to Palestine and Herzl believed the Russian Czar could intervene on the Zionists' behalf. If the Czar did intervene, Herzl would return the favor. At the upcoming Zionist Congress, Herzl would cut off any attacks on the Czar. Herzl recorded in his diary:

    For I had understood all along that he [Von Plehve] attached much importance to the forthcoming Zionist Congress, obviously because he saw that the Kishinev business was bound to come up there for a frank airing. When that happens, I could be in the position of doing him a service by cutting the thing short.9

Herzl did as he promised. The Sixth Zionist Congress did not attack anti-Semitism in Russia. Herzl believed that this silence helped the Zionist movement. But it clearly was not in the interests of the besieged Russian Jews. The questions arise: In whose interest was Zionism? Whom did it serve? Although Zionism claimed to be in the interest of poor and working-class Jews, it actually served the needs of middle-class European Jews and the European powers.

Class Base of Zionism

A look at Herzl's own life suggests how Zionism served middle-class Jews. His background was typical of many prosperous Jews in Western Europe at the time. Many held comfortable positions in the professions, trade and finance. They felt assimilated into European society. In the 1880s, economic depression hit all of Europe. The steady stream of penniless Jewish immigrants escaping the Russian pogroms alarmed middle-class Jews. Their security seemed threatened by the new immigrants' poverty, strange accents and distinct customs. Middle-class Jews began to look for their own solution to the problems that anti-Semitism created for them.

Theodore Herzl belonged to this middle class. From his student days, he was aware of the growing anti-Semitism in Austria, where he lived. As a lawyer, before he became a journalist, he had resented being barred as a Jew from the higher positions in the Austrian civil service. But he was not a Jewish activist. He maintained his distance from the plight of Jews until a major Vienna newspaper made him its correspondent in Paris. There he was to become a Zionist.

In January 1895, Herzl began covering the trial of Colonel Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French Army who was charged with spying. The French right wing, in an attempt to wrest control of the army from the liberal forces in the government, launched a vicious campaign against Dreyfus and his liberal defenders. At the heart of the attack was political anti-Semitism - a movement created by the right wing which played upon the anti-Jewish feelings embedded in both organized Christianity and the history of Europe. Pamphleteers portrayed Jews in the government and Jews in general as the source of all social problems, from strikes to treason. In this atmosphere, which Herzl reported on daily, Dreyfus was convicted and stripped of his rank. At the sentencing ceremony the crowd began to shout, "Death to the traitor! Death to the Jew!"

Herzl was shaken by the intensity of this anti-Semitism, and became engrossed in the "Jewish problem." At the same time, an international movement organized to demand the pardon of Dreyfus. Petitions and demonstrations attracted many thousands of people who protested and fought against French anti-Semitism. Finally, Dreyfus was pardoned. But Theodore Herzl never became part of that movement. The Dreyfus trial led him to conclude that anti-Semitism was eternal and could not be eradicated. He wrote:

    In Paris, as I have said, I achieved a freer attitude towards anti-Semitism, which I began to understand historically and to pardon. Above all, I recognized the emptiness and futility of trying to "combat" anti-Semitism.10

Theodore Herzl, founder of Zionism

Herzl argued in his book, The Jewish State, that the solution for Jews was to build a state of their own. He believed Jews were an alien nationality in Europe. The influx of large numbers of Russian and Eastern European Jews could only lead to more intense anti-Semitism. He called on middle-class Jews to join or at least to support the movement to found a Jewish state, which could attract these Jewish immigrants.

Herzl proposed either Palestine or Argentina as a site for a Jewish state, but he was not attached to any particular location. Unlike the Russian "Lovers of Zion," he felt no connection with the Palestinian "homeland." He wrote, "I shall now tell you everything about the 'promised land' except its location."11 Herzl did not believe a state could be built on old religious claims. Neither could small bands of Jewish colonists create a state of their own. He argued that a state had to be built under the wing of one of the powerful European countries. For a European country to support the Jewish state, the state must serve European interests. This insight was Herzl's unique contribution to the Zionist movement he helped to found. Herzl's book had started to persuade middle-class Jews that Zionism could serve them. Now it remained to win over Europe's rulers.

Cecil Rhodes, architect of British colonialism in Africa

"We Must Become Imperialists"

As Herzl wrote his manifesto, the crisis-ridden European powers were in particular need of loyal servants. In the late nineteenth century, ruthless competition between capitalist industries led to the formation of giant monopolies. These new monopolies were being challenged by the millions who worked for them. Bitter, bloody strikes, food riots and even insurrections threatened the life of the capitalist system. In France in 1871, French workers had taken over Paris and established the Paris Commune. This first workers' government wanted to overthrow capitalism and establish socialism. The French Army crushed the fighting Commune in a massive attack, but the ideals of socialism were not so easily crushed.

The socialist movement grew as people endured the crisis of the 1880s. The stark poverty brought on by economic depression exposed the failure of capitalism to meet people's basic needs. Workers knew that the monopolies had gathered under their control the most massive system of production in the history of the world. They could churn out textiles, steel, and other goods in almost endless amounts. And yet when prices dropped, the plants lay idle, producing nothing. People were laid off their jobs and had no money. Desperate and starving, they confronted the monopolies to demand bread and work. Capitalism could not survive these growing challenges without crucial changes. The monopolists needed to expand; they needed markets for their unsold goods, new places to invest their idle capital, and new sources of raw materials and cheap labor. Capitalism was reaching a new and higher state: imperialism. Cecil Rhodes, a British imperial strategist whom Herzl called a "visionary," explained the reasons bluntly:

    I was in the East End of London (a working class quarter) yesterday and attended a meeting of the unemployed. I listened to the wild speeches which were just a cry for "bread, bread!" and on my way home I pondered over the scene and I became more than ever convinced of the importance of imperialism... [I]n order to save the forty million inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced in the factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.12

Rhodes spoke as the age of imperialism was dawning. The European powers were searching for new ways to dominate the nations of the world for the benefit of the monopolies. Theodore Herzl was quick to see that the Zionist colonial project offered one way. He explained to a German statesman how Zionism served two of imperialism's main needs: "My movement can help on two fronts: through draining off the surplus Jewish proletariat [working class] and through harnessing international capital."13

Herzl sought the help of Cecil Rhodes. Herzl himself was a great admirer of Rhodes' activities in Africa. Rhodes had headed a colonial army to conquer southern Africa for the British. British settlers poured into Africa in the wake of Rhodes' army, conquering the Black population and forcing them to work in the mines and plantations that fed raw materials to British factories. A band of settlers marched into Zimbabwe, in the heartland of Africa, and renamed it Rhodesia, in honor of Rhodes. Herzl wrote to Rhodes, asking for his "stamp of approval on the Zionist plan." He appealed to Rhodes on the basis of common interests in colonialism:

    You are being invited to help make history. This cannot frighten you... It is not your accustomed line; it does not involve Africa but a piece of Asia Minor, not Englishmen, but Jews... How then do I happen to turn to you since this is an out-of-the-way matter for you? How indeed? Because it is something colonial.... [emphasis added]14

To Herzl, Rhodesia and the Jewish state were similar settler-colonial projects. He hoped Rhodes would help him secure the necessary imperial backer.

In The Jewish State, Herzl vigorously protested the way earlier Jewish immigration to Palestine had occurred. Without the power of imperialism behind the settlers, these individual efforts - which Herzl called "infiltration" - were doomed to failure:

    An infiltration is bound to end badly. It continues until the inevitable moment when the native population feels itself to be threatened and forces the Government to stop further influx of Jews. Immigration is futile unless based on an assured supremacy.15

"Assured supremacy" meant having a large, well-equipped army to back up colonization.

Soldiers of Rhodes' Chartered South African Company invade Zimbabwe.

The First Zionist Congress charged Herzl with finding an imperial backer. He began a series of trips to the European capitals. He approached the German Kaiser, the Russian Czar and the Pope. He argued that Zionism would rid European society of rebellious Jews and he stressed how a Zionist settler colony would serve the particular needs of whichever ruler he was courting.

The Turkish Sultan, whose weakened empire still formally controlled Palestine, received an offer of help from Herzl. During a visit to Constantinople in 1903, Herzl tried to play on the popular stereotype of Jews as financial wizards. He promised the Turkish ruler, "If His Majesty the Sultan were to give us Palestine, we could in return undertake the complete management of the finances of Turkey."16 In the chambers of the Turkish parliament, Palestinian deputies raised a storm of protest. Other Arab members backed them up. With trouble brewing all over his empire, the Sultan could not openly promise Palestine to the Zionists.

Herzl finally focused on the rising empire of Britain. Herzl understood where Great Britain's interests lay. He wrote:

    England with her possessions in Asia should be most interested in Zionism, for the shortest route to India is by way of Palestine. England's great politicians were the first to recognize the need for colonial expansion. That is why Great Britain's ensign flies on all the oceans. And so I must believe that here in England the idea of Zionism, which is a colonial idea, should be easily and quickly understood in its true and most modern form.17

British imperialism was eager to use Zionism to expand its empire, but Britain didn't control Palestine yet. Instead, British Colonial Minister Joseph Chamberlain searched the lands controlled by Britain for a suitable location for a Zionist colony. He was looking for, in the words of the Zionist slogan, "a land without a people for a people without a land." To Chamberlain, "a land without a people" meant a land without white people. Chamberlain was ready to offer Zionism a colony anywhere "in the English possessions where there were no white people as of yet."18 He finally proposed Uganda, and African country.

Herzl was enthusiastic. He argued at the Seventh Zionist Congress for the colonization of Uganda. Herzl's proposal was defeated at the Congress because Russian Zionists would hear of no other place but Palestine. When Herzl died a year later, Chaim Weizmann, a Russian Zionist, became the new leader. He planned to combine Herzl's quest for an imperial backer with the desire of most Zionist followers to acquire Palestine. Palestine had now become the only target, and the sponsor of the Zionists had to be the power which controlled Palestine.

As a new century dawned, imperial competition among the European countries erupted into World War I. Britain, France and Czarist Russia were at war with Germany. When the Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of Germany, it became clear that the colonies under Turkish control, including Palestine, would be prizes of war. Weizmann knew that Britain wanted control of Palestine. Thus he went to England to campaign for British support for Zionism.


  1. Uri Avnery, Israel Without Zionism (New York: 1971), pp. 92-93.
  2. Alan R. Taylor, Prelude to Israel; An Analysis of Zionist Diplomacy, 1897-1947 (New York: 1959), p. 6.
  3. Howard M. Sachar, The Course of Modern Jewish History (Cleveland: 1958), pp. 246-48.
  4. Henry J. Tobias, The Jewish Bund in Russia (Stanford: 1972), p. 223.
  5. Ibid, p. 253.
  6. Ibid, p. 224.
  7. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works (Moscow: 1962), 29:252-53
  8. Cited by Arie Bober, ed. The Other Israel, (Garden City, NY: 1971), p. 152-53.
  9. The Diaries of Theodore Herzl, edited and translated by Marvin Lowenthal (New York: 1956), p. 390.
  10. The Diaries of Theodore Herzl, (London: 1958), p. 6, cited in The Other Israel, p. 168.
  11. Cited by Jabbour, Settler Colonialism in Southern Africa and the Middle East, p. 25.
  12. Cited by Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (Peking: 1973), p. 94.
  13. Diaries, Lowenthal edition, p. 120.
  14. The Diaries of Theodore Herzl, cited by Jabbour, p. 25.
  15. Theodore Herzl, The Jewish State (New York: 1955), pp. 29-30, cited by Jabbour, p. 25.
  16. Herzl, The Jewish State, cited in Arthur Hertzberg, ed., The Zionist Idea, (New York: 1959), p. 222.
  17. Theodore Herzl, The Complete Diaries (New York: 1960), cited by Abdullah Schleifer, The Fall of Jerusalem (New York: 1972), p. 23.
  18. The Diaries of Theodore Herzl, cited by Eli Lobel, "Palestine and the Jews," in The Arab World and Israel (New York: 1970), p. 115.