Dear Simon Schama, you need a history lesson on Zionism

Dear Simon Schama, you need a history lesson on Zionism November 8, 2017

Dear Professor Schama

I’ve just read your letter to The Times this week about Zionism and antisemitism in the Labour Party, co-signed by your fellow historian Simon Sebag Montefiore and novelist Howard Jacobson. As you’re the senior academic, I’m addressing my concerns to you, although I’m slightly embarrassed at having to offer someone of your reputation a history lesson.

While I’m sympathetic to some of your points over the language and tone of the Israel/Palestine debate in some parts of the British left, overall your letter only adds to the lock down of freedom of speech on Israel by attempting to make criticism of Zionism toxic by association. That doesn’t feel like a good position for you to take as a public intellectual.

Your letter makes questioning either the theory or outcomes of Zionism politically, socially and morally unacceptable. In my view, that does little to help our understanding of Zionism, modern Jewish history, or traditional rabbinic Judaism. And, like others before you, you are muddying the meaning of antisemitism.

“Troubled” and “Alarmed”

You say you are “troubled” and “alarmed” by how constructive criticism of Israel has “morphed” into something closer to antisemitism under the cloak of “so called anti-Zionism”. While I too would condemn anti-Zionist criticism that employs theories of Jewish conspiracies and control of the media (wrong and far too simplistic), you take things a step further by accusing anti-Zionists of making “false equations” of Zionism with “colonialism and imperialism” and “fictitious parallels with genocide and Nazism”.

I agree that making parallels between the treatment of Palestinians by Israel and the Nazi genocide of the Jews of Europe is bad history and bad judgement. And anyway, referencing Nazis is nearly always counter productive to the cause of Palestinian solidarity. It results in a row about antisemitism rather than a debate about Palestinian rights.

However, I only wish that the sensitivity around the use of Holocaust era language like “ghettos”, “concentration camps” and “racism” was matched by a concern about the very real historic and contemporary injustices committed against the Palestinian people. Saying Gaza is a “concentration camp” should not be as offensive as the health crisis facing 1.8 million Palestinians today because of the Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The crimes against the Palestinians should not have to match the Holocaust before we can express our horror or outrage. The fact that opposition to Israel is so muted from politicians around the world may account for why some people reach for inappropriate language in the hope of cutting through and being heard. It’s worth understanding this phenomenon in more detail before dismissing it as mere antisemitism.


But it’s your denial of any connection between colonialism and Zionism that makes me seriously question your historical understanding.

I can agree with your definition that Zionism is: “the right of the Jewish people to a homeland, and the very existence of a Jewish state”, but that’s hardly the whole story. Yes, Zionism was a response to European antisemitism through the re-invention of Jewish nationalism, but you can’t leave it at that.

We both know that Zionism was not the classical 19th century act of a European power to extend its territorial influence and exploit the resources of indigenous peoples. That doesn’t mean Zionism wasn’t a colonial project.

If you take another look at Chaim Weizmann’s autobiography ‘Trial and Error’ you’ll be reminded that the early Zionists were perfectly comfortable with the language of colonialism and shared a European view of the superiority of ‘Western Civilisation’ and its right to impose its values on the ‘backward’ dark skinned natives of the Middle East.

Writing to CP Scott, the Editor of the Manchester Guardian, in 1914, Weizmann said that through mass settlement, perhaps of a million Jews over 20-30 years:

“…they [the Zionist settlers] would develop the country, bring back civilisation to it and form a very effective guard for the Suez canal.”

Balfour version 1

And then take a look at the first draft, quoted in Weizmann’s autobiography, of what would become (the considerably watered down) Balfour Declaration in November 1917.

This first version, intended as the official statement to be issued by the British government, was submitted by the Zionist Organisation in Britain to the British Foreign Office in the summer of 1917. This is what the Zionist leadership wanted the British Empire to sign up to and it shows clearly the settler colonialist mindset of Weizmann and his colleagues.

His Majesty’s Government, after considering the aims of the Zionist Organisation, accept the principle of recognising Palestine as the National Home of the Jewish people and the right of the Jewish people to build up its national life in Palestine under a protection to be established at the conclusion of peace, following the successful issue of the war.
His Majesty’s government regard as essential for the realisation of this principle the grant of internal autonomy to the Jewish nationality in Palestine, freedom of immigration for Jews, and the establishment of a Jewish National Colonising Corporation for the re-establishment and economic development of the country.
The conditions and forms of the internal autonomy and a Charter for the Jewish National Colonising Corporation should, in the view of His Majesty’s government, be elaborated in detail and determined with the representatives of the Zionist Organisation.

In other words, the Zionist movement was asking for British Imperial protection, without interference, while it set out on its state building project to create a ‘National Home’. It’s worth noting that there’s no mention whatsoever of the ‘non Jewish communities’ in Palestine or their protection. That wording didn’t come in until the last minute and certainly not from the Zionists.

Professor Schama, why can’t you accept that despite the fact that there had always been a small minority of Jews living in Palestine for 2,000 years, Zionism was clearly going to be a European settler colonial project with imperial backing?


Your letter then plays the ‘conflation card’ attempting, like many Zionists before you, to blur all distinctions between Judaism and Zionism.

“Zionism — the longing of a dispersed people to return home — has been a constant, cherished part of Jewish life since AD70. In its modern form Zionism was a response to the centuries of persecution, expulsions and mass murder in Christian and Muslim worlds that continued from the Middle Ages to the mid-20th century. Its revival was an assertion of the right to exist in the face of cruelty unique in history.”

This telling of Jewish history fails to explain why Zionism in 1917 was far from being a mainstream Jewish position; why most Rabbis vehemently opposed it; and why this movement for Jewish ‘return’ on a grand scale was a radical shift in Jewish thinking and history compared to the previous 1800 years.

Professor, this is where you are guilty of “morphing” ideas too. In this case you morph Zionism into Judaism as a tactic to make Zionism critically untouchable. It’s a sleight of hand that you should be revealing through your professional expertise rather than colluding with.

Dancing in Whitechapel

In your Balfour essay for the Financial Times last weekend, you recount how your 16 year old father witnessed “singing and dancing from Whitechapel to Mile End” as the Balfour Declaration became public. But you fail to convey the true diversity of Jewish political thinking at the time nor the almost universal rejection of Zionism across the religious spectrum.

Zionism in 1917 was far from being a done deal for London’s impoverished Jews and Zionism was not the only political dance in town.

I’m sure you know that the East End of London contained Socialists, Anarchists and Bundists, as well as Zionists, all wrestling with how to respond to the challenges of being Jewish in the early years of the 20th century.

As for the Rabbis, the Orthodox rejected Zionism not just because of the socialist secular outlook of most Zionist followers but more importantly because they saw it as a heresy. Only God would decide when and how the Jewish Exile would end. And furthermore, that Exile was as much a question of spiritual distance from the Almighty as it was physical distance from the Land of Israel. I find it hard to believe that you are not familiar with all of this.

Liberal Zionism

You finish your letter with a typical liberal Zionist sentiment that attempts to display even handedness but in the end you once again show a lack of historical understanding.

“We do not forget nor deny that the Palestinian people have an equally legitimate, ancient history and culture in Palestine nor that they have suffered wrongs that must be healed.”

If you really thought this you would not express your opposition to anti-Zionism with such utter condemnation. If you truly recognise the equal Palestinian claim to the land you must also understand why they, and their advocates around the world, cannot count themselves as Zionists. How could the project of Jewish national return with Jewish majority control of the land ever have been achieved without the displacement of the majority people already living there? Zionism was always going to turn out badly for the Palestinians.

You admit to “wrongs that must be healed” but who should do the healing? Zionism and its supporters need to acknowledge responsibility and provide recompense if healing and reconciliation are to stand any chance of success.

You say “we do not attempt to minimalise their suffering nor the part played by the State of Israel” but the 1948 Nakba was Zionism in action just as the expansion of the Settlements and the operation of Apartheid on the West Bank are also the practical workings out of Zionism today. This is what national self-determination for the Jewish people has turned out to mean in practice, however worthy the theory was meant to be.

You finish by saying that: “We believe that anti-Zionism, with its antisemitic characteristics, has no place in a civil society.”

Professor, to oppose Zionism in the past or today is a perfectly valid and ethical intellectual position to hold whether you are Palestinian, Jewish or a member of the Labour Party. Saying it has no place in civil society does you no credit and displays a lack of intellectual honesty.

There are other ways to define Jewish self-determination that do not undermine the rights of another people. There are other ways to achieve Jewish security that do not involve creating a heavily armed Jewish Sparta in the Middle East. There are other Jewish options that need exploring 100 years after Balfour.

Your sincerely,

Robert Cohen

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