Common Grounds

Zionism’s ideological shifts

January 09, 2024

Source: Dawn


By Tariq Suleman

Published January 6, 2024


THE overwhelming Israeli response to the actions of Hamas on October 7 has sparked a global outcry, critical of the disproportionality of these measures. This response, while reflective of a widespread humanitarian concern, warrants a deeper examination within the historical and ideological frameworks of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly through the lens of early Zionist thought.

Zionism’s ideological shifts

This approach not only sheds light on the current situation but also provides an opportunity to re-examine the underlying factors that continue to shape this conflict.



"Israel, established with settler-colonial roots, faces a critical juncture where its prolonged occupation of Palestine is neither sustainable nor tenable."



Within this context, recent discussions suggest that Israel might be using these events as a pretext to further its long-held objective of a sparsely populated Palestinian territory. Importantly, the desire for a largely uninhabited Palestine has been a subject of debate within various Zionist ideologies.


The Gaza conflict necessitates an understanding of Zionism’s ideological and strategic shifts. Key Zionist figures like Ahad Ha’am, advocating cultural Zionism and coexistence, and Ze’ev Jabotinsky, championing strong military defence, provide crucial context.

These diverse viewpoints illuminate the strategies and policies of Israel’s contemporary governance, especially under Net­anyahu’s government, which pursues a strategy of “total victory” against Hamas, reflecting aspects of Zionism’s early principles. Understanding these historical influences is vital for comprehending the complexities of the ongoing conflict.


Zionism, as a movement, encompassed diverse views on Palestine and its inhabitants. Contrary to the popular Zionist slogan “for a people without a land, a land without a people”, not all within the movement agreed with this sentiment. Ahad Ha’am, in his 1891 essay ‘Truth from Eretz Yisrael’, recognised Palestine’s existing Arab population, critiquing early Zionist settlers for overlooking this fact and cautioning that such disregard could lead to future conflicts.


Advocating for an ethical Zionism, Ahad Ha’am prioritised coexistence and cultural revival over political control, acknowledging the challenges of establishing a Jewish homeland in an already inhabited region. His work diverged from the then-dominant narrative of an uninhabited Palestine.


Israel’s prolonged occupation of Palestine is neither sustainable nor tenable.


By critiquing political Zionism’s focus on settling Jews at the expense of moral considerations, Ahad Ha’am envisioned the Jewish return to Palestine as a chance for cultural and spiritual rejuvenation rather than political dominance or displacement of Arabs.


His influential essay challenged early Zionism’s core assumptions, advocating for a re-evaluation of its goals and methods. Ahad Ha’am’s insights continue to resonate in contemporary discussions about Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian relations, and the broader quest for peace in the Middle East.


Ze’ev Jabotinsky, representing the Revisionist strand of Zionism, acknowledged the Arab resistance to Jewish settlement. In his 1923 essay ‘The Iron Wall: We and the Arabs’, Jabotinsky argued for a more assertive and militant approach to establishing Jewish settlement in Palestine, anticipating resistance from the Arab population.


His central thesis revolved around the belief that peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Palestine was unattainable at that time, primarily due to the Arabs’ fundamental opposition to the Zionist project. He perceived the Arab resistance to the establishment of a Jewish state on their land as a natural and inherent reaction.


Jabotinsky advocated for an “iron wall” of Jewish military strength as a defence against Arab resistance, believing that Arab realisation of their opposition’s futility would lead to acceptance of a Jewish presence and possibly, peaceful coexistence. This view, underscoring the inevitability of Arab resistance and the necessity for a strong defence to establish a Jewish state, left room for future negotiations but only from a position of Jewish dominance.


His doctrine, advocating pea­c­eful coexistence based on mutual recognition of strength, was controversial: seen as pragmatic for Israel’s security by supporters but criticised for promoting militarism by detractors. ‘The Iron Wall’ has profoundly influenced Israeli policy, es­­p­­­­­­­­ecially among right-leaning Israeli governments.


In Israel, Mapai and Labour parties historically favoured a cultural and coexistence-driven Zionism, diverging from Ahad Ha’am’s vision, whereas Likud, grounded in Revisionist Zionism and Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s ideology, offers a stark contrast. The ascendancy of Likud in 1977 highlighted a significant shift towards Revisionist Zionism, characterised by the leadership of former paramilitary leaders Menachem Begin (Irgun) and Yitzhak Shamir (Lehi), both of whom became influential prime ministers.


The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, shaped by various factors including the foundational ideologies of Zionist leaders, has shown the limitations of Israel’s strategies over the decades. Israel has neither achieved a decisive victory over the Palestinians nor pursued negotiations with the commitment needed for peaceful coexistence.


This reality stands in sharp contrast to the era when Israel’s statehood was an unrealised dream, and debates among Zionists were both realistic and thought-provoking.


Today, the state of Israel faces actions that starkly contrast with the moral imperatives that drove the Zionist movement’s initial quest for a Jewish homeland, actions which are not only outrageous but also question the very ethics at the heart of Israel’s creation. In light of the significant historical developments since Israel’s formation, it is imperative for Israeli policy towards Palestine to adapt.


Israel, established with settler-colonial roots, faces a critical juncture where its prolonged occupation of Palestine is neither sustainable nor tenable. The situation necessitates a significant policy shift that addresses the conflict’s multifaceted nature. A strategic reorientation towards long-term stability requires Israel to recognise the necessity of Palestinian acceptance and coexistence. For a viable and peaceful future, mutual recognition and respect between Israelis and Palestinians are essential.


Acknowledging historical precedents, such as the violent actions of Zionist paramilitary groups like Irgun and Lehi, and understanding their parallels with Hamas, which also resorted to violence in its pursuit of statehood, is crucial. Such an acknowledgment could pave the way for a more reconciliatory approach, moving beyond cycles of violence towards a framework of lasting peace.


The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University and is associated with Bloomsbury Pakistan.


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