Tony Greenstein | 03 July 2020 | Post Views:

A Tribute to Ze’ev Sternhell – A Child Survivor of the Holocaust – who Warned of the Danger of Fascism in Israel ‘akin to early Nazism’

In Starmer’s Crazy Labour Party even a Holocaust Survivor would be expelled for ‘anti-Semitism’

Ze’ev Sternhell, who died on June 21 was 85. He was one of that rare species – a genuine intellectual who was also a Zionist. Perhaps that was because his roots lay in Europe. He was also a rare example of a Zionist who wasn’t a racist.

Sternhell was a child survivor of the Przemysl ghetto. He was smuggled out of the ghetto by his aunt, uncle and Polish non-Jews to Lwow. He was brought up as a Catholic in Krakow and in 1946 he emigrated to France and in 1951 to Israel.

Sternhell speaking at a protest meeting

Quoting Kant and Rousseau that human will is the source of morality, he argued in “The Founding Myths of Israel [TFMI] that

‘a state cannot be liberal as long as religion plays a major role in governing society and politics, or as long as the state is defined as the operative arm of the nation.’

This principle was established with the French and American Revolutions of the 18th century. It is a principle that Israel, as the nation state of the Jews rejects in favour of ethno-nationalism. It is the reason why, fascists, racists and even neo-Nazis the world over admire Israel as their model. People such as Richard Spencer, Donald Trump, Tommy Robinson and Viktor Orban call themselves Zionists.

Sternhell saw that an important component of fascism is its interpretation of history. Jewish and Zionist history were being interpreted ‘as a process of ethnic determinism’ in which different groups are seen as inherently inferior.

Yet the paradox was that despite being a representative of that declining section of Israeli Jews who wanted to see an Israel freed of racism and chauvinism, Sternhell was a Zionist. Indeed he was a ‘Super Zionist.’ telling Ha’aretz:

“The establishment of the state was like the creation of the world for me. It transported me to a kind of rapture. I am not only a Zionist, I am a super-Zionist. For me, Zionism was and remains the right of the Jews to control their fate and their future. I consider the right of human beings to be their own masters a natural right. A right of which the Jews were deprived by history and which Zionism restored to them. That is its deep meaning.”

Sternhell speaking at a protest meeting

Unfortunately this was not true. Zionism could only succeed in conquering the country at the expense of the Palestinians. They became the masters over the Palestinians.There was no other way. Sternhell was incapable of seeing that his liberation was at the expense of the Palestinians. Nor is it true that Zionism was about the right of the Jews to control their fate. Even in Israel the democratic rights of Jews are growing narrower, just as they did in South Africa.

I first came across Ze’ev Sternhell when I read “The Founding Myths of Israel where he comprehensively showed that the Israeli Labor Movement, which charlatans in the British Labour Party held up to be a model of socialism, was nothing of the sort. The Israeli Labor Party (Mapai) and its ‘trade union’ wing, were staffed by unelected functionaries. It was wholly undemocratic, its officials not being elected and was riddled with corruption. From the very beginning Mapai was anti-socialist.

What was called ‘constructive socialism was merely an Eretz Israeli version of nationalist socialism.’ Sternhell explains that he used the term ‘nationalist socialism’ because national socialism ‘has been contaminated by its association with the Nazis.’ (pp. 6-7) He described the founders of Labour Zionism as ‘first and foremost nationalists. Some were purely nationalist and violently anti-socialist.’ (p.18)

Despite his withering criticism of Israeli society, Sternhell like many others in the Israeli Peace Camp such as Uri Avnery and Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Sternhell believed that Israeli society had been corrupted by the 1967 War. He accepted the expulsion of the refugees in 1948 but saw the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza as an expression of imperial expansion. There was no moral basis to it.

“Whereas the conquests of 1949 were an essential condition for the founding of Israel, the attempt to retain the conquests of 1967 had a strong flavor of imperial expansion,” he wrote. (p. 336, FMOI)

He tried his hand at politics when in 1977 he set up a group (Circle 77) aimed at persuading the Israeli Labor Party to renounce settlement of the West Bank.

“We thought about bringing everything back and achieving the end of the conflict [with the Arabs] based on the 1967 borders. We very quickly understood that it was impossible to speak with [party leaders] Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres or Motta Gur about giving back territory,” he said.

Protesting outside Sternhell’s home against the bomb that was intended to kill him

His award of the Israel prize in 2008 had led the settlers to try and block it in the High Court. A similar award to Leibowitz had triggered a similar reaction, led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, such that he was forced to decline it. In 2008 a religious settler from Florida, Jack Teitel, planted a bomb at Sternhell’s home which caused a minor injury. Sternhell called the religious Zionists who spearheaded the settlements a ‘cancer’.

Arthur Hertzberg wrote in a review of TFMI that Sternhell had written that ‘Israel must give up its commitments to Zionism, to being a ”Jewish state,” and become the state of all its citizens. This is to be achieved by abolishing every trace of special status for Jews and their religious and cultural heritage.’

Having read the book I cannot find any such passage disowning Zionism. This is the standard reaction of Zionists for whom any criticism of Zionist racism or chauvinism is an attack on Zionism itself. Hertzberg was actually right but he failed to understand that Sternhell, like many people, could hold two contradictory ideas in his head. In actualité Sternhell remained a Zionist who detested the way it had developed. Such contradictions are becoming rarer today.

Sternhell was a world authority on fascism and he warned that this was the direction that Israel was taking. In Israel, Growing Fascism and a Racism Akin to Early NazismSternhell wrote that

‘The left is no longer capable of overcoming the toxic ultra-nationalism that has evolved here, the kind whose European strain almost wiped out a majority of the Jewish people.’

Sternhell was a columnist for Ha’aretz for 50 years, Describing interviews with Smotrich and Zohar, two members of the Knesset he wrote that ‘we see not just a growing Israeli fascism but racism akin to Nazism in its early stages.’

Like every ideology, the Nazi race theory developed over the years. At first it only deprived Jews of their civil and human rights. It’s possible that without World War II the “Jewish problem” would have ended only with the “voluntary” expulsion of Jews from Reich lands. After all, most of Austria and Germany’s Jews made it out in time. It’s possible that this is the future facing Palestinians.

Of course in Britain under the IHRA misdefinition of anti-Semitism that anti-Semites love so much, ‘drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis’ is termed ‘anti-Semitic’. Unfortunately the Labour Party bought into this nonsense that has been purveyed by police state functionaries like Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian. Chakrabarti wrote a report that said:

it is always incendiary to compare the actions of Jewish people… to those of Hitler or the Nazis or to the perpetration of the Holocaust.’ [The Shami Chakrabarti Inquiry].

Sternhell saw that the role of an intellectual in society ‘is to criticize the regime and point out societal flaws,” This did not make him very popular in Israel where telling the truth can be a crime. Much like the Labour Party under Starmer!

The tragedy of Sternhell is that he could not escape from the confines of Israeli society and Zionism even though he railed against its racism and chauvinism. Sternhell did not see that the drift to extreme racism and fascism was a consequence of setting up a Jewish settler colonial society in someone else’s country. In an interview Sternhell gave with Ari Shavit in Haaretz in 2008 he said:

I did not come to Israel to live in a binational state,” he said. “If I had wanted to live as a minority, I could have chosen places in which it is both more pleasant and safer to live as a minority. But neither did I come to Israel to be a colonial ruler. In my eyes, nationalism that is not universalist, nationalism that does not respect the national rights of others, is a dangerous nationalism.

Unfortunately the mindset which sees a society as comprising ethnic majorities and minorities is accepting the framework of ethnic exclusivism. It is but a short step to racism.

Nationalism by definition, even of the most progressive kind, is not universal. By saying he did not want to live in a binational state Sternhell was saying that he wanted a Jewish state with a permanent Jewish majority.

This inevitably breeds a racist mindset since the State will take steps to ensure that the minority is kept as small as possible and as marginal as possible. What he couldn’t face up was the contradiction in his ideas. He saw where Israel was heading but he was unable to grapple with the contradictions of being anti-racist and a Zionist.

Ha’aretz described fascism as a problem of culture, having ‘a coherent and significant ideology’ that looked for answers ‘that neither capitalist liberalism nor revolutionary socialism had managed to deal with.’ I haven’t read his writings on fascism but I suspect that we would have had much to disagree about! Fascism is noticeable for not having a coherent ideology unlike Marxism.

Nonetheless Ze’ev Sternhell was a sincere opponent of the drift to the open far Right in Israel today and he wasn’t afraid to make comparisons between Israel and the early stages of Nazi Germany.


Zeev Sternhell, ‘Super Zionist’ Wary of Extremism, Dies at 85
Zeev Sternhell, Leading Voice of Israeli Left and Renowned Political Scientist, Dies at 85
Prof. Zeev Sternhell, political scientist and left-wing intellectual, dies at 85
Remembering Zeev Sternhell, Fighter Against Fascism – Wherever He Found It

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Tony Greenstein

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