As the Israeli army continues its assault against Gaza, with more than 8,000 civilians already killed by bombs, many Western governments have declared their unlimited support for these war crimes. They charge all critics of Israel with antisemitism — ultimately, they argue, only the State of Israel offers protection for Jews after centuries of discrimination, pogroms, and genocide. A central claim of Zionism, going all the way back to its founder Theodor Herzl, has been that only a Jewish state can offer safety to a downtrodden people.
Recent events, however, cast doubt on this. Israel has just seen the largest massacre of Jews in many decades. Even before the Hamas assault on October 7, Israel was the site of an ongoing massacre — over 200 Palestininas were killed in the first nine months of this year. Now, thousands of Palestinian civilians are being slaughtered.
If Israel is supposed to offer “safety,” it’s a safety based on bomb shelters, nuclear weapons, and endless billions from U.S. imperialism. It’s also a “safety” of three years of obligatory military service, in which many young people are trained to be occupation soldiers. Is this the best future the Jewish people can hope for?
Zionists and Antisemites
Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu keeps a portrait and a bust of Winston Churchill in his office. Churchill happens to be well known for his hatred of Jews. In one famous essay in 1920, Churchill warned against “international Jews” spreading revolution, while praising General Anton Denikin, a counterrevolutionary general who spilled oceans of Jewish blood during Russia’s civil war. This is no oversight on Netanyahu’s part: he has always been friendly toward antisemites like Viktor Orbán, Donald Trump, and most recently, Elon Musk.
From its origins, the Zionist movement sought to collaborate with antisemites. Theodor Herzl met with Vyacheslav von Plehve, the interior minister of Tsarist Russia who organized terrible anti-Jewish pogroms, with a simple proposal: They had a common interest in getting Jews to leave Russia. Similar pitches were offered to the German Kaiser and even the Nazis. In the 1930s, when Jews around the world were organizing a boycott against the Nazi government, the Zionists signed an agreement that provided much needed foreign currency to the Third Reich.
While the founding of Israel is often presented as a consequence of the Holocaust, the Zionists themselves made clear that they did nothing to fight the rise of fascism. David Ben-Gurion said in 1938 that he opposed the evacuation of Jewish children from Nazi Germany: “if I knew that it was possible to save all the children in Germany by transporting them to England, but only half by transporting them to Palestine, I would choose the second.” Ben-Gurion’s biography is titled A State at Any Cost — since the Zionist project was about building such a state, not about helping refugees flee.
Today, Zionist statesmen continue to find reasons to back antisemites. Israel not only offered support to Hamas in the late 1980s, as a way to weaken leftist and secular forces in the Palestinian national liberation movement. As recently as 2019, Netanyahu was emphasizing the importance of backing Hamas: “Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas,” the prime minister said at a 2019 meeting of his Likud party. “This is part of our strategy — to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.”
Zionism has no ideological legitimacy without antisemitism. As Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir said in the 1970: “too much anti-Semitism is not good because it leads to genocide; no anti-Semitism at all is also not good because then there would be no immigration [to Israel]. What we need is a moderate anti-Semitism.”1Quoted in: MIchael Warschawski, On the Border (London: Pluto Press, 2005), 154.
Zionists and Imperialists
From the days of Herzl, it was obvious that the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine would only be possible with the support of the imperialist powers, and particularly that of the British Empire. Britain’s goal was never to help the Jews, but rather to cement its own influence in a geopolitically important region, at a lower cost than occupying the area themselves.
In the words of a British colonial governor in Jerusalem, the goal was a “little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of hostile Arabism.” Just as the British had placed Protestant settlers in the north of Ireland, as a loyal colony in the midst of a hostile population, they allowed Zionist settlers into Palestine. These Jewish colonists would be trapped in external hostility to their neighbors — and thus be eternally dependent on imperialist sponsors.
In other words, the imperialist powers had no interest in protecting Jewish life. Quite the opposite: They wanted Jewish cannon fodder.
After 1956, U.S. imperialism took over from its British competitor as the main sponsor of the State of Israel. Since 1949, the U.S. has provided over $260 billion to pay for high-tech weapons and settlements. This is not because of some all-powerful “Jewish Lobby” in Washington. Rather, the State of Israel continues to serve imperialist interests in the region.
Zionist colonialism represents a danger to Jewish life, as it pits Israelis against their Palestinian neighbors, while conscripting Jews from around the world to fight in the service of a brutal nationalist project. It puts some 7 million Jews into a state of constant conflict with over 400 million Arabs in the region.
Anti-Zionist Jews, both before and after the creation of the state of Israel, realized that for Jewish life in the region to have any kind of future, there must be an end to permanent war, occupation, and Apartheid. Otherwise, Israelis will sooner or later face the fate of the pieds-noirs, the French settlers in Algeria, forced to emigrate after independence. The important difference is that in contrast to other settlers, many Jewish Israelis have no home country to return to.
The Netanyahu government and its imperialist backers do not want peace. They are willing to sacrifice Jewish life — and more importantly, to brutalize millions of Jews by drafting them into an occupation army — in order to ensure that imperialism can continue exploiting the peoples and the riches of the Middle East.
Zionists and Trotskyists
If the Zionists refused to organize the Jewish fight against Nazism, who took up this task? The answer, above all, is the Trotskyists. All over the world in the 1930s and 1940s, the Fourth International was mobilizing workers’ against fascism, and demanding that all borders be opened to refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe. Zionists explicitly refused to do anything but send carefully -selected colonists to Palestine. This is why many young Zionists in the 1930s joined the Trotskyist movement.
The most famous of them was Abraham Leon, who had been the head of the Zionist student federation in Belgium. While writing a materialist study of Jewish history, he came to understand that antisemitism is a product of class society, and that capitalism’s decline was responsible for the Nazis’ desire to exterminate all Jews. “An evil cannot be suppressed without destroying its causes.” Leon wrote. “But Zionism wishes to resolve the Jewish question without destroying capitalism, which is the principal source of the suffering of the Jews.”
As a result, Leon joined the Trotskyist underground, organizing working-class resistance to the German occupation. His comrades went as far as doing fraternization work with German occupation soldiers — who were themselves often just sons of the working class forced to fight in a war that was not in their interest. Leon was arrested and murdered by the Nazis in 1944, at just 26 years old.
In her new book, Doppelganger, the Canadian intellectual Naomi Klein quotes Leon’s work as “particularly relevant to our historical moment,” because he showed that class solidarity between workers, across ethnic lines, was the primary competition and threat to the Nazi project.”2Naomi Klein, Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023. As wonderful as it is to have a left-wing celebrity like Klein recommending a Trotskyist book — The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation —, the conclusions she draws from it are rather flat, saying that Leon’s legacy shows that “words and analysis and research mattered, that they still had the power to break an evil spell.” But Leon’s work was not just about ideas — it was about building a material force, the Fourth International, in order to transform revolutionary ideas into mass actions.
Capitalism cannot exist without antisemitism — capital needs scapegoats for all the misery it causes. That is why no “Jewish homeland” can ever eliminate antisemitism at its roots. Now, the State of Israel is carrying out war crimes in the name of “the Jewish people,” and thus creating new antisemitism around the world.
As socialists, we fight against antisemitism by opposing a myth shared by Zionists and antisemites alike, namely that the capitalist State of Israel represents all Jews in the world. Quite the opposite: Many Jewish activists around the world are protesting against the massacres in Gaza, with great courage and internationalist spirit.
These solidarity protests around the world show a glimmer of how we can build a world without antisemitism, and without oppression or prejudice of any kind. We see Jewish people mobilizing shoulder to shoulder with Palestinians and people of all nationalities — they are united by an opposition to mass murder, militarism, and imperialism. No one who marches alongside Jewish demonstrators believes they are part of a sinister cabal ruling the world.
Throughout history, the strongest weapon against antisemitism has always been a strong working-class movement uniting working people of all backgrounds in the struggle against capitalism. Real safety for Jewish people — and for all people — will be created once we’ve smashed the capitalist states that keep us divided.