h3> Israel: Consequences of ‘Uniqueness’
"If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me."
Shakespeare, Macbeth, I, 3
Why did the creation of Israel engender such deep but opposing emotions in the Islamic world and the West, leading to
Arab wars against Israel and Israeli wars against its Arab neighbors, producing tensions that have poisoned relations
be-tween Islam and the West, and, now, arguably, pushing the United States into a direct occupation of two Islamicate
The Zionists claim that Israel is a ‘normal’ state, like India, Iraq or Indone-sia. They equate their ‘struggle’ to
establish a Jewish state in Palestine with the movements for national liberation in Asia, Africa and elsewhere during
the twentieth century. The hostility of Arab and Islamic peoples to Israel, they claim, is motivated by their
anti-Semitism, a hatred of Jews implanted by Islam itself. In recent years, this hostility has also been explained as
the result of an Arab or Islamic envy of Israeli democracy.
We face a difficult choice here between Israeli and Arab normalcy. If Is-raeli statehood is normal, then it follows that
there is perversity in the Islamic opposition to it. On the other hand, if Israel is not a normal state – like India,
Iraq or Indonesia – then we are justified in investigating this lack of normality, or ‘uniqueness,’ and probing into its
consequences. It may turn out that Islamic hostility to Israel did not proceed from perversity but, instead, is a
legitimate response to the ‘unique’ conditions surrounding Israel’s creation.
This Zionist claim to normalcy – that Israel belongs to the same species of states as India, Iraq or Indonesia – is
based on two superficial similarities. First, Israel was created as an independent state out of Palestine, a British
colony since 1917. Second, after 1945, some of the Jews in Palestine took up arms against the British to force them out
of Palestine. On the basis of these partial truths, the Israelis claim that Zionism was a nationalist movement aimed at
liberating Pal-estine from the British occupiers. Incidentally, the Palestinians are completely missing from this
narrative about Jewish statehood in Palestine.
This claim is not tenable: one intransigent fact militates against it. The Jews who created the state of Israel in
Palestine were not indigenous to Pales-tine. Indeed, more than 90 percent of them were settlers from Europe, having
entered Palestine after its conquest by the British in 1917. In the 1940s, the European Jews had a legitimate claim to
our sympathy, but, as Europeans, they had no legitimate nationalist claim to statehood in Palestine. In other words,
Israel is a ‘unique’ case of nation building.
Sadly, the Jews of Europe could not have staked a nationalist claim to any part of Europe either. They did not
constitute a majority in any of the territories which they shared with other Europeans. This was the unstated problem
the ‘na-tionalist’ Jews confronted in Europe during the 1890s. The oppressed nations in Europe could stake a valid claim
to sovereign statehood. Not so the Jews: they may have been a distinct people, and some of them were still oppressed,
but they were not a nation. In order to become ‘normal’ – that is, in order to transform themselves into a European
nation – the Jews of Europe would first have to cre-ate a Jewish majority in some part of Europe. This path of
‘normalization,’ how-ever, was not open to Europe’s Jews. It would be opposed. Indeed, it would have amounted to
Nevertheless, there would be poetic justice in the creation of a Jewish state in Europe. After all, the Jews were a
European people; the history of their con-tinuous presence in Europe goes back to the time of the ancient Greeks. Since
the Europeans Jews – as minorities – have historically faced persecution, and, under the Nazis, many Europeans
participated in a fiendish attempt to extermi-nate them, one can argue that it was Europe’s moral responsibility to
accommo-date the Jews as a nation inside Europe. The historical wrongs done to a segment of the European population
should have been corrected by Europeans inside the geographical boundaries of Europe. At least, this might have been the
right thing to do. But when has Europe shown magnanimity of this order?
Unable to stake a nationalist claim in Europe, those European Jews who sought ‘normalization’ as a nation had another
idea. After all, this was the nineteenth century, the age of colonization and of settler-colonialism. If the British and
the French could establish settler-colonies in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Algeria, among other places, why
not the Jews of Europe?
In its early stages, during the 1890s and 1900s, when the project to create a Jewish state was being broached in some
Jewish circles of Europe, several loca-tions for this state were considered. Although Palestine was his first choice, at
various times Theodore Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, was willing to settle for Uganda or Madagascar. Earlier,
others had scouted Surinam, Argen-tina, Missouri and New York! However, Palestine won easily. It would appeal to Jewish
emotions associated with religious Zionism, and the Messianic Christians would support the idea of a Jewish return for
their own eschatological reasons.
If political Zionism does not qualify as a movement for national liberation, was it a scheme for establishing a
colonial-settler state similar to those being established or consolidated in the same era? I will argue that it was, but
with two differences that make Israel rather unique among states of this species. Unlike the other colonial-settler
states, Israel was not the creation of another state ethni-cally allied to it. Israel had no mother country. A Jewish
state did not yet exist. Indeed the Zionist movement sought to create such a state; this would be its end point, not its
point of departure. Secondly, there was an important difference in the goals of the colonial-settlers in Africa or
Australia and the political Zionists. The former intended to expropriate the natives so that they could use them as
cheap labor on the lands they would expropriate. In other words, they did not intend to expel the natives from their
colonies. On the other hand, the Zionists intended to expropriate the Palestinians and remove them from Palestine. They
wanted a Palestine without the Palestinians; this was their goal, not the seren-dipitous consequence of their settlement
activity. In its conception, then, Zion-ism was a colonial-settler project with a difference.
This ‘unique’ project had several vital implications. First, in the absence of a Jewish mother country, the Zionists had
to find a surrogate, a Western power that would use its military to implement their colonial-settler project. This would
not be too hard to find. For more than two hundred years several Western pow-ers – in league with Christian messianic
groups – had worked on various schemes to persuade the Jews of Europe to establish a Jewish state in the Le-vant, a
state that would serve as the staging post for their colonial ambitions in that region and farther East. Wisely, the
Jews rejected these overtures, suspect-ing that that they were traps to get them out of Europe and into greater trouble.
However, the emergence of political Zionism in the late nineteenth century turned the tables. Starting in 1897, after
the First Zionist Congress, the Zionists began courting the Powers to take on their cause.
Their efforts were directed primarily at Britain, the greatest colonial power of that era. Success in this venture came
almost exactly twenty years after the First Zionist Congress in the shape of the Balfour Declaration of November 1917.
This document stated that His Majesty’s Government “view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home
for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object…” In fulfillment
of this commitment, the British created the mandate (euphemism for colony) of Palestine. Under the terms of this
mandate, duly approved by the Council of League of Nations in July 1922, the British administration in Palestine would
work with the Zionist Organization to “secure the co-operation of all Jews who are willing to assist in the
establishment of the Jewish national home.” Thanks to British support, the Zionist project was in motion.
The Zionists converted the absence of a Jewish mother country into an ad-vantage. Political Zionism appealed to the West
for at least three reasons: mes-sianic Christians saw the Jewish return as a prelude to the Second Coming; Western
powers were eager to acquire control over the Middle East because of its strategic value; and the West was still
animated by an antipathy to Islam. In September 1922, the US Congress passed a resolution endorsing the Balfour
Declaration. When British support for the creation of a Jewish state wavered in the 1940s – coincidentally, just when
British power was being superseded – the United States stepped into the breach, thanks to Jewish votes, money and
influ-ence in that country. The Western sponsorship of Zionism would evoke histori-cal memories in the Islamic world. In
time, many Muslims would come to see the creation of Israel as the return of the Crusaders, an escalation of Western
Christendom’s campaign to undermine their faith and civilization. This was a dynamic that contained the seeds of a clash
The goal of a Jewish state in Palestine with a Jewish population had an un-avoidable corollary. As the Jews entered
Palestine, the Palestinians would have to be ‘transferred’ out of Palestine. As early as 1895, Theodore Herzl had
fig-ured this out in an entry in his diary: “We shall try to spirit the penniless popula-tion across the border by
procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our own country.” Others took a
more di-rect approach: “As soon as we have a big settlement here we’ll seize the land, we’ll become strong, and then
we’ll take care of the Left Bank. We’ll expel them from there, too. Let them go back to the Arab countries.” At some
point, when a dominant Jewish presence had been established in Palestine, and the Palestinians had departed or been
marginalized, the British could end their man-date to make room for the emergence of a Jewish state in Palestine.
This plan ran into two problems. The Palestinians would not cooperate: they refused to leave and very few were willing
to sell their lands. As a result, in 1948, the year that Israel was created, nearly all of Palestine’s “penniless
popu-lation” was still in place. In addition, more than fifty years after the launching of political Zionism, the Jewish
settlers owned only seven percent of the lands in Palestine, not the best lands either. During the Second World War, the
Zionists ran into a problem with the British too. In order to rally Arab support during the war, in 1939 the British
decided to limit Jewish immigration into Palestine to 75,000 over the next five years. However, these problems would not
derail the Zionist project. The Zionists would achieve under the fog of war what they had failed to achieve through
money and discriminatory policies.
In cooperation with the British colonial authorities, the Zionists had been establishing since 1918 a parallel
government in Palestine, consisting of a net-work of Jewish organizations that brought in Jewish settlers, acquired
Palestin-ian lands, organized Jewish settlements, supported Jewish businesses, and estab-lished Jewish educational
institutions. In addition, as early as 1920, the Zionists had set up the Haganah, a grass-roots military organization.
Fifteen years later, the Haganah consisted of 10,000 mobilized men and 40,000 reservists, equipped with imported and
locally manufactured weapons. When the British refused to lift the restrictions on Jewish immigration after the war, the
Jewish military or-ganizations started a campaign of terror against them. Partly in response to this terror, the British
announced their premature departure from Palestine before the conflict they had spawned could be resolved.
The Zionists found their opportunity in the British loss of nerve. On May 14, 1948, on the termination of the British
mandate in Palestine, they declared the emergence of the Jewish state of Israel under a UN partition plan. Although the
Jews in Palestine owned only seven percent of the land, the UN plan as-signed 55 percent of Palestine to Israel. The
Palestinians and neighboring Arab states decided to resist the UN partition plan. But the ranks of the Palestinian
resistance had been decimated before by the British, and the Arab armies were poorly equipped, poorly led, and their
leaders lacked nerve and commitment. They were decisively defeated. In the process, the Zionists occupied 78 percent of
Palestine, and 800,000 Palestinians were expelled or left their homes under duress. Israel, Mark I, had arrived in the
Middle East, a Jewish state in Palestine with only ten percent of its Palestinian population.
The dynamics that brought Israel into existence, and no less the consequences it had already produced, indicate that
Israel, Mark I, would be only the first stage in the unfolding of the Zionist project. A dialectic now existed, with
Israel and its Western sponsors on one side and the Palestinians and the Islamic world on the other, that would produce
a widening circle of consequences.
The creation of Israel had thrown a spanner in the wheel of Islamic history. In the aftermath of the First World War,
the Western powers had dismantled the most powerful Islamic state – indeed the Core Islamic state – by instigating and
supporting the still marginal forces of Arab nationalism. At the same time, even as they were using Arab nationalist
feelings, they had made plans to fracture Arab unity by creating a multiplicity of Arab fiefdoms, each of them subject
to Western powers. Adding insult to injury, the Western powers also worked with the Jews to establish a Jewish state in
a segment of the Islamic heartland. This restructuring of the Islamic world, imposed by Western powers, would not be
easily swept under the rug of time. Indeed, the creation of Israel alone was preg-nant with consequences, much of it yet
Quite apart from Israeli ambitions in the region, the logic of the Israeli state would almost inevitably propel it to
rapid demographic growth, military dominance and expansionism. At the time of its founding in 1949, Israel con-tained
only 5.6 percent of the world’s Jewish population. In order to justify its creation as the world’s only Jewish state,
Israel would have to attract more Jews, perhaps even a majority of the world’s Jews. Israel’s small population –
relative to that of its Arab neighbors – also called for a rapid influx of Jewish settlers. Then there were the
temptations of success: imagine what we can do if we brought a third or a half of the world’s Jewish population into the
region. The first large influx of Jews, doubling Israel’s population over the next five years, came from the Arab
countries. In large part, this was inevitable. The Arab Jews were migrating to greener pastures; Arab defeat in 1948 and
the expulsion of Palestinians from their lands provoked hostility towards Jews in Arab countries; and Israel encouraged
and facilitated their departure.
In addition, given the very high educational levels of Jewish settlers (espe-cially those drawn from Europe and the
United States), the reparations from Germany, the financial contributions of world Jewry, and grants and loans from
Western countries, Israel would soon acquire the characteristics of a developed country whose capabilities in science
and technology would rival the best in the world. In itself, this enormous disparity between an advanced Israel and
mostly backward Arab countries would tempt Israel to seek military solutions to its conflict with its Arab neighbors.
Indeed, Israel had within a decade built a mili-tary capability that could defeat any combination of Arab states.
Finally, Israel had acquired a nuclear arsenal by the late 1960s – with French technology – thus securing the Samson
option against any potential Arab threat to its security.
At the same time, Israel would face hostility from Arab states that had gained independence under the aegis of Arab
nationalism. This was inevitable. The creation of Israel was an affront to Islamic peoples, in particular to Arabs. In
Israel’s victory, the Muslims had lost lands that had been Islamic since the first century of Islam. Further, the Arabs
feared that if allowed to consolidate itself, Israel, with Western support, would seek to dominate the region with new
rounds of expansionary wars. In the climate of the Cold War, the Arab national-ist states had reasons to believe that
they had a chance to roll back the insertion of Israel into Arab lands. In other words, the creation of Israel also
charted, in-evitably, a history of hostility between this state and its neighbors.
Whether in response to this Arab hostility or using it as an excuse – as some would argue – for deepening its assault on
the Arabs, Israel would seek a new ‘mother country’ to replace Britain. This time, it would turn to the United States.
It was a natural choice, given the preeminence of the United States, and its large and influential Jewish population. It
would appear that American com-mitment to Israel was not strong at first, if measured by the volume of its mili-tary and
economic assistance to Israel. Israel sought to change this by demon-strating its strategic value to the United States.
This happened in 1967, when in a pre-emptive war it simultaneously defeated Egypt, Syria and Jordan. The defeat of Egypt
and Syria, the two leading Arab nationalist states, both allied to the Soviet Union, persuaded the US to enter into a
deeper partnership with Israel, one that would only grow with time, as Israel acquired greater influence over
decision-making in the United States, and as US backing for Israel would create Islamic hostility against the US.
Just as importantly, this second military defeat of the Arabs produced a new Israel. This was Israel, Mark II, now in
occupation of 100 percent of the former British mandate of Palestine; this included the new territories of Gaza and the
West Bank with 1.1 million Palestinians. Inevitably, Israeli ambitions rose to match the new opportunities created by
the war of 1967. Immediately, plans were set in motion to make the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza permanent.
Israel began to appropriate Palestinian lands in the occupied territo-ries. It established fortified settlements all
over the territories, in control of the main water reservoirs, and sitting on hilltops overlooking Palestinian villages.
After facing yet another defeat in 1973, Egypt broke ranks with the Arab states and recognized Israel in exchange for
the return of the Sinai and an annual American subsidy. This capitulation of the core Arab country sounded the death
knell of Arab nationalism; it was also the signal for Israel to expand its military operations. In June 1981 Israeli
jets destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor under con-struction in Osirak. A year later, it invaded Lebanon, occupied Western
Beirut, laid siege to Palestinian refugee camps, and forced the exit of the Palestinian resistance from Lebanon. During
the Israeli siege, the Phalangists, a Lebanese Christian militia allied to Israel, massacred 3000 Palestinian civilians
in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla.
At around the same time, in 1982, the World Zionist Organization, pub-lished a report in its official organ, Kivunin,
urging Israel to annex the West Bank and Gaza, reoccupy Sinai, convert Jordan into a Palestinian state, expel all
Palestinians west of the River Jordan, and split up the Arab states into ethnic and religious micro-states. In order to
dominate and control these micro-states, Israel would build garrisons on their borders, military outposts for projecting
their power over these states. In addition, these states would be policed by local mili-tias drawn from ethnic
minorities in their population – like the Christian militia created by Israel in Southern Lebanon. Once executed, this
plan would establish Israel as the dominant power in the Middle East, independent of the United States. What this plan
reveals is the reach of the dialectic inaugurated by the creation of Israel in 1948. In the 1980s, the World Zionist
Organization was urging Israel to take steps to dominate the region on its own.
The attacks of 9-11, the American invasion of Iraq, Israeli/American plans for attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, and
American plans for restructuring the re-gion, suggest that the dialectic that began with the rise of political Zionism
may have entered a new, perhaps final phase.
There are several forces operating behind these developments, whose provenance – in various degrees – can be traced back
to the pressures and in-ducements engendered by political Zionism. At many different levels, 9-11 is a riposte to
political Zionism and its chief accomplice over the past 60 years, the United States. Islamic anger over the insertion
of a Jewish state in Islamic lands, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, Palestinian suffering under Israeli
occupa-tion in the West Bank and Gaza, Arab humiliation over repeated defeats at the hands of Israel, the dismantling of
Arab nationalism following these defeats, Western support for repressive Arab states, the sanctions against Iraq, the
sta-tioning of American troops in the Arabian peninsula after the Gulf war, and the invasion of Iraq: each of these have
contributed to the radicalization of a small segment of the Islamic world, who, frustrated by the inertia of Islamic
popula-tions, have adopted terrorist tactics; they see this as the only effective way in which they can leverage their
small numbers into a visible force.
Apart from America’s strategic interest in the Middle East’s oil – always a backdrop to US policies in the region – the
recent evolution of this policy to-wards a massive program for restructuring the Middle East owes much to two forces
long in the making but which gained center stage with the election of George W. Bush. On the one hand, these are the
forces of Christian evangelists in the United States, who have derived strength from the creation of Israel and its
victories over the Arabs, which they see as a necessary prelude to the Second Coming. As the largest voting bloc in the
Republic Party, they are now the most powerful American supporters of Israeli Likudniks, seeking the expulsion of
Palestinians from all of Israel. The Zionists have not only welcomed this support but worked to deepen their alliance
with the Evangelists.
The second group of actors – small but influential – are the neoconserva-tives in the Bush administration who have for
long, but especially since the early 1990s, urged the United States to use its military dominance to prevent the
emergence of a rival power. Many of the most influential neoconservatives, both inside and outside the Bush
administration, are Jews (but so are many of the most articulate members of the left in America) who have been involved
with right-wing Zionist think tanks in the United States and Israel. Some of these neoconservatives were advising the
Netanyahu government in 1996 to make “a clean break” from the Oslo Agreement. After 9-11, the neoconservatives became
the principal intellectual backers of America’s invasion of Iraq and the larger plan to restructure the Middle East.
Could it be that this represents the belated unfolding of the Kivunin plan, with the dismemberment of Iraq an imminent
possibility now? There is one difference, however. At least for now, Israel is taking a back seat.
The attacks of September 11, 2001, like the decision of the Young Turks in October 1914 to enter the First World War
against the Allied Powers, mark a new historical turning point for the relations between the West and the Islami-cate
world. The Turkish entry in the war offered Britain the opportunity to settle the age-old Middle Eastern question. It
invaded the Middle East to dismantle the Ottoman Empire, and laid the foundations of a Jewish state and a system of
colonies and client states in the region. Now, after 9-11, the United States enters the region, in strategic partnership
with Israel, to restructure the region. This is a pre-emptive restructuring before the anti-imperialist forces in the
region gain ascendancy.
At this point, there are few who are predicting with any confidence what will be the benefits and costs of this
attempted restructuring: or what will be its unintended outcomes. The law of unintended consequences works
surrepti-tiously, always hidden from the gaze of the stronger parties in a conflict whose power and hubris blind them to
the resilience and force of the human spirit. It is unlikely that even the most prescient Zionists had foreseen in 1948
– after they had created a Jewish state with a 90 percent Jewish population – that the Pales-tinians would still be
around some fifty-seven years later, causing existential anxiety, and still raising questions about the legitimacy of
Israel as it is presently constituted. Incidentally, Israel too was an unintended consequence of Hitler’s plan to
exterminate the Jews. There would have been no Israel without the Jews who fled the anti-Semitic horrors unleashed by
the Nazis in Europe.
In mounting their terrorist attack on the United States, most likely the Islamist radicals were not expecting this to
sting the United States into a hasty revision of its policies towards the Islamic world. It seems more likely that what
the United States did was what these Islamists wanted it to do – to invade the Islamic heartlands. The Islamists expect
to turn this into a broader war against the United States fought on Islamic territory. It is likely that the United
States will deliver this too with an attack on Syria or Iran. Prodded by its neoconserva-tive ideologues, the Bush
administration is eager to take on this challenge. They expect to use the ‘war against terrorism’ to restructure the
Islamic world, mod-ernize (read: neutralize) Islam, defeat the Islamists, and create a new and deeper system of
clientage. The Islamists expect to defeat the United States on their home turf, as the Vietnamese had done a generation
before. At this point, it is hard to predict where the chips will fall – or what unintended consequences this will
produce for the United States, Israel and the Islamic world.
© M. Shahid Alam
M. Shahid Alam teaches economics at a university in Bos-ton. He is the author of Is There An Islamic Problem: Essays on
Islamicate So-cieties, the US and Israel (Kuala Lumpur: The Other Press, 2004). He may be reached at: