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How Zionism and nationalism crushed the Arab-Jewish alliance

How European nationalism and Zionism crushed the Arab-Jewish alliance
8 min read

Amir Fleischmann

22 April, 2024
Zionism, the Jewish avatar of European nationalism, has wrecked centuries of unity between the Arab & Jewish people, writes Amir Fleischmann.
The legacy of European nationalism in Palestine is brutal settler-colonialism and the complete erasure of Arab-Jewish accord, writes Amir Fleischmann [photo credit: Getty Images]

The Israeli government — and much of Western media — want you to believe that Israel's war on Gaza is being waged in the name of Western civilisation.

Israel is on the front line against the unwashed masses of the Global South, they say. Palestinians are barbarians who must be crushed. 

This racist, colonial logic is trotted out again and again to justify Israel's genocide of the Palestinian people as part of the collective 'civilisational' project of the West. But it wasn't so long ago that Judaism was excluded from so-called Western civilisation.

For most of history, Jews in Europe and the Middle East have been the victims of Western imperialism rather than its stormtroopers. The story of how this came to be — and how it might have been otherwise — provides insight into the ideological dynamics at play in Palestine today.

The birth of Western nationalism: An ideology of difference

Western nationalism is built on the idea that states are made up of delineable and homogeneous ethnic groups. 

This isn’t how humans have lived for most of our existence, with the long history of diasporic Jewish communities in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond as a testament to that. 

There was a possibility of another kind of nationalism — one that included ethnic diversity as part of what made the nation what it is. 

The Bundists in Europe tried to implement this alternative, striving for Jewish belonging in the new national states of Eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. Compared to Bundism, Zionism was a fringe ideology appealing to a minority of Ashkenazi Jews. 

Only the murder of the majority of European Jewry allowed Zionism to achieve ascendancy. Diasporic nationalism was also present in the Middle East and North Africa but was destroyed for Arab Jewish communities by European colonialism, with Zionism as its latest form. 

Instead of Jews remaining rooted in the communities they had lived in for millennia, they were shunted into the state of Israel, forming a sort of national ghetto for global Jewry. It didn’t have to be this way. Jews and Arabs have a shared history, one that could have meant a shared future too.

How Zionism destroyed Arab Jewry

One of the tragedies of the twentieth century was the eradication of the Arab-Jewish connection and the destruction of the centuries if not millennia-old Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa.

From Morocco to Iran, once-thriving Jewish communities were emptied out. One way or another, they fell victim to the logic of European colonialism. 

As European nationalism brought about the destruction of Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa, how this destruction transpired varied across the region. 

In Algeria, the French Third Republic used the dubious gift of French citizenship — denied to the majority of Algerian Muslims — to enlist the Algerian-Jewish community into the colonial project. Once Algeria gained independence from France, almost the entire Jewish population emigrated, with the majority leaving for France, not Israel. 

In Iraq, the import of European nationalism led to a rise in antisemitic attacks by a group of pro-Nazi officers called the Golden Square who tried to resist British occupation. The subsequent isolation of Iraqi Jews culminated in a pogrom in 1941, the Farhood, which took the lives of 180 native Jews.


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Even in its Jewish manifestation, Zionism, European nationalism proved hostile to Arab Jewish communities. 

The 1950-1951 bombings of Jewish neighbourhoods in Baghdad were widely believed by Iraqi Jews to have been orchestrated by Israeli forces in order to facilitate Jewish migration to Israel. 

A few years later, in the 1954 Lavon Affair, Israel recruited several Egyptian Jews to plant bombs in Jewish and American targets, with the intent of both encouraging Jewish migration to Israel and undermining the increasingly anti-imperial Nasser regime. 

In the trial of the operatives, state prosecutor Fu’ad al-Digwi admonished the attempt to divide Egyptians across religious lines, stating that “the Jews of Egypt are living among us and are sons of Egypt. Egypt makes no difference between its sons whether Muslims, Christians, or Jews.” That vision of Egypt ultimately proved irreconcilable with the ethnonationalism underpinning European colonialism and Zionism. 

These cases demonstrate two key points: the first is that Arab antisemitism has grown out of a particular set of structural and political factors. 

The geopolitical reality in the post-war Middle East is that of a powerful nuclear state, one presenting itself as the vanguard of Judaism in the world, repeatedly bombing its neighbours, occupying their territories, and currently perpetrating genocide against an impoverished and unrecognised indigenous group.

And while activists — including Jewish allies of Palestine — rightly point out that Zionism does not represent Judaism, this point is obscured by the Zionist state itself, which often labels its ethnic cleansing activities as the “Judaisation” of Palestinian territories.  

Arab antisemitism is markedly different from European antisemitism, the latter of which is significantly older and arose from baseless racial tropes.

European and Israeli leadership try to present Arab antisemitism as analogous to that of Europe — while using Europe’s backing of Israel as a sign of its atonement — by, for instance, comparing the attacks on October 7 to the Holocaust. 

But to do so is to cynically ignore the occupation of Palestine that necessitates its people’s resistance, as well as to deny the vitriolic hatred that led to the genocide of Jews in Europe. Equating the two robs the victims of the Shoah of their innocence and erases the right of Palestinians to resist oppression.

The second takeaway is that Arab antisemitism is not only a consequence of the formation of the state of Israel but was a fundamental building block of the Zionist movement itself.

Europe enabled the Zionist state through the Balfour declaration but also created the conditions for its demands through its relentless persecution of European Jews in the first place. 

In order to further back the Zionist claim that only a Jewish state could protect the future of Judaism, early Zionists themselves sought to create an atmosphere of fear around Middle Eastern Jewish communities, even in cases where none existed. 

Arab antisemitism was thus necessary to justify the creation of the state of Israel, then used after the fact to defend the dispossession and murder of Palestinian communities. 

The irony is that the exodus of Jews from MENA was the result of Zionism, but also necessary to create the Jewish majority population for Israel, without which the Zionist project might have lacked staying power.

The Arab Jews that came to Israel did so as both refugee and coloniser. This is no contradiction. The application of the label of settler colonialism to Israel is not a matter of moral condemnation. It describes a structure of ongoing dispossession and elimination of native inhabitants for the benefit of the settlers. 

Though Arab Jews were initially placed in camps when they came to Israel, though they have been attacked by Jewish supremacists mistaking them for Muslim Arabs, and though there has never been a 'Mizrahi' Prime Minister, Arab Jews in Israel still benefit from the colonial expropriation of Palestine. 

This is captured even in the nomenclature used to describe Arab citizens of Israel: in a chain of erasures, Arab Jews are recast as 'Mizrahim', eliding their Arab identity, and 1948 Palestinian citizens of Israel become 'Arab Israelis', eliding their Palestinian identity. In both cases, their identity must be restructured in the face of Zionism. 

Beyond the immense loss of life it has wrought, the tragedy of Zionism has been in shattering what may have been a natural solidarity between two groups resisting European imperialism. 

Shared histories, divided futures: The legacy of European nationalism in Palestine

Glimpses of Arab-Jewish solidarity have been seen in how Arab communities, Muslim and Jewish, joined to resist colonial rule: when Vichy France suddenly stripped Algerian Jews of their property and offered windfall profits to Algerian Muslims in 1941, not a single Arab chose to accept the offer — unlike the French settlers in the country.

Muslim communities in Libya provided shelter, aid and employment to Jews persecuted by fascist Italy, and Libyan Jews in Cyrenaica fought alongside Muslims, resisting Italian colonialism. 

The importance of Jews to Arab independence movements was widespread and significant, then quickly forgotten and dismissed, likely because this history threatened the budding Zionist enterprise and the centuries-old European imperial tradition. 

Nationalism is a recent invention. From the Indian subcontinent to Eastern Europe and of course to Palestine, the drive for ethnic homogeneity has created a world riven with conflict. 

This has obviously meant the destruction of people, but also the erasure of a rich, shared history. The loss of this history is something to mourn; but that it exists at all, gives us something to hope for. Any move towards a sustainable peace in Palestine and Israel today would demand a fundamental restructuring of the nationalist credo that has always motivated Zionism.

This credo has proved historically devastating for both Muslim and Jewish communities in the MENA — but today it is Palestinians who bear the brunt of that devastation. A shared future for all peoples in Palestine will only be possible once they receive the justice they’ve been denied.

Amir Fleischmann is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, conducting research on democracy, inequality, and anti-oligarchic politics.

Follow him on X (Twitter): @amir61