When Did Anti-Zionism Become An International Issue?

For more than 20 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, anti-Zionism was a regional phenomenon - a conflict between Arab and Jewish national movements in the Middle East. In the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, the Soviets exploited antisemitism for political purposes, but it was seldom part of international debate until after the Six-Day War in 1967.

By the end of the 1960s, and since 1975, anti-Zionism became international in scope. It first appeared in the universities in the West where the New Left, in cooperation with Arab student associations, attacked Israeli policy. 1

When the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 3379 on November 10, 1975, and declared "Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination," it significantly expanded anti-Zionism into the sphere of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and therefore into Third World countries. This was accomplished in collaboration between the Arabs and the Soviet Union that endowed anti-Zionism with legitimacy and official recognition.2

After the First World War, the Arabs expected Greater Syria - which included Palestine and Lebanon - to become a vast, united, and sovereign Arab empire. Instead, the French and the British divided the area into what the Arabs considered "irrationally carved out" entities that became the present-day states of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Trans-Jordan (later Jordan), Iraq, and Israel. The Arabs were outraged that a "non-Arab embryo state in Palestine" had been inserted into an area where it would never be accepted. They claimed that this shattered their dreams of unification and impeded their search for a common identity. 3

The fight against a Jewish homeland became an integral part of their struggle "for dignity and independence." Israel's existence, they claimed, "implied that not only a part of the Arab patrimony, but also parts of Islam, had been stolen. For a Moslem, there was no greater shame than for that to happen." The only way to eliminate this deeply felt affront - this "symbol of everything that had dominated them in the past" - was to rid the area of "imperialist domination." 4

Zionism has been branded as the official enemy of the Arab national movement, but Arab governments have long been accused of using the Arab-Israeli confrontation to divert attention from their own critical domestic social and economic problems. When confronted, they respond that if this were not a real concern, it would not resonate so strongly among the Arab masses. 5

Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus at Princeton University, the dean of Middle Eastern scholars in the West, says Arab fixation with Israel "is the licensed grievance. In countries where people are becoming increasingly angry and frustrated at all the difficulties under which they live - the poverty, unemployment, oppression - having a grievance which they can express freely is an enormous psychological advantage." 6

The Israeli-Arab conflict is the only local political grievance that can be openly discussed. If the population were permitted freedom of speech, Lewis believes that the obsession with Israel would become far less important. Like most people, Arabs are concerned about their own priorities. For the Palestinian Arabs, who view themselves as the permanent victims, the main issue is their struggle with Israel. If Arabs in other countries were permitted to focus on their own problems, they would do so.  7

For Arabs, the attempt to blame Western imperialism is nothing more than an excuse to attack Israel, as another Hebrew University professor Jacob Talmon asserted: "For decades the Arabs have been obsessed by memories of past glories and prophecies of future greatness, mocked by the injury and shame of having an alien and despised race injected into the nerve center of their promised pan-Arab empire, between its Asian and African halves, just at a time when the colonial powers had started their great retreat from their colonial possessions in Asia and Africa." 8

To lessen their feelings of shame for losing every war against Israel, the Arabs attributed the success of Jewish settlement in Palestine and the Israeli military triumphs of 1948 and 1956 to Western imperialism. As the representative of the Great Powers, Israel became the Arabs' scapegoat whenever they became frustrated in their attempt to transcend "centuries of social, economic, and cultural development, and catch up" with the West.

This anti-Israel fixation precipitated a methodical "Manichean metaphysic, the focus of an entire philosophy of history, with the Jew as the devil incarnate from the days of patriarch Abraham himself till his assumption of the role of the linchpin of an American-Imperialist-Zionist world-plot against the Arab world, the Socialist Commonwealth and all colonial peoples." 9

The crushing defeat of the Arabs in the 1967 Six-Day War shattered this fantasy and accentuated Arab humiliation, since the Israelis won without the backing of any imperialist nations. Arab rage was exacerbated by the casualty rates in Israel's favor -- about 25 to 1 -- and by the number of prisoners of war Israel captured. At least 5,000 Egyptian soldiers, including 21 generals, 365 Syrians (30 of whom were officers), and 550 Jordanians were taken. Only 15 Israelis were held as POWs. Arab military hardware losses were in the billions of dollars -- most of it coming from Soviet Bloc countries.10

Civilian casualties were minimal: Israelis estimate that 175,000 Arab noncombatants fled the West Bank to Jordan; Jordanians claim that number is 250,000. Though the Israelis did not initiate the Arab exodus, they did not attempt to stop it. The refugees were not encouraged to return, but Moshe Dayan, Israel's Minister of Defense, stopped the practice of preventing them from crossing back to the West Bank a week after the war, after observing ambushes and concluding that they were inhumane.11

Israelis wanted to resolve the 1948 and 1967 refugee problem -- to be determined when a comprehensive peace agreement would be negotiated. The Arabs rejected the offer and insisted that the refugees be allowed to return, unconditionally, and receive compensation. Yet, in the summer of 1967, when Israel agreed to allow Arabs to come back to the West Bank, only a handful returned.12

At the same time, the Arabs persecuted and tormented their own Jewish residents. Jews were attacked in Yemen, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Morocco. Synagogues were burned and Jews were arrested and detained. In Damascus and Baghdad, Jewish leaders were fined and imprisoned, and 7,000 Jews were expelled after their property and most of their belongings were confiscated. Eight hundred of Egypt's 4,000 Jews were arrested, including the chief rabbis of Cairo and Alexandria. The UN and the Red Cross did nothing to intervene on their behalf.13

Despite this treatment of Jews in Arab lands, the 1.2 million Arabs under Israeli governance did not experience any systematic mistreatment. Looting and vandalism were reported in some areas, but the Israelis repaired whatever damage they found. Though Jordanians had destroyed synagogues in the Old City of Jerusalem and used the tombstones from the Jewish cemeteries on the Mount of Olives to pave roads and use in latrines, Moshe Dayan participated in the Friday prayers at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Perhaps the greatest trauma for the Arabs was that Israel had conquered 42,000 square miles - and was now three-and-a-half times larger in size than before the war. 14

Anti-Zionism entered the international scene when Israel and Egypt reached political rapprochement after the Yom Kippur War by signing an interim agreement on September 1, 1975. That agreement emphasized, "The conflict between them and in the Middle East shall not be resolved by military force but by peaceful means."15

Concerned that this might lead to peace, the Soviets, Syria, and the PLO tried to exclude Israel from international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), like UNESCO, "for having transgressed the United Nations Charter, and having failed to adopt its resolutions." When this strategy failed, they began to question Israel's legitimacy and discredit and condemn Zionism in the UN, and to internationalize their propaganda against her.16 
1. Yohanan Manor, "Anti-Zionism," (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1984):  8.
2. Ibid.
3. Saul Friedlander and Mahmoud Hussein, Arabs and Israelis: A Dialogue (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1975), 6, 18, 21.
4. Ibid., 9, 34.
5. Ibid.
6. "Islam's Interpreter," The Atlantic Online (April 4, 2004), Online.
7. Ibid; Friedlander and Hussein, Arabs and Israelis: A Dialogue, 32-33, 36.
8. Jacob L. Talmon, Israel Among the Nations (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970), 169-170.
9. Ibid.170.
10. Michael B. Oren, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 305-306.
11. Ibid., 306.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid., 306-307.
14. Ibid.
15. Manor, "Anti-Zionism," 9-10.
16. Ibid.10.

Dr. Alex Grobman is a Hebrew University trained historian. He is a former director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and the author of a number of books, including Nations United: How The U.N. Undermines Israel and The West, Denying History: Who Says The Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? and a forthcoming book on Israel's moral and legal right to exist as a Jewish State.
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