Was a better Zionism possible?

People often argue Zionism once aspired to be something better than the violent, parochial State of Israel we see now. Some believe that now still, Zionism means something entirely different than that. I think a (settler-)colonial frame can help us see if this is realistic.

It’s remarkable, and problematic, how vehemently people will defend the real State of Israel not in virtue of what it is but of what it could have been, with no real expectation that it still could become that in the foreseeable future. But was the better Zionism they imagine even realistically possible in the past?

Unlike other national movements, Zionism initially lacked a territory. There was much debate between petitioning for a piece of East Africa and settling in Palestine. The very possibility of this question already makes the colonial frame in which Zionism developed clear.

Despite European colonialism’s pretension to carry science and reason to the far reaches of the earth, it was intrinsically always deeply out of touch with the reality of the lands it dominated: It did not grasp the reality of indigenous societies.

In principal, early Zionism's designs for the Jewish state were much gentler than what it would become. These ideas have been sidelined more and more throughout Israeli history, while liberal Zionists kept them alive on the margins and especially in the Western diaspora.

But these ideas were all, always, rooted in the colonial delusion that Europeans can go to some place and reshape it for the better. This delusion directly breeds violent oppression. No matter what your vision is, you can’t go somewhere people live and build a new society they aren’t interested in living in. However you go about it, barring genocide, you inevitably trigger resistance, leading to oppression, fostering further resistance, followed by harsher oppression, and so on. This is the core dynamic of settler colonialism.

Structurally, Zionism was always colonial and can’t be saved from this contradiction by good intentions.

In retrospect, it was certainly contradictory that some revolutionary socialists once supported a progressive version of Zionism. Global decolonization has long made such syntheses untenable. Support for “progressive” visions of colonization depended on the same colonial blindness of the rest of the project.

From our present vantage point, I think one can safely accuse all progressive visions of Zionism of idealism and blindness to the inherent violence of colonialism. But this accusation is not reserved for Zionism alone: most Western traditions of the left, aside from those committed to anti-imperialism, are certainly guilty of the same. Progressive Zionism is guilty of this violent distortion presicely by virtue of being of the same provenance.

That said, it would also be idealistic to see the problem now in this mythologized view of Zionism alone. Support for Israeli apartheid is rooted in the web of material interests involved in it. Mythologies like progressive Zionism serve that nexus of interests ideologically, as useful justifications, and it is in that capacity that we must take them apart – but that is at best just one small step towards decolonization.