The Myth of Zionism, by John Rose

Reviewed by
Emad El-Din Marei Aysha

John Rose’s The Myths of Zionism (2004) is a long overdue book fearlessly examining the strategic, historical and ideological roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a true tour de force. Most books on this fraught subject tend either to be inquiries into the international forces behind the conflict, devoid of historical depth, or else are reportorial accounts with scant regard for how political interests reshape history for their own geo-strategic purposes. The Myths of Zion expertly transcends that customary divide Moreover, it manages to be a work of impeccable scholarship while remaining highly accessible to a lay audience. Still, to fully appreciate Rose, I encourage readers to familiarize themselves with the earlier works, such as  Gösta W. Ahlström’s Who Were the Israelites? and Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s The Controversy of Zion, which likewise challenged potent myths underlying the Zionist project.

Going these fine predecessors one better, Rose takes a multidimensional approach, treating tough controversies in Palestine history from Zionist, non-Zionist Jewish, academic and Arab perspectives. After explicating the mischievous role the imperial powers (mostly the US and UK) played in the Palestinian debacle, Rose delves into the historical record to dispels the notion of the supposed passivity and developmental stasis of Palestine under Ottoman rule, a view sadly and unnecessarily conceded by erstwhile Arab modernizers. Orientalist fictions like this hoary one played utterly into the hands of Zionism.

Rose’s multi-perspective approach tends to yield the lesson that everyone is to blame for the Palestinian imbroglio, though to widely varying degrees. The chief culprits, in descending order of culpability, are the Zionists, British imperialists, US neo-imperialists, secular Arab nationalists who did not do enough to integrate Jews, and undemocratic Arab regimes content to exploit the Zionist threat to bolster their fragile legitimacy. As critical as he is of Arabs, Rose lacerates especially Britain and France for fomenting needless divisions between Jews and Arabs. He sets the record straight – or, at least, somewhat straighter - as to the place of the Jews in Arab-Islamic history, challenging the very categories of ‘Jew’ and ‘Arab,’ and fusing them into a Judaeo-Arabic Islamic whole. Rose uses this ‘recovered’ past as a template for the future, for clues as to how to overcome the current Arab/Jewish antagonisms.

Rose’s treatment of Muslims-Jewish relations in the heyday of Islam is particularly illuminating, not just for debunking the ‘everybody is out to get us’ view of history that Zionists favor but also for its conceptual clarity and lucid style. When things did go awry in Jewish-Arab relations under Islam, it resulted from widespread bad times and affected only certain locales, e.g., Cairo versus impervious Alexandria. He astutely notes that law in Islamic history is personal and not territorial, in contrast to the opposite convention in European and modern history. The modern secular state is not the only solution to ethnic or creedal divisions, he implies.

The matter of gizyah, taxes levied on non-Muslims, still suffers from many misunderstandings. Gizyah is an exemption from military duty, which is why it was levied only on able bodied men. More important, it was never a ‘poll tax.’ In early Islamic history the rich paid proportionately more than the poor. The very poor, slaves and the homeless paid nothing, as did religious institutions. If the gizyah system later was perverted by cash-strapped Caliphs to fund their wars and palaces, tapping the surplus of the high merchant class, that is another matter completely.

Rose steers well clear of any conspiracy theories, though he may have taken this skepticism a tad too far in the case of the pro-Zionist lobby in the US. It would have been better to acknowledge their significant, if not insuperable, influence, particularly in the media and on Capitol Hill. The lobby turned devoutly Zionist only after the six-day war when Israel’s obvious geopolitical utility to the US would bolster their domestic position too, so that their patriotism need never be questioned.  After the Cold War there is also the strange fact that a new source of the Zionist lobby’s power is its weird and expeditious collaboration with the virulently anti-Semitic Christian fundamentalists.

This said, the book is a much-needed corrective especially for Arab readers brought up on a jaundiced version of what exactly went on behind the scenes of the notorious Balfour Declaration and Sikes-Picot agreement. To Wheatcroft’s excellent earlier account, Rose adds documentation of the role that Zionist Jews played in shaping British plans, first against the interests of the Arabs, and then against their own French co-conspirators. Rose’s capacity to tie disparate historical threads cogently together is a major scholarly feat. Moreover, he opens new avenues for research, discovering more than even he may have bargained for. Most notably, he stumbled into the neglected aspect of the psychological drives behind Zionism, exemplified by father of the Israeli Republic, David Ben-Gurion, who styled the Zionist project in religious terms and saw himself, despite his profound agnosticism, as the de facto Messiah, savior and redeemer of the Jewish people.

Rose sees this behavior as more of the inveterate mythmaking of Zionism - the exploitation of historical fictions in the naked service of a political project. Yet I think it is only part of the story. What we witness here is a classic symptom of nationalist and revolutionary politics, endemic in undemocratic regimes ranging from Hitler’s Germany to Stalin’s Russia to Nasser’s Egypt. The leader is seen to be, and sees himself to be, as the embodiment of the national will, the nation’s dreams and aspirations. Ben-Gurion was the closest thing to a dictator Israel experienced. If Megalomania is a factor, one can reconsider just how serious the Zionist project was in its own terms. Given Theodore Herzl’s emotional problems as well, could it be that the Zionists have been taken for a ride by ambitious leaders hungry for a constituency to rule? If so, we might appeal to the democratic ideals of Zionist- and non-Zionist Israelis alike to be very wary of the high costs of such a regressive ideology.

This megalomaniacal strain is evident in the non-Zionist motivations of America’s Jewish neo-conservatives too. There is no direct link between Leo Strauss’ atheistic exploitation of religion –a “noble lie” to gull the masses– and the religious dogmatism of the Zionists (except for dogmatism itself). If by their actions ye shall know them, the neo-cons are as concerned about China as they are about political Islam. They are just as preoccupied with America’s internal politics and culture as they are with foreign policy. Their very Jewishness drives them to be more American than Americans, launching the US on democratic crusades abroad because they genuinely believe that is what America is all about. I am somewhat unhappy that Rose overlooked what I think is one of the most valuable political economy studies of the Arab-Israeli conflict: fellow Pluto Press contributors Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler’s The Global Political Economy of Israel – a work going to the dark heart of the interface between Israeli politics and America’s power structure. But, even so, my enthusiastic advice is to read them all – Rose, Nitzan and Bichler and Ahlström and Wheatcroft.