Australian dispute on anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism goes global! (sorry, can’t get it snappier than that). Venerable solo blog Norm (Geras) blog, former theoretical guru of the Trotskyist International Marxist Group, supporter then detractor from the Iraq War, and drafter of nostalgia document The Euston Manifesto*, has weighed into an argument between Michael Brull in New Matilda and left(ish — increasingly ish) Zionist Phillip Mendes around what the latter describes as “anti-Zionist fundamentalism” — an irritatingly propagandistic term for what Mendes sees as rigid, fantastical and ultimately anti-Semitic opposition to Israel.

One of Mendes’s markers of anti-Semitic anti-Zionist fundamentalism (or, ASAZF as I will call it, to bring out its slightly nutty character further) is frequent comparison of Israeli actions with Nazi action and policies, exemplified by the “Stop The Israeli Holocaust in Gaza” posters seen around protests. Geras has a more challenging argument than Mendes as to why these comparisons could be labelled anti-Semitic.

Yet one single point that no-one makes in these debates is that, as far as accusing Zionists of being Nazis, the past present and future champions are other Zionists. From the 1930s on, when “revisionist” Zionism made explicit that it had a degree of overlap with Mussolini’s fascism, the N-word has come thick and fast. For left Zionists, Jabotinsky, the founder of revisionism was a “Jewish Hitler” for organising Zionist youth militias (complete with Roman style salute). In the war against the British mandate and Arabs, terrorist tactics so split the provisional Israeli cabinet that one minister said:

I couldn’t sleep all night. I felt that things that were going on were hurting my soul, the soul of my family and all of us here… Now Jews too have behaved like Nazis and my entire being has been shaken.

By the 1960s, Menachim Begin had replaced Jabotinsky as a bete noire, with David Ben-Gurion noting:

Begin is clearly a Hitler type, [who would] rule as Hitler ruled Germany.

When that gentleman invaded Lebanon in 1982, Yeshaya Leibowitz, editor of the Encyclopedia Hebraica called the IDF “Judeo-Nazis”. Shlomo Gazit, military commander and strategic theorist remarked that the insignia of IDF soldiers in the territories reminded him of the Iron Cross and on it goes.

Even Zionism’s most ardent non-Jewish supporters have reached for such imagery. In 1953, Israel staged the Qibya massacre, where an entire West Bank village (then part of Jordan) was slaughtered (by Ariel Sharon) in reprisal for two murders by Arabs. Winston Churchill — hardly innocent of colonial reprisal — remarked:

If our dreams for Zionism are to end in the smoke of assassins’ guns and our labors for its future to produce only a new set of gangsters worthy of Nazi Germany, then many like myself will have to reconsider the position we have maintained so consistently and so long in the past.

Mind you, this was at the time of the Kastner libel trial in which a former Hungarian Jew who had parlayed with Eichmann for the release of 1200 Jews was accused of being a collaborator and identifying with Nazism — at which point accusations about Zionist Nazis flew back and forth in Israel for years. (The story is told in Ben Hecht’s Perfidy and fictionalised in Leon Uris’s QB VII.)

So, the Nazi-Zionist comparison comes from within the heart of Zionism, as well as from without. The question is: why does it comes so often? The answer is of course that by now any active binationalist tendency within Zionism has fallen away and the stream that remains is the most eurocentric and chauvinistic one.

What is astounding about contemporary Zionism is the way in which the history of its entwinement with colonialism and fascism has simply evaporated from the record. Early Zionism was what you might call naively chauvinist — in Herzl’s Altneuland utopia, the Arabs welcome the Jews who can teach them things they can’t do and everybody’s happy — and it was at this optimistic scenario that “revisionists” directed a more militant and realistic vision.

Their argument was that cafe dreamers would never win territory and that Jews had to remake themselves as military people, not urban cosmopolitans. The moderate wing of this movement soon lost control, and by the late 1930s members of the Irgun were training in Mussolini’s military training camps. One ultimate expression of this was the Lehi/Stern gang’s attempt to negotiate a deal with Nazi Germany, by which Berlin would support a Zionist uprising against the British and a “totalitarian” Zionist state would be an autonomous part of a fascist/Nazi European/African empire.

The Lehi were a small minority and their ideas would be a weird footnote to history, were it not for the fact that the co-drafter of the above “Ankara document” was their leader Yitzhak Shamir, who as prime minister in the 1980s would do more than anyone to expand the West Bank settlement program into a process whose aim was to make a Palestinian state territorially impossible and its people permanently subject — or eventually ethnically cleansed.

The least sympathetic view of Zionism would be that — arising in 1890s Vienna, where mayor Karl Lueger had adopted anti-Semitism as a way of building a coalition of forces united against a common enemy — it was always going to become a mirror of that movement and, focused as it was on a non-European place, would pick up a Eurocentric, chauvinist colonial disdain along the way.

That is unfair to the more progressive traditions of Zionism (and to the way in which circumstances dictated a more ruthless strategy), but it is clear that the chauvinists won out — and that that vision is expressed in an event like Gaza, or Lebanon II, or Qibya, and others. People reach for the Nazi comparison — and it seems plausible to a wider audience — because the historical memory of the brutality of colonial repression (of which Nazism was a version, turned in Europe itself) has been lost.

Indeed what is remarkable is how far that chauvinist vision has advanced beyond anything that Jabotinsky or others would have thought wise or even fair. For Jabotinsky, for example, it went without saying that Jerusalem would be an International Free City, rather than part of Israel — for how could the home of three faiths be claimed? He also believed that if an Arab minority remained in Israel, it should be given reserved executive positions, including that of deputy prime minister.

These positions are now out of reach, as is a more realistic assessment of Israel’s policies. The Qibya massacre, for example, was in response to cross-border raids that killed about as many Israelis as Hamas’s Gaza rockets have. Yet the uproar — as noted — was global, and the US suspended foreign aid to Israel for six months — a move which actively discouraged frequent repeats of it for a time. Can one imagine US foreign aid (which in part pays for operations like Gaza) even being rounded-down these days?

There’s a lot of reasons why that is, but one at least is clear — and also explains much of the vociferous focus on Israel’s actions when bastardry of a higher order, i.e.the Sri Lankan elimination of the Tamil Tigers, is happening elsewhere. Israel has taken a role it didn’t have in the ’50s — as it has become what it wasn’t in the ’50s, an idealised representation of the West the neocons would like to see — militant, purposeful, ruthless, confident in its own aims, possessed of a clear identity. For those of us who think that it remains a colonialist project in form and content, claiming implicit consent from the West, the necessity to push back is politically paramount.

The more the West has needed Israel to define it, the more Israel has hardened into that colonial parody. The death and destruction of Gaza and Lebanon II are a consequence of the way in which that attitude has become dominant. Even Israel’s most delusional supporters such as Andrew Bolt and Melanie Phillips couldn’t put a spin on the soldiers’ “gun sights” t-shirts circulating last week.

That may also be why there are so many weird moments when Israelis themselves quote Nazis — generals talking about studying the clearing of the Warsaw ghetto as a counterinsurgency technique, the tactically pointless numbering of prisoners with textas, the often extraordinary violent language (and fantasies of violence) used against anti-Zionist ultra-orthodox Jews. Isolate moments, but just… strange, not random.

The Zionists = Nazis comparisons may be wrong, but the question is why less lethal Israeli action, under greater conditions of threat, would get the Nazi label from Zionists themselves, while the evil of more wanton and gratuitous action these days can be hidden from view with empty phrases like “the right to defend oneself”.

*London readers only: I was involved in an earlier draft, known as the Camden Town manifesto, but there was a division and the Eustonites took the wrong line.