All the fuss about the a-factual, anti-Semitic screed Joseph Massad published in al Jazeera is a red herring. Massad and friends want to recast Zionism as imperialism, a colonial implant on Muslim land. It won’t wash.
The assertion that Israel is – somehow – a colony is a red herring because it avoids the central claim of Zionism which is that the Jews had a right to return to build a Jewish state in their ancient homeland because a two thousand year long experiment had proven that only by having a sovereign Jewish state could Jews enjoy the right that other nations enjoy, the right to control their own cultural and political destiny.
The Kurds, the Berbers, the Tibetans, the Uighur are a few of the peoples that lack such a right even today, but most of the world’s peoples live in nation states, countries where most people speak the language and share the culture of the country’s governing class. Not all nation states are good places in which to live; nevertheless, given the choice, most people prefer to live in a nation state to the alternatives of being governed by a foreign empire or living as a cultural or ethnic minority.
Beginning in the year 70, Jews lived either as a minority group in their ancient homeland or elsewhere. There were better and worse places in which to live as a member of a Jewish minority, and twice in ancient times there were Jewish kingdoms, Khazar and Himyar, but with those two exceptions, Jews lived at the sufferance of non-Jewish rulers. This was not always as bad as it sounds, since until recent centuries almost everyone lived as the subject of a king. But, in general, in a pre-modern world where everyone was a subject of the king and no one had the kind of civil rights that we take for granted, Jews had fewer rights than the peoples they lived among.
As European peoples began to gain civil rights in the 19th century, things got better for Jews in countries (France, England, Denmark) where there were relatively few Jews, but in countries with large Jewish communities, and especially in the Russian Empire official persecution and violent anti-Jewish pogroms increased. Zionism grew in popularity as pogroms persuaded people that Jewish life in Eastern Europe was no longer viable. There were counter-arguments at the time, but at the end of a century of mass killings by the Russian Army in the First World War, Stalinist mass-murder of Jews, and Nazi genocide, it is hard to argue that the Zionists were wrong.
The Zionists argument was that Jews had the right to have what other peoples have, a homeland in which they can control their own destiny and live in a Jewish culture speaking a Jewish language. This is no more, and no less, than the Swedes enjoy in Sweden, the Japanese in Japan, the Iranians in Iran, the Turks in Turkey, and the Arabs in 22 Arabic-speaking countries.
If anti-Semitism is denying to Jews the rights granted to other people, denying to Jews the right to have a Jewish country while enjoying that right oneself is anti-Semitic. This, of course, is the core of Joseph Massad’s anti-Semitism. He demands for Palestinian Arabs a right he denies to Israeli Jews.
To distract attention from the fundamental injustice of his claim, he throws out a red herring, accusing Jews who dare to assert their right to be a nation like all of the other nations of being colony. It’s a low debater’s trick. But there are few tricks anti-Semites won’t stoop to.