Towards the end of the last century millions of Jewish people began emigrating from Eastern Europe to escape the anti-Semitism of the crumbling Russian Tsarist empire. Western Europe and North America were favoured destinations but Palestine proved attractive for a small minority. The Zionist movement argued that Palestine was the historical homeland for the Jews. It was hostile to the resident Palestinian Arab majority. Zionist leaders like Herzl modelled themselves on colonial settlers like Cecil Rhodes.
During the First World War Britain became the chief power in the region and signed the famous Balfour Declaration supporting Zionist objectives, 'in the truest interests of the British Empire', according to Winston Churchill.
Conflict between the Jewish settlers and the Arab inhabitants was inevitable. In 1936 a massive Palestinian uprising confronted armed Zionists backed by British troops.
The Nazis commission of the Holocaust, killing 6 million Jews during the Second World War made Zionism much more of an option in the eyes of the world's Jewish community as well as for millions of non-Jews. But its success would mean displacing the Arab population.
The war for Palestine was bitterly fought in 1948 between Zionist militias and several Arab armies from neighbouring states, and three quarters of a million Palestinians fled their homes. They became stateless refugees. The United States backed the declaration of the new Jewish state of Israel with a $1 billion loan.
Resentment spread throughout the Arab world. Israel was seen as an extension of Western power in the Middle East. Events seemed to confirm this view. When Nasser, Egypt's radical Arab nationalist leader, nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956, Israel, Britain and France sent their armed forces to dislodge him. Nasser emerged as a hero of the Arab world.
In 1967 Israel defeated its Arab neighbours in a full scale war. Nasser in particular was humiliated. The United States poured military and economic aid into Israel.
At the same time Israel seized a huge amount of new Arab territory including the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza.
This provoked armed Palestinian resistance led by Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. For the next 20 years the PLO engaged Israel in a guerrilla war. But the surrounding Arab states gave only half hearted support. The most important one, Egypt, eventually broke ranks and signed a separate peace deal with Israel.
At the end of 1987 the Intifada (Palestinian uprising) broke out in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian teenage stone throwers confronting heavily armed Israeli troops caught the imagination of the world. World leaders could no longer ignore the Palestinians and pressure intensified to find a solution. However, the peace deal eventually signed between Israel and the PLO fails to address fundamental Palestinian aspirations:
Deir Yassin is the Palestinian village in the 1948 war which became the symbol for what today we would call ethnic cleansing. Right wing Zionist militia murdered hundreds of unarmed men, women and children which triggered a panic exodus of refugees. Israeli defence forces documents released in the 1980s demonstrate that Deir Yassin was a 'decisive accelerating factor' in emptying many other Palestinian villages.
Israeli leader Ben Gurion wrote in his war diary in 1948, 'Blowing up a house is not enough. What is necessary is cruel and strong reactions... If we know the family strike mercilessly, women and children included...[but] where there was no attack we should not strike.'
The episode was repeated on a gigantic scale when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. Tens of thousands of unarmed Lebanese and Palestinians were slaughtered, culminating in the particularly gruesome murders at Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut which shocked the world. Christian fascist militia did the killing whilst Israeli troops led by Ariel Sharon sealed off the camps. Zionists were seriously divided over the scale of the bloodshed but few, if any, demurred at the outcome, the destruction of Palestinian resistance in Lebanon.
'Socialist Zionism' always meant Arab exclusion. It was one thing to dream of Jews working to develop egalitarian agricultural communes, finally free from the anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe. It was quite another to confront the reality of aggrieved Palestinian Arab labourers evicted from the land they had tilled as peasants for centuries.
At the beginning a few Zionist socialists tried to ride this contradiction. They were in for a bitter blow. As early as 1906 at the Congress of the Socialist Zionists (Poale-Zion) in Jaffa Ben Gurion vigorously opposed those who wanted to organise, instead of exclude, Arab labour. A year later several Zionist socialists supported an Arab labourers' strike against starvation wages in the orange groves of the village of Petach-Tikva. The Turkish (Ottoman) administration (which ruled Palestine at the time), the Jewish settlers and the Zionist labour leaders, including Ben Gurion, immediately closed ranks. The strikers were arrested and tortured but refused to betray their Jewish comrades.
The Histadrut, the Zionist trade union movement, which formed the backbone of Zionism prior to independence, took traditional socialist slogans and turned them inside out. A 'picket' might mean Jewish workers picketing a Jewish employer to stop him hiring Arab labourers. 'Jewish Land', 'Jewish Labour' and 'Jewish Produce' became the founding principles of the Histradut.
Zionism is rooted in a cult of Jewish superiority to Arabs in the Middle East. Biblical myths about the chosen people returning to the promised land have reinforced it. But it is the use of the Holocaust as a justifying ideology which has constantly thrown its opponents on the defensive.
A recent essay, 'From Chosen People to the Holocaust', puts it well. 'Postwar Zionist thinking transformed the Holocaust into a secular version of the theory of divine election. The unprecedented attempt to eradicate an entire people proves the uniqueness of the Jews.' And it proves the Jews must have a homeland of their own. And it means Jewish morality need take no lessons from non-Jewish moralists.
There are some signs that even the mildest of critics are tiring of the Holocaust being used indefinitely as a battering ram against the Palestinians. On his recent trip to Israel Robin Cook to the wrath of Israeli officials laid a wreath at a monument in East Jerusalem to Palestinians killed by Israeli troops in 1948 but did not visit the memorial museum. When Cook was attacked by the British Board of Deputies, the 'official' leadership of British Jews, Gerald Kaufman, a senior Jewish minister in Labour's last government, sprang to his defence. He denounced the Board as 'yes men' for 'this vile' Israeli government.
Many more of Israel's former supporters are agonising over this anniversary. There is some evidence of an Israel in serious disarray. It will take a restored Palestinian and wider Arab self confidence to take advantage of this situation. But if this develops then we really will have something to celebrate.
The first episode of BBC's aptly named series The 50 Years War, highlighted a little known but sinister event called the 'Lavon Affair'.
Two years before the Suez crisis in 1956, a 'doveish' Zionist politician called Moshe Sharett replaced Ben Gurion, the country's 'founding father', as Israel's prime minister. Sharett opened a secret 'peace' dialogue with Egypt. At the same time according to the film, 'an extraordinary scheme to destabilise Egypt' was organised by the defence minister, Lavon.
Israeli military intelligence recruited young Egyptian Jews to make bombs and blow up buildings. A cinema was destroyed but then the bombers were caught. Sharett tried to assure Egypt's president Nasser that this plot was not of his making, but Nasser was unimpressed and halted the contact. Two of the saboteurs were hung and the rest were given jail sentences. The Israeli government claimed that innocent Jews had been framed. Soon afterwards Ben Gurion replaced Sharett. Not surprisingly, he found it easy to whip up war fever against Egypt.
This is indeed a poignant episode in Israeli history. It sealed the fate of Egypt's remaining Jews who had lived amongst their Arab neighbours since antiquity. Zionism's part in undermining the ancient Jewish communities in Arab countries is rarely acknowledged.
But the episode also revealed that characteristic of Zionism where its dove is harbinger for its hawk, where its treachery is concealed in good intentions.
Zionism could not have survived on its own. Before the Second World War British imperialism was its patron. After the war this task fell to the US. Noam Chomsky's essay 'History's Greatest Prize' (a phrase used by the US government) in World Powers Old & New brilliantly describes the process. The 'prize' is oil and Chomsky's essay explores US support for Israel as part of its overall strategy for keeping its grip on Middle East oil production.
Israel became the US's most heavily funded client state, in its own words, 'America's watchdog', with billions of dollars pouring into the country every year. The US has supported just about every aggressive action by Israel in the Middle East.
It has supported Israel's refusal to recognise Palestinian rights. This became central after 1967 when Israel seized control of the West Bank and Gaza. The US and Israel rejected the international diplomatic consensus that Israel should withdraw from the 'occupied territories'. The consensus formed the basis of the famous UN Resolution 242.
Chomsky argues that Clinton is the most pro-Israeli US president ever. 'Clinton insiders see support for Israel as more important than ever after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Gulf Wars...part of the policy of dual containment aimed at Iraq and Iran and playing them off against each other.'
Within hours of the famous White House lawn handshake between Israeli premier Yitzak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat sealing the Middle East peace process, Palestine's most famous intellectual, Edward Said, has denounced it as an 'instrument of surrender'.
Elsewhere he said, 'No other liberation movement in the 20th century got so little as the PLO roughly 5 percent of its territory. And no other leader of a liberation movement accepted what in effect is permanent subordination of their people.'