The ‘utilitarian’ Zionism of the Guardian’s Giles Fraser

Giles Fraser’s April 5 column in the Guardian about Zionism in the context of the recent rise of right-wing antisemitism in Hungary includes the following passages:

Regularly, on the Hungarian football terraces, a familiar nursery rhyme is chanted, with the words adapted to “the train goes to Auschwitz”.

Budapest may have Central Europe‘s largest population of Jews, but some of them are now asking themselves if it is time to leave. A month after the Israel match, a prominent leader of the Jewish community was beaten up by thugs in the street who screamed at him “rotten filthy Jews, you will all die”. The Holy Crown radio station – registered in the US, and thus protected by their freedom of speech laws – defended the attack as “a response to general Jewish terrorism”. And last November, the leader of the far right Jobbik party, the third largest party in the Hungarian parliament, called for influential Hungarian Jews to be catalogued and assessed as a national security risk. Elsewhere, Jewish graves are being desecrated and, encouraged by the government, statues are being erected to Nazi ally Miklós Horthy. With a failing currency, sky-rocketing unemployment and government credit rating reduced to junk status, all this is frighteningly reminiscent of the past.

Fraser then pivots to Zionism:

Which is why re-reading Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish Question in a Budapest cafe, opposite the astonishingly beautiful Dohány Street Synagogue, feels, once again, so topical. Herzl was born in 1860 in the house next to the synagogue and had his bar mitzvah there. Later he left for Austria and went on to become the founding father of modern Zionism.

Herzl’s sense that even assimilated Jews are not always protected by their integration with surrounding society was well made.


Fraser then proceeds to explain the following:

I am a Zionist

He then adds the following disclaimer:

[I am] not an Israel right-or-wrong type of Zionist. Not a supporter of the settlement movement type of Zionist, and absolutely not a supporter of the shameful treatment of Palestinians type of Zionist. Tragically, the left-leaning universalist idealism of the likes of Herzl feels increasingly like a thing of the past in modern Israeli politics.

Fraser adds:

But for all Israel’s political blunders and military brutality, the place to look for the necessity of the state of Israel is not in Israel itself but in places like Budapest.

Fraser’s Zionism, as with many who similarly fancy themselves more ‘enlightened’ Zionists, seems based not on the Jews’ right to national self-determination, but on the state’s usefulness to European diaspora Jewish communities – a Jewish state whose continued existence, it would follow, is primarily ‘justified’ by virtue of the safe haven it provides for persecuted Jews throughout the world.

Whilst it is of course true that one of Zionism’s moral missions pertains to the Jewish state’s role as (what Herzl termed) ‘Guardian of the Jews, the nation, now established, no longer needs any further justification.  The rights of the modern Jewish state – now re-established – are not forever in a state of limbo awaiting the results of an ongoing assessment – or periodic review – tasked to affirm or deny its value.  

A nation’s rights – as with the rights afforded to individuals – which are in any way contingent upon the benevolence of others are not rights at all, but would more aptly be described as ‘privileges’.

For thousands of years European Jews were subjected to the whims and wishes of non-Jewish rulers – required to accept that whatever political liberties or physical safety they may have temporarily enjoyed in their ‘host country’ was always precarious, and often continually required that they demonstrate the usefulness of their presence.  A truly liberal case against antisemitism – expressed towards Jews as individuals and as a nation – would necessarily include the rejection such utilitarian arguments for Jewish freedom.

Nobody, argued Israel’s late foreign minister Abba Eban, “does Israel any service by proclaiming its ‘right to exist’ – a right, he added, “like that of the United States, Saudi Arabia and [every] other state”, which is “axiomatic and unreserved”.

The Jewish state’s inherent right to continued political independence is not a reward it must earn, a favor to be granted or a privilege to be bestowed. 

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