During a presentation on the Palestinian-Israeli situation in 2001, an American-Israeli acquaintance of ours began with a typical attack on the Palestinians. Taking the overused line that “Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” he asserted snidely that, if only the Palestinians had had any decency and not been so all-fired interested in pushing the Jews into the sea in 1948, they would have accepted the UN partition of Palestine. Those Palestinians who became refugees would instead have remained peacefully in their homes, and the state of Palestine could in the year 2001 be celebrating the 53rd anniversary of its independence. Everything could have been sweetness and light, he contended, but here the Palestinians were, then a year into a deadly intifada, still stateless, still hostile, and still trying, he claimed, to push the Jews into the sea.
It was a common line but with a new and intriguing twist: what if the Palestinians had accepted partition; would they in fact have lived in a state at peace since 1948? It was enough to make the audience stop and think. But later in the talk, the speaker tripped himself up by claiming, in a tone of deep alarm, that Palestinian insistence on the right of return for Palestinian refugees displaced when Israel was created would spell the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. He did not realize the inherent contradiction in his two assertions (until we later pointed it out to him, with no little glee). You cannot have it both ways, we told him: you cannot claim that, if Palestinians had not left the areas that became Israel in 1948, they would now be living peaceably, some inside and some alongside a Jewish-majority state, and then also claim that, if they returned now, Israel would lose its Jewish majority and its essential identity as a Jewish state.*
This exchange, and the massive propaganda effort by and on behalf of Israel to demonstrate the threat to Israel’s Jewish character posed by the Palestinians’ right of return, actually reveal the dirty little secret of Zionism. In its drive to establish and maintain a state in which Jews are always the majority, Zionism absolutely required that Palestinians, as non-Jews, be made to leave in 1948 and never be allowed to return. The dirty little secret is that this is blatant racism.
But didn’t we finish with that old Zionism-is-racism issue over a decade ago, when in 1991 the UN repealed a 1975 General Assembly resolution that defined Zionism as “a form of racism or racial discrimination”? Hadn’t we Americans always rejected this resolution as odious anti-Semitism, and didn’t we, under the aegis of the first Bush administration, finally prevail on the rest of the world community to agree that it was not only inaccurate but downright evil to label Zionism as racist? Why bring it up again, now?
The UN General Assembly based its 1975 anti-Zionist resolution on the UN’s own definition of racial discrimination, adopted in 1965. According to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, racial discrimination is “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.” As a definition of racism and racial discrimination, this statement is unassailable and, if one is honest about what Zionism is and what it signifies, the statement is an accurate definition of Zionism. But in 1975, in the political atmosphere prevailing at the time, putting forth such a definition was utterly self-defeating.
So would a formal resolution be in today’s political atmosphere. But enough has changed over the last decade or more that talk about Zionism as a system that either is inherently racist or at least fosters racism is increasingly possible and increasingly necessary. Despite the vehement knee-jerk opposition to any such discussion throughout the United States, serious scholars elsewhere and serious Israelis have begun increasingly to examine Zionism critically, and there is much greater receptivity to the notion that no real peace will be forged in Palestine-Israel unless the bases of Zionism are examined and in some way altered. It is for this reason that honestly labeling Zionism as a racist political philosophy is so necessary: unless the world’s, and particularly the United States’, blind support for Israel as an exclusivist Jewish state is undermined, unless the blind acceptance of Zionism as a noble ideology is undermined, and unless it is recognized that Israel’s drive to maintain dominion over the occupied Palestinian territories is motivated by an exclusivist, racist ideology, no one will ever gain the political strength or the political will necessary to force Israel to relinquish territory and permit establishment of a truly sovereign and independent Palestinian state in a part of Palestine.
Recognizing Zionism’s Racism
A racist ideology need not always manifest itself as such, and, if the circumstances are right, it need not always actually practice racism to maintain itself. For decades after its creation, the circumstances were right for Israel. If one forgot, as most people did, the fact that 750,000 Palestinians (non-Jews) had left their homeland under duress, thus making room for a Jewish-majority state, everyone could accept Israel as a genuine democracy, even to a certain extent for that small minority of Palestinians who had remained after 1948. That minority was not large enough to threaten Israel’s Jewish majority; it faced considerable discrimination, but because Israeli Arabs could vote, this discrimination was viewed not as institutional, state-mandated racism but as the kind of discrimination, deplorable but not institutionalized, faced by blacks in the United States. The occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, with their two million (soon to become more than three million) Palestinian inhabitants, was seen to be temporary, its end awaiting only the Arabs’ readiness to accept Israel’s existence.
In these “right” circumstances, the issue of racism rarely arose, and the UN’s labeling of Israel’s fundamental ideology as racist came across to Americans and most westerners as nasty and vindictive. Outside the third world, Israel had come to be regarded as the perpetual innocent, not aggressive, certainly not racist, and desirous of nothing more than a peace agreement that would allow it to mind its own business inside its original borders in a democratic state. By the time the Zionism-is-racism resolution was rescinded in 1991, even the PLO had officially recognized Israel’s right to exist in peace inside its 1967 borders, with its Jewish majority uncontested. In fact, this very acceptance of Israel by its principal adversary played no small part in facilitating the U.S. effort to garner support for overturning the resolution. (The fact of U.S. global dominance in the wake of the first Gulf war and the collapse of the Soviet Union earlier in 1991, and the atmosphere of optimism about prospects for peace created by the Madrid peace conference in October also played a significant part in winning over a majority of the UN when the Zionism resolution was brought to a vote of the General Assembly in December.)
Realities are very different today, and a recognition of Zionism’s racist bases, as well as an understanding of the racist policies being played out in the occupied territories are essential if there is to be any hope at all of achieving a peaceful, just, and stable resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The egg of Palestine has been permanently scrambled, and it is now increasingly the case that, as Zionism is recognized as the driving force in the occupied territories as well as inside Israel proper, pre-1967 Israel can no longer be considered in isolation. It can no longer be allowed simply to go its own way as a Jewish-majority state, a state in which the circumstances are “right” for ignoring Zionism’s fundamental racism.
As Israel increasingly inserts itself into the occupied territories, and as Israeli settlers, Israeli settlements, and Israeli-only roads proliferate and a state infrastructure benefiting only Jews takes over more and more territory, it becomes no longer possible to ignore the racist underpinnings of the Zionist ideology that directs this enterprise. It is no longer possible today to wink at the permanence of Zionism’s thrust beyond Israel’s pre-1967 borders. It is now clear that Israel’s control over the occupied territories is, and has all along been intended to be, a drive to assert exclusive Jewish control, taming the Palestinians into submission and squeezing them into ever smaller, more disconnected segments of land or, failing that, forcing them to leave Palestine altogether. It is totally obvious to anyone who spends time on the ground in Palestine-Israel that the animating force behind the policies of the present and all past Israeli governments in Israel and in the occupied West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem has always been a determination to assure the predominance of Jews over Palestinians. Such policies can only be described as racist, and we should stop trying any longer to avoid the word.
When you are on the ground in Palestine, you can see Zionism physically imprinted on the landscape. Not only can you see that there are settlements, built on land confiscated from Palestinians, where Palestinians may not live. Not only can you see roads in the occupied territories, again built on land taken from Palestinians, where Palestinians may not drive. Not only can you observe that water in the occupied territories is allocated, by Israeli governmental authorities, so inequitably that Israeli settlers are allocated five times the amount per capita as are Palestinians and, in periods of drought, Palestinians stand in line for drinking water while Israeli settlements enjoy lush gardens and swimming pools. Not only can you stand and watch as Israeli bulldozers flatten Palestinian olive groves and other agricultural land, destroy Palestinian wells, and demolish Palestinian homes to make way for the separation wall that Israel is constructing across the length and breadth of the West Bank. The wall fences off Palestinians from Israelis, supposedly to provide greater security for Israelis but in fact in order to cage Palestinians, to define a border for Israel that will exclude a maximum number of Palestinians.
But, if this is not enough to demonstrate the inherent racism of Israel’s occupation, you can also drive through Palestinian towns and Palestinian neighborhoods in and near Jerusalem and see what is perhaps the most cruelly racist policy in Zionism’s arsenal: house demolitions, the preeminent symbol of Zionism’s drive to maintain Jewish predominance. Virtually every street has a house or houses reduced to rubble, one floor pancaked onto another or simply a pile of broken concrete bulldozed into an incoherent heap. Jeff Halper, founder and head of the non-governmental Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), an anthropologist and scholar of the occupation, has observed that Zionist and Israeli leaders going back 80 years have all conveyed what he calls “The Message” to Palestinians. The Message, Halper says, is “Submit. Only when you abandon your dreams for an independent state of your own, and accept that Palestine has become the Land of Israel, will we relent [i.e., stop attacking Palestinians].” The deeper meaning of The Message, as carried by the bulldozers so ubiquitous in targeted Palestinian neighborhoods today, is that “You [Palestinians] do not belong here. We uprooted you from your homes in 1948and now we will uproot you from all of the Land of Israel.”
In the end, Halper says, the advance of Zionism has been a process of displacement, and house demolitions have been “at the center of the Israeli struggle against the Palestinians” since 1948. Halper enumerates a steady history of destruction: in the first six years of Israel’s existence, it systematically razed 418 Palestinian villages inside Israel, fully 85 percent of the villages existing before 1948; since the occupation began in 1967, Israel has demolished 11,000 Palestinian homes. More homes are now being demolished in the path of Israel’s “separation wall.” It is estimated that more than 4,000 homes have been destroyed in the last two years alone.
The vast majority of these house demolitions, 95 percent, have nothing whatever to do with fighting terrorism, but are designed specifically to displace non-Jews and assure the advance of Zionism. In Jerusalem, from the beginning of the occupation of the eastern sector of the city in 1967, Israeli authorities have designed zoning plans specifically to prevent the growth of the Palestinian population. Maintaining the “Jewish character” of the city at the level existing in 1967 (71 percent Jewish, 29 percent Palestinian) required that Israel draw zoning boundaries to prevent Palestinian expansion beyond existing neighborhoods, expropriate Palestinian-owned lands, confiscate the Jerusalem residency permits of any Palestinian who cannot prove that Jerusalem is his “center of life,” limit city services to Palestinian areas, limit development in Palestinian neighborhoods, refuse to issue residential building permits to Palestinians, and demolish Palestinian homes that are built without permits. None of these strictures is imposed on Jews. According to ICAHD, the housing shortage in Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem is approximately 25,000 units, and 2,000 demolition orders are pending.
Halper has written that the human suffering involved in the destruction of a family home is incalculable. A home “is one’s symbolic center, the site of one’s most intimate personal life and an expression of one’s status. It is a refuge, it is the physical representation of the family,maintainingcontinuity on one’s ancestral land.” Land expropriation is “an attack on one’s very being and identity.” Zionist governments, past and present, have understood this well, although not with the compassion or empathy that Halper conveys, and this attack on the “very being and identity” of non-Jews has been precisely the animating force behind Zionism.
Zionism’s racism has, of course, been fundamental to Israel itself since its establishment in 1948. The Israeli government pursues policies against its own Bedouin minority very similar to its actions in the occupied territories. The Bedouin population has been forcibly relocated and squeezed into small areas in the Negev, again with the intent of forcing an exodus, and half of the 140,000 Bedouin in the Negev live in villages that the Israeli government does not recognize and does not provide services for. Every Bedouin home in an unrecognized village is slated for demolition; all homes, and the very presence of Bedouin in them, are officially illegal.
The problem of the Bedouins’ unrecognized villages is only the partial evidence of a racist policy that has prevailed since Israel’s foundation. After Zionist/Israeli leaders assured that the non-Jews (i.e., the Palestinians) making up the majority of Palestine’s population (a two-thirds majority at the time) departed the scene in 1948, Israeli governments institutionalized favoritism toward Jews by law. As a Zionist state, Israel has always identified itself as the state of the Jews: as a state not of its Jewish and Palestinian citizens, but of all Jews everywhere in the world. The institutions of state guarantee the rights of and provide benefits for Jews. The Law of Return gives automatic citizenship to Jews from anywhere in the world, but to no other people. Some 92 percent of the land of Israel is state land, held by the Jewish National Fund “in trust” for the Jewish people; Palestinians may not purchase this land, even though most of it was Palestinian land before 1948, and in most instances they may not even lease the land. Both the Jewish National Fund, which deals with land acquisition and development, and the Jewish Agency, which deals primarily with Jewish immigration and immigrant absorption, have existed since before the state’s establishment and now perform their duties specifically for Jews under an official mandate from the Israeli government.
Although few dare to give the reality of house demolitions and state institutions favoring Jews the label of racism, the phenomenon this reality describes is unmistakably racist. There is no other term for a process by which one people can achieve the essence of its political philosophy only by suppressing another people, by which one people guarantees its perpetual numerical superiority and its overwhelming predominance over another people through a deliberate process of repression and dispossession of those people. From the beginning, Zionism has been based on the supremacy of the Jewish people, whether this predominance was to be exercised in a full-fledged state or in some other kind of political entity, and Zionism could never have survived or certainly thrived in Palestine without ridding that land of most of its native population. The early Zionists themselves knew this (as did the Palestinians), even if naïve Americans have never quite gotten it. Theodore Herzl, father of Zionism, talked from the beginning of “spiriting” the native Palestinians out and across the border; discussion of “transfer” was common among the Zionist leadership in Palestine in the 1930s; talk of transfer is common today.
There has been a logical progression to the development of Zionism, leading inevitably to general acceptance of the sense that, because Jewish needs are paramount, Jews themselves are paramount. Zionism grew out of the sense that Jews needed a refuge from persecution, which led in turn to the belief that the refuge could be truly secure only if Jews guaranteed their own safety, which meant that the refuge must be exclusively or at least overwhelmingly Jewish, which meant in turn that Jews and their demands were superior, taking precedence over any other interests within that refuge. The mindset that in U.S. public discourse tends to view the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from a perspective almost exclusively focused on Israel arises out of this progression of Zionist thinking. By the very nature of a mindset, virtually no one examines the assumptions on which the Zionist mindset is based, and few recognize the racist base on which it rests.
Israeli governments through the decades have never been so innocent. Many officials in the current right-wing government are blatantly racist. Israel’s outspoken education minister, Limor Livnat, spelled out the extreme right-wing defense of Zionism a year ago, when the government proposed to legalize the right of Jewish communities in Israel to exclude non-Jews. Livnat justified Israel’s racism as a matter of Jewish self-preservation. “We’re involved here,” she said in a radio interview, “in a struggle for the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jews, as opposed tothose who want to force us to be a state of all its citizens.” Israel is not “just another state like all the other states,” she protested. “We are not just a state of all its citizens.”
Livnat cautioned that Israel must be very watchful lest it find in another few years that the Galilee and the Negev, two areas inside Israel with large Arab populations, are “filled with Arab communities.” To emphasize the point, she reiterated that Israel’s “special purpose is our character as a Jewish state, our desire to preserve a Jewish community and Jewish majority hereso that it does not become a state of all its citizens.” Livnat was speaking of Jewish self-preservation not in terms of saving the Jews or Israel from a territorial threat of military invasion by a marauding neighbor state, but in terms of preserving Jews from the mere existence of another people within spitting distance.
Most Zionists of a more moderate stripe might shudder at the explicitness of Livnat’s message and deny that Zionism is really like this. But in fact this properly defines the racism that necessarily underlies Zionism. Most centrist and leftist Zionists deny the reality of Zionism’s racism by trying to portray Zionism as a democratic system and manufacturing enemies in order to be able to sustain the inherent contradiction and hide or excuse the racism behind Zionism’s drive for predominance.
Indeed, the most pernicious aspect of a political philosophy like Zionism that masquerades as democratic is that it requires an enemy in order to survive and, where an enemy does not already exist, it requires that one be created. In order to justify racist repression and dispossession, particularly in a system purporting to be democratic, those being repressed and displaced must be portrayed as murderous and predatory. And in order to keep its own population in line, to prevent a humane people from objecting to their own government’s repressive policies, it requires that fear be instilled in the population: fear of “the other,” fear of the terrorist, fear of the Jew-hater. The Jews of Israel must always be made to believe that they are the preyed-upon. This justifies having forced these enemies to leave, it justifies discriminating against those who remained, it justifies denying democratic rights to those who later came under Israel’s control in the occupied territories.
Needing an enemy has meant that Zionism has from the beginning had to create myths about Palestinians, painting Palestinians and all Arabs as immutably hostile and intransigent. Thus the myth that in 1948 Palestinians left Palestine so that Arab armies could throw the Jews into the sea; thus the continuing myth that Palestinians remain determined to destroy Israel. Needing an enemy means that Zionism, as one veteran Israeli peace activist recently put it, has removed the Palestinians from history. Thus the myths that there is no such thing as a Palestinian, or that Palestinians all immigrated in modern times from other Arab countries, or that Jordan is Palestine and Palestinians should find their state there.
Needing an enemy means that Zionism has had to make its negotiating partner into a terrorist. It means that, for its own preservation, Zionism has had to devise a need to ignore its partner/enemy or expel him or assassinate him. It means that Zionism has had to reject any conciliatory effort by the Palestinians and portray them as “never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity” to make peace. This includes in particular rejecting that most conciliatory gesture, the PLO’s decision in 1988 to recognize Israel’s existence, relinquish Palestinian claims to the three-quarters of Palestine lying inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders, and even recognize Israel’s “right” to exist there.
Needing an enemy means, ultimately, that Zionism had to create the myth of the “generous offer” at the Camp David summit in July 2000. It was Zionist racism that painted the Palestinians as hopelessly intransigent for refusing Israel’s supposedly generous offer, actually an impossible offer that would have maintained Zionism’s hold on the occupied territories and left the Palestinians with a disconnected, indefensible, non-viable state. Then, when the intifada erupted (after Palestinian demonstrators threw stones at Israeli police and the police responded by shooting several demonstrators to death), it was Zionist racism speaking when Israel put out the line that it was under siege and in a battle for its very survival with Palestinians intent on destroying it. When a few months later the issue of Palestinian refugees and their “right of return” arose publicly, it was Zionist racism speaking when Israel and its defenders, ignoring the several ways in which Palestinian negotiators signaled their readiness to compromise this demand, propagated the view that this too was intended as a way to destroy Israel, by flooding it with non-Jews and destroying its Jewish character.
The Zionist Dilemma
The supposed threat from “the other” is the eternal refuge of the majority of Israelis and Israeli supporters in the United States. The common line is that “We Israelis and friends of Israel long for peace, we support Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, we have always supported giving the Palestinians self-government. But ‘they’ hate us, they want to destroy Israel. Wasn’t this obvious when Arafat turned his back on Israel’s generous offer? Wasn’t this obvious when Arafat started the intifada? Wasn’t this obvious when Arafat demanded that the Palestinians be given the right of return, which would destroy Israel as a Jewish state? We have already made concession after concession. How can we give them any further concessions when they would only fight for more and more until Israel is gone?” This line relieves Israel of any responsibility to make concessions or move toward serious negotiations; it relieves Israelis of any need to treat Palestinians as equals; it relieves Israelis and their defenders of any need to think; it justifies racism, while calling it something else.
Increasing numbers of Israelis themselves (some of whom have long been non-Zionists, some of whom are only now beginning to see the problem with Zionism) are recognizing the inherent racism of their nation’s raison d’etre. During the years of the peace process, and indeed for the last decade and a half since the PLO formally recognized Israel’s existence, the Israeli left could ignore the problems of Zionism while pursuing efforts to promote the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza that would coexist with Israel. Zionism continued to be more or less a non-issue: Israel could organize itself in any way it chose inside its own borders, and the Palestinian state could fulfill Palestinian national aspirations inside its new borders.
Few of those nettlesome issues surrounding Zionism, such as how much democracy Zionism can allow to non-Jews without destroying its reason for being, would arise in a two-state situation. The issue of Zionism’s responsibility for the Palestinians’ dispossession could also be put aside. As Haim Hanegbi, a non-Zionist Israeli who recently went back to the fold of single-state binationalism (and who is a long-time cohort of Uri Avnery in the Gush Shalom movement), said in a recent interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, the promise of mutual recognition offered by the Oslo peace process mesmerized him and others in the peace movement and so “in the mid-1990s I had second thoughts about my traditional [binational] approach. I didn’t think it was my task to go to Ramallah and present the Palestinians with the list of Zionist wrongs and tell them not to forget what our fathers did to their fathers.” Nor were the Palestinians themselves reminding Zionists of these wrongs at the time.
As new wrongs in the occupied territories increasingly recall old wrongs from half a century ago, however, and as Zionism finds that it cannot cope with end-of-conflict demands like the Palestinians’ insistence that Israel accept their right of return by acknowledging its role in their dispossession, more and more Israelis are coming to accept the reality that Zionism can never escape its past. It is becoming increasingly clear to many Israelis that Israel has absorbed so much of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem into itself that the Jewish and the Palestinian peoples can never be separated fairly. The separation wall, says Hanegbi, “is the great despairing solution of the Jewish-Zionist society. It is the last desperate act of those who cannot confront the Palestinian issue. Of those who are compelled to push the Palestinian issue out of their lives and out of their consciousness.” For Hanegbi, born in Palestine before 1948, Palestinians “were always part of my landscape,” and without them, “this is a barren country, a disabled country.”
Old-line Zionist Meron Benvenisti, who has also moved to support for binationalism, used almost identical metaphors in a Ha’aretz interview run alongside Hanegbi’s. Also Palestine-born and a contemporary of Hanegbi, Benvenisti believes “this is a country in which there were always Arabs. This is a country in which the Arabs are the landscape, the natives.I don’t see myself living here without them. In my eyes, without Arabs this is a barren land.”
Both men discuss the evolution of their thinking over the decades, and both describe a period in which, after the triumph of Zionism, they unthinkingly accepted its dispossession of the Palestinians. Each man describes the Palestinians simply disappearing when he was an adolescent (“They just sort of evaporated,” says Hanegbi), and Benvenisti recalls a long period in which the Palestinian “tragedy simply did not penetrate my consciousness.” But both speak in very un-Zionist terms of equality. Benvenisti touches on the crux of the Zionist dilemma. “This is where I am different from my friends in the left,” he says, “because I am truly a native son of immigrants, who is drawn to the Arab culture and the Arabic language because it is here. It is the land.Whereas the right, certainly, but the left too hates Arabs. The Arabs bother them; they complicate things. The subject generates moral questions and that generates cultural unease.”
Hanegbi goes farther. “I am not a psychologist,” he says, “but I think that everyone who lives with the contradictions of Zionism condemns himself to protracted madness. It’s impossible to live like this. It’s impossible to live with such a tremendous wrong. It’s impossible to live with such conflicting moral criteria. When I see not only the settlements and the occupation and the suppression, but now also the insane wall that the Israelis are trying to hide behind, I have to conclude that there is something very deep here in our attitude to the indigenous people of this land that drives us out of our minds.”
While some thoughtful Israelis like these men struggle with philosophical questions of existence and identity and the collective Jewish conscience, few American defenders of Israel seem troubled by such deep issues. Racism is often banal. Most of those who practice it, and most of those who support Israel as a Zionist state, would be horrified to be accused of racism, because their racist practices have become commonplace. They do not even think about what they do. We recently encountered a typical American supporter of Israel who would have argued vigorously if we had accused her of racism. During a presentation we were giving to a class, this (non-Jewish) woman rose to ask a question that went roughly like this: “I want to ask about the failure of the other Arabs to take care of the Palestinians. I must say I sympathize with Israel because Israel simply wants to have a secure state, but the other Arabs have refused to take the Palestinians in, and so they sit in camps and their hostility toward Israel just festers.”
This is an extremely common American, and Israeli, perception, the idea being that if the Arab states would only absorb the Palestinians so that they became Lebanese or Syrians or Jordanians, they would forget about being Palestinian, forget that Israel had displaced and dispossessed them, and forget about “wanting to destroy Israel.” Israel would then be able simply to go about its own business and live in peace, as it so desperately wants to do. This woman’s assumption was that it is acceptable for Israel to have established itself as a Jewish state at the expense of (i.e., after the ethnic cleansing of) the land’s non-Jewish inhabitants, that any Palestinian objection to this reality is illegitimate, and that all subsequent animosity toward Israel is ultimately the fault of neighboring Arab states who failed to smother the Palestinians’ resistance by anesthetizing them to their plight and erasing their identity and their collective memory of Palestine.
When later in the class the subject arose of Israel ending the occupation, this same woman spoke up to object that, if Israel did give up control over the West Bank and Gaza, it would be economically disadvantaged, at least in the agricultural sector. “Wouldn’t this leave Israel as just a desert?” she wondered. Apart from the fact that the answer is a clear “no” (Israel’s agricultural capability inside its 1967 borders is quite high, and most of Israel is not desert), the woman’s question was again based on the automatic assumption that Israel’s interests take precedence over those of anyone else and that, in order to enhance its own agricultural economy (or, presumably, for any other perceived gain), Israel has the right to conquer and take permanent possession of another people’s land.
The notion that the Jewish/Zionist state of Israel has a greater right to possess the land, or a greater right to security, or a greater right to a thriving economy, than the people who are native to that land is extremely racist, but this woman would probably object strenuously to having it pointed out that this is a Jewish supremacist viewpoint identical to past justifications for white South Africa’s apartheid regime and to the rationale for all European colonial (racist) systems that exploited the human and natural resources of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia over the centuries for the sole benefit of the colonizers. Racism must necessarily be blind to its own immorality; the burden of conscience is otherwise too great. This is the banality of evil.
(Unconsciously, of course, many Americans also seem to believe that the shameful policies of the U.S. government toward Native Americans somehow make it acceptable for the government of Israel to pursue equally shameful policies toward the Palestinians. The U.S. needs to face its racist policies head on as much as it needs to confront the racism of its foremost partner, Israel.)
This woman’s view is so very typical, something you hear constantly in casual conversation and casual encounters at social occasions, that it hardly seems significant. But this very banality is precisely the evil of it; what is evil is the very fact that it is “hardly significant” that Zionism by its nature is racist and that this reality goes unnoticed by decent people who count themselves defenders of Israel. The universal acceptability of a system that is at heart racist but proclaims itself to be benign, even noble, and the license this acceptability gives Israel to oppress another people, are striking testimony to the selectivity of the human conscience and its general disinterest in human questions of justice and human rights except when these are politically useful.
Countering the Counter-Arguments
To put some perspective on this issue, a few clarifying questions must be addressed. Many opponents of the occupation would argue that, although Israel’s policies in the occupied territories are racist in practice, they are an abuse of Zionism and that racism is not inherent in it. This seems to be the position of several prominent commentators who have recently denounced Israel severely for what it does in the West Bank and Gaza but fail to recognize the racism in what Israel did upon its establishment in 1948. In a recent bitter denunciation of Zionist policies today, Avraham Burg, a former Knesset speaker, lamented that Zionism had become corrupted by ruling as an occupier over another people, and he longed for the days of Israel’s youth when “our national destiny” was “as a light unto the nations and a society of peace, justice and equality.” These are nice words, and it is heartening to hear credible mainstream Israelis so clearly denouncing the occupation, but Burg’s assumption that before the occupation Zionism followed “a just path” and always had “an ethical leadership” ignores the unjust and unethical policy of ethnic cleansing that allowed Israel to become a so-called Jewish democracy in the first place.
Acknowledging the racist underpinnings of an ideology so long held up as the embodiment of justice and ethics appears to be impossible for many of the most intellectual of Israelis and Israeli defenders. Many who strongly oppose Israel’s policies in the occupied territories still, despite their opposition, go through considerable contortions to “prove” that Israel itself is not racist. Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the Jewish magazine Tikkun and a long-time opponent of the occupation, rejects the notion that Zionism is racist on the narrow grounds that Jewishness is only a religious identity and that Israel welcomes Jews of all races and ethnicities and therefore cannot be called racist. But this confuses the point. Preference toward a particular religion, which is the only aspect of racism that Lerner has addressed and which he acknowledges occurs in Israel, is no more acceptable than preference on ethnic grounds.
But most important, racism has to do primarily with those discriminated against, not with those who do the discriminating. Using Lerner’s reasoning, apartheid South Africa might also not be considered racist because it welcomed whites of all ethnicities. But its inherent evil lay in the fact that its very openness to whites discriminated against blacks. Discrimination against any people on the basis of “race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin” is the major characteristic of racism as the UN defines it. Discrimination against Palestinians and other non-Jews, simply because they are not Jews, is the basis on which Israel constitutes itself. Lerner seems to believe that, because the Palestinian citizens of Israel have the vote and are represented in the Knesset, there is no racial or ethnic discrimination in Israel. But, apart from skipping over the institutional racism that keeps Palestinian Israelis in perpetual second-class citizenship, this argument ignores the more essential reality that Israel reached its present ethnic balance, the point at which it could comfortably allow Palestinians to vote without endangering its Jewish character, only because in 1948 three-quarters of a million Palestinians were forced to leave what became the Jewish state of Israel.
More questions need to be addressed. Is every Israeli or every Jew a racist? Most assuredly not, as the examples of Jeff Halper, Haim Hanegbi, Meron Benvenisti, and many others like them strikingly illustrate. Is every Zionist a racist? Probably not, if one accepts ignorance as an exonerating factor. No doubt the vast majority of Israelis, most very good-hearted people, are not consciously racist but “go along” unquestioningly, having been born into or moved to an apparently democratic state and never examined the issue closely, and having bought into the line fed them by every Israeli government from the beginning, that Palestinians and other Arabs are enemies and that whatever actions Israel takes against Palestinians are necessary to guarantee the personal security of Israelis.
Is it anti-Semitic to say that Zionism is a racist system? Certainly not. Political criticism is not ethnic or religious hatred. Stating a reality about a government’s political system or its political conduct says nothing about the qualities of its citizens or its friends. Racism is not a part of the genetic makeup of Jews, any more than it was a part of the genetic makeup of Germans when Hitler ran a racist regime. Nor do Zionism’s claim to speak for all Jews everywhere and Israel’s claim to be the state of all Jews everywhere make all Jews Zionists. Zionism did not ask for or receive the consent of universal Jewry to speak in its name; therefore labeling Zionism as racist does not label all Jews and cannot be called anti-Semitic.
Why It Matters
Are there other racist systems, and are there governing systems and political philosophies, racist or not, that are worse than Zionism? Of course, but this fact does not relieve Zionism of culpability. (Racism obviously exists in the United States and in times past was pervasive throughout the country, but, unlike Israel, the U.S. is not a racist governing system, based on racist foundations and depending for its raison d’etre on a racist philosophy.) Many defenders of Israel (Michael Lerner and columnist Thomas Friedman come to mind) contend that when Israel is “singled out” for criticism not also leveled at oppressive regimes elsewhere, the attackers are exhibiting a special hatred for Jews. Anyone who does not also criticize Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il or Bashar al-Assad for atrocities far greater than Israel’s, they charge, is showing that he is less concerned to uphold absolute values than to tear down Israel because it is Jewish. But this charge ignores several factors that demand criticism of Zionist racism. First, because the U.S. government supports Zionism and its racist policy on a continuing basis and props up Zionism’s military machine with massive amounts of military aid, it is wholly appropriate for Americans (indeed, it is incumbent on Americans) to call greater attention to Zionism’s racism than, for instance, to North Korea’s appalling cruelties. The United States does not assist in North Korea’s atrocities, but it does underwrite Zionism’s brutality.
There is also a strong moral reason for denouncing Zionism as racist. Zionism advertises itself, and actually congratulates itself, as a uniquely moral system that stands as a “light unto the nations,” putting itself forward as in a real sense the very embodiment of the values Americans hold dear. Many Zionist friends of Israel would have us believe that Zionism is us, and in many ways it is: most Americans, seeing Israelis as “like us,” have grown up with the notion that Israel is a noble enterprise and that the ideology that spawned it is of the highest moral order. Substantial numbers of Americans, non-Jews as well as Jews, feel an emotional and psychological bond with Israel and Zionism that goes far beyond the ties to any other foreign ally. One scholar, describing the U.S.-Israeli tie, refers to Israel as part of the “being” of the United States. Precisely because of the intimacy of the relationship, it is imperative that Zionism’s hypocrisy be exposed, that Americans not give aid and comfort to, or even remain associated with, a morally repugnant system that uses racism to exalt one people over all others while masquerading as something better than it is. The United States can remain supportive of Israel as a nation without any longer associating itself with Israel’s racism.
Finally, there are critical practical reasons for acknowledging Zionism’s racism and enunciating a U.S. policy clearly opposed to racism everywhere and to the repressive Israeli policies that arise from Zionist racism. Now more than at any time since the United States positioned itself as an enthusiastic supporter of Zionism, U.S. endorsement, and indeed facilitation, of Israel’s racist policies put this country at great risk for terrorism on a massive scale. Terrorism arises, not as President Bush would have us believe from “hatred of our liberties,” but from hatred of our oppressive, killing policies throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, and in a major way from our support for Israel’s severe oppression of the Palestinians. Terrorism is never acceptable, but it is explainable, and it is usually avoidable. Supporting the oppression of Palestinians that arises from Israel’s racism only encourages terrorism.
It is time to begin openly expressing revulsion at the racism against Palestinians that the United States has been supporting for decades. It is time to sound an alarm about the near irreversibility of Israel’s absorption of the occupied territories into Israel, about the fact that this arises from a fundamentally racist ideology, about the fact that this racism is leading to the ethnicide of an entire nation of people, and about the fact that it is very likely to produce horrific terrorist retaliation against the U.S. because of its unquestioning support. Many who are intimately familiar with the situation on the ground are already sounding an alarm, usually without using the word racism but using other inflammatory terms. Israeli commentator Ran HaCohen recently observed that “Israel’s atrocities have now intensified to an extent unimaginable in previous decades.” Land confiscation, curfew, the “gradual pushing of Palestinians from areas designated for Jews” have accompanied the occupation all along, he wrote, but the level of oppression now “is quite another story.[This is] an eliminationist policy on the verge of genocide.”
The Foundation for Middle East Peace, a Washington-based institution that has tracked Israeli settlement-building for decades, came to much the same conclusion, although using less attention-getting language, in its most recent bimonthly newsletter. Israel, it wrote, is “undertaking massive, unprecedented efforts beyond the construction of new settlement housing, which proceeds apace, to put the question of its control of these areas beyond the reach of diplomacy.” Israel’s actions, particularly the “relentless” increase in territorial control, the foundation concluded, have “compromised not only the prospect for genuine Palestinian independence but also, in ways not seen in Israel’s 36-year occupation, the very sustainability of everyday Palestinian life.”
It signals a remarkable change when Israeli commentators and normally staid foundations begin using terms like “unprecedented,” “unimaginable in previous decades,” “in ways not seen in Israel’s 36-year occupation,” even words like “eliminationist” and “genocide.” While the Bush administration, every Democratic presidential candidate (including, to some degree, even the most progressive), Congress, and the mainstream U.S. media blithely ignore the extent of the destruction in Palestine, more and more voices outside the United States and outside the mainstream in the U.S. are finally coming to recognize that Israel is squeezing the life out of the Palestinian nation. Those who see this reality should begin to expose not only the reality but the racism that is at its root.
Some very thoughtful Israelis, including Haim Hanegbi, Meron Benvenisti, and activists like Jeff Halper, have come to the conclusion that Israel has absorbed so much of the occupied territories that a separate, truly independent Palestinian state can never be established in the West Bank and Gaza. They now regard a binational solution as the only way. In theory, this would mean an end to Zionism (and Zionist racism) by allowing the Jewish and the Palestinian peoples to form a single secular state in all of Palestine in which they live together in equality and democracy, in which neither people is superior, in which neither people identifies itself by its nationality or its religion but rather simply by its citizenship. Impossible? Idealized? Pie-in-the-sky? Probably so but maybe not.
Other Israeli and Jewish activists and thinkers, such as Israel’s Uri Avnery and CounterPunch contributor Michael Neumann, have cogently challenged the wisdom and the realism of trying to pursue binationalism at the present time. But it is striking that their arguments center on what will best assure a decent outcome for Palestinians. In fact, what is most heartening about the newly emerging debate over the one- versus the two-state solution is the fact that intelligent, compassionate people have at long last been able to move beyond addressing Jewish victimhood and how best to assure a future for Jews, to begin debating how best to assure a future for both the Palestinian and the Jewish people. Progressives in the U.S., both supporters and opponents of present U.S. policies toward Israel, should encourage similar debate in this country. If this requires loudly attacking AIPAC and its intemperate charges of anti-Semitism, so be it.
We recently had occasion to raise the notion of Israeli racism, using the actual hated word, at a gathering of about 25 or 30 (mostly) progressive (mostly) Jews, and came away with two conclusions: 1) it is a hard concept to bring people to face, but 2) we were not run out of the room and, after the initial shock of hearing the word racist used in connection with Zionism, most people in the room, with only a few exceptions, took the idea aboard. Many specifically thanked us for what we had said. One man, raised as a Jew and now a Muslim, came up to us afterward to say that he thinks Zionism is nationalist rather than racist (to which we argued that nationalism was the motivation but racism is the resulting reality), but he acknowledged, with apparent approbation, that referring to racism had a certain shock effect. Shock effect is precisely what we wanted. The United States’ complacent support for everything Israel does will not be altered without shock.
When a powerful state kills hundreds of civilians from another ethnic group; confiscates their land; builds vast housing complexes on that land for the exclusive use of its own nationals; builds roads on that land for the exclusive use of its own nationals; prevents expansion of the other people’s neighborhoods and towns; demolishes on a massive scale houses belonging to the other people, in order either to prevent that people’s population growth, to induce them “voluntarily” to leave their land altogether, or to provide “security” for its own nationals; imprisons the other people in their own land behind checkpoints, roadblocks, ditches, razor wire, electronic fences, and concrete walls; squeezes the other people into ever smaller, disconnected segments of land; cripples the productive capability of the other people by destroying or separating them from their agricultural land, destroying or confiscating their wells, preventing their industrial expansion, and destroying their businesses; imprisons the leadership of the other people and threatens to expel or assassinate that leadership; destroys the security forces and the governing infrastructure of the other people; destroys an entire population’s census records, land registry records, and school records; vandalizes the cultural headquarters and the houses of worship of the other people by urinating, defecating, and drawing graffiti on cultural and religious artifacts and symbols when one people does these things to another, a logical person can draw only one conclusion: the powerful state is attempting to destroy the other people, to push them into the sea, to ethnically cleanse them.
These kinds of atrocities, and particularly the scale of the repression, did not spring full-blown out of some terrorist provocations by Palestinians. These atrocities grew out of a political philosophy that says whatever advances the interests of Jews is acceptable as policy. This is a racist philosophy.
What Israel is doing to the Palestinians is not genocide, it is not a holocaust, but it is, unmistakably, ethnicide. It is, unmistakably, racism. Israel worries constantly, and its American friends worry, about the destruction of Israel. We are all made to think always about the existential threat to Israel, to the Jewish people. But the nation in imminent danger of elimination today is not Israel but the Palestinians. Such a policy of national destruction must not be allowed to stand.
* Assuming, according to the scenario put forth by our Israeli-American friend, that Palestinians had accepted the UN-mandated establishment of a Jewish state in 1948, that no war had ensued, and that no Palestinians had left Palestine, Israel would today encompass only the 55 percent of Palestine allocated to it by the UN partition resolution, not the 78 percent it possessed after successfully prosecuting the 1948 war. It would have no sovereignty over Jerusalem, which was designated by the UN as a separate international entity not under the sovereignty of any nation. Its 5.4 million Jews (assuming the same magnitude of Jewish immigration and natural increase) would be sharing the state with approximately five million Palestinians (assuming the same nine-fold rate of growth among the 560,000 Palestinians who inhabited the area designated for the Jewish state as has occurred in the Palestinian population that actually remained in Israel in 1948). Needless to say, this small, severely overcrowded, binational state would not be the comfortable little Jewish democracy that our friend seems to have envisioned.
Bill Christison joined the CIA in 1950, and served on the analysis side of the Agency for 28 years. From the early 1970s he served as National Intelligence Officer (principal adviser to the Director of Central Intelligence on certain areas) for, at various times, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Africa. Before he retired in 1979 he was Director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis, a 250-person unit.
Kathleen Christison also worked in the CIA, retiring in 1979. Since then she has been mainly preoccupied by the issue of Palestine. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession.