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FAQ on Zionism and Racism

Many in Israel and abroad have equated Zionism with racism – but is it justified?

By Jerry Haber

Is Zionism inherently racist?

No. Zionism was never based on theories of racial or even cultural superiority. Zionism, was and is a movement to achieve Jewish self-determination (there are other elements as well). For most Zionists, the place for that self-determination was and is the Land of Israel.

Is there racist Zionism?

Sure, there are certainly racist versions of Zionism, if we broaden “racism” to include theories of religious-racial superiority.

Have there been racist Zionists?

Sure, but not by virtue of their Zionism. Even the attempts of certain religious Zionists to posit a metaphysical distinction between Jew and Gentile, or who suggest that the Ishmaelites have inherited their ancestor’s hatred of Isaac, etc., can not be laid at the feet of their Zionism, but rather their understanding of Judaism. And, of course, there are racists everywhere. Even cultural Zionists like Magnes expressed feelings of cultural superiority towards local Arabs in his private correspondence. But that did not figure into his Zionism. He simply was an American who had spent time in Germany, and who had the cultural snobbery that infects many people. In America, German Jews didn’t let Russian Jews become members of their country clubs because they viewed the latter as uncouth and vulgar. A person can be a bigot and a Zionist, but that doesn’t make Zionism bigotry.

Is Zionism inherently discriminatory?

Not all forms of Zionism are, but the sort of exclusivist-ethnic-statist Zionism that emerged in Palestine was and is inherently discriminatory – even if Zionists wish to believe that it is not. They could never give convincing arguments for the distinction between favoring Jews (good) and discriminating against Arabs (bad) on the level of the state. You really can’t have one without the other.

Was Zionism essentially a colonialist movement?

There are essential colonialist elements within classical Zionism, both in practice (settlements) and in mentality (feelings of cultural superiority over the natives.) But it differs from colonialism in that it is a settler nationalism that sees its task as reclaiming its ancient land.

Was Zionism essentially anti-Arab?

Zionism essentially ignored the Arabs, at least until the Arabs made it impossible not to. Zionism was not initially directed against the Palestinian Arabs; they were the “collateral damage” of the Zionist project, especially the statist Zionist project. But with time, and with the predictable and justifiable Arab resistance, anti-Arabism entered Zionism.

But didn’t a Jewish state require ethnic cleansing?

That depended on the sort of Jewish state. The state that Ben Gurion envisioned would have had great difficulties without ridding itself of the Palestinian population, which it defined as hostile. It did not have enough land for the socialist pioneers, and it did not have room for the anticipated waves of immigration. Nor was anybody interested in 1948 with power-sharing. Before 1948 the Zionists told the world that a Jewish state could arise with a sizeable Arab population. The state that the Jewish Agency accepted was 40% Arab. But upon independence the State of Israel passed a law that effectively barred the return of Palestinians to their homes, and there has been an effort to keep the total number of Arabs to no more than 20%. To justify this morally, the Zionists have engaged in self-deception; they claim that the Arabs left voluntarily and had abandoned property claims and that they could not return because they were a hostile element. The Zionists didn’t want to accept responsibility for the ethnic cleansing, but they were happy for it. That is true of the vast majority of Israelis, today.

Then why do people call Zionism “racism”?

Either because they use the term loosely, or they don’t understand Zionism, or because racism is very bad, and if you want to delegitimize something, you throw the word “racism” at it. Thinking people, on the other hand, can realize that “Zionism” and “racism” and “colonialism” are complicated terms, and that terminological sobriety is a virtue. Something can be very, very bad without being racist or apartheid. If I say that Israeli society discriminates against Palestinian Israelis, the discrimination need not be based on racism in the technical sense. Part of it is racist; part of it is not. All of it is very, very bad.

Cross-posted from Jerry Haber’s blog, The Magnes Zionist, with the author’s permission

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    1. There’s a simple, fundamental logical contradiction here. The very idea of a “Jewish state” (or “Jewish self-determination”) means that the state must be ruled by Jews, i.e. that Jews must be dominant, and that non-Jews therefore can’t have equal rights. Allowing non-Jews to be a “sizeable” minority is not the same thing as granting them equal rights. If everyone in a state has equal rights, it can’t possibly be a “Jewish state”. In any case, in a state where everyone has equal rights, nothing can stop any group from becoming a majority.

      An ideology that grants different rights to Jews and non-Jews is indeed a racist ideology. So even according to your apologetic definition of Zionism here, Zionism is indeed inherently racist.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Lawrence Rifkin

      I was enjoying what I thought was a scholarly essay until I got to “…with the predictable and justifiable Arab resistance….” Predictable, yes. Even understandable. But a blanket “justifiable?” A bunch of blocks being put in place to contruct a strong and viable wall of logic and sense came crashing down with that line. Too bad.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Michael W.

      Benjamin Geer brings up an interesting point. Does Zionism give “different rights” to Jews than to non-Jews? I’m not an expert on Israeli jurisprudence so I hope someone can give me a list of Israeli laws that give Jews and non-Jews different rights. I know of the unequal allocation of resources to Jews and Arabs in Israel, but can someone please explain to me how this is Zionism. I know of the Law of Return, but I don’t see how it gives Jews different rights than to Israeli Arabs.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Folks, this FAQ has received many long comments on my blog, the Magnes Zionist blog. I plan to revise the FAQ, but in the meantime, you may look there.

      Benjamin, I urge to read my post, Zionism Without a Jewish Ethnic State, and then some of the comments on the FAQ. I think you will get a better insight as to what I am driving at.

      Lawrence, of course Arab resistance was justified. Over the course of several decades there has been immigration into Palestine, some legal, some not legal, with most of the immigrants coming from Eastern Europe with the express desire of establishing Jewish hegemony. The natives, themselves possessing nationalist feelings, resisted the settlers. They also resisted the attempts of the Mandate to establish a Jewish homeland (not a state). And, finally, the partition plan not only established a Jewish state, but a state in which 40% of the population was Arab. Why isn’t the resistance justifiable (unless you are a pacifist)? Wouldn’t have you done the same?

      Michael, your question cannot be answered on one foot. Let me just take one parameter — land use. How many dunams have been expropriated from Israeli Arabs (not to mention Palestinians who were expelled from Israel) for Jewish settlements since 1948, and how many dunams from Jews to Israeli Arabs. How many Jewish settlements have been built in Israel since 1948 and how many Arab settlements?


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    5. Daniel

      Benjamin is wrong.
      A Jewish state does not mean it has to be ruled by Jews or that non-Jews have equal rights, any more than the Finnish state means it has to be ruled by ethnic Finns and that non-Finns don’t have equal rights.
      The entire world is filled with nation-states, including twenty-two ethnically Arab states. The idea that only the Jews would be “racist” if they dared to have a state of their own — THAT is racism.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Daniel

      And as for “ethnic cleansing”, well, “ethnic cleansing” makes it sound as if Ben Gurion was planning 1948’s war for purposes of Lebensraum. All evidence points to the contrary. In 1948 the Arabs declared a “war of annihilation” against the Jews, effectively entering a total war with us. If an population tries to wipe out another, it had better be ready for the grave consequence of getting pushed away (it is little known but most of the 700,000 refugees from the Israeli partition of Palestine were actualy displaced into the Palestinian partition in that war). This is not to say that the Nakba was not a horrible thing or that it was in any way just, but under the circumstance laying all the blame for it on the self-defending Jews is a misreading of history.

      Reply to Comment
    7. […] that I actually left. I feel a bit lost outside of the society I come from. I am terrified of what my homeland is becoming. I long to return. I am dismayed at seeing my country doing unto others what we so lament others […]

      Reply to Comment