So it's official. The U.S. has
withdrawn from the World Conference on Racism, being held in Durban, South
Africa. And though the cynical and historically observant might suspect
that this decision was merely in keeping with our long standing
unwillingness to deal with the legacy of racism on a global scale, the
official reason is more circumscribed. Namely, the mid-conference pullout
was intended to register displeasure at various delegates who are pushing
resolutions condemning Israeli treatment of Palestinians, and Zionism
itself: the ideology of Jewish nationalism that led to the founding of
Israel in 1948. As the conference speeds towards a no doubt controversial
conclusion, perhaps it would be worthwhile to ask just what all the fuss
Although one can argue with
the claim made by some that Zionism and racism are synonymous --
especially given the amorphous definition of "race" which makes such a
position forever and always a matter of semantics -- it is difficult to
deny that Zionism, in practice if not theory, amounts to ethnic
chauvinism, colonial ethnocentrism, and national oppression.
For saying this, I can expect
to be called everything but a child of God by many in the Jewish
community. "Self-hating" will be the term of choice for most, I suspect:
the typical Pavlovian response to one who is Jewish, as I am, and yet
dares to criticize Israel or the ideology underlying its national
"Anti-Semite" will be the
other label offered me, despite the fact that Zionism has led to the
oppression of Semitic peoples -- namely the mostly Semitic Palestinians --
and is also rooted in a deep antipathy even for Jews. Though Zionism
proclaims itself a movement of a strong and proud people, in fact it is an
ideology that has been brimming with self-hatred from the beginning.
Indeed, early Zionists believed, as a key premise of the movement, that
Jews were responsible for the oppression we had faced over the years, and
that such oppression was inevitable and impossible to overcome, thus, the
need for our own country.
Having never read the words of
Theodore Herzl -- the founder of modern Zionism -- or other Zionist
leaders, most will find this claim hard to believe. But before attacking
me, perhaps they should ask who it was that said anti-Semitism, "is an
understandable reaction to Jewish defects," or that, "each country can
only absorb a limited number of Jews, if she doesn't want disorders in her
stomach. Germany has already too many Jews."
While one might be inclined to
attribute either or both statements to Adolph Hitler, as they are surely
worthy of his venomous pen, they are actually comments made by Herzl and
Chaim Weizmann, eventual president of Israel, and -- at the time he made
the second statement -- head of the World Zionist Organization. So in the
pantheon of self-hating Jews, it appears criticism, for Zionists, should
perhaps begin at home.
Going back to my days in
Hebrew school, I never understood the dialysis-machine-like bond that most
of my peers felt for Israel. On the one hand, we were told God had given
that land to our people, as part of His covenant with Abraham. This we
knew because Scripture told us so. But this never carried much weight with
me. After all, many Christians -- with whom I had more than a passing
acquaintance growing up in the South -- were all-too-willing to point out
that the Scriptures also said (in their opinions) that I was going to
hell, Abraham notwithstanding.
As such, accepting Zionism
because of what God did or didn't say seemed dicey from the get-go. What's
more, this was the same God who ostensibly told the ancient Hebrews never
to wear clothes woven with two different fabrics, and who insisted we burn
the entrails of animals we consume on an alter to create a pleasing smell.
Having been known to sport a wrinkle-free poly-cotton blend, and having
not the fortitude to disembowel my supper and incinerate its lower
intestines, I had long since resolved to withhold judgment on what God did
and didn't want, until such time as the Almighty decided to whisper said
desires in my ear personally. The Rabbi's word wasn't going to cut it.
On the other hand, we were
told we needed a homeland so as to prevent another Holocaust. Only a
strong, independent Jewish state could provide the kind of unity and
protection required of a people who had suffered so much, and had lost six
million souls to the Nazi terror.
Yet this too seemed suspect to
me. After all, one could argue that getting all the Jews together in one
place -- especially a piece of real estate as small as Palestine -- would
be a Jew-hater's dream come true. It would make finishing the job Hitler
started that much easier. Better, it seemed then and still does, to have
vibrant Jewish communities throughout the world, than to put all our
dreidels in one basket, by pulling up stakes and heading to a place where
others already lived, hoping they wouldn't mind too terribly if we kicked
them out of their homes.
In the final analysis,
accepting Israel as a Jewish state for Biblical reasons made no more sense
to me than to accept a self-identified Christian or Islamic nation: two
configurations that understandably raise fears of theocracy in the heart
of any Jew. And to in-gather the Jews to Israel for the sake of safety
made no sense whatsoever. The only logic to Zionism then, seemed to be the
"logic" of raw power: that of the settler, or colonizer. We wanted the
land, and getting it would provide an ally for European and American
foreign and economic policy. So with pressure applied and force unleashed,
it became ours.
Nearly 800,000 Palestinians
would be displaced so as to allow for the creation of Israel: around
600,000 of whom, according to internal documents of the Israeli Defense
Force, were expelled forcibly from their homes. At the time, these
Palestinians, most of whose families had been living on the land for
centuries, constituted two-thirds of the population and owned 90% of the
land. Though some Zionists claim Palestine was a largely uninhabited
wilderness prior to Jewish arrival, early settlers were far more honest.
As Ahad Ha'am acknowledged in 1891:
"We...are used to believing
that Israel is almost totally desolate. But...this is not the case.
Throughout the country it is difficult to find fields that are not sowed."
Indeed, the large presence of
Palestinians led many Zionists to openly advocate their removal. The head
of the Jewish Agency's colonization department stated: "there is no room
for both peoples together in this country. There is no other way than to
transfer the Arabs from here to neighboring countries, to transfer all of
them: not one village, not one tribe, should be left."
Herzl himself conceded that
Zionism was "something colonial," indicating again that we were not
discovering or founding anything. We were taking it, and for reasons we
would never accept from others. As Shimon Peres -- seen as one of the most
peace-loving Israeli leaders in memory -- said in 1985: "The Bible is the
decisive document in determining the fate of our land." Such is the stuff
of fanaticism, and we would say as much were a fundamentalist Christian to
make the same statement about the fate of the U.S., or anywhere else for
That most Jews have never
examined the founding principles of this ideology to which they cleave is
unfortunate. For if they were to do so, they might be shocked at how
anti-Jewish Zionism really is. Time and again, Zionists have even
collaborated with open Jew-haters for the sake of political power.
Consider Herzl: a man who
believed Jews were to blame for anti-Semitism, and thus, only by fleeing
for Palestine could we be safe. In The Jewish State, he wrote:
"Every nation in whose midst
Jews live is, either covertly or openly, anti-Semitic...its immediate
cause is our excessive production of mediocre intellects, who cannot find
an outlet downwards or upwards. When we sink, we become a revolutionary
proletariat. When we rise, there also rises our terrible power of the
He went on to say, "The Jews
are carrying the seeds of anti-Semitism into England; they have already
introduced it into America." Were a non-Jew to suggest that Jews were to
blame for anti-Semitism, our community would be rightly outraged. But the
same words from the father of Zionism pass without comment.
Worse still, early in Hitler's
reign the Zionist Federation of Germany wrote the new Chancellor, noting
their willingness to "adapt our community to these new structures"
(namely, the Nuremberg Laws that limited Jewish freedom), as they "give
the Jewish minority...its own cultural life, its own national life."
Far from resisting Nazi
genocide, some Zionists collaborated with it. When the British devised a
plan to allow thousands of German Jewish children to enter the U.K. and be
saved from the Holocaust, David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel's
first Prime Minister balked, explaining:
"If I knew that it would be
possible to save all the children in Germany by bringing them over to
England, and only half of them by transporting them to (Israel) then I
would opt for the second alternative."
Later, Israeli Zionists would
again make alliances with anti-Jewish extremists. In the 1970's, Israel
hosted South African Prime Minister John Vorster, and cultivated economic
and military ties with the apartheid state, even though Vorster had been
locked up as a Nazi collaborator during World War II. And Israel supplied
military aid to the Galtieri regime in Argentina, even while the Generals
were known to harbor ex-Nazis in the country, and had targeted Argentine
Jews for torture and death.
Indeed, the argument that
Zionism is racism finds some support in statements of Zionists themselves,
many of whom have long concurred with the Hitlerian doctrine that Judaism
is a racial identity as much as a religious and cultural one. In 1934,
German Zionist Joachim Prinz, who would later head the American Jewish
"We want assimilation to be
replaced by a new law: the declaration of belonging to the Jewish nation
and Jewish race. A state built upon the principle of the purity of nation
and race can only be honored and respected by a Jew who declares his
belonging to his own kind."
Years later, David Ben-Gurion
acknowledged that Israeli leader Menachem Begin could be branded racist,
but that doing so would require one to "put on trial the entire Zionist
movement, which is founded on the principle of a purely Jewish entity in
Laws granting special
privileges to Jewish immigrants from anywhere in the world, over
Palestinians whose families had been on the land for generations, and
measures that set aside most land for exclusive Jewish ownership and use,
are but two examples of discriminatory legislation underlying the Zionist
experiment. As the International Convention on the Elimination of All
Forms of Racial Discrimination makes clear, racial discrimination is:
"any distinction, exclusion,
restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national and
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."
Given this internationally
recognized definition, we ought not be surprised that at a World
Conference on Racism, some might suggest that the policies of our people
in the land of Palestine had earned a place on the agenda. As such, we
should take this opportunity to begin an honest dialogue, not only with
Palestinians, but also with ourselves. Neither the chauvinism so integral
to Zionism, nor the ironic self-hatred that has gone along with it are
becoming of a strong and vital people. Just as a dialysis machine is no
substitute for a healthy and functioning kidney, neither is Zionism an
adequate substitute for a healthy and vibrant Judaism. Surely it is not
for this ignoble end, that six million died.
Tim Wise is an activist, writer and
lecturer based in Nashville, Tennessee.
by courtesy & © 2001 Tim Wise