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 The U.S. has withdrawn from the World Conference on Racism, being held in Durban, South Africa.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 is about?
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 existence.
“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 matter.
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 purse.”
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 Congress, noted:
“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 Palestine.”
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.