“A plague on both your houses!” a friend recently exclaimed to me, paraphrasing William Shakespeare’s admonishment of the Montagues and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet. Only my friend was referring to the Palestinians and the Israelis, having surmised that the tragically self-combustible mix of religion, nationalism and racism underlying the conflict precluded the achievement of a lasting peace in the Middle East.
Just prior to the attack on America, the United Nations World Conference on Racism, hosted by South Africa in Durban, spawned a walkout by Israel and the United States in protest against conference declarations about Zionism and racism. While it is not anti-American to criticize America, it is anti-Semitic, we are told, to criticize Israel. But the issue has never been the Jewishness of Zionism. The issue is Zionism’s multiple manifestations of the belief in the exclusivity of privilege based on religion. It would be equally so if the religion was Christianity or Islam.
Race, Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary tells us, is a family, tribe, people or nation belonging to the same stock. Israelis will tell you it is not Israeliness that is their defining stock. They will maintain that Israeli Arabs – those Palestinians who live in Israel’s 1948 borders and carry Israeli citizenship – are not of the same stock as the rest of Israel. Israeli Arabs are Christians and Muslims. The rest of Israel is Jewish. Israelis will tell you that their Jewishness is their defining stock. The question is, does the State of Israel institutionalize discrimination based on that stock, or are the swirling allegations of Israeli racism much ado about nothing?
Consider Israel’s Law of Return, which dictates that only Jews – no matter where they come from – are eligible to immigrate and qualify for Israeli citizenship. The esteemed president of the United States does not qualify. Disgraced American citizen Jonathon Pollard, the traitor convicted of spying for Israel against the United States, does. It has nothing to do with nationality, skin pigmentation, creed, class, stature, age, qualifications, criminal record, country of birth, or vacation habits. The president is Christian. Pollard is Jewish. There is no more to it than that. What do we call that in America?
Juxtaposing the Law of Return with the claim of Israeli democracy reveals that Israel is a democracy with an asterisk. It is a democracy for Jews. A theomocracy, if you will. Sure, the minority Israeli Arabs do vote, but they are only permitted to do so because their numbers render them impotent relative to the overwhelming Jewish majority.
Consider the Israeli state law mandating that over ninety percent of the land within Israel’s unofficial pre-1967 borders is restricted to lease or ownership exclusively by Jews. If one of the counties or states that make up the great western democracies were to propose enacting a law like that, what word would we use to describe it?
Consider that Israel uses its military occupation of Palestinian territory to prohibit the return to their properties of Palestinians who fled the horrors of war. At the same time Israel defies international law and the international community by incentivizing immigrants to take up residence in the illegal settlements it continues to build and expand in the same occupied territories. The Palestinians are Christians and Muslims, the immigrants Jews.
Consider the brutally conspicuous disparity in physical treatment. When Israeli Jews demonstrate in the streets against government policies they are restrained by mounted police. On rare occasions the odd water canon might be used against them, if things get radical. But when Israeli Christians and Muslims demonstrated in the streets against the government’s treatment of the Palestinians in the early days of the current Intifada, it was not state water, but state bullets that hit them, to the tune of thirteen dead. A country with one benign, humane standard of treatment for Jews, and another standard distinctly less so for Christians and Muslims.
Consider roads designated “for Jews only”, grossly lopsided allocation of water resources, and starkly discriminatory practices in the fields of education, health care and social services. Consider color-coded license plates and state ID card entries that distinguish between Jew and non-Jew.
What, pray, in this great land of freedom, do we call discrimination based on race? In South Africa it was apartheid. In Israel it might be religionism, preferentialism, supremacism, chosenpeopleism, or, simply, Zionism. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, for it is deeds, not names, which define us. Not calling a spade a spade never stopped a spade from being one. Or as William Shakespeare might have put it more aptly, racism by any other name smells the same.