[This post is part of a series by Sam running at normblog on Mondays for the next couple of months. The first post of the series is here.]
3. Racism and Anti-Semitism
I ended last week's post with the question, 'Whose land is it anyway?' I'll get back to that question - it will in fact be the focus of this series - but first I want to take up an issue that clouds the whole debate over Israel/Palestine: the accusation that one side or the other is motivated by bigotry of some kind, a prejudice against, respectively, Arabs or Jews. The accusation is not entirely wrong, but it is used far too often as an excuse for not listening to what the other side has to say.
a) Many Jews portray opposition to Israel - opposition to the existence of a Jewish state - as an expression of anti-Semitism: a blind hatred of Jews.
b) Critics of Israel often claim that the idea of a Jewish state is racist, that Zionism (which they sometimes call 'the Zionist-colonialist' project) is racist at its core.
There is some truth, but more falsehood and confusion, in both these claims.
To begin with the second one... There is certainly no shortage of racism in Israel. One doesn't have to travel far to hear nasty remarks about Arabs, or to come across groups that promote militant political views on the basis of claims about the 'inherent violent nature' of the Arab. There are also government policies that are officially justified by security needs and the like but in practice get used just to favour Jews over Arabs. And leaders of the Zionist movement, in its early days, made some explicitly or implicitly racist remarks about Arabs, or about the movement's ability to bring a 'higher civilization' to the region. Menachem Ussishkin, chairman of the Jewish National Fund, told journalists in 1930 that 'We have a greater and nobler ideal than preserving several hundred thousands of Arab fellahin'.
But the Zionist movement is not inherently racist. In the first place, its favouritism goes out to Jews over non-Jews, and Jews are not a race. They are both a culture and a religion, but not a biological group. There are black as well as white Jews, and anyone can become a Jew. I'm not sure how much difference this makes to the debates over Zionism - there are good reasons to object to a state that favours a religion or culture, as well as a state that favours a race - but it does at least make clear that Israel should be compared to places like Pakistan (founded as a home for Muslim Indians) rather than to apartheid South Africa. There is, moreover, something particularly ugly about favouring or disfavouring people on the basis of their biological features, and Zionism, whatever its flaws, does not do that.
In the second place, Zionism has always been intended simply to enable Jews to live securely and freely, not to affect the lives of anybody else. Many early Zionist leaders were willing to settle anywhere in the world that would have them - Argentina, Kenya, the Sinai - and they favoured stretches of land that were said to be empty. Other Zionists, while set on a Jewish state in Palestine, were under the mis-impression that it was mostly uninhabited. So Zionism was not like the European empires that set out to spread Western rule over the rest of the world, nor was it interested in gaining control over other people's resources in order to build up the strength of some European nation. The early Zionist movement certainly tried to enlist the support of various imperial powers (both European and non-European), in order to achieve its ends, but it wasn't out to set up a colony for any of them. The Jews of Europe were regarded as outsiders, non-citizens or lesser citizens, by practically every country in which they lived. They were certainly not seen by the Russians or Germans or British as part of their own attempts to put lands in Asia or Africa under Russian or German or British rule. I don't think that this wholly vindicates Zionism from the charge of having some affinities with colonialism - as I said earlier, colonialist and indeed racist attitudes have played a role in it, and in Israeli society and politics - but it's a mistake to assimilate it to the projects of imperialist Europe.
Anti-Semitism plays a complex role in both the justification for and the opposition to Zionism. There are at least three different questions to consider here: whether or not a Jewish state helps solve the problem of anti-Semitism; whether or not criticism of the Jewish state largely comes from anti-Semitism; and whether or not the Jewish community overuses the accusation of anti-Semitism to fend off such criticism. Of course the three questions are related in various ways. But they are distinct, and it will be helpful to treat them separately.
One of the main reasons for Zionism, when it began, was to provide a refuge for Jews suffering from anti-Semitic pogroms, and Israel today still serves as a place to which Jews who live under the threat of such attacks - in Russia, in Ethiopia, in Syria - can flee. I think there is no question that there are many Jews living freely in Israel who would have to put up with constant harassment and humiliation, or would fear for their lives, were they still in their country of origin. The degree of hatred for Jews even in a country like France - where, after repeated beatings of Jews in the streets, Orthodox rabbis have declared it too dangerous to wear a yarmulke in public - should not be underestimated. (And in Russia as recently as 2005, hundreds of luminaries, including the former chess champion Boris Spassky, accused Jews of ritual murder and called for restrictions to be placed on them.) Nor should one suppose that countries like the US or Britain would welcome all the Jews who have had to flee their homes over the past century. My father, along with thousands of other Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, was packed up and put in a detention camp by the British under the pretext that he might really be a Nazi spy. Nor did the US open its doors widely to Jews expelled by the Nazis (Canada refused almost all); nor did any country except Israel do so for Jews subject to anti-Semitic attacks, since the Second World War, in Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, Poland, Russia, Syria, or Ethiopia. Israel really does serve as at least part of a solution to the problem of anti-Semitism worldwide.
But that does not mean opposition to Zionism is necessarily anti-Semitic. One can oppose anti-Semitism vehemently while thinking the proper solution to the problem is better laws, or policing, or education, in the countries in which it takes place, not a separate state for the Jews. One may also hold, reasonably and humanely, that these alternative solutions would be better than establishing a Jewish state: both because a Jewish state, like all states favouring a particular ethnic or religious group, imposes costs on people outside the group it favours, and because it might be better for Jews themselves to have full equality wherever they live rather than just in one country. It is not unreasonable to suggest, indeed, that concentrating all or most Jews in one place could in the long run turn out to be dangerous to Jewish survival.
Anti-Zionism is therefore not always and necessarily anti-Semitism. In fact, many devout and loyal Jews opposed Zionism for the first 50 or 60 years of its existence, arguing that Judaism was a religion rather than a political movement, or that all forms of nationalism are harmful, and inimical to Jewish ideals, or that a Jewish state should be established only after the coming of the Messiah. Other Jews thought that a properly Jewish politics should take a socialist or liberal form, not a nationalistic one. All of these views have faded from the Jewish community since the Holocaust, which convinced almost all erstwhile Jewish anti-Zionists that a home for the Jews is necessary, but they show that one can oppose a Jewish state in the name of Jewish ideals, rather than because one dislikes Jews.
And if it is possible for Jews to be against Zionism without being against Judaism, it is possible for non-Jews to do that as well. There are people who oppose all nationalism, in the name of liberal or socialist ideals, and they are quite right, if they do, to oppose Zionism as well. Anyone who thinks that no state should favour an ethnic or religious group, that states should treat all their citizens equally, regardless of group identity, has good reason to oppose Zionism. One should suspect anti-Semitism only when a person has no problem with Arab or Finnish or Muslim or Christian states, but gets apoplectic about the idea of a Jewish state.
Even here, however, there is room for an opposition to Zionism that is not anti-Semitic. A person might reasonably hold that nationalism is acceptable, even a good thing, where a group of people who already live together want to express their group identity politically, but not where one people needs to be displaced by another. Such a person might grant that a Jewish state is in principle acceptable, but not in the way it was actually established.
So anti-Zionism need not be anti-Semitism, and the accusation of anti-Semitism should not be used to shut down debate over Israeli policy, or even over the existence of Israel, as a Jewish state.
That said, much opposition to the existence of a Jewish state is in fact bound up with a deeper prejudice against Jews in general. A disturbingly large proportion of anti-Israeli rhetoric, all over the world, shades into openly anti-Jewish rhetoric - cartoons of repulsive Jews, with huge noses and dollar signs on their clothes, ruling the world or killing the infant Jesus - and a disturbingly small proportion of those who oppose the Jewish state on liberal or socialist grounds also speak up against other forms of nationalism, or against states that identify themselves as Muslim or Christian. The level of anger directed at Israel, and the tendency to blame it for all the world's problems, also smacks more of entrenched myths about Jews than it does of the real issues in the Israel/Palestine conflict.
It is particularly important, here, not to downplay the level of outright anti-Jewish sentiment in the modern Arab and Muslim worlds. The most important textual source of modern anti-Semitism - the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was a mainstay of Nazi propaganda - spread throughout the Arab world shortly after it was written at the beginning of the 20th century. The Protocols is a Czarist forgery purporting to show that a secret cabal of Jews has been attempting since the Enlightenment to take over the whole world and destroy everyone else's religion - using such doctrines as human rights and socialism, as well as the main engines of capitalism, to do so. It is of course a complete fantasy (based, scholars say today, on a mid-19th-century novel), drawing on the aversion to modernity characteristic of its Czarist authors. By the worst of bad luck, it appeared at more or less the same time as the first Zionist Congresses; I think opponents of 'Zionism' have often mixed up its doctrines with the real Jewish political movement that goes by that name. In any case, it has been used repeatedly to attack the latter. The main Palestinian leader in the 1920s and 1930s, Haj Amin al-Husseini, cited it in his testimony to a British commission inquiring into the 1929 massacre of Jews in Hebron, as evidence that the Jews must have provoked the massacre. Egypt's long-time leader Gamal Abdul Nasser said that it 'prove[d] beyond a shadow of a doubt that three hundred Zionists, each of whom knows all the others, govern the fate of the European continent'. It was also used as the basis of a 'documentary' shown on Egyptian TV in 2002, and displayed, alongside the Torah, as one of the Jews' 'holy texts' in a major Egyptian exhibit of world religious texts in 2003. King Faisal of Saudi Arabia also took it seriously and cited it as proof of Jewish evil to world leaders. And the charter of the Hamas movement draws heavily on it. Indeed, Hamas maintained a link to the Protocols on its website until May 2005.
If we look more broadly, it is disturbing how often major figures in the Muslim world have used openly anti-Semitic rhetoric, even in recent years. A Syrian government minister published a book in the 1980s defending the blood libel against the Jews (that Jews use non-Jewish blood to make ritual foods). The official Saudi and Egyptian presses have run articles making the same claim. Bashir al-Assad, the Syrian President, declared in a public meeting with the Pope that Jews 'try to kill the principles of all religions'. And Mohammed Mahathir, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, declared the teachings of the Protocols - that the Jews 'invented and successfully promoted Socialism, Communism, human rights and democracy so that persecuting them would appear to be wrong' - to great applause at a 2003 meeting of all 57 members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Mahathir also said - and this was defended by other leaders in interviews afterwards - that Muslims are locked in a worldwide battle with Jews.
Many people explain away this sort of rhetoric, and the talk of 'annihilating' Jews that goes with it, as a reaction to Israeli policy. That surely contributes to it, but I think it cannot explain the whole of it (I've written more extensively on this subject in 'Hating Science; Hating the Jews'). How could Muslim leaders from all over the world believe that Islam is locked in a worldwide battle with Jews, specifically? Muslims are fighting non-Muslims in Chechnya, Kashmir, Thailand, and the Philippines, among other places; their enemies are, correspondingly, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist, as well as Jewish. Moreover, there are many more Christians in Russia and Hindus in India than Jews, and each group has killed more Muslims than have died in the entire Israel-Palestine conflict. So how do Jews win the dubious honour of being 'the' enemy of Islam?
I don't think one can honestly discuss the conflict over Israel/Palestine without acknowledging the role of anti-Semitism in the way Israel gets discussed by its opponents. The particular form that anti-Semitism takes is also important. Every prejudice has its own unique form, with the hatred or contempt that racists feel for black people being quite different from what other racists think of Native Americans or Arabs, and both being different again from sexism. Anti-Semitism involves a conviction that Jews, besides being tremendously powerful, always lie and are utterly cruel (all of these features of the prejudice are tied to the myth, believed widely by medieval Christians, that Jews are children of the devil). That conviction makes it easy to dismiss any facts that favour Israel as deliberate falsehoods, and to portray the motivation of Israelis and supporters of Israel as lacking all justice or humanity. But debates on any conflict will be badly distorted if everything that favours one side of it can be dismissed in this way. Anti-Zionism is not necessarily anti-Semitism, but without anti-Semitism, and the myths about Jewish power and immorality that come with it, it would be far easier to see the Israel/Palestine conflict in a realistic and balanced light.
I am trying on the whole in these pieces to present the two sides of this conflict as symmetrically as possible, but there are places in which it is impossible to understand the conflict properly unless we note an asymmetry. There are power asymmetries that favour Israel, for instance, and there is no symmetry between the quite comfortable lives of Jews in Israel and the lives of millions of Palestinians under Israeli rule or in refugee camps. Jews, and others who support Israel, need to recognize these asymmetries. But by the same token, those who oppose the state of Israel need to recognize the asymmetry between the respective roles of racism and anti-Semitism in the conflict. Racism has played a far less prominent role in Zionism than anti-Semitism has in anti-Zionism - even if there are objections to the existence of a Jewish state that are not anti-Semitic. (Sam Fleischacker)
[The next post in the series is here. Responses may be sent to Sam at this email address: sfleisch (AT) uic (DOT) edu]