Why My Zionism Isn't Racism

A Smith student group publicized an event with a flier that includes a photo with graffiti that reads "Zionism is Racism." While students can argue about the group's name, its events, and its advertising, I want to examine the claim that "Zionism is Racism." It didn't say "Zionism may be racism" or "Zionists may be racists" but equated the two. Those espousing these views are stating that all Zionists are racists. It is no wonder that Jews and supporters of Israel on campus get upset at this claim--a student group just labeled them racists.

Zionism is a widely held belief in America which is not limited to Jews. I will not for a moment claim that there might not be Zionists who are racists--it is possible to find racists in any group. The claim of racism is often tied to resistance to Israeli settlement and occupation of Palestinian territory. I would like to examine the definition of Zionism to see if the claim of racism is appropriate. Since it is available to all readers, I suggest looking at the Wikipedia definition of Zionism. (I know that Wikipedia is not a scholarly source acceptable in academia, but it is a great start for a philosophical discussion). For accuracy, I will offer the sources for its basic definition of Zionism instead of quoting Wikipedia itself:
"An international movement originally for the establishment of a Jewish national or religious community in Palestine and later for the support of modern Israel." ("Zionism," Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary). See also "Zionism", Encyclopedia Britannica, which describes it as a "Jewish nationalist movement that has had as its goal the creation and support of a Jewish national state in Palestine, the ancient homeland of the Jews," and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, which defines it as "A Jewish movement that arose in the late 19th century in response to growing anti-Semitism and sought to reestablish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Modern Zionism is concerned with the support and development of the state of Israel."

All of these quotes contain the same basic definition of Zionism--a Jewish form of nationalism to create a country on the historic Jewish homeland. Since Israel was created in 1948, the political philosophy has taken new forms (which American Heritage Dictionary defines as "concerned with the support and development of the state of Israel.") None of these definitions hint at racism. When most American Jews use the term Zionism it describes a belief that Jews should have their own land, that this land should be in the historic Jewish homeland, and that the continued existence of Israel is important sixty some years after the Holocaust wiped out half of Europe's Jews.

The idea that Jews deserve a homeland like any other nation is clearly different from racism--a belief that one race is inherently inferior than another. To adequately examine the racism part of the claim, it is necessary to look at the term's meaning. To be even-handed, I will quote the sources used by Wikipedia in its racism entry:
The Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines racism as a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular racial group, and that it is also the prejudice based on such a belief. The Macquarie Dictionary defines racism as: "the belief that human races have distinctive characteristics which determine their respective cultures, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to rule or dominate others."

Many American Jews read a claim that "Zionism is racism," and think "Bruce is racist" (i.e., that they read themselves into the statement). Here is the thing: Bruce isn't racist and neither are many American Jews (whether they view themselves as Zionists or not). Regardless of what those who created the flier (or others who use the slogan) may believe, many Jews read the flier as describing themselves. They know they are not racists. If I am not a racist yet am a Zionist and many other Zionists are not racists, than Zionism can't equal racism. To equate the two unequivocally is to engage in stereotyping--an act that when done in the negative form often leads to hatred and bias.

Reading one definition next to another should be enough to explain why "Zionism isn't racism." One is a political movement and one a belief. One is general and the other particular. When racism is applied to Israel, I assume it to mean that the Israeli-Palestinian relationship is defined by racism. Palestinians have their own form of nationalism. A claim of one nationalism against another is politics. Another reason why Zionism isn't racism is that Palestinians aren't a race (and neither are Zionists). I would have less of a problem with a claim that "Zionism is discriminatory" but it does not have the same appeal and shock value.

Many want to equate the political movement of Zionism (which the Wikipedia entry shows has a number of philosophical forms) with particular policies taken by the Israeli government. To do so is to take a logical leap based on politics. Some forms of Zionism may believe in occupation or even racism but most don't. For me, occupation is insidious and violent, so Israeli occupation of Palestinians is insidious and violent. It has only gotten more so over time and given the expansion of Jewish settlements in the disputed lands. Many Zionists and Zionisms do not favor occupation or settlements created to make a Palestinian homeland unworkable (however, most Zionists and Israelis believe that Jerusalem and its neighboring settlement blocs should remain Israel through a land exchange).

From my knowledge of our community, the vast majority of Smithies and Pioneer Valley residents who call themselves Zionists do not favor occupation or expansion of settlements. The local Rabbinate are overwhelmingly supporters of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. On its website, RHR describes itself as follows: "Rabbis for Human Rights gives voice to a Jewish and Zionist tradition of concern for Human Rights. RHR sounds the shofar of alarm on issues of human rights in Israel and in territories for which Israel has taken responsibility." The group who will be presenting at the event on the flier which led to this essay (the Palestinesolidarityproject.org) has on top of its website a post about a joint effort to help a Palestinian family farm their lands. RHR is listed as a participant. Is RHR racist? It is self-described as Zionist. To call the form of Zionism practiced in this area racist is stereotyping based on misinformation.

While Israel is far from perfect, in terms of basic freedoms it is worlds apart from its neighbors. Israeli Arabs certainly face discrimination. Fighting this discrimination is part of the mission of Rabbis for Human Rights. Arab Israelis vote and form political parties which denounce Israeli policies or are avowedly anti-Israel (if you research the "Zionism is Racism" debate at the UN in the 70's, 80's, and 90's, you can read Israeli Ambassador Herzog's description of the inclusion of Arabs in Israeli society. If Israel were racist or practicing Apartheid (another claim that we often hear on campus), that wouldn't be the case.

Regardless of its intent, those who say "Zionism is Racism" place Zionism--and consequently Zionists, Israelis, and Israeli-supporters--into a corner of filled with hatred, fear, and violence. This is an attempt to stereotype Jews and supporters of Israel and stifle discussion. It is hard enough for students at Smith to have open, intellectual discussion about charged emotional issues without using this type of language. It antagonizes students who care about Israel and leads to a hardening of positions rather than dialogue.

I have been criticized on Facebook for encouraging students to protest the misleading name of the student organization who is advertising their event with the "Zionism is Racism" picture. An important part of dialogue is to leave labeling to an individual or group. If one wants to label oneself a Zionist, than that is fine but it is up to the individual to define Zionism. Most Zionists don't define Zionism with racism. Here is an idea: I will stop questioning the name of a student organization that professes Middle East peace but refused to sponsor an event last week about peace and coexistence if you stop trying to equate my people's age-old longing for Israel with Racism!

Notes: Thank you to the many readers who offered suggestions to the drafts. I have taken your advice but the work is my own. I am happy to talk about anything contained in this document with any member of the Smith community. I am hopeful that the response to a silent protest about the rhetoric on the poster (with signs reading "Don't post hate on campus" and a version of this map with "110 out of 136 countries agree Zionism Isn't Racism") will lead to dialogue about peace, coexistence, and/or creating a safe and respectful campus environment.


Anonymous said...

"Regardless of what those who created the flier (or others who use the slogan) may believe, many Jews read the flier as describing themselves. They know they are not racists. If I am not a racist yet am a Zionist and many other Zionists are not racists, than Zionism can't equal racism."

Due respect, the transitive property does not apply here because it's not being taken into account that it is ignorance and not intent that is racist about Zionism. Many Jews don't realize that they are being racist when they identify themselves as Zionist. It's not about how someone feels they fall on the racism spectrum, its how they react to the issue at hand - Zionism - and that the issue in and of itself is racist.

It's racist because it's putting the Jews as a castle on a hill and saying that a certain heritage/ethnicity/race/religion (however one wants to define it) has more of a right and thus the only right to this piece of land, when historically, the Palestinians have just as much right as the Jews to that piece of land, never mind the fact that it's racist not only to say that the Jews have more of a right to it but then continuing to not only make the claim strongly enough to create this castle on a hill but also displacing millions of Palestinian residents who still hold deeds to the lands of their ancestors.

Fatima said...

Zionism is not something that is left up to ‘interpretation’. Zionism is a political movement that is comprised of very specific criteria. There is, in no way, an interpretation to be held of said criteria. As Bekah Wolf pointed out last night, the basis of Zionism is the creation of a state for a certain group of people…implemented through the exclusion of another group. I.e. Palestinians, which are governed by a Zionist regime via the occupation, are not allowed to vote. As well as being anti-democratic, this is racist. If you are going to be a Zionist and tout Zionism on this campus, then you need to accept the fact that what you are supporting is overtly, blatantly, and without question, racist.

Nate said...

Whatever helps you sleep at night, Bruce.