The oft-proclaimed, ill-researched phrase “Zionism is racism” is both inaccurate and woefully unhelpful.
“Zionism,” to be sure, could be the belief in the right of the Jewish people to self-determination, generally in the land of Israel. It is neither a static nor a monolithic concept, but rather a bundle of positions that encompasses a myriad of political and religious views.
“Racism,” in contrast, is the privileging or disadvantaging of a group of people based on their race. Note the lack of overlap.
The only way that Zionism is racism is if all forms of nationalism are racism. If Zionism is racism, then any time a historical or religious group seeks self-determination, it ought to be considered racism. In this case, Tibetan nationalism is racism, French nationalism is racism, and, by extension, the belief in the right of Palestinians to self-determination would also be a form of racism. Strangely, most anti-Zionists are reluctant to admit those analogous claims.
Perhaps a recounting of the origin of “Zionism is racism” will be informative. The phrase was first propounded by the U.N. General Assembly in 1975. Shockingly, the baseless name-calling didn’t solve the sensitive Middle Eastern conflict. When the U.N. passed the resolution, Israelis and Jews across the world lost trust and support in the United Nations rather than in Zionist cause. Politically, the most extreme Zionists felt marginalized and alone in the world. Sensing that the U.N. would never treat them fairly, they only became further devoted to Zionism and skeptical of the U.N. as a reasonable partner or broker of peace. What the motion did achieve, however, was a stagnation of the peace process. The slanderous phrase was used to justify the establishment of new settlements in the West Bank.
Though the U.N. rescinded the motion in 1991, the phrase didn’t die there. In the name of Palestinian rights, groups across campus have plastered the slogan and virulently – if not a bit thoughtlessly – adopted it. Obviously, criticizing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is a legitimate endeavour. But to do so by slandering Zionism as a whole is both misguided and ineffectual at helping the Palestinians.
There exists a wide spectrum of moderate Zionist positions, many of which have advocated for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Given that Zionism is primarily the simple belief that the Jewish people have the right to self-determination, many Zionist groups openly oppose the settlements in Israel and agitate for better treatment of Palestinians and racial minorities within Israel. To claim that the mere belief in the right of the Jewish people to self-determination implies poor treatment of Palestinians is inaccurate, but also further alienates domestic support for Palestinian rights and moderate, peaceful negotiations.
Domestically, Israel also has a fairly good record of its legal treatment of minority races and cultures, particularly for the region. Of the roughly 6.7 million Israelis, about 1.3 million are non-Jews. Arabs currently hold eight seats in the 120-seat Knesset, and Arabic is an official language of Israel. The only legal distinction between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel is that the latter are not required to serve in the Israeli army. This doesn’t mean there isn’t still some discrimination in practice, but it does suggest that Israel is being held to a much higher standard here than its neighbours.
To support cultural autonomy and self-determination in dozens of peoples across the world but deny it to a single people is in itself discriminatory. For a people who have, in the last century, faced unprecedented persecution and discrimination on the grounds of religion alone, charges of racism are particularly abhorrent. As Alan Dershowitz puts it, “A world that closed its doors to Jews who sought escape from Hitler’s ovens lacks the moral standing to complain about Israel’s giving preference to Jews.” Zionism isn’t racism, but perhaps anti-Zionism is.
Riva Gold writes in this space every week. React to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.