There’s an excellent discussion of the ‘Zionism is racism’ question over at Jeremiah Haber’s site, The Magnes Zionist. Haber makes some very good points which are especially compelling since he – a multiculturalist who self-identifies as a Zionist – is making them. Indeed, anyone who reads his site knows that people like him will be an asset in the as-yet-unrealized egalitarian one-state Palestine/Israel. I’ll get to the contradiction implicit in this statement in a moment. First, I want to review why this is an important discussion that cannot exist independently of the anti-apartheid struggle; why can’t we just focus on the tangibles like the ethnic cleansing in Sheikh Jarrah?
Any nation-building exercise employs narrative mythologizing at its core. National narratives can help to obviate perceptions of tribal, racial or classist differences to create stable, enduring societies. The most successful national narratives embed stories that permit the integration of previously non-national groups. Zionism, whatever it may be, is exclusionary in a space that requires integration.
As a one-stater, I have a real interest in working alongside Israelis to stop the Zionist ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem. I also have a real interest in forging a new, inclusive national narrative that encompasses the breadth of life experience in Palestine/Israel. Part of that work entails delegitimizing and discrediting the Zionist narrative – which again, is nothing if not exclusionary.
By definition, a Zionist who struggles alongside a Palestinian in East Jerusalem exists in an exceptional, Teflon space. The impermeable bubble of Jewish privilege problematizes the interaction between the Palestinian and the Israeli; it’s an exercise in political convenience rather than solidarity and cohesion building. Social progress requires the renunciation of Jewish privilege – or Zionism.
But does that necessarily make Zionism racism?
I don’t think many people will argue that the dominant Zionists in Israel historically and today aren’t racists; Avigdor Lieberman springs somewhat clumsily from David Ben Gurion’s loins. I don’t think that’s what Haber takes exception to.
Instead, he argues that Zionism represents a wide spectrum of thought around the principle of Jewish self-determination. Judah Magnes’ life and writings showcase that broad-spectrum variance so describing the entire range as racist is terminologically inaccurate and intellectually dishonest.
The problem here is that this argument uses the exception to disprove the rule. Sociology, philosophy and the humanities generally resist empirically deliverable truths. The exceptions created by the momentary existence of recorded thought make language meaningless if we permit them to.
Zionism is up. Zionism is the hyetal, early-morning mist suspended above a Nordic lake in the spring. Zionism is an adolescent boy who shudders after urinating in a darkened, barren concrete East Coast warehouse. Zionism is not racism.
It’s not out of contempt for “terminological sobriety” or nuance that I describe the complexity of Zionism – the whole of the Zionist experience – as racism. Instead, the definition follows from descriptive reality. Zionists ethnically cleansed Palestine, etc. Some Zionist may define Zionism as ‘up’ but that’s meaningless. Definitional heft is borne by what Zionists do – what they’ve done.
Besides being descriptively accurate, defining Zionism as racism serves a psycho-social function. The modern Israeli Jew carries a grotesque historical burden. The ethnic cleansing of Palestine was perpetrated in the name of every Jew (according to the Zionists, anyway). By locating the history of racism and ethnic displacement in one capsule we provide a clear opportunity for Israeli Jews and others to unburden themselves – to break with a legacy they may not want to own. By declaring herself a non or anti-Zionist, a young Israeli Jew can experience a cathartic release – a humanistic leveling – to put her within emotional range of the humans on the other side. Here, a lack of terminological complexity is useful.
Finally, defining Zionism is my prerogative. The Jewish privilege conferred by Zionism in Israel and around the world carries with it the greatest privilege of all – the right of association. My Jewish friends in America and Israel can choose to engage with the Zionist enterprise or they can choose not to. The Palestinians have no such choice. I am forced to contend with Zionism every day. But I’ve come to realize that a special power is communicated by our mandatory marriage.
What I can do is choose to take ownership of Zionism. I will describe it authoritatively and with greater weight than any Zionist can or is permitted to. Zionism ceased to belong to Judah Magnes a long time ago and as Zionism’s mandatory object, I possess the power of explication and defamation. I have the right of appropriation. People like me will write the history books – that’s the colonial experience. And that’s partially what this is about – the battle over history.
So where does that leave obvious anti-racists like Jeremiah Haber who self-identify as Zionists? My humble suggestion is that another, more appropriate term be identified and descriptively applied. Hebrew culturalism or something like it may work. There’s plenty of room for Hebrew culture in Palestine/Israel. But Zionism has no place in my country.