Zionism, discrimination, and racist intent

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Jerry Slater constructs an artful but unconvincing defense against the charge that the Jewish State is inherently racist. He reasons that the preferences and privileges accorded to Jews over non-Jews in Israel/Palestine is founded upon genuine Jewish insecurity rather than racist Jewish superiority. He concedes that many Israeli Jews, an increasing number in fact, are personally racist, but insists that racism need not be inherent in the concept of a Jewish State.

Jerry’s error is in defining racism narrowly to include only those attitudes that are based upon superiority. The problem is that the absence of such motive is no defense to a charge of racism. Any system that confers rights and privileges upon some people based upon race, creed, color, national origin, or in this case, a unique hybrid of ethno-religious qualities, is a racist system. Jerry distinguishes South African apartheid on the ground that the white colony there was established via actual racism rather than insecurity. But what of white people born in South Africa during the apartheid regime? They surely had a genuine fear of backlash should they grant equal rights to the 80+% of the population who were harshly oppressed for their skin color, but whites could not reasonably defend apartheid on the ground that it was needed to preserve their safety. They could not reasonably claim that they thought blacks were just as capable and worthy as whites, but that apartheid was nevertheless necessary to protect their physical safety. Nor can Israeli Jews employ that excuse.

This has been true from the very beginning. The early Zionists formulated a plan to establish a Jewish State in a land populated by a large number of non-Jewish people. Their attitude toward the indigenous population was that their wants and needs and rights were trumped by those of Jewish people throughout the world. “We want your land for our state,” was the message. Does it matter whether they were motivated by feelings of insecurity or superiority? Surely not to the Palestinians, who were equally victimized regardless of the victimizers’ motives.

In the U.S., we have an equal protection clause in our Constitution to protect against racism. It is intended to ensure that the law is applied equally to all, regardless of birth characteristics. It is the application of government policy that is scrutinized for compliance with the clause. Intent is sometimes a factor, but only in the sense of whether there is unlawful intent to discriminate. The motive is irrelevant, and a discriminatory policy may not be defended on the ground that it is not based on the concept of racial superiority. That will not save a constitutionally infirm application of discriminatory law. 

Any regime that accords rights and privileges to some of the people living under its jurisdiction over others, based on any foundation of ethnicity, is an anachronism that has no place in the 21st century, and hopefully, has a limited life span. Israel may not be unique in this regard, though it probably is unique in the sense that Palestinians must yield superior rights not only to Israeli Jews, but to Diaspora Jews as well.

Finally, this raises an important question: If Zionism is a form of racism, is it fair to label all Zionists as racist? The superficial answer might be yes, because those who subscribe to a racist ideology are themselves racist. But I dissent from that view. Personal racism is an extremely serious charge, and an accusation of racism is meant to attach a stigma to the accused; surely that is the basis for the absurdly overused charge of anti-Semitism against Israeli critics.

Several years ago, Harvard President Larry Summers said that those who support BDS were “anti-Semitic in their effect if not in their intent.” Many who shared my negative opinion of this remark asked “What the hell does that even mean?” However, I understood the nature of the charge, while disagreeing with Summers’s application to BDS. There is not necessarily a correlation between those who subscribe to what may fairly be described as a racist ideology and those who are genuinely racist. For example, on affirmative action, each side claims the mantle of opposition to racism, thereby portraying the opposite view as one founded on racism. Most people on either side, however, are not actually racist.

Obviously, racism is a deplorable and highly visible phenomenon in Israeli society, but I think that to portray all those who believe in a Jewish State as racist is facile and unfair. It also is unwise, because if there is an effort to reach so-called liberal Zionists and convince them that Zionism itself is the root cause of the problem, accusing them of racism would needlessly provoke antagonism. Virtually everyone would vehemently deny such a charge, and refuse to consider whether there is any truth to it. On the other hand, trying to persuade a liberal Zionist that race-like preferences are inherent in the ideology is more likely to succeed if it is not accompanied with a charge of personal racism. Besides, I know many, many people who believe in the Jewish State but are genuinely anti-racist. Jerry Slater, who has made many insightful and valuable contributions to the I/P debate, is a one-person refutation of the notion that all Zionists are racists.

About David Samel

David Samel is an attorney in New York City.

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