Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The Defense of Racism

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, September 4, 2001 --  

As Arab nationalists work themselves into a rhetorical froth in equating Zionism with racism, American civil rights leaders and the Bush administration have decried the hijacking of the UN racism conference. Indeed the main debate in America has been on whether or not it was wise to abandon the meeting. The Bush administration thought it necessary to protest the Zionism-is-racism aspect of the conference, while civil rights leaders saw this as a flaw that could be overlooked. Both sides, however, agreed that Zionism should not be equated with racism.

What a pity. The truth of the matter is that Zionism, as practiced, is quite racist. Unfortunately, the only people who have been willing to say so in public are the often equally racist Palestinian nationalists whose rhetorical excesses often encourage quick dismissal of their arguments.

Before I'm thrown into the same camp, let's reframe the statement using some terms with less dogmatic baggage. Zionism is the social and political movement that advocates for Jews from around the world to migrate to the ancient Jewish homeland to build a Jewish state. Zionism, therefore, boils down to creating a state for the Jews. Racism, in common usage today, means favoring one group of people, or acting against a group of people based upon their membership in a specific racial group.

While it's certainly arguable that Jews and Palestinians do not constitute different races, they are undoubtedly different ethnic groups. Therefore, any policy that discriminates between Jews and Palestinians is at least guilt y of ethnic bigotry, and arguably racist. And countless policies of the state of Israel discriminate against Palestinians in favor of Jews.

Israel's defenders typicall pounce on people making these accusations while ignoring the substance of the claims. A common technique, employed at the UN conference, is to denounce the critic as anti-Semitic. Another favorite retort is to argue, truthfully but irrelevantly, that Israel is the most democratic state in the Middle East, that the Palestinian Authority is a dictatorship, and that Israel does not have the luxury of acting like America when it lives in such a rough neighborhood. The latter arguments certainly have merit, but do nothing to counter claims that the Israeli government practices racism.

Indeed, the evidence is quite harsh. Israel not only allows Jews from anywhere in the world to immigrate, it actually subsidizes them. Most all of these people have never before lived in Israel, and obtain immigration visas based on nothing other than their ethnic heritage. Palestinians and other Arabs, meanwhile, are never allowed to move to Israel, even when they were born there, lived there, and own titles to property there. Thousands of such property owners fled as refugees during the Arab-Israeli wars, yet are not allowed to return exclusively because of their ethnicity.

Once again, counter arguments made by Israel's defenders are peripheral in nature. They note that many Palestinian refugees were active in the war against Israel, and that as the only Jewish state in the middle of 100 million Arabs, immigration policies must favor Jews if the state is going to exist. True statements, but not ones that do anything to counter the depiction of the state's policies as racist.

None of the evidence I've presented here is controversial -- it would all be taught in any unive4sity course about conflict in the Middle East. Why then, if the incriminating facts are not controversial, is it controversial to depict policies designed to further the existence of a Jewish state (Zionism) as racist? Because the charge of racism stings, especially in America where public opinion has great power to influence events in the Israel.

Israel, of course, is not alone in its racism. Movements for states based on a single ethnic group all tend to be racist. Post-war Germany for years allowed ethnic Germans to immigrate from any part of the world but refused to allow millions of Turkish residents anything greater than guest worker status. More violent and extreme examples can be found in any nationalist conflict in the world, from Northern Ireland, to the Balkans, to Sri Lanka. The Palestinian movement for nationhood is equally guilty of racism.

So is it okay for Israel's Zionism to be racist? Of course not. As its leaders like to point out, Israel is the most liberal and democratic country in the region. That means its people are supposed to know better. Even if Palestinians are guilty of equal or greater misdeeds, the Israeli government and people should get the bulk of the criticism. They have a more Westernized culture and political system. They must be held to a higher standard.

Of course, expecting a tolerant multi-ethnic state to appear overnight is unrealistic. But if Israel is to exist as a state a hundred years from now, it will not do so using the racist techniques of today. Demographic trends mean that Jews will eventually be a minority inside Israel. Unless the country's leaders can find less racist ways of forwarding the Zionist movement, Israel's days are numbered.