Aaron Baker: Zionism and racism

Tuesday, November 20, 2018 - 3:54pm

In the Trump era, whether to support Israel or not is becoming an increasingly partisan issue in American politics. Israel’s designation as a partisan issue has highlighted a bizarre association: white nationalists vocally supporting Israel, even calling themselves Zionists of sorts. Richard Spencer, in an interview with an Israeli journalist, called himself a “white Zionist” because he believes white people should have a homogenous homeland in America.

Nationalists elsewhere, like Viktor Orban of Hungary, who are pursuing highly nationalistic agendas that seek to exclude minorities, also support Israel. In a weird twist, Orban, widely seen as anti-Semitic, is strongly pro-Israel. Nationalists support Israel to justify their own nationalist visions. If Israel can be a nation-state founded on an ethno-religious identity, then so too can America, or Hungary, or any country, pursue an exclusionary national identity. To some, the support nationalists espouse for Israel proves the most biting criticism of Israel — that its very existence as a Jewish majority state is racist, as was asserted in UN Resolution 3379 and by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. That is, Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is racist and colonialist in the same way Richard Spencer’s call for America to be a white homeland is racist.

However, this criticism of Israel is flawed. Zionism is fundamentally different than the prejudicial nationalisms of far-right movements all around the world. Zionism emerged as a solution to anti-Semitism, and today it is the best and only solution to anti-Semitism. There is a clear difference between Jews wanting a state as a source of sanctuary and defense against anti-Semitism and the racist visions of Richard Spencer.

Zionism was a response to the very European nationalism and anti-Semitism which nationalists like Orban and Richard Spencer echo today. In the 1800s, Jews were emancipated in parts of Western Europe, meaning they were given citizenship and rights for the first time after a long history of persecution. In Eastern Europe, Jews were not emancipated and suffered violent pogroms and attacks. Emancipation in countries like France gave Jews hope that if they were assimilated they would not be persecuted. Theodor Herzl, seen as the founder of modern Zionism, originally thought the solution to anti-Semitism was for Jews to be baptized like Christians were.

But it was the infamous Dreyfus affair, when a French Jewish military officer was wrongly blamed for treason because he was Jewish, that changed Herzl’s mind. Herzl, after witnessing anti-Semitic mobs in the streets of Paris, realized the Jews could not count on assimilation to protect them from anti-Semitism. This was proven to be true when the Nazis committed genocide and murdered two-thirds of European Jewry, regardless of if they were assimilated or not.

Anti-Semitism is not a matter of the past. In 2014, the Anti-Defamation League concluded that 26 percent of the world’s population held anti-Semitic beliefs. Anti-Semitism is on the rise in both Europe and America, the places where the most Jews live outside of Israel. Rising anti-Semitism has been a concern in Europe for a while now. What is new is the rising anti-Semitism in America. As political scientist Fareed Zakaria said, “For over 2,500 years Jews have been vilified and persecuted everywhere, and then came Israel and America.”

Yet, anti-Semitic hate crimes in America are up 57 percent and half of all religious hate crimes are against Jews, despite Jews making up under two percent of the American population. A neo-Nazi running for Congress in Illinois won 26 percent of the vote. And of course, there was the Pittsburgh shooting. America might still overall be a safe place for Jews, but the fact that the Holocaust started in Germany — then considered one of the least anti-Semitic European countries — should serve as a reminder that anti-Semitism can emerge in deadly form anywhere.

Anti-Semitism has staying power because of its historic prevalence in European thought. Anti-Semitism developed as a sort of ideological means of scapegoating and opposing perceived change in European societies. In “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” an infamous anti-Semitic text published by Russian military officers in the early 1900s, Jews are blamed for all “ideas” which challenged the Tsar. Jews in Europe were depicted as being the progenitors of capitalism and communism, depending on which system the bigot disliked. That’s why anti-Semites today, like the Pittsburgh shooter, blame Jews for whatever changes in society they dislike, whether its refugees or globalization. The white nationalists in Charlottesville chanted “Jews will not replace us,” alleging that Jews were conspiring to replace white people with minorities. Having a country where Jews have the right to live and defend themselves is necessary to ensure the continuity of Judaism, given the brutal history and continuity of anti-Semitism.

Zionists today should remember that Zionism was originally an instrument against anti-Semitism, rather than an end in and of itself. Religious Zionism and expansionism stray from Zionism’s original moral justifications. Zionism should not be a fixed ideology unable to change in the future. If animosity between Israelis and Palestinians abated significantly, a binational state in which Palestinians and Israelis are equal citizens could be congruous with Zionism’s goal of ensuring the survival of Judaism. Both Palestinians and Israelis could have the right of return. Governance could be structured in a power-sharing agreement or a confederate system. But today, a binational state would mean more bloodshed and suffering for both sides. The conflict, for which both sides share blame, has produced an animus on the part of Israelis and Palestinians which would take generations to heal. A two-state solution, for now, is thus the best option.

Criticisms of policies by the Israeli government like settlements are totally valid and necessary.  But the volume and intensity of Israel criticism often reflects or is directly motivated by the idea that Israel’s very existence is racist and illegitimate. There is a panoply of situations similar to Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  None of them elicit outrage or concern in any way comparable to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These situations include but are not limited to: China and the Tibetans and Uighurs, Morocco and West Saharans, Turkey and the Kurds and the Sinhalese and Tamils. Yet, there are no calls to boycott these countries, nor are there professors denying students letters of recommendation to these countries for political reasons. People single out Israel as a racist, colonialist state while ignoring the three two-state offers the Israeli government has made in the last 20 years.

In an age of “alternatives truths” there is a lot to be upset about. We should be careful how we spend our attention and outrage. Taking the bait white nationalists lay out — and Israel’s harshest critics ascribe to — of equating Zionism with the exclusionary nationalist visions of white supremacists would be a huge mistake.

Aaron Baker can be reached at aaronbak@umich.edu.

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