Is Zionism racist? Should Israel exist?

Kibbutz ceremony, 1951 (Wikipedia Commons)

It isn’t possible to understand Zionism without understanding that Jews have a basic, understandable fear of being wiped out.

In medieval times, Christians regarded Jews as Christ-killers.

In modern times, blood-and-soil nationalists regarded Jews as disloyal foreigners.

Both forms of antisemitism were existential threats.

One of the doctrines of Christianity is that Jesus is the prophesied Jewish messiah. The question arises: Why don’t the Jews recognize their own messiah?

One easy answer is that Jews must be an exceptionally wicked people.  And from there, it is an easy to to saying they must be persecuted, killed or expelled.

In modern times, Jews were allowed out of their ghettos to participate in civic life. But a new question arose. The basis of nationhood was blood and soil—a group of people of the same lineage occupying the same territory.

But Jews are of different lineage, and they have no territory.   How do they fit in with modern nationalism?  They don’t.  And from there, it is an easy step to regard all Jews as potential or actual traitors.

This form of antisemitism inspired the Dreyfus case., in which a French Jewish artillery officer was falsely accused of treason.  The older form of antisemitism inspired the Beilis case, in which a Russian factory manager was falsely accused of the ritual murder of a Christian child.

Justice eventually prevailed in both cases, but the founders of the Zionist movement believed that Jews needed a homeland of their own—not just as a refuge from antisemitism, but because they were a nation with the same right to a homeland in which they were in the majority..

That was one of the roots of Zionism.  The other was a fundamentalist religious nationalism, inspired by Biblical prophecies, that links the Jewish people to their ancient homeland.  There are fundamentalist Christian Zionists, based on the same prophecies.

Zionism in its early years was a controversial movement among Jewish people.  Jews in western Europe and North America mostly regarded themselves primarily as Americans, Britons, French, Germans and so on who happened to be a different religion than their fellow citizens.

This changed during the Second World War.  Hitler’s attempted genocide of the Jews was matched by an unwillingness of Allied nations, including the USA, to accept more than a token number of Jewish refugees.  The British government did its best to prevent Jewish immigration to Palestine, lest they provoke the Arabs into revolt.

I am old enough to remember the Allied war propaganda during the Second World War.  Hitler’s antisemitism was not emphasized.  Knowledge of the Holocaust was suppressed.  I think now that Roosevelt, Churchill and other Allied leaders feared to give credence to Hitler’s claim that the war was being fought on behalf of the Jews.

After the war, Europe was filled with “displaced persons” camps.  All the DPs had homelands to which they could return, except for the Jews.  So a lot of them headed for Israel.

Invading a country and driving out the inhabitants is now regarded as a crime against humanity.  But if I had been one of those Jewish DPs, I wouldn’t have cared.  All I would have cared about was having a place I could call my own.

Of course, if I had been a Palestinian Arab at the time, I wouldn’t have cared about the plight of the Jewish refugees.  I wouldn’t have seen any reason why I should lose everything because of events in Europe.

Supporters of Israel at the time argued that there was just one Jewish nation, and there were 20-some Arab nations.  So why couldn’t the Palestinian refugees go live in some other Arab nation?

The answer was: For the same reason that the Jewish refugees couldn’t all go live in New York.  The Arab countries, many of them very poor with high unemployment rates, were even less able to absorb a large number of poor immigrants than the Western nations.

Israel fought a number of wars with surrounding Arab states—the War of Independence in 1948, the Suez campaign (along with Britain and France) in 1956, the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

Members of the Arab League are shown in green. Countries that have waged war against Israel are shown in dark green.  Source: WIkipedia.

After the Six-Day War, members of the Arab League issued a declaration of common policy toward Israel – “no recognition, no negotiation and no peace.”  After Anwar Sadat negotiated a peace treaty with Israel following the Yom Kippur War, Egypt was expelled from the Arab League.

Countries that do not recognize Israeli passports are shown in green. Countries that do not recognize passports with Israeli stamps are shown in dark green.  Map may be several years out of date.  Source: Wikipedia

One of the Arab League’s tactics against Israel was an international boycott, and it may have had a greater impact the present boycott-divest-sanctions movement.

Arab League members refused to do business with any company that did business with Israel.  The oil-rich Persian Gulf nations were an important market and this was a serious threat.

I remember in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was speculation here in Rochester, N.Y., as to whether Eastman Kodak Co. and Xerox Corp. complied with the Arab boycott. 

There also was talk of punishing companies that complied with the boycott, but how could you tell, other than making business relations with Israel compulsory?

Does Israel have a right to exist?

Does a nation whose government has committed crimes against humanity forfeit its right to exist?

If that is so, then Germany and Japan have no right to exist.  Russia and China have no right to exist.  The USA has no right to exist.  Israel has done nothing that the USA has not done in its long history.

Israel exists.  It has the power to maintain its existence.

There’s no point in pretending it doesn’t or shouldn’t, as the U.S. pretended, from 1949 to 1972, that Communist China did not exist. 

I don’t think it is possible to make Israel cease to exist through boycotts, divestments and sanctions.

Israelis are like white South Africa in that their leaders feel they can survive only by holding another people in subjugation.  But they are different in that they are not a small minority in their land, and they may well be able to hold out.

I favor pressure on the Israeli government to withdraw the settlements from the West Bank and to treat its Arab citizens with equal justice. 

I favor a winding down of military aid to Israel as part of a winding down of the U.S. military presence in the Middle East.

I am not Jewish.  I am not a Zionist.  If a Jewish national state did not exist where it is, I would not advocate creating one.  But neither do I side with those who want to destroy it.

One of the lessons of history, including the history of Israel and Zionism, is that the formerly oppressed can become oppressors.

Two debates about Zionism

Is a Left Zionism possible? by Susie Linfield for Dissent magazine (2015)

Toward a Post-Zionist Left by Joshua Leifer for Dissent magazine (2015)

Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism by Michael Walzer for Dissent magazine (2019)

Israel-Palestine Today: a Values-Based Approach by Joshua Leifer for Dissent magazine (2019)

Reply to Joshua Leifer by Michael Walzer for Dissent magazine (2019)

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