Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Zionism as a Racist Ideology...Reviving an Old Theme to Prevent Palestinian Ethnicide


During a presentation on the Palestinian-Israeli situation in 2001, an American-Israeli acquaintance of ours began with a typical attack on the Palestinians. Taking the overused line that "Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity," he asserted snidely that, if only the Palestinians had had any decency and not been so all-fired interested in pushing the Jews into the sea in 1948, they would have accepted the UN partition of Palestine. Those Palestinians who became refugees would instead have remained peacefully in their homes, and the state of Palestine could in the year 2001 be celebrating the 53rd anniversary of its independence. Everything could have been sweetness and light, he contended, but here the Palestinians were, then a year into a deadly intifada, still stateless, still hostile, and still trying, he claimed, to push the Jews into the sea.

It was a common line but with a new and intriguing twist: what if the Palestinians had accepted partition; would they in fact have lived in a state at peace since 1948? It was enough to make the audience stop and think. But later in the talk, the speaker tripped himself up by claiming, in a tone of deep alarm, that Palestinian insistence on the right of return for Palestinian refugees displaced when Israel was created would spell the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. He did not realize the inherent contradiction in his two assertions (until we later pointed it out to him, with no little glee). You cannot have it both ways, we told him: you cannot claim that, if Palestinians had not left the areas that became Israel in 1948, they would now be living peaceably, some inside and some alongside a Jewish-majority state, and then also claim that, if they returned now, Israel would lose its Jewish majority and its essential identity as a Jewish state.*

This exchange, and the massive propaganda effort by and on behalf of Israel to demonstrate the threat to Israel's Jewish character posed by the Palestinians' right of return, actually reveal the dirty little secret of Zionism. In its drive to establish and maintain a state in which Jews are always the majority, Zionism absolutely required that Palestinians, as non-Jews, be made to leave in 1948 and never be allowed to return. The dirty little secret is that this is blatant racism.

But didn't we finish with that old Zionism-is-racism issue over a decade ago, when in 1991 the UN repealed a 1975 General Assembly resolution that defined Zionism as "a form of racism or racial discrimination"? Hadn't we Americans always rejected this resolution as odious anti-Semitism, and didn't we, under the aegis of the first Bush administration, finally prevail on the rest of the world community to agree that it was not only inaccurate but downright evil to label Zionism as racist? Why bring it up again, now?

The UN General Assembly based its 1975 anti-Zionist resolution on the UN's own definition of racial discrimination, adopted in 1965. According to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, racial discrimination is "any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life." As a definition of racism and racial discrimination, this statement is unassailable and, if one is honest about what Zionism is and what it signifies, the statement is an accurate definition of Zionism. But in 1975, in the political atmosphere prevailing at the time, putting forth such a definition was utterly self-defeating.

So would a formal resolution be in today's political atmosphere. But enough has changed over the last decade or more that talk about Zionism as a system that either is inherently racist or at least fosters racism is increasingly possible and increasingly necessary. Despite the vehement knee-jerk opposition to any such discussion throughout the United States, serious scholars elsewhere and serious Israelis have begun increasingly to examine Zionism critically, and there is much greater receptivity to the notion that no real peace will be forged in Palestine-Israel unless the bases of Zionism are examined and in some way altered. It is for this reason that honestly labeling Zionism as a racist political philosophy is so necessary: unless the world's, and particularly the United States', blind support for Israel as an exclusivist Jewish state is undermined, unless the blind acceptance of Zionism as a noble ideology is undermined, and unless it is recognized that Israel's drive to maintain dominion over the occupied Palestinian territories is motivated by an exclusivist, racist ideology, no one will ever gain the political strength or the political will necessary to force Israel to relinquish territory and permit establishment of a truly sovereign and independent Palestinian state in a part of Palestine.

Recognizing Zionism's Racism

A racist ideology need not always manifest itself as such, and, if the circumstances are right, it need not always actually practice racism to maintain itself. For decades after its creation, the circumstances were right for Israel. If one forgot, as most people did, the fact that 750,000 Palestinians (non-Jews) had left their homeland under duress, thus making room for a Jewish-majority state, everyone could accept Israel as a genuine democracy, even to a certain extent for that small minority of Palestinians who had remained after 1948. That minority was not large enough to threaten Israel's Jewish majority; it faced considerable discrimination, but because Israeli Arabs could vote, this discrimination was viewed not as institutional, state-mandated racism but as the kind of discrimination, deplorable but not institutionalized, faced by blacks in the United States. The occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, with their two million (soon to become more than three million) Palestinian inhabitants, was seen to be temporary, its end awaiting only the Arabs' readiness to accept Israel's existence.

In these "right" circumstances, the issue of racism rarely arose, and the UN's labeling of Israel's fundamental ideology as racist came across to Americans and most westerners as nasty and vindictive. Outside the third world, Israel had come to be regarded as the perpetual innocent, not aggressive, certainly not racist, and desirous of nothing more than a peace agreement that would allow it to mind its own business inside its original borders in a democratic state. By the time the Zionism-is-racism resolution was rescinded in 1991, even the PLO had officially recognized Israel's right to exist in peace inside its 1967 borders, with its Jewish majority uncontested. In fact, this very acceptance of Israel by its principal adversary played no small part in facilitating the U.S. effort to garner support for overturning the resolution. (The fact of U.S. global dominance in the wake of the first Gulf war and the collapse of the Soviet Union earlier in 1991, and the atmosphere of optimism about prospects for peace created by the Madrid peace conference in October also played a significant part in winning over a majority of the UN when the Zionism resolution was brought to a vote of the General Assembly in December.)

Realities are very different today, and a recognition of Zionism's racist bases, as well as an understanding of the racist policies being played out in the occupied territories are essential if there is to be any hope at all of achieving a peaceful, just, and stable resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The egg of Palestine has been permanently scrambled, and it is now increasingly the case that, as Zionism is recognized as the driving force in the occupied territories as well as inside Israel proper, pre-1967 Israel can no longer be considered in isolation. It can no longer be allowed simply to go its own way as a Jewish-majority state, a state in which the circumstances are "right" for ignoring Zionism's fundamental racism.

As Israel increasingly inserts itself into the occupied territories, and as Israeli settlers, Israeli settlements, and Israeli-only roads proliferate and a state infrastructure benefiting only Jews takes over more and more territory, it becomes no longer possible to ignore the racist underpinnings of the Zionist ideology that directs this enterprise. It is no longer possible today to wink at the permanence of Zionism's thrust beyond Israel's pre-1967 borders. It is now clear that Israel's control over the occupied territories is, and has all along been intended to be, a drive to assert exclusive Jewish control, taming the Palestinians into submission and squeezing them into ever smaller, more disconnected segments of land or, failing that, forcing them to leave Palestine altogether. It is totally obvious to anyone who spends time on the ground in Palestine-Israel that the animating force behind the policies of the present and all past Israeli governments in Israel and in the occupied West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem has always been a determination to assure the predominance of Jews over Palestinians. Such policies can only be described as racist, and we should stop trying any longer to avoid the word.

When you are on the ground in Palestine, you can see Zionism physically imprinted on the landscape. Not only can you see that there are settlements, built on land confiscated from Palestinians, where Palestinians may not live. Not only can you see roads in the occupied territories, again built on land taken from Palestinians, where Palestinians may not drive. Not only can you observe that water in the occupied territories is allocated, by Israeli governmental authorities, so inequitably that Israeli settlers are allocated five times the amount per capita as are Palestinians and, in periods of drought, Palestinians stand in line for drinking water while Israeli settlements enjoy lush gardens and swimming pools. Not only can you stand and watch as Israeli bulldozers flatten Palestinian olive groves and other agricultural land, destroy Palestinian wells, and demolish Palestinian homes to make way for the separation wall that Israel is constructing across the length and breadth of the West Bank. The wall fences off Palestinians from Israelis, supposedly to provide greater security for Israelis but in fact in order to cage Palestinians, to define a border for Israel that will exclude a maximum number of Palestinians.

But, if this is not enough to demonstrate the inherent racism of Israel's occupation, you can also drive through Palestinian towns and Palestinian neighborhoods in and near Jerusalem and see what is perhaps the most cruelly racist policy in Zionism's arsenal: house demolitions, the preeminent symbol of Zionism's drive to maintain Jewish predominance. Virtually every street has a house or houses reduced to rubble, one floor pancaked onto another or simply a pile of broken concrete bulldozed into an incoherent heap. Jeff Halper, founder and head of the non-governmental Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), an anthropologist and scholar of the occupation, has observed that Zionist and Israeli leaders going back 80 years have all conveyed what he calls "The Message" to Palestinians. The Message, Halper says, is "Submit. Only when you abandon your dreams for an independent state of your own, and accept that Palestine has become the Land of Israel, will we relent [i.e., stop attacking Palestinians]." The deeper meaning of The Message, as carried by the bulldozers so ubiquitous in targeted Palestinian neighborhoods today, is that "You [Palestinians] do not belong here. We uprooted you from your homes in 1948and now we will uproot you from all of the Land of Israel."

In the end, Halper says, the advance of Zionism has been a process of displacement, and house demolitions have been "at the center of the Israeli struggle against the Palestinians" since 1948. Halper enumerates a steady history of destruction: in the first six years of Israel's existence, it systematically razed 418 Palestinian villages inside Israel, fully 85 percent of the villages existing before 1948; since the occupation began in 1967, Israel has demolished 11,000 Palestinian homes. More homes are now being demolished in the path of Israel's "separation wall." It is estimated that more than 4,000 homes have been destroyed in the last two years alone.

The vast majority of these house demolitions, 95 percent, have nothing whatever to do with fighting terrorism, but are designed specifically to displace non-Jews and assure the advance of Zionism. In Jerusalem, from the beginning of the occupation of the eastern sector of the city in 1967, Israeli authorities have designed zoning plans specifically to prevent the growth of the Palestinian population. Maintaining the "Jewish character" of the city at the level existing in 1967 (71 percent Jewish, 29 percent Palestinian) required that Israel draw zoning boundaries to prevent Palestinian expansion beyond existing neighborhoods, expropriate Palestinian-owned lands, confiscate the Jerusalem residency permits of any Palestinian who cannot prove that Jerusalem is his "center of life," limit city services to Palestinian areas, limit development in Palestinian neighborhoods, refuse to issue residential building permits to Palestinians, and demolish Palestinian homes that are built without permits. None of these strictures is imposed on Jews. According to ICAHD, the housing shortage in Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem is approximately 25,000 units, and 2,000 demolition orders are pending.

Halper has written that the human suffering involved in the destruction of a family home is incalculable. A home "is one's symbolic center, the site of one's most intimate personal life and an expression of one's status. It is a refuge, it is the physical representation of the family,maintainingcontinuity on one's ancestral land." Land expropriation is "an attack on one's very being and identity." Zionist governments, past and present, have understood this well, although not with the compassion or empathy that Halper conveys, and this attack on the "very being and identity" of non-Jews has been precisely the animating force behind Zionism.

Zionism's racism has, of course, been fundamental to Israel itself since its establishment in 1948. The Israeli government pursues policies against its own Bedouin minority very similar to its actions in the occupied territories. The Bedouin population has been forcibly relocated and squeezed into small areas in the Negev, again with the intent of forcing an exodus, and half of the 140,000 Bedouin in the Negev live in villages that the Israeli government does not recognize and does not provide services for. Every Bedouin home in an unrecognized village is slated for demolition; all homes, and the very presence of Bedouin in them, are officially illegal.

The problem of the Bedouins' unrecognized villages is only the partial evidence of a racist policy that has prevailed since Israel's foundation. After Zionist/Israeli leaders assured that the non-Jews (i.e., the Palestinians) making up the majority of Palestine's population (a two-thirds majority at the time) departed the scene in 1948, Israeli governments institutionalized favoritism toward Jews by law. As a Zionist state, Israel has always identified itself as the state of the Jews: as a state not of its Jewish and Palestinian citizens, but of all Jews everywhere in the world. The institutions of state guarantee the rights of and provide benefits for Jews. The Law of Return gives automatic citizenship to Jews from anywhere in the world, but to no other people. Some 92 percent of the land of Israel is state land, held by the Jewish National Fund "in trust" for the Jewish people; Palestinians may not purchase this land, even though most of it was Palestinian land before 1948, and in most instances they may not even lease the land. Both the Jewish National Fund, which deals with land acquisition and development, and the Jewish Agency, which deals primarily with Jewish immigration and immigrant absorption, have existed since before the state's establishment and now perform their duties specifically for Jews under an official mandate from the Israeli government.

Creating Enemies

Although few dare to give the reality of house demolitions and state institutions favoring Jews the label of racism, the phenomenon this reality describes is unmistakably racist. There is no other term for a process by which one people can achieve the essence of its political philosophy only by suppressing another people, by which one people guarantees its perpetual numerical superiority and its overwhelming predominance over another people through a deliberate process of repression and dispossession of those people. From the beginning, Zionism has been based on the supremacy of the Jewish people, whether this predominance was to be exercised in a full-fledged state or in some other kind of political entity, and Zionism could never have survived or certainly thrived in Palestine without ridding that land of most of its native population. The early Zionists themselves knew this (as did the Palestinians), even if naïve Americans have never quite gotten it. Theodore Herzl, father of Zionism, talked from the beginning of "spiriting" the native Palestinians out and across the border; discussion of "transfer" was common among the Zionist leadership in Palestine in the 1930s; talk of transfer is common today.

There has been a logical progression to the development of Zionism, leading inevitably to general acceptance of the sense that, because Jewish needs are paramount, Jews themselves are paramount. Zionism grew out of the sense that Jews needed a refuge from persecution, which led in turn to the belief that the refuge could be truly secure only if Jews guaranteed their own safety, which meant that the refuge must be exclusively or at least overwhelmingly Jewish, which meant in turn that Jews and their demands were superior, taking precedence over any other interests within that refuge. The mindset that in U.S. public discourse tends to view the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from a perspective almost exclusively focused on Israel arises out of this progression of Zionist thinking. By the very nature of a mindset, virtually no one examines the assu


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