This has been a basic motif whenever critics of Israel start their arguments to Western audiences, as the accusation of "racism" is emotionally charged and provokes a visceral disgust at the accused. It is not always easy to strip such an emotional argument down into any sort of logical context, but it is still worth taking seriously if only to fully air it out. After all, it wasn't that long ago that the UN agreed with this vile formula that "Zionism is the same as racism."
The anti-Israel crowd will bring up supposed evidence of racism - out-of-context quotes from Zionist leaders, real-life examples of discrimination against Arabs in Israel, the entire 1948 war as an example of Zionist aggression against Arabs, the "law of return," plus the colonialist charge we recently discussed, with the implication that colonialists always looked at the natives of the colony as subhuman savages.
The pro-Israel crowd typically answers these charges by pointing out that Arabs have equal rights in Israel, that Israeli Arabs are in much better shape than those of Arab nations, and that it is hypocritical to accuse Israel of racism when Arab nations are much worse.
Even the brilliant speech by Chaim Herzog in response to that infamous UN resolution used this same formula:
We in Israel have endeavored to create a society which strives to implement the highest ideals of society -- political, social and cultural -- for all the inhabitants of Israel, irrespective of religious belief, race or sex.While all of this is true, it would not convince any Arab critic. They would point out that fundamentally Arabs are still second-class citizens in Israeli society, and that for all the talk of Arab accomplishments in Israel, it is somewhat condescending - somewhat like how Saudi Arabia might brag about women's rights in the kingsom nowadays.
Show me another pluralistic society in this world in which despite all the difficult problems, Jew and Arab live together with such a degree of harmony, in which the dignity and rights of man are observed before the law, in which no death sentence is applied, in which freedom of speech, of movement, of thought, of expression are guaranteed, in which even movements which are opposed to our national aims are represented in our Parliament.
The Arab delegates talk of racism. What has happened to the 800,000 Jews who lived for over two thousand years in the Arab lands, who formed some of the most ancient communities long before the advent of Islam. Where are they now?
The Jews were once one of the important communities in the countries of the Middle East, the leaders of thought, of commerce, of medical science. Where are they in Arab society today? You dare talk of racism when I can point with pride to the Arab ministers who have served in my government; to the Arab deputy speaker of my Parliament; to Arab officers and men serving of their own volition in our border and police defense forces, frequently commanding Jewish troops; to the hundreds of thousands of Arabs from all over the Middle East crowding the cities of Israel every year; to the thousands of Arabs from all over the Middle East coming for medical treatment to Israel; to the peaceful coexistence which has developed; to the fact that Arabic is an official language in Israel on a par with Hebrew; to the fact that it is as natural for an Arab to serve in public office in Israel as it is incongruous to think of a Jew serving in any public office in an Arab country, indeed being admitted to many of them. Is that racism? It is not! That, Mr. President, is Zionism.
Zionism is our attempt to build a society, imperfect though it may be, in which the visions of the prophets of Israel will be realized. I know that we have problems. I know that many disagree with our government's policies. Many in Israel too disagree from time to time with the government's policies ... and are free to do so because Zionism has created the first and only real democratic state in a part of the world that never really knew democracy and freedom of speech.
I firmly believe that all of this is a smokescreen - that very few of Israel's critics really care about this real or imagined discrimination, and they are using this as a rhetorical device to destroy Israel, one weapon among many. It is an emotional argument dressed up as a logical one. This belief is a major reason that the actual issue has not been dealt with too much - Israel's supporters feel that even addressing these issues somehow gives them legitimacy.
Even so, I think that there is a tiny germ of truth in such absurd talk, and it needs to be addressed honestly and forthrightly. Truth is not anything to be afraid of, even when it reveals that things are not entirely black and white.
Any discussion of the topic needs to do away with the word "racism." To say that Zionism is racist is absurd by any real definition of the term, and even with the broadest definition it does not apply. After all, a large number of Israelis are descended from Arab Jews and there are Israelis of every race. The term is used purely as a club to incite.
So Israel's critics need to define "racism" to begin with. This accomplishes two things: it establishes a means to communicate without both sides talking past each other, and it also points out that criticizing Israel in a vacuum without seeing it in context is itself a form of discrimination. If every nation on Earth is equally or more guilty of the same thing, this doesn't excuse it but it also shows that the accuser probably has an agenda that is totally unrelated to the accusation.
Nevertheless, there is a fundamental issue: is the establishment of a homeland for the Jews a discriminatory act against the Arabs that lived there? Taking away the discrimination that Arabs have against, well, everybody else, taking away the fact that Arabs can become MKs and judges in the Jewish state - even ignoring all those issues, is the basic idea of Zionism discriminatory?
We can look at this issue from a number of angles.
Let's first look definitionally. As I mentioned in a previous post, a good definition of Zionism is:
Zionism is the national revival movement of the Jews. It holds that the Jews are a people and therefore have the right to self-determination in their own national home. It aims to secure and support a legally recognized national home for the Jews in their historical homeland, and to initiate and stimulate a revival of Jewish national life, culture and language.
So pure Zionism doesn't address the issue either way. It is a pro-Jewish movement, not an anti-Arab or anti-Gentile movement. It defines, accurately, Jews as being a distinctive people and it asserts the right for the Jewish people for self-determination.
Historically, there is no question that early Zionists discussed the issue of the existing Arab inhabitants in Palestine, and even that some of them anticipated the possibility of a war sometime down the road. I would argue that any such discussions were meant as contingency planning, not as a strategy (at least from the mainstream Zionists, as opposed to the Revisionists.) I've already addressed why I believe that ordinary Zionists at the time had an intense desire for peace with the Arabs without bloodshed, that they wanted to live together. If I can find a dozen quotes yearning for peaceful co-existence for every quote that seems to prepare for war, I think that it could help prove my point. Unfortunately, historians with an agenda will purposefully ignore such quotes.
Moreover, contrary to critics' claims that Zionism always intended to take Israel by force, the Zionists were happy with the original UN Partition plan - where they would have received a tiny, indefensible state with a large Arab minority, without firing a shot. History shows that all their actions were diplomatic, and that the Haganah was created purely for defense against the Arab riots that broke out periodically against the Jews.
In practice, however, no one can deny there was an element of supremacy in the early European Zionists - not only towards the Arabs, but also towards Sephardic Jews, towards religious Jews and others. There was discrimination towards other groups that often goes together with pride for their own.
And, at the crux of the issue: Israel is meant to be a state for all Jews, and while it is not conscious, this means that non-Jews will always suffer some discrimination. It may be tiny, it may be less than other countries, but by definition it will always be there. Israel will discriminate in immigration policy by definition, for example.
As that issue of the Palestine Post I quoted before stated it, in 1946:
[Dr. Weizman] showed an anxiety to be fair...the most important example was his plea for a solution which would accept "the line of least injustice." The Committee shoudl analyze that phrase closely. It will help them to map the area of genuine conflict. For the Arab citizen of Palestine, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are not at stake. Neither as an individual nor as a member of a culture-group is he threatened. The State visualized in the Jewish Agency's case will cause him loss in one single respect: Palestine cannot become an Arab state, like the countries around it. The the Arab national leaders would have it otherwise is understandable; that the special rights and special needs of the Jewish people should be sacrificed is impossible. If there are just claims on both sides they do not hold the scales level.
And this indeed is the issue. It is not a case of Palestinian Arab human rights in a vacuum, it is a case of competing human rights cases of Palestinian Arabs and Jews in the same land. It is literally impossible to have both sides get 100% of what they want.
There will be discrimination.
It is not ideal, but it needs to be acknowledged. By realizing this basic fact, which too many Zionists sweep under the rug, then we can get closer to what needs to be done: assert the rights of Jews to live in their own homeland with full rights in every sense of the word, including the rights of self-determination - and to work assiduously to minimize the discrimination against non-Jews who live in that same land, without jeopardizing the Jewish rights.
Discrimination is a necessary evil - and it must be minimized.
Calling for a single, democratic state may sound to the naive as a just solution, but it is discriminatory against the Jews who live there because it would destroy their right to self-determination.
No matter what happens, someone's rights will be reduced. The goal is to be cognizant of this and minimize these instances as much as possible while insuring the maximum human rights for all. In Weizman's words, we need to find "the line of least injustice."
Israel, for all its faults, has done a magnificent job of walking that line - and it could do better. Every day, Israelis struggle with the myriad of issues of balancing the Jewish rights and the Arab rights in the land. Sometimes they err on the Jewish side, sometimes they err on the Arab side. The questions of army service, or providing service to Arab towns, of land ownership, of allowing Arab members of Knesset to do what would be considered treasonous in other countries - not to mention the huge number of issues on how to treat Jews and Arabs in the "territories" - these are all very real issues, and they all have (at least) two sides.
So, yes, Israel is often discriminatory against Arabs. (At times, it has discriminated against Jews as well.) The key is not to pretend it isn't there - it is to tackle the issues head on, to maximize the rights of all people in the land.
So Israel is far from perfect, but to call Israel or Zionism "racist" is simply nonsense.