The Middle East Channel

Zionism is not racism, but Zionists can be racists

Zionism is not racism, but Zionists can be racists

In 1975, a combination of malevolent and misguided governments managed to enshrine in a United Nations General Assembly resolution the defamatory accusation that Zionism is racism. That libel was rescinded by the General Assembly in 1991, the only time that one of its resolutions was revoked.

In 2012, having neutralized American opposition to its efforts to establish — through the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank — irreversible "facts on the ground" that will prevent the emergence of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, while at the same time denying Israeli citizenship to the millions of Palestinian residents of the occupied territories, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has succeeded in reviving the calumny that Zionism is racism, something anti-Semites and Israel’s enemies had been unable to do.

The founders of Zionism were among the most enlightened and progressive leaders of the Jewish world. They were not racists, and neither were the members of the U.N. General Assembly who voted in 1947 to create a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian state. But Netanyahu and his government have proven that although Zionism is not racism, Zionists can indeed be racists.  

In the 1980s many in the American Jewish establishment (myself included) participated in demonstrations against South Africa’s apartheid regime. The struggle against apartheid was considered by the Jewish community (not only by liberals) to be a Jewish cause. But that was in the 1980s, and the apartheid was in South Africa. Today it is in Israel — and not as a future possibility, as many have been warning, but a current reality.   

Netanyahu and his government have sought to disguise their de facto apartheid regime by pretending the status quo in the occupied West Bank is temporary, and that it would lead to a two-state agreement if only Palestinians would return to negotiations in a peace process that has been a farce, having served no purpose other than to disguise the enlargement of the settlement project that created the apartheid to begin with. However, when there is even the slightest possibility that negotiations might actually be resumed on the basis of the pre-1967 line, a line Netanyahu has relentlessly been trying to erase from the world’s memory, he and his government revert to the claim that Israel has no partner for peace talks, and therefore negotiations must wait for one or more generations when a more reasonable Palestinian leadership might emerge.   

When Palestinians turned to the U.N. last year to confirm their right to statehood, Netanyahu’s Foreign Ministry circulated a confidential document to various governments accusing Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, of encouraging terrorism and the delegitimization of Israel, among many other crimes. The document concluded that "no agreement [with the Palestinians] will ever be possible as long as Mahmoud Abbas leads the Palestinian Authority." This of the man who Israeli security agencies and the IDF credited only recently with having helped put an end to terrorism in the West Bank.

When in 1991 Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir decided to bring into his government the rightwing Moledet party, headed by Rechav’am Ze’evy, Benny Begin, the son of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, warned that because Moledet advocates the "transfer" (forceful expulsion) of the West Bank’s Arab residents, its inclusion in Israel’s government "in effect confirms the U.N. resolution that says that Zionism is racism."

Today, the ruling Likud party, in which Benny Begin is one of its most influential ministers, opposes Palestinian statehood and the granting of Israeli citizenship to Palestinian residents of the West Bank, confining them to enclaves behind checkpoints and barbed wire fences. While Netanyahu claims to oppose transfer, transfer parties are part of his government, and Palestinians are being systematically expelled from Area C territories (so designated by the Oslo accords) that comprise over 60 percent of the West Bank. A recent report from the European Commission notes that hundreds of Palestinian homes in that area have been slated by Israel for demolition.

If Shamir’s government deserved to be criticized by Begin as confirming the "Zionism is racism" resolution, what can be said for a government that is actually implementing what Ze’evy and his Moledet party only advocated?    

Former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak and others have been warning Israel for years now that the lack of progress towards a two-state solution threatens to lead to a loss of Israel’s democracy and to an apartheid state. But warning of a future threat instead of raising an alarm over a present reality that "looks, walks and quacks" like an apartheid regime has played into the hands of Netanyahu’s government. Netanyahu believes that by invoking the Holocaust and accusing critics of Israel’s de facto apartheid of anti-Semitism and Israel-bashing, he can continue to intimidate, discredit, and silence them. The failure of both the U.S. administration and the American Jewish organizational establishment to speak truthfully about Israel’s present reality has only served to reassure Netanyahu that his apartheid regime can be permanently disguised.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu is not taking any chances. Naftali Bennett, a close associate of Netanyahu who previously headed his Prime Minister’s office (and also a former head of Yesha, the settlers’ council for Judea and Samaria), recently announced that he presented a plan for the "solution" of the Israel-Palestine conflict to Israel’s political leaders and to its military and defense officials, and that the plan received "high praise."

The key elements of Bennett’s plan, which one might reasonably assume is Netanyahu’s trial balloon,  are: 1) unilaterally imposing full Israeli sovereignty in Area C (as noted above it constitutes 62 percent of the West Bank, leaving Palestinians less than 9 percent of pre-partition Palestine.); 2) "securing" all of Jerusalem; 3) an Israeli "security umbrella" across the entire West Bank, including the territory in which geographically disconnected Palestinian enclaves envisioned in this plan would be located; 4) disconnecting the Gaza strip from the West Bank and "assigning" it to Egypt; 5) rejecting a Palestinian right of return for the refugees even in the enclaves that would constitute a future Palestinian state; and 6) granting Israeli citizenship for the 50,000 Palestinians who, according to Bennett, now reside in Area C that is to be annexed to Israel. This brilliant move, Bennett announced triumphantly, "will pull the rug from under any apartheid argument."

It should be noted that according to the European Commission report previously referred to, Area C is home to 150,000 Palestinians, which raises the question of whether an unstated aspect of Bennett’s plan is the "transfer" of 100,000 Palestinians out of Area C.

So far there has been not even a whisper of criticism of this appalling attempt to "kosher" Israel’s apartheid from America’s Jewish organizational leadership, who continue to confuse support for Netanyahu and his government that includes out-and-out racist parties (including a cabinet housing minister who publicly encouraged the exclusion of Israel’s own Arab citizens from Jewish neighborhoods) with support for the Jewish state envisioned by its Zionist founders.

Netanyahu’s policies have turned Israel into an ethnocracy similar to states such as Milosevic and Mladic’s Serbia, whose xenophobic nationalism, land grabs in Bosnia, demonization of Bosnia’s Muslims, and ties to a benighted Serbian Orthodoxy that provided religious support and encouragement for their leaders’ predations, mirror Israel’s present reality. (It should not surprise that Ariel Sharon was the only leader in the democratic world at the time who condemned NATO’s bombing of Belgrade. Indeed, he warned it might serve as a precedent for similar international measures against Israel.)

Netanyahu and his supporters in Israel and in the Diaspora are not only destroying Israel’s democracy but defaming both the Zionism and Judaism they misleadingly invoke to justify the apartheid being entrenched in Zion.

Neither Torah, nor justice or peace, will ever come forth from such a Zion.

Henry Siegman, president of the U.S./Middle East Project in New York, is a former national director of the American Jewish Congress and of the Synagogue Council of America. He serves as a non-resident research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.