September Backgrounder: Zionism, Racism and Durban

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Prof. Gil Troy (updated version of an article published March 29, 2009)

Among the many casualties of the continuing Mideast violence is the term “Zionism.” Whereas it once epitomized idealism, romanticism, and the best of nationalism to millions of Jews and non-Jews, Zionism today is politically incorrect. In a depressing retreat to the harshest days of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Zionism is again being demonized. Critics regularly twin the term with a grab-bag of reprehensible “isms”: expansionism, colonialism, imperialism, racism, and, most perversely, Nazism.

The renewed attack on Zionism overshadowed the United Nations conference held in Durban, South Africa which began on August 31, 2001 and ended on September 7.  The “World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance,” wanted to condemn “the racist practices of Zionism,” call Zionism a movement based on racial superiority, and condemn Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “a new kind of apartheid.” Some delegates distributed a booklet of vile and ancient anti-Semitic caricatures showing Jews with hook noses and fangs dripping blood. It was hard to take such overt racism at a supposed anti-racism conference seriously — but also hard to ignore it. The United States — and even the (at the time) compulsively “evenhanded” Canadian government — mobilized against it. The U.S. Secretary of State at the time, Colin Powell, the first African-American Secretary of State, desperately wanted to attend the conference, seeing it as a critical moment in South Africa’s transition from enduring a racist Apartheid regime to being purged of such ugliness. Yet, ultimately, frustrated, Powell boycotted the event, sending a mid-level U,S, representative instead, because he realized that focusing on Zionism at an anti-racism conference hurt the cause of racism – and allowed truly racist regimes to dodge responsibility as the world piled on Israel, and Zionism.

To attack Zionism, rather than Israeli policies or the Israeli government, is to repudiate the State of Israel and the idea of a Jewish state. For Zionism at its simplest is Jewish nationalism, the understanding that Jews are a people, that Judaism is not just a religion, and that Israel is the Jewish homeland. Singling out Jewish nationalism as racist, in a forum of the 192-member United Nations, is itself bigoted anti-Semitic behavior.

In targeting Jewish nationalism in its broadest, murkiest, and most abstract incarnation, critics betray their true colors. Anti-Zionism goes way beyond the question of the settlements or Ariel Sharon or Avigdor Lieberman or any particular Israeli actions. Anti-Zionism attacks the very rights of the Jews to their homeland. This sweeping assault then naturally metastasizes into the anti-Semitic caricatures in so many Arab newspapers and into the epidemic of violence against Jews throughout the world that so many supposed humanists rationalize.

This anti-Zionist vitriol ratchets the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians from the realm of the negotiable up to an arena of mutually exclusive absolutes. Those who negate Zionism are declaring war on Israel and the Jewish people. This broad-based assault, combined with the wider-ranging campaign of terror launched in 2000 against all Israelis, explains why the Israeli left has all but collapsed, and the region is so polarized.

Trying to turn the Palestinian-Israeli conflict into a racial conflict, caricatures Israelis as colonialist, imperialist, racist whites, and Palestinians as noble, victimized, oppressed, people of color. But the facts collide with this simplistic propagandistic scenario. The conflict is a national conflict, with some religious overtones. But there are dark-skinned Israelis and light-skinned Palestinians. Moreover, there are no racial or racist laws on Israeli books – unlike the despicable South African apartheid regime with all its racial classifications among blacks, whites and coloreds. Whereas Israel has made heroic efforts to rescue tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews from Africa, all too often, too many Arabs are behind some of the worst racist conflicts in the world, notably Darfur today.

Proof that Zionism is most definitely not racism comes from America’s first African-America president, Barack Obama. During his campaign, Obama explained that when he was in sixth grade he attended a summer camp and learned about Zionism, Israel and the Holocaust from a Jewish counselor. Obama recalled how the counselor “shared with me the idea of retuning to a homeland and what that meant for a people who had suffered from the Holocaust, and he talked about the idea of preserving a culture when a people had been uprooted with the view of eventually returning home. For a young man like Obama, searching for his roots, for his identity, this message resonated. And so, he proclaimed, “my starting point when I think about the Middle East is this enormous emotional attachment and sympathy for Israel, mindful of the hardship and pain and suffering that the Jewish people have undergone, but also mindful of the incredible opportunity that is presented when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best tradition and their best selves. And obviously it’s something that has great resonance with the African-American experience.”

President Obama understands that not only is Zionism not racism, not only can the Zionist story inspire African-Americans and displaced people everywhere, but that we all should strive to do what he understand Zionism has done: excavate our best traditions and our best selves.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. giltroy@gmail.com
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