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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A Zionist advocacy timetable for the next five weeks

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

We can turn the UN’s “Palestine Season” into another empty victory for the Palestinians. We should stop dreading this fall

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-23-11

The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem.

The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his next book will be The Big Red Lie: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Zionism is Racism, and the Fall of the UN.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations Photo by: REUTERS/Chip East

As Palestinians prepare to try bypassing negotiations and dodging compromise by unilaterally declaring independence this September, Zionist activists and educators are prepping too. If the General Assembly votes, Israel will lose, as the UN’s anti-Israel bias will continue feeding Palestinian extremism. But just as the UN’s 1975 declaration that Zionism is Racism backfired, harming the world body more than it hurt the Jewish state, we who support Israel’s survival and seek a genuine peace can win this September. By using the calendar wisely, and remembering what we are for not just what we are against, we can turn the UN’s Palestine Season into another empty victory for the Palestinians, trumping the votes of dictators and their dupes with the outrage of freedom-loving people, along with renewed appreciation for Israel among Jews and non-Jews.

We should stop dreading this fall. The calendar is our friend.  For each of the five weeks starting with Sunday August 28, Zionist activists and educators should pick a theme or two – conceptualizing the conversation about Israel as a double helix linking education and advocacy, the purely positive and the necessarily defensive, the aspirational with the historical.  We should affirm Zionism’s continuing relevance and power for Jews today, along with Israel’s continuing search for peace.  The advocacy piece should link Palestinians’ destructive – and self-destructive – hatred of Israel with the Durban debacle, 9/11-style terrorism, al Qaeda anti-Americanism, and the UN’s corruption– all on full display this coming September.

I would love just to celebrate Israel, welcoming college freshmen and others to the Zionist conversation solely with affirmations about Jewish nationhood’s idealistic potential and payoffs. Unfortunately, the real world demands a more muscular and political approach. If we do not advocate for Israel passionately, our enemies – and they are enemies – will fill that void with subtle distortions and new big lies. Of course, if we only advocate for Israel without delighting in it too, we accept the Palestinian paradigm, which makes everything about Israel be about them, framing Israel as the central headache of the Jewish people, and humanity.

The first week, August 28th to September 3, we should Affirm Zionism – and Fight the Racism Lie. For too long, too many pro-Israel activists have avoided calling themselves “Zionist,” unconsciously internalizing the systematic, Arab-fueled campaign to delegitimize Jewish nationalism and the Jewish homeland. On campus, in synagogues, on Facebook, and beyond, we should reintroduce the term, championing Identity Zionism by understanding Zionism as modern Jewry’s great peoplehood project.   Zionism acknowledges that Judaism is not just a religion, but has a national peoplehood component now expressed through our traditional homeland Israel. Simultaneously, with August 31 through September 8 marking ten years since the Durban fiasco, when an anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa in 2001 degenerated into an anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic hatefest, we should explain that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is national not racial. Calling Zionism racism or comparing Israel to the discredited South African apartheid regime is the Big Red Lie, a falsehood the Soviet Union peddled. Now, it has become the Big Red-Green Lie, uniting too many on the left blindly, inconsistently, with Islamists.

September 4 through 10, we should build up to 9/11’s tenth anniversary by emphasizing Shared Values and Common Pain in an Age of Terrorism.  We should remember the victims, telling the stories of the many Israelis and Westerners murdered ruthlessly for political reasons in the last decade. We also should think about what unites Israel and the United States as sister democracies, focusing on the values that Islamists and dictators abhor, as well as the resulting security vulnerabilities evildoers exploit.

The next week should begin by concentrating on the United States. September 11 is sacred to Americans. That day we should commemorate that tragedy. The rest of the week can explore the ugly nexus between Anti-Zionism and Anti-Americanism, which became so clear on September 12. The world was shocked by the footage showing Palestinians in Gaza distributing candies to celebrate the Twin Towers’ fall, one of the few places where 9/11 triggered open celebrations.  Osama bin Laden, sensing that his mass murders were broadly unpopular, tried popularizing his anti-Americanism by converting suddenly to anti-Zionism. Before 9/11, al Qaeda rarely mentioned Israel. Subsequently Osama, like his dictator friends in Iran and elsewhere, integrated his hatred for America and Israel, implicitly recognizing Israel as a thriving liberal democracy.

September 18 through 24, the focus should be on the United Nations, with the General Assembly opening on September 13, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas planning to speak on the twentieth and the Durban III review of the original anti-racism conference beginning September 21. Hosting a Durban review conference in New York City, ten days after 9/11, when the ugliness at Durban also helped bridge anti-Zionism with anti-Americanism, juxtaposes the UN’s call for Palestinian independence with the UN’s anti-Semitic and anti-peace bias.  The pro-peace Zionist left should be heard here, challenging the Palestinians to negotiate rather than posture while criticizing the UN and the Palestinians for undermining the search for peace by trying to delegitimize Israel rather than seeking a two-state solution. Since 1975, it has been impossible to write a history of the movement to delegitimize Israel without discussing the UN but all too easy to write about attempts at Middle East peacemaking without mentioning the UN.”

Finally, we should end September by making September 29 and September 30 a Zionist Rosh Hashanah. Nations, like people, make mistakes – and can seek redemption. Just as true love of family involves accepting imperfections, we have to take Israel off probation, pushing it to improve where necessary while celebrating this exciting experiment in national redemption and Western democracy called Israel, which embodies noble democratic and Jewish values, enriching our lives as Jews and as lovers of freedom.

Center Field: Defending Israel is not Smearing Obama or Bullying Mary Robinson

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-6-09

Just as savvy lawyers teach their associates to pound the table harder the weaker their argument becomes, Israel’s critics are accusing its defenders of “smear” tactics and “bullying.”

In the toxic atmosphere which pollutes Middle East discourse, rife with accusations about super-powerful Jews doing their dirty work through the omnipotent “Jewish lobby,” Israel’s defenders are frequently put on the defensive. These unfair, hysterical accusations undermine the democratic discourse essential to governing effectively, especially in a complicated, messy policy arena such as the Middle East.

Let’s face it, no one wants to be accused of McCarthyite tactics, and few people have the stomach these days to be on the wrong side of Barack Obama and his minions. People who dare criticize the American president get the kind of treatment Marc Stanley, the chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, meted out in The Jerusalem Post this week.

In a screed entitled “The Chutzpah of Obama’s Jewish Critics,” Stanley targeted the rather mild, anguished op-ed Aluf Benn of Ha’aretz, published in the New York Times, asking “Why Won’t Obama Talk to Israel?

Benn made the important point that having visited so many other capitals, Obama’s refusal thus far to visit Jerusalem was telling, as was the president’s inability to address serious Israeli security concerns in the wake of Yasser Arafat’s return to terrorism and Hamas’s barrage of rockets after Israeli concessions.

Stanley claimed Obama is “making an unprecedented effort to reach out to the Jewish community,” and that critics like Benn would “leap at any chance to attack the president.”

Stanley then accused “the small anti-Obama wing of the Jewish community” of trying “to smear Obama in the Jewish community” during the 2008 campaign.

In the same vein, valid criticisms raised about President Obama’s shocking decision to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson were distorted, then dismissed.

I was careful in my Jerusalem Post blog criticizing her selection for America’s highest civilian honor not to call Robinson an anti-Semite – I called her a Neville Chamberlain, an appeaser who failed to stand up to Arab anti-Semitism in the buildup to Durban in 2001.

Nevertheless, critics in the “Talkback” said I called her an anti-Semite. Mary Robinson herself responded to the criticism with her own smear. “There’s a lot of bullying by certain elements of the Jewish community,” she said. “They bully people who try to address the severe situation in Gaza and the West Bank.”

The Belfast Telegraph made explicit what Robinson’s snide remark implied with its headline:  “Former Irish President Mary Robinson ‘bullied’ by Pro-Israel Lobbyists.”

In fairness, the pro-Israel side has more than its share of hysterics too.

Those of us who try to criticize President Obama’s Middle East Policy constructively – and lament his tone -deafness in awarding Mary Robinson and other matters – are hindered by the shrill minority that unfairly and inaccurately calls Obama a Muslim and Robinson an anti-Semite.

But to lump a thoughtful leftist like Aluf Benn in with that crowd, to ignore the anguish Mary Robinson’s failures at Durban caused, by simply dismissing critics as “bullies,” is destructive.

Since the 1980s, there has existed a kind of political sweepstakes, a competition in which each side in a debate tries to gain points by claiming it has been the one treated most unfairly.

Since the 1990s, in the United States, Republicans and Democrats have tended to treat honest criticism as personal attacks. Too many people seem to forget George Washington’s counsel to learn from your critics and understand that intelligent and virtuous people sometimes come to contrasting conclusions.

In his latest NRO Blog, the former Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services and White House aide Dr. Tevi Troy (yes, he is my brother), reports that a source told him that Robinson’s selection “was not fully vetted, but that the White House feels that backing down at this point would make things worse.”

In criticizing Robinson’s award I did not expect the White House to backtrack – institutions rarely do. But I did hope that the White House would be more careful next time and more sensitive to Jewish communal concerns in so many ways.

It is clearly still amateur hour at the White House. Even the holy Obamians have much to learn. A White House impervious to criticism is a White House doomed to fail. Obama and his aides, like the rest of us, can learn from their critics, even more than they learn from their friends  if they are open to listening rather than quick to smear critics as enemies.