Sun 18 Feb 2024 4:35 pm - Jerusalem Time

How Zionism fuels racism

By Thomas Vescovi

This text was initially scheduled to be presented in Brussels on October 14, 2023, as part of a conference on the fight against anti-Semitism. Postponed to March 2, 2024, it is now impossible for me to participate. This article should make it possible to announce this event (poster at the end of the article) in which Nitzan Perelman from Yaani will participate, and to begin reflection.

“Isn’t it anachronistic to be anti-Zionist? How can you be Zionist and left-wing? » As legitimate as they are, these questions illustrate several presuppositions. First, that Zionism was fully realized in the creation and rooting of the State of Israel in the Middle East, without ever experiencing any particular developments. But also that anti-Zionism can only be summed up as a desire to see the State of Israel disappear. Or that organizations could never be both left-wing and colonial.

Respond to a vital emergency

The simultaneous appearance in 1897 of the Zionist movement and the Bund (General Union of Jewish Workers of Lithuania, Poland and Russia) illustrates the urgency for some European Jews to free themselves from anti-Semitism. If in the East, where more than 60% of the world's Jewish population lived at that time, they faced persecution fueled by state racism, in the West the Jews gradually obtained rights which allowed them to live as full citizens and to assimilate into the societies in which they live. However, the founding congress of Basel did not create Zionism, it institutionalized it by developing a “Jewish nationalism”. Indeed, throughout the 19th century, numerous acts, publications and projects followed one another to call on the Jews of Eastern Europe to emigrate, particularly to Palestine, the land of the Hebrews in biblical tradition.

Political Zionism is based on three principles. First, he considers the integration of Jews into their societies impossible. The latter would be caught between currents calling for their physical destruction and a desire within their ranks to fully integrate into European societies through assimilation by detaching themselves from religion, or even from any community affiliation. However, this latter perspective does not prevent anti-Semitism from spreading and threatening the security of Jews, like the anti-Semitic campaign against Captain Dreyfus in France, to which the Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl has assisted. It is from this observation that Zionism demands the creation of a political entity where Jews would be the majority in the hope of living there in security. In other words: the building of a Jewish state, as Herzl explains in his eponymous work published in 1896.

Added to this is a second principle: the existence of a “Jewish people”. Theorized in the context of the rise of nationalism in Europe and the formation of nation-states, the affirmation of a “Jewish people” allows the Zionist movement to claim a right to have a state. However, and this is the third principle, this aspiration is also based on the supposedly original link of the Jews to the “Holy Land” where the “Jewish people” would have historical and almost exclusive rights. If other territories were considered for the realization of the Zionist project, none had as strong a symbolism as Palestine. From then on, imbued with European colonial and orientalist ideas, Zionism saw itself as the owner of Palestine, earning it numerous criticisms from Jewish intellectuals from liberal humanism or Marxism. The latter are logically opposed to the construction of a state for Jews on a land populated overwhelmingly by non-Jewish populations, considering the injustices that such a project entails.

The Zionist movement is not monolithic; several trends coexist. The balance of power in the interwar period allowed the left wing, known as Labor, to impose itself at the head of the Jewish Agency, the Jewish pre-state organization in Palestine. For left-wing Zionists, the accusations of supporting a racist project do not hold up: they see themselves as the defenders of an ideal which can only be anti-racist in essence, since it aims to emancipate the main victims of racism. Above all, they overcome the contradiction between left-wing values and the nationalist and colonial aspirations of Zionism, by demanding “worker colonization”, based on socializing values. Finally, through their confrontation with the United Kingdom, the mandatory power of Palestine, left Zionism even claims its place within the post-1945 decolonial movements. The rallying of the USSR to the partition of Palestine, then to the creation of the State of Israel via the delivery of weapons during the 1948 war, strengthens the left wing of Zionism: if the country which is he standard of the socialist revolution in Europe, the main actor in the defeat of fascism, supports them, then the creation of a Jewish state can only be on the right side of the history of peoples.

From the 1930s to the 1940s, the rallying of European Jewish populations to Zionism was gradual but real. Between the coming to power of anti-Semitic regimes, then the genocide of the Jews, the response of anti-racist organizations was no longer up to par. Those who suffered from anti-Semitism and its violence on a daily basis, and to whom any form of social recognition was refused, could neither trust the societies which had allowed or even supported the accession of anti-Semites to power, nor be satisfied with a liberation brought about by the triumph of a hypothetical Marxist revolution. If until the eve of the Second World War only a minority of European Jews opted for exile towards Palestine, the situation changed after 1945: the utopia of founding a Jewish state on the basis of dignity and justice, when although located on another continent, becomes an attractive and mobilizing ideal, by default. During his hearing in 1947 by the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), Ben-Gurion declared: “Who wants and can guarantee that what happened to us in Europe will not happen again? [...] There is only one safeguard: a homeland and a State. »

In addition to the imperialist calculations or interests specific to each winner of the Second World War, European guilt and shock at the scale of the genocide led to the UN vote in 1947 which gave the State of Israel a legitimacy and the Jewish populations a beginning of repair. But to the detriment of the Palestinians, three-quarters of whom are driven from their land and forced into forced exile. They leave history at the moment when the Jews enter it as a people with a state. Israeli historian Idith Zertal speaks of the creation of Israel as an “extra-historical event”, in the sense that “the first event – the Shoah – in a certain way whitewashed the dark side of the second, "that is to say, the conditions and consequences of the Israeli victory in 1948." In Defeating Hitler (2009), Israeli political leader Avraham Burg supports this reflection in the sense that "in the face of the Shoah, everything is insignificant, nothing , and therefore allowed, [...] everything is possible, since we survived the Shoah, and above all... let no one lecture us. »

A colonial and ethnic movement, therefore racist and ethnicist

The Zionists were well aware of the presence of an Arab population on the land they coveted, but they wanted to replace it. Thus, systematically during the mandate period, Arab violence against Jewish immigrants did not precede the separation of the communities, it resulted from it. The Jewish Marxist organizations which worked towards structures based on class criteria, and not ethnic ones, were marginalized by the ethnic line drawn by the Zionist movement, but also by the amalgamation that the Arab population made between these original Marxist Jews. of Europe and the proponents of a colonial project which aspired to dispossess them. With a view to ensuring the immigration of new Jewish populations and their rapid integration, the Zionists worked to develop “Jewish work” (“Avoda ivrit”) requiring Jewish companies not to employ Arabs. It was obviously a question of achieving self-sufficiency and the foundations of a future state, which they achieved.

 Colonialism resting on a racist foundation, Zionism, as a colonial project, naturally produces racism in turn. Zionist literature before and after the creation of Israel abounds with orientalist and racist remarks, making the “Oriental” an intellectually and materially inferior being. This thinking made it possible to legitimize a certain number of practices towards the Arabs of Palestine, including the historic Jewish community, and to envisage the erasure of Palestinians from the landscape, as undesirable squatters of a land which should, from the Zionist point of view, return to its “real owners”.

Added to this colonial racism is the complexity of a national political movement which also aims to be ethnic. Zionism does not aim to liberate all populations present in a territory supposed to accommodate the state project, but to ensure rights and security for a particular group to which integration is impossible except through of a complex religious conversion. Thus, the creation of Israel was not accompanied by the shaping of an Israeli nation based on equal rights where citizenship transcends particularisms, but of a colonial society marked by relations of domination and the distribution of political privileges. , social and territorial on ethnic criteria.

The very principle of a Jewish and democratic state has been questioned since the founding of Israel. The Jewish journalist and political leader Ilan Halevi, involved in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), explained that “the Jewish State, […] is the State which identifies two distinct legal categories of citizens : Jews, and “non-Jews”. It is therefore a state which discriminates between those of its citizens who are recognized as Jews by the Israeli administration […], and its own Arab, Christian or Muslim citizens. » He adds: “Zionism is based on presuppositions which make racism the acceptable norm of relations between groups. »

A norm that does not only concern relations between Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians. In her essay Zionism from the Perspective of its Jewish Victims (2006), Ella Shohat explains that “anti-Arabism is an integral part of Zionist practice and ideology.” Eastern Jews were urged to choose between an Arabness perceived as anti-Zionist, and a Jewishness that could only be pro-Zionist. For the first time in their history, these populations suffered racism, not because of their religion, but because of their culture and their skin color. Zionism, explains Shohat, conceptualized the antinomy between Arabness and Jewishness.

Based on this analysis, there is nothing surprising in the fact that Israeli leaders have always been able to be complacent towards racist and anti-Semitic movements or regimes, as long as they were ready to collaborate with Israel in a convergence of interests. This was the case yesterday with Apartheid South Africa, and today with Modi’s India or Orban’s Hungary.

A policy that threatens the security of Jews

If Zionism has achieved its nationalist objective, via the establishment of the State of Israel, the Palestinians have not disappeared, have returned to History and are now demographically contesting the legitimacy of a state with a Jewish majority between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. This is all the more so since the Israeli policy of colonization of the occupied West Bank since 1967 has dashed hopes of seeing the birth of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. In this area today live as many Arabs as Jews, around 7 million. How can a state that asserts itself as “Jewish” survive without building a regime that takes the form of apartheid?

Founded by a movement with ethnic and colonial principles, the State of Israel has naturally become an annexationist, ethnicist and supremacist regime, far from the collectivist or socializing pretensions of the proponents of left-wing Zionism. In 2018, the Israeli government passed the so-called Jewish Nation-State Law, institutionalizing apartheid, while in the West Bank religious-Zionist settlers act knowing that their Jewishness guarantees them under Israeli law. impunity and the privilege of living on land stolen from the Palestinians.

Pretending to want to fight against anti-Semitism, certain organizations have worked since the 2000s to limit the right to criticize Israel, or even to censor questions about the legitimacy of maintaining a "Jewish State", and therefore not egalitarian, in a space where the Jewish population is not in the majority. While condemning the importation of the misnamed “Israeli-Palestinian conflict”, these organizations are also increasing calls addressed to Jews to stand alongside Israel, to insist that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism in disguise. They thus participate in the dangerous amalgamation between Jew and Israeli, making each Jew the potential bearer of responsibility in the Palestinian drama. However, it is precisely because the ideal of a fully egalitarian state in the Middle East fundamentally contravenes the principles of Zionism that certain Jewish groups in Israel or in the West assert themselves as “anti-Zionists”. Above all, to paraphrase Sylvain Cypel, in his book The State of Israel against the Jews (2020): it is not the disclosure of images of the killings of young Palestinians that fuels anti-Semitism, it is the killings themselves. same practices practiced in the name of the security of a state claiming to act in the name of all Jews.

The ethnic cleansing of 1948, the sub-citizen status of the Palestinians of Israel, the racism suffered by Eastern Jews, the occupation and colonization of the territories conquered in 1967, the illegality of the blockade on the Gaza Strip and the Wall in the West Bank, NGO reports of an apartheid regime, multiple wars waged in the name of "Israel's security" today taking the form of genocidal acts in Gaza: all policies that prevent to imagine security for Jews in the Middle East, since this is only built to the detriment of the fate of the Palestinians. October 7 was, in the cruelest of ways, a reminder of this reality. Therefore, if the scourge of anti-Semitism does not have its roots in Israeli policy or the actions of the Netanyahu government, it becomes undeniable that the anti-racist fight against anti-Semitism loses its credibility by turning a blind eye, or by stuttering, on respecting the rights of Palestinians in the face of the unprecedented tragedy they are going through.


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