-Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
The claim is often made that Zionism is based on racist assumptions. The matter is rarely discussed in any detail, since those bringing different viewpoints to the question tend to be so defensive that neither listens to the other side. Given that the only prospect for peace in the Mideast depends on resolving the conflict, it is imperative that defenders of Israel and its critics learn to engage in reasoned debate on fundamental questions such as this. Whether one’s sympathies lie primarily with Israelis or with Palestinians, it is hard to argue that the continuing violence benefits either.
The problem is not only that the two sides are starting with different interpretations of facts. It is that one or both are ignoring essential truths for understanding the conflict. These universal truths are often hidden beneath layers of unconscious beliefs that are so ingrained that they are hard to recognize. Since few people want to think of themselves as racist, they are even harder to acknowledge. Any discussion that might lead to the conclusion that one side is racist therefore breaks down before it gets to the root of the problem.
A person who feels genuine compassion for Palestinians may blame all Jews for their plight, while those worried about the survival of Israel and perhaps the Jewish people themselves may demonize all Arabs as hostile and dangerous. Both are making the mistake of assuming that all members of one or the other group are essentially all good or all bad. Most people do not fall into the trap of accepting these racist beliefs, of course. The great majority of well-meaning people who disagree on the nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict want an outcome that is fair to both. The problem is that in order to visualize such an outcome, we have to come to an agreement on what is “fair.” This is where unconscious biases lead to impasse.
The only way to a solution is to recognize and overcome the tribal mentality underlying the “us” versus “them” assumption at the root of all racist beliefs, conscious or unconscious. A common argument of defenders of Israel is that any criticism of its right to exist constitutes “anti-Semitism,” a charge that infuriates those who hold that Zionism is inherently racist. Ignoring the fact that the term anti-Semitism is a misnomer because the original inhabitants of the area were all Semitic, there is some merit to both arguments. There are among those on one side people who hate all Jews and on the other, people who hate all Arabs. It is easy to point at such examples to make the case that either group is racist, but in either case the argument itself is racist. People are individuals. Claiming that attitudes and behaviors are universal among any group ignores the reality that we are all more alike than different and that our commonalities are what make us human. Regarding an entire group of people as so evil that they deserve to be attacked because of who they are dehumanizes both the victim and the aggressor.
This is not to say that a group might not be more violent because of cultural influences. It is only an acknowledgement of the fact that such differences are culturally determined, not inherent in one group. It is in identifying with one group or the other to the exclusion of recognizing the common humanity of both that is the essence of the tribal mentality that is at the root of all racism. Thus, both groups claim that racism is endemic in the other group while denying it in theirs. The question of this essay is whether such attitudes are inherent in those who support Zionism, however.
A recent book by American reporter Max Blumenthal extensively documents that racism is rampant in Israel today. Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel traces the origins of this racism and describes how it manifests in Israeli public opinion. Blumenthal, like most prominent Jewish critics of Israel, is often called a “self-hating Jew,” which is a label intended to mark him as an extremist who does not accept his Jewishness. The fact that he does not place his ethnic background over his humanity is thus assumed to represent some sort of psychopathology. This in itself reflects the racist beliefs of rabid defenders of Israel, but is it inherent in Zionist beliefs? Clearly, not all Zionists are racists. Many are humanitarians when it comes to injustice in other situations. The truth is that decent people sometimes hold some racist beliefs. It is only when they consciously acknowledge and cling to them that they deserve to be called racists.
To rationally discuss the Israel-Palestine problem, we have to admit that a Jewish state is by definition exclusionist. If Israel is “Jewish,” as it wants Hamas and the world to acknowledge, then what are its non-Jewish citizens? In a democracy, all citizens are equal. The increasing number of discriminatory laws in Israel and the Occupied Territories refutes this claim. Blumenthal makes the case that these laws, the racist attitudes they reflect and anti-Arab violence are the natural result of accepting the idea that a nation based on an ethnic identify can be a democracy. Unfortunately, those who cannot see that a “Jewish democracy” is a contradiction in terms cannot see the evidence of it.
The claim that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic is the most clever lie of all. A growing number of Jews, including many thousands of Israelis, no longer believe the one-sided narrative of the Israeli government concerning Gaza, apartheid and occupation. To claim that the government of Israel represents all Jews is not just inaccurate, it is racist on its face. As former AIPAC member Rich Forer describes in Breakthrough: Transforming Fear into Compassion, A New Perspective on the Israel-Palestine Conflict, the ongoing pattern of violence cannot be understood until you confront the tendency to view your tribal identity as somehow distinct from your universal human identity.
The crimes of the past cannot be erased, but continuing to allow them will not lead to a solution. Trying to justify any aggression against civilian populations on the idea that use of terror by one side is acceptable because the other uses it will make neither Israel nor Palestine safer. It is wrong when Hamas does it and wrong when Israel responds with overwhelming force. However, the overwhelming superiority of the Israeli military over Hamas should lead any objective observer to ask whether Israel has any moral justification for repeatedly slaughtering thousands of civilians in the name of “defense.” If you look at the facts you find that it is Israel who has almost always broken any truce that has lasted any length of time.
Kurt Vonnegut defined a granfalloon as an artificial grouping of people who identified with something smaller than humanity itself. A nation, a religion, a racial or cultural group are all based on distinctions that are less important than those characteristics that define us as human. A survivor of the Battle of the Bulge and the Dresden firebombing, he was often depressed to see how tenaciously people cling to these false identities. If he had one great message to share, it was that only when we begin to put our humanity above all other considerations and work for justice for all can peace become possible.