Posted by: sean | December 10, 2008

Zionism and throwing stones in glass houses

Marty Peretz was on his soapbox yesterday about the UN Durban conference against racism, linking to this piece in Forbes by Claudia Rossett of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), which was born from a previous incarnation of hasbarah called Emet, which is Hebrew for “truth.” (Steve Forbes is on FDD’s board of directors.)

Rossett’s piece begins with an unsourced quote attributed to Martin Luther King Jr.: “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You are talking anti-Semitism.” Now I’m not sure if the apocryphal quote is genuine or not, and it doesn’t really matter, because it’s wrong. Criticizing Zionism and Israel is not the isame thing as being anti-semitic. After all, MLK Jr. has also been quoted as saying that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And it’s hard to argue that the occupation and the resultant settlements are anything but unjust.

But I’m not here to argue against Israeli settlements or the occupation; anyone who reads this blog knows where I stand on those issues. What I’d like to address is Rossett’s contention, one shared by many who criticize the UN’s criticism of Israel, that countries with poor human rights records cannot legitimately criticize another country for human rights abuses. Now while I can certainly agree that hypocrisy hinders the perceived legitimacy of one’s criticism, I don’t think that it somehow magically absolves those being criticized.

Ironically enough, supporters of Israel like Rossett and Peretz share rhetorical tactics with people like Iran’s Ahmadinejad and Sudan’s Bashir.  For the latter pair both agree that America’s invasion and consequent occupation of Iraq under false pretenses and its torturing of people in Guantanamo Bay, Bagram, Abu Ghraib and undisclosed CIA black sites mean that Washington has absolutely no right to complain about what’s happening in Iran or Sudan — or anywhere else for that matter. This is something that I hear a lot, from both sides of the political spectrum, and while the self-righteousness of such proclamations is palpable, it’s hard to see how such a high bar for criticism is helpful for anyone except unsavory regimes breaking international law, be they in Washington and Jerusalem or Khartoum and Teheran.

Yes America has Guantanamo Bay and a disastrous war in Iraq, but that doesn’t make Khartoum’s crimes in Darfur magically disappear. Likewise, Tripoli is an enormous violater of human rights, disappearing dissidents like its nobody’s business, but does that mean that the blockade of Gaza or the separation system in the West Bank are any less horrible? Of course not.

I haven’t read the proceedings of the 2001 Durban conference in their entirety, but I can say that I find both Zionism in theory and the actually existing Zionism one sees in Israel/Palestine to be an exclusionist ideologies with brutal consequences on the ground. While it’s probably not accurate to call Zionism racist, since it doesn’t discriminate based on race, it certainly is ethno-sectarian and religiously discriminatory. David Grossman’s excellent book on Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, for example, goes a long way to show how even if we forhet about the occupied territories, within the green line, Israeli law sees to it that Arabs are second-class citizens in the Jewish state.

The final document of the conference is problematic in that it calls out Israel by name, while remaining theoretical about other countries’ problems of racism, not mentioning any other country explicitely. That being said, it’s important to look at the actual statement. Israel is mentioned twice, as is anti-Semitism:

61. We recognize with deep concern the increase in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in various parts of the world, as well as the emergence of racial and violent movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities;

63. We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation. We recognize the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent State and we recognize the right to security for all States in the region, including Israel, and call upon all States to support the peace process andbring it to an early conclusion;

150. Calls upon States, in opposing all forms of racism, to recognize the need to counter anti-Semitism, anti-Arabism and Islamophobia world-wide, and urges all States to take effective measures to prevent the emergence of movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas concerning these communities;

151. As for the situation in the Middle East, calls for the end of violence and the swift resumption of negotiations, respect for international human rights and humanitarian law, respect for the principle of self-determination and the end of all suffering, thus allowing Israel and the Palestinians to resume the peace process, and to develop and prosper in security and freedom;

Zionism is not mentioned at all, and Islamaphobia and anti-Semitism appear together both of the times they are mentioned. So while I agree that it’s not really fair that Israel is called out by name when other countries are not and that Durban might not be the proper venue to do so, I don’t find the statements to be outrageous or even out of line with official American policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So unless there are some other documents with inflammatory remarks against Israel that have flown under my radar, it seems absurd to call Durban anti-Semitic or an “ugly show trial.”

My feeling is that there’s a reason why neither Peretz nor Rossett actually mention what’s in the declaration: it’s much easier to attack the messanger than to attack the message.



  1. This is a thoughtful piece with which I disagree but I was pleased to stray into it via WordPress’s Readomatic.

    The Durban statement you reference is the culmination of well-documented hair-raising week of antisemitism. The NGO conference overran by a day while this matter was discussed. And you hear stories about how Durban 1 traumatised a whole cohort of Jewish activists.

    There is nothing wrong with Zionism in itself. Zionism, at its most fundamental, is a rather simple thing: Jewish nationalism – the desire to live as a collective. History teaches Jews that nationalism is an alternative to vulnerable minority status. I don’t really see a case for telling Zionist Jews they are wrong about this and I am extremely suspicious of people who do. There’s the Zionism of Grossman (he is a Zionist, you know) and the Zionism of the Kahanists – and between them a world of difference. Certainly it would be lovely to live in a world without states. I too am an anti-nationalist. Let’s start by preventing Canada from splitting. And subsuming Kosovo back into Serbia, with the requisite troops. The Jewish state can wait a bit – perhaps until its neighbours stop preaching death to Jews in schools.

    And I think it would be good, if you are going to breezily refer to racist Israeli law, you’d better give some evidence. Although of course laws can be discriminatory in effect, there is no category of race in Israeli law. I think you’ll find that Israeli anti-racist law is good (a different point – there’s a difference between law and vision). Grossman was writing in ’93 when perhaps it was less so.

    Anyway, I liked your peace. You are right about hypocrisy – it doesn’t bear on the accuracy of a criticism.

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    To respond, I do have a problem with Zionism, in the same way that I have a problem with ethno-sectarian nationalism anywhere else. And you’re right, people like Grossman and Oz are still Zionists, and while I disagree with their fundamental ideology, at least in addition to being Zionists, they’re also humanists. They, like my Israeli friends, are reasonable people with whom I can communicate. The ultra-right-wing bigots are not.

    To compare Canada and Kosovo with Israel seems disingenuous. The last time I checked the Québecois were not occupying Toronto. And to suggest that the Kosovars should go back to being Serbs after Belgrade committed genocide against them would the same as saying that all Israeli Yekkes should have to go back to Germany. At the end of the day, though, while ethno-religious nationalism makes me uneasy in and of itself, it wouldn’t be such a pressing concern if it didn’t involve the dispossession of millions of other people and the daily humiliation of millions more in an inhumane occupation. When the partisans of Québec Libre start colonizing the Yukon and forcing Anglophones into refugee camps in Michigan, then we’ll talk.

    As far as racist Israeli law goes, the Jewish National Fund is a good example. That article is from last year, not 1993.

    Furthermore, this report just came out from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which states:

    Rights of Arab Citizens of Israel:
    Though Arabs citizens are a national indigenous minority entitled to full equality, they have been subjected to systemic and institutional discrimination in all aspects of life since the establishment of the State.
    · Whereas Arabs in Israel account for 20% of the population, the area of jurisdiction of all Arab authorities consists of only 2.5% of the area of Israel.
    · Social and institutional barriers have prevented Arab citizens from acquiring land or leasing it in more than 80% of the country.
    · Mixed towns: 90,000 Arab citizens of the State live in mixed towns – Ramle, Lod, Acco, Haifa, and Yaffo. Vast discrepancies in infrastructure, maintenance, and services between Arab and Jewish neighborhoods in the same town is abundantly clear; sometimes there are even walls separating the Arab and Jewish populations.

  3. Hiya.

    “To compare Canada and Kosovo with Israel seems disingenuous. The last time I checked the Québecois were not occupying Toronto.”

    And nor was Toronto threatened by religious extremism. And nor were loud factions in Toronto and (for the purpose of this scenario) its self-styled allies constantly sabre rattling. But my main idea was not to compare countries but different nationalisms. By many measures, Israeli Jews have far more reason to be nationalistic than, say, the English or Québecois. Plus I think that, given the current discourse which attacks Israel’s grounds for existing, it’s mistaken to view the Zionism of Oz and Grossman as a “fundamental ideology”, rather than simply a belief that Israel should exist. Zionism as a bounded Jewish project to maintain a collectivity in Israel.

    The degree to which the occupation of Palestinian territory is a function of this Zionist ideology, as you refer to it, is hard to gauge. Most Israelis would like the occupation to end; they would also like to live in security – and this is irrespective of Zionism. The Middle East has an abysmal track record on defending the interests of minorities. Israel’s is one of the better ones – it has very good anti-racist law. I require no convincing that Arab or Palestinian Israelis Muslim, Christian and – if they prefer to identify that way – Jewish) suffer the most exclusion in Israel. I don’t blame Zionism – I blame fairly widespread, unaddressed racism exascerbated and sustained by existential fears. Like I said, Israeli law seems to outshine the general vision. Israelis must fight racism. Again there are countercurrents – making Arabic compulsory in all Haifa primary schools, with national roll-out plans, is very positive. The riots of the Hebron settlers and those in Acre earlier this year are profoundly worrying. Thanks for the link to the ACRI report – prejudicial leasing is a big problem for Arab Israelis (your JNF link is broke by the way). The Mitchell Report into the origins of the Al Aqsa intifada is also important reading (I haven’t got it in full – just read the summaries) – Israel has not acted on its recommendations regarding improving the circumstances of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.

    Not sure this changes much in relation to how we should view Zionism. I mean, in some ways, it’s over. Israel exists. But if people are now proposing to disband Israel, then there’s a reason for Zionism again. I find it significant how few ideas emanate from those quarters of the anti-occupation campaign which are also anti-Zionist, about how to defend what would become a Jewish minority in the region if Israel was dismantled. And moreover, a region whose dominant factions have tolerated or actively encouraged a steady stream of anti-Jewish propaganda since before Israel came into existence. Zionism – the belief that there should be a state for Jews – is reasonable and in no way incompatible with equal rights for Israeli citizens. However, a Zionism which thinks of non-Jewish citizens as ‘demographic threats’ or which seeks different rights for Jewish and non-Jewish citizens would be a racist ideology. Still, I’m all for federalisation in a Middle East which upholds the rights of its minorities. Middle East Pact is interesting – what does Hesbollah think of this, do you know? If something like that got underway it would surely weaken the appeal of the nationalists.

  4. I think the thing about “demographic threats” is mostly religiously-based, as the hard-right in Israel is (mostly) averse to the rise of rival religions (Christianity and Islam) and their institutions in the state that would accompany an upsurge of the Arab population, which is usually non-Jewish. Of course, the only part where I can deem the term “racist” is when the appellation of a demographic threat is applied to people of a Jewish non-Ashkenazi/European origin, which is obviously appealing more to a sub-religious ethnic separation that seems to be antithetical to Zionism; such an issue between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim/Middle East-originates (and Ethiopians and Indians) have been long-standing issues in the Israeli domestic policy, and they’re still coming to blows in the Israeli Supreme Court over the integration of Mizrahim into various social and cultural institutions, such as yeshivot and kibbutzim.

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