Saturday, March 2, 2024

Is Zionism Racism?

Frankly, I never understood the claim that 'Zionism is racism' since it is almost never backed by solid explanations or definitions, let alone evidence. On the part of the accusers, it is assumed that a people with aspirations for a return to their homeland is somehow racist, and on the other side, the counter-argument is that this claim is antisemitism. Neither side presents any logic or rationale worth debating. There's not much one can say or discuss when it comes to mudslinging.

What could possibly be racist about a people wanting a homeland or being proud of their homeland? Are Tibetans racist for wanting Tibet to be free and a safe home for Tibetans? Under these qualifications, most of the planet would be classified as racist. Tibetans would only be racist if they desired to implement specific racist ideologies and laws in their future state of Tibet, and accusers would have to provide evidence of this. Similarly, waging war for one's homeland against hostile foreigners is not racist in itself; there has to be evidence of racism. (If you are thinking that a 'Tibetan' is not the same type of classification as a 'Jew', then see below). Anyone that thinks otherwise seemingly doesn't understand what Zionism is all about.

The consensus is that this claim emerged from PLO propaganda in the 60s when Palestinians accused Zionism of being a colonialist and racist ideology. It gained traction and popularity, however, thanks to the Soviet-backed UN resolution 3379 in 1975 which received 72 votes in favor. Sixteen years later this resolution was revoked (seemingly the only UN GA resolution to ever be revoked) in resolution 46/86 with 111 votes in favor of revocation. The notion, however, survived the revocation, and is chanted until today. I looked at the original (very short) resolution for a justification, and all it said can be summed up as: "We agree that racism is bad, and since some people said Zionism is racism, we condemn Zionism". This absurd resolution with absolutely no explanation and justification, and the fact that they inexplicably changed their minds after sixteen years, only bolster my argument that this whole issue is illogical mud flinging.

If it were only antisemitic mud used as propaganda without an ounce of demonstrable truth, then this article would end here. But one nagging matter remains: Is a 'State for Jews' a racist idea? Aren't Jews a race and if so, isn't this a racist state? Furthermore, some people back this claim with accusations of exclusionist ideologies and plans by early Zionists, armed with a list of incriminating quotes from Zionists especially regarding population transfer, and accuse Israel of systematically expelling and killing Arabs during the 1947-1948 wars (and thenceforth). What could I possibly say about all of this?

First, a disclaimer: I am actually an anti-Zionist defending Zionism from very different anti-Zionists. I definitely do not condone everything Zionists did and their ideologies; all I am doing here is arguing against these specific accusations.

Many pro-Israelis use the demonstrably flagrant reality in Israel since 1949 until today to disprove this claim that Zionism is racism. All one has to do is visit Israel for a few hours and look around to invalidate this absurd claim. The growing population of millions of Arabs living both in Israel and in Palestinian territories for the past 75 years easily demonstrates that Israel is not only not expelling or killing other races, but that Israeli Arabs also enjoy full citizenship and equal rights. Israeli Arabs have their own government parties, work alongside Jews in everyday life and in close neighborhoods, and share all of the same state benefits. If there is racism, it is only at the level of racist individuals, not at the level of state laws, akin to most other free countries in the world. 

Note that this very effectively dismantles the related accusations of 'apartheid' in Israel as well. The only arguments I saw that justify this claim specifically use the occupied territories as evidence of different laws applied to Jews and Arabs. This is what most people see on the internet when it comes to claims of apartheid and racism: The walls, the raids, the checkpoints and barriers between Israel and occupied territories. But these are temporarily and legally occupied for reasons of self-defense, and are not part of Israel proper; obviously there would be different laws and barriers there, just like Germans in Germany were occupied legally by many countries between 1945-1989 and had different laws applied to them apart from the occupying countries and their citizens. Did Germans in 1950 have the same rights and laws as a citizen in New York and London? Was the occupation of Germany apartheid because Germans had different laws applied to them and couldn't vote in the UK?

While this simple and straightforward counter-argument is valid, there are some leftovers that aren't covered: The ideology of Zionism (even if it hasn't been implemented), those aforementioned incriminating Zionist quotes, as well as the Nakba in 1947-1948.

I previously discussed Zionism in the context of Israeli politics and demographics and what it means to Israelis in this article. One relevant point is that most Israelis (not all) view Zionism as merely nationalism and patriotism, and that even historical Zionism rose amidst a wave of many other nationalist movements. And, as I argued above, nationalism is only racism if it has demonstrable racist elements.

Another relevant point from that article is that aspirations for a homeland and state do not automatically correlate with aggression and violent means by which to attain these aspirations. Some Zionists are aggressive to different degrees, most are not. If Tibetans dream of not only gaining independence but also of one day owning every inch of their ancestral land, this does not make them aggressive, let alone racist. Other methods are also possible through diplomacy, and a dream of a 'grand return' may or may not involve violent aggression. One does not necessarily follow the other, and extremist individuals or sub-groups do not reclassify the whole stream.

War of Self-Defense

Zionists, ideally, wanted to establish a state through diplomacy and agreements and did not want to displace Arabs living in Palestine unless it was necessary. This is preposterous, I hear you say; what about the many quotes from Zionists about population transfers and actions by the army cleansing villages and expelling Arabs?

The key word in my statement is 'necessary'. There is an obvious distinction between self-defense and ethnic cleansing. Consider the following harsh realities: 1. Arabs attacked, shot at, and massacred Jews regularly for many years between 1920-1948. They also started the civil war in 1947 by killing civilians in buses, and started the inter-state war in 1948. 2. Arab leaders declared their intentions many times of destroying Israel, and rejected multiple British or UN partition plans. 3. They constituted a majority in Palestine. This last point means they could instantly overrun the state and support anti-Jewish laws and massacres if they were included in a single democratic state, because of their majority. A hostile majority is what caused East Timor to break away from Indonesia after many massacres, and in our case, Palestine didn't even exist as a state yet. (A majority does not mean they have a right to prevent 'Palestinian Jews' from establishing their own state since Jews were native to the land as well, or have a historical claim, and Palestine/Israel did not yet exist and were in the process of being partitioned and created).

Given these unambiguous and harsh realities, the only possibility of Jews ever re-establishing a state in the region without being destroyed instantly was if: 1. They kept Arabs and Arab villages that were proven murderous or dangerous out of the state. 2. They had a majority of Jews and maintained this majority. These requirements are not only basic and compulsory elements for establishing any nation for its nationals, they also involve basic survival and self-defense. Also note that the Geneva Convention allows for legal expulsions due to military reasons for as long as hostilities exist.

How is this different from ethnic cleansing and racism, you ask? Very simple: Note that we are talking about majority not purity, and we are also talking about ejecting dangerous elements, not all Arabs. In addition, the intent and goals are different. The goal is self-determination and self-preservation, not purity of race and ethnic cleansing, and the results on the ground speak for themselves. Just as a single example of many: not all villages were attacked or expelled during the war. Why? Because they were peaceful and non-threatening villages, and Israel had no problem with peaceful Arabs living inside Israel, QED.

To continue our comparison: if Tibet, after gaining independence, subsequently expelled some specific Chinese residents due to their belligerent behavior, this would be classified as self-defense, not racism. As long as they don't implement laws to expel every single Chinese resident from their land regardless of security. Likewise, this is the case in Israel: Some Arabs were expelled due to exigent reasons of war started by Arabs, but plenty of Arabs remain until today.

Compare this with the Jewish population in many Arab states which has been reduced to virtually zero since 1948. Now that is racism and ethnic cleansing. Israel, in comparison, currently has 2 million Arab Israelis.

If one approaches Israel with prejudice or antisemitic views, it would be easy to interpret what happened in 1947-8 as ethnic cleansing instead of what it actually was: Practical solutions for a survival emergency. Ironically, many pro-Palestinians selectively use quotes from a 'new historian' such as Benny Morris to argue their case for ethnic cleansing, yet Morris himself concluded that all the mountains of evidence he gathered about expulsions or bad behavior from some IDF soldiers don't prove a plan for systematic ethnic cleansing. (Morris compiled a definitive study with comprehensive detail of the Palestinian refugee problem which is used and criticized by both sides; always a good sign). 

Morris also provided mountains of evidence to the contrary: Israeli military leaders that ordered soldiers not to touch civilians in some areas and villages, and leaders that wanted and even begged Arabs to stay. He also meticulously documented each and every lost Arab village and the specific cause of its downfall during the war, many of which were emptied due to Arabs fleeing in fear of the war, and others due to Israeli evictions after attacks from Arabs or due to security reasons. For example, at first, Israeli soldiers were only acting in defense mode, then they switched to counter-offense and conquered belligerent villages while reducing civilian casualties as much as possible, but every time they left a village standing, the militants came back repeatedly and killed more Jews, leading them to the conclusion that strategically dangerous villages had to be cleared/destroyed and its citizens expelled. This happened in stages, with strategic decisions such as these made based on fatal experiences and repeated losses. In addition, they had to contend with dangers from a looming massive invasion that would take place in a couple of months where such villages would become an even bigger problem. As mentioned, many villages were left untouched because they were not dangerous. All this is why Morris reached his nuanced conclusion that there were a variety of people with different goals, as well as a variety of stages and areas with different military goals that only sometimes demanded expulsions, but no general plan to expel all Arabs. His nuance was lost on critics and propagandists, but the results of millions of Israeli Arabs thriving in Israel speak for themselves.

With the 1947-8 war, similar to Israeli behavior today when launching wars in self-defense, one could find cases where Israel could be accused of overreaction, not enough caution, or even cruelty, but there is a very large qualitative gap between recklessness and ethnic cleansing. Antisemites do not care about this gap; if Jews are evil, then everything they do or say points towards evil intentions.

To further buttress this view that expulsions and attacks were based on each specific village's hostility and not on racism, most Christian and Druze communities surrendered and cooperated with Jews, and even welcomed Jews, and accordingly were allowed to stay.

Population Transfer

What about the quotes from Zionists about general mass population transfers even before the war, you ask? As opposed to some pro-Israelis, I don't deny these exist in great numbers and the evidence is undeniable that Zionists did pursue and desire a population transfer. But consider the following points in defense of this policy:

  • The transfer was for basic self-preservation; without it, Israel could not exist, as I have argued.  This is an incontrovertible fact due to murderous intentions and actions of many Arabs, combined with their majority.

  • A population transfer is not a war crime if it is based on general agreement on both sides and covers basic humanitarian concerns. In addition, this was before these international laws were ratified. Diplomatic ventures were launched to achieve this goal with British and Arab leaders. At some stage, there were talks with leaders for making it compulsory due to intransigent civilians, but with financial compensation.

  • This didn't only originate with Jews but also with the British. In their first attempt at a partition plan, the Peel Commission in 1937 proposed giving Jews only 20% of the territory, and in order to ensure survival, included a plan for population transfer of Arabs out of this tiny territory. The British, too, recognized that a partition plan without a population transfer would not be viable, having witnessed the many pogroms first-hand. (The Arabs rejected this plan despite getting 80% of the land.)

  • The transfer would have involved transferring Arabs from Palestine to Palestine. In some early instances of the idea, this meant transferring them to Syria or Jordan which were also part of Palestine before they were partitioned. In other cases such as the Peel partition plan, this meant transferring them to their own partition within the leftover British Mandate territory. The transfer would also involve moving a minority of Jews from Arab territory into Jewish territory.

  • There have been several population transfers during this period due to similar practical and security reasons. One example is the India-Pakistan massive transfer of civilians in the same period in 1947 due to insurmountable and intractable violence between the two peoples. Another one is the Greece-Turkey exchange in 1923, also implemented in order to solve problems with mass killings and security. Therefore, population transfer was seen at the time as a hard but practical solution to hard problems. And it could still be a practical solution to the killings today if both sides agreed.

  • Israeli leaders gave up on the idea of a complete population transfer since 1949, and stopped talking about it (there are no quotes after this period). Arabs, on the other hand, never gave up on the idea of destroying Israel and never stopped talking about it.

As Benny Morris argues and demonstrates using historical documentation, given this state of mind at the time, it would be safe to conclude that it had an effect on decisions made during the wars of 1947-8. Arabs that didn't already leave due to fear of the war were often encouraged or pressured to leave and move elsewhere in Palestine, and Israelis had strong security-based motivations to not take any actions that would allow them to return. It's one thing to allow the return of refugees, but quite another to allow many thousands of hostile militant 'civilians' mixed amongst the peaceful ones. After much debate, Israel allowed for exceptions to return, subject to security screening, or alternatively, as part of a wide peace agreement. All of this is why it does not qualify as ethnic cleansing as it was fueled by exigent survival needs, and, in addition, was very inconsistent and dependent on the commander in charge, the military imperatives specific to a village, and the number of attacks from that village. In other words, there was no plan to cleanse everything during the war, only to reduce the danger as much as possible by taking advantage of the situation and encourage or even force a 'transfer' of hostile or strategically dangerous villages. Finally, some Israeli leaders spoke of peace agreements with the Palestinians after the war in return for a number of returning refugees, but, once again, Arabs wanted nothing to do with a peace plan with Israel.

Naturally, one could criticize Israel for some of these decisions made during the war, and I have big questions and issues with some of these decisions myself, with some actions involving unnecessary cruelty even if they were justified, while others seemingly were not justified. However, one would have to provide an alternate solution to the serious problems at hand in order to criticize fairly. We must not forget that Israel tried other, more conventional solutions first (such as surgically clearing villages of only the militants), and these failed to solve the problem. In addition, this was a fledgling army facing insurmountable odds and dangers from surrounding Arab states, as well as from hundreds of hostile villages within. The key point, however, is that none of this would have happened if the Arabs had not started the war and killed Jews continuously for decades before the war. If there are no bad neighbors, then there is no reason to evacuate them, and evacuating hostile neighbors, even when involving questionable tactics, doesn't even begin to qualify as racism. The fact is that many peaceful communities that cooperated with Jews were left alone, and a large minority of 150,000 Arabs were allowed to stay within Israel, proving definitively that this had nothing to do with racism.

If one denies Israel's right to exist and sees Jews as aggressive colonizers rather than natives with an ancient claim to the land, then any actions taken by Jews would be seen as aggressive crimes rather than acts of self-defense and self-preservation. This is why Palestinians describe all of Israel's actions as crimes, since they view all land as theirs. Once one views all Jews as evil colonizers, actual crimes could be interpreted as genocidal rather than actions made by overly aggressive individuals or objectionable battle decisions. Except that the state of Israel does have a right to exist, and the only chance it has to exist requires an immediate solution to the problem of being surrounded by hostile Arabs intent on destroying Israel; therefore any aggressive actions, whether justified or objectionable, must be analyzed within this context. In other words, any military action will be strongly colored by one's bias against that soldier.

Ideology & Jewishness

This leaves the question of Zionism as an ideology and the concept of a 'state for Jews', as well as the Law of Return to Israel, a law which singles out Jews. This raises the question of the precise definition of a Jew, and why Zionists established a new state based on Jewishness. Obviously, for a nation that has been persecuted and massacred for over 2000 years, the primary goal was to establish a state that would protect Jews, but this was not the only reason, as I will explain below.

We have used Tibet as an example of a nation wanting to re-establish its homeland, but surely a country such as Tibet consists of many races amongst its citizens, whereas Jews are a single race? Think again:

  • Although Jewishness is inherited based on the mother, which seemingly makes this a biological and racial category, the father can originate from any other race. Add to this the twelve tribes of Israel and the fact that Jews have lived and intermarried for many centuries in many countries around the world, and you will understand why one sees a wide variety of Jews in Israel with many ethnicities, skin colors and cultures, from Ethiopian Jews to Russian Jews. In contrast to this definition of a Jew, did racist Nazis identify people as Aryan if their mother was German and their father was Jewish?

  • In case you think the mother rule still makes it racial, do not forget that anyone can also convert into Judaism, as long as one performs the correct ritual and accepts one's new responsibilities (and accepts that one will be hated by the world). Did Nazis allow any Jew to convert and become a protected German as long as they dipped in a ritualistic pool?

It is ironic that antisemites, including Hitler, made the Jewish question a racial issue and waged a racial war based on racial theory. But in view of this distinction, hatred of Jews is a special category of religious discrimination that may or may not be associated with racism. At best, Jewishness is a spiritual 'race', which means that people converting to Judaism receive a new category of soul. This would mean antisemitism is arguably a supernatural hatred, if you believe in souls, that is. Nevertheless, this type of discrimination is not racism since it is not biological and does not qualify as racial under its most common definition which makes use of heredity or physical characteristics. One could argue that Jewishness is a culture and religion and therefore it is religious and cultural discrimination, but the word 'racism' is the key here which is based on race. Moreover, Jews assimilated many cultures and practices, including Arabic culture.

Just to be clear, a Jew can be racist and espouse racial theories, and Zionism could be racist for other reasons. However, my argument here only concerns the concept of a 'state for Jews', which is not racial for the reasons I demonstrated.

Even if one would persist in arguing that religious discrimination is still democratically immoral despite difficulties in classifying it as racism, then consider the following pivotal and overlooked point concerning Zionism (which I briefly mentioned in a previous article): How does a nation that is trying to re-establish its homeland decide who gets to be a citizen of the new-old state? If the state in question was lost only recently, then the answer is simple: Collect all citizens with papers proving their citizenship. In the majority of cases, these people would still be living in the same area that used to constitute this nation. However, expatriates could also be collected with this simple paper proof. As examples, take Latvia, Estonia and Serbia which re-established independence; collecting their citizens must have been a relatively simple job.

But what if the homeland hasn't existed for centuries? Conducting ancestral research or demanding papers that prove citizenship becomes increasingly impossible the further back we go. Which raises the question: How can Israel collect all of its refugees that have been wandering the world for 1900 years?

Obviously, the only viable solution is Jewishness. Looking at it this way, Jewishness is equivalent to citizenship papers, as it was the only possible avenue to solve this problem. When Israel says all Jews have a right to return if they are Jewish, it is the same as Latvia saying all Latvians can return, and be given immigration priority over non-Latvians, if they have citizenship papers. Even if Jewishness were a racial category, and it isn't, it is being used in this case as the only possible criterion for citizenship. Which brings us right back to the same conclusion that Zionism is merely nationalism.

This does not mean that existing locals could not and should not be given citizenship as well in addition to a nation's refugees, as long as they agree to live in peace with the new state. Latvia most probably gave citizenship to Russians living in Latvia at the time of its renewed independence, as long as they were willing to be loyal citizens. It is the same with Israel, hence the two million Arabs living in Israel today. It is the hostile locals that were ejected, not their race.


In summary, there is no trace of racism in Zionism, not at the level of its ideology nor in its practices. Of course, at the level of individuals, some do entertain racist views; there are extremists in every group. But only a mudslinger could claim Zionism is racism.

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