In 1975, the United Nations passed a resolution equating Zionism with racism. The UN did the right thing when it voted overwhelmingly to rescind the resolution in 1991. But the premise that the entire Zionist ethos is racist is a widespread credo of people who see no justification for the Jewish state’s existence.
Racism generally refers to the belief that certain races or ethnic groups are intrinsically superior to others. Sometimes the term is also applied to discrimination against people based on their race or ethnic group. Sadly, it isn’t hard to tick off too many instances of overt, anti-Arab racism by Israelis and discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel. About ten percent of Israelis voted for an alliance of unapologetically racist, homophobic parties in the elections in 2022.
But none of that means that Zionism per se – the movement to create and sustain a national homeland and sanctuary for the Jewish people – is inherently racist.
On the contrary, to European Jews confronted by pogroms and vicious discrimination in the 20th century, Zionism was a national liberation movement that was a response to racism. Pre-state Zionists wanted what was considered to be a fundamental human right and remains one today: national self-determination. The Palestinians have the same right.
Why did the Jews need a nation?
The claim that Zionism is racist is sometimes made by critics who object to the very idea of nationalism and nation states with singular cultures tied to national identities, which are considered to be racist anachronisms. In fact, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 15) declares that “everyone has the right to a nationality and “no one should be arbitrarily deprived of a nationality.”
For many Jews in the mid-20th century, exercising national rights in a Jewish homeland was also necessary for sheer survival. Amos Oz, a lifelong critic of Israel’s settlement policies, defended Zionism with a stirring analogy:
The Zionist enterprise has no other objective justification than the right of a drowning man to grasp the only plank that can save him… [T]here is a vast moral difference between the drowning man who grasps a plank and makes room for himself by pushing the others who are sitting on it to one side… and the drowning man who grabs the whole plank for himself.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fundamentally a conflict between two national movements, not a racial conflict. While the Zionist movement was founded mainly—although not exclusively—by white European Jews, its goals and principles prompted Israel to become a very diverse, multiracial, multi-ethnic society. Now it includes Jews originally from Ethiopia, Yemen, other countries in North Africa, predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East, India and elsewhere. Even if you question the right of any of them to be there, the movement that gave them all a homeland is not racist.
Many forms of Zionism
That were and are many forms of Zionism. Some pre-state Zionists had views of local Arabs that ranged from condescension to outright hostility. However, many were deeply concerned about Arab rights. One prominent early Zionist, Ahad Ha’am, argued that Palestine should be the spiritual and cultural center of the modern Jewish people, but not a homeland absorbing all Jews from the diaspora. He railed against anti-Arab racism.
Moreover, before Israel’s founding, some influential progressive Zionists, such as Martin Buber and Judah Magnes—the President of Hebrew University—favored a binational state that is similar to the one endorsed by some on the left today. Berl Katznelson, a founder of the Histadrut workers union and Israel’s socialized healthcare system, asserted: “I do not wish to see the realization of Zionism in the form of the new Polish state with Arabs in the position of the Jews and the Jews in the position of the Poles, the ruling people. For me this would be the complete perversion of the Zionist ideal…” (For more discussion on the Zionists’ approach to Palestinian Arabs before the War of Independence/Naqba in 1948-1949, see here)
Ideals vs. reality
A commitment to protect Arab rights was also affirmed by David Ben Gurion and the other socialist founders of Israel, who, upon establishing an independent Jewish state, went out of their way to call it non-racist in Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948:
The State of Israel…will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the Prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.
Is it possible to achieve those goals today in a state where Arabs are 20% of the population? Obviously, it’s extremely difficult. But many other democracies have distinct ethnic cultures analogous to Israel’s Jewish culture and face similar challenges. They celebrate their distinct histories, customs and cultural traditions. Their immigration laws are often restrictive and favor specific nationalities, e.g., people born outside of France can be automatic citizens if one parent is French. Within these countries, as in Israel, liberal nationalists are trying to preserve and shape their evolving national identities while trying to ensure that religious and cultural minorities are granted equal rights, equal opportunities, as well as a stake in the future.
Israel clearly hasn’t met the egalitarian standards set in its Declaration of Independence. The occupation, which deprives 1.5 million Arabs of the right to vote and other human and civil rights, is a moral stain. Within Israel proper, while Arab citizens can vote and have other civil rights afforded to Jews, they face housing and job discrimination, and other forms of unequal treatment are widespread. Countering Israeli racism is a key goal of many civil society organizations within Israel that need and deserve support from abroad.
Racist sentiments and policies within Israel are shameful, but they contradict the principles of many of the country’s Zionist founders, who expressed a commitment to the universal values of human rights and social justice. Israeli racism is not an indictment of Zionism; it is a betrayal.