Can We Be Zionists and Not Racists?
Sadly, much of the world makes Zionism synonymous with racism. In fact, one of the many UN resolutions condemning Israel made that association in Resolution 3379, adopted on November 10, 1975.
Zionism has been defined in numerous ways, but it’s essentially the longing of and actualization of the Jewish people’s return to their ancestral homeland. Over time, beginning 125 years ago, this meant the mass migration of Jews from all over the world to what at the time was an Ottoman province of Palestine and then later the State of Israel. Without doubt, it is by far the most successful re-unification and nationalization of a people in world history. Israel now holds the largest Jewish community in the world. If demographic trends continue, the majority of world Jewry will live in Israel within twenty years, for the first time since the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE.
Numerous Biblical passages, including portions of most of the Prophets, portend the return of Jews to their homeland. In my view, it’s the most visible example of God’s existence and activity in the world today. Nevertheless, many Zionists inadvertently contribute to racism.
When statements are made that few, if any, Arabs lived in then Palestine during the early Aliyah movements (end of the 19th century), it shows ignorance, at best, and a form of racial devaluation, at worst. There were at least 400,000 Arabs living in Palestine at the beginning of the 20th century, with maybe 50,000 Jews. By 1920, there were over 600,000 Arabs, with 80,000 Jews. Rather than strengthening the cause of Zionism, false statements utilized to support the Zionist cause actually undermine it.
Another common claim is that prior to Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 most of the Arabs living in the area fled at the behest of invading Arab national armies. While this may be partially true, the reality is that many, if not most of the fleeing Arabs, were displaced due to the war itself, as Israel successfully defended its borders and captured areas not originally given to Israel as part of the UN Partition Plan. Because most Arabs were deemed enemies of the State, many were forcibly displaced by Israel’s armies. This is not to suggest that the displaced peoples should be entitled to return. Rather, for the sake of fairness, a clear conscience and to further undergird a “righteous” Zionism, the historic record needs acknowledgment.
Today, there are 1.6 million Arabs in Israel proper, most of whom are Israeli citizens. Another 1.7 million live in Gaza and another 2.5 million in the West Bank. Those living in Israel have equal legal rights with Jews, although there is clear discrimination against them and their communities. Those in Gaza live under a terrorist regime of Hamas. Those in the West Bank live under a joint arrangement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
As more Jews immigrate to Israel, and Jews continue to build settlements in the West Bank, a real question arises as to what will happen to the Arabs living there. As I’ve written before, I don’t see a viable solution other than two states, but the current situation is intolerable.
Another unhelpful statement to the Zionist cause is that Palestinians never existed as a separate people or nation. Thus, their claim to a national homeland called Palestine on the lands of the West Bank and/or Gaza have no historic basis. Yet, the same argument can be made about Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the smaller Gulf states. Before World War I most of these countries were part of the Ottoman Empire, and before that, the Islamic Empire. With the rise of nation-states in the 19th century, many ethnic groups formed their own nations or collaborated with other groups to establish a nation. The reign of most empires ended in the 19th and 20th centuries. When World War I ended, the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and the Americans, British and French divvied up the Middle East, and at the request of leaders from various regions, recognized the establishment of new nations.
One of those nations they recognized was the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. While the borders of the future Jewish homeland were constantly changing, the reality is that Arabs lived within the borders of whatever homeland would be created for the Jews. In the 1947 UN sponsored Partition Plan, an agreement was reached to provide for a state for Arabs living in Palestine, alongside a Jewish state. We all know the history, but it doesn’t change the facts on the ground. There are still millions of Arabs who live in a stateless condition. Quite frankly, what they want to call themselves or any future state that is established is up to them. But it’s a form of racial discrimination to claim an ethnic group has no right to its own nation, especially when it’s not part of another nation nor does it want to be part of another nation.
I believe we can be fervent Zionists and still care for the Palestinian people and seek a solution for their and our well-being. To devalue and delegitimize another group is racist and, quite frankly, ungodly. While blame for a political quagmire certainly can be laid at the feet of Palestinian leadership, what good does it do to constantly raise the issue without also seeking a just and fair solution? Let’s be a people who fervently support the Jewish state, but who also call for ultimate justice for all people, including Arabs living under Israeli rule.
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Jamie Cowen is a Partner at Cohen, Decker, Pex, Brosh Law Offices, Petach Tikvah, Israel; Former Rabbi, Tikvat Israel Congregation, Richmond, Viriginia; Former President, Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations; Former Chief Counsel, US Senate Subcommittee 1978-1986