Zionism Equals Racism? Not Quite
by Neill Lochery
August 28, 2001
Make no mistake -- the debate about Zionism that takes place at the World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, which begins this Friday, will be fought on political, not intellectual, grounds." Many of those pushing for Israel to be branded a racist entity have dubious motives. The real goal is to inflict as much political damage as possible on the Jewish state at this crucial time in its history. Intellectually, little has changed since the original UN debate on the 1975 motion that characterized Zionism as inherently racist. Indeed, the debate has become so well-scripted that delegates may as well resort to shouting out numbers instead of outlining the merits of the relative arguments and counter-arguments.
For the record, the UN should be reminded of some basic facts:
1. Israel has a population of six million, out of which five million are Jewish (the rest are Arab, Druze or Christian).
2. The minority Arabs who live in Israel are not excluded from the political process. There are some 10 members of the Knesset from Arab parties (out of a total of 120). There are also guaranteed places among Israel's leading political parties for Arabs and Druze. Though no Arab party has been part of a ruling coalition, individual Arabs serve in the government. Arabs play leading roles in local politics and there are several Arab mayors.
3. Druze citizens of Israel serve in the Israeli armed forces. Arab citizens of Israel do not serve -- in part because they could not be relied upon to fight against their Palestinian brothers.
4. Israel has no formal written constitution, but it does have a series of Basic Laws that include provisions for the protection of minorities. Much work still needs to be done in this area, but in Israel more legal provisions are made for safeguarding minorities than in many other democracies that boast written constitutions -- and certainly more than in any Arab nation.
5. Economically, the Arabs in Israel have fared much better than Palestinians who live under Palestinian Authority control. In private, many Israeli Arabs state that they prefer to take their chances in Israel than live in the crumbling empire of Yasser Arafat.
6. In terms of religious sites, the Arabs have full rights of worship and control their own holy sites. Compare this to the pre-1967 period when Jerusalem was divided and during which there was no access to Jewish holy sites for Jews. Sacred places such as the Western Wall were badly desecrated on a regular basis.
7. In terms of human rights and prisoner rights, Israel does not have a perfect record, but has a much better record than most neighbouring countries.
Not that any of these factors will make any difference at Durban's anti-Israel talk shop. Arab scholars are busy rehashing old Marxist arguments about Western imperialism and neo-colonialism - attempting to stoke international guilt for the plight of the Palestinians and Arabs in general.The strategy is to tell the world that the problems of the Middle East were caused by the West -- and the Arabs are the innocent victims of a plot to steal their lands.
In reality, the UN should spend more time debating cases of Arab racism and incitement toward Israel. Spreading hate has been one of the few areas in which the Palestinian Authority has excelled. Above and beyond the normal incitement in political speeches, newspapers and on the television news, we have seen ingenious use of children's cartoons that depict Israelis as pigs and crossword clues that require hateful word linkages. In PA controlled areas, there is a growing persecution of Christians and their sites in the West Bank, with the number of violent incidents increasing. If there is to be a Palestinian state, this is a worrying harbinger of what we might see under its rule.
The backers of the Zionism-is-racism motions fully understand that their accusations put Israel on the back foot -- even if they are debunked intellectually in fora such as this. Israeli leaders have in the past mounted highly organized defences of Zionism, but they are generally tinged with a sense of defensiveness. This time, there needs to be a more robust response. There is little point in sending a diplomatic delegate such as the late Chaim Herzog, who spoke eloquently in defence of Zionism -- but in vain -- during the 1975 UN debate.
What is needed today is a person who can expose the truth as to why the debate is taking place at all -- and to persuade the UN to look at the question of racism and human rights in the Islamic world. The Israeli delegate should start by asking two brutal questions: Would you prefer to be on trial for serious crimes as an Arab in Israel or as a Jew in the Arab criminal system? And would you prefer to be a Jew living in an Arab country or an Arab living in Israel?
The debate over Zionism and racism is an Arab trick aimed at encouraging liberals to analyze the conflict between Palestinian and Jew using a simplistic victim-oppressor template. In arguing that Israel is racist, Arab propagandists rewrite history and overlook central facts. Israel is no more racist than the United States, no less democratic than Great Britain. Where it diverges from these two counties is in its response to challenges to the state. But there is good reason for this divergence. In Israel, unlike Western nations, challengers explicitly call for the out-and-out destruction of the state, and routinely brandish weapons that can evaporate small chunks of it. Is it any wonder Israelis are paranoid about security after 51 years of war? Do not mistake legitimate security responses aimed at preventing terrorist attacks -- expulsion, roadblocks, closures of the West Bank, targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders, etc. -- as symptoms of racism.
Now that the international bogeyman of South Africa has reformed and dismantled the last vestiges of Apartheid, liberals are on the look out for a new bad guy. The ultimate hope of the Arabs is that Israel will fill South Africa's boots and suffer the same fate as the Afrikaans. For Israelis, and supporters of democracy, this is the time to say "enough." The debate should be dispatched once more to the dustbin of history as quickly as possible. The world needs to move on and refocus on reality, namely ways of preventing a slide into another Arab-Israeli war.
Neill Lochery is director of the Centre for Israeli Studies at University College in London.