Comment on: “What’s Wrong with a Jewish State”


by Gil Maguire

Jerome Slater posted a long and thoughtful article on the above topic on his blog which generated a great number of responses and heated debate.  A key subtopic was a discussion of whether the demand for a Jewish state, or Zionism, is racist by its very nature.  He concluded that it is not.  

The following are two of my comments on this topic, but first a qualifier: my responses or comments do not do justice to or include the entirety of Professor Slater’s article and full argument.  My main initial focus was on the issue of whether Zionism is racism, which I concluded it was.  I later concluded that this issue was not the critical one to focus on. 

Comment #1:  The Zionist Drive for Exclusivity:

A Zionism motivated by the need to find a safe place for Jews suffering the horrors of the pogroms of Eastern Europe in the 1880s was and is understandable and valid. Unfortunately, Zionism had a second motivation, the desire to create a place or homeland, exclusively for Jews. The need for a safe place does not require exclusivity. Unfortunately, the goal of creating a homeland exclusively for Jews started with Herzl who felt the Arabs needed to removed from Palestine but thought they would be willing to resettle if sufficiently compensated.

It was the Zionist drive for exclusivity, which really started after Balfour in 1918, that created the later Arab anger and riots. The Zionist drive for exclusivity, for an Israel as a homeland exclusively for Jews, led directly to the discrimination, ethnic cleansing, and modern day oppression by Israelis of Palestinian Arabs, and to all the subsequent violence.

Richard Witty (at Jerome’s blog) and Jerry Haber at his Magnes blog, have both responded to me with the thought that the exclusivity portion of Zionism was unintentional and driven by other motives. I think Ilan Pappe’s book, “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” provides overwhelming evidence to the contrary. From Herzl to Balfour to the present day, the goal was and remains exclusivity.

It is that demon or original sin of Zionist Jewish exclusivity that motivates Israeli politics today, and drives the demand for recognition of Israel as a “Jewish State”. It is also clearly what drives Israeli intransigence in the peace process and and the continuation/escalation of the settlement enterprise.

So, the question is not whether Israel should be recognized as a Jewish state; it has been since UNGA 181 which created a Jewish State out of a portion of mandate Palestine in 1947. The question is whether it has the right to be an exclusively Jewish state, or a Jewish state in which its Arab citizens can be denied many, if not most of the civil and economic rights possessed by its Jewish citizens, as is the case today. The critical question is what do Israelis mean by “Jewish State”. Palestinian reluctance to provide this recognition without legal clarification of its limits is understandable, particularly in view of the oppressive nature of their current circumstances in the “territories” as well as in Israel itself.

In summary, while Jews had a valid need for a safe place, that need did not justify ethnic cleansing or enslavement or oppression of another people who had no responsibility for the pogroms or the holocaust, and who were the indiginous inhabitants of the safe place the Zionists chose. So, yes, Israelis have a right to a Jewish state so long as they treat their minorities equally in terms of basic human rights, civil, economic, voting, etc.

Comment #2:  The Focus of the Debate Should Be on the Unlawful Brutal Conduct, not on Whether or Not it is Racially Motivated:

I think the problem with this discussion, and Jerome’s original theme is that it was improperly framed. Whether Zionism is racism isn’t really the point. I think virtually everyone who has responded appears to agree that Zionist/Israeli behavior toward the Palestinians, including massive ethnic cleansing and continuing oppression and unlawful seizure of Palestinian lands, has been and continues to be illegal and atrocious conduct.

Whether the motive was and is racist or merely exclusivist doesn’t really matter, it still is very, very wrong, immoral, illegal, and a continuing atrocity of monumental proportions. Trying to split hairs over whether the motive was or wasn’t racist is obscuring the reality and extent of the atrocity. Focusing on the conduct is probably more productive than philosophical discussions about the history and various forms of Zionism and whether these led to racism or a somehow less culpable form of atrocity.

I think righteous Jews like Jerome, Jerry and others understandably have a hard time coming to terms with the extent of what really happened in 1948, and what has happened since. There is an understandable and sincere urge, even while admitting the wrongfulness of the conduct, to search for less damning explanations or excuses. But, ultimately, it just doesn’t work.

The real eye opener for me was Ilan Pappe’s book “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine”. Pappe demonstrates the clarity of purpose of the Zionist leaders, from Herzl on, including Ben Gurion and his predecessors, Sharon and others, and now Netanyahu. They wanted a state for the Jews, as large as possible with as few Arabs as they could get away with. These guys knew what they wanted to do, what they had to do to get there, and knew it would have to bloody and violent.

The Zionists were/are so secure in their righteousness and religious zeal that they are not at all inhibited by moral compunctions or doubts. They just did what they thought they had to do, be it the 1948 ethnic cleansing, the obliteration of hundreds of Arab villages, or later stuff like Sabra Chatilla (sp?), Gaza in 2008, the continuing oppression and violent treatment of Arabs in the territories, etc. They know or believe that violence and oppression is necessary to reach their goal, elimination of the Arab problem, so they get it done and they don’t agonize over it. Lacking the benefit of that moral clarity and religious zeal, the rest of us are more than a bit conflicted by this issue.

Are or were the Zionists racists? Who knows, who cares? There are certainly worse things and worse behavior than mere racism. It is the demon or original sin of Zionist Jewish exclusivity and the singleminded drive to brutally enforce it that motivates Israeli politics today, and drives the demand for recognition of Israel as a “Jewish State”. It is also clearly what drives Israeli intransigence in the peace process and the continuation/expansion of the settlement enterprise. What Zionists really want is validation of their goal of achieving an exclusive or near-exclusive Jewish state.

So, the critical question is what do Israelis mean by “Jewish State”. Palestinian reluctance to provide this recognition without legal clarification of its limits is understandable, particularly in view of the oppressive nature of their current circumstances in the “territories” as well as in Israel itself.

I suspect most Palestinians view their Israeli tormentors as violent oppressors, whether they are also racist is probably of little practical moment to them.

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One Response to Comment on: “What’s Wrong with a Jewish State”

  1. pabelmont says:

    Gil, this is a marvelous post. Thanks indeed. One quibble, if I may. You write:

    “They wanted a state for the Jews, as large as possible with as few Arabs as they could get away with. These guys knew what they wanted to do, what they had to do to get there, and knew it would have to bloody and violent. / The Zionists were/are so secure in their righteousness and religious zeal that they are not at all inhibited by moral compunctions or doubts. They just did what they thought they had to do * * * “.

    You’ve made it clearer than clear: they knew what they wanted, and were unconcerned either about what they needed or about what it would cost others. This is how bank-robbers think. They say, I need money and the bank has money, so I’ll take the bank’s money. And, oh gee, must I shoot some people in order to rob the bank? well, so be it.

    And, I agree, there are FAR worse things than being a racist.

    BTW, “Chatilla” is the French spelling, “Shatila” the English spelling (Wikipedia uses one “L”). The “ch/sh” calls to mind the Englished-Israeli-Hebrew spelling “Chummus” for the Englished-Arabic, “Hummus”, chick-peas mixed with t’hini, garlic, and lemon juice, and mashed. (Shatila was also mashed.)

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