Why Israel is a Jewish, not a white supremacist state

Recognising Israel as a Jewish supremacist state does not mean rejecting Jews or Judaism.

Rabbi Dov Lior
Rabbi Dov Lior attends a 2011 rally against his arrest over his endorsement of The King's Doctrine, a book offering a religious justification for killing innocent non-Jews [File: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]

There is much I can agree with in Yoav Litvin’s article “The Zionist fallacy of Jewish supremacy. Without a doubt, Zionism is a modern settler colonial movement which emerged in the twilight of the colonial era. It is also true that Zionism was a reaction to the anti-Semitism of the European colonial and racial movements of the late 19th century and it is equally true that Zionism’s reaction to anti-Semitism was to try and take advantage of it and harness it as an engine does with steam power.

It is also true that Zionism perceives Jews as a biological race. Because, what else is the myth of Jewish nationhood other than a racial one? Given that Jews are members of every nation on the Earth and speak most languages, what else but race binds them according to Zionist folklore?

I also agree with Litvin that Zionism mercilessly exploits and uses Judaism or parts of it in order to justify its racist and indeed genocidal practices. On all this and more we agree and yet I cannot concur with the idea that Zionism in the form of the Israeli state is a white supremacist as opposed to a Jewish supremacist state. This flies in the face of the evidence. What Litvin is doing is substituting wishful thinking for reality and that is never a good basis on which to construct an argument.

It is of course true that within the Israeli Jewish population, there is discrimination against the Sephardi/Misrahi Jews and even more against the Falashas (Ethiopian) Jews. But while intra-Jewish racism exists, the major division within the Israeli society is not between black and white, but between Jewish and non-Jewish, and in particular between Israeli Jewish and Palestinian. That is inescapable.

The Law of Return allows Jews of any colour to emigrate to Israel anytime they want. That is not a right which non-Jews – black or white – possess. Only Jews can be nationals in Israel and some 93 percent of Israeli land is Jewish national land from which non-Jews are legally barred from. Of course, the best land in Israel is reserved for the Ashkenazim. So yes, Zionism is certainly tainted by white supremacy, but this is a secondary, not primary, feature.

We can see this politically. The Sephardic Jews vote for the openly racist and nationalist parties whereas the Ashkenazi or a (diminishing) section of them vote for the nominally “leftist” Zionists of the Israeli Labour Party and Meretz. What we see in Israel is a phenomenon known to the Deep South of the United States. The Sephardic or Arab Jews display what is known as the poor white mentality. Yes, they are oppressed by their white Jewish brothers, but that only intensifies their hatred of the Arabs and Palestinians. 

Litvin says that Zionism is based on a distinctly secular outlook. Yes and no. Zionism from the very beginning made enormous compromises with what became the religious Zionist sector. It did this because religion was and is a powerful form of legitimation of the Zionist claim to Palestine. In 1949, when David Ben Gurion, leader of Israel’s Labour Party, had a majority of 65 out of 120 Knesset seats with the leftist Zionist Mapam Party, he chose to form a coalition with the National Religious Party (NRP). From 1949 to 1977, Israel was ruled continuously by coalitions of the Labour and religious Zionist parties.

Since the creation of Israel, the Orthodox rabbinate has had exclusive control over the question of who is a Jew. All personal matters, from birth to marriage to death, are in the hands of its representatives; Reform Rabbis do not get a look in. Why? Because Israel is a state based on the concept of the Jewish “race”, in the same way in South Africa or Nazi Germany it was necessary to define who was part of the white or Aryan race.

Nazi Germany had the Nuremberg Laws, South Africa had the Population Registration Act and Israel has the Law of Return, each with its own “race experts”. In Israel, it is the rabbis who decide who is and who is not Jewish.

In a 2016 survey by Pew Research Center, one of the more interesting yet least commented upon findings was that 46 percent of Israeli Jews saw themselves as Jewish first and 35 percent saw themselves as Israeli first, but 79 percent agreed that Jews should receive preferential treatment. In other words, Israeli Jews have an identity crisis, which is not surprising since Israel itself doesn’t have a nationality but subscribes to the myth of one worldwide Jewish nation.

Litvin argues further: “Zionist propagandists have promoted the anti-Semitic fallacy that Israel is a Jewish state, which represents Judaism and thus all Jews. This fundamental canard is at the root of Zionist propaganda.” Unfortunately, he conflates two separate concepts. Israel is a Jewish state in so far as Jews are privileged over and above non-Jews. However, Israel does not represent all Jews or even Judaism.

How can this be so? Just as Ulster/Northern Ireland was described as a Protestant state and Stormont as a “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People”, so is Israel a Jewish state. South Africa was, by the same token, a white state for white people.

Does this therefore mean that racism and sectarianism are inherent to Protestantism? Or that apartheid is inherent to those who have white skin? Of course not, and likewise discrimination and racism are not inherent to being Jewish. But when a state is formed by a group of Jewish (or Protestant, or white) settlers on the basis of ethnic cleansing, exploitation and/or exclusion of the indigenous population, then whatever the character of the settlers, religious/ethnic/colour will be used to define and justify the repression that follows.

Litvin falls into a logical fallacy when he states: “If it is accepted, as it is by Zionists, that Israel indeed represents Judaism and all Jews – an expression of ‘Jewish supremacy’ – then those who are pro-Palestinian must also reject Jews and Judaism.”

The whole point is that we do not accept the Zionist narrative. Israel does not represent all Jews or Judaism despite the claims of British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis that Zionism and Judaism are intertwined. This is why rejection of a Zionist state does not involve the rejection of Jews and Judaism. One of the most welcome phenomenon today is the growing divorce between Zionism, Israel and the world’s Jewish diaspora.

When Zionism first arose, Orthodox Jews were fiercely opposed to it. Munich’s rabbis objected to the First Zionist Congress being held in that city and it had to be relocated to Basel in Switzerland. The Jewish religion has changed in the past century just as the identity of Jews has changed. Zionism’s claim on Jewish identity is contested.

White racists and Zionists have long made common cause, Zionism was the favoured son of western imperialism. Arthur J Balfour, the author of the Balfour Declaration, was also notoriously anti-Semitic and racist imperialist. As prime minister, he introduced in 1905 the Aliens Act aimed at curbing Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe.

Today, racists, such as former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, try to use Jewish supremacism in Israel in order to generalise about Jewish supremacy and there are also white supremacists, such as Richard Spencer, who define themselves as white Zionists. However, this does not mean that Israel is a white supremacist state.

As we saw in the Pittsburgh attack and the Charlottesville march, white supremacists are more than capable of distinguishing between Jews and Zionism. Pittsburgh’s Jews, for example, were singled out because of their support for refugees. In the diaspora, despite the inroads made by Zionism, most Jews still subscribe to a liberal and multicultural state.

Support for Zionism among the Jewish diaspora was a consequence of the Holocaust when six million Jews were exterminated. Today, however, Israel has, I would argue, an increasingly weakened hold on Jews abroad. That is why we have seen the growth of Jewish groups like Jewish Voice for Peace.

At the same time, it should be no surprise that the Zionist movement in the US should see the struggle for black liberation as their enemy. The fight against racism in the US is also the fight against American imperialism.

The alliance between Palestine solidarity activists and supporters of black anti-racist movements is a natural one like the late Hedy Epstein, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, epitomised. However, we do no service to the black or the Palestinian and anti-Zionist struggles by pretending that they are one and the same. They complement each other but they are not identical.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.