The new Israeli government is driving even moderates to say Zionism is racism

(Oded Balilty - AP)

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  December 30, 2022

The new Israeli government is driving more and more to call out Zionism as racism. That’s what scares American Jewish leaders and why they will rely even more on the lie that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.

With 2023 about to dawn, Israel has sworn in its new, far-right government. Much has already been written about the new government, and the sinister figures of Bezalel SmotrichItamar Ben-GvirAvi Maoz, and others. On Thursday, Israel added fuel to the fire, with the release of the new government’s agenda.

That agenda includes establishing the framework for annexing the West Bank to Israel; diminishing the power of Israel’s judiciary; plans for expanding Jews-only settlements on both sides of the Green Line; revoking the law banning discrimination based on religious beliefs so that, for instance, doctors could refuse medical care to LGBTQ+ people if they claim it violates their religious beliefs; and much more. 

These policy objectives are not legally binding, but they form the understanding that brings the parties in Israel’s governing coalition together. The blatant racism and aggressive moves to squeeze Palestinians even further have brought a new kind of criticism even within Israel. Zvi Bar’el, a moderate opinion columnist at Haaretz, broke a taboo in Israel with his piece, “Zionism Is Racism.”

The headline was not mere bombast. Bar’el, while praising the rebuttal to the famous 1975 UN General Assembly resolution labeling Zionism as racism, is clearly stating that in 2022, Zionism is, in fact, racism. Bar’el bluntly states that “…leaders who objected to the ‘Zionism is racism’ resolution would have trouble finding convincing arguments against it today” and that the leaders of far-right parties allied to Benjamin Netanyahu “have Judaized antisemitic claims and race theory and are using them to build a pure country – one that is avowedly and by law Jewish, Zionist and racist.”

Many would argue, with considerable justification, that this new, far-right government is just a more extreme version of the state that Israel has always been. Indeed, Bar’el, in making his case, cites the words of Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionism party, saying of Palestinian citizens of Israel, “You’re here by mistake, because Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the work in 1948 and throw you out.”

That, however, is hardly unique to Smotrich. In 2004, Israeli historian Benny Morris, whose work broke open many myths about the 1948 war, told Haaretz, “I don’t think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes. I think he [Ben-Gurion] made a serious historical mistake in 1948 he got cold feet during the war. In the end, he faltered. If he was already engaged in expulsion, maybe he should have done a complete job.” There is no substantive difference between this statement from an ostensibly liberal Israeli academic and a far-right Israeli political leader. Indeed, it would hardly be surprising if Morris’ words inspired Smotrich. 

Any nationalism holds the potential for racism simply because nationalism, by definition, is interested in pursuing the interests of only one nation. That does not mean that all national movements are racist, nor did Zionism have to be so. But when nationalism, in a drive for its own independent state (an ambition that is common, but not universal, for national movements) involves supplanting one people with another—that is, it becomes a colonial program—racism becomes not only inevitable but necessary to the advancement of the national goals. After all, how can people’s homes be taken without dehumanizing those dispossessed people?

That’s the real fear that the leaders of American Jewish groups are feeling and was reflected in their recent meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu. Certainly, they are worried that the new government—with its clear orientation against democracy, progressive values, non-orthodox Jews, feminism, and LGBTQ+ rights—will erode Jewish and mainstream Democratic support for Israel. That train has been gathering momentum for years. 

But of even greater long-term concern is the fact that this new government could come to be seen as the inevitable result of a kind of Jewish nationalism that dehumanizes others, that is, as the United Nations suggested in 1975, undeniably racist. Again, Palestinians have been making this case since long before 1975, and while it has slowly gained support over the years, the new Israeli government threatens to make that support balloon as the inherent racism of the Israeli state becomes too blatant for all but the most willfully blind to deny.

We’ve seen, over the course of many years, that the chief tool in combating this concern is the equating of criticism of Israel and anti-Zionism with antisemitism. The use of this tool has escalated in recent years, as other arguments relying on Israel’s “democracy,” “benign occupation,” and commitment to “liberal values” have crumbled to dust under the weight of accurate information. 

The Anti-Defamation League, following the lead of its passionately anti-Palestinian CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, states the case bluntly: “Anti-Zionism is distinct from criticism of the policies or actions of the government of Israel, or critiques of specific policies of the pre-state Zionist movement, in that it attacks the foundational legitimacy of Jewish self-determination and statehood. Anti-Zionism is antisemitic, in intent or effect…”

This sweeping definition makes Zvi Bar’el an antisemite, because, in characterizing the current incarnation of Zionism as racist, he is saying that the argument then-Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Chaim Herzog used against the resolution in 1975 is, at best, no longer true. Herzog told the General Assembly, “We, in Israel, have endeavored to create a society which strives to implement the highest ideals of society – political, social and cultural – for all the inhabitants of Israel, irrespective of religious belief, race or sex.” Herzog’s claim was a distortion of reality then, and it remains false now. Saying so is not antisemitic. 

Bar’el applies his arguments to the “Big Three” radicals, Smotrich, Ben-Gvir, and Maoz, but it can just as well be applied to Netanyahu, who has set about attacking Israel’s already compromised judiciary to avoid prosecution for his corruption. So, when Bar’el says that it’s hard to find arguments to support the idea that Zionism is not racism, that must include the full breadth of the governing coalition. That is a straightforward intellectual argument based on an ethical view; it has not one trace of antisemitism in it. 

Moreover, the ADL definition of anti-Zionism is false. Many—I’d even speculate, most—anti-Zionists don’t have a problem with Jews setting up a state of our own in an uninhabited land. Were Palestine, as the early Zionists falsely claimed, truly a “land without a people for a people without a land,” who would have argued with Zionist immigration and state-building? The crux of the problem is precisely that there were people there who had called that land home for generations and centuries beyond memory. A small percentage of those people were Jewish, but most were not. 

Anti-Zionism, therefore, is not about the legitimacy of Jewish self-determination. It is opposition to the idea that the nationalist movement created by European Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was entitled to create an ethno-nationalist state at the expense and necessitating the dispossession of the population that was and had been living in Palestine for a very long time. That is a clear ethical argument, and it is in no way antisemitic because it applies to the actions taken, not the people carrying them out. 

Ultimately, that point is inescapable, and it is the obfuscation of that point that has characterized every Israeli leader since David Ben-Gurion, every Israeli propagandist since Abba Eban, and every Israeli apologist in the United States right up to Jonathan Greenblatt. For all of them, it is essential that they make people believe that criticism of Israel is based on the Jewish character of those being criticized, even though the very same critique has been applied to settlers usurping extant populations all over the world. 

The response must be clear and straightforward, just as the accusations of antisemitism are simplistic and spurious. In 2023, the Israeli government is going to give the world everything it needs to recognize that Palestinians are suffering under an oppressive and racist regime that has established a system of apartheid. And, like it or not, a very clear majority of Israelis voted for this sort of government. A point I’ve made before is that when we include the right-wing National Unity and Yisrael Beiteinu parties that are in the opposition, that means that Israeli voters put right-wing ideologues and racists in 82 of 120 Knesset seats. This was not an accident of electoral politics. It’s where most Israeli voters are.

Even if some parties are opposed to allowing, for example, discrimination against LGBTQ+ people or believe in women’s equality in a general sense, all the Israeli right and most of its center are united in the willingness, even eagerness, to deny freedom and basic rights to Palestinians. 

Bar’el sees the government and its blatant attempt to legislate hate. He believes that Zionism was not racism in 1975, but it is now. But whether Zionism was racism in 1975, 1967, 1948, 1929, 1904, or 1896, is academic. What matter is that it is racism now. The ADL’s attempt to turn reality on its head and make anti-Zionism, which argues for freedom, democracy, and equality for all, must not be allowed to succeed. And, as Bar’el points out, the new government shows us where the bigotry resides. 

Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics