Zionism, Antisemitism and the Struggle against Racism


January 1, 2000
Richard Kuper

Zionism, Antisemitism and  the Struggle against Racism

A lecture by Professor Nira Yuval-Davis School of Social Sciences, Media  and Cultural Studies, UEL at the School of Oriental and African Studies, 7th December 2006

Thank you all for coming. I know that tonight there are at least two other events concerning Palestine that are taking place in London. This is part of a very positive development – that in spite of the great efforts the Israeli government and its supporters have been investing throughout the years to keep hidden what has been happening on the ground, the Palestinian issue has come to occupy the symbolic space that Apartheid South Africa used to have.

In my lecture this evening I want to revisit a controversial article I published in the feminist newspaper Spare Rib more than 25 years ago, after Israel invaded Lebanon the first time with the same title as the title of my lecture this evening – ‘Zionism, antisemitism and the struggle against Racism’. My article was an intervention in a conflict that took place among feminists in London at the time. Looking back, I believe that this conflict can be seen as a signpost in the struggle to make a critique of Israel – and of Zionism itself, a legitimate focus for a leftist campaign in Britain.

The circumstances of my first being asked to write the article, then having to struggle for almost a year until the editorial collective approved it for publication in the way I’d written it, were quite extraordinary. Spare Rib, which was then the voice of the British feminist movement, published some short articles about the war in Lebanon, including by an anti Zionist Israeli Jew, Aliza Cahan, which caused a storm of reactions by many Jewish feminists. The Spare Rib editorial collective took a position – that broke with the English ‘fair play’ tradition of the BBC that every argument needs to be balanced – and decided not to publish in the paper any of the letters written to them by these Jewish feminists. Public protest meetings were called, there were clashes between, not so much Jewish and Palestinian feminists but between them and black and third-world feminists, that at some point even involved physical fights and lots of tears. The most extreme mutual denial that was expressed in these meetings was that of a black feminist claiming that only black people can suffer from racism and therefore there is no validity for the Jewish women’s claims of antisemitism and a Jewish feminist claiming that she lives in London, not in Israel, and therefore she doesn’t care what happens in Israel or Lebanon, only about the antisemitism that she has experienced herself. The Jewish feminists, indignant that Spare Rib constructed the Arabs and Palestinians as the only victims in the Israeli/Arab conflict and did not give any space to their feelings, ended up collating and publishing their letters in a separate pamphlet.

Part of my aim in writing the article was to make a critique of the specific corruption of one of the most important feminist insights that ‘the personal is political’ that took place there. ‘The personal is political’ means that all spheres of personal life, as well as public lives, are political, in the sense that power relations are always present and need to be reflected upon. It does not mean, however, that only personal experience can give us an understanding of the political. On the contrary, such interpretations, that sometimes were encouraged in the feminist culture of ‘consciousness raising’, can lead to both relativist and exclusionary identity politics.

I don’t have time now to get into a more elaborate critique of identity politics – I’ve written about it in several places. However, I’m glad to say, that since the heady days of the late 70s and early 80’s, the power of non-critical identity politics, especially among feminists, is much weaker and gave in to a much more dialogical and encompassing type of politics. If I’m not mistaken, some of those women who participated in that pamphlet and continued to be active politically, are now associated with Jews for Justice for Palestinians, and given the situation of both asylum seekers and Muslims in Britain today, there has been a very wide acceptance that racism can be directed against groupings with any signifying markers of boundaries, from skin colour to dress to accent and more and is not directed only against Blacks.

A critique of identity politics, however, occupied only a minor part of the article. My main concern was to bring to the feminist audience an alternative understanding of the nature of the Zionist project, as well as the ways it can relate to antisemitism and anti-racist struggles more generally. By the way, it was my insistence to discuss antisemitism and not only Zionism in the article that caused the long delay in the Spare Rib editorial collective decision to let me publish the article and I’m very pleased that they finally allowed it. The reason I wanted to revisit the article now is that in some ways all these issues and debates on Zionism, antisemitism and racism continue to be vital these days as well, and in some ways even more poignantly.

A few years before I wrote the article, the UN passed a controversial resolution to view Zionism as a form of racism. (that resolution, by the way, was revoked in 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union and was one of the conditions Israel put before it participated in the Madrid conference that officially started what became known later as ‘the Oslo process’.) One of my tasks in the article was to show that although there were many Zionists who were subjectively democratic or socialist and that throughout Zionist history there were many voices protesting against some of the unavoidable implications of Zionism in the hope that they were avoidable, Zionism, both as a political movement and as an ideological one, has operated in a racist way. Racism has two ultimate logics – of exclusion, which might end up with extermination; and of exploitation, that might end up with slavery. Different racialization projects usually prioritize one logic over the other, but in actual practice the one often bring about the other. I pointed out that in the Zionist case there has been a non permeable hierarchical and exclusionary boundary between the Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of Israel who tended to occupy very specific class positions in pre-67 Israel. This boundary operated in a variety of ways but in the most generalized way it operated in terms of the Israeli nationality law and the Israeli Law of Return, and less explicitly but more effectively in the de facto apartheid system achieved by the ‘double act’ of the Jewish agency (the operative arm of the Zionist movement) and the Israeli state. All this applied within the 1948 borders. After 1967 the Israeli state’s occupation meant that about a third of the population under its rule were not even formally its citizens and a growing list of atrocities and violations of human rights have marked the process of the expansion of the Zionist project in its post-67 phase.

Using the UN terminology of Zionism as racism, however, is much too generic to be really helpful in understanding the nature of the Zionist project. I was asked to write the conclusion, a few years ago, of a volume on Post-Zionism edited by Ephraim Nimni that was published by Zed Books (in 2002). In one of the reviews of the book, the reviewer (John Dock) pointed out that, unlike in most edited volumes, the conclusion was thoroughly critical of most of the articles of the book, including the introduction. Indeed I was critical because in this book, written during the so-called Oslo Process years, the Israeli society was treated by most of the contributors, as a multicultural racist liberal democracy of the western kind. In this, they bought one of the great – and most successful – fictions of the Oslo agreement, that treated Israel and Palestine basically as two neighbouring states with a border conflict and that for the conflict to be resolved there is a need to reach agreement on where exactly the border line should pass, to ensure the best security as well as chance of economic prosperity, for both sides.

As I pointed out in that conclusion, such an approach mystifies rather than clarifies the issues involved. Because Israel is not just a multicultural racist state but a settler state.

I first heard the analysis of Israel as a settler state when I attended a study group on alternative Zionist history as part of my field work on my masters dissertation on Matzpen – the Israeli Socialist Organization, in the late 1960s. One of the founders of Matzpen, Moshik Machover (who is with us this evening) gave a lecture here in SOAS last week in which he presented an updated version of this analysis. I also read during that time Maxim Rodinson’s book published in English 1973 (by Pathfinder Press) on Israel – a colonial settler state?, which also analyzed the Zionist project in a similar way. However, it was not until I visited Australia in the 1980s and experienced a sense of familiarity, that I fully understood what it actually means for Israel to be a settler society, and how the racialization processes in Israel are specifically those of a settler society. Shortly afterwards I met a colleague from Canada, Daiva Stasiulis, who had similar insights about Canada when she visited Australia and we ended up editing a book Unsettling Settler Societies (Sage, 1995) in which we examined ten, quite different, cases of settler societies, from the USA to Algeria. I co-wrote the chapter on Zionism and Israel with a Palestinian colleague Nahla Abdo.

I want to spend a few minutes now summing up what we considered to be the common features of all settler societies states and then the specific features of the Israeli Zionist project. However, before leaving the subject I’ll also want to draw attention to the additional insights of two other analytical models which have been used in recent years to analyze it – the post-colonial divided societies model that Avishai Ehrlich is developing and the ethnocracy model of Oren Yiftachel (who recently [2006] published a whole book on the subject with the University of Penn Press).

In the introduction to the book Daiva and I defined settler societies as those societies which were the result of the settlement of European migrant groups in other parts of the world, who were intent on settlement and on building self-sustaining states independent of the metropolitan centre. However, we also claimed that, in a way, there is a continuum, rather than a dichotomy, between the ‘normal’ western nation-states and settler societies, because the process of nation building in Europe itself also involved, almost everywhere, settlement by, as well as legal and administrative imposition of the hegemonic centre on the periphery. When I was a visiting fellow in Umea in northern Sweden a few years ago I became acquainted with the Sami people who have become only partially incorporated into Scandinavian nation-states, an illustrative example to settler society problematic within Europe.

Settler societies are racialized in two very different ways. Firstly, in relation to the indigenous population which during the process of settlement is dispossessed, killed directly or indirectly (e.g. via introduction of new diseases they have no immunization against), and incorporated in a marginal or major way into the economy of the new society. Secondly, however, there is racism against groups of immigrants who are considered necessary for the development of the society but who are not as desirable as those from similar racial and ethnic backgrounds to those of the original settlers. In the case of Israel it is the Mizrahi Jews. The settler society, therefore, is very far from being just a homogenous body of settlers and their descendents. Often one of the ongoing conflicts among anti-racist activists in settler societies is that the racialized groupings of the immigrants would promote a multicultural project in which the indigenous people would be considered to be just one more minority community, while the indigenous people, even if they constitute only a small number of survivors, would reject that and insist that the major conflict is between them and what the Australian aboriginals call ‘the imposing society’. And indeed, the long term character of settler societies has been determined by the ways the basic conflicts between them and the settlers have been resolved. Many factors can determine the nature of the resolution – the economic lever of the indigenous people on the settler society, the nature of the nationalist and civic ideology that has been used in the settler society nation-building processes, the number of people of mixed origin in the society, as well, as of course, some more global political and economic factors. I would argue, however, that the most fundamental factor is the demographic relationship between the size of the remaining indigenous population and that of the settlers, once the nation-building process of the settler society has been more or less accomplished. In countries where there is a huge majority of the settlers, like in Australia, Canada, the USA – it is the indigenous people that need to agree to some kind of accommodation that would give them the maximum autonomy and land rights. In cases in which the indigenous people remain a large majority, like Algeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa, then it is the settlers that have to accommodate, at the end of the day, or leave.

One of the important specificities of the Zionist settler project is that as a result of various global and local historical circumstances, socioeconomic factors, cultural and political pressures on women to bear children, but especially demographic policies of ethnic cleansing and migration, the size of the settler population and that of the indigenous population has been for many years now roughly the same. This means that no one side would be prepared to concede defeat easily and that the conflict, other things being equal, would tend to be much longer and bloodier.

But there are at least two other factors that complicate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even more than that of many other settler societies. Firstly, that unlike most other settler projects, the Zionist project was autonomous from its inception, rather than an arm of a specific empire and was constructed as a nationalist project.

During the time of the emergence of the Zionist ideology in central and Eastern Europe, national liberation was perceived to be the solution for many oppressed ethnic minorities, around the time of the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian and the Russian empires. The Jews, however, did not have their own territorial ‘homeland’ in Europe. The Bund, the other national Jewish movement of the time, sought to solve what was known as ‘the Jewish problem’ by following Otto Bauer’s model. Bauer, an Austro-Hungarian socialist, recognized the ethnic mix of the population in the Austro-Hungarian empire and the dangers of the territorial homogenization, or ‘cleansing’ impulse of nationalist movements (something that Michael Mann called many years later ‘the dark side of democracy’). He thus called ‘for the separation of nationality from the state’. The Bund sought national and cultural autonomy within a future socialist federal state according to these principles. The Zionist movement, on the other hand, which, unlike the Bund, included both socialists and non socialists, accepted what I often call the ‘holy trinity’ of nationalist constructions, i.e. of the non separation of people, state and territory. It therefore looked for a territory in which such a Jewish state could be built. They settled on Palestine because although it was one of the most developed and densely populated countries of the Middle East, it was the Jewish mythical country of origin as well as the religious ‘promised land’.

In many settler societies projects, the country is perceived by the settlers, at least to some extent, as a ‘new world’ – available not only for immigration but also for establishing a ‘new and better society’ (often called by Christian religious refugees in particular the ‘New Jerusalem’). In the Zionist project, this ‘new society’ was also perceived at the same time to be a rehabilitation of an old one – the biblical Judaic state – and the ‘New Jerusalem’ was going to be built in the land of ‘Old Jerusalem’. Theodor Herzl, the ‘father’ of the Zionist movement wrote a utopian book which was supposed to describe the desired Jewish state to be established. He called it Altneuland – the Old/New country. Although the Zionist movement saw itself as a nationalist movement, it not only used the religious narrative to locate the territorial ‘homeland’ but also used it as a constitutive one for delineating the boundaries of the nation (although after the holocaust an even more inclusive principle of belonging has come to dominate, i.e. all those who would have been considered as Jews under the Nazi racial laws). Anyway, unlike the Bund who were interested only in Jews who lived in Eastern Europe, the Zionists were interested in the Jews from all over the world in their pursuit of enough bodies for what was known in Australia as the ‘populate or perish’ drive.

This created another clashing dimension of the Israeli Palestinian conflict beyond the actual settlement that not enough attention has been given to. While the Arabic national movement imagined a nation (or nations) that encompass all those who have been living in their territories as a way of overcoming the religious communal divisions of the Ottoman millet system, the Zionist movement constructed national boundaries which included people from different territorial origins from all over the world but who share religious and ethnic origin. The Mizrahi, or Arab Jews, have originally been defined as belonging to the two sides according to these two different principles of boundaries construction, which did not prevent them ending up as marginal in the one (although by now they constitute the majority of Israeli Jews) and excluded from the other. I was told, when I started meeting Arab and Palestinian intellectuals in the late 1960s and early 1970s that this has been one of the most troubling issues for them, as they felt it was an undermining factor in their fight against religious sectarianism in their own side which they felt to be one of their most difficult tasks. As we know today, this task has greatly failed. Today, not only Jews are excluded from the Arab nation but progressively also Christians and inter-sectarian religious wars are becoming more and more central to the politics of the Middle-East region as a whole. In Israel, on the other hand, although over the years the influence of political religion has become much more influential, other demographic and political developments have transformed the ultra-orthodox Jews into one more fragment of contemporary Israeli society.

In his comparative research of post British colonial divided societies – in Israel/Palestine, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and especially India/Pakistan, Avishai Ehrlich pointed out to somewhat similar dynamics in all of these societies where religious divisions which have been manipulated during colonialism, become principle determinants of national boundary constructions of the conflicting sides and their associated ethnic cleansing processes.

Religious differences as signifiers of national boundaries are common also in other cases of ethnocratic regimes which have been the topic of comparative study of Oren Yiftachel. When we started our campaign against the Israeli law of Return we could argue that no other societies that defined themselves as liberal democracies have such or similar nationality laws. After the fall of the Soviet Union, we have seen a quick growth of such laws in some of the so-called post-communist regimes such as Latvia. Ethnocracies, as defined by Yiftachel, are political regimes ‘instituted on the basis of qualified rights to citizenship and with ethnic affiliation as the distinguishing principle, to secure that the most important instruments of state power are controlled on behalf of an ethnic collectivity’. Unfortunately the ethnocization of so-called nation-states is on the rise everywhere in the world, partly driven by the pursuit of what Manuel Castells (The Power of Identity, Blackwell, 1997) has called ‘defensive identity communities’ against the effect of neo-liberal globalization. Ethnic and religious fundamentalist movements have arisen everywhere in the world and the ‘clash of civilizations’ discourse has stirred on the securitization and militarization of ethnic, religious and national boundaries in the post 9/11 world.

The role of religion in the Israeli/Palestinian case, however, is even more complex than in most other places, as the Palestinian and Jewish homeland has also been the holy land of Christianity, and one of the most holy places for the Muslims. When one visits the old city of Jerusalem, one can see that in so many places ownership has been contested or divided for many hundreds of years, often since the time of the crusades, between different religious denominations. This specific status of the country in the religious discourse of the three monotheistic religions has helped to make it emotionally relevant or sometime even develop a sense of ownership to millions who have never visited the place and have no kinship relationships with the people who live there. With the growing hegemony of the Zionist project, many Jews have come to see in Israel a post-factum homeland to their diaspora but even those who remained anti-Zionist on religious grounds, like the Neturei Karta, feel duty bound to demonstrate against liberal gay laws in Israel as well as in support of the PLO. Muslims all over the world (unlike most of the Palestinians) equate between Zionists, Israeli and Jews and identify the Palestinian resistance with a contemporary struggle of Saladin against the crusaders and turn to the Koran as well as to traditional European antisemitic writings to support their anti-Jewish views. Christian fundamentalists support Jewish settlements on the West Bank, because according to their theology, all the Jews need to come back and settle in the holy land. Only after that happens, the conditions for the final struggle between light and darkness, after which the Messiah will come back be fulfilled and then all the Jews who would not convert to Christianity will be killed.

As I argued in the Spare Rib article, there is often a relationship between antisemitism and attitudes towards Zionism and Israel. However, the relationship is not fixed – you can be both anti- or pro-Zionist (like in the case of the American Christian fundamentalists) and be antisemitic. In that article I also warned that the insistence of the pro-Israeli lobby to see any critique of Israel, let alone Zionism, as antisemitic, can only end up as a self-fulfilling prophecy. I find it very problematic that even the EUMC (EU Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia) accepted the term ‘new antisemitism’ as ‘the vilification of Israel’. But, as it is so easy and clear to find out about the atrocities that Israel is carrying out against the Palestinians, then the equation of antisemitism with critique of Israel is a de facto legitimation of antisemitism, something which in the future, can have some terrible consequences. We can see the direction some of it might be going to with Iran’s denial of the holocaust (now they’re organizing a so-called scientific international conference on the subject) and their call for all the Israeli Jews to go to Europe or to Alaska.

I don’t have time and space tonight to get into a detailed history of what happened in Israel and Palestine throughout its history and especially in the post-Oslo period. Anyway, I’m sure there is very little I can tell that would be new to this audience. However, I would like very briefly to mention one more central factor that is crucially important in the understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is connected to the feature of the Zionist settler project which was autonomous from its inception and therefore had to court the dominant global powers in the region, which were first the British and then, after the establishment of the state, most of the time, the USA. This means that Israel, as part of and in addition to, pursuing its interests, also serve the interests of the superpower in the area. This might mean exercising military power for them, but it can sometime also mean, like during the first Gulf war, avoiding exercising military powers. There are two important results to this. Firstly, that Israel has an avid interest in the internal politics of the USA, because whoever controls the government there would also control to a great extent what they would be allowed or not allowed to do in the pursuit of their own interests. The Iraq Study Group whose report came out yesterday, for instance, insists that Israel should have direct talks with Syria. This is something Israel is very reluctant to do and has had the backing of Bush to avoid doing so. This political reality can explain the great investment of Israel and American Zionists in what is known as the ‘pro Israel lobby’. However, any portrayal of Israel as controlling the USA and determining its policies follows in the footsteps of an old antisemitic stereotype of the elders of Zion controlling the world. The second result to this positioning of Israel in the Middle East is that it has come to be perceived as the representative of the West. With the rise of capitalism and the destablization of Eastern Europe peasant societies in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Jews were constructed as the scapegoat of the peasants’ hostility towards their rulers and suffered from pogroms as a result. Israel might come to occupy a parallel role in the contemporary world, in which the West in general and the USA in particular, are losing their ability to rule the rest of the world in a legitimate way and need more and more often to use brutal force in order to impose their control – and then they fail, as is happening these days in Iraq and Afghanistan and as has happened, mirror-like, when Israel attacked in the summer Lebanon and Gaza.

These are very turbulent times, both globally and locally. I can see no easy or near solution to the situation and am afraid that in the long run the resolution of the Zionist settler society conflict will be more similar to the Algerian one than to the South African one – and Algeria is not a happy place to live in for the Algerians as well.

When I started to be active in Israel in the struggle for the civil rights of the Palestinians citizens of Israel who were then under military government and their lands continued to be confiscated for what was known then ‘the Judaization of the Gallilee, and then after the 1967 war against the occupation, I was under the impression that if only we could tell the people in Israel and then the people in the world, what is really happening there, what has really happened since the beginning of the Zionist project, we would be able to stop and reverse it all. Alas, when we started to be successful and the facts of the occupation – and of Zionist history – started to be known, things started to become worse, not better. Oscar Wilde once said that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. When all the facts become exposed, often people stop feeling shame instead of stopping doing what was hidden before.

Exposing the reality of the occupation, then, is only a necessary, not a sufficient condition to bringing positive change about. Removing the legitimacy of the actions is the next step in the right direction. The news a few days ago that the Israeli ex-Head of Military Staff had to escape New Zealand before being arrested as a war criminal is an example of such an activity (and a similar thing happened to another general in London last year). All actions that might help to stop the ongoing atrocities that Israel, a rogue and disintegrating state continue to carry out, should be encouraged. However, things are not that simple. As Nadja al Ali, who is involved in the Iraqi women’s organization Act Together has said in the context of the resistance to the occupation of Iraq, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. Unconditional solidarity can only brew troubles for the future. It was the superficial unconditional solidarity with the Jews after the holocaust that contributed to the legitimacy of the Zionist project and continues until today to paralyze many of those who see in any critique of Israel or Zionism a form of antisemitism. We have to avoid repeating this mistake in the contemporary situation.

So what can be the last word in such a talk? I suppose the old Gramcian one, calling us to keep ‘pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will’. Thank you.

© Copyright JFJFP 2021