The word “racism” is frequently used by Israel’s critics to characterize the treatment meted out both to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and to Israel’s own Arab citizens.  Not so many years ago, in 1975, a majority of the U.N. General Assembly went so far as to approve a particularly vicious resolution that equated Zionism with racism.  Former President Jimmy Carter, who apparently sincerely believes himself to be a staunch supporter of Israel, wrote a book entitled, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid”; white-ruled South Africa’s system of apartheid was, of course, one of racial segregation and blatant racism.  On college campuses across the U.S., pictures and mock-ups of the barrier that Israel erected to stop terrorists transiting from Palestinian-occupied territories to Israel are captioned: “the racism wall”.  Notwithstanding that caption, the truth is that Israel built the barrier not to stop any particular racial group from entering Israel; it was built to stop suicide bombers and other terrorists from invading Israel, and it has very largely achieved that goal.

In light of the rather causal and very incorrect use of the word by those who do not wish Israel well, one might expect influential Israeli public figures to be extremely cautious and careful before they brand someone or something with the “racism” epithet.  Notwithstanding that expectation, Isaac Herzog, the leader of the Zionist Union, asserted in an interview on Saturday (March 21) that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had “resort[ed] to racism” in the recent election in which Likud defeated the Zionist Union by a surprisingly large margin.  Mr. Herzog was referring to the P.M.’s statement on the day of the election that Arab voters were going to the polls “in droves”, and that citizens who wanted to see the P.M. returned to office would have to be sure to vote so as to counter all the anti-Netanyahu votes being cast by Arabs and others.

Mr. Netanyahu’s statement—taken in context, really more of a plea—has attracted much criticism.  President Obama has said that, in his post-election phone call with the P.M., “[w]e indicated that that kind of rhetoric was contrary to what is the best of Israel’s traditions. That although Israel was founded based on the historic Jewish homeland and the need to have a Jewish homeland, Israeli democracy has been premised on everybody in the country being treated equally and fairly[.]”  This is stiff criticism, to be sure, but without any allegation of racism.  And, as we shall discuss, the P.M.’s remarks do deserve criticism.  However, the primary question I want to address is this: was Mr. Herzog correct in charging that the P.M., in making those election-day remarks, had resorted literally to “racism”?

Webster’s online dictionary provides two definitions of that word: “1. The prejudice that members of one race are intrinsically superior to members of other races. 2. Discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of another race.”  In order to be fair in judging the P.M.’s remark, I think one must concede at the outset that the assumption implicit in the remark—that is, that Arab voters are likely to cast their votes overwhelmingly in favor of the Arab List slate, which would never support any government in which Netanyahu was P.M.—is factually correct.  It is clearly true to say that, by a huge margin, Israeli Arab voters do not support Netanyahu for P.M.

With that factual assumption in mind, it is obvious that Webster’s first definition does not apply to the P.M.’s remarks.  Asserting (correctly) that Arab voters will cast the overwhelming majority of their votes to unseat the P.M. is not to assert that Arabs—even assuming that Arabs constitute a racial rather than a linguistic group—are inferior to any other race, or that any other race is inherently superior to Arabs.  It is only to assert that Arabs have certain definite (anti-Netanyahu) electoral tendencies.

What about Webster’s second definition?  Saying that Arabs are going to the polls in droves surely is not abusive behavior; after all, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words….”  The question, then, is whether it is “discriminatory behavior” for the sitting P.M. to single out Arab voters in a warning to his supporters that they had better get to the polls and vote.  There were, after all, many non-Arab voters who also voted for parties that would not support another term for the P.M., but his statement specifically mentioned only the Arab voters who were very likely to support the opposition.

I think this is a very close question, one with respect to which, as the saying has it, reasonable minds can differ.  I myself am inclined to think that singling out Arabs in the way the P.M. did probably does amount to “discriminatory behavior” within the meaning of Webster’s definition.  If I’m correct, then the statement would amount to some fairly attenuated form of racism.  However, precisely because it is such a close question, I also believe it certainly would have been wiser for a prominent person such as Mr. Herzog to refrain from using the especially inflammatory word “racism”, just as it would have been infinitely wiser for Mr. Netanyahu to have refrained from singling out Arab voters from among all the voters who would ultimately decide to cast an anti-Netanyahu vote.   As President Obama demonstrated in his own criticism, one can deplore the P.M.’s statement without resorting to the “racism” label.

President Obama was correct, I think, in noting that the P.M.’s statement raises a question as to whether Mr. Netanyahu is truly motivated and determined to treat all Israeli citizens—Arabs and non-Arabs—fairly and equally.  The P.M. seems to understand and implicitly accept this criticism; he stated soon after the election that it is and will continue to be the goal of his government “to have real integration of Arab citizens of Israel into the Israeli economy, Israeli high-tech, and Israeli society. My commitment is real and it will stay real.”  Certainly the Arab citizens of Israel will be watching the new government closely to see if the P.M.’s actions match his words.  And it seems very clear that people around the world, including the current occupant of the White House, will also be watching.