There is scholarly consensus that anti-black racism was nearly non-existent in Western society prior to the trans-Atlantic African slave trade. That’s not to say that no stereotypes of Africans existed:  There were stereotypes of different people from different regions, including Africa. Black skin was considered ugly, perhaps because it was associated with the outdoor labor in the sun of the lower classes. But there was no widespread belief that a person with black skin, born in Africa, was a completely different and inferior category of person than a white person born in Europe.

As the trans-Atlantic slave trade evolved, so did the racism that was used to justify it: The stereotype of black Africans as mentally inferior, lazy, child or animal-like, such that s/he required protection and direction from her or his white master, was not the original reason behind the slave trade but rather, the original result of the slave trade. Of course, once this ideology became widespread, it was used as a justification to continue enslaving Africans and people whose ancestors came from Africa.*

A Marxist would use this as proof that ideologies are shaped by economic structure, and evolve in order to support those who benefit from it. But I would like to offer a less conspiratorial explanation: Repeated psychological studies show that human beings find it extremely difficult to deal with cognitive dissonance: the knowledge that they are acting contrary to their principles. Three solutions are available to resolve this discomfort: 1. Change one’s principles 2. Change one’s actions 3. Rationalize one’s actions by contextualizing them in such a way that they no longer appear to violate one’s principles.

I would argue that racism is 3:The slave-owner still believed in the principle of not oppressing their fellow human, but redefined the terms “oppression” and “fellow human” such that their slave-owning actions no longer appeared to violate their principles. Many New World countries with slave societies also had extreme inequality and oppressive constructs between white people of European descent. This is not surprising: Once you’re comfortable redefining the terms “oppression” and “fellow human” in order to suit your own interests, there’s no reason to stop at oppressing one group, when oppressing multiple groups could be more profitable.

I do not want to compare the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the Occupation. I think to do so would be to dishonor the memories of all the victims of the slave trade, who faced horrors that we cannot even fathom.

But I do think that understanding core truths about the development of racism is helpful when it comes to understanding discrimination against Arabs in Israeli society: A recent study by the Israel Democracy Institute shows that 72% of Israeli Jews feel issues of peace and security should be decided by an exclusively Jewish Israeli majority, and 57% believe the same about decisions related to other policy issues – despite the fact that 20% of Israel’s citizens are Arabs. Statistics on the number of hate crimes against Arabs are also disturbing.

I believe this trend is inherently connected to the Occupation.

The Occupation did not start because of racism. It started because the Israeli government felt it was necessary in order to protect the lives of Israeli civilians, and the land was meant to be used as a bargaining chip in peace negotiations.  But as the Occupation continued, cognitive dissonance sank in, and Israel was faced with three options: 1. Change its principles 2. Change its actions 3. Rationalize its actions so they no longer appear to violate its principles.

Israel tried option 2. It signed the Oslo Accords. But most Israelis’ take-away from the 2nd Intifada was that trying to end the Occupation empowers Palestinian terrorists to kill Israeli civilians. So that left options 1 and 3. We now see a combination taking over Israeli political discourse: It is increasingly acceptable to disparage the democratic aspect of Israel’s identity, to openly advocate for policies that would favor Jews, to question the rights of Arab citizens to equality – in other words, to change Israel’s principles. It is also increasingly popular to rationalize Israel’s actions: Attacking innocent Arabs is wrong, but that Arab wasn’t innocent, or that soldier didn’t really attack someone – he was framed.

It’s not surprising that, once these exceptions were made for one group (the Palestinians) they were extended to encompass other groups (Israeli Arabs). After all, once the idea that exceptions are acceptable under certain circumstances has been validated, why not extend it in order to serve your own interests? I believe that this underlies many of the tensions within Israeli Jewish society, where different groups adopt aggressive, exclusionary stances towards each other that mimic the aggressive, exclusionary stance of mainstream Jewish Israeli society towards Arabs.

By causing racism, the Occupation puts Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state – that is to say, the entire Zionist project – in jeopardy. A racist state cannot be a truly democratic state. Discourse on the Occupation often focuses on security and demographics. But the real question posed by the Occupation is: What kind of country do we want to be, and what kind of prices are we willing to pay?

That would be a more honest conversation, because even though a Palestinian state is in Israel’s long-term security interest, it’s unlikely that the moment there’s a Palestinian state, all of a sudden all terror threats to Israeli lives will disappear – and in order to speak to the Israeli Jewish public, the Left must address their fears.

There is a lot of work to be done, but the Zionist dream has been about hard work, ever since 1800s, when pioneers drained the swamps by planting eucalyptus trees. Between 1800 and 1833, Britain went from being a leader in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, to the first European country to abolish slavery. The primary cause of this revolution, which freed hundreds of thousands of people from forced servitude, was a shift in public opinion, resulting in pressure on Parliament.**

That is the power of ground-up movements in a democratic society.

That is the power that was recognized by Theodor Herzl when spoke words that would inspire Zionists for generations:“If you will it, it will not be merely a legend to be a free people in our land” – free from oppression, and free from oppressing.

*Davis, David Brion. “Inhuman Bondage”. Oxford University Press: New York, 2006.

** For a differing viewpoint regarding the causes of British abolition, please see “Capitalism and Slavery”, by Eric Williams.