Alan Silverstein

Is Zionism racism?

Thirty years ago, in his book “A Place Among the Nations,” Bibi Netanyahu observed that even beyond its army, its technological advances, and its service to global humanitarian causes, “Israel’s great shield…was its moral stature.” Natan Sharansky noted that Israel’s enemies have sought to erode its moral stature by demonizing and thus delegitimizing the existence of the one Jewish state.

Anti-Zionists attempt to link Zionism with modernity’s most vile, Nazi-like canard: racism. As Netanyahu wrote, “The labeling [as racists] of an entire people separates that people from the rest of humanity, making the lives of its members dispensable, its oppressors and murderers immune from blame.”

This false accusation alleges that the State of Israel grants the full rights of citizenship only to Jewish individuals who are of “white” European descent; everyone else, Jews and non-Jews alike, are treated in a discriminatory manner.

Yet Israel’s Declaration of Independence made it clear that Israel “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex. It will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.”

Despite this, in the infamous episode of 1975, the world’s two dozen Arab states and their allies in the UN General Assembly gained approval of a “Zionism is racism” resolution. Though it was revoked in 1991 (Resolution 46/86), the stain remained. And the venom of the racism accusation was reapplied during the infamous 2001 Durban World Conference Against Racism. Now it is resurfacing amid Israel’s war against Hamas in the wake of the barbarous October 7 attack.

Is this “white supremacy/racism” charge against Israel accurate?

Absolutely not!

Legal authority Daniel Ben Abraham spelled out in his Times of Israel blog post that Israelis in fact are not “white.” The majority of Israeli Jews, he points out, are “people of color” — Sephardi, Mizrahi, Jews of color from South American, African or Asian Jews. “Israel cannot be White supremacist or racist, as Israeli Jews are of every skin color, nationality, and origin.”

Israel’s non-Jewish citizens are diverse as well and receive civic equality as individuals before the law. Author Noa Tishby said, “The Arab citizens of Israel number about 1,946,000 [21 percent of the overall population], among them Muslims, Christians, Bedouins, and Druze…. There is nothing…Eurocentric or even ‘white’ about Israeli society.” In addition to Jews, Muslims, and Christians, there are Samaritans, Bahai, Circassians, and Armenians.

In contrast to Israel, certain Middle Eastern nation-states do weaponize bigotry against their inhabitants. They prevent individuals from minority religions and ethnicities from holding office, purchasing land, and so forth. The goal of those governments is to preserve an artificially unified ethnic or cultural majority identity.

Some Muslim states still apply age-old rules labeling non-Muslim religions as “dhimmi,” people who are “beneath them,” second-class citizens who must pay Muslim authorities a jizya, poll/head tax, and a kharaj, land-use tax.

In opposing the “Zionism is racism” resolution in 1975, Israeli UN Ambassador Chaim Herzog testified to Israel’s racial diversity:

“I can point with pride to the Arab ministers who have served in my government, to the Arab deputy speaker of my Parliament, to Arab officers and men serving of their own volition in our border and defense forces, frequently commanding Jewish troops.”

Independent of race, “hundreds of thousands of Arabs” — tourists and pilgrims — “from all over the Middle East come to Israel [each year] for medical treatment.”

Tearing up the UN “Zionism is racism” document, Herzog concluded: “Is this racism? It is not! That is Zionism!”

In similar fashion, in 1974, the United States’ ambassador to the UN, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, affirmed:

“The United States rises to declare before the General Assembly of the United Nations, and before the world, that it does not acknowledge…it will not abide by…it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.

“The lie is that Zionism is a form of racism. The overwhelmingly clear truth is that it is not.”

Moynihan went on to say that Zionism from its inception “was not a movement of persons connected by historic membership in a genetic pool…. To the contrary, Zionists defined themselves merely as Jews [of any race], and declared to be Jewish anyone born of a Jewish mother or — and this is the absolutely crucial fact — anyone [of any race] who converted to Judaism — which is to say, in the terms of International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, adopted by the 20th General Assembly, anyone — regardless of ‘race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin….’”

The State of Israel, said Moynihan “has been extraordinary for nothing so much as the range of (what are called sometimes) ‘racial stocks’ from which it has drawn its citizenry. There are black Jews, brown Jews, white Jews, Jews from the Orient, and Jews from the West….”

He went on to say that “the population of Israel also includes large numbers of non-Jews…. Many of these persons are citizens of Israel [irrespective of race], and those who are not can become citizens by legal procedures very much like those which obtain in a typical nation of Western Europe.”

Zionism’s aversion to racism has been evident from its inception.

The founder of the modern Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl, proclaimed his deep commitment to assisting people living in Africa:

“There is still one problem of racial misfortune unresolved. The depths of that problem, in all its horror, only a Jew can fathom…. I mean the Negro problem [racism]…. [Now] that I have lived to see the restoration of the Jews, I should like to pave the way for the restoration of the Negroes.”

Following the agenda proposed by Herzl, Foreign Minister Golda Meir in 1958 created MASHAV, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation. MASHAV enabled Israel to assist emerging Third World countries — black Africans in particular — in the fields of agriculture, education, and medicine. Since 1958, thousands of African engineers and technicians have been trained by Israelis to develop systems to maximize water use, increase crop yields, expand medical resources, and boost literacy rates.

At odds with the false accusation of racism, Zionism/Israel became, in Netanyahu’s words, “the only movement in history to transport [Ethiopian] blacks out of Africa not to enslave them but to liberate them.” Operation Moses in 1984-85 and then Operation Solomon in 1991 airlifted tens of thousands of black Jews from Ethiopia, funded by Jewish philanthropists worldwide.

Netanyahu also said that “an accusation of racism against the Zionists by the Arab world — whose contemporary customs include the keeping of indentured black servants in the Gulf states and a prolific history of trading along the slave coast of Africa, as well as repeated massacres of blacks by the Sudanese Arabs — should have been received like a witless joke.”

The effort to sully the reputation of Zionism with the label “racism” is a classic method of targeting Jews. When approached by a student attacking Zionism, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking antisemitism.”

Historian Gil Troy said that equating Zionism with racism creates “a perverse inversion” of Nazis, with Jews/Israelis the victims of Nazi racism. It creates the false impression that “there is no difference between an SS mass murderer, a [white] South African secret policeman, an American redneck, and an Israeli settler. It casts Israel, the collective Jew, as today’s ultimate villain.

“This is Jew hatred “masked in human rights rhetoric.”

It must be opposed!

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”