‘Zionism’ is not a dirty word

Attention world. You have it all wrong.

The so-called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, the Palestinian propaganda machine, and even some prominent media entities have sold you a bill of goods. The goal is to spread the notion that Israel — and by extension the Jewish people — is racist. “Apartheid” is their preferred word, but it is merely a euphemism for “racism.” Not wanting to say that Jews are racist, they choose the word Zionist instead.

Sadly, too many Jews (especially young Jews) have bought into this calumny, as well, world, so you are not alone. Not too long ago, an advocate for one of the slates in the just-ended World Zionist Congress elections stood before a roomful of synagogue members to make a pitch for that slate. This person began by asking everyone in the room who was Jewish to raise a hand. All hands went up. Second, he asked for all who supported the State of Israel to raise their hands. All hands went up.

Then he asked for all who were Zionists to raise their hands — and too many hands did not go up. There were Jews in the room who were wholehearted in their support for Israel, but who thought Zionism is a dirty word.

To all who think this way, try this: Using your best imaginative ability, draw a picture of a Jew in your mind. Is he or she white? Is he or she European?

Yes, some Jews are white and European, but others are not. There are Chinese Jews and Japanese Jews, Chilean Jews and Brazilian Jews, Ethiopian Jews and Yemenite Jews. Some Jews pray to Elohim, while others pray to El Dios; some pray to Gott, while others pray to God, and still others pray to Allah. The deity is the same — it’s just the language that is different. Jews live on all continents and speak many tongues.

In fact, Jews come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and have customs so divergent as to be unrecognizable to other Jews. Still, they are Jews, and as Jews, they are welcome in every Jewish community in the world, including that Jewish community known as the State of Israel. Their children may “intermarry” and their progeny can grow up to be prime minister or president of the Jewish state, and no one will go into mourning over any of it.

They can do that because there is a Jewish state, the product of a belief held over the millennia by all of their ancestors that one day the Jewish people would return to their ancient homeland. In the late 19th century, that belief got a name: Zionism.

Zionism requires Israel’s acceptance of all Jews, regardless of who they are, where they come from, or what the color of their skin is. Sure, Ashkenazi Jews have an air of superiority toward Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews, but that is more political than anything else. Such artificial divisions disappear when circumstances demand. If Jews are in danger in Russia, the Jewish state, the Zionist state, is obligated to come to their rescue — as it did. If Jews are in danger in Ethiopia, the Jewish state, the Zionist state, is obligated to come to their rescue — as it did. Jews worldwide contributed millions to do so in all such instances.

Racism means discrimination or bigotry based on a belief that certain races are inferior. Which race do Jews consider inferior? The question is absurd, because there probably is not a single race on the planet that does not have its Jews, and representatives of each race live in the State of Israel.

For Jews to consider any race as inferior is for them to consider part of their family inferior. This does not mean that no Jew is a racist. There are a few of them out there, even in Israel. Some of these Jews are even anti-Semitic, meaning they hate other Jews. Hatred crosses all boundaries. For most Jews, however, racism is the one type of hatred that makes no sense whatsoever. Family is family.

Zionism, Bayard Rustin, the great black leader of a past generation, once noted, is not racism, but the legitimate expression of the Jewish people’s self-determination. As a people, we self-determined a definition for ourselves. A Jew is someone who is born of a Jewish mother, or who converted to Judaism according to prescribed rules.

Not every Jew today accepts that definition, just as not every stream of Judaism (or even segments of each stream) have the same set of prescribed rules, but the State of Israel does. That does not make it racist; it makes it selective. The U.S. Supreme Court in a variety of cases (including one of the most recent, Nguyen v. INS, 533 U.S. 53 in 2001) accepted selective standards as constitutionally valid for defining who is a natural-born citizen of the United States.

Indeed, selectivity is common to all states. The United States, for example, will send its immigration agents into the barrios of California and Texas to search out “illegal” Mexicans. Does that make the United States racist?

Israel will let anyone become a citizen; it merely gives Jews a fast track to citizenship. There are Muslims and Christians who are Israeli. They can vote; they can be elected; they can serve.

In Saudi Arabia, anyone who is not a Muslim cannot be a citizen, much less vote, be elected, and serve. Does that make Saudi Arabia racist?

Jordan some years ago passed its own brand of “The Law of Return,” in which it fast-tracks Palestinians to citizenship — unless they also happen to be Jewish. Does that make Jordan racist?

If you bought into the calumny, world, forget the hype and look at the facts.

If you are Jewish and have come to believe Zionism is an evil racist doctrine, visit Israel, walk down any street, and think long and hard about what you saw.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at www.shammai.org.