Amazon is currently offering a t-shirt, which has a quote that reads, “The Jews will never be able to live in Israel in peace because they left here black and came back white.” The quote is attributed to former President of Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser. In 1970, the Committee of Black Americans for Truth in the Middle East published a letter titled, “An appeal by Black Americans against United States support of the Zionist government of Israel.” The letter claimed, “that Israel, Rhodesia, and South Africa are three privileged white settler-states.” In 2016, Rachel Gilmer, the Chief of Strategy for Dream Defenders, stated, “Many liberal Zionists believe that the problem with Israeli apartheid is simply a few bad policies, or Netanyahu, or the wall, but the problem is with the ideological foundation of the state itself: Zionism. Zionism at its core is white supremacy.” In other words, these activists are making the accusation that Jewish people are all white, and that Zionism was created to be a white supremacist movement, in order to create a white settler state in the Middle East. However, there is no factual or historical basis to this claim.
In addition to being inaccurate, such a claim is incendiary, which is counterproductive to the greater cause of understanding and mutual respect.If these activists had made the claim that some of the early Ashkenazi Zionist leaders made derogatory comments against the Mizrahi, which is specific rather than general, then that would be an accurate statement. If they made the claim that there is less representation of Sefardi and Yemenite communities in the Israeli government, then that would also be an accurate statement. But, these activists are not making the claim that Israeli society has some flaws which can be improved. Instead, they are making a specific attack, which is that Israel was created to be a system which favors white people over people of color.
The claim that “Zionism at its core is white supremacy,” or that Israel is a “white settler-state” is not an abstract theory. It can be tested and verified by examining historical facts. For example, under the Jim Crow South there were laws which separated white people from black people. If Zionism at its core is white supremacy, then there should be arguments made by the early Zionist leaders that Israel had to be a white Jewish State, a legal definition of Judaism based on white skin color, and the presence of white Israeli segregation laws. But, none of these things exist; in fact, the entire claim is disconnected from reality and is completely false.
In addition, one of the problems with this criticism is that intra-Jewish racism does not perfectly translate to the normative pattern of white versus black racism. Being considered Jewish is not defined by skin color, so no one group of Jews can be seen as qualitatively different or outside the family. Also, the concepts of both “white” and “people of color” have two different meanings. The first usage of the words refers to skin color. Obviously, white people have light pigmentation, and people of color have darker pigmentation. The second usage of the term is political. When used as a political term, “white” refers to a status of undeserved privilege, and “people of color” refers to minorities and persecuted people. According to the political usage of the term, some people argue that even Jewish people who appear white should be classified as people of color, because they are a persecuted minority.
In 3,000 years of history the Jewish people have never used white as a criterion to be considered Jewish, nor did the Zionists.
The argument over whether Jews are a race, a religious group, or a nationality has been debated for quite some time. But, the difference between the words nationality, ethnicity, religious identity, and race are debated amongst sociologists. Sometimes the words are used interchangeably or sometimes with sharp distinctions depending on who is using them. In the Jewish Bible, Israelites are described as a nation. In Jewish religious law, which is called halacha (Hebrew: the way to walk) being considered Jewish passes through the mother. If someone has a Jewish mother, then he or she is considered legally Jewish.
After the destruction of the Temple, and later in the diaspora, the Jews under Catholic Europe were considered in some sense a nation within a nation. Professor Harry Ostrer explained in his book, “Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People,” that “Within those communities, Jews were linked by religion, customs, marriage and language. The designation ‘Jewish’ was limited by Jewish law to those whose mothers were Jewish.” For centuries, the Jewish people lived in separate communities and were never given full citizenship. Also, it was generally understood that Jewish people were descended from the Middle East, and not pure Europeans. However, the Enlightenment began to change their status as non-citizens among the European countries.
One of the guiding principles of the enlightenment was that everyone should be granted equal citizenship, that is, that they should be emancipated. The question remained if the Jewish people should be granted these same rights. One of the first visionaries of Jewish emancipation in Germany was Christian Wilhelm Dohm. In 1781, he wrote, “On the Civic Improvement of the Jews.” He explained, “In almost all parts of Europe the laws and the entire constitution of the state seek to prevent as much as possible any increase in the number of those unfortunate Asiatic refugees, the Jews. Should these hardworking and good citizens be less useful to the state because they come from Asia, because they differ from others in their beards, circumcision and the particular way of worshiping the supreme being they have inherited from their oldest ancestors?” When the Jews were offered citizenship they were faced with the question of whether Judaism was a nationality or a religion. This dilemma was articulated by French Nobleman, Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre, who stated in 1789, “The Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals.”
The Enlightenment pressured Jews to forfeit their national identity in order to become full citizens in the European countries where they lived. The question of whether Judaism was a religious identity or a national identity caused a split amongst the Jewish people. Orthodox Jews attempted to maintain the same definition, which is that they were a nation in exile. The Reform Movement split off from the Orthodox movement in Germany in the 1830s, and they argued that Judaism was just a religion. They officially renounced all claims to Jewish people being defined as a nation. In 1845, Reform Rabbi Samuel Holdheim stated, “Our nationality is now only expressed in religious concepts and institutions.” While the secular Zionists began to define Jewish people as primarily a national identification and not a religious identification.
Also during the Enlightenment, theories of racial classification were just beginning. The etymology of the word “race” was introduced into English in about 1580, from the Old French rasse, which means an identifiable group of people who share a common descent. During the Enlightenment, Carl Linnaeus developed his theories on the classification on animals. But, Linnaeus also developed a simple classification of human groups. In his book, “Systema Naturae,” (1767), he labeled four groups among Homo Sapiens; Americanus: red, Europeanus: white, Asiaticus: yellow, and Africanus: black.
Linnaeus did not use the word “race” in his writings. However, his attempt to scientifically classify groups of people in many ways led to the formation of modern racial theories. The question of racial theory was also affected by the European and American Slave trade, which attempted to define which groups of people should be considered slaves. In America, under the Naturalization Act of 1790, Jews were designated among the “free white persons” who could become citizens.
In 1853, a Frenchman named, Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, published a 1,400 page book called, “Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races.” Gobineau argued that there were three races; white, yellow, and black. The white race contained the Aryans, who were the epitome of beauty, intelligence, and strength. His book helped develop the theory of the superiority of the Aryan race. In 1859, Charles Darwin published, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.” Darwin’s book introduced the theory that animal populations evolve through a process of random variation and natural selection.
However, Darwin’s half-cousin, Francis Galton took the idea one step further and attempted to apply the theory of natural selection to human beings. Galton argued that human beings had the power to select traits for the best breeding amongst themselves. In 1883, Galton called his theory, “eugenics,” which means, “good birth.” Eugenics developed into a theory that human beings could alter the nature of populations by controlled breeding and the sterilization of the disabled. European and American scientists began to see eugenics as a concern of public health and welfare.
In the early 1900s, eugenics became quite popular as a scientific theory which would improve the genetic quality of the human population. The Holocaust began with the sterilization and clinical killings of German disabled people, which evolved into the attempt to exterminate the Jewish race. In the 1930s, the influential Nazi racial theorist Hans Gunther argued that Jews were the descendants of what he called the, “Hither Asiatic,” race, which came from Asia Minor and the Levant. He explained that Jews were a mix of the Hither Asiatic and Oriental races, “the foundation of the Jewish nation are… the Hither Asiatic and the Oriental.” He also explained that, “in the Jewish people as a whole there are always somatic and psychological characteristics recurring.” In other words, Gunther argued that the Jews were from the Middle East, and that they had somatic, or bodily differences from the Aryans.
According to the Jewish Virtual library, “Hitler’s regime touted the ‘Nordic race’ as its eugenic ideal and attempted to mold Germany into a cohesive national community that excluded anyone deemed hereditarily ‘less valuable’ or ‘racially foreign.’” The Nazis concluded that Jews were a race. In the Nazi booklet, “The Jew as World Parasite,” the Nazis declared, “The first and greatest lie, that Jewry is not a racial question, but a religion, inevitably leads to further lies.” The Jews were descended from the Middle East, with Asiatic features, and therefore a threat to inbreeding with the great Aryan race. In the end, the Holocaust revealed the horrors of the eugenics movement, and afterwards the eugenics movement was irredeemably tainted.
Before the Holocaust there were even a tiny handful of Jewish scientists who had advocated for the benefits of eugenics. The early Zionists were fully aware of the debate about the superiority of racial skin color and eugenics. In 1948, Israel was created as a state. The Zionists wanted to form a Jewish state. They had to pick a definition of what it meant to be a Jew, or a criterion to be granted citizenship. The Zionists could look back on 3,500 years of Jewish history to choose criteria to become a Jewish citizen. They also had a couple of centuries of debate by Jews and non-Jews about whether Jews were a race or a religion. In the end, in 1950, the Zionists effectively chose to define Jewish identity as coming from the mother, or the Orthodox religious definition of a Jewish person, which comes directly from the Bible. The Zionists settled the question and created the “Law of Return.” The law states, “Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh (a citizen).” In 1970, the law was modified to include those with Jewish ancestry on the father or grandfather’s side, as well as converts to Judaism.
In the first half of the 20th century it was common to focus on skin color, race, and eugenics. The Enlightenment had started the question of racial theories, the European slave trade caused further debate on the issue, the Americans created Jim Crow laws, and the Holocaust was the culmination of the eugenics movement. And yet, the Zionists did not choose one single skin color to define a Jewish person as the basis of the Jewish state. A Jew did not have to be white in order to become a citizen of the Jewish state. Instead, a Jew could be any color. In a sense, it is incredible that Israel emerged with so little focus on skin color given the era of its creation.
It is true that there was a level of Ashkenazi racism directed at Mizrahi Jews; however, when Rachel Gilmer makes the claim that, “Zionism at its core is white supremacy,” there is no factual or historical basis to it. In three thousand years of history the Jewish people have never used white as a criterion to be considered Jewish, nor did the Zionists. Perhaps even more ironic is that Gilmer has a Jewish mother and an African American father. She even participated in Young Judaea, a Zionist youth group. She is fully aware that she is eligible to become a citizen. She is a living contradiction to her own claim, and she can become a citizen based on her mother, not based on being white.
Lastly, it should be noted, that there is one reference to the natural skin color of Israelites in the the Mishna, the primary source of Jewish law, which was composed about 2,000 years ago. In the chapter which deals with Negaim, or skin blemishes, there is a discussion about how to identify the discoloration of the blemish compared to the natural skin color. The Mishna analyzes the skin color of the German, Ethiopian, and the Israelite. Rabbi Ishmael says that the children of Israel, “are like boxwood, neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.” Rabbi Ishmael concludes that the proper skin tone of the Jewish people is the color of wood.
Dr. Joshua Kulp summarizes, “Rabbi Ishmael says that we use the skin of Israelites, which is dark but not black.” The foundational text of Jewish law actually mentions that the most natural color skin for Jewish people is brown, rather than white. But, of course, skin color is not a necessary condition to be considered Jewish. In conclusion, within Judaism, Zionism, and The of State Israel, skin color is not the basis of being considered Jewish. Israel is the Nation State of the Jewish people; it is not the nation state of white Jewish people.
Finally, it should also be mentioned that Jews are often hated for two mutually contradictory ideas. For example, Jews were hated for being the evil bourgeois exploiters and at the same time for spreading communism. The same thing might be true in the case of the accusations leveled by these activists. The Nazi ideal criterion of an Aryan was someone of northern European descendant, with pale skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes. Jewish people were seen as inferior because they descended from the Middle East, and they had supposed Middle Eastern features, such as hooked noses. One of the reasons that Nazis murdered the Jews was for not living up to the standards of the ideal (white) Aryan.
In other words, 80 years ago, the Nazis murdered the Jewish people for being from the Middle East and for not having Aryan-European-white features. In a complete turn of argument, these activists are claiming the polar opposite, which is that Jews are not from the Middle East, or European colonialists, and that the Jewish State is a white supremacist state. The reality is that Israel was not founded to benefit white people; it was founded to give Jewish people their freedom.