Open Zion

08.08.13

Israeli Mayor: If I'm Racist, So Is Israel

The recent brouhaha over comments made by Upper Nazareth mayor Shimon Gapso has intensified with a tongue-in-cheek op-ed Gapso published yesterday in Haaretz. Of course, anti-Zionists—for an array of reasons (moral, ethical, hateful or ignorant)—have long charged Israel’s governing ideology with being racist at its core. So is Gapso any more racist than Zionism would predict from a holder of public office in Israel?

Gapso first came under fire for campaign posters declaring that “Upper Nazareth will be Jewish forever; no more shutting our eyes, no more grabbing on to the law allowing every citizen to live where he wants. This is the time to defend our home.” And, "I will not allow the city’s Jewish character to be changed. I will block the establishment of an Arab school and will build neighborhoods for Jewish residents ... Upper Nazareth is a Jewish city!"

Defenders of Israel will be quick to point to the fact that Israel has the kind of vibrant civil society that would lead two human rights organizations to demand that the attorney general investigate Gapso, and that the Israeli media would in turn report on the saga. These Israel defenders would use these facts to try to demonstrate that Israel’s democracy is alive and well. As appealing as that line of argument is to many (full disclosure: I have been the target of such comments on my blog in that same Israeli daily), it’s distracting from the issues.

In some ways, it’s a blogger’s dream when a public figure doesn’t deny a label thrust on him (on charges of racism, Gapso may be all the wiser thanks to the musical Avenue Q), but instead cuts right to the chase: if he’s a racist, so is the entire Zionist project.

In addition to railing against “flaky types,” “hypocrisy and bleeding-heart sanctimoniousness,” Gapso defends his beliefs by breathlessly journeying from supposed divine promises granted to Abraham, to the title of Herzl’s tract, to Balfour, Ben-Gurion and the U.N., to the character of the kibbutz project, to the lyrics of Hatikvah. In a final flourish, he suggests that if “not for all that 'racism,' it’s doubtful we could live here, and doubtful that we could live at all.”

There are two sets of claims here, what we might call the push factors and pull factors of the Zionist project. The first set, the push factors, suggest that without Israel, Jews worldwide would be subject to mass genocide. Such an assumption implies that little has changed since 1945. Surely Israel provides a key safety net in the eyes of many. In the eyes of others, Israel’s policies make its existence a liability for Jewish welfare. And still others focus on Israel as being necessary less as a refuge from anti-Semitism as much as the reinvigoration of world Jewry in the ways Zionism imagined—physically, spiritually, intellectually and culturally.

But those pull factors also suggest a darker side, the side of ethno-nationalism. Hardline Zionists like to emphasize that Israel should not be compared to the multicultural landscape of Canada or to the melting pot of America. Jewish nationalism at root implies a certain exclusionary quality, they argue. And maybe Gapso is right. Maybe it is the sheltered liberals who are trying to have their Tea Nana and drink it too. Perhaps Zionism should be recognized for what it is: an experiment in Jewish nationalism that is unavoidably exclusionary.

But for the sake of a vibrant, healthy and democratic society, one would hope that a mayor, focused as he should be on issues of urban space, parks, greenery, theatres, libraries, general liveability, and everyday community, would be able to rise above the chauvinism that is inherent in nationalism, rather than fuel the fire of inter-communal divisions. If we can bracket for a moment the sorts of fundamental protections of Jewish culture and identity that are intrinsic to having a Jewish state, shouldn’t we try? But then maybe that’s too much to ask.