The many articles like Yousef Munayyer's asking just how racist is Zionism echo the classic loaded question, "when did you stop beating your wife"?
Supporters of Israel are forced to start backpedaling immediately, and frequently, unthinkingly, defensively, confirm too many unfair assumptions built into the question. I have no need to defend Aaron David Miller or his New York Times op-ed worrying about Israel's demographics. I am not an Israeli WASP—a White Ashkenazi Sabra with Protekzia (connections), nor am I an American Jewish WASP, a Washington Peace Processor. Moreover, we at the Engaging Israel project of the Shalom Hartman Institute reject the whole Demography of Fear industry. As educators and as activists we believe in inculcating collective values and educating individuals, not in counting which groups at what scale threaten society.
Still, Munayyer's use of Miller's article to repudiate the Zionist project as racist raises recurring issues that should be addressed.
First, using the terms "racist" and "racism" is inaccurate and inflammatory. The racism charge was launched with great force into the Middle East by Soviet propagandists in the 1970s, particularly with the UN General Assembly's infamous 1975 Zionism is Racism resolution. This was an attempt to charge Israel, Zionism and the Jewish people with the most heinous of crimes, crimes that in Nazi Germany, South Africa and the American south—on different scales of course—immorally judged human beings' worthiness, and sometimes even their rights to live, on the basis of specious biological differences, especially skin color.
That is not what is going on in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That conflict pivots on a set of national and ethnic distinctions which most of the world is more comfortable making. In a world of nation states that are frequently built on ethnic and tribal differences, we acknowledge that membership in one group or polity can affect the distribution of certain rights among human beings. We also acknowledge that one valid role of a nation state is to preserve, affirm, and transmit a culture and certain collective values, not just to protect individuals.
Applying these abstractions to reality, we note that:
A. Certain countries, particularly the United States and Canada, live by a from of civic nationalism, which focuses more on the relationship between individuals and the nation, although even in those two countries the rise of multiculturalism has led to discussion, awareness and sometimes even assigning of group rights.B. Most countries represent a form of ethnic nationalism, using some vision of solidarity as the foundation for national unity and seeking to celebrate certain ethnic values in the nation's public space.
C. Most Arab countries are on the high end of the scale of ethnic sensibility and the low end of the scale reflecting social tolerance, diversity, or fluidity.
D. Israel is a hypbrid. Israel's Declaration of Independence establishes it as a Jewish state but also articulates civic aspirations, offering all its "inhabitants" equal rights.
Yes, there is a tension between the desire to keep Israel as a Jewish state—whatever Jewish means—and its civic aspirations. But all democracies navigate key tensions such as the tug of war between majority rule and minority rights. Just because two goods or two rights are in tension, it does not mean that one should negate the other.
Tragically, many critics use Israel's civic, democratic aspirations as truncheons against the Jewish state, without noticing the exclusivity and rigidity of so many other countries, neighboring and otherwise.
I want Israel to keep pushing in both directions. I want Israel to be democratic, welcoming, broad-minded, giving all its citizens full rights and dignity. I also want Israel to be an ideal Jewish state, celebrating and redefining Jewish culture, embodying and enriching Jewish values, epitomizing and stretching the best Jewish ideals. Categorical "ahas" like Munayyer's, implicitly saying, "you see, I told you the Zionist project was worthless" don't help. We need to fight the ethnocentrism that is an unfortunate byproduct of ethnic pride—especially at a time of ethnic and national conflict.
I am appalled by the "lynch" of Arabs in Zion Square, the racist rabbis of Tzfat, the yahoos who do not appreciate Israel's delicate and diverse democratic dance. But to defeat them, we need a more nuanced, open, sophisticated and forgiving dialogue that seeks to find the right balance, forge the Golden Path, so that Israel can be what its founders wanted it to be a democratic Jewish state, protecting Jews, preserving Jewish tradition, opening up Jewish life and embracing all its inhabitants. Achieving that goal requires better education, clearer ideologies, sharper visions—and a constructive push for values neither counting one group of citizens as the "good" kind or repudiating the Zionist project itself.