In a piece titled “Zionism, Pan-Africanism, and White Nationalism,” author Shaul Magid argues that because Zionism was a “lodestar for other minority attempts to solve the problem of the limits of ethnic self-determination,” it is, therefore a racialized movement that can offer freedom but never equality.
There are several problems with his analysis, which I will attempt to explain in full below.
Magid correctly points out how Zionism was a model for the beleaguered African-American community, beginning with Pan-Africanist Edward Blyden’s feeling of inspiration after reading Theodore Herzl’s Der Judenstaadt. The twin messages of self-empowerment and chosenness proved especially compelling to a people constantly told by the dominant society that they were less than nothing and attracted black leaders from W.E.B. Dubois and Marcus Garvey to Stokley Carmichael.
But in many ways, this is where the similarities end. Although a message of self-actualization and unique destiny are part of the Zionist creed, there are other ideas within statist Zionism that make it incompatible with the notions of racial purity contained in Marcus Garvey and Louis Farrakhan’s Black Nationalism.
For starters, while Zionism concerns itself with a particular ethnic group, it does not concern itself with a particular race insofar as race connotes skin color. And this speaks to the inherent contradictions within the very concept of black nationalism. On the one hand, a call for black nationalism via a separatist movement would naturally be attractive to a people persecuted by the dominant society. On the other hand, the black experience is, ironically and paradoxically, an American creation. The shared history, culture, and collective experience of black Americans is one that is bounded by and fixed within an American construct. In this way, black American culture cannot be separated from its American roots, and calls for black nationalism are rooted in an unsolvable contradiction.
It would be very difficult, for example, to imagine a coherent pan-black identity persisting within a successful back-to-Africa movement because such a movement would require shedding the Americanness, which is the foundation for group coherence in the first place. Now, I personally sympathize deeply with pan-African movements because I understand and empathize with their underlying spirit. It is a yearning for the lost wholeness of a stolen past. But there is a fallacy in pan-African movements: namely the notion that the “black” experience expressed through racial consciousness forms the basis of nationhood. But in truth, It’s only in the diaspora that a shared black experience developed. Before being expelled from Africa, there was no concept of black national consciousness; there were, rather, multiple African identities rooted in particular traditions and customs. Thus the very concept of a singular “black nation” is a product of diaspora and cannot exist without it. If, say, a significant percentage of the black community did make the move to go back to Ghana, it is highly likely that those members would, over time, assimilate into Ghanaian culture rather than maintain their own American one. There is no set of rituals, customs, or laws that have been maintained since antiquity by black Americans before we arrived shackled in chains on America’s shores. Any such traditions were lost in the wreckage of slavery.
In contrast, since the first Passover Seder, Jews have recited, “Remember you were slaves in Egypt.” The tradition predates the existence of America and thus the identity of the Jewish community is not defined by nor bound by the existence of America. Jews have a collective historical memory, national consciousness and spiritual tradition that predates the existence of the diaspora. It predates it because the Jews are a nation.
And this is perhaps the most important point that challenges Magid’s analysis. Skin color does not a nation make. Regardless of the inspiration some in the black American community took from certain concepts in statist Zionism, there is a reason why W.E.B. Dubois was more astute in his interpretation of how Zionism could apply to the black community than Marcus Garvey: The concept of self-empowerment was relevant to our community and was implemented through such organizations as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; the concept of nationalism was not.
It’s also worth pointing out another obvious contradiction: Zionism aimed to liberate all Jews and Jews come in all colors. Thus the nation-state bill which the author derides as ethnocentric proclaims the country of Israel to be Jewish—and this includes white Jews, brown Jews, black Jews, Jews from Yemen, from Poland, from Russia, from Ethiopia and from all over the world. What binds the community transcends skin color.
Moreover, it’s worth asking if the nation-state bill is really as monumental as the author claims it to be. While the challenge of ensuring civil rights for minority groups in a Jewish state is a real one, as it is in any nation-state, it’s easier to solve there than it is in a nation-state based upon skin color.
Thus, in the same year Israel declared itself to be Jewish, it also unveiled a plan to pump billions into neglected Arab areas of East Jerusalem. Called the Leading Change program, its purpose is to “reduce the huge social gaps between the Palestinian neighborhoods and the overwhelmingly Jewish west part of the city.” An estimated NIS 2 billion is slated to be invested in “education, infrastructure and helping Palestinian women enter the workforce.”
The same government of Israel that declared that the state was Jewish passed Resolution 922 in 2015, a groundbreaking plan to earmark “20 percent of each ministry’s budget” for the Arab, Druze, and Circassian communities “with the express purpose of maximizing the economic potential of these populations.” It’s worth quoting a summary of this program in full so that readers understand its full impact:
In all, 2.4 billion shekels ($680 million) were allocated to the Arab population in this way in 2016, including increased funding for the 10 Arab business advancement centers, including Fadi Swidan’s in Nazareth, among many others known by the Hebrew acronym Maof, which also means ‘takeoff.’ Among 922’s incentives is a government pledge to fund thirty months of salaries for new Arab employees if the company hires five or more workers from this population. Over five years, there will be new direct government investment of an estimated 90 million shekels (about $25.6 million) in small and medium-sized Arab businesses.
If this is ethnocentrism, it is nothing like the ideology of white nationalist Jared Taylor who, as the author admits, believes that “diversity and integration have exacerbated and not solved racial problems in America.” Thus when Taylor said in 2017 “what you have made in Israel is what I want to make in America,” quite frankly, he didn’t know what he was talking about.
And this is precisely the difference between a nationalism based upon concepts that transcend race and a nationalism rooted in it. The former is far more flexible in being able to envision a society in which universalist aspirations of minority civil rights are honored even within a particularist framework. Indeed, one could argue that that particularist framework is what gives rise to the universalist aspiration in the first place. As Rav Soloveitchik once stated, “out of the particular lies the universal.”
None of this is to say that the work to reconcile the tensions between minority communities and a majority population is easy. And there are parochial trends within Israeli society that threaten the move for further integration and cooperation between the communities. But the trend is real, and thus the attempt to compare nationalisms built on racial purity with Zionism is shortsighted, and a mistaken reading both of Zionism’s historical foundations and its contemporary lived reality.