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Zionism, Pan-Africanism, and White Nationalism

What we learn about Israel’s ethnocentrism by looking at groups inspired by Zionism

Shaul Magid
December 12, 2018
Photo: AFP/Getty Images
29 November 1947, Tel Aviv Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Photo: AFP/Getty Images
29 November 1947, Tel Aviv Photo: AFP/Getty Images

The law calledIsrael as the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” also known as the Israeli Nation-State Law, which was passed by the Knesset last July and defines Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” has raised serious concerns among political scientists, legal experts, and liberal Zionists, even as it has been celebrated by many of those on the Israeli right. Is this law the fulfillment of Zionism, or its demise? The term “Zionism” itself, and thus the question, is fraught, since Zionism is an ideology that has been at war with itself since its inception. Which Zionism are we speaking about? Taken at face value, the law seems unproblematic, as that was what many different kinds of Zionism held from the start. But when that idea is made part of the Basic Law of the country, problems arise: 25 percent of Israeli citizens are not Jews and thus find themselves outside the raison d’être of a legally defined ethnocentric state, or what Israeli scholar Oren Yiftachel calls an “ethnocracy.”

Why is this a problem? For example, while we can say colloquially that America is a “Christian country” (over 90 percent of American citizens are at least ancestrally Christian), Congress does not codify that idea into law. And I would assume American Jews would feel somewhat uncomfortable with such legislation. The de facto notion of Israel as a state of the Jews is not the same thing as altering Israel’s Basic Law to say as much. Two questions one could ask are: (1) What does this new law do to the present reality of statist Zionism (not all Zionism was statist, but arguably today all Zionism is statist)—that is, what kind of state now exists in light of it? And (2) Is legally binding ethnocentrism the natural fulfillment of an earlier form of Zionism that has now dominated the discourse? Or, is this an aberration of statist Zionism?

One way to get at these questions is to explore them not from the perspective of Zionism’s own self-definition or justification, but rather by asking how Zionism has been viewed by others who adopted it for their own movements of self-determination. Yes, Zionism has been the most significant experiment in Jewish modernity. For a beleaguered people frustrated with the failure of emancipation to resolve the perennial problem of persecution in Europe and fueled by an age-old hope of returning to their ancestral land, the Jews’ creation of an ethnocentric Jewish nation-state seemed, in the heyday of colonialism, like a viable solution to maximize collective flourishing and safety. Yet while the Zionist experiment may have been the most successful one in the contemporary politics of ethnocentricity, it was not the only one, and perhaps not even the first one, in modernity. Nor is it the last.

In fact, long before the state’s existence, Zionism became the exemplar of ethnocentric politics, and it was used as a lodestar for other minority attempts to solve the problem of the limits of ethnic self-determination. This is not because Zionism was an example of ethnonationality—that was quite common in Western Europe at the time. Rather, it was an ethnocentric nationalism born from a people who were separated from their land. It was a diasporic ethnonationality with aspirations of unification with land to cultivate cultural and political sovereignty. Thus, it served as a model for other minorities in such an “exilic” situation, who experience loss and view nationalism as a salve, if not a resolution, for that loss.

Zionism is multivalent, and to speak of it as a monolith does not do justice to its complexity. But Joseph Klausner, one of the leading Zionists in Russia in the early 20th century, expressed a common Zionist sentiment when he wrote in Hashiloah in 1907 that “the most basic foundation of the [Zionist] view of the world is that the Jewish people requires a state of its own because it cannot develop as a proper nation outside its land.” David Engel notes in an essay “Israel’s Polish Heritage” that Klausner “regarded[ed] the mononational state, not the multinational federation, as the ideal form of political organization.”

Here, I discuss two examples of Zionism outside Judaism: Black Zionism and White Zionism. Black Zionism has its roots before the formal advent of Zionism: in the Pan-African writings of William Blyden and Martin Delaney, and then later in W.E.B Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Stokely Carmichael. White Zionism is a new phenomenon, taken up by some in the alt-right such as Richard Spencer, Jared Taylor and to some extent Steve Bannon, each arguing from the perspective that white Christians are losing, or have lost, their majority status and privilege in America. I argue that all three “Zionisms”—Jewish, black, and white—are ethnically, or racially, based and promote the notion of a renewed society, lost in the real or mythic past, that can only be maintained by means of ethnic dominance; I argue that they can offer religious and racial freedom but never offer equality.

In other words, while the Nation-State Law’s legally binding ethnocentrism may not have been inevitable, and certainly is affected by external forces, its basic principle lies at the root of the Zionism as it has been understood by non-Jews who adopted its basic tenets. The point of my investigation is to consider the possible structural changes in statist Zionism after the law—or consider how the law simply codifies that which was always contained in Zionism—by examining how others have viewed Zionism as an exemplar for their own ethnocentric nationalistic projects. To do this, one must refuse to see Zionism as an exceptional, or better, form of ethnocentrism, and look at problems that arise from its ethnocentric foundation—one that other minorities viewed positively, often with problematic results that include a critique of Zionism itself.


Israel (especially after 1967), Pan-Africanism, and White Nationalist Americanism (also America First-ism) are three examples of societal visions in which power is determined by race. This is certainly how black Pan-Africanists and Black Nationalists, and later White Nationalists, understood Zionism, which is why each was so attracted to the Jewish experiment even as, in both cases, their attitudes toward Jews were ambivalent at best and negative at worst. I would add, too, that each case holds itself to an exceptional status often articulated through the category of chosenness: from biblical Israel’s divine election to White America’s Manifest Destiny, to Pan-Africanist theories of black superiority, based on the notion that Africa is the seat of human civilization, articulated by people such as Marcus Garvey and Elijah Mohammad. Race is thus not a neutral category, but one that determines destiny.

The notion of American blacks returning to Africa, or Pan-Africanism, extends back before the advent of Zionism or Black Nationalism. West Indian-born Edward Blyden wrote about it as a resolution to the slavery question in the 1850s, focusing on the newly founded country of Liberia in 1847. Blyden had no particular ideology of Black Nationalism and viewed colonizing Liberia in the way proto-Zionists in the 19th century viewed Jewish immigration to Palestine, as a return to the homeland (although Blyden did not have the messianic tenor of some Jewish proto-Zionists or later Pan-Africanists). Blyden published The Jewish Question, a pamphlet, in 1898 (underwritten by his Jewish friend from Liverpool, Louis Solomon), two years after the publication of Herzl’s Der Judenstaadt, which Blyden read and admired. In 1903, a year before Herzl’s death, Blyden noted in a lecture “West African Problems,” using a biblical metaphor, that the idea of the black colonization of Africa “give[s] to the African the fullest opportunity for self-development and self-advancement.” Blyden viewed Zionism as a model for his idea, coining the term “Ethiopianism” and calling on blacks to return to Africa to redeem it. In The Jewish Question, Blyden writes, “The Jewish question, in some respects, is similar to that which at this moment agitates thousands of descendants of Africa in America, anxious to return to the land of their fathers.”

Virginia-born Martin Delany went further, specifically viewing a return to Africa as the solution to the problem of the integration of blacks after slavery. Using a more direct biblical metaphor to describe his immigration plan in an 1852 essay “Emigration of the Colored People of the United States,” Delany writes:

This we see in the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt to the land of Judea … This may be acknowledged; but to advocate the emigration of the colored people of the United States from their native homes, is a feature of our history, and at first view, may be considered objectionable, as pernicious to our interests. This objection is once removed, when reflection on our condition … And we shall proceed at once to give the advantages to be derived from emigration, to us as a people, in preference to any other policy that we may adopt.

This idea reached a wider audience in W.E.B. Du Bois, who coined the term “Black Zionism” to describe his Pan-Africanism. Du Bois openly stated, “The African movement must mean to us what the Zionist movement must mean to the Jews, the centralization of race effort and the recognition of a racial front.” Du Bois, an ardent fan of Zionism, pinpointed the racial component in Zionism that many overlooked.

But there is an important distinction between Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, whose “Black Zionism” is founded on an anti-integrationist platform that carries with it a “purity of race” theory, one that shows up again in Elijah Mohammad of the Nation of Islam and Black Panther Stokely Carmichael, and can be seen in some circles of Zionism as well. Advocating for the “New Negro” in the 1920s, the same time Zionism was calling for the “New Jew,” Garvey said, “We are going home after a long vacation, and we are giving notice to the tenant to get out. If he doesn’t there is such a thing as forcible rejection.” In 1918, after he founded his newspaper Negro World, Garvey cabled Lord Balfour and asked him to do for the blacks what he had done for the Jews. While Garvey, like Herzl, did not think all blacks, or all Jews, would emigrate to Africa or Palestine, he does make the arguments of ownership, racial self-determination, and empire. In an article in The New York Times, on Aug. 3, 1920, Garvey writes

We do not desire what has belonged to others though others have sought to deprive us of that which belongs to us … If Europe is for Europeans, Africa shall be for the black peoples of the world.

The notion of ownership constituted a basic Zionist principle of what Chaim Gans calls “proprietary Zionism,” the notion that “the Jewish people has had its right of ownership of the Land of Israel, its outside and inside, its entire territory and its political institution, since antiquity.” Garvey’s race-purity and anti-integrationist ideology put him at odds with Du Bois. But it was later adopted by Malcolm X, whose 1963 “Coffee and Cream,” in Detroit, famously articulated that integration weakens and dilutes blackness.

Garvey was an imperialist, and the Pan-African movement in his wake was an imperialist movement, calling for the reconstruction of an African Empire, the liberation of land, and a society based on racial homogeneity. It is for these reasons that he found Zionism so amenable. Garvey felt that there was no future for black people in America; the racism was too deep to overcome, and black pride could only be cultivated with a renewed African Empire, on its own soil, even if all blacks did not emigrate there. And thus he received support from the Ku Klux Klan, which agreed with Garvey—as did Major Ernest Sevier Cox, whose 1923 polemic, White America argued for the separation of the races and argued integration would destroy America. Just as some Nazis viewed Zionism as a solution to the “Jewish Question” in Europe, some Klansmen supported Garvey’s Pan-Africanism. More recently, as noted below, Cox’s ideas get revived in Jared Taylor’s White Identity: Racial Consciousness in the 21st Century, along with Richard Spencer’s “White Zionism,” both linking racial homogeneity and anti-integration in America with Zionist ideology.

Once we reach Stokely Carmichael and the Black Power Movement in the mid-1960s, we see Pan-Africanism used as an expression of power in response to the failure of rights. In his 1969 essay “Pan-Africanism—Land and Power,” Carmichael argues that there are two types of oppression: exploitation and colonization. The first is largely economic and is not racially based. The second, colonization, is the process of destroying a person’s culture, history, identity, and ultimately humanity. This, he argues, is the experience of the black person in America, and, many Jews argued, was also the fate of Jews in the diaspora. Civil rights for blacks does not solve this problem but, in his mind, exacerbates it. And integration diminishes rather than strengthens the status of the black person, by forcing him or her to accommodate to white society, which, for Carmichael, is racist at its core.

Pan-Africanism, for Carmichael, isn’t simply Black Nationalism; it is about blackness and the survival of black identity, the way for many Jews Zionism is not solely about a Jewish state but about the resurgence of a positive Jewish identity. Echoing Zionism, Carmichael says, “If black people in the States say ‘Where are we from?’ they must wind up in Africa. One must know one’s beginnings, who one is, before one knows where one is going.” (In true Zionist fashion, Carmichael changed his name to Kwame Ture and moved, in 1969, to Guinea, where he spent the last 30 years of his life.) The true engine of power is not rights but land. “We need a land base. … In the final analysis all revolutions are based on land. The best place, it seems to me, and the quickest place that we can attain land is Africa. … We need a base that can be used for black liberation, a land what we can say belongs to us.”

As with much of Zionism, land is not the end of a process but the center of a movement. Once a collective has land, it can “demonstrate our willingness to fight for our people wherever they are oppressed. … I believe that people basically defend their own kind. … In the Middle East they did it even in 1967 with Israel.” It is from an ethnocentric polity that one can successfully maximize one’s influence beyond one’s borders to protect one’s ethnos, or race, through sovereignty and autonomy.

More important for our concerns, Jews active during the rise of Black Nationalism often compared it to Zionism. Reform Rabbi Allan Levine, a Freedom Rider who was also at the Selma March in 1965, compared black militancy with early Zionism, as did Shad Polier, a lawyer, civil rights activist and member of the executive board of the American Jewish Congress. Speaking directly about Carmichael, who was not viewed positively by most Jews, prominent rabbi and historian Arthur Hertzberg nevertheless claimed that “Carmichael’s was the most radical kind of Negro Zionism,” and “what Carmichael is asserting is Zionist in more fundamental aspects than the anger it is expressing.” Reform rabbi and ardent Zionist Roland Gittelson wrote, “The Black Power advocate is the Negro’s Zionism … Africa is his Israel.” His colleague Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins noted, “Black Power is nothing more and nothing less than Negro Zionism” (see Marc Dollinger, Black Power and Jewish Politics).

My point here is simply to note that even as most Zionists viewed Zionism as a kind of Jewish exceptionalism, a unique blueprint for a nation-state, some Jews in the 1960s readily saw the similarities between Zionism and Black Power, and they were not afraid to acknowledge it openly. As Du Bois had argued decades earlier, both Zionism and Pan-Africanism contain a racial component at the center of their programs. Whether that racialism becomes racist depends in large part on the role race plays in the construction of that ethnocentric polity.


Which brings me to the more vexing case of White Zionism. Jared Taylor’s White Identity (2011) is perhaps the most comprehensive case for contemporary white anti-integrationism. Taylor’s argument focuses on what he claims is the failure of diversity, founded on people’s innate desire to live amongst their own kind. He argues that diversity, and integration, have exacerbated and not solved racial problems in America. One could disagree with his findings, but his argument is worth considering, as he quotes a plethora of data to make his case, and his case is not that different from that of Black Zionists like Garvey and Carmichael. Taylor does mention Israel briefly to support his anti-integrationist case, writing, “Israel, likewise, is determined to remain a Jewish state because Israelis know they cannot have the same Israel with different people. In 2010, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved tough measures to deport illegal immigrants, calling them ‘a threat to the character of the country.’” When white nationalist Richard Spencer said to the Israeli public, in an Israeli TV interview in 2017, “You should support me because what you have made in Israel is what I want to make in America,” he was promulgating a similar sentiment.

Often deemed a racist—I think he is one; he is certainly a racialist—Taylor claims to be writing from the precipice where whites are becoming a minority in America. He writes, “At what point would it be legitimate for whites to act in their own group interests? When they become a minority? When they are no more than 30 percent of the population? Ten percent?” In effect, Taylor wants to make whiteness into a marked racial identity, like blackness. Sarcastically, he writes, “Whites—but only whites—must never take pride in their own people. Only whites must pretend they do not associate with people like themselves … Racial identity comes naturally to all non-white groups. It comes naturally because it is good, normal, and healthy to feel kinship for people like oneself … For their survival as a distinct people with a distinct culture, whites must recognize something all others take for granted: that race is a fundamental part of individual and group identity.”

Such sentiment comes from a community in fear of its loss of majority power and privilege. Taylor understands diversity and integration in an inverse way to Malcolm X, but ends up in a similar place. For Malcolm, integration whitens the black, like cream to coffee, in his metaphor. For Taylor, diversity dilutes, and disempowers, whiteness because diversity celebrates racial difference, and white people, according to Taylor, have no race—or rather, they have no racial consciousness, and they thus have no way to counter the impact diversity is having on (white) America. All they have, I would add, is power, but as a soon-to-be minority, that power is diminishing, and they have no recourse to reclaim it. This, I suggest, is part of why Trump’s message of “America first” (really “white America first”) resonates so strongly with his base. The anxiety is real, even as the reaction may be destructive. The anti-diversity claim of “wanting to be with one’s own” (which both many Zionist Jews and many Black Nationalists have made in various ways), Taylor couples with a claim that America was also envisioned as a white country (as, e.g., Thomas Jefferson stated openly). Thus, for Taylor, the secret of America’s success is now being undermined by the diminishing of its whiteness.

Taylor’s desire is not simply to instill a race consciousness in whites but also to reclaim America as a white Protestant country, where whites will share this land with others as long as they retain control of its destiny. And it is here, I claim, that Zionism serves as a template for people like Taylor and Spencer. As the Klan and white supremacist Cox supported Garvey’s Pan-Africanism, Taylor and Spencer like Zionism. And the justification for Zionism, its focus on the Jewishness of the state, its ethnonationality, now legally enshrined in the Nation-State Law, is precisely the racial dominance people like Taylor and Spencer are looking for.

Jews, especially in America, do not have a problem with integration. Most like it. But they do have a problem with assimilation. As Marshall Sklare noted in his essay “Jewish Acculturation and American Jewish Identity” (1978), it is an open question whether acculturation (or integration) can ultimately fend off assimilation for American Jews—a question that was raised yet anew with the 2013 Pew Poll on the state of American Jewry. On the other hand, many Jews in Israel do have a problem with integration (with the Arab population) and prefer a society where both groups, the majority Jews and minority Arabs, develop their own cultural lives separate from one another. But politically, and legally, the Nation-State Law assures Jewish dominance and preference in a way that makes perennial inequality unavoidable. In a recent New Yorker essay, “Netanyahu’s Inflammatory New Bill,” Bernard Avishai put the choice bluntly, asking if Israel will be “a Hebrew Republic or a little Jewish Pakistan”? Decades before, Martin Buber similarly wondered whether Israel would become a center for humanity or “a Jewish Albania.”

It is certainly true that post-Nation-State Law Zionism is not the only Zionism that exists. There is cultural Zionism, of course, and there are infinite varieties of gentler, less land-grabby Zionism. But it is less clear, given the victory of statist Zionism that goes back to David Ben-Gurion’s deal with Jacob Blaustein at the Biltmore Hotel in 1942, and extends to the Nation-State Law in 2018, whether there is a constituency left for a statist option that leaves open the possibility of a nonethnocentric polity. Many in Israel and the diaspora disagree with the current statist vision. But is not simply about what people think; it is about the available options, given the structures that have been put into place. Oren Yiftachel argues that “ethnocracy” is a political structure that ensures perennial minority resistance, because the minority is always treated unequally yet is part of a quasi-democratic system that enables them to resist. Black Nationalism and White Nationalism illustrate the ways in which others viewed Zionism as an exemplar of ethnocentric self-determination based on racial dominance. We can focus on how each example differs from the Jewish case and, in doing so, ease our discomfort, or we can explore how they are similar, and face the realities of our collective choices and the options they raise.


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Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.