I am a person of the left and have been ever since I was a girl and Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers or maybe it began when the Rosenbergs were executed and I knew a great lynching had occurred or maybe it was the photos of Auschwitz that I saw in Life magazine that made it clear I was one of those inside the fence not those waving at passing trains. That is why today the phrase “Zionism is Racism” sends shivers down my spine and sets my teeth to grinding.
Zionism is not about race. It is a nationalism. It makes a claim for the Jewish people that they are a folk like other folk and entitled to a land of their own just like the French have France and the English have England and the Bulgarians have Bulgaria. Nations have histories and the Jews have a history, long and eventful, rich in creative moments, overflowing with sorrowful memories, complete with documents, music, stories, language and also religion, and a religious memory of temples bygone and exiles endured and architecture described and columns buried in the soil and a millennium dream of return.
This dream of return, this next year in Jerusalem, existed long before the Holocaust. It existed before Herzl and the Zionists of the century before last had ever taken their first breath. It is a dream sunk deep into the Seder ritual, “Next Year in Jerusalem.” This vision of an end to exile kept the Jews together and brought them hope through the years spent in Babylon millennia ago when the texts that form our memory were edited and scrolls were connected and ordered into a lasting canon.
Sense was made of Jewish misfortune through a vivid if perhaps dubious belief in God’s punishment and eventual forgiveness. If the disasters that befell the Jews came about through Jewish defiance of God’s law then Jews could hope to make amends and keep their religion and their hope of redemption alive.
Even when Jews were defeated in battle we kept our God and held dear the promises he had made us of a land of our own: a land that he had granted to us in the time before time. Other defeated peoples gave up their gods who had performed badly in war and were now no more than broken stones strewn on the bloodied soil. In blaming ourselves for our misfortune Jews were able to hold on both to our God and to the hope of return to the land that had been promised. Our conception of the wages of communal sin saved our God from the dustbins of abandoned texts where specialists can still read today of Marduk and Sargon.
This hope of return to the land of Israel, which God had given to the Jewish people through Abraham, through David, for all time, this hope of return lasted through the exile of our people from England and France, the calamity of the Spanish exile and and of Portugal’s cruel dictates.
A wish for a land of one’s own for a nation of people with a story and a root, and a hope that carried on for more than a thousand years is unusual in human history. But if one thinks for a moment how the French would feel scattered to the four corners of the globe, Paris gone, the Seine named something else, the great cathedrals burned, the people now living along the Seine having descended from other folk who lived in other places, who did not know the French story, did not honor Charlemagne or Joan of Arc, or even speak French and instead spoke strange words in a language that Proust, or Flaubert, or Molière could not have deciphered, think how they might create a nationalism of their own that called for a return of Paris to the French and if that happened would they be racists or would they be nationalists, and why would they be entitled to a land of their own and the Jews denied?
And what if these French were denied citizen’s rights in some of the places they settled? What if they had been gassed or pushed into trenches where they died by the tens of thousands? What if the French had no army, no police of their own and were prey to the anti-French who roamed across all continents. What if the other countries denied the French access to law courts, to medical schools, to universities? What then? The French would start looking around for a land to call their own and they would call their promised land France and if others were living there they would still return if they could, because the French like any other national group deserves a land of their own, in a world of nation-states. And so do we Jews.
In today’s world to be called a racist is to be attacked with a nasty word that conveys immorality and inhumanity on the part of the racist. It hurts to be called a racist, especially if one is not. A Hungarian immigrant may enjoy a croissant but not feel a strong identity with French culture or history. What if such Hungarian immigrants were unexpectedly in the majority in what had been recognized as France? What if the French in Colombia or Nigeria wanted to return to France: Would anyone call them racists or would they be exiles, carrying with them Diderot, Molière, Madame Curie, Charcot, Camus, Stendahl, André Gide, Corneille, on their backs to lands where they had settled?
Despite United Nations resolutions to the contrary Jews are not racists to want a land of their own, a geography that contains their history, a place where their armies and their arms can protect them. They are human beings who claim the common endowment of what in this day and age passes for humanity.
Racists are despicable people who think they are superior to and more entitled than others of different groups, different nations, different skin color, different religious beliefs. America has a lot of racists living in its cities, small towns, its hills, its purple mountains majesty but slowly we are getting better at understanding that America is a place of many races and the mixture itself creates a nation that is beautiful in its variety and has for spacious skies that stretch from sea to sea.
Yes, Zionism can lead to excess of rage. It can inspire folks to deny others basic human dignity, the same way that anyone else’s nationalism can. It can turn ugly when the desire for “mine” becomes the desire to deny “yours.” But that is not the Zionism of the Jewish people. It was not Herzl’s Zionism. Our bid is just to be a nation like the other nations.
Well, not exactly like all the others. It was hoped that Israel would not enslave anyone. It was hoped that Israel would treat the strangers who lived among its people with justice and equality. It was expected Jews would not throw rocks at passing Arab cars and that we could make room for other dreams and other visions and other nations to settle near by or live in peace among us.
Zionism remembers the vulnerability of the Jews living without a state of their own and so it balances the needs of others to thrive in their own orchards and the needs of the Jewish community to become itself, at last, a nation without a foreign ruler, without a wicked king appointed by a distant empire, but a place where the Jewish story can be told by free men and women with confident voices in safe places where their Jewish children can learn and grow without fear. In other words a nation just like the French or the Spanish or the Poles who are not racist for waving the French, Spanish, or Polish flag or singing the anthem they learned at school.
If this return had happened in 1776 then the state of Israel could easily have acted in the way that America did—a way that came to be viewed, rightly or wrongly, as “normal.” It could have marched its Palestinians out beyond its borders and the crime of it, the pain of it, would have lost its immediacy, no cameras, no reporters on the ground. Native Americans were stripped of their land and their culture trampled and no one saw it on the news and by the time anyone could weep for them, the deed was done and could not be revoked. America had slaves for a hundred and fifty years and was indeed a racist country and remains so in some places. Think of the faces of the men and women who lined up to mock the entrance of a few Black children into a white school in Alabama. That is the face of racism.
If Israel was a normal country like Iraq or Syria the ultra-Orthodox would be at war with the citizens of Tel-Aviv who go to the movies on Shabbat. The followers of this rabbi or that would take to the hills with their guns. If Israel was a normal country like Mexico its citizens would be afraid of the police and the drug cartels would appoint the chief of police. If Israel were really normal the Ashkenazi Jews would arm themselves against the Sephardim and civil war would take the lives of Jews just as civil war decimated the population of young men in America as boys lay dead on battlefield after battlefield, leaving mothers to grieve and sweethearts to weep and children to grow up without fathers. That is our normal.
So, it might be not such a good idea to be a normal state. And while it might not be entirely fair to hold Israel to a higher standard, I do in fact expect that Jews will hold back the killing hand, the truly racist call, and that Zionism would be, could create a decent place, where a variety of religious approaches could co-exist and secular folk could walk about unmolested. It is a dream, but not an impossible one.
This vision of Israel (that is where as a child I thought my tree was growing) did not fully understand that Palestinian Arabs were or would become a people with a claim of their own to a national homeland. This conflict needs to be settled; both peoples need settled borders in which to build and flourish. But Zionism is not racist to speak for itself and the illogic, the unthinking hatred behind that slogan, makes me sick. It is a lie and a smear hiding behind a proclamation of seeming virtue. To be against racism is good but to see it where it is not, to use the word to attack Jews, is appalling.
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Anne Roiphe is a novelist and a journalist.