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Why I Use the Language of Race to Talk About Zionism

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Why I Use the Language of Race to Talk About Zionism
Last month, I played a support role in an anti-zionist protest of a Friends of the IDF fundraiser in Westport, Connecticut. The action unexpectedly ended in arrest, and, somewhat more predictably, was the occasion for a fierce back-and-forth in local newspapers and blogs about the IDF, the Occupation of Palestine, and the importance/inappropriateness of trying to disrupt Zionist events. My small contribution to this debate was an editorial that was circulated on several blogs and two local newspapers. In the piece, I did what I have done in several posts on Jesus Radicals and discussed Zionism as a racist, white supremacist ideology. This message, to my surprise, was almost more controversial than the initial direct action. At the time, I saw no need to defend the claim that the conversation about Zionism is, by necessity, a conversation about race. This was clearly an error on my part, given the reaction that this claim received, not only from Zionist critics, but also from skeptical supporters.

It is, I have been reminded, far more common to talk about the Occupation in terms of war and peace, or human rights than in terms of race. I am not necessarily writing to change this, or to criticize other anti-zionists in any way. The last thing that our movement (or any movement) needs is a public spat over tactics or rhetoric. I wholeheartedly support anyone working for a future in which no mother is forced to give birth at a checkpoint, no child is labeled as a demographic threat from birth or forced to grow up at the point of a gun, and in which no family lives in fear of their home being destroyed by a bomb or a bulldozer. Our work is far more important than the words with which we justify it. Nonetheless, I am conscious, at this juncture, of the need to step back for a moment and offer an account of why I use the language of race to talk about Zionism.


On June 30 last summer, Knesset member Ayelet Shaked called for the destruction of "the entire Palestinian people," including "its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure." In a statement that has now become infamous (even more so since Benjamin Netanyahu  appointed Shaked as his minister of justice), she even advocated killing Palestinian mothers because they give birth to "little snakes." The next day, Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khudair was kidnapped and burned alive by six israeli Jewish young people, and over the course of the summer, the IDF murdered over five hundred Palestinian children during the Gaza massacre.

Shaked's words are hauntingly reminiscent of another call for genocide, issued almost exactly 150 years earlier, in 1864, and thousands of miles away, in Sand Creek, Colorado. It was there that Col. John M. Chivington told the 700 troops under his command to "kill and scalp all, big and little" because "nits make lice." Like Ayelet Shaked, Chivington's words were followed up with violence: 163 Cheyenne and Arapaho, mostly women and children, were killed, and their bodies mutilated.

Shaked and Chivington are separated by geography and history. They are united by the truth that settler-colonialism cannot function without desingnating indigenous people as non-persons. It is no coincidence that both of their statements describe indigenous bodies - particularly as pertaining to their sexual reproduction--as pests to be exterminated. This is precisely what settler-colonialism requires to function as a social system. It is also why the violence settler states mete out against indigenous communities is necessarily sexualized and gendered. Moreover, this biological dimension to the settler-colonial impetus for genocide is why race is an inescapable part of the conversation about any modern settler-colonial project, whether it is the creation and maintenance of settler states and capitalist markets here on Turtle Island or the Zionist Occupation of and Apartheid regime in Palestine.

This connection between Zionist and American settler-colonialism and racist apartheid is not new. As early as 1923, Vladimir Jabotinsky, the intellectual and political forefather of conservative "revisionist" Zionism, and Benjamin Netanyahu's largest formative influence (his father was Jabotinsky's secretary) made this connection quite clear. In his now-famous essay "The Iron Wall," he wrote:

Culturally they [the Palestinians] are five hundred years behind us; they have neither our endurance nor our determination; but they are as good psychologists as we are, and their minds have been sharpened like ours by centuries of fine-spun logomachy. We may tell them whatever we like about the innocence of our aims, watering them down and sweetening them with honeyed words to make them palatable, but they know what we want, as well as what they do not want. They feel at least the same instinctive jealous love of Palestine, as the old Aztecs felt for  ancient Mexico and the Sioux for their rolling prairies.

Jabotinsky was not wrong in identifying the Zionist project for the conquest of Palestinian land and the dispossession and displacement of Palestinian people as being of a piece with the euro-american colonization of Turtle Island and genocide of indigenous people here. He has been confirmed in opposition by the strong and widespread solidarity shown by indigenous activists on Turtle Island for the Palestinian struggle against Zionism.


Zionism, as a settler-colonial project, builds a national vision through the erasure of "undesirables," a political logic nearly identical to that of Naziism and other forms of European fascism. This would seem to contradict the the liberal values of freedom and equality that Zionists claim for the middle east's "only democracy." A number of my critics have pointed this out when objecting to my contention that Zionism is necessarily racist. One wrote, "to Mr. Williams' charge of Israeli society being inherently racist, I would respectfully refer one and all to Israel's Declaration of Independence, as well as its Basic Laws that guarantee equal rights to all of the country's citizens." What my esteemed critic points to as a contradiction in my position has also been described as a contradiction within Zionism, depending upon where the emphasis is placed. Zionism makes liberal claims but commits despotic acts, backed up with hateful ideology. One could conclude, as my critic does, that Zionist racism is exceptional, and a violation of Zionists' most cherished liberal values (we could describe this as the "bad apple" argument). Alternatively one could conclude, as many liberal anti-zionists do, that Zionist racism unmasks Zionist liberalism as empty rhetoric. Both arguments rest upon the presupposition that Zionism's liberalism and racism are in contradiction to one another. I submit that the opposite is true. The liberal values to which my eminent opponent points are not contravening evidence against nor even a smokescreen for the irreducibly racist character of Zionism. Rather they are its very foundation.

It is common to argue that there is a tension (though I would argue not an outright contradiction) between Zionist support for a Jewish state and for a democratic state. This tension begs the question, how can a state be democratic but exist for the sake of a particular group of people? If Zionists want a democratic state, that state would need to respect the human rights of everyone, including the "undesirables" within its settler-colonial framework, the indigenous people whose displacement and dispossession is a condition of the settler state's existence. If, on the other hand, Zionists want a Jewish state, then, as I have already argued above, it must designate indigenous people as non-persons.

This is where the structural and narrative aspects of the Zionist project intersect. The structural condition of the existence of the settler state is the same as the solution to the ideological tension between Zionists' aim for a Jewish and democratic state, that is, between Zionist liberalism and Zionist racism. That condition and solution is to erase indigenous Palestinians as human beings, to presume that they do not exist or do not matter. A political arrangement can be both Jewish and democratic if Jews are paradigmatic political subjects—paradigmatic human beings. This is the crucial point: to claim that a Jewish settler state is or can be democratic is to claim that indigenous Palestinians are not democratic subjects. This is what it means to claim that Zionist liberalism is the very foundation for Zionist racism. It is precisely the claim that a Jewish settler state can "guarantee equal rights" that fuels the designation of indigenous Palestinians as non-persons, the racist imperative of settler-colonialism.


Zionism normalizes a vision of Jews as subjects of a liberal political society, that is as anonymous but exclusive possessors of rights in relation to a state that is at once only for them and placed to respect the rights of all people. This particular universalism, the state of having one's peculiar being regarded as a universal norm, as the very definition of what it is to be an "ordinary" human being, is itself the very definition of white privilege in euro-american settler-colonialism. Whiteness is the race that is no race, and the liberalism/racism of the Zionist project is an indispensable element in the creation of normative Jews as white subjects.

It is crucial to say normative Jews here and not just "Jews" lest we get an incomplete picture of the oppression involved in the creation of Jewish whiteness. As with any other community, the designation of Jews as white requires the denigration, in this country, of black and brown people, indigenous people, and racialized migrants. It also, however, involves writing Jews of color outside of the new boundaries of their own community. Thus, it is crucial to name Ashkenazi racism against Ethiopian Jews in Palestine and Black Hebrew Israelites in Crown Heights as part of this dynamic.

These blatant forms of anti-black racism are part of a systematic alignment of normative Jewishness with the interests and goals of the colonial-capitalist, white supremacist power structure. Such a (re)alignment is a textbook case of the way that whiteness has been  conferred upon subaltern European communities in the last century. Critical race theorists have termed this dynamic the "racial bribe." Whiteness is conferred on working class and poor people who might otherwise become rebellious and used to ensure their loyalty. Perhaps the most famous exposé of this is C. Vann Woodward's The Strange Career Of Jim Crow, which documents how, in the wake of reconstruction, segregation was instituted to prevent black and white smallholders and tenant farmers from uniting against the banks, landlords and industrialists, and was a significant factor in the the failure of the populist movement to organize interracially over the long term. Martin Luther King Jr once famously called this book "the historical bible of the Civil Rights movement," and Woodward's thesis has been endorsed and expanded in Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarnation In The Age Of Colorblindness.

Arguably, one of the most important instantiations of the racial bribe is the transformation of working and poor people into white settlers in the context of settler-colonialism. This is why Zionism is so important to the construction of normative Jews as white subjects. As I have already said, whiteness can, in the most basic analysis, be defined as having the peculiarly of one's being erased by equating it with normative humanity, which, under liberalism, means being a subject possessing rights, the most important of which is the right to own property. Settler-colonialism creates white subjects by endowing people with the right to own (read steal) indigenous people's land, just as slavery creates white subjects by endowing people with the right to own (read steal) black labor. Under liberalism, the normative white subject is a person with the ability to own/steal; settler-colonialism is the material relation that creates that ability. 

Normative Jews in this country began the process of becoming white on the basis of indigenous genocide and black enslavement, a process well documented in Karen Brodkin's How Jews Became White Folks And What That Says About Race In America. Zionism represents the chief cornerstone of this process, the transfiguration of normative Jewish identity in concrete and white phosphorus. Now that the head of a settler state can claim to speak for "the entire Jewish people" and that state has a passport ready for any Jew willing to come and get it, every Jew is a potential settler, a potential property holder, someone possessing the right to participate in the theft of indigenous people's land and, therefore, white. To be invested in Zionism is to be invested in the accordance of white privilege to normative Jews and, therefore, to be invested in white supremacy as articulated by the Zionist and the American apartheid regimes.


This analysis ought to make clear why I think that it is important to use the language of race to talk about Zionism, and why I think that anti-zionist activism is important anti-racist work.  The campaign to divest from the Zionist project (culturally, as well as financially) is a call to divest from whiteness, and to begin to work to dismantle settler-colonialism from Turtle Island to Palestine.  But, more than this, I think that the language of race helps to make clear why anti-zionism is a central ingredient in Jewish emancipation.  For Jews, to use the language of race to critique Zionism is to recognize the Faustian bargain that we have entered with racialized capital.  

The racial bribe is, after all, just that, a bribe.  It has transformed us from a subaltern community in the euro-american metropole into a settler community in the colonial periphery, but it has not emancipated us, any more than Jim Crow emancipated poor and working class whites in the post-reconstruction south, or any more than anti-immigrant politics are emancipating poor and working class whites who are being pauperized by contemporary neoliberalism.  No better proof of this can be found than in the settlements in the West Bank, which are filled, as a rule, with some of the most socially marginalized and economically immiserated members of the Jewish settler society.  This is all the more striking when compared with “Jewish 1%” of Westport, CT, whose fundraiser I participated in protesting.  Zionism is, ultimately, against the material self-interest of all but a few Jews, and these are, as a general rule, those who are willing to fund it, but not to fight and die for it.

For the vast majority of Jews, for those of us who are young, who are poor and/or working people, who are queer and/or genderqueer, the racial bribe of Zionism simply isn’t worth it, and the sooner we realize this and begin to craft our politics accordingly, the better.  We will never be emancipated by investing in the privileges that come from being citizens or potential citizens of a settler state.  Rather, the key to Jewish emancipation is the same as the key to the emancipation of any other subaltern euro-american community which has been offered the racial bribe: to vehemently refuse it, and to settle for nothing less than the abolition of the system that has held it out, for the dismantlement of all settler states and the entire colonial-capitalist system.  From Ferguson to Baltimore, from Unist'ot'en to Elsipogtog, and, in Palestine, from the river to the sea, let us fight to make every single person free.

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Greg Williams (Greg Williams)

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