Zionism, National Oppression, and Racism — Moshe Machover

10 March 1976

in Articles

[This article was originally published in Hebrew, in Matzpen 76, March 1976.]


The public controversy that has followed the UN resolution condemning Zionism as a form of racism [Resolution 3379 of the UN General Assembly (November 10, 1975) asserted that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination”. It was revoked on December 16, 1991 — the only UN resolution ever to have been revoked] provides us with a convenient and desirable opportunity to expound once again our view on Zionism and particularly on its racist aspects. But it seems to me that discussion of this topic is often marred by a conceptual lack of clarity — not only in the Zionist camp but also in the anti-Zionist left — about racist phenomena and by a tendency to confuse them with phenomena of national oppression. I would therefore like to devote this article to clarifying these concepts. Such clarification is also needed in a somewhat different context: the very same confusion sometimes creeps into the discussion in the Israeli left about the national problem.

I do not intend here to delve deep into this issue and go into a social-class analysis of the roots and causes of racism. Nor do I intend to discuss racist ideology. In posing the question “What is racism?” I am referring right now simply to the typical form in which racism appears in practice, in social reality.

One common mistaken idea is that “racism” refers solely to phenomena of discrimination by one racial group against another racial group. Thus, for example, some Zionist apologists have attempted the following line of defense: “When Zionism is accused of being racist, what is meant is mainly its attitude to Arabs; but Arabs and Jews belong to the same race, so Zionism cannot be racist in relation to Arabs”. According to this argument, even if Zionism does discriminate against Arabs and in favor of Jews, this cannot be a matter of racism.

This is of course an inane argument. By the same logic one could claim that in South Africa the discrimination practiced against persons of African origin is indeed racist, but the discrimination against members of the Indian minority is supposedly not racist, because in the latter case the discriminated and discriminators belong to the same Indo-European race. And similarly in each case of discrimination we would supposedly have to check whether the discriminated do indeed belong to a race different from that of the discriminators, and only if this is the case would we be able to pronounce that racism is involved.

But in fact this kind of pedantry is beside the point. In order to tell whether a given case involves racism we don’t need to go into all that palaver about the division of the human species into races — which is in any case quite dubious, and is certainly irrelevant to the political categories we are dealing with here. Because the term “racism” refers to discrimination of persons due to their origin — be it “racial”, or ethnic, or tribal, or even national.

It is important to stress another basic aspect that all cases of racism have in common: racist discrimination always pertains to individual rights. The rights denied are not the collective rights of an entire group, but the individual rights of every person belonging by origin to a given group.

Let me illustrate the difference with a few cases in which a given group is subjected to collective oppression, but there is no individual discrimination against individuals belonging by descent to that group. For example, in fascist Spain the Basque people has been severely oppressed; this went so far as extreme bans against teaching and using the Basque language. However, a person of Basque origin who lives, say, in Madrid and is happy to use the Castilian language and assimilate into the Castilian culture has not been subjected to any special discrimination compared to any other citizen of Spain. A similar situation exists in relation to the Kurds in Iraq, and even more so in Turkey. (In Turkey, not only is the Kurdish language banned, but even use of the term “Kurd” is illegal; the Kurds are officially referred to as “mountain Turks.”) As a final example of this kind, let me mention Britain: many Scottish and Welsh people claim that they are discriminated against as nations. Arguably, Scotland and Wales are relatively neglected and exploited within Britain; and their languages and cultures are not encouraged and have inferior status compared to English. But no one in Britain is individually discriminated against because of being of Scottish or Welsh origin. In all these cases we can talk of national oppression, but not of racism.

Of course, there are many cases (including Israel, as we shall see) in which a group is subjected to national oppression, in other words collective discrimination, and at the same time members of this group are subjected to individual racist discrimination. We shall discuss this below. For the time being let us just state that these two phenomena are different and distinct, at least in principle.

Racism in Israel

In the State of Israel there is severe and conspicuous discrimination in favor of Jews and against non-Jews — especially Arabs — in many varied areas of individual rights: for example, immigration and citizenship, the right to choose one’s place of residence and workplace, in land ownership, in various benefits granted or withheld by the authorities, and in a thousand and one aspects of everyday life.

Some of these facets of discrimination are inscribed explicitly in the state’s laws, such as the Law of Return and other laws governing citizenship. Other facets, of greater importance, are not stated directly in laws but are part of the constitution or charter of the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which have official status in Israel. According to these regulations — which are explicit — an Arab is barred not only from buying land belonging to the JNF but even from getting a lease or being employed on it as a wage worker. But the greatest and most important part of the discrimination suffered by Arabs in Israel is not inscribed in the state’s laws or anywhere else but operate as unwritten practices. For example, there is no written law or regulation according to which land must always be expropriated from Arabs for settling or housing Jews, rather than the other way around; but in practice it never happens that land expropriated from Jews is given over to Arabs, whereas the reverse is an everyday occurrence. Hundreds of examples of this sort could be cited from all spheres of life, but I will confine myself to just one more example, which is not especially important in itself but is very interesting because of its pettiness.

As is well known, an Israeli resident returning to the country after a long stay abroad is entitled to various concessions and grants. Well, the following story appeared in the evening paper Yedi’ot Aharonot on August 30, 1970:

The personnel of the Ministry of [Immigrant] Absorption in the Haifa district have recently been faced with an embarrassing problem: a resident of the village of Ar’ara in Wadi Ara applied to them demanding to receive all the benefits and concessions due to a returning Israel resident. “How come?” asked the surprised officials. The Arab replied: “Soon after the establishment of Israel I emigrated and went abroad. Now I have come back, and found out that as a returning Israeli resident I am entitled to many benefits, including a housing loan and the right to buy a car free of duty”. The officials explained to the man that only Jews are entitled to the benefits of a returning resident, and the Arab went back to his village, disappointed.

Since then, the Israeli authorities have learned their lesson. Recently Israel’s newspapers printed new advertisements about various concessions and benefits for returning residents; but this time these advertisements were not sponsored by the government alone but jointly with the World Zionist Organization (WZO) and the Jewish Agency. The reason is that the government has no convenient legal way to deny benefits and grants to a returning Arab resident, but the WZO and the Jewish Agency are “private” bodies, which are allowed to be openly racist. In order to make doubly sure and bar all unintended applications, these advertisements advise “Israelis living abroad who wish to return to Israel” to apply for information not to the nearest Israeli embassy but “to the nearest office of the Department of Aliya [Aliya is by definition a racist term: literally meaning ascent, it refers exclusively to Jewish immigration to Israel] and Absorption of the Jewish Agency/World Zionist Organization”. Moreover, whereas in the past the benefits were granted according to fixed published rules, which is how that naïve Arab of Ar’ara found out about them, this time our cunning Zionists announce that “grants will be decided individually, according to the situation and needs of each applicant”. So now even if an Arab Israeli citizen staying abroad would be so naïve as to imagine that the advertisement applies also to him, and will turn up at the nearest office of the WZO, they can always explain to him “individually” that according to his “situation” as an Arab he is not going to get a single worn penny.

I have expanded on this example just in order to illustrate the nauseating pettiness to which racist baseness descends. (It is worth mentioning other examples: an Arab wishing to convert to Judaism is first subjected to investigation by the security services; and a mixed young couple who meet, fall in love with each other, and live together are often subjected to intervention of the police, who respond in such cases to requests by the Jewish family to separate the couple).

Let me stress that for the moment we are not discussing the restrictions imposed on the Arab community in Israel as a community, which prevent it from freely expressing its national existence and collective identity. That is another story.

For the moment we are dealing with discrimination that victimizes each and every Arab person as an individual, solely due to their origin. These forms of discrimination apply also to an Arab who speaks fluent Hebrew, lives among Jews (there are still a few places in this country where this is possible!), and takes no interest in politics or Arab nationalism, and is even prepared to wear a kippah and adopt a Hebrew name. On the contrary, such an Arab is at an additional risk of being harassed by the Israeli police and accused of “impersonating a Jew”. Such things have actually happened.

This heinous crime of “impersonating a Jew” is the sort of crime that exists only in the most racist countries. In South Africa too it is a crime for a person of African origin to pretend to be a White, and in Nazi Germany it was a crime for a Jew to pretend to be “Aryan”. But as far as we know no one in Britain has been accused of the “crime” of pretending to be English.

The point is that in the State of Israel being a Jew means enjoying a privileged status both in customary practice and in law. Therefore a Gentile who pretends to be a Jew thereby violates the law by claiming an “undeserved” legal status.

This explains the importance of the question “Who is a Jew?” that every year or two arouses controversies and scandals in Israel. These are not merely academic debates about the historical essence of Jewishness. These controversies have in Israel an utmost practical and legal importance: the answer to the question “Who is a Jew?” determines who is or is not entitled to the range of legal and customary privileges conferred exclusively on Jews — from acquiring automatic citizenship according to the Law of Return to the duty-free import of a car by a Jewish resident returning from a stay abroad. By the way, it is interesting to note that in the twentieth century there was yet another country in which the question “Who is a Jew?” had legal importance: Nazi Germany. The reason there was somewhat similar, but opposite.

In enlightened countries — including many bourgeois ones — this kind of legal question cannot arise. For example, in France the question “Who is a French citizen?” has legal importance, but all French citizens are considered equal under the law (this is one of the achievements of the French Revolution; the fact that equality under the law is a bourgeois right should not make us, as socialists, despise it, although we cannot regard it as sufficient). Therefore, the question “Who is French by descent?” has no legal importance and does not preoccupy the French public.

Before we go on to another topic, we must deal with another argument that is sometimes voiced by Zionist apologists. It is claimed that the forms of discrimination practiced in Israel cannot be regarded as racist because the term “Jewish” is defined according to the Jewish religion; therefore persons who are of non-Jewish descent can also enjoy all the privileges of a Jew, provided they convert to Judaism.

However, this claim only proves that the racism practiced in Israel is not mere racism, but racism mixed with clericalism. It is indeed true that the legal definition of “Jew” follows, at least in part, the religious prescriptions of Judaism. But these religious prescriptions themselves depend critically on descent rather than on faith.

Thus, an atheist who is not of Jewish descent cannot convert to Judaism; but a person whose mother is Jewish may be an atheist, and even stew pork in milk publicly on Yom Kippur that falls on the Sabbath — and would still count as a Jew.

So the conclusion is inescapable: the State of Israel is racist, since it has — both in written law and in unwritten customary practice — an extensive system of discrimination that applies to persons according to their descent and in the sphere of their individual rights.

Racist Discrimination and National Oppression

Where [official] racist discrimination is practiced, the oppressors endeavor to institutionalize and consolidate the distinctness of those belonging to the oppressed group, to emphasize differences and prevent assimilation. Clear distinctions are needed by the oppressors in order to make it clear who is to be discriminated against and who “deserves” to enjoy privileges. In such places there are laws or regulations forcing the victims of racism to bear certain external identifying marks or carry special documents showing their “inferior” origin, they are prevented (legally or in practice) from marrying members of the dominant group, and they are subjected to various other restrictions of this kind.

In contrast, where there is national oppression, the situation in this respect seems almost the opposite: it is the oppressed people that strives to institutionalize its national distinctness, to get recognized status for its distinct national language, to win cultural autonomy, self rule, and in many cases it demands full political separation and establishing its own state. On the other hand, the oppressors refuse to recognize the national identity and distinctness of the oppressed people, they try to prevent it from freely expressing its separate national culture, and they deny it the right to exercise self-rule or establish its own state. In most cases, where it is a matter of “ordinary” national oppression, without an admixture of racism, the oppressors even try to force the oppressed people to assimilate.

This contrast follows from the fundamental difference between these two forms of oppression. Whereas racism denies individual rights of members of the oppressed group, national oppression consists in denying the oppressed people’s collective rights. The national problem is not a matter of individual discrimination against members of the oppressed people but denial of the collective right of the oppressed people to institutionalize its national identity. This (analytic) distinction must always be made, even when the two forms of oppression occur together, because the national problem calls for different solutions from that of racist discrimination.

The socialist movement is not, and cannot be, in a dilemma regarding problems of racial discrimination. The ideas and aims of the socialist movement prescribe resolute opposition to discrimination, to denial of individual rights of members of one group and privileging members of another group based on different origins.

Socialists are therefore committed to struggle against institutionalization of differences of origins, and for equal rights to all, both in law and in practice.

The position regarding national questions is more complicated. Socialists do not stand for raising barriers between peoples but for removing them; they do not wish to encourage any form of national separatism. On the other hand, opposing the aspiration of an oppressed people to institutionalize its nationhood amounts to supporting national oppression. For example, in Spain the Basque people demands recognition of its right to its own national existence, whereas it is the Spanish oppressor that denies this right, claiming that there does not exist a distinct Basque entity, and the Basques are part of the Spanish nation — similarly in all cases of national oppression. If socialists were to deny the right of each people to its own national existence, they would thereby find themselves siding with oppression. Socialists have been, and still are, divided regarding the national question; but what they differ on is not whether but how far to support a people’s right to institutionalize its nationhood. On this there are two views held by socialists. One view, probably that of a majority, advocates support for the right of peoples to full self-determination, including the right to establish an independent national state. The other view advocates supporting the right of each people to linguistic-cultural autonomy, but not to full political separation. I do not wish to enter here into this debate; let us leave it for another occasion. I would only like to make here three comments, for the sake of clarification.

First, both sides in this debate agree that every people has the right to give an institutionalized expression to its nationhood and distinctiveness: for national autonomy also institutionalizes nationhood.

Second, even those who support the formula of “the right to self-determination, including the right to political separation” agree that in general political separation should not be encouraged. Support for the right to self-determination does not imply such encouragement; it only means opposing the forcible imposition of a common political framework by one people on another. For example, the Kurds in Iraq do not demand a separate state but only a certain measure of autonomy within the Iraqi state. If we support their right to self-determination, it does not mean that we ought to encourage them to up the ante and insist on establishing a separate state. But if in the future the Kurds themselves raise such a demand, and the Iraqi government tries by force to prevent them achieving it (and this can only be done by force), then we would have to oppose this attempted coercion. Those who support the right to self-determination maintain that only in specific cases, where special reasons exist, should a people be encouraged to establish a separate state.

Briefly, then: support for the right to separate does not mean blanket encouragement to separate — just as support for free speech obliges us to support the right of people even to talk rubbish (and to oppose any attempt at gagging them), but it does not imply encouraging anyone to talk rubbish.

Third, this debate, which is long-standing in the socialist movement, applies only to the national question, that is, to cases of national oppression. National oppression consists in denying a people’s collective right. This debate has no bearing whatsoever on racist discrimination; the attitude to the latter is not, and cannot be, a matter for debate among socialists worthy of this name.

What Kind of State Is Israel?

Zionism used to declare that it aimed to establish a Jewish nation-state in this country. However, the State of Israel, established by Zionism, is undoubtedly a Jewish state, but not a nation-state — at least, not in the usual sense of this term.

I cannot enter here into a discussion of the social-class roots of modern nationalism and of the idea of the nation-state as they evolved since the French Revolution. But one thing is clear even without such a thorough discussion: in normal nation-states, established by the bourgeois classes (mainly in Europe), the “nationality” of the state is not regarded as justifying racist discrimination. For example, France is a French nation-state. Its “Frenchness” consists in the fact that its territory coincides (more or less) with the geographic area in which members of the French nation are a majority of the population, as well as in the fact that France’s language and culture are French. Inside France there are also other national or quasi-national groups: Basques, Bretons, Corsicans. In the name of France’s French uniformity, these groups are denied the right to a distinct national existence; but, as explained above, this is not a matter of racist discrimination, but, at most, a national problem. Of course, there is hardly a bourgeois state in which there are no manifestations of racism, and France is no exception. Racist discrimination does exist there — albeit not by law but “only” in practice — for example, against persons of Arab-Algerian origin; but this is not directly connected with the “Frenchness” of France. At any rate, it cannot be argued that whoever recognizes the right of France to exist as a French nation-state thereby consents to racist discrimination against persons of Arab or any other descent. This is also the case with any other normal nation-states.

But the situation in Israel is entirely different. The majority of Israel’s inhabitants do constitute a national entity — the Israeli-Jewish nation — which has a language of its own and something resembling a national culture; but the “Jewishness” of the State of Israel does not consist in giving national expression to this national entity. According to the dominant Zionist ideology, as well as by law and to some extent also in practice, Israel is “the state of world Jewry”, in other words, a state of a group defined by descent. Moreover, in the name of Israel’s “Jewishness” its non-Jewish — and in particular Arab — citizens are denied individual rights. It must be stressed that all Zionist currents, including the most “left-wing” and “dovish”, accept this racist discrimination against Arabs. (In this regard, see articles in the previous and present issues of Matzpen).

So the “Jewishness” of Israel is unlike the “Frenchness” of France or the “Spanishness” of Spain. Because Israel is not a nation-state in the usual sense but embodies a special combination of nationalism, racism, and clericalism.

Of course, the Palestinian Arabs living in Israel are not only subjected to racist discrimination; they are denied not only individual rights but also collective national rights — the right to institutionalize their distinct national identity as part of the Palestinian Arab people and the entire Arab nation. They are therefore placed between the hammer and the anvil: they are not permitted to merge their identity with the Jews (even if they wished to do so) and on the other hand are not allowed to express their distinct national identity.

Such a fiendish combination of racist discrimination and national oppression against the very same group does not exist (as far as I know) in any normal nation-state. But it does occur often in states of another kind: settler states.

This largely explains the special nature of the Zionist State of Israel: it is a colonizing state, product of Zionist colonization and an instrument for extending and expanding this colonization. The point is not that many Zionist leaders and their followers have held and continue to hold racist views. The truth is that among the Zionists there were and are also many who do not believe that the Jews are a superior people and the Arabs are an inferior rabble. Zionist racism is principally a matter of practice, due to the fact that Zionist colonization could only be implemented at the expense of the Palestinian Arabs’ rights — both their national and individual rights. The Zionist project — past and present — is a project of colonization by Jews of territories inhabited by Arabs, turning an Arab country into a Jewish country. In order to implement such a project, it is necessary to discriminate in favor of Jews and against Arabs in matters of immigration, citizenship, land ownership, and so on — right down to discrimination regarding the rights of returning residents.

By the way, it seems that this combination of national oppression and racist discrimination is a function of the generic nature of the Zionist project as a project of colonization, rather than of the specific characteristics of this project, which distinguish it from other models of colonization. A similar combination also exists in Rhodesia and existed in Algeria during French rule, although the colonization of Rhodesia and Algeria do not belong to the same type as the Zionist project.

Some Political Conclusions

To conclude, I would like to point out the implication of the foregoing discussion for our political agenda.

First, since the Arabs living under Israel’s rule are victims of a twofold combination of national oppression and racist discrimination, we must address both components of this combination. It is not enough to struggle only against the discrimination of the Arab inhabitants, just as it is not enough to struggle only against the national oppression of the Palestinian Arab people. Therefore we generally use formulas such as “support for the struggle of the Palestinian Arab people for its human and national rights”.  Our support for the national rights of the Palestinian people manifests itself, for example, in struggle for its right to establish its own state and against any attempt by Israel’s government to prevent it from doing so. But we do not regard this struggle as a substitute for the struggle against the racist discrimination of Arabs practiced in Israel.

Second, the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination — which we support — is the right of this people to institutionalize its national identity; it includes the right to establish its own state; but it does not imply a “right” to discriminate against Jews or any other group. The claim made by some people that if a Palestinian Arab state were established, it would necessarily practice discrimination against Jews is a falsehood based on a confusion between a nation-state and a racist state.

Third, we support the right to self-determination of the Israeli-Jewish people. This however does not mean that we are in favor of the continued existence of a separate Jewish state. Quite the contrary — we stand for integration of Israel in a regional socialist union of the entire Arab East. However, we insist that this integration should not be coerced but voluntary and freely chosen. If, when such a union is established, Israel’s Jews would refuse to join it, we would regret this and do everything in our power to change their minds; but we shall oppose any attempt to impose it on them by force. So long as they refuse to join, we shall support their right to maintain a separate nation-state. True, such a state would be Jewish, but we shall in no way consent to a Jewish state in the Zionist sense of this term. We can never, under any circumstance and in any situation, present or future, support a “right” to discriminate against persons by reason of their origin. Again: the claim that in supporting the right of Israeli Jews to self-determination we thereby support discrimination against Arabs is a falsehood infected by the Zionist confusion between a nation-state and a racist state.

Previous post:

Next post: