Just recently at York University, there have been complaints about a particular poster in the Student Centre that reads, ‘Zionism is Racism.’ To understand the meaning behind the poster, one needs to have a clear understanding of what Zionism is.
In this case, it refers to political Zionism, which is the ideology that permits the existence of a Jewish State. There are arguments made for other types of Zionism, some of which are not directly tied to the idea of a state. Due to the fact that the group displaying the poster is Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA), we shall assume that the poster is referencing political Zionism since the group is based on a political discussion, and this shall be the focus of this piece.
Political Zionism was once a political movement in the late 19th to early 20th century, favoured by a minority of Jews. When it began, it was largely supported by Christians, many of whom had the ulterior motive of shipping the Jewish populations out of Europe. Although different locations for a future Jewish state were explored (Madagascar, Uganda) the Zionist movement ended up settling in Palestine, which was administered by the British since the fall of the Ottomans.
What I wish to address in this piece is not the situation between the state of Israel and the Palestinians of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, or the refugee Diaspora, but rather on the nature of Zionism and the concept of the ‘demographic threat.’ We know about the Jewish-only settlements dotting the landscape of the West Bank of the Jordan River and of the collective punishment of the population in the Gaza Strip. What I wish to explore here is the nature of Zionism in itself. There are three examples that come to mind that are not directly to do with the Palestinians whether they be Palestinian citizens of Israel or the stateless people of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The focus of this piece will be on the inner workings of the state of Israel and why it can be considered a system of political racism.
Israel like many of the wealthier countries in the world has foreign worker programs, particularly caregiver programs that bring over workers mostly from South-East Asia, and in particular, from the Philippines. These workers are given temporary work permits but some try for citizenship as people do in the United States and Canada. It is estimated that there are approximately 300,000 such foreign workers in Israel.
Controversy has followed the Filipino community in the past few years, arguably starting in 2009 when current finance minister Yuval Steinitz blamed foreign workers for “the widening of social gaps.” At times, female workers lose their permits if they become pregnant, as these non-Jewish children are seen as a threat to the demographics of the state. Zionism requires a Jewish majority at all times, which is why, for instance, Israel does not recognize Palestinians’ right to the land. Since 2011, Israel has begun deporting the Israeli-born children of Filipino workers despite the fact that many of them attend Israeli schools and speak Hebrew fluently. There have been activist movements within Israel, both Filipino and Jewish, that oppose these policies, but as long as Zionism remains the state ideology, non-Jews born in Israel will have the threat of deportation hanging over them.
Another case of the ‘demographic threat’ to Israel is the Sudanese refugees who fled persecution, particularly during the Darfur crisis. Pro-Israel activists have long used the case of Sudanese refugees finding a haven in the state of Israel as a talking point to imply a kind of ‘Israeli benevolence.’ What these same pro-Israel speakers may fail to mention is the fact that these same refugees now face deportation. The Israeli government has stated that the reason behind the deportation is that South Sudan is now a country separate from Sudan. Meanwhile, tensions are still high between Sudan and South Sudan and there is fear that other crises may occur in the future. Israel may be deporting Sudanese refugees back into danger.
One may ask why the Sudanese refugees cannot simply stay in Israel, particularly when Israel’s proponents cite the original settlement as one of mercy and benevolence. The reason is simple. They are not Jewish. They are not the ‘right’ ethnicity to be able to stay in their adopted homeland. Imagine if Canada deported people for not being part of the majority after they took them in as refugees.
Why is it so controversial to describe these policies as racist?
The last example deals with the Bedouin of the Negev region, a largely sandy part in the South of Israel. Palestinian Arabs once farmed much of the land but most were expelled in 1948 to make way for the Jewish State. The Bedouin have lived a semi-nomadic life in this region, but since the founding of Israel, they have been pushed off much of their land to make way for Jewish settlements. These semi-nomads live in villages that were established before Israel’s founding and yet, because Israel is the only political entity that exercises sovereignty over the region, the government does not recognize these settlements.
Between 30,000 and 90,000 (possibly more in the long run), Bedouin Arabs faced relocation from their ancestral lands to make way for Jewish settlements in the Negev. They received resettlement in Arab-populated villages — which eerily resembles the story of First Nations in Canada and their own displacement. The villagers of al-Araqib have refused to leave and in turn, Israeli security forces have demolished their village nearly 17 times. This is a form of ethnic cleansing and no one should hesitate to name it as such.
These three instances of state racism merely represent a visible tip of the iceberg of Zionism and its results: the children facing deportation from their place of birth for their ethnicity; the South Sudanese refugees who were brought into Israel for superficial public relations reasons and then forced to leave; the Negev Bedouin dislocated to ethnic enclave communities from their ancestral homes. No matter how one wishes to phrase it, Zionism in its political form does represent a racist ideology.
However, there is a debate within Israel and Jewish Diaspora communities on these issues and we cannot paint all of Israeli society with one brush. The particular expansionist Zionism is what leads to the system of Apartheid in the West Bank, where Palestinians’ rights to the land are unrecognized and they are not granted protection by a state that expands into the territory where they live.
It is best that we familiarize ourselves with the terminology and what it means exactly, particularly the reality that political Zionism creates. It is better to go toward a solution by understanding where the criticism comes from, rather than to condemn it without fully understanding the point that is being made.