Why Zionism Is Not Racist

Sermon given October 26, 2001, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

When I was in sixth grade, I pulled my first “all nighter.” A friend and I had embarked on a project to build a scale model of the United Nations. We procrastinated. We didn’t start to build until the afternoon before the project was due. Making matters worse, I am not handy. My partner had to do most of the building. Working at my friend’s house, we were sustained on chocolate and hot tea, and we literally didn’t go to sleep until the United Nations complex was fully constructed at six o’clock in the morning. We delivered the project to school, and promptly went home to sleep all day.

In those days, almost all Americans took pride in the United Nations and in the role we believed it could play in maintaining world peace. That international organization held a special place in the hearts of Jews around the world, for it had paved the way for the establishment of the State of Israel. In 1947, the U.N. voted, by two thirds majority, to create two states, a Jewish State and an Arab State, side by side in Palestine.

That 1947 vote was an international endorsement of Zionism, the eternal hope of the Jewish people for the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in our ancient homeland. Twenty-eight years later, though, the same body, the General Assembly of the United Nations, took a very different stance. In 1975, only months after the proud completion of my sixth grade United Nations project, that organization declared Israel to be “the racist regime in occupied Palestine,” and labeled Zionism as “a form of racialism and racial discrimination.”

The truth be told, the resolution equating Zionism with racism had very little impact. In the 1990s, after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and P.L.O. Chairman Yasser Arafat signed their understanding on the White House lawn, the U.N. resolution on Zionism and racism was repealed. Once again, the world seemed to endorse Zionism, or at least to accept it.

Then, last year, the peace came to an end. Now, we hear the renewed charge that Zionism is racism. Some months ago, in Durban, South Africa, the U.N. Conference on Racism was hijacked by forces seeking to use that forum as a platform against Israel. No other regime in the entire world was similarly targeted. Words against Israel were not balanced by condemnation of Palestinian terrorism. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was not mentioned. Not a negative word was spoken against the Taliban.

Occasionally, we Jews imagine ourselves to be hated by the entire world. As the old saying goes, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that you don’t have real enemies.” The Durban conference, and world events that have followed, remind us that Israel does have profound enemies. With the inestimably significant exception of the United States, much of the world is indeed prepared to focus on the misdeeds, both real and imagined, of the Jewish people, to the exclusion of all others. “Zionism,” the world tells us, “is racism.”

My friends, I do not stand before you tonight to declare that Zionism is not racism. Such a charge does not dignify a response. The very suggestion that Israel can be compared to apartheid South Africa is the worst kind of anti-Semitism, plain and simple.

At the same time, we may all benefit from a review of the reasons that Zionism is not racism. We may renew of our commitment to the true meaning and principles of Zionism.

Zionism is not racism, for the Jewish people is not a race. Yes, Judaism is passed from parents to child, from generation to generation, as we witnessed in such a moving way tonight, with the transmission of the Torah through four generations in our Bar Mitzvah celebrant’s family. And yet, a convert to Judaism is every bit as Jewish as a person who is born into our faith. Our own congregation is blessed with hundreds of Jews-by-Choice, who enrich the fabric of our community and who faithfully observe our traditions. Converts swelled the ranks of the Jewish people some 2000 years ago, dramatically altering the composition and appearance of our Jewish family. Today, a slim majority of the children in our Temple Beth-El Religious School have two Jewish parents, while only a substantial minority have four Jewish grandparents. We have more than a few Jews of Latino heritage in our congregation, and Jews of African or Middle Eastern descent are widespread in the world today. The Jewish people do not constitute a race. Zionism is not racism.

Zionism is not racism, because it is a liberation movement for the Jewish people. Ever since the year 70, when the Second Temple was destroyed and our people dispersed, religious Jews have prayed for return to Zion. And yet, in 19th Century Europe, Jewish people achieved unprecedented freedom. For the first time ever, Jews could be citizens of the countries where they lived. Many stopped praying for return to the Promised Land, for they believed that they had found it in Europe or America.

Then, in the 1890s, anti-Semitism raised its ugly head in France, seemingly the most enlightened of modern European nations. Europe was not the Promised Land. Modern Zionism was conceived as a way that the Jewish people could live in the world on an equal footing with other peoples of the world. In Eastern Europe, where virulent anti-Semitism never abated, Zionism was viewed as an escape from the harsh persecutions of Poland and Russia. While many European and American Jews still scoffed at the idea in the early decades of the 20th Century, Zionism began to unite world Jewry as Hitler came to power.

Jews in Europe were murdered by the millions, for no reason, save that they were Jews. If our people wished to escape, they had no place to go. The British controlled Palestine, and they outlawed almost all Jewish immigration to our homeland. The United States and Canada imposed strict immigration quotas. Our people were slaughtered by the Nazis, but also because the rest of the world turned a deaf ear to our pleas. On the other hand, Jews already settled in Palestine, Zionists, put their lives on the line to smuggle imperiled European Jews into Palestine. Occasionally, they succeeded. More often, the British turned them back. At the end of the Holocaust, millions of Jews had no place to go. Thousands upon thousands of our people were refugees, living for years in Concentration Camps, now called Displaced Persons Camps, operated by the victorious allies.

The 19th Century proved to the world that enlightenment would not bring an end to anti-Semitism. The Holocaust proved that our Jewish people could not be safe in this world without a free and secure independent Jewish state. No other nation on the world would guarantee the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people. Only the Jewish people, with a Jewish State, could accomplish that vital task. Liberating and saving the life of one’s own people is not racism. Zionism is not racism.

Finally, Zionism is not racism, because Israel is a democracy. To be perfectly honest, the State of Israel was founded as a paradox. On the one hand, it is a Jewish State. To preserve the unique Jewish character of Israel and to secure the survival of our people, Israel must maintain a solid Jewish majority. On the other hand, all citizens of Israel have the right to vote, be they Arab or Jew, Muslim or Christian or Druze. By definition, Israeli Arabs are full citizens of Israel. At the same time, we must acknowledge that they are second class citizens. Arab and Druze Israelis are not part of the group by whom and for whom the nation exists.

Israel constantly struggles to get this balance right. Arabs sit in the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament. They elect their own local authorities. Muslims, Christians, and Druze have their own religious authorities with full autonomy in matters of marriage and divorce within their own communities. And yet, public housing for Arabs is not as commodious as public housing for Jews. Jewish schools are superior. Infrastructure, from roads to sewers, is better in Jewish areas.

In short, even before we embark on discussion of the Occupied Territories, Israel has a long way to go in its treatment of its non-Jewish citizens. And yet, Israel is a free country. The inequalities that I describe are detailed in the Israeli press and examined by Israeli courts. They are debated by Israeli society and managed openly by Israeli Cabinet Ministries. We, too, may join in the criticism. In June, our Central Conference of American Rabbis passed a resolution, calling upon Israel to end these inequities, to improve the lot of its minority citizens. Zionism is not racism, but the State of Israel, like every nation on Earth, could be better than it is.

We Reform Jews have a number of disagreements with the current Israeli government, and with its predecessors. Most emphatically, we have consistently opposed the addition and growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. We may question the intensity of Israeli military reprisals, even after the most heinous of Palestinian terror attacks. We urge the Israeli government to do everything in its power to return to the negotiating table, to bring peace to Jerusalem. In his column in this month’s Temple Bulletin, Rabbi Stahl noted that we may indeed criticize Israel, but we do so “out of love and out of a commitment to its ongoing survival and its prosperity.” We are Zionists. We love Israel. We support Israel. Because of that love and support, we want Israel to be better than it is.

Lest we forget, one more reason that Zionism is not racism must be emphasized: True Zionists support the eventual establishment of a Palestinian State. In 1947, when the United Nations voted to create Israel, it also voted to create an Arab State in Palestine, next to Israel. That vote represented a compromise. The Zionists accepted the solution. The Arabs declared war. In the summer of 2000, that two-state compromise was again offered by Israeli Prime Minister Barak, with the support of President Clinton. Tragically, Chairman Arafat declined. In the months since that day, Jewish support for a Palestinian state has eroded. And yet, tonight, as in 1947, we ask, may the Jewish people pray for the realization of the national hopes and dreams of the Palestinian people. Today, so different from 1947, may the Palestinian people accept the compromise. May they agree to live in their own nation, at peace, alongside the Jewish people in the State of Israel.

Zionism is not racism, because ultimately, Zionism is a messianic dream. For centuries, the Jewish people believed that the return to Zion would come only with God’s redemption in the coming of the Messiah. Then, in the last century, we took a first step to salvation: a State of Israel in a pre-Messianic world. We may yet dream of a world of perfect harmony. We may yet pray for a world without divisions of race or nation, color or creed. And yet, we do not live in that world. Until the Messianic Age arrives, Zionism is survival for the Jewish people. The State of Israel is not an option.

May the world soon know that Zionism is redemptive, as the Jewish people continues to find salvation in our ancestral homeland. Through the treatment of its Arab citizens, may Israel soon show the world that Zionism strives for a better future. May God find Israel pleasing, in the pursuit of peace, for Zionism is a beautiful dream.