Monday, November 9, 2009
Israel and White Supremacy
by Aaron Michael Love
In 1945 Jan Smuts, then prime minister of South Africa appealed to the UN for an article on human rights to be included in the United Nations Charter. This incident, cited in W.E.B Du Bois's remarkable book The World and Africa, is a powerful reminder of the contradiction in the European conception of freedom. Freedom only applies absolutely to the white man, temporarily excluding the complications of class and of course, gender. Du Bois argued that the Atlantic slave trade produced this schism materially and culturally, although its origins no doubt go much farther back in European history. He concludes, "nothing so vividly illustrates the twisted contradiction of thought in the minds of white men."
Much ink has been spilled bemoaning the Zionist lobby in the United States. The success of this lobby in the Washington and media establishment, in terms of its limited objectives, is no doubt spectacular. However, it is a strange success, which has made strange bedfellows when considering the history of anti-Jewish racism in the U.S. After all, how could such a lobby hold sway over the Christian Right, Waspish conservative think tanks and a Congress filled with southern gentlemen?
The answer is the Zionist organizations do not hold sway over anyone and to imply otherwise, as some do, has the unintended consequence of flirting on the margins of a major Fascist conceit. Instead, the answer can be found in the history of white supremacy and imperialism within the United States and Europe themselves. In other words, Zionist Apartheid is seen as an old fashioned war on people of color and, as such is perfectly attune to the historical psyche of white America. Rather than trying to "liberate" American foreign policy from Zionist influence, I think it would be much more fruitful to ask why Americans, particularly the political, business class, and certain sectors of the white middle class, love Israel so much.
In an indispensable article, "Antisemitism: Real and Imagined", Tim Wise writes, "Zionism is a form of white supremacy". There are few places where Zionism is placed firmly within the operation of whiteness, though it has been indirectly touched on many times before, most notably in discussions of the relationship between Ashkenazi and Sephardim and Mizrahim Jews in Israel. Indeed, as one Israeli Black Panther put it in 1972, "We must reach a situation in which we shall fight together with the Arabs against the establishment. We are the only ones who can constitute a bridge of peace with the Arabs in the context of a struggle against the establishment." Zionism, like white supremacy, albeit in different keys, is a war against savage Arabs and only a less savage Arab and African Jew.
My experience as a divestment and solidarity organizer over the last couple of years has brought me first hand knowledge of the Zionist paradox in the Jewish community. More than once, young Jews approached us, confessing they struggle to maintain a Jewish identity outside of whiteness, revealing young minds trying to grasp with the irony of an alliance between Jews and White Supremacy. Micah Bazant has spoken of "the Jewish establishment" giving "tremendous lip-service to the concern of Jewish assimilation" but instead contributes "to assimilation of the worst kind." He explains, "they claim to value real Jewish traditions of social justice and tikkun olam, but in fact they have sold out and assimilated to U.S. values of capitalism, racism and imperialism."
Zionism developed in a time of reinvigorated white supremacy in the latter part of the nineteenth century when European states were busily dividing up the land of Africa and Asia. In the confrontation with the indigenous people of Palestine, its ideology belongs within the history of European racial theories and, like the Afrikaner ideology of Jan Smuts, has little problem with seeing itself in the forefront of democracy and civilization in the Middle East while at the same time implementing and justifying the complete and utter subjugation of one its most prominent people.
However, to understand Israel/Palestine as defined systematically by racial oppression has yet to be elaborated on its own. This is odd, given that the racial oppression of the Palestinian people is at the heart of the matter; all other things--land laws, religion, pass laws, racially designated roads and neighborhoods, etc.--are symptoms. This should not come as any surprise: the racial definition of the Zionist project existed from the very beginning. Theodor Herzel in his 1896 pamphlet "The Jewish State" wrote it would "form a part of a wall of defense for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism." This is the same Herzel who stated that Zionist colonization would be "representatives of Western civilization," bringing "cleanliness, order and the well-established customs of the Occident to this plague-ridden, blighted corner of the Orient." Recall Chomsky memorably quoting Chaim Weizmann, first president of Israel, as saying of Palestine, "there are several hundred thousand negroes there but that this matter has no significance."
How little has changed. With the African liberation movements abroad and the civil rights struggle at home, the white supremacist war on African people has entered a new stage, but the war on the Arab has found its triumphant moment. In that story we hear about the Arab resistance to modernity in the infamous "Arab street", mitigated, of course, by friendly but nervous ruling classes. In the stirring street, like in the Intifada, we are told you find the irrational and the superstitious, not a working toward self-determination and freedom. And who holds the key to holding back this self-evident preternatural violence of the Palestinian and the Arab? Whether it is Bernard Lewis, the New York Times, the Heritage Foundation, Al Gore, the ADL or American Jewish Council Ads on Fox News, the answer is the Zionist State. Counterpoised to the Arab and the Palestinian in particular there is democracy, technology, Judeo-Christian values, the opera and shopping malls. Apartheid Palestine/Israel is necessary exactly because the Palestinian rejects all of these things. They hate "us". Unfortunately, the more honest imperialists say, this is a world of civilization and barbarism: Israel the white European nation in a sea of dark savagery.
That Israel should be in the vanguard of whiteness is actually a credit to the more than five decade old Palestinian struggle. The Palestinian struggle is on the fault-line of freedom and oppression and, as such, is in the forefront of the struggle against white supremacy and imperialism in the world today. Is it any wonder that the white supremacist imperialists holler the most when Palestine/Israel is brought up? It is exactly here that their "twisted contradiction" is most likely to be exposed. Apartheid Israel/Palestine is just another solution to the "problem of the color line." It is a solution that did not begin in 1948 but some 400 years ago and is still with us very much today.
Indeed, we have the rulers of the "western" world as proof. The idea of a Zionist lobby duping State Department officials, ignorant Congress people, the EU or UN bureaucrats, ignores the role of white supremacy. This complicates the popular Leftist view that America and Europe's largely unconditional support of the Zionist state is like a functional balance sheet: tallying the price between keeping a bully on the Middle East block, "a strategic asset", and bad relations with the wider Arab public. We should recall what Du Bois was trying to tell the Left in his day: race and class are not separable categories in modern world history.
But the implications go beyond the exigencies of Leftist anti-imperialism to the heart of the Palestinian struggle and solidarity itself. Typically, Palestine/Israel is argued in terms of an abstract discourse of "human rights", "UN resolutions", and "international law". This is problematic on several grounds. First, on a psychological level, the basic effrontery of Apartheid to human dignity is lost. On a more practical level, most Americans do not connect immediately to the Palestinian struggle because the direct connections to their historical experience are not revealed or emphasized. Further, rights, laws and resolutions bring a kind of equivalence to the Palestinian and Jewish experience in Israel/Palestine. The Zionist state can cite almost as many rights, laws and resolutions as their opponents. Even worse the application of these things, like the UN itself, is dominated by the United States. What is missing is a sense of right and wrong, of abnormality, and a lack of understanding the deep connections of the Palestinian struggle with the operation of the American historical psyche.
The importance of understanding white supremacy could also be important for the Palestinian struggle in Palestine/Israel. Israel Shahak wrote in his brilliant article:
"Analysis of Israeli policies: the priority of the ideological factor," that eventually, "the Palestinians are bound to perceive themselves first and foremost as victims of Israeli legal discrimination, applied against them by virtue of their being non-Jews. When this occurs, Israel's domestic and international position can be expected to become highly unstable."
Oppression-political, economic, legal, cultural-on the basis of race is what most intimately connects all Palestinians, at a most basic level, living throughout Palestine/Israel. If Shahak's observation is politically formulated and used in a struggle to trump the Zionist, white supremacist vision and enforcement of separation and expropriation, meanwhile coupled with an effective solidarity campaign to politically and economically isolate Israel, the Zionist state will eventually "become highly unstable" indeed.
I do not think this can be overstated at this time. Like the U.S. commitment to Israel, the Zionist commitment to the West Bank and Gaza exists over and above balance sheet considerations. Returning to Shahak's article, a particular passage is worth quoting in full:
"In other words, empirical evidence (valid as anything in politics can be valid) shows that Israeli policies are primarily ideologically motivated and that the ideology by which they are motivated is totalitarian in nature. This ideology can be easily known since it is enshrined in the writings of the founders of Labor Zionism, and it can be easily inferred from Israeli laws, regulations and pursued policies. Those who, like Arafat, his henchmen and most Palestinian intellectuals, have through all these years failed to make an intellectual effort to seriously study this ideology, have only themselves to blame for being stunned by all the developments of the 20 months after Oslo."
As I have tried to briefly lay out, the Zionist Apartheid project finds its force and appeal through its own conception of whiteness, not because Zionist organizations find better ways to get the ear of the white man. It is fully assimilated into this framework and all of its self-justification refers back to the matrix of white supremacy and empire. One cannot battle Zionism without battling white supremacy and the U.S. establishment--they are intimately linked. Seeking the ear of the establishment without speaking the truth about their racism underestimates their psychological and historical relationship with Apartheid. This means a solidarity built on an alliance with those who have been in the forefront of fighting white supremacy.
The brilliance of Du Bois's book is to show exactly how the "West" can be for human rights and for an unrelenting war on Arabs and, in particular, Palestinians. It explains how Jan Smuts in Du Bois's day or Shimon Peres in ours can lecture us on "human rights" and get away with it. Perhaps, most importantly, white supremacy reframes the Palestinian struggle in a historical continuum that better explains the reflexive support among a broad swathe of the American and European public for the Zionist adventure. It equally reframes it within a tradition that has deep reserves for overcoming the contradictions of race, freedom and oppression in European and American history with universal ideas of equality, democracy and fraternity, previously only thought available to the white man.
Originally Posted: Thursday, November 14, 2002