Anti-racists who question Zionism are not racists

Keith Landy, the head of the Canadian Jewish Congress says that those who question the Zionist underpinnings of Israel as racist, are racists themselves, and are no better than Hitler. Yet a look at the Zionist face of Israel, suggests that those who question it, are hardly motivated by anti-Semitism, but are troubled by its double-standards, its brutal disregard for Palestinians who were displaced by the birth of Israel, and its inability to come to terms with the problems it has created.

At the center of criticism of the Zionist character of Israel is the Palestinian diaspora. When hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians fled Kosovo to the safety of Macedonian refugee camps at the height of the 1999 NATO air war against Yugoslavia, the United States and its allies said that the Kosovars must be allowed to return to their homes, otherwise the ethnic cleansing they alleged the Serbs had engineered, would become a fait accompli. UN prosecutors charged that  Kosovars fled the embattled province because they were driven out of their homes by Serb forces intent on “purifying” the area, at the behest of Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic’s defenders say Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians  didn’t care to stick around in the middle of a civil war  in which they might become “collateral damage,” and so fled to the safety of  Macedonia. But driven out involuntarily or not, the refugees right to return home remained intact. And NATO saw to it.

But a half a century earlier, in 1948, thousands of Palestinians fled what is now Israel, a country Zionists had anointed “a land without people for a people without land”, in the convulsions that led to the birth of the Jewish state. Zionists celebrate the birth of  Israel as the creation of a refuge from the persecution Jews have historically faced.  But Palestinians call it Al Nakba, the disaster.  Some say the Palestinians were driven from their homes, and, in a cruel twist, became victims of persecution themselves, forced into squalid refugee camps, where hundreds of thousand still live.  Others say the Palestinians left voluntarily, driven out by irrational fears. But either way, the question of the Palestinian diaspora became unavoidable. What was to be done with the refugees?

For the international community, the answer was plain. The refugees must be allowed to return to their homes. But for Israelis, the primacy of Israel as a Jewish state, made the answer equally plain. Palestinians must never be allowed to return. Return would dramatically change the ethnic face of Israel, transforming the country from a Jewish-run refuge against persecution into a multiethnic state, where Palestinians, by their numbers, could dominate the life of the country. How could Jews maintain a safe-haven, if they hadn’t control of the country?  And so countless UN resolutions calling on Israel to allow the refugees to return to their homes were — and are  — stubbornly  ignored. “The Palestinian right of return,” says Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee, “is just not on.”

Whatever its motivations, it’s hard not to label a country that has rebuffed innumerable UN resolutions a rogue, especially one that’s been thumbing its nose at international law for over 50 years. But sure as Israel has been able to cement the Palestinian diaspora by refusing to budge on the right of return, it’s been able to escape the infamy that regularly blowing raspberries at the international legal order would bring to other countries less firmly under the protective wing of Washington.

Iraq, its neighbour, hasn’t. For the transgression of invading Kuwait, Iraq has paid the price of being reduced to medieval backwardness, while simultaneously being strangled by a decade of cruel, inhuman, sanctions, that have left well over a million dead and the country without the resources to repair the civilian infrastructure razed by an American military ever eager to flex its ample military muscles. Like some pumped up, steroid-enhanced behemoth pummelling  bespectacled cadaver look-a likes at the beach to impress preening young blondes scantily bedecked in revealing thongs, the United States struts the globe with its ever fawning coterie of preening journalists seeking out new opportunities to display its massive pecs. Iraq, unfortunately, was an easy target, one of many easy targets Americans have, over many decades, taken delight in trampling, and preening journalists, ever eager to be in the thick of what they call “the boom-boom,” have taken  equal delight in covering.

And yet, what are Iraq’s crimes compared to Israel’s? Israel continues to occupy the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, as it has done for over 30 years, in violation of international law. It occupied Lebanon illegally for more than two decades. It allowed, in the person of its current Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, the slaughter of refugees at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps, home to homeless Palestinians, one in a list of many massacres that bear Sharon’s name. The IDF, the Israeli army, has killed hundreds of civilians in the current uprising, or Intifada, often for the offense of throwing stones. Israel’s heavy-handed response has been censured by the UN, and condemned by the International Red Cross and Amnesty International, the latter of which accuses Israel of actions that border on war crimes. And despite the censure, Israel has escalated its violent response to the uprising, meting out collective punishment, carrying out extrajudicial assassinations, razing Palestinian dwellings to the ground, and refusing to allow international observers in occupied territories it has no right to be in.

Consider the parallels. Iraq has been brutalized by a decade of sanctions to enforce compliance with a UN resolution to destroy weapons of mass destruction. The sanctions, political scientists John and Karl Mueller note, have “contributed to more deaths during the post Cold War era than all the weapons of mass destruction throughout history.” And Scott Ritter, a former UN arms inspector, says Iraq is effectively disarmed, and yet sanctions continue.  Meanwhile, Israel is estimated to have a stockpile of 200 nuclear weapons, but there are no sanctions against Israel and no UN arms inspections. Why the double standard? Apologists say Iraq must be treated harshly  because it violated international law by invading and occupying Kuwait. But Israel invaded and occupied Lebanon, and has shown no signs of quitting the occupied territories.

Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia, languishes in a Dutch prison at The Hague, awaiting trial for persecution, deportation, and the murder of over 600 (about the same number of Palestinians who have been murdered by the IDF in the Al-Aqsa Intifida.) Milosevic’s offence was to order a crackdown on Albanian guerillas operating in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, similar to what the IDF is doing to Palestinians, except Kosovo wasn’t invaded by Serbia, and illegally occupied. It’s part of Serbia. Nor were Serb security forces gunning down civilians who threw stones.  And Milosevic allowed international observers into Kosovo. Ethnic Albanians have returned to their homes. Yet Sharon, with a long string of massacres behind him, allows the IDF to run roughshod over a resistance that’s taking place in territories that Israel invaded and refuses to relinquish. And he refuses to allow refugees to return to their homes, and he won’t countenance international observers in the occupied territories. If there’s a case to made  for Milosevic to be in The Hague, there’s a infinitely more compelling case for Sharon to be there. But Israeli leaders have spent the last half century brazenly trampling international law with impunity, safe under the protective aegis of the United States. Don’t expect Sharon to get, what tireless researcher Rick Rozoff calls “the Milosevic treatment.”

A shield encircles Israel. Criticizing the country, its leaders, and its Zionist underpinnings, is a task not to be entered into lightly.

all Israeli actions are legitimate and perfectly understandable responses to the hostility of its neighbours;

all criticism of Israel is motivated by anti-Semitism;

Israeli lapses can be excused because the Jews have faced horrible persecution in the past;

the world’s grim history of pogroms, of anti-Semitism, of the Jewish holocaust, confer upon Israeli Jews rights that supersede those of Palestinians who have not been similarly persecuted throughout the ages.

Landy underscores the dangers of straying beyond these boundaries.  Those who declare Zionism equal to racism, says Landy, “pick up where Hitler and the Nazis left off,” while the declaration that Israel is “a new kind of apartheid, a crime against humanity and a serious threat to international peace and security,” is the handiwork of racists and anti-Semites. Clearly, Israel, with its arsenal of 200 nuclear weapons, with its bloody minded refusal to bring a just resolution to the Palestinian diaspora, with its contemptuous disregard for numberless UN resolutions, with its helicopter gun ships that fire missiles into apartment buildings, with its penchant for invading and occupying its neighbour’s territories, is a very real threat to peace and international security. A dispassionate review of Israel’s record, not anti-Semitism, leads to that conclusion. But Landy is making it known that openly questioning Israel has its penalties.  You’ll be denounced as a racist, an anti-Semite, a Nazi. This is bullying of the highest order, and it’s effective. Those whose anti-racist credentials are impeccable, who are troubled by the second-class citizenship of Israeli Arabs, the continued growth of the settlements in occupied territories, the racial slurs hurled at Palestinians by some Israeli leaders, immediately back off. They don’t want to be called anti-Semites anymore than they want to be unjustly accused of being pedophiles. And as for Jews who criticize Israel,  some of them among the most ferocious critics of Israel, there’s always the put down: “he’s a self-hating Jew. ” It’s like being sent to a Soviet insane asylum for questioning Stalin. Only the insane would question Stalin, therefore, anyone who questions Stalin is insane. Only anti-Semites would question Israel, therefore anyone who questions Israel is a racist, an anti-Semite.

It would be racist to say that racists can’t be found among all the peoples of the world, that some race or group of people have somehow escaped the worst traits of humanity, that one group is above question.

Racists can be found everywhere, among all people, Palestinians, Jews, and no less in Israel, or in the Canadian Jewish Congress, than in Gaza or the PLO.

And so too bullies.

Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.

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