It’s not racist to call the Israeli state a racist endeavour — it’s just not quite accurate.
We are consumed by the politics of outrage. Anti-racists are called the new racists, feminists the new oppressors, and transgender females closet misogynists. The first casualty of such a combative public sphere is not so much truth as the space for reasoned and inclusive debate.
As for the truth, its only constants are that it is messy and never wholly known. And in the politics of outrage, it is always reduced to at best selective facts, and at worst conscious manipulation.
From this perspective, the left’s support for the Palestinian cause has long been a necessary corrective to the propaganda war waged on behalf of the Israeli state by much of the mainstream press and largely compliant broadcasters. A restrictive focus on some facts over others — such as the oppressive and racist tendencies of the Israeli state compared to those of Hamas — is understandably adopted in the name of redressing the enormous imbalance in communicative (as well as military) power between the two regimes.
But it comes at the price of attending to the complexities of the conflict that might help navigate an achievable path to peace. What’s more, the left in Britain is now faced with having to defend its very legitimacy against largely fabricated charges of rampant anti-semitism. This pseudo-debate has chrystalised around a single point of contention: whether or not it is racist to call the Israeli state a ‘racist endeavour’.
The starting point to any attempt to grapple with the messiness of truth is to unpack the language around it. The Labour Party’s code of conduct at present encapsulates all of the controversial language contained within the ‘working’ definition of anti-semitism proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association, bar the single phrase attached to the term ‘racist endeavour’.
The official position of the party on this central issue can therefore be deduced as follows: it is not necessarily or intrinsically anti-semitic to deny the right of the Jewish people to self-determination by calling the Israeli state a racist endeavour.
Note the important and often overlooked distinction here between calling the Israeli state ‘racist’ and calling it a ‘racist endeavour’. The former is restricted to the present context whilst the latter invokes the historical basis on which the Israeli state was founded. The former admits the possibility that a Jewish state within the region could be something other than racist, the latter does not.
And there lies the rub. The Labour Party is seeking to protect a certain critical narrative about the nature and history of Zionism from the label of anti-semitism. And there is, at the heart of this narrative, an unavoidable and unassailable truth: that Israel’s existence as a ‘Jewish state’ can only be sustained by privileging the rights of Jews over those of Palestinians (at the very least, the full right of return that could result in Jews becoming a minority group even within Israel’s pre-occupation borders).
But to get from here to the assertion that Israel is an exclusively ‘racist endeavour’ involves a conceptual leap of epic proportions. For one thing, the context of the conflict at the time of Israel’s founding was radically different to the present day. The UN partition plan of 1947 was intended to create not one but two new independent states, including an Arab state and a Jewish state outside of the boundaries of Jerusalem and with Tel Aviv incurred by an Arab enclave (Jaffa).
Whilst Jews had been a continuous minority presence within Palestine for centuries, they constituted a majority group within the borders drawn up in the UN plan. The Jewish Agency for Palestine accepted the plan with reservations, citing the desperate need for asylum of Holocaust refugees. The Arab Higher Committee rejected the plan in its entirety, along with any legal or moral basis for a Jewish state in the region.
The result was the 1948 war, in which all of the Arab world mobilised against Israel and which, amidst the immediate backdrop of the Holocaust, the Israeli state was legitimately perceived by many Jews as a means of national survival.
Yet in the name of national survival, the nascent Israeli Defense Force (born largely out of the extremist, nationalist and terrorist paramilitary groups known as the Irgun and Hagana), committed horrific war crimes and atrocities, most notably the wholesale massacre of Palestinian villagers at Deir Yassin.
And so the uncomfortable and messy truth of how Israel came into existence lies somewhere between contesting narratives. It was in part a legitimate act of self-determination and humanitarian effort to provide refuge for the primary victims of the horrors unleashed by the Nazi genocide. And it was in part an exercise in ethnic cleansing perpetrated by racist idealogues who found themselves entrenched within the emergent Israeli military state.
In contrast to 1948, most of the Arab world today is complicit in the Occupation and, in the case of Egypt, actively propping up the siege of Gaza. As for Israel, it is far more plainly an oppressive state today than it was at the time of its founding, and it is entirely justifiable to call it a racist state. The recently enacted ‘nation state law’; the progressive confinement of Palestinians within besieged territory; and the brutal and vastly disproportionate violence unleashed against even non-violent forms of resistance make the parallels with Apartheid South Africa striking and compelling.
But Hamas is not the ANC which, for all its ills, was ideologically steeped in the broad tradition of democratic secularism. In contrast, the Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement upon which Hamas was founded advocates explicitly for a holy war against Jews and against anyone who denies exclusive Islamic sovereignty over the entire region of Israel-Palestine. To ignore this truth is to simply play into the hands of those who exploit it in order to justify Israel’s continuing subjugation of the Palestinian people.
Of course, the Palestinian resistance movement is no more reducible to the racist extremism of Hamas, than Zionism is reducible to the racist extremism of Israel’s ruling Likud Party (the political offspring of the Irgun). We can attend to the shades of grey on all sides without diluting our criticism and condemnation of Israeli oppression. We can acknowledge the nuances and complexities of Israel’s history and the broad spectrum of Zionist philosophy without compromising our rejection of those who advance an imperialist agenda in its name.
And we can do all this without giving an inch to those who exploit the issue of anti-semitism in an effort to delegitimise the left and stifle free speech on Israel.