Zionism, Non-Jews and the Israeli State

Against the Current, No. 100, September/October 2002

Ur Shlonsky

ISRAEL SHAHAK, THE late human rights activist and anti-Zionist militant, once remarked that for at least the last 200 years, Jews have demanded equal rights in every country in which they’ve lived—with the remarkable exception of Israel, the Jewish state.  [See note 1]

Israel has always founded its institutions on the denial of equality to non-Jews.  From the beginning, a good half a century before 1948 when the state of Israel was established, Zionist ideology has held strict opposition to equality for non-Jews as a fundamental principle.

The principle of inequality for non-Jews requires, first of all, that the relevant population groups be defined.  It is therefore not surprising that the dichotomy Jew/non-Jew cuts across nearly all the social, demographic, juridical and cultural institutions of Israeli life.

Consider, as an instructive example, how the requirement of this opposition affects the tables of vital statistics in the Israeli Annual Statistical Abstract. [See note 2]  Vital statistics include demographic information on population growth, the regional distribution of the population, immigration, household size etc.

The figures are, in general, cross classified by familiar parameters such as sex and age. However, the cross-classification into religious categories in virtually every table is quite striking.  [See note 3]

Every modern country, of course, is concerned with demographic data and every country has a national statistical office that collects data on births, deaths, immigration, etc. What is unique in the case of Israel, however, is the omnipresence of religious categories.  [See note 4]

In 1995, the Israeli statistical bureau introduced the parameter “population group,” a category with two values: “Jews and Others” and “Arabs.”  The former includes Jews, non-Arab Christians (many immigrants from the former Soviet Union fall into this sub-category) and those unclassified by religion; the latter includes Moslems, Arab Christians and Druze.

Careful reading of the definitions that come along with these categories reveals the emergence, for the first time in Israeli history, of an ethnic definition of Jew. (Arabs were always defined ethnically.)  [See note 5]

Troubling Precedents

We find a troubling parallel between the Israeli preoccupation with demographic data on ethnicity and religion and that of Rwanda before the ethnic cleansing of 1994, as described by Alison Des Forges.  Des Forges argues that the existence of relatively precise data on the demographic distribution of Tutsis was a factor that facilitated “the most rapid genocide in modern history.”  [See note 6]

One is also led to think of the Wannsee protocols, recently studied by William Selzer. [See note 7]  These infamous minutes of the Nazi conference held in Berlin in January 1942—brought to light during the postwar Nuremberg trials—contained a table detailing the number of Jews in each of the thirty-five European countries.  The table was accompanied by detailed explanations on the impact that differences between each country’s definition of “Jew” would have on the count.

What is the purpose of the opposition Jew/non-Jew?  In the first place, it serves as the basis of a broad discriminatory legislation.  For instance, the Israeli Land Authority, which is the executive organ of the Jewish National Fund, forbids the lease of land under its control (92% of Israel’s land belong to the Jewish National Fund) to non-Jews.

Constraints of the same order are imposed on non-Jewish access to water for agriculture, or eligibility for government financial assistance.  In effect, a large part of the latter are granted solely to citizens who’ve performed their military service, or who would have performed it had they not been exempt as Orthodox Jews. [See note 8]

In addition, when it comes to naturalization, Israel practices the jus sanguinus, where blood or ethnicity are the defining elements.  Thus, automatic Israeli citizenship is granted to “Jews and Other Christians” (see definitions cited in note 5), but not to non-Jews.

It is precisely this non-territorial concept of citizenship that underpinned the exclusion of Jews in pre-modern Europe.  “By its very nature,” wrote the commentator Aharon Barnea in Ha’aretz on April 11, 1991, “such a version of nationality engenders intolerance toward foreigners, giving rise to the idea that religious or ethnic groups living in such a country can’t be integrated into the spirit or the constitutive substance of the country, even if their ancestors lived there for centuries.”

Barnea concludes his exposé by stating that “the character of the state of Israel which wishes to be democratic on the one hand, and on the other hand to be the state of the Jewish people .  .  .  gives rise to a contradiction which can only end in calamity.”  [See note 9]

The Language of “Transfer”

The principal and explicit aim of the Zionist program and practice is to increase the number of Jews in Eretz Israel and shrink the number of non-Jews, i.e. the Arabs living there.

The idea of expelling the Palestinians, called “transfer” in Israeli political language, is woven into Zionist discourse from its early beginnings.  Recently, however, it has fully entered public debate.

There is a hard-core or aggressive version of “transfer,” like that of ex-Minister Avigdor Lieberman.  In the tradition of Orthodox Rabbi Meir Kahane, Lieberman proposed the physical expulsion of the Palestinians beyond the frontiers of Greater Israel, stretching from Jordan to the Mediterranean, if they refuse to sign a loyalty oath to Israel as a Jewish state.

Then there is a soft-core version called “voluntary transfer” proposed by the recently assassinated Rehavam Zeevi.  Finally, one comes across Minister Efi Eitam’s transfer “under necessity.”

Questioned on his conception of the “voluntary transfer” of the Palestinians, Minister of Tourism Rabbi Benny Ayalon compared the “voluntary” aspect of transfer with that of a Jewish husband who refuses to grant a divorce to his wife.

Since the rabbinical court doesn’t have the authority to untie a marriage without the husband’s consent, the religious authority must use force: excommunicate the obstinate husband, beat him, and imprison him until he “voluntarily” repudiates his wife. That’s the way to make the Palestinians leave “voluntarily,” he explained.

The program of the Likud-Labor government presently in power is to carry the Zionist enterprise to its conclusion by transforming all of Eretz Israel into a Jewish state with a minimum of non-Jewish inhabitants.  The public debate centers on what “minimum” means; in “left” Labor-party dominated research institutions, the consensus is that a proportion of 8/2 in the favor of Jews is “something we can live with.”

Opportunity for “Redemption”

The consensual view of the political majority in Israel and that of the Sharon government was characterized succinctly by Israeli peace activist Uri Avneri: “The 1948 war isn’t over: only 78% of Palestine has been liberated.”

In effect, as Israel Shahak reminds us, the term used in Hebrew isn’t “liberate” (mechuxrar) but “redeem.”  The Hebrew word for redemption is ge’ula, borrowed from Orthodox-mystical Jewish theology where it refers to redemption both of the individual soul and of the Jewish people, which will be achieved with the arrival of the Messiah, once Jews govern the entire world.

According to Zionist doctrine, “redemption of the land” simply means that if a morsel of land is possessed collectively or individually by Jews, it’s “redeemed.”  The 1948 war left 22% of the land [i.e.  the West Bank and Gaza—ed.] in non-Jewish hands and the nation’s essential task now is to redeem that part of Eretz Israel.

A window of opportunity recently opened.  Russia and Europe have effectively been eliminated as world powers, and the single remaining power, America, provides Israel with virtually unlimited political, economic and military support.

It can be safely assumed, according to Israeli analysts, that this support will continue even if some extreme measures are deployed.  Besides, experience shows that even if some American government circles are occasionally troubled by Israeli actions, they end up keeping quiet.  This seems to be a fairly precise evaluation of American policy.

Three conditions must be satisfied in order to guarantee the success of Israel’s program.

  1. The Palestinian resistance must be broken.

  2. Public support must be ensured and the active participation by at least a section of Israeli society needs to be counted on operationally.

  3. International criticism must be silenced.

In regard to the first condition, Uri Avneri identifies four means.

  1. Continuous military operations. The entire army must be involved in operations targeting the whole of Palestinian society.  No distinction should be made between the movements and the political parties.  Hamas, Fatah etc. should all be equally attacked.  The civilian population must be terrorized, assuring maximal destruction of property and cultural treasures.

  2. Massive expulsions as in 1948 can only be carried out under exceptional conditions, i.e. war. Action should therefore be taken to destabilize the regimes and societies of the region, to create conditions for a much wider war. In parallel, the daily life of the Palestinians must be rendered unbearable: They should be locked up in the cities and towns, prevented from exercising normal economic life, cut off from work places, schools and hospitals.  This will encourage immigration and weaken the resistance to future expulsions.

  3. The Palestinian political class must be eliminated: either by direct assassinations, by detentions or by expulsions.

  4. Finally, it’s necessary to continue and expand the settlement activity and “redemption” of land. After all, wasn’t it Nobel Prize winner Yitzhak Rabin who proclaimed that “every Jew has an inalienable right to live anywhere in Eretz Israel”?  (Interview in Ma’ariv on the eve of Passover, 1995.)

Toward Ethnic Cleansing?

It is patently clear that such “sociocide” can only increase the motivation for Palestinian suicide attacks.  These, in the perspective of Sharon et al, should be encouraged.

Terrorism poses no threat to the State, its army or its institutions, and constitutes an investment with high returns: Arbitrary violence against civil society sows immense panic, feeds fear and hatred of the Arabs.

It forms a central ingredient in the construction of an image of Israelis and Jews as persecuted victims.  “We are besieged.  We’re again fighting a battle of life and death,” proclaims Avi Shavit in an article in Ha’aretz[See note 10]

In short, the human bombs in the cafes and buses assure ever broader and deeper support for a project of ethnic cleansing.  Israeli civil society is authorized and encouraged to use force that becomes justified as a means of self-defense.  All the elements are put in place for what Des Forges, in the Rwandan context, called “the genocidal campaign.”

Further, continued kamikaze actions and the media coverage they elicit furnish a central element in the struggle to rally world public opinion to the Zionist cause.

Mobilizing Jewish Support. . .

Finally, let’s consider the Israeli strategy for facing up to the indignation its program provokes in the West. One of the principal weapons of the Zionist movement for silencing the growing criticism consists of mobilizing the Jewish communities.

In this context it becomes necessary to utilize, and in the long run to encourage, hatred of Jews in Europe and elsewhere in order to create Jewish solidarity with the Zionist project.  And so the self-proclaimed leadership of these communities has as an essential task: to convey and sustain a Jewish identity centered on total identification with Israel, and to disparage and marginalize all other forms of Jewish identity.

One might quote in this regard the recent words of Alfred Donath, President of the Swiss Federation of Jewish communities:

“The only real ally of Israel is the Jewish people.  We must sustain it and its democratically elected leaders, whoever they may be, with their qualities and their faults, their firmness and their errors, their bravery and their faux pas. Whether we agree with their politics or whether we do not understand all the decisions of government.  Today it is indecent to mingle our voices with those of its detractors.”  [See note 11]

. . . And A New Anti-Semitism

From a religious standpoint, a leader of the Neturei Karta community, ultra-orthodox but anti-Zionist, Rabbi Leibele Weisfisch, who died about ten years ago, once said to me: “Nazism destroyed Judaism physically, Zionism destroyed it spiritually.”

At the same time, the official Jewish establishment marginalizes and casts aside an entire European Jewish tradition, very involved in the construction of the culture of modern secular Europe at least since the 18th century Enlightenment.  This heritage includes a universalistic, working-class, socialist tradition but also a language, a literature and a community network which was at the same time both European and Jewish.

Meanwhile, by calling upon “all Jews” to form a bloc behind Israel, by identifying the whole Diaspora with the Jewish state and all Jews with Zionism, the Zionists help to strengthen, alongside the “classic” Anti-Semitism which was never totally defeated, a new Anti-Semitism, carefully constructed and nourished by the amalgam of Jew/Zionist.

The 19th century German socialist leader, August Bebel, contemptuously referred to popular Anti-Semitism as “the socialism of fools.”  Today, as the French political writer Daniel Bensaid says so well, “after having been ‘the socialism of fools’, Anti-Semitism could become the ‘anti-imperialism of fools.'”

  1. Israel Shahak, Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years. Pluto Press, 1994.
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  2. Statistical Abstract of Israel, 2000www.cbs.gov.il/shnatonenew.htm.
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  3. Religious affiliation is an imposed status in Israel and never a matter of personal choice.  All identity cards issued to residents include a religious affiliation (called “nationality”), which is extremely difficult to challenge legally.  Judaism differs from Islam or Christianity, however, in that it is also a racial category, like skin color, although, unlike skin color, it has a metaphysical and not a genetic basis.
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  4. Compare the classification categories used in the United Kingdom (including Northern Ireland) census: Population and Vital Statistics by area of Usual Residence in the United Kingdom 2000.
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  5. “Starting with the 1995 Census, due to the arrival of many immigrants not listed as Jews in the Ministry of the Interior, the definitions of religion and population group were altered in the population estimates tables.  The Christian group was divided in two—Arab Christians and Other Christians, according to several criteria: locality of residence, nationality and country of birth.  An Arab Christian is defined as anyone living in an Arab Locality or anyone who lives in another locality, but is listed as having an Arab nationality in the Ministry of the Interior.  If these details were missing whoever was born in an Arab country or in Israel, but to a father born in an Arab country, was included in the Arab Christians group.  The rest of the Christians are defined as Other Christians (not Arabs).  Another group presented separately since 1995 is the group unclassified by religion in the Ministry of the Interior.  The persons in this group are usually family members of Jewish immigrants, as is usually the case with other Christians.”  (www.cbs.gov.il/shnatonenew.htm)
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  6. Des Forges, Alison.  No Witness Shall Survive: The Genocide in Rwanda. Human Rights Watch, International Federation of Leagues of Rights of Man, Karthala, 1999.  (www.hrw.org/reports/1999/rwanda/)
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  7. Seltzer,William.  “Population statistics, the holocaust and the Nuremberg trials.”  Population and Development Review, 24:3.  1998.
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  8. A recent example of Apartheid-style discrimination can be found in a Zionist Council proposal to cut the National Insurance Institute’s child allowances, starting from the fifth child, in order to limit the birth rate. Lili Galili comments (“A Jewish demographic state,” Ha’aretz, June 28, 2002):
    “As it is clear to everyone that the ultra-Orthodox who have large families will find some arrangement, especially in the age of the demographic struggle, this is obviously an attempt to limit the birth rate in the Arab sector.”
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  9. Galili (ibid.) writes:
    “The new interest in demography touches the core of the state’s being—its definition as a Jewish state.  For the first time in the history of public discourse here, even the most devout leftists are being required to confront their inner truth.  It is no longer possible to seek refuge in banal statements like ‘there is no contradiction between a Jewish and a democratic state,’ or hollow slogans about coexistence.  Anyone who clings to the concept of a Jewish state cannot ignore the demographic figures laid out in black and white in dozens of publications on the subject.  The character of the state, its identity card, now depends on the definitions derived from these figures.  The fact that the vast majority of Jewish citizens cling to the definition of Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ leaves no way out.”
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  10. Put an end to the Oslo ecstasy!” Reprinted in Le Courrier International, Number 520, October 19, 2000.
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  11. http://www.commentaires.com/documents/Pages/discdonath.htm
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Ur Shlonsky, a native Israeli and long-time anti-Zionist writer and activist, is professor at the University of Geneva.  This contribution is based on a talk given at the round table “Politico-religion overlaps in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: views from different vantage points” at the University of Geneva, June 10, 2002.  Barbara Zeluck assisted with the translation from the original French.

ATC 100, September-October 2002