As Jews, we’ll never address racism while clinging to Zionism

JVL Introduction

Jewish communal bodies have rushed to express outrage at the murder of George Floyd, demonstrate their solidarity with black Americans and show their commitment to tackling racism more widely.

And rightly so.

But their words turn to ashes for Robert Cohen, when these same spokespeople are unable to condemn the same “vile racism” when it leads to the murder of 32-year-old autistic Palestinian, Eyad al-Halaq, just another incident in the deathly racial profiling by Israeli security.

And their concerns about the unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank are less because of its manifest injustice to the Palestinians, but because it might threaten Israel’s “Jewish and democratic” character.

“Until we drop Zionism as the lens through which we see the world, and our place within it, we will not understand why our project of national liberation has been, and remains, a racist endeavour for another people.”

This article was originally published by Micah's Paradigm Shift on Sat 6 Jun 2020. Read the original here.

As Jews, we’ll never address racism while clinging to Zionism

If you can’t make the connections, it’s best to keep quiet. If you can’t see how your own views on related matters may defeat your credibility, then say nothing. If you think someone else is being racist but you’re only concerned about security, you need to do some serious study and a bit of self-reflection. Otherwise, you end up looking disingenuous, or foolish, or both.

I’m afraid that’s what happened this week as Jewish leaders and community bodies in the UK looked to express their horror at the murder of George Floyd, demonstrate their solidarity with black Americans and show their commitment to tackling racism more widely.


Here’s a couple of examples of what I mean. First, from our UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis:

“We cannot stand idly by as it [racism] takes hold of our societies. However, it is also not enough for us to simply join in with a superficial chorus of disapproval.  Real change calls upon us to find the courage to challenge racism wherever we come across it: on social media, in the streets, in our communities and in our hearts.”

The Chief Rabbi speaks the truth. But it’s his words that are “superficial” when you set them against his previous statements and interventions.

This is the same Chief Rabbi who denied Palestinian history, culture and rights when he welcomed Donald Trump’s Israeli/Jewish centric view of the status of Jerusalem in December 2017, even believing that it would “advance the cause of peace in the region”.

This is the same Chief Rabbi who chose to make his attack on Jeremy Corbyn during last year’s UK General Election on the very day that Labour leader had launched the party’s manifesto commitments to black and ethnic minorities, ensuring that those policy pledges received minimal media coverage. If the Rabbi had really cared about racism in our society, he might have chosen a different day to say his piece.

The second example is from President of the Board of Deputies, Marie van de Zyl who tweeted this:

“I feel haunted and also traumatised about this cold bloodied racist murder. We must show solidarity against hate and such vile racism.”

The “vile racism” of a white policeman choking to death a black man by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes is easy enough to condemn. It doesn’t take much thinking or much courage. Nothing much is at stake in saying this. What’s harder to recognise, and almost impossible to publically call out, is the structural racism that sits at the heart of an enterprise you insist on defending. But defending that kind of racism is exactly what the Board, and most other Jewish communal institutions do all the time.

The latest example of this came from the Board of Deputies only last week. In defending the Board’s decision not to take sides on the question of Israeli annexation of the parts of West Bank, Marie van de Zyl chose to use the idea of a Jewish and democratic State of Israel as her defence:

 “We also have to take into account that Israel – the only democracy in the Middle East – has an elected Government which reflects the will of Israeli voters.”

This is the kind of blindness to structural and institutional discrimination which she, and many others who champion Israel, just cannot bring themselves to see.

There are up to 300,000 Palestinians living in Area C of the West Bank where the major Settlements are located. It’s also the area over which Israel has total jurisdiction. Meanwhile, there are 65,000 Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley. None of them had a vote in the Israeli election, yet it’s their land which will be annexed if the proposal goes ahead. So while the “will of Israeli voters” matters, the Palestinians directly impacted by all this have no say whatsoever. That’s discrimination based on ethnicity and religion – also known as racism.

Other statements of solidarity and compassion came from the Union of Jewish Students , Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism – all of them attempting to reach out to those hurting but failing to acknowledge the troubling racism that’s much closer to home.

Double standards

A few days after George Floyd was murdered, a 32-year-old autistic Palestinian, Eyad al-Halaq, was shot dead in East Jerusalem by Israeli border police.

Eyad al-Halaq was on his way to a school for children and adults with disabilities when police say they saw him carrying a “suspicious object that looked like a pistol.” The police officers chased him and then fired shots which killed him. After conducting a body search they found no weapon. Israeli news reports say the police thought he was a terrorist because he was wearing gloves. According to his family, Eyad had the mental age of a six-year-old and wouldn’t have understand what was going on but would have run in fear.

This kind of deathly racial profiling by Israeli security forces is nothing new.

Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, a respected Palestinian leader for decades, reacted to the event by reminding us that “Israel has been on a killing spree,” with the latest “execution-style killing” bringing to at least 21, the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli occupation forces since January.

Of course none of the Jewish voices commenting on George Floyd in Minneapolis have had a word to say about the killing of Eyad al-Halaq or the 21 other killings (so far) this year by Israeli security forces.

For our establishment Jewish spokespeople, the death of Eyad al-Halaq was, at best, an unfortunate mistake on the part of the Israeli border police. For them, it remains a security matter not a race issue.

Our Jewish community leaders and the organisations they represent, are incapable of making the necessary race connections because they are trapped in an ideological bind. That ideological bind is called Zionism. It’s a bind which makes you see the actions of the State of Israel through the prism of Jewish history and Jewish security while blinding you to any competing perspectives that could disrupt your Jewish centric outlook.

Liberal Zionism can’t hide its racism

Even the most liberal Zionists end up hobbled in their ability to show true solidarity with those who face daily discrimination around the world based on race, ethnicity or religion.

This week more than forty prominent liberal Zionists in the UK, including historian Sir Simon Schama and novelist Howard Jacobson, wrote an open letter, published in Haaretz, to the outgoing Israel ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, conveying their “concern and alarm at the policy proposal to unilaterally annex areas of the West Bank”. Although the letter mentions “grave consequences” for the Palestinians, its primary concern is not injustice or discrimination but rather the damage it will do to Israel’s global standing, its “Jewish and democratic” character and the chances of a two-state solution.

Despite Israel being the occupier and the Palestinians the occupied, the signatories still portray the Palestinians as the primary authors of their own oppression:

“We appreciate the crucial role Palestinian violence, abandonment of negotiations and rejections of offers made by previous Israeli leaders have played.”

But it’s when it comes to BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) that their claimed liberalism is quickly abandoned and the racial discrimination which underpins their outlook is revealed. It turns out that their greatest fear is BDS:

“Annexation would be a shot in the arm for the BDS movement and the delegitimisation of Israel. It will take calls for sanctions against Israel away from the fringes of the far-left and catapult them into the mainstream of the political discourse.”

It’s a very telling formulation. The writers choose to reject a peaceful protest movement which is supported overwhelmingly by Palestinian civil society. It’s the liberal Zionists who are doing the “delegitimisation” here. The message at the heart of the BDS campaign is not the destruction of Israel but a call to treat everyone in Israel, and the territories it controls, equally. Once again, Palestinian resistance is presented only as a threat to Jewish security. God forbid, that this “far-left” desire for fairness and equality might just go “mainstream”!

It’s impossible for even liberal Jewish supporters of Israel to recognise the structural and institutional racism they inhabit while they cling to the idea that only an exclusive Jewish sovereignty in Israel/Palestine can guarantee Jewish security. The longer this idea is treated as a universal law of nature rather than a sorely overrated political ideology, the longer it will take to recognise and then shed a racist mind set.

While America has spent decades struggling to acknowledge and rectify its past, Israeli Jewish society remains locked in a state of denial, with no hint of even beginning the struggle to re-evaluate its foundational stories. The same goes for the communities around the world who’ve placed Israel and Zionism at the centre of their Jewish identities. And that means the racism goes on, hard wired into Jewish institutions and culture around the world.

Until we drop Zionism as the lens through which we see the world, and our place within it, we will not understand why our project of national liberation has been, and remains, a racist endeavour for another people.

So how should Jews show solidarity?   

So what should the white Jewish response be to what’s been happening in America and in Israel in recent days? And what can we do to begin to address the racism that sits within us?

As Jews we have a history of discrimination and hatred towards us, including state sanctioned brutality and murder. Today, thankfully, white Jews living in liberal democracies (and that’s most of us) don’t experience the daily social, economic and political discrimination faced by people of colour every day.

We can, and should, stand in solidarity with those for whom racism is a daily lived reality, and we can, and must, draw on our own history and experience to find empathy. And when people of colour ask us to look closely at ourselves and the prejudices that shape our outlook, Zionism has to be a big part of that individual and communal self-reflection.



Comments (8)

  • Dr ALAN MADDISON says:

    Excellent article and so important.

    Jewish communities, like those for the rest of society, will have their blatant racists (around 25%) who will care little about the discrimination and abuse inflicted daily on Palestinians.

    Some, who are not racist, may turn a blind eye because they see such racism as a price worth paying to protect Israel.

    Others, like you Robert, will condemn such violations of human rights outright.

    But it seems difficult to have a reasoned debate between these groups.

  • dave says:

    The liberal Zionists – of whom there are several in my own family – are the worst in my view. What do they think the present reality of Israel is? Do they really think that a ‘negotiated two state solution’ would leave an Israel that is an acceptable democracy? They refer to a ‘Jewish democracy’ – if that’s not an oxymoron, I don’t know what is.

    At least with people such as Geoffrey Alderman we know where we are – as he tweeted the other day:

    “Sadly, the signatories fail to see [or perhaps are incapable of seeing] the proposed annexation in its historical context – the righting of a wrong. There already is a 2-state solution: Israel & Jordan. They want a 3-state solution!”

  • excellent article by Robert Cohen. In Brighton PSC is putting together an open letter to the Council leader, Labour and the Green Party leader, after they sent a message of solidarity to Black Lives Matter describing themselves as anti-imperialists. The same people passed the IHRA 18 months ago. The IHRA is nothing if not an integral part of the imperialist narrative demonising anyone who is pro-Palestinian as antisemitic.

  • RC says:

    Is there any difference between ‘caring little’ and ‘turning a blind eye’? The Yom haYerushalayim marchers (including Ephraim Mirvis in, I believe, 2015) with their loud cries of Mavet La’aravim [“death to the Arabs”] surely do care a lot about the discrimination and abuse visited daily on Palestinians; they care because they are discriminators and abusers. They constitute a fourth bloc who drag the rest along behind the systematic murderers who form Israeli governments (and, currently, the American). And along follow the so-called JLM, old uncle Keir Starmer and almost all the LP bureaucracy and PLP. Notably John Spellar dismisses the eminently balanced article ‘the killing of Jeremy Corbyn’ as ‘moon howling’. Were it not for their slavish devotion to the so-called special relationship, one would regard their credulity in the myth of Labour’s serious antisemitism as stark staring mad (or as cynical realpolitik) – indeed ‘moon howling’. These are the people who judge us to be antisemitic racists.

  • Abe Hayeem says:

    Excellent exposure of the hypocrisy of the BOD and the Chief Rabbi Mirvis in proclaiming their abhorrence of racism while denying what is going on in Israel with its brutal occupation and the murderous actions of the IDF, ‘the most moral army in the world’. Similarly with the eminent figures who signed the anti-annexation letter to the Israeli Ambassador, who couched their supposed concern with mealy-mouthed support for Israel’s ‘democracy’, while again denouncing the ‘far left’ who have always stood up for human rights wherever is is breached.
    Many statements in this article would contradict the examples in the IHRA definition of antisemitism pertaining to Israel but which have proved glaringly true. That political Zionism in practice is a racist and apartheid endeavour, and that the constant refuting of international law and UN Resolutions, and particularly Israel’s National State Law and the illegal annexations and occupation makes its legitimacy being questioned. No wonder many anti-Zionist Jews in the Labour Party are being subject to suspensions and expulsions, as a threat to the exposure of Israel’s true nature as projected by the most right wing government in its history.

  • Peter Jones says:

    Thank you Robert Cohen and JVL. At a public meeting in South Wales in February 2018 addressed by a JVL speaker under the title “Supporting Palestinian Rights is not Anti-Semitism” a question from the audience “Does Labour have a problem with Anti-Semitism?” produced such a busy discussion that I had no opportunity to put a question forming in my mind: “Does Judaism have a problem with Zionism?”

    Robert Cohen, the author of the essay above, describes himself as “the wrong kind of Jew” – using the words that Chaim Weizmann, then a leading figure in the nascent little-known Zionist movement and subsequently the first president of Israel, gave in response to Arthur Balfour when the two first met in early 1906. Avi Shlaim, (in the Guardian, June 2009) reports the conversation like this:-
    “Are there many Jews who think like you?” wondered Balfour.
    “I believe I speak the minds of millions of Jews,” replied Weizmann.
    “It is curious,” Balfour remarked, “the Jews I meet are quite different.”
    “Mr Balfour,” said Weizmann, “you meet the wrong kind of Jews.”
    (End of quote)

    Hajo Meyer opens his 2007 book “The End of Judaism An Ethical Tradition Betrayed” with a quotation from Rabbi Hillel (1st century B.C.) “That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbour. That is the whole of the Torah.”

    It was the difficulty I had in reconciling the actions, attitudes and behaviours of the Zionist movement’s adherents over the preceding century with the ethical tradition quoted by Hajo Meyer that prompted the formation of my unasked question of two years ago.

    Thus I am now grateful to Robert Cohen, supposedly “the wrong kind of Jew”, for answering my question so unequivocally: “As Jews, we’ll never address racism while clinging to Zionism.”

  • Mike Dixon says:

    We could do with an alliance across the Abrahamic faiths united against ALL racism and for peace and new economic order against neoliberalism.

  • Typically honest and principled material from Robert, calmy argued and cogently expressed. Hope the hyenas don’t get after him.

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