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17 Years After Durban, is Zionism Racism After All?

On Wednesday, March 21 Israel handed out demolition orders to the residents of Umm al-Hiran, a Bedouin Village in the Negev. Umm al-Hiran, an “unrecognized village” which receives neither water, nor electricity, nor infrastructure from the Israeli government, has been slated for demolition since 2013 when the Israeli cabinet approved its destruction to make way for the Jewish town of Hiran.

For several years religious Jewish settlers have been living in an illegal outpost in the nearby Yatir forest awaiting the demolition, after which they will serve as the core of the cooperative association that will run the new town. Their outpost, though technically illegal, receives water, electricity, and recycling services from the State. During the multi-year negotiations between the government and the Bedouin they were promised they would be free to live in Hiran, but the future town’s by-laws, recently made public, show that in fact the Bedouin will not be allowed to live there. The Bedouin are instead being incentivized to move to Hura, one of seven problematic townships designed to forcibly urbanize them while keeping them at a distance from the rest of Israeli society, as the Forward reported in 2013.

How did the Bedouin end up in Umm al-Hiran in the first place? In 1956, after Israel expropriated the Bedouin’s land northwest of there and built Kibbutz Shoval, the Bedouin were forcibly relocated to Umm al-Hiran by the Israeli military. The Israeli State Attorney has agreed that the land was leased to the Bedouin for “residence, agriculture and grazing” but protested that since they were Bedouin, they were expected to “live under the stars”, not decide to build an actual village; hence their home can be taken for Jewish settlement.

A moment of reflection on how the state would treat the Bedouin if they were Jews instead, taking into account the long history of accommodating enterprising Jewish settlement activities whether legal or illegal, is enough to highlight the grievous problem here. The Israeli state favors one ethnic group at the expense of all others and is willing to act in immoral and even illegal ways to do so.

There’s a word for that: racism.

In 2001 the now infamous UN Conference Against Racism was convened in Durban. The conference, a seemingly well-intentioned effort to battle “racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance” as the program declared, was according to many reports infected by an extreme rage against Israel’s behavior towards the Palestinians, a rage which spilled over into hate-filled rhetoric against Israel and Jews in general. Copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were reportedly handed out, as well as pamphlets depicting Hitler and asking, “What if I had won? No Israel, No Palestinian bloodshed.”

In many ways, Durban was a prototype for the excesses of pro-Palestinian movements since, with the equations of Israel with Nazi Germany and other extreme, polarizing rhetorical flourishes so unfortunately deployed amidst the otherwise just call for Israel to take seriously the rights and needs of Palestinians.

The most well-known event of the conference, however, was a draft resolution which equated Zionism with racism. This would have been a dizzying reversal of the 1991 statement overturning the UN’s 1975 declaration making that equation. Israel and the US withdrew in protest, and the equation “Zionism=racism” was removed from the final version.

“Zionism is racism.” Were they right?

With unspeakable irony Israel planned to begin it’s controversial deportation of African asylum seekers on the first day of Passover this year, sending nearly 40,000 unwanted dark-skinned people into nebulous, dangerous futures rather than welcome them into Zionist society. Challenges from Israeli civil society resulted in the Supreme court staying the deportations, followed by a deal brokered with the UN which would allow half of the asylum seekers to settle in safer Western countries and half to stay in Israel. Yet hours after that deal was reached, Netanyahu froze it pending consultation with the residents of South Tel Aviv, some of whom have vocally opposed the African presence in their neighborhoods.

Both before and after this decision Benjamin Netanyahu called the African migrants “infiltrators,” using a Hebrew word, “mistanenim” which has a long history of use in modern Israel. It was first used in 1948 and the years following to describe Palestinians attempting to return to their lost homes after the war of independence. For this toxic version of Zionism, Palestinian or African, all are mistanenim, unwanted interlopers in the Jewish ethno-state.

Some protest that the African asylum seekers failed to achieve refugee status, but there are reasons to doubt the impartiality of Israel’s process for assessing asylum seekers. Of the cases of people claiming refugee status from Eritrea, an unstable country with no adequate protection for the human rights of its citizens, that have been heard in Israel, fewer than one percent have been accepted as genuine refugees, compared to a rate of about 97 percent for the approval of similar claims in Canada, as Jewish Canadian human rights activist Irwin Cotler recently told the CBC (Canada has so far agreed to take 1,845 of the Africans the Israeli government does not want).

Meanwhile in March it was announced that Palestinian Ahed Tamimi was sentenced to eight months in prison for slapping an Israeli soldier, in the same month that it was also announced that Elad Azoria, the IDF soldier who murdered an injured and neutralized Palestinian by shooting him in the head, will only serve nine months in prison- only one more than Ahed. All of this while the growth of settlements experiences a post-Drumpf surge, with the settler population in the West Bank growing at double the rate of the general Israeli population.

Both of these news items were soon justifiably drowned out by reports that, as many observers expected, Israel chose to respond to the March of Return protest in Gaza with live ammunition, injuring hundreds and killing at least 31. Out of the living nightmare of poverty, entrapment and hopelessness that is Gaza, desperate people, understandably so to any humane analysis, are rising up to do something in the face of an Israeli government that will do nothing to help the people whose borders and airspace it dominates other than throw enough scraps into their cage to keep them alive. While some sabotaged the border fence, threw molotov cocktails or stones, or burned tires, a much larger group of tens of thousands gathered peacefully. Palestinian twitter shows them forming human reading chains, playing music, watching clowns, even taking children’s karate classes.

Some of these protesters were shot unarmed, some even while running away from the border fence or while wearing PRESS vests. They were met not as human beings in need of refuge, like the refuge Israel once offered to Jews, but rather as mistanenim, infiltrators, to be shot like vermin one is trying to frighten away. The attitude some Israeli soldiers may have had was captured on leaked footage of one soldier exalting over the shooting of an unarmed Palestinian protester in December: “What a shot! Take that, son of a whore!”

Zionism, as we are told again and again, was and is needed to be a refuge for the Jews. Even Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the late firebrand Orthodox Jewish intellectual who coined the term “Judeo-nazi” to warn against what would happen to Israelis if they occupied the territories they won in the war of 1967, agreed that Zionism was justified in creating a country that is a guaranteed refuge for Jews by design. In creating such a country, one whose raison d’etreis the protection of a certain group, racism is an obvious and inherent danger.

Zionism in that form, a state which guarantees Jews protection, is not racism, yet there is a temptation to racism inherent to Zionism or any other ethno-national movement. It is a temptation that the Israeli state has given into numerous times since its founding, a temptation that, despite February’sprotests in South Tel Aviv and initiatives inviting asylum seekers to Shabbat dinners and refuge from deportation in family homes, the state is yielding to. In doing so, they are twisting Zionism into the very image of what it was created to escape, and guaranteeing the continuing alienation of Jews outside Israel, whose younger members are also rejecting Zionism like never before.

Speaking for myself as a Jew, I see nothing of Jewish values in the current policies of the Israeli government, certainly nothing of the Hebrew Bible’s call to “love the stranger”, and “defend the vulnerable”, nothing of the prophet Isaiah’s call to give shelter to the refugee.

“We have always said, and continue to say, that we have no objections to Jewish families living here or nearby us, but not in place of us,” Raed Abu al-Qi’an, a resident and activist from the village, told +972 in 2015, “That is racism and injustice.”

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