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Why Israel is a racist state

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Supporters of Israel say it’s antisemitic to call Israel racist. They want to silence legitimate criticisms of its institutional racism against the Palestinians. Sarah Bates and Tomáš Tengely-Evans explain why Israel oppresses Palestinians—and why racism was built into the state from its very foundation in 1948
Issue 2598

Israeli soldiers grab a child during a protest in the West Bank

Israeli soldiers grab a child during a protest in the West Bank (Pic: Palestine Solidarity Project/Flickr)

What is Zionism?

Zionism is Israel’s founding ideology. It emerged in response to antisemitism in Europe at the end of the 19th century.

In Tsarist Russia the regime used Jews as a handy scapegoat. Thousands of Jews were killed in state-backed pogroms.

Zionists argued to leave places of persecution and set up an exclusively Jewish state. But just because Zionism was a response to oppression doesn’t make it progressive.

The logic of Zionism sees antisemitism as an inevitable feature of society rather than something that can be eradicated through united struggle.

Zionism was a minority current among European Jews. But the atrocities of the Nazis forced Jews to flee. Jewish refugees were turned away from countries such as Britain and the US.

Many more Jews became convinced of the necessity of a Jewish-only state. Zionists were only able to establish Israel because of brutal repression of Palestinians, and the support of Western imperialism.

It still relies on both of those things today.

This dates back as far as 1917 when Tory home secretary Arthur Balfour formally backed “the creation of a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.

Successive governments have backed Israel—but this support isn’t about challenging antisemitism. It is about fortifying the role of Israel as a powerful ally in the Middle East.

How was the Israel state created?

Israels massacre at Deir Yassin
Israel’s massacre at Deir Yassin
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Israel was founded by settlers from Europe who sought to steal Palestinian land from its inhabitants, leading to a century of brutality.

The Zionist dream is an exclusively Jewish state. Early adopters of Zionism claimed Palestine as “theirs” because of its historical and religious importance to Judaism.

They claimed Palestine was “a land without people for a people without a land”.

They meant that the people who had lived there for centuries—the Palestinians—didn’t really belong.

The UN said in 1948 that 55 percent of Palestine would be given to Zionist settlers—but they wanted more and took it by force.

A crucial point in the foundation of Israel was the Nakba, or Catastrophe, in 1948.

Armed Zionist militias forcibly expelled Arab people from their homes, and seized control of Palestine.

Whole villages and towns were burnt to the ground—this was ethnic cleansing on a huge scale.

As a result of this some 850,000 Palestinians became refugees.

The Nakba marked the beginning of a further 70 years of violence toward Palestinian Arabs by Zionist settlers.

Why is Israel a racist state?

An Israeli soldier points a rifle at Palestinians at a check point in the West Bank

An Israeli soldier points a rifle at Palestinians at a check point in the West Bank (Pic: Magne Hagesæter)

Palestinians live under constant Israeli oppression. An apartheid wall hundreds of miles long imprisons Palestinians in the West Bank.

Over 1.5 million are trapped in Gaza which is little more than an open air prison.

The Israeli state controls Gaza’s borders, which are subject to stringent controls.

A blockade also means medical supplies often can’t reach those who need them.

Most Palestinians in Gaza are unable to leave. And Israeli forces destroy Palestinian farms and businesses, in a concerted attempt to damage the Palestinian economy.

This is no accident—racism is built into the foundation of the Israeli state.

From its creation Israel has enshrined into law contempt for Palestinian Arabs because it seeks to be an exclusively Jewish state.

For instance, a law allows citizenship to all Jews from all over the world, but won’t allow Palestinian refugees back into Palestine.

Palestinians in Israel are treated like second class citizens. If they show “disloyalty” to the Israeli state they are stripped of citizenship.

They also face employment discrimination, higher rates of poverty, and difficulties accessing housing and land.

That racism has grown beyond hatred of Palestinians. Black Ethiopian Jews face discrimination and racism on the streets. Thousands of African refugees and migrants in Israel are being threatened with indefinite imprisonment if they do not leave.

Is it antisemitic to oppose Israel?

The West’s rulers want to undermine the Palestine solidarity movement by smearing Israel’s opponents as antisemitic.

Exclusive—how ‘free speech’ minister Jo Johnson stifled Palestine debate
Exclusive—how ‘free speech’ minister Jo Johnson stifled Palestine debate
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The British government has adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. It identifies antisemitic tropes pushed by the far right, such as “Jews controlling the media” or Holocaust denial.

But the examples it gives also include “claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavour”.

Israel is a nationalist, racist and colonial project that has strengthened Western imperialism—and relies on this relationship for its own existence.

The experience of living under racist occupation can lead some Palestinians to blame Jews, rather than Zionism, for their oppression. This is reinforced by Israel’s claim to act on behalf of all Jews.

It’s the left in Palestine and the Middle East that has argued to pin the blame on Zionism.

Supporting a Palestinian state with equal democratic rights for Arabs and Jews in place of Israel is not antisemitic—it is anti-racist.

Why a one-state solution is the only solution

A “two state solution”—with an Israeli state and Palestinian state living side by side—is neither possible nor desirable.

The 1993 Oslo Accords were supposed to see a future Palestinian state formed out of peace talks. It would be based on the “Occupied Territories”—East Jerusalem, West Bank and the Gaza Strip—that Israel grabbed in 1967.

But the whole of the State of Israel is based on occupied Palestinian territory—and racism runs through its fabric. A “two state solution” would not address the Palestinian right to return to lands they were expelled from in 1948, or racism towards Arabs.

Israel would only let a subjugate Palestinian statelet exist alongside it. But even the basis for such a statelet is disappearing.

Israel keeps grabbing what’s left of Palestinian land in the West Bank through settlements. And now Donald Trump has officially recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital—denying the claim of Palestinians.

That’s the logic of Israel’s racist, colonial project. The only solution is a single Palestinian state with equal democratic rights for Arabs and Jews.

Is there a ‘Jewish lobby’?

The US and Britain back Israel’s occupation of Palestine to the hilt.

Is the left to blame for antisemitism ?
Is the left to blame for antisemitism ?
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They support Israel’s bombing and siege of the Gaza Strip. And they do nothing to stop Israel grabbing what’s left of Palestinian land in West Bank.

The US gives Israel £2 billion in aid every year—a figure that dwarfs foreign aid to other countries.

The West’s support for Israel leads some supporters of Palestine to see a “Zionist lobby” or “Jewish lobby” influencing foreign policy. They point to organisations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) lobbying group.

Right wing racists also use the term “Jewish lobby” as a code for antisemitism.

There is a special relationship between the US and Israel, but arguing that it’s down to a “Jewish lobby” gets the relationship the wrong way round

The West backs Israel because it is in its imperialist interests.

Israel firmed up its special relationship with the US in the Six Day War in 1967 when it defeated the armies of neighbouring Arab nationalist regimes.

It grabbed East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria and the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Desert from Egypt.

This showed the US that Israel was a reliable protector of its interests in the Middle East threatened by movements against imperialism.

Israel has been US imperialism’s watchdog in the Middle East ever since.

Why do socialists support the Palestinian resistance?

Palestinians have a right to resist Israeli occupation by whatever means they choose.

The First Intifada—30 years since Palestinians rose up against Israel
The First Intifada—30 years since Palestinians rose up against Israel
  Read More

National liberation for Palestinians would be a blow against Western imperialism—in the Middle East and across the world.

Winning working class people in imperialist countries, such as Britain, to supporting Palestine would also weaken nationalist and racist ideas pushed by our own rulers.

That means we don’t pick and choose whether to support Palestinian resistance depending on what organisation is leading it—although we argue for socialist politics.

The main organisation resisting Israel since the 2000s has been Hamas, an Islamist political party with an armed resistance wing. The right use it to smear Jeremy Corbyn and the left as apologists for “Islamist terror”.

Hamas grew after the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) leadership accepted the sham peace process and relinquished its claim to a single state. Hamas and the Palestinians had every right to carry on the fight against Israeli occupation.

Similarly Hezbollah in Lebanon is not socialist, but it was a national liberation force whose defeat of Israel in 2006 was a major blow to imperialism.

Resistance by Palestinians weakens Israel and terrifies its backers such as the US and Britain. More than once Palestinian resistance has inspired revolts and protests across the Middle East that open up the possibility for wider, progressive and even revolutionary change.

Not supporting resistance because we disagree with the groups that currently lead it means lining up with those who blame Palestinians for fighting back.

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