Article Image
Columbia Spectator Staff

In response to yesterday's misguided op-ed titled "Spar's presence at SJP event raises questions," a number of anonymous commentators argued that Zionism amounts to racism. But anger is no excuse for ignorance. This sentiment is not new to discourse inside or outside our community, but it is ahistorical, misinformed, and bigoted.

Zionism can most concisely be defined as the late 19th- and early 20th-century movement to establish a Jewish homeland in the land of Palestine. But the meaning of Zionism has been open to much interpretation—not unlike the ambiguity of the idea of a Jewish "homeland" itself. To be sure, there were many early political Zionists who considered the Jews superior to the Arab natives of the land. But there were also many prominent Zionists—indeed, whole strains of Zionism—who believed something very different.

Ahad Ha'am, the founder of one such strain, known as cultural Zionism, argued for a Jewish spiritual—as opposed to political—center in Israel. He argued that the Jews must not "provoke the anger of the native people by doing them wrong," and that they should "handle these people with love and respect and, needless to say, with justice and good judgment." Martin Buber, one of the most important Jewish philosophers in modern history, was unswervingly vocal in this regard, arguing consistently during the years leading up to 1948—as well as after the state's formation—that the Jews must treat the Arabs with respect and dignity.

It should not be above the level of our campus discourse to recognize these extremely salient Zionist voices that vehemently disapproved of racism and intolerance. But the fact remains that Zionism, as an ideology, is archaic: The movement to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine succeeded, rendering the term meaningless in the post-1948 era. The historically accurate question becomes: How racist is Israeli society today? There is no doubt that the answer to this question is less than flattering. There is also no doubt that much of Israeli racism derives from the terror attacks that Israelis have been facing for decades. But it is equally important to note that many Israelis recognize that racism is not the answer to their problems. Just last month in the New Yorker, David Remnick published a long exposé about Israel's new president, Reuven Rivlin, a man who has noted that Israel is "sick" and that Israelis must usher in a new era of civility toward their Palestinian neighbors.

In the end, Zionism as an ideology is no more inherently racist than Palestinian nationalism—an ideology that, like Zionism, was based in the particulars of certain ethnic and traditional ideas, boosted by modern European nationalism, as Rashid Khalidi has expounded in his seminal book Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness. So let's be critical of Israel's occupation policies and its societal problems. But at a University of this caliber, let's not flagrantly misinterpret and misconstrue ideologies.

The author is a senior in Columbia College majoring in history. He is editor in chief of The Current.

To respond to this letter, or to submit an op-ed, contact

Zionism racism sjp David Remnick