Further to my recent posts here and here concerning biblical Israel, ethnicity and racism, today I want to broaden the discussion a little and consider if modern Israel is a racist country, a charge periodically leveled at the Jewish state. Many people using such language are either ideologically-driven (usually on the hard left), so that in reality it makes little difference whatever Israel does, she will also be criticised, or else they have never visited Israel and are totally unaware of the reality on the ground. Unfortunately, this pejorative language is increasingly echoed among some Christians who seem to be driven by an irrational, pathological hatred of Israel. What is ironic is when such people either accuse Israel of being racist or that its entire existence owes itself to racism, and in some cases even publicly suggest the bulk of fellow Christians who happen to be Zionists espouse a racist theology, but then get highly offended and threaten to sue or bring in the police when people suggest they are anti-Semitic. So easy to label a nation racist, isn't it? (who's going to sue you?)
Anyway, let's look briefly at whether or not Israel is racist. The first thing to note is Israel’s relationship with two (not one) groups of Arabs: Israeli Arabs and Arabs living in the West Bank and Gaza. The former are actually Israeli citizens who live within Israel’s internationally recognised borders. As citizens, they have the right to vote, form political parties, stand for election, take their grievences to the Israeli courts, and so on. One of Israel’s official languages is Arabic. You’ll find Arabic writing on Israeli bank notes, while there are Arab members of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament).
Israel’s relations with non-Israeli Arabs, on the other hand, are very different. In the case of Gaza, which is led by an organisation - Hamas - whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel (why no howls of protest of racism from the anti-Israel crowd here then?), relations are non-existent. Relations with West Bank Arab leaders are marginally better. The point I am simply making is this: Israel has different relations with two distinct groups of Arabs in the region. In short, these relations are not homogenous. So efforts to label Israel as anti-Arab lack nuance. Neither does Israel have a blanket anti-Arab policy. The citizenship and rights of nearly one and a half million Israeli Arabs expose the accusation of "apartheid" for what it is, a breathtaking lie. But the left's mantra of a racist Israel (and sadly swallowed hook, line and sinker by purportedly educated Christians who should know better than to fall for such unsophisticated drivel), repeated over and over, means it is hardly surprising you sometimes come across men and women in the street who assume Israel hates and mistreats all Arabs (that is, after all, the purpose of the mantra). Some express complete surprise to learn that a sizeable portion of Israel are actually Arab citizens.
Next, Israel is one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse countries I’ve ever visited. You’ll see every skin colour and culture represented here. People who are even quite distantly Jewish are permitted to make aliyah and live in Israel. Thus, there are Ethiopian Jews (Falasha), as well as people claiming a distant Jewish link from places such as India and China. When one walks through the streets of Jerusalem one is struck by the broad ethnic and cultural diversity of this city. It is true that what holds them together is a Jewish identity and heritage, but as our OT discussion noted, Jewishness is not just limited to ethnicity and we pointed out how not all members of the congregation of Israel were ethnic Jews. So when Israel talks of a ‘Jewish state’ it is not, as some claim, a purely ethnic declaration and agenda. Rather, it represents an important declaration of identity, common heritage, religion, culture and history. In a sense, we see something very similar in the United States’ integrationist model (the so called ‘melting pot’) where a commitment to a common American national identity and values is promulgated. The main difference, of course, is that the US model is secular, unlike in Israel where rabbis play an important role in defining Jewishness and determining who is allowed to make aliyah (which is why so many Messianic Jews are outrageously refused right of abode).
Finally, Israel permits all manner of non-Jews, such as distant relatives, spouses and proselytes to make aliyah. It also takes in non-Jewish refugees from parts of Africa and elsewhere. Meanwhile, converts to Judaism of every skin colour exist in that country. Again, these are not the actions of a racist state.
To be sure, I am not suggesting Israel represents a model of racial harmony or that there are not very real tensions between some Israelis and some Arabs. There are, not least because of security concerns. Meanwhile, of course there are racists in Israel, just as they exist anywhere else. But seeking to model a culturally Jewish state, much like creating, for example, a distinctly American society which espouses American ideals and values, is not racist. Thus, talk of "apartheid" (I know South Africa well, there is simply no comparison) and "racism" is patent nonsense peddled either by the hard left, people who are driven for whatever reason by an anti-Israel agenda, or those who have never been to Israel and know no better. That some Christians have been sucked into making such blanket statements to forward the agenda of others is pitiful. So much better to keep any discussion of this issue objective... such people are taken far more seriously than ideological ranters.
Adapted from a post originally published on the KEDS blog.
Take my poll on Christian responses to the State of Israel. See top-right of this page.