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Israel's rejection of Ugandan Jews highlights bigger problem of ethnic supremacy

The outrage of liberals at Israel's anti-Black racism, while failing to acknowledge Zionism's inherent racism, is a sad reminder of how much more work remains to be done
An Israeli flag flutters in front of the Old City of Jerusalem in 2017 (AFP)

After Israel’s interior ministry recently announced that members of the Jewish community of Uganda are not allowed to immigrate to Israel, many progressive Israelis and diaspora Jews denounced the decision as racist.

Of course it is; racism is a defining characteristic of Zionism, which privileges one ethnic group over others. The decision is also in keeping with the virulent anti-Black racism plaguing Israel, equalled or surpassed only by the country’s anti-Palestinian racism.

More importantly, it confirms that not all Jews who wish to become Israeli are “returning” to their ancestral homeland. 

The organised left must now make mainstream denunciations of the very logic of Zionism, not just its occasionally salient, discrete incidents of racism

In this case, the Abayudaya Ugandan Jews do not claim to have roots in historic Palestine; they only started formally converting to Judaism around two decades ago. The interior ministry’s decision to deny them the right to immigrate is not based upon their being recent converts, but rather on the state’s contention that they are not a “recognised Jewish community” - a technicality.

In other words, if you convert to Judaism in a manner acceptable to Israel, you can claim “return”. If you convert “Ugandan-style”, you may not immigrate. Making aliyah is not about ancestry, roots, return; it is about being “acceptable” to Israel’s political elite.

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What I found intriguing, but also quite revealing, of the latent Zionism still pervasive among even some of the more progressive Jewish circles is that they expressed outrage at the idea that anyone who is Jewish should be denied the right to claim Israeli citizenship.

A Facebook post by the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) organisation included a quote from a Haaretz article, stating: “The notion that Israel’s interior minister should have the power to dismiss the legitimacy of Diaspora Jewish communities […] is both insulting and counter to the written criteria of his own ministry.” It was followed by many comments in which readers expressed indignation at the anti-Black racism of Israeli politicians, without questioning the supposed birthright of all diaspora Jews to immigrate to Israel.  

The Haaretz article points to the fact that the interior ministry’s decision “could have serious repercussions for ‘emerging Jewish communities’ around the world”. The term “emerging” refers to communities that have recently converted to Judaism - not those descended from Jews whose origins are in historic Palestine. 

Incorrigible racism

Those who responded to the JVP post might not be members of the organisation themselves, but one can assume from the tone of their posts that they consider themselves to be anti-racist. Yet, for a left-leaning newspaper such as Haaretz to be concerned about the immigration prerogatives of recent converts to Judaism speaks to the undeniable racism of liberal Zionists.

Other commentators on social media more soberly pointed out that during white supremacist rallies in the US, only two national flags are ever hoisted by the mob: the American Stars and Stripes, and Israel’s Star of David. White supremacists love Israel’s unabashed ethno-nationalism.  

Protesters hold “Black Lives Matter” and “Palestinian Lives Matter” signs in Haifa, Israel, in June 2020 (MEE/Mohamad Kadan)
Protesters hold “Black Lives Matter” and “Palestinian Lives Matter” signs in Haifa, Israel, in June 2020 (MEE/Mohamad Kadan)

In contrast, the Palestinian flag is prominent at Indigenous rights protests and Black Lives Matter marches. Both the Red Nation and the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of more than 50 Black-led organisations, have endorsed the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement. 

So has JVP, which officially renounced Zionism in 2019. But clearly, some of its followers remain attached to the idea that all Jews should be granted residency in Israel if they wish, because it is the spiritual homeland of Judaism. Since Palestine is also the birthplace of Christianity, I guess we Palestinians must consider ourselves lucky that not all Christians expect to be entitled to pack up and become our new colonisers.

Denouncing Israeli apartheid

The racism of liberals is also evident in the attention given to the recent B’Tselem report denouncing Israel as an apartheid regime, when Palestinians have been saying the same thing for decades, only to be called racist for it. As academic Lana Tatour writes, the report was termed a “watershed” event - but it was not news for Palestinians. 

Nor is it enough to denounce Israeli apartheid and specific incidents of Israeli racism; Israel as a whole must be recognised as the product of settler-colonialism, which in itself is racism.

Why calling Israel an apartheid state is not enough
Read More »

The progress we have made has been painstakingly slow, and the outrage of liberals at Israel’s anti-Black racism - even as they fail to acknowledge the inherent racism of Zionism - is a sad reminder of how much more work we must still do before the world comes to recognise that Israel is fundamentally a racist state.

Still, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. As veteran journalist Jonathan Cook, among many others globally, has observed: “Israel is losing the fight to obscure its apartheid character.” Denunciations of Israel’s racism are becoming commonplace, if flawed and inconsistent.  

And even though US President Joe Biden is an avowed Zionist who may not be inclined to undo some of the more egregious acts of the Trump administration, such as moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, the executive orders he issued immediately upon taking office are a clear indication that he is aware of the demands of progressives. 

New rallying cry

As columnist Liza Featherstone explains, Biden’s “surprisingly progressive” executive orders must be credited to the organised left. They are not the impulses of the “depressingly conservative” man who only became the 46th president because a significant number of Americans needed to oust Trump.  

The organised left must now make mainstream denunciations of the very logic of Zionism, not just its occasionally salient, discrete incidents of racism. Decolonisation of Palestine and the Palestinian right of return - a right, not a “law” devised by a racist state to privilege its select people - must be the rallying cry of progressives.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Nada Elia teaches in the American Cultural Studies Programme at Western Washington University, and is currently completing a book on Palestinian diaspora activism.
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