Zionism Is about a Nation, Not about a Race

Dec. 21 2018

A recent critique of Israel’s nation-state law cited the influence of Zionism on the thought of African-American theorists as disparate as W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Stokely Carmichael, as well as the recent tendency of American white racists—or, as they euphemistically style themselves, “white nationalists”—to compare their own ambitions with those of the Jewish state. Critics of the new nation-state law now maintain that it itself renders Zionism irredeemably racist. To Chloé Valdary, this argument is based on a fundamental mistake:

[W]hile Zionism concerns itself with a particular ethnic group, it does not concern itself with a particular race insofar as race connotes skin color. And this speaks to the inherent contradictions within the very concept of black nationalism. On the one hand, a call for black nationalism via a separatist movement would naturally be attractive to a people persecuted by the dominant society. On the other hand, the black experience is, paradoxically, an American creation. The shared history, culture, and collective experience of black Americans is one that is bounded by a [particularly American context]. In this way, black American culture cannot be separated from its American roots, and calls for black nationalism are rooted in an unsolvable contradiction. . . .

I personally sympathize deeply with pan-African movements [like that founded by Garvey] because I understand and empathize with their underlying . . . yearning for the lost wholeness of a stolen past. But there is a fallacy in pan-African movements: namely the notion that the “black” experience expressed through racial consciousness can form the basis of nationhood. In truth, it’s only in the diaspora that a shared black experience developed. Before [blacks were forcibly taken en masse] from Africa, there was no concept of black national consciousness; there were, rather, multiple African identities rooted in particular traditions and customs. Thus the very concept of a singular “black nation” is a product of diaspora and cannot exist without it. . . .

[By contrast], Jews have a collective historical memory, national consciousness, and spiritual tradition that predates the existence of the diaspora. It predates it because the Jews are a nation. . . . Skin color does not a nation make. Regardless of the inspiration some in the black American community took from certain concepts in Zionism, its concept of self-empowerment was relevant to the black community and was implemented through such organizations as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; the nationalism per se was not. . . .

[Furthermore, Zionism—like the theories of Du Bois and Garvey]—is nothing like the ideology of the “white nationalist Jared Taylor” who . . . believes that “diversity and integration have exacerbated and not solved racial problems in America.” Thus when Taylor said in 2017 “what you [Jews] have made in Israel is what I want to make in America,” quite frankly, he didn’t know what he was talking about.

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More about: African Americans, Israel & Zionism, Nationalism, Racism


Is There a Way Out of Israel’s Political Deadlock?

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