Prof. Gideon Shimoni: A Comment on the Entry “Zionism” in the Encyclopedia of Race and Racism.

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Dictionary definitions concur broadly in defining “encyclopedia” as a work containing authoritative information on one or more branches of knowledge, or, less commonly, all aspects of one subject, usually in articles arranged systematically. A recently published work of this type is The Encyclopedia of Race and Racism edited by John Hartwell Moore and published by MacMillan Reference USA, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. The introduction to the encyclopedia explains that it aspires to answer the need for a new reference source which would “fit a wide range of the social sciences, from history to multicultural studies to sociology and psychology,” but would also be “appropriate for the high school curriculum.” In briefly tracing the genesis of “the ideology of racism,” the introduction describes it succinctly as “the belief that human races were not just different from one another, but that some were superior to others.”

So far so good. But the authors of this encyclopedia chose to include an entry entitled “Zionism.” The opening sentence of this article is: “Zionism is the political movement created to foster the establishment of a Jewish state.” Given this description, the term “political movement” is here synonymous with the term “nationalist movement.” In the context of the encyclopedia’s subject and stated purposes, its inclusion of the Jewish nationalist movement, Zionism, makes a statement, obviously equating it in some way with racism. Moreover, this is pronounced emphatically by not singling out any other nationalist movement for such treatment.

Of course, there should be no objection on academic grounds to a comprehensive article on the relationship between nationalist movements in all their protean forms, on the one hand, and concepts of race and expressions of racism, on other hand. This could include Jewish nationalist movements, the foremost being the one called Zionism. [1] One should hope that such an article would be composed in the objective scientific spirit exemplified by the journals and conferences of the Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism (ASEN). No doubt such a study would show that some degree of concern with the concept of race and some manifestations of racist ideology are ubiquitous in the history of most nationalist movements. Zionism would be no exception, nor would national movements of Arab provenance, not least of all the Palestinian national movement. [2] Nevertheless, I venture the hypothesis that a balanced empirical study would not find racism to be a primary constitutive or normative factor in most nationalist movements. My own field of historical research leads me to say that it is certainly not a factor of significance in the case of Zionism.

Be that as it may, I note that Gale has issued an announcement on the internet in response to what it describes as “constructive feedback” regarding the encyclopedia. It says it has decided to commission articles that address “other forms of nationalism in order to present this topic in a broader context.” This would be commendable if done in objective comparative context. Less acceptable is Gale’s additional intention to offer “a broader range of views on the subject of Zionism,” rather than admitting, on grounds of academic integrity, that commissioning an article on Zionism in the context of the study of racism was a mistake in the first instance. Any genuine scholarly authority on the history of Zionism who agrees to write what could be presented simply as an alternative interpretation would be lending wholly undeserved academic respectability to the very act of including the article in question as well as to the credentials of its content. The purpose of the comments that follow is therefore not to give an “alternative version” but rather to critique the article in question in light of the purely academic- scientific criteria which the editors of the encyclopedia purport to uphold. My suggestion to scholars and teachers is that this is the basis upon which they should form an opinion about Gale’s Encyclopedia of Race and Racism.

The keystone of the article entitled “Zionism” is the statement: “Because it defines Jew not by religious observance, language, place of birth, or culture, but by descent, Zionism is an ideology of race.” The author brings no evidence whatsoever to substantiate this claim; nor can he even begin to, because he fails to define “ideology of race.” One can only assume in light of what follows, that it means “racism” (the suffix “ism” generally indicates ideology). Yet this statement is the implied rationale for the encyclopedia’s entry “Zionism,” as well as the premise for the entire thesis that follows. As I shall now proceed to show, its fallaciousness already exemplifies the travesty of scientific enquiry and explication which marks the entire article.

Firstly, one must note the absurdity of attaching any racial significance, pejorative or other, to the tautological observation that Jews, whether they define themselves by descent or otherwise, constitute the membership of the Jewish nationalist movement. This would mean not only that the same racial significance should be attached to the fact that, for example, Greeks constitute the membership of the Greek nationalist movement, but also would apply to myriad other forms of human community.

Quite apart from its absurdity, the statement under discussion is factually erroneous because the Zionist Organization, which constitutes the structural core of the movement known as Zionism, has never engaged itself with definitions of who is a Jew. That Jews would constitute the movement was axiomatic. Demanding proof of “descent” for membership eligibility was inconceivable and there is no record of this ever being discussed at Zionist Congresses. Not a few Gentiles participated actively in the Zionist movement, some playing very significant roles, for example Blanche Dugdale, a niece of Lord Balfour, who was a very important aide to Chaim Weizmann during his presidency of the Zionist Organization. Like many other nationalist movements, the Zionist movement comprised a multitude of regional associations, parties and federations of associations. Formal membership of the world-wide “Zionist Organization,” conferring the right to vote in elections to Zionist Congresses consisted simply in annual purchase of the membership token known as the shekel, the price of which was flexible and varied regionally and over time. It only required identification with the aim of the Zionist Organization as formulated at the First Zionist Congress, which was held in Basel, in 1897: “The aim of Zionism is to create for the Jewish people a home [or national home –Heimstätte in the original German] in Palestine secured by public law.”

In short, Zionism has nothing to do with “defining Jews.” It is Judaism, in the sense of the religion of Jews, which through the medium of its rabbinical halakhic authorities, defines who is a Jew. It indeed does so by criterion of descent (i.e. being born of a Jewish mother) but not exclusively so, since it has always been possible for one not born to a Jewish mother to become a Jew by process of conversion.

So the statement in question is both steeped in ignorance and factually erroneous. Furthermore, its use of terms is so obscure and shoddy that it is rendered senseless. The concocted term “ideology of race” is devoid of meaning for any social-scientific enquiry because it obfuscates an essential social-scientific distinction between race and ethnicity. Of course, definitions are neither true nor false in themselves. What matters is their usefulness in enabling scientific enquiry and discourse. Jews are demonstrably not a single race (whether, in the first place, there is such an entity as a pure race, is of course a moot point) and therefore in sociological terms Jews should not be defined as a race. Jews are best defined as an “ethnic group” and the essential constitutive factor in ethnicity is not objective genetic commonality, but rather subjective cultural myth – the belief in a common origin, in combination with a variable range of other cultural attributes, such as language, folk-lore, religious rituals and faith, and collective historical memories. The religion of the Jews is best comprehended as an ethnic-religion (in this respect perhaps unique among contemporary religions) and Zionism as an ethnic-nationalism (in common with very many other contemporary nationalisms). Thus, if the term “descent” is at all applicable to Jewish self-definition, and ipso facto to Zionism, it is definitely not in the sense of race, which is essentially dependent on genetic criteria, but only in the sense of ethnicity, which is essentially a cultural construct.

The entire edifice of the article under discussion is built upon the muddled and fallacious premise, exposed above, that “race” is of the essence of Zionism. This fallacy is sustained rhetorically by repeatedly attributing the alleged racist policies of the State of Israel to what the author cryptically terms “the Zionist authorities.” (Shades of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”?) Borrowing copiously from the vocabulary and calumnies that animate the chronic propaganda war against the Israeli state, the article marshals an all too familiar litany of charges of the kind that has fomented hatred and fed into antisemitism in a variety of forums ranging from Arab media programs to demonstrations on university campuses, and the United Nation’s so-called “World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance,” of 2001, held in Durban, South Africa.

I shall not descend to the propaganda arena by engaging in a point by point refutation of the article’s litany of errors and distortions of fact. Suffice it to quote two examples of these distortions and to direct readers to genuine scholarly treatment of the issues to which they relate. One is the article’s pernicious statement that Israel’s “Law of Return” is “the legal foundation for a racial state.” On this, I would refer readers to a recently published work entitled Israel and the Family of Nations, which incisively examines “the Law of Return” in the comparative context of the immigration and citizenship laws of many European states. [3] Another is the article’s depiction of David Ben-Gurion’s record in relation to rescue of Jews from Europe, which it claims led to the Zionists’ policy “to collaborate with the Nazis”. This deplorable accusation is capped by adding in parenthesis the malicious falsehood “with whom they shared the belief that Jews were a racial community based on blood.” On this subject, I would refer readers to particularly illuminating studies by Tuvia Friling, Dina Porat and Dalia Ofer. [4]

The fundamental and irredeemable fault of this article is its biased a priori character. It is not composed in the spirit of empirical scientific enquiry that is expected of an encyclopedia. What is one to conclude? The introduction states “all articles are signed by authors who are prominent in their fields. All of them are well published and their other books and articles can be found in local libraries.” This most certainly cannot be said of the author of this article, Noel Ignatiev. He is definitely not a known or published scholar on the subject of Zionism. One can only conjecture that given the encyclopedia editor’s or sub-editor’s a priori assumption that Zionism should be equated with racism, a person known to hold this prejudice was commissioned to write the article.

Be that as it may, by dint of purely academic-scientific criteria this article is fundamentally faulty. That it has been published in an encyclopedia, whose purpose is to convey authoritative scientifically derived knowledge, is deplorable. Indeed, the only value that it can have for university teaching is as an exemplar of various travesties of academic-scientific integrity that aspirant scholars should be trained to shun. Furthermore, insofar as an implicit value judgment against racism played a part in the motivation for dedicating an encyclopedia to this subject, this article is surely counterproductive. It might provide faulty academic credibility for reinstatement of the notorious United Nations General Assembly resolution of November 1975 that Zionism is a “form of racism,” which was rescinded in 1991. It could, potentially, bring academic grist to the mill of future antisemitic hate fests such as the Durban “World Conference Against Racism,” which turned the cause of combating racism against itself. As long as the entry entitled “Zionism” appears in a work entitled The Encyclopedia of Race and Racism, it is doing much the same in its own way.


[1] Others are the movements for national cultural autonomy, which were embodied in the Yiddish speaking Folkspartei and the socialist Jewish Workers’ Bund in East European countries.

[2] See, for example, the encyclopedia of Race and Racism’s own entry, “Anti-Semitism in the Arab World,” which mentions Palestinian nationalist leader Haj Amin Al-Husseini’s explicit and active alignment with the unmistakable racist ideology and praxis of Adolph Hitler’s National Socialist mode of German nationalism. Of course, I wish to stress that this alone would not justify description of Palestinian nationalism as a racist ideology.

[3] Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubinstein, Israel and the Family of Nations, Routledge, London, 2009. See particularly pp.124-140.

[4] Tuvia Friling, Arrows in the Dark: David Ben-Gurion, the Yishuv Leadership and Rescue Attempts during the Holocaust, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 2003; Dina Porat, The Blue and Yellow Stars of David: The Zionist Leadership in Palestine and the Holocaust, 1939-1945, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.,1990: Dalia Ofer, Escaping the Holocaust:Illegal Immigration to the Land of Israel, 1939-1944, Oxford University Press, New York, 1990.

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Gideon Shimoni is Professor (Emeritus) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he taught in its Institute of Contemporary Jewry. His writings include the comprehensive work,The Zionist Ideology, published by Brandeis University and The University Press of New England in 1995.

Prof. Gideon Shimoni: A Comment on the Entry “Zionism” in the Encyclopedia of Race and Racism.

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