Origins of Israel’s Anti-Arab Racism

The anti-Arab racism that pervades modern Israel can be traced back to attitudes of old European imperialism, argued Lawrence Davidson in 2012, in this prescient forecast of today’s Israeli genocide.

Theodor Herzl at First Zionist Congress in Basel on Aug. 8, 1897. (National Photo Collection of Israel/Wikimedia Commons)

Originally published by Consortium News, Nov. 28, 2012.

By Lawrence Davidson 

By the middle of the 19th Century, the multi-ethnic empire was on its way out as the dominant political paradigm in Europe. Replacing it was the nation-state, a political form which allowed the concentration of ethnic groups within their own political borders.

This, in turn, formed cultural and “racial” incubators for an “us (superior) vs. them (inferior)” nationalism that would underpin most of the West’s future wars. Many of these nation states were also imperial powers expanding across the globe and, of course, their state-based chauvinistic outlook went with them.

Hungarian Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), founder of modern Zionism. (Alberto Fernandez Fernandez/Wikimedia Commons)

Zionism was born in this milieu of nationalism and imperialism, both of which left an indelible mark on the character and ambitions of the Israeli state. The conviction of Theodor Herzl, modern Zionism’s founding father, was that the centuries of anti-Semitism were proof positive that Europe’s Jews could not be assimilated into mainstream Western society. They could only be safe if they possessed a nation state of their own.

This conviction also reflected the European imperial sentiments of the day. The founders of modern Zionism were both Jews and Europeans, and (as such) had acquired the West’s cultural sense of superiority in relation to non-Europeans.

This sense of superiority would play an important role when a deal (the Balfour Declaration) was struck in 1917 between the World Zionist Organization and the British Government. The deal stipulated that, in exchange for Zionist support for the British war effort (World War I was in progress), the British would (assuming victory) help create a “Jewish national home” in Palestine. It was no oversight that neither side in this bargain gave much thought to the Palestinian native population.

Years later, beginning in 1945 (at the end of World War II), the British were forced to officially give up the imperial point of view. They came out of the war with a population burdened by extraordinary high war taxes.

Retaining the empire would keep those taxes high and so the British voter elected politicians who would transform the empire into a commonwealth, granting independence to just about all the Britain’s overseas territories. One of those territories was Palestine.

It is interesting to note that in other European colonies, where large numbers of Europeans resided, the era following World War II saw their eventual evacuation as power shifted over to the natives. Kenya and Algeria are examples which show that this process was hard and bloody, but it happened.

And when it did happen, the official imperial mind set was defeated. That does not mean that all Europeans (or Westerners) saw the light and ceased to be racists, but that their governments eventually saw the necessity to stop acting that way.

Some Consequences

Unfortunately, in the case of Palestine, this process of de-colonization never occurred.  In this case the European colonists did not want the imperial mother country to stay and protect them. They wanted them out so they could set up shop on their own. They got their chance after the British evacuated in 1947.

Soon thereafter, the Zionists began executing a prepared plan to conquer the “Holy Land” and chase away or subjugate the native population. And what of that imperial point of view which saw the European as superior and the native as inferior? This became institutionalized in the practices of the new Israeli state.

That made Israel one of the very few (the other being apartheid South Africa) self-identified “Western” nation states to continue to implement old-style imperial policies:  they discriminated against the Palestinian population in every way imaginable, pushed them into enclosed areas of concentration and sought to control their lives in great detail.

If one wants to know what this meant for the evolving character of Israel’s citizenry who now would live out the colonial drama as an imperial power in their own right, one might take a look at a book by Sven Lindqvist entitled Exterminate All The Brutes (New Press 1996). This work convincingly shows that lording it over often resisting native peoples, debasing and humiliating them, regularly killing or otherwise punishing them when they protest, leads the colonials to develop genocidal yearnings.

There is evidence that the Zionists who created and now sustain Israel suffer from this process. For a long time Israeli government officials tried genocide via a thought experiment. They went about asserting that the Palestinians did not exist.

The most famous case of this was Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, who on June 15, 1969, claimed that “there were no such thing as Palestinians. They do not exist.”  One of the reasons she gave for this opinion was that the Arabs of Palestine never had their own nation state.

Others took a different approach by denying not so much the existence of Palestinians, but rather their humanity. At various times and in various contexts, usually in response to acts of  resistance against occupation, Israeli leaders have referred to the Palestinians as “beasts walking on two legs” (Menachem Begin); “grasshoppers” (Yitzhaq Shamir); “crocodiles” (Ehud Barak); and “cockroaches” (Rafael Eitan).

Of course, these sentiments were not confined to the Israeli leadership. They soon pervaded most of the Zionist population because the old imperial superiority-inferiority propaganda had become a core element of their basic education.

The Israelis have taught their children the imperial point of view, augmented it with biased media reporting, labeled the inevitable resistance offered by the Palestinians as anti-Semitism and took it as proof of the need to suppress and control this population of “Others.”

And, from the Zionist standpoint, this entire process has worked remarkably well.  Today all but a handful of Israeli Jews dislike and fear the people they conquered and displaced. They wish they would go away. And, when their resistance gets just a bit too much to bear, they are now quite willing to see them put out of the way.

Gaza: ‘Wiped Clean With Bombs’

Thus, during the latest [2012] round of resistance rocket fire from Gaza and the vengeful killing that came from the Israeli side, we heard the following: “We must blow Gaza back to the Middle Ages destroying all the infrastructure including roads and water” (Eli Yishai, present Deputy Prime Minister);

“There should be no electricity in Gaza, no gasoline or moving vehicles, nothing. We need to flatten entire neighborhoods … flatten all of Gaza” (journalist Gilad Sharon in the Jerusalem Post);

“There are no innocents in Gaza. Mow them down … kill the Gazans without thought or mercy.”  (Michael Ben-Ari, member of the Knesset);

Gaza should be “bombed so hard the population has to flee into Egypt” (Israel Katz, present Minister of Transportation);

Gaza should be “wiped clean with bombs” (Avi Dichter, present Minister of Home Front Defense);

Israeli soldiers must “learn from the Syrians how to slaughter the enemy” (prominent Israeli Rabbi Yaakov Yosef).

Finally, there were the numerous, spontaneous demonstrations of ordinary Israeli citizens, both in the north and south of the country, where could be heard chants and shouts such as “They don’t deserve to live. They need to die. May your children die. Kick out all the Arabs.”

If it wasn’t for the fact that the outside world was watching, there can be little doubt that the famed Israeli armed forces would have been tempted to do all that these ministers, clerics and citizens wished. [Today the outside world is having little effect on Western governments’ support for the ongoing genocide.]

After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to a cease-fire [in 2012], a group of Israeli soldiers showed their frustration by using their bodies to spell out (in Hebrew) the words “Bibi Loser” (Bibi is a nickname for Netanyahu).

It was a pre-arranged photo-op and the picture can now easily be found on the Web. What seems to really irk the Israeli citizenry is not that Bibi killed and maimed too many innocent Palestinian civilians, but rather that he did not kill and maim enough of them to grant Israelis “safety and security.”

Throughout history it has been standard operating procedure to demonize those you fight and demote to inferior status those you conquer. But as Lindqvist’s work shows, there was something different about the way Europeans went about this business. The deeply racist outlook that underlay modern imperialism made it particularly perverse.

Now that apartheid South Africa is no more, the Israelis are the last surviving heirs to that dreadful heritage. So much for a “light unto the nations.” That proposition has quite failed. Wherever the Israelis and their Zionist cohorts are leading us, it is not into the light, it is to someplace very, very dark.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

16 comments for “Origins of Israel’s Anti-Arab Racism

  1. April 10, 2024 at 22:34

    “Now that apartheid South Africa is no more, the Israelis are the last surviving heirs to that dreadful heritage. ”

    Don’t you wish. The U.S. is still an apartheid nation. Ask any indigenous native. They were slaughtered by the millions and removed to lands the white settlers didn’t want. They are still confined to those lands. They are still treated as inferiors and whenever corporations discover exploitable resources on their lands, the U.S. government permits them to do so.

  2. Tedder
    April 10, 2024 at 15:22

    I am not sure at all that “the Arabs of Palestine…” is an accurate characterization. The Arabs conquered but they did not migrate, did not set up settler-colonial outposts. The Palestinians thus are the peoples native/indigenous to the the land of Palestine. It is likely their deep ancestors were as much Jewish as the Sephardim et al. In my view, when the Romans exiled the Jews from Palestine, they exiled the leadership, not the lumpen, not the farmers, who stated behind. Most later converted to Christianity or Islam.
    Thus, they have prior claim to the land and better than the nomadic European Ashkenazi.

  3. Iris
    April 10, 2024 at 13:58

    Israel’s Biblical Psychopathy

    “Please stop calling Netanyahu a psychopath. Or at least, call him a biblical psychopath, a worshipper of the psychopathic god. And while you are there, learn to see the Hebrew Bible for what it is: “a conspiracy against the rest of the world,” as said H. G. Wells. In the books of the Bible, “you have the conspiracy plain and clear, … an aggressive and vindictive conspiracy. … It is not tolerance but stupidity to shut our eyes to their quality.”


  4. Carol S
    April 10, 2024 at 10:20

    The Balfour Declaration includes an important phrase which all parties have ignored:

    “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, IT BEING CLEARLY UNDERSTOOD THAT NOTHING SHALL BE DONE WHICH MAY PREJUDICE THE CIVIL AND RELIGIOUS RIGHTS OF EXISTING NON-JEWISH COMMUNITIES IN PALESTINE…” .”

    Oh, would that we mortals followed our own wise commitments!

    • Horatio
      April 10, 2024 at 20:06

      Thank you Carol. The Balfour Declaration was short and almost nobody has noticed that last part. I’m sure the Jews know this as well.

  5. Arch Stanton
    April 10, 2024 at 07:06

    A movement to designate Zionism being the racist, divisive ideology is required.
    It should belong in the same bin as far right national socialism. Maybe then, Palestinians will have a chance.

    • MMcL
      April 10, 2024 at 18:58

      1922, Ben Gurion admitted as much:

      “It is not by looking for a way of ordering our lives through the harmonious principles of a perfect system of socioeconomic production that we can decide on our line of action. The one great concern that should govern our thought and work is the conquest of the land and building it up through extensive immigration. All the rest is mere words and phraseology…”

  6. John Lowell Russell
    April 10, 2024 at 04:52

    A few centuries earlier there was the Doctrine of Discovery

  7. April 10, 2024 at 03:26

    “Now that apartheid South Africa is no more, the Israelis are the last surviving heirs to that dreadful heritage. So much for a “light unto the nations.” That proposition has quite failed. Wherever the Israelis and their Zionist cohorts are leading us, it is not into the light, it is to someplace very, very dark.“

    Thank you Lawrence. It’s also true that imperial powers yearn for their past. They have supported Israel no matter the darkness we are led into.

  8. Jeffrey Blankfort
    April 10, 2024 at 01:49

    The Ashkenazi contempurt for non-Europeans carried over to the Mizrachi and Sephardic Jews, in actualty, the only genuine Jews in the equation, the ultimate insult being that the latter were excluded from participating in the planning that would radically changes their lives and relations to the rest of the Arab world, second only to the Paletinian Arabs who had been ethnically cleansed which is exactly how the Zionists in 48 planned it, with Ben–Gurion frankly put it, that the immigrants from the Arab states had to be “de-Levanticized,” un-tethered from their hist0ric base, a view that the earliest Palestinian fedayeen accomodated by choosing to attack the Arab-Jewish settlements post-48 because, thanks to the Ashkenazi planning, they were lightly defended, thus falling into the government’s trap, It also didn’t help that some of the Ashkenazi who expressed support or sympathy for Palestinians ,shared the government’s contempt for the cultural bsckground of the Mizrachi and Sephardim.

    • Arch Stanton
      April 10, 2024 at 19:26

      Fascinating insights, thanks for this.
      Can you recommend any reading about the Ashkenazis?

  9. CaseyG
    April 9, 2024 at 22:28

    Well, maybe some nations might decide to take on the insanity of Israel. Their cruelty is astounding, and I would not be unhappy to see this stolen Palestinian returned to the Palestinians. I admire the resistance of the Palestinians but am horrified that Biden and Blinken and others seem so comfortable about lying and dissembling.And sorry to say Israel, your own arrogance will defeat you.

  10. wildthange
    April 9, 2024 at 21:07

    And common thread is the problematic monotheism among each other and in mutual provocation. Only one has evolved into a world wide culture war robbing entire continents and now using a NATO alliance for attempting fulls spectrum dominance of world culture for a mutual corporate and military profit motives where before they were competing empires being used for religious motives.

  11. Vera Gottlieb
    April 9, 2024 at 16:36

    It seems to me that no matter which way this is turned, it all comes down to: RACISM.

    • Selina Sweet
      April 9, 2024 at 20:12

      It all comes down to humans who must deny their inadequacy by projecting it out upon others who ‘look’ different and then proceed to extrovert their hatred and frustration of that insufficiency vía acting out levels of meanness, the deepest of which is today paraded by Israelis murdering Itty Bitty babies, the apotheosis of helplessness and inadequacy. The denial within a human who executes that must be humongous. And to carry such insufficiency, inadequacy and helplessness when you – simply by being born and chosen among all the others – could be close to feeling annihilating.

  12. JonnyJames
    April 9, 2024 at 16:07

    Yes, Zionism is a far-right, nationalist, racist political ideology. The settler-colonial Ashkenazim (European Jews) internalized the racist, negative identity principles of their overlords in order to “rationalize” their policies and gross hypocrisy. It is quite convenient to dehumanize the local population, making it easier to exterminate them and steal their land and resources. (The Anglo-Americans did as well)

    The Ukrainians appear to be doing a similar thing with Russia: the neo-Nazi Banderites and Nazi sympathizers and even more moderate right-wing Ukrainian nationalists claim that Russians are not Slavs and Russian is not a Slavic language. They fancy themselves as European and true Slavs. Russians are depicted as racial mongrels and subhuman. Is this a form of Stockholm Syndrome? Nazi ideology considered all Slavs as subhuman (like Jews and Roma), yet elements of Ukrainian society identify with their former oppressors. (untold thousands of innocent Ukrainians died as a result of Operation Barbarossa)

    I would like to add that the late prof. Edward Said, Palestinian-American scholar, wrote a now-classic work that goes into great detail on this topic, titled: ORIENTALISM. Anyone interested in negative constructs for Arabs and “the Orient” should read this for starters.

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