On November 10, 1976, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a Resolution declaring that "Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination." Seventy-two votes were recorded in favor of the Resolution, and 35 against. There were 32 abstentions, and three countries-Romania, South Africa and Spain-for different reasons, were recorded as absent.

The Resolution attracted a great deal of attention, and has been much used to attack both Zionism and the United Nations. In the Soviet and Arab camps the Resolution was regarded as constituting formal condemnation, before the tribunal of mankind, of Zionism and of the state which it established. In other quarters it was regarded as evidence of the decline and fall of the United Nations.

The Resolution was not an isolated phenomenon, but part of a continuing process. The campaign to secure a U.N. condemnation of Zionism1 was launched at the World Conference of the International Women's Year held in Mexico City in late June and early July 1975; the "Declaration on the Equality of Women" issued on that occasion repeatedly stresses the share of women in the struggle against neocolonialism, foreign occupation, Zionism, racism, racial discrimination and apartheid.2 On October 17 the Third Committee of the General Assembly-concerned with social, humanitarian and cultural affairs-agreed by a substantial majority that Zionism was a form of racism and called upon the General Assembly to do likewise. This was duly done, and the Resolution made the basis for a series of further condemnations in different agencies and at various meetings of the United Nations, most recently at the Habitat conference in Canada.


An inquiry into the Resolution, its genesis and its consequences, might begin with the double question: How much truth is there in the charge that Zionism is a form of racism? How much truth is there in the countercharge leveled by some Zionists and some of their friends that the Resolution is a thinly disguised form of anti-Semitism and is itself a return to the racial politics of Nazi Germany and its allies in the 1930s?

Zionism is basically not a racial movement but a form of nationalism or, to use the current nomenclature, a national liberation movement. Like other such movements, it combines various currents, some springing from tradition and necessity, others carried on the winds of international change and fashion. Most important among the former is the Jewish religion itself, with its recurring stress on Zion, Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and with the interwoven and recurring themes of bondage and liberation, of exile and return. The messianism and movements of religious revival which arose among Jews from the seventeenth century also made an important contribution to the genesis of this movement. The persecutions to which Jews were subject, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, gave an enormous impetus to its development.

In its political form, Zionism is quite clearly a nationalist movement of the type which was common in parts of Europe in the nineteenth century and which spread to much of Asia and Africa in the twentieth century. It is no more racial and no more discriminatory than other movements of this type-indeed less than most, since it is based on an entity defined primarily in religious rather than ethnic terms. The definition of a Jew according to rabbinical law is one who is born of a Jewish mother irrespective of the religious or racial origin of the father, or one who is duly converted to Judaism. This is not a racial definition; for the racist, fathers are at least as relevant as mothers, and identity cannot be changed at will. Zionism has always accepted this definition of the Jew, and the laws of the modern state of Israel recognize a convert to Judaism as a Jew and a convert from Judaism as a non-Jew. Zionism is certainly a form of nationalism, and the state of Israel may therefore practice some forms of discrimination, but these are not racial, insofar as this word retains any precise meaning at the present time.

The contrary accusation, that anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Judaism, is also false. Zionism is a political ideology, which Jews and others may accept or reject at will. There are good and faithful Jews who are non-Zionists or even anti-Zionists, and an anti-Zionist posture does not necessarily mean that its holder is an anti-Semite.

In any case, the Jews are not a race as that word is used at the present time. It was only in the pseudoscience of the Nazis and those who were duped by them that the Jews were regarded as such. Zionism is concerned with the claims of what it asserts to be a nation, and has both the merits and the defects common to nationalist movements. If Zionism is racist, then so too are the various nationalisms of Asia, Africa and elsewhere.

In examining any accusation, the question may be asked whether the accusers come with clean hands. Are they themselves racists? Do they themselves practice racial or other discrimination? And are they honest in their claim that their hostility is political, against Zionism, and not ethnic or religious, against Jews?

Some form of discrimination against groups other than the dominant group-whether defined by religion, race, culture, language, social origin or sex-exists in virtually every member-state of the United Nations, in some more actively and perniciously than in others. The inquiring reader may find it instructive to look through the lists of supporters, opponents, and abstainers with this in mind. The Arab countries of the Middle East are on the whole not racist, though other forms of discrimination flourish there no less than elsewhere. One may be less sure of the attitudes and policies of the Soviet Union and its satellites.

The claim put forward that the non-communist accusers attack Zionism but have reverence for Judaism as a divine religion is open to doubt. There is a vast literature of denigration and denunciation of the Jews published in Arabic, ranging over the whole of Jewish history from remote antiquity to the present day and including all kinds of accusations culled, in the main, from European anti-Semitic literature. Paradoxically, Arab authors appear to show more respect for Israel and Zionism than for Jewish religion and history. Discussions of the former are occasionally serious and factual; on the latter they rarely rise above the level of uninformed polemic and abuse, drawn partly from local stereotypes but relying very largely on such typical products of Christian anti-Semitism as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This well-known anti-Semitic fabrication now has more editions in Arabic than in any other language. It is universally cited in Arabic literature on Jewish matters, has been endorsed by heads of state and other prominent personages, and is taught as a basic Jewish text in some Arab university courses in comparative religion. To my knowledge, its authenticity has never been refuted or even called into question by any Arab writer.3 More practical attitudes are illustrated by the fate of the Jewish communities in Arab countries, and by such noteworthy cases as the refusal by Saudi Arabia a few years ago to grant an agrément to a distinguished British diplomat, appointed as Ambassador, when it became known that he was of Jewish origin.


Who were the sponsors of the Resolution and what were their aims? In part, the Resolution was a stepping stone for the Arab states toward their next objective, Israel's expulsion from the United Nations. No doubt they will return to this goal; meanwhile the Resolution serves a useful propaganda purpose. In part it was probably intended as a maneuver against Egypt-to embarrass the Egyptian government by forcing it to join in this exercise and to sabotage independent Egyptian moves toward peace. In this, the sponsors of the Resolution achieved some initial success, notably when President Sadat was provoked into making remarks about Jewish predominance in the Egyptian economy which were reminiscent of banal street-corner anti-Semitism. The unwonted clumsiness with which President Sadat handled this matter suggests that, for the Egyptians at least, it came as something of a surprise.

In part again it was an attempt, by no means without effect, to win wider support for the Arab view of Zionism. It had little success with the liberal and open societies of Northern and Western Europe and North America which lined up with impressive unanimity (this time including even France) in rejecting it. It was more successful with the countries of the Third World, for whom the issue is abstract and remote, and who have little knowledge of Jews or of Zionism. They are, however, much concerned with racism and with the particular manifestation of it in Southern Africa, and the Resolution was, among other things, designed as a bid for their support.

The co-sponsors of the Resolution were the Arabs and the Russians, and their attitudes to the problems of both Zionism and racism are significantly different, not only from each other but also from the Afro-Asian and other countries whom they persuaded to join them.

For the Arabs, the conflict over the Palestine question long antedates any interest on their part in Zionism. Indeed, the quite extensive literature produced in Arabic from the late nineteenth century until the period following the Second Word War shows a remarkable lack of concern with Zionist theory and doctrine. On the whole, the Arabs saw the conflict-rightly one may say-as one between two groups of people both desiring the same territory. Such abstract questions as the varying nationalist theories of the one side or the other were of limited interest, and the Arabic literature on Zionism until after the Second World War is meager and very largely derivative. In the main it seems to rely either on accounts written by Zionists themselves, some of which were translated or adapted from English into Arabic, or, increasingly from the mid-1930s, on accounts of Fascist or Nazi provenance, depicting Zionism as a dangerous form of left-wing radicalism. At that time, anti-Zionist propaganda described Zionism as a revolutionary and pro-Bolshevik or socialistic movement which was introducing radical social ideas and practices into the Middle East and should therefore be opposed. This was the main burden of propaganda for a long time, and was used even by Nasser in his early years, until his change of ideology and alignment made "radical" and "socialistic" compliments instead of insults, and therefore no longer appropriate labels for Zionism. The late King Faisal preferred the old line to the new one and went on using it until his death. Others were more sophisticated, and from the 1960s, Arab attacks on the Zionist enterprise and on Zionist theory began to make extensive use of such terms as racist, and to seek resemblances between Israel and South Africa, and, even more remarkably, between Zionists and Nazis.4

The German Nazis were of course the arch racists of our time, and it is instructive to review the evolution of Arab attitudes toward them. During the lifetime of the Third Reich and for some time after, the word Nazi in the Arab world was in general not an insult, and an association with Hitler and his regime was a matter of pride rather than of shame. Many of the leaders of Arab nationalism, including some in power at the present time, were closely associated with the Nazis, and speak proudly of their efforts in memoirs and elsewhere. In the early years of the Nasser regime, Egypt came to share with some Latin American countries the dubious honor of being a haven for Nazi and other Axis war criminals, and the influence of Nazi experts could be seen in the techniques of both repression and propaganda. Some Arab authors, even including leftists, found it hard to condemn the Nazi crimes against the Jews, and felt impelled to justify, extenuate, diminish, or even deny them.

Only with the rise of Soviet influence in the Arab countries from the mid-1950s onward did this begin to change. Nazi appears to have been used for the first time as a term of abuse in the Arabic political vocabulary by Qasim of Iraq criticizing Nasser of Egypt, and this use of the term, at the time, was a danger signal of the growth of Soviet influence in Baghdad. Times have changed, and the term Nazi is now generally used as a synonym for the commoner term Fascist to denote reactionary movements condemned by the current radical regimes. The racial aspect of Nazism was less important in Arab political discussion. In modern times, race has on the whole not been an issue in Arab politics, and even such major conflicts as those between Arabs and Kurds, Arabs and Persians, and above all Arabs and Jews have not been seen in racial terms. Thus, the preamble to the Syrian Constitution of 1969, amended in 1971, lists the enemies against which the Arab masses are struggling as "colonialism, Zionism and exploitation"-not racism. But the new theme has been slowly emerging. In Article 19 of the Palestine National Covenant of 1964,5 racist is added to the list of pejorative adjectives applied to Zionism, while in 1965 a publication of the PLO, significantly in English, classifies Zionism as a form of racism.6 Before long, Jewish racism was traced back to antiquity, and its sources found in the Bible and the Talmud. The reasons for this change are obvious enough. For one thing, racism can be identified with imperialism, with alien domination. For another, the fashionable enemy in the West in our day is the racist, just as a few years back he was the communist.

But what does the word racist actually mean? It is a fairly recent innovation in American English, and even more so in British English. Both this word, and the earlier British term racialist, were at first principally applied to the doctrines of the Nazis, including their precursors and their disciples; the Nazis used the words racist and racism of themselves and their beliefs, and thus brought them into general circulation.

But all that is past and, except among the surviving victims and some readers of history, forgotten. For a long time now the word has been used and understood mainly in its American adaptation-i.e., as referring to the relations between whites and non-whites. By choosing the racist as enemy and defining him in these terms, the international community, in this as in so many other respects, is taking its cue from the United States-the most important open society in existence, the forum where the issues in the world's debates are formulated and argued, the theater where the U.N. General Assembly enacts its dramas. If, as is not impossible, the racist is at some future time replaced by some other fashionable enemy, then no doubt the denunciation of Zionism will be adjusted accordingly. For the moment, however, the racist retains his primacy as enemy number one, and is commonly defined in terms of color; this accords well with the experience of many Asian and African countries-of white supremacy and imperial domination-and is so understood in most parts of the world.

In most, but not all. In Israel, color was never much of an issue, and the problem of race, as understood in America and Africa is irrelevant and meaningless; among a people whose dominant memory is of the Holocaust, racism still connotes Nazism and anti-Semitism, and the accusation was thus received with a special kind of outrage.


But it is not only for Israelis that the word racist still evokes the Nazi meaning, with all its appalling associations. The Russians, too, use it largely in that sense. In Eastern Europe, in general, the problem of color is of minor importance, the colonial experience of an entirely different character, and the memory of the Nazis and their enormities still vivid. This memory, and the fear and revulsion it arouses, has been much used in Russia, where the word racist has undergone another process of semantic development, related on the one hand to the Nazi past, and on the other to the internal problems of the Soviet Union. Specifically, in the technical vocabulary of Soviet vituperation, the term racist is applied to nationalist movements linking the non-Slavic peoples of the Union with their kin elsewhere.

In Soviet Russia only Soviet patriotism is approved and this, in fact, though not in theory, now embraces Great Russian nationalism. The nationalisms of other peoples within the Union are suspect and are variously described by such epithets as feudal, bourgeois, reactionary and clericalist. The term racist is used more particularly of those movements which have an actual or potential focus outside the Soviet Union. Many of the peoples in the Asian Republics of the U.S.S.R. speak a Turkish or an Iranian language, and pan-Turkism and pan-Iranism-linking divided peoples and, potentially, looking toward Ankara and Tehran-thus represent a danger to Soviet unity. Condemnation of these movements, and of pan-Islamism as well, is therefore fierce and unremitting, and is a feature of Soviet polemic literature, both political and academic. The charge of racism is often brought against such movements, and its extension to Zionism-a kind of pan-Judaism, with a focus in Israel-is a development of its use against pan-Turkism and pan-Iranism. The offense is the same: a group or groups of Soviet subjects identify themselves with others of the same religion, culture or origin outside the Soviet Union, and therefore constitute a possibly disruptive element.7

A new major Soviet attack on pan-Turkism, pan-Iranism and pan-Islamism was launched in the years following World War II. Charges of racism figured prominently in the campaign and were given some color of plausibility by the collaboration of elements among the peoples concerned with the German invaders. (The collaboration of large numbers of Russians and other Slavs gave rise to no such inferences.) By labeling even cultural movements among the subject peoples as "racist," the Soviets sought to link them with the Nazis, and thus hold them up to universal execration.

The Jews, as so often, are a special case. Unlike the Uzbeks, Tajiks, and other "nationalities," they have no regional homeland within the U.S.S.R.; Soviet attempts to create a Jewish district in Birobidjan, in the Far East, have so far been desultory and ineffective. Neither have the Jews, to any extent, retained a separate and distinctive culture; Soviet restrictions on religious practice and on Jewish cultural activity have seen to that. Instead, Jews in Russia, as in the West, are increasingly becoming an assimilated minority, indistinguishable in language and culture from those among whom they live. There is however one significant difference from the West. We speak of American Jews, French Jews, Dutch Jews, and by extension of Russian Jews-but in the Soviet context this expression is a contradiction in terms. One is either a Russian or a Jew, but one cannot be both, since "Russian" and "Jew" in Soviet law are both "nationalities" (natsionalnost), within the common Soviet citizenship, and are, therefore mutually exclusive categories. The Soviets do not recognize religion as a form of identity, but maintain Jewish separateness through the principle of a Jewish natsionalnost. The word Jew is inscribed on every Soviet Jew's identity documents, and in many ways affects the treatment he receives. The Jew, like the Uzbek or the Armenian, belongs in Soviet law to a national minority; unlike them, he has no territorial base or political institutions, and little opportunity to develop and express a distinctive cultural identity. Soviet practice allows him neither to remain a Jew nor to become a Russian, and thus places him in an agonizing dilemma, which is worsened by widespread and deep-rooted hostility. Emigration, when permitted, is one answer. Zionism, which in a sense arose as a Jewish response to this kind of situation, has been outlawed in the U.S.S.R. almost from the beginning, and subjected to both repression and propaganda attacks. In recent years these have assumed a familiar demonological aspect, and the Zionist has become the root of all evil, both at home and abroad.

The charge of Nazi collaboration was not of course brought against the Jews or the Zionists in the years 1939-40, the period between the Soviet-German pact and the German invasion of Russia. Even during the war, the Soviets seem to have made considerable efforts to blur the fact that the Nazis persecuted Jews. To stress it could have had untoward effects-either by arousing sympathy for the Nazis, or by arousing sympathy for the Jews, both undesirable in Soviet eyes.

Until the Israeli victory of 1967, however, the problem of Zionism in the U.S.S.R. was manageable, and individual suppression sufficed. The Israeli victory in the Six-Day War generated enormous enthusiasm among Soviet Jews and a certain amount of sympathy even among Soviet non-Jews; for the first time, Zionism was seen as a serious problem, comparable with other nationalist movements which had plagued the colonial administrators of Tsarist Russia and their Soviet successors. The results were immediately visible in a vehement campaign of abuse, particularly in the attempt to equate the Israelis with the Nazis as aggressors, invaders, occupiers, racists, oppressors and murderers. Some of the literature produced at the time in the Soviet Union and its satellites was anti-Semitic and not merely anti-Zionist, sometimes even resorting to such classical themes as the world Jewish conspiracy and the use of Gentile blood for religious purposes.8

Some Jews, alarmed by such propaganda and its effects on Jews in communist countries, have seen in the Soviet Union a new danger to Jews and Judaism comparable with that of Nazi Germany. Certainly there are resemblances-in the totalitarian character of the two societies, and in the ruthless use of chauvinism and prejudice where appropriate and helpful to the purposes of the state. A further resemblance is that the Russian Communists have learned the value of anti-Jewish propaganda as a divisive force among their foreign clients or adversaries. The Nazis, by fostering anti-Semitic feeling in the West, tried to weaken and divide their opponents, sometimes achieving a measure of success that helped their conquests in Europe; the Russians are playing intensively on the anti-Zionist theme, and trying to persuade the non-Jewish majorities in both East European and Western countries that resistance to Soviet demands means pandering to Zionist (i.e., Jewish) interests, and that their Jewish compatriots are disaffected and dangerous. "Zionist" conspirators were blamed for dissident trends in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other Soviet allies, and great stress was laid on the Jewish background, sometimes real and sometimes invented, of some of the protagonists. A favorite theme is the presumed disloyalty of Western Jews. Thus, even Mr. Kissinger has been called a "Zionist agent,"9 and Jewish members of the U.S. Congress are alleged to place loyalty to Tel Aviv above loyalty to their country. (The loyalty of American citizens is of course a prime concern of the Soviet government.)

There is another respect in which the Anti-Zionist Resolution may be important, especially for the Soviets. In bygone days Jews were persecuted on religious grounds. In the twentieth century, religious oppression was no longer acceptable or even believable; when the Nazis sought to eliminate Jews from German life, they did not appeal to outdated religious doctrines and prejudices, but instead took their stand on the "scientific" grounds of race. Jews were different and had to be dealt with, not because they followed a false doctrine but because they belonged to an alien and inferior race. Today, a new rationale is needed, to replace race as race replaced religion-and Zionism provides the answer. In the Soviet Union, where religion and race are both equally taboo in official doctrine, only ideology provides a possible basis in law and public statement for separation, discrimination and repression. Zionism is therefore condemned as an ideological transgression, and those who support it or can be alleged to support it (this last is an important point) may be punished without any danger of a charge of religious or racial discrimination or prejudice. The case is strengthened if it can be shown that this transgression has been condemned by the "forum of mankind," the General Assembly of the United Nations. The speed with which the passage of the Resolution was announced by the Soviet information media, in contrast to their usual slowness, is instructive. Anti-Zionism thus serves a double purpose for the Soviet Union. At home it provides the necessary ideological instrument for the containment of what is seen as a danger to the political loyalties of an important group of Soviet subjects and a potential disruptive force extending to other national liberation movements among the subject peoples of the Soviet Union and of the larger Soviet Empire. Abroad it helps to create suspicion and disunity and thus weaken resistance to Soviet purposes.

It has been said before that anti-Zionism is not the same as anti-Semitism and that many anti-Zionists hold such views with the best intentions unrelated to any form of prejudice. The disagreeable fact remains that anti-Zionism is very often a cloak for vulgar anti-Semitism, for which it provides possibilities of expression and action previously lacking. Particularly in the English-speaking world, anti-Semitism has never acquired the degree of intellectual or political respectability which, at various times, it achieved in Germany and, to a lesser extent, in France, and no one with political ambitions or intellectual pretensions can openly avow it. It is an ironic achievement of Zionism to have lent it a veil of respectability.


The coalition that passed the anti-Zionist Resolution was made up of disparate elements: the innocent majority, beguiled by semantic sleight of hand and irrelevant slogans and diverted from their own needs and interests; the trimmers, daunted by the power or tempted by the wealth of one or other of the sponsors, offering private apologies for their public actions; the Arabs and their associates, obsessed with one danger, oblivious of others; the Russians, as always carefully pursuing their special purposes, and convoking the grand alliance of all who oppose the West, its institutions, its way of life, its friends.

Between the Arab and Russian co-sponsors of the Resolution there is some convergence, but greater divergence of purpose. For the Arabs, the aim is to delegitimize the state of Israel. The condemnation of its ideological basis, for whatever reason, is an important step toward that end and, together with excluding Israel from UNESCO, the ILO, and other U.N. bodies, forms a kind of incantatory prefigurement of the expulsion of Israel from the United Nations and the ultimate dismantling of the "Zionist state." For the Russians, the purpose is to delegitimize, not just the state of Israel, but the Jewish people, or at least Jewish peoplehood, and to obtain for their actions toward this end a seal of international approval. It is a somber prospect.

All this has nothing whatever to do with the rights and wrongs of the Arab-Israel conflict which, despite its bitterness and complexity, is basically not a racial one. It is no service to the cause of peace or of either protagonist to inject the poison of race into the conflict now.


1 A General Assembly Resolution of December 14, 1973, condemning, inter alia, "the unholy alliance between South African racism and Zionism" had no immediate effect.

2 It is striking that while the Declaration condemns Zionism four times, it calls just once for the elimination of "rape, prostitution, physical assault . . . child marriage, forced marriage or marriage as a commercial transaction," and makes no reference to polygamy or concubinage.

4 A macabre example is the claim sometimes put forward by PLO spokesmen that while the Israelis are the heirs of Hitler, they themselves are the heirs of the heroes of the Warsaw ghetto. Who, one wonders, are the heirs of Hitler's faithful coadjutor, the former Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husayni?

5 Article 22 of the amended version adopted in 1968.

6 Hasan Sa'ab, Zionism and Racism, Palestine Essays No. 2, Research Centre, PLO, Beirut, December 1965.

8 See William Korey, The Soviet Cage: Anti-Semitism in Russia, New York: The Viking Press, 1973; Baruch A. Hazan, Soviet Propaganda, a Case Study of the Middle East Conflict, Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1976.

9 Hazan, op. cit., p. 186.

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  • Bernard Lewis is the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University, and a long-term member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. He is the author of The Middle East and the West and other works.
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