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Steven Salaita

Zionism and the alt-right

'The alt-right desires an ethnostate, the same goal as Zionism' writes Salaita. [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 6 November, 2017

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Comment: Can Zionism separate itself from the alt-right in order to save its liberal reputation? asks Steve Salaita.
Zionism has always been given to contradiction. 

Israeli leaders regularly express disdain for Palestinians, sometimes using crude terminology, but they also like to speak of their state as occupying a superior moral position in the world. Israel, they proclaim, is modern and democratic, and, unlike its Arab neighbours, tolerant of minorities. 

Fewer people around the world believe this nonsense. Perception of Israel is increasingly negative, even in the United States. The contradiction between the ideals and practices of Zionism is unresolvable because racist violence is baked into the ideology, one reason why it has always inspired dissent among Jewish philosophers and religious figures. 

Now Zionists are faced with a peculiar problem partly of their own making: In a society stratified by Donald Trump's racist provocations and a growing anti-fascist movement unwilling to entertain any iteration of racism, which community will they choose to gratify? This choice is necessary because neither community will accept gratification on the terms of its antagonist. 

We're seeing some indication of how pro-Israel groups navigate this terrain. The Anti-Defamation League [ADL] continues to pretend that it's a civil rights group, which ostensibly puts it at odds with the alt-right. They actually share plenty in common.

Other outfits, such as The Truth About Israel and AIPAC, have attempted to pacify or build a relationship with Trump, whose son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, is ardently pro-Israel. 

On the left, it's understood that Zionism cannot accommodate racial or sexual justice; on the right, nobody cares

Only the strategies that embrace Zionism's ethnocratic character have a chance of long-term survival. A glance at today's relevant discourse tells the story. Can a feminist also be a Zionist? Is Zionism compatible with equality? 

Aside from the occasional twaddle of fanatics like Mayim Bialik and Gal Gadot, these questions are largely settled. On the left, it's understood that Zionism cannot accommodate racial or sexual justice; on the right, nobody cares. 

A wide spectrum of activism is filled with leaders who dislike Israel. #BlackLivesMatter has effectively banished Zionism.  Native and indigenous organisers view Israel as just another settler colonial regime. On the other hand, many alt-righters, despite their hatred of Jews, exhibit a strange affinity for the Jewish state. 

This paradox is clearest in the figure of Richard Spencer.  The prominent neo-Nazi enjoys comparing his project for a racially exclusive America to Israel, dubbing himself a white Zionist. No matter how badly liberal Zionists want to disassociate from ugly notions of racial exclusivity, Spencer keeps reminding everyone of Israel's ethnocratic character.

Many alt-righters, despite their hatred of Jews, exhibit a strange affinity for the Jewish state

Spencer inhabits a much different set of conditions than early or contemporaneous Zionists. The comparison he draws between the alt-right and Israel is sloppy and ahistorical. (Pundits vastly overstate Spencer's intellectual capacity.) Yet at a conceptual level Spencer isn't necessarily off target. 

The alt-right desires an ethnostate, the same goal as Zionism. This vision doesn't fail because of Israel; it fails by imagining whiteness as an ethnic rather than political category.  

Read more: For 'alt-right', read 'white supremacy'

This is a problem for those invested in the myth of a tolerant Israel. Spencer isn't inventing history. Plenty of hardline Zionists have made similar comments about racial purity being more important than liberal democracy. It was easier to dismiss this demographic as a fringe element before a wide swath of the American left began raising the same point.

A starker question thus presents itself: Can Zionism adequately separate itself from the alt-right in order to save its liberal reputation? The question can be avoided altogether by shutting down criticism of Israel, something Zionist organizations are trying their best to do. 

It's a doomed strategy, though, not only because suppression inspires dissent, but also because Zionists have so successfully rendered Israel a central feature of the American polity. Having been told for decades that Israel is a fundamental concern of US democracy, Americans can't just expunge the place from their consciousness.

The alt-right desires an ethnostate, the same goal as Zionism

But what if Israel is implicated in racism at the same time that it is praised? Hence the problem the alt-right presents the Zionist establishment. 

Zionist outfits embracing Trumpism must keep the alt-right at arm's length because of its explicit anti-Semitism. Where they can (unconvincingly) claim that Trump harbours no ill-will toward Jews, the same argument won't work with Spencer and his peers. 

Conservative Zionists must entertain Trump while disavowing a significant portion of his base.

For liberal Zionists, the situation is trickier. They can't support or apologise for Israel and consistently line up with queers and people of colour in their resistance to Trump. 

They're trying, and in some cases succeeding, but the spaces they occupy have shrunk. 

Yet ceding to Trump will forever make Israel a conservative concern, which would cement a longstanding pattern. If current trends continue, liberal Zionists will either have to move right or abandon Zionism. More than a few appear to be exercising the latter option. 

If current trends continue, liberal Zionists will either have to move right or abandon Zionism

For the first time I can remember, it does Zionists little good for Israel to be at the centre of attention. 

Perhaps Trump and the alt-right are incidental to something that would have happened on its own, or are merely speeding up the inevitable. Ugly affinities and alliances of convenience aren't new to Zionism, whose leaders have long overlooked the anti-Semitism of people who support Israel while inventing new definitions of anti-Semitism in order to defame the state's detractors. 

These days, though, it's harder to dissimulate, a liberal Zionist specialty. 

And when they try to dissimulate, anyway, exemplars of the purest American values are proving eager to tell the truth for them. 


Steven Salaita is an American scholar, author and public speaker. His latest book is Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom.  

Follow him on Twitter:
 @stevesalaita 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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