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Viewpoint: The dangerous misuse of words by Rabbi David Zaslow

January 11, 2024

Highly charged terms such as ‘genocide’ and ‘apartheid’ only promote divisiveness if they are applied inaccurately

By Rabbi David Zaslow

Criticism of a nation’s policies is a vital feature of thriving democracies like the United States and Israel. But the misuse of  words in order to advance one’s belief only adds fuel to the fires of divisiveness and hatred.

In an op-ed in Ashland.news on Dec. 28, Herbert Rothschild wrote, “We are witnessing Israel’s final solution of its Palestinian problem…. Oh, I know. The analogy isn’t exact. No analogy is.”

The problem is not that the analogy “isn’t exact.” The term “final solution” applied to Israeli treatment of Palestinians is offensive, and not befitting a person who desires peace. Merriam-Webster defines the term as “… the Nazi program for extermination of all Jews in Europe.” Is this what Herb thinks is even somewhat analogous to Israeli treatment of Palestinians?

Israel does not have what Herb calls a “Palestinian problem.” Twenty percent of Israel’s citizens are Palestinians (Christians and Muslims). They have full and equal rights under the law, and are respected members in every sector of society: doctors, lawyers, judges and Knesset members. They are tradespeople, merchants and artists, and thousands of Palestinians volunteer to serve in their nation’s military. But I thank Herb for inspiring me to submit my own op-ed to clarify the meanings of other key words that are misused in arguments and editorials against Israel: genocide, apartheid, colonization and Zionism. Defining these words incorrectly, especially in an era of rising antisemitism, is actually dangerous.

Genocide is defined as “… a crime where acts are committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.” For all that we might agree upon concerning a particular Israeli policy, the tragedy unfolding in Gaza is not genocide. There is no attempt by Israel to destroy “in whole or in part” the Palestinian people. The war is between Israel and the terrorist organization of Hamas, not the citizens of Gaza. Plus, the Arab population in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza has quadrupled since the end of World War II. If Israel is committing an act of genocide against Arabs, then Israel is doing a terrible job. To compare real genocides (Armenia, the Holocaust, Rwanda, Darfur, etc.) to the Israeli war against Hamas is improper.

Apartheid is defined as “any system or practice that separates people according to color, ethnicity, caste, etc.” As already noted, in Israel proper (not Gaza or the West Bank), approximately 25% of its citizens are not Jewish, of which 20% are Palestinians. When travelers go to Israel what they see is one of the most un-apartheid, diverse, inclusive and tolerant nations in the world. Israel boasts a vital democracy that ensures all citizens the right to vote, assemble, protest and redress grievances in the courts. For apartheid, think South Africa up until the 1990s. Then compare that with Israel today.  

Colonization is defined as “… an act of political and economic domination involving the control of a country and its people by settlers from a foreign power.” Jews always lived in the Holy Land, even after their ill-fated war against the Roman occupation 2,000 years ago. The descendants of the Jews who fled that war had been slowly returning to their ancient homeland throughout the centuries that it was under Christian or Muslim occupation. The return accelerated after the World War II. Are these returnees colonizers? Are Jews who survived the pogroms, the Holocaust, and expulsions from Arab countries people you would call colonialists?

When the Americas were colonized by France, Spain, and England they were foreign powers coming to exploit a foreign land. When archeologists uncover pre-Columbian ruins in America, they do not find remnants of the French, Spanish or British. On the other hand, in Israel archeologists find Hebrew inscriptions in stone, scrolls, books, coins, religious items, priestly textiles and tools. They find the ruins of ancient synagogues, Hebrew mosaics, and Jewish ritual baths, and every other kind of cultural artifact of the Jewish people dating right through the rebirth of Israel in 1948. Nowhere in the world will you find a colonial empire uncovering indisputable evidence of a people’s 3,000-year-long presence on a land as you find in Israel. Zionism is not a colonial enterprise. In fact, it is an anti-colonial enterprise.

Zionism asserts the rights of the Jewish people to resettle in their ancient homeland. It is not a liberal or conservative movement, nor does it identify with a particular political party. Zionism simply asserts Israel’s right to self-determination while granting equal rights to all its citizens: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Druse and secular. It does not preclude the claim of Palestinians to their own nation.

There are right wing Zionists, left wing Zionists, socialist Zionists, atheist Zionists and Zionists who are Christian, Muslim, Druze, Bedouin, Baha’i and Mormon. Just as Islam is the state religion in about 25 countries, Christianity is the state religion in 15 countries, Buddhism is the state religion in four countries; and Hinduism is the majority faith in three nations, so Judaism is the state religion of just one country — Israel. When someone says they are anti-Zionist, I have found that they are often unaware that the term implies that Israel is not a legitimate nation. They are simply working from a flawed definition of Zionism promoted by anti-Israel propagandists. They confuse Zionism with colonialism or racism. It is neither.

Regarding the accusation that Israel is racist, one just has to go there and see. More than half the population is tan, brown or Black from the Mediterranean, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and West Asia, plus Middle Eastern Jews whose ancestors never left ancient Israel and Judea. Israel is ethnically, culturally, religiously and racially one of the most diverse nations on the Earth. But the bottom line of this op-ed is to caution us all to use highly charged words accurately. Only then can dialogue and debate make a meaningful contribution to peace.

Rabbi David Zaslow is the spiritual leader of Havurah Shir Hadash Synagogue in Ashland.