Richard Spencer, the prominent “alt-right” white supremacist, recently described himself to an Israeli TV interviewer as “a white Zionist.” That claim, coming from the leader of such a viciously antisemitic movement, is ironic and ridiculous. But if Spencer’s hope was to win sympathy from Zionists, his claim of an analogy between Zionism and white nationalism is also sure to please and energize anti-Israel activists.
The parallel is false, and perniciously so. In this time of emboldened racism, and of great need for unity in opposition to white supremacism and other forms of hate, it has never been more crucial to understand why.
The key point: Jewishness and whiteness are extremely different concepts.
“Jewish” is not a race.
Jewish ethnic identity is multi-racial and inclusive. There are Jews of all races and ethnicities, from Ashkenazim and Sephardim, who look European, to Mizrahim, who look Middle Eastern, to the Ethiopian “Beta Israel” community, who look African, to other Jews of color. And that’s just Jews from birth; importantly, Jewish identity isn’t closed Anyone, in theory, can join the Jewish people. (Jewish denominations may argue over how conversion should work, but everyone agrees that an on-ramp exists). White racial identity, on the other hand, is rigidly exclusive.
“White” is not a culture.
Jewish identity expresses a thick, positive culture. The Jewish people has existed for thousands of years as a proud and distinct nation with shared history, languages, texts, beliefs, customs, institutions, and artistic traditions. Whiteness, on the other hand, has no cultural content in itself. Many cultures that happen to be predominantly white are thick, beautiful cultures deserving of celebration on their own terms—French culture, Scotch-Irish Appalachian culture, British culture, etc.—but it is not whiteness that defines these cultures, and they have all included many non-white cultural contributors, both now and in the past. There is such a thing as an Irish ballad, but not a “white ballad.” American whiteness crystallized as a negative definition implying full citizenship, over against Blacks, Indians, mestizos, Asians, and others who were seen as exploitable and enslavable. Unlike Jewish identity in its cultural richness, whiteness is new and irredeemably synonymous with tyranny. White people should take pride in their cultures, nations, religions, and more—but not in whiteness itself.
Israel aims for equality for all its inhabitants—including non-Jews.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence states clearly that the Jewish State “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” and “guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” Muslim Arabs serve in the Knesset and on the Supreme Court. Israeli Druze serve in the military. Israel is a state whose mission is fundamentally about being a homeland for the Jewish people, and, just as fundamentally about the equality of all human beings—itself a Jewish principle.
That’s Israel in theory and, at its best, in fact. Now, in practice, and at its worst, there is a great deal of racism and discrimination in Israel—just like everywhere else where there are humans. (And all of us should be working as actively as we can to fight racism in Israel, in America, and everywhere.) But that’s a failure of Israeli society to live up to its fundamental principles of equality, not a successful realization of racist principles. The implication by Spencer is that Israel’s fundamental essence is similar to the white nationalist ideal; show me a white nationalist manifesto that takes as many pains as the Israeli Declaration does to revere racial and cultural equality and inclusion, and then the comparison might be very slightly less risible.
It’s different when you’re a tiny, harassed minority rather than a huge and dominant group.
White people exert dominant control in many countries, many of which are the most powerful countries on earth. Jews have only one dedicated homeland, and a tiny one at that. And that homeland is certainly needed as a potential refuge. The Shoah demonstrated that with particular horror within living memory, but both before that dark time and after it, a steady drumbeat of anti-Jewish harassment, hate crimes, and murders has proven it time and again. Many countries have been safe places for Jews for a handful of centuries here and there, as the United States is today; but these golden ages do not last forever. If Richard Spencer gets his way, this one certainly won’t—as the vile march in Charlottesville clearly showed.
So no, there is no meaningful parallel between the alt-right fantasy and the Zionist reality.
Stepping back, we should remember that this conversation isn’t only about Israel. (Is it ever?) These distinctions matter for the larger conversations we’re having about nationalism and immigration. It’s tempting to oversimplify the issue into a binary choice: to be either (A) ethnic/racial/religious nation-states with first-class citizenship for one homogeneous, dominant caste and second-class citizenship (or slavery) for others; or (B) purely technocratic countries committed to equality for all, with no cultural agenda save personal autonomy, no hint of ethnic or nationalist symbolism, and no official status given to any one or more cultural or religious groups in any way.
But the world need not be so simple. The United Kingdom grants freedom of worship to all, but its Queen is also head of the Church of England. France is militantly committed to égalité, but it is also committed to authenticity in the French language, and maintains the Académie française to safeguard it. These countries—like Israel—sit on the vast and varied landscape of choices beyond the two extremes, choices that enshrine some mix of both universal equality and particularistic national identity. These two concepts are often in tension with one another, but are not mutually exclusive. As America wrestles with a chilling renaissance of the most hateful kinds of nationalism, we must never let the likes of Richard Spencer trick us into forgetting that.