Ahmadinejad and the Israeli Conundrum

The western countries, led by the United States, which either boycotted the UN Conference on Racism or walked out of the address by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad thought they were supporting an embattled Israel. In fact their actions only served to underline views in much of the rest of the world that Israel is a western colonial creation which remains dependent on western aid, arms and diplomatic support.

The west has become accustomed to following the Israeli notion that fundamental criticism – not simply opposition to new settlements or military actions in Gaza – is almost by definition "anti-Semitic." This goes down particularly well in the US where almost unquestioned support for Israel is an article of faith.

So the very same western nations in which anti-Jewish sentiments and practices were deeply rooted and culminated in Hitler's genocide now proclaim that it is the non-white world, the world recently the subject of western imperialism, to be the fount of anti-Semitism.

While the west attempts to assuage its own anti-Semitic guilt by accusing others of racism, those others may argue that the strongest anti-Semitic forces are in Israel itself, in the shape of the treatment of the nearly four million Arabs of Israel and the Occupied Territories. Their claim to Semitic racial and cultural identity may be rather stronger than a Jewish population of migrants whose Semitic ancestry was long ago diluted by intermarriage and conversion and whose religious foundations were eroded by the secularism which has mostly been stronger than religion in modern Zionism.

Iran's president is given to crude utterances with scant base in facts, for instance denying the all-too-evil reality of the Holocaust which killed an estimated 6 million Jews in Europe. But some of the words which so offended the western delegates that they walked out of the conference had elements of truth. The establishment of Israel was an outcome of racism in Europe. It was peopled mainly by migrants from Europe. And Israel is a state founded on an ethnic principle.

Whatever the justifications for modern Israel's creation, the west seems singularly unwilling to face up either to the facts of history or the current realities. The history shows clearly that Israel was imposed on what was Palestine, where Jews were only 10 percent of the population in 1917, by a mixture of British imperialism in the period 1917-1939 and by US pressures post 1945.

Pragmatic but radical Zionist nationalists like Ze'ev Jabotinski always recognized that force would be needed to prevail over an Arab majority which would not willingly cede land or power. For them, the creation of a Jewish state had a higher moral justification derived from ancient history and modern persecution.

The corollary was and remains that Jews had to enjoy special rights in the state that were denied to non-Jews, notably the Arabs, now 20 percent of the population. That remains the case today. In that way, Israel is not unique. Malaysia disadvantages non-Malays. But the discrimination in Israel is by most measures rather greater. And in terms of attitudes it has been greatly enhanced by 32 years of occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and by the various conflicts with neighbors over that time which have raised regional antagonisms to new levels.

Only persistent US vetoes and western support have enabled Israel to ignore UN resolutions and continue to colonize the West Bank while presenting itself as a victim of anti-Semitism.

Modern Israel has many virtues, particularly compared with neighbors such as Syria. It is broadly democratic, has a free media, tolerates dissent, has an open economy and is a fount of science and culture. But those merits no more absolve it from accusations of racism than the US's vast contributions to global advancement absolve it from the fact of the racism of its past treatment of African-Americans, or its unjust seizure of indigenous peoples' lands in the name of a god-given "Manifest Destiny."

Nor does western knee-jerk support for Israel help the country towards its long-run need to find accommodation with its neighbors. It makes it easier for Israel to avoid the difficult issues, to procrastinate on peace talks while pushing ahead with settlements and walls. Given that western power is most likely on the wane, slowly but surely, this is ultimately very dangerous for an Israel which faces demographic challenges as well as the gradual rise of regional powers.

For sure, the UN Conference may be singling out Israel when there are several other candidates for censure. Fiji, Sri Lanka, Sudan etc etc. But boycotts and walkouts by westerners merely underline for much of the developing and formerly colonized world just how true the "colony" label fits Israel.