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A FEW MINUTES BEFORE mid-night on Sunday, I walked into the Lowell House courtyard. A group of eight or 10 people was on its way out. As they passed me, one of them handed me a flier. "Read this," he said, and kept on walking.
I looked at the paper in my hand and saw that it claimed to "define" Zionism and explain why Zionism is racism. The flier was prepared and approved by the Society of Arab Students (SAS).
Being a Zionist, I was upset that some one else had decided to define my political ideology for me. Being an anti-racist, I was upset that someone had attributed an odious mindset like racism to me. I called after them and asked if we could discuss what was on the sheet.
"I'm a Zionist," I began, "and I'm not a racist. So I have a problem with the claim that Zionism is racism."
"The United Nations says it is," said a member of the group.
"Does that make it right?"
"It's international law."
Never mind that he was wrong. Most decisions of the UN General Assembly, including the "Zionism is Racism" resolution, do not in fact have the status of international law. (See the UN Charter, Chapter IV, Articles 10-14.) No big deal. After glancing at the paper in my hand, I had few illusions that our discussion would deal with verifiable facts. (The first line of the SAS flier said that the UN would vote on the "Zionism is Racism" resolution on December 17. The vote was yesterday. Check the date at the top of this page, and then do the math. Errors like that inspire real confidence at the start of a "fact" sheet.)
I did, however, want to know why he relied on the authority of the UN, a body dominated at the time the resolution was passed by nonrepresentative dictatorships. "Is all international law right?" I asked.
"Yes," he said.
I was disappointed to learn that the majority vote of a dictators' club does, in fact, constitute rightness. But I still hoped that discussion might be beneficial. Hoping to foster some mutual trust, I introduced myself. "I'm Richard," I said.
"I'm Tarek," he replied.
It was cold outside, and late at night, so I suggested that we get together later to discuss the issues that Tarek's flier raised. (All but one of his friends, somehow, had disappeared.) Tarek said he wouldn't have time to discuss anything. I asked for his phone number, and he refused to give it to me. I gave my last name and asked what his was. "None of your business," he said with a thin smile.
I still felt the need to talk seriously with this person who had labeled me, my family, and many of my friends as racists. "Tarek," I said, "I just want to talk to you more because these are important issues and I'm interested in promoting productive discourse about them."
"I am not," he said.
Now I was amazed. "You're not interested in promoting productive discourse?" I asked. (I swear I said this. My roommates will confirm that I talk like that all the time.)
"That's right," he said.
I was incredulous. Naive student that I am, I thought that all other students on this campus, no matter what their disagreements, would concur on the importance of productive discourse. It's not so controversial, especially at a university, to be in favor of talking productively about key ideas. I asked him again--maybe he hadn't really said it. But he said it again. He said that he was not interested in productive discourse. Really.
IN HINDSIGHT, I shouldn't have been surprised that he said he wasn't interested in productive discourse. He was just being honest. Not that honesty seems important to him in general; he, or whoever actually wrote the flier, lied a lot--or else he actually believes the stuff SAS circulated. I don't know which alternative would be sadder.
Rebutting a series of inane claims point by point is usually fruitless, but a few doozies scream out for attention. After SAS "defines" Zionism, its flier declares that an "objective of Zionism" is that "Non-Jews needed to be removed from [the site of the Jewish State] in order to make room for the transplanted Jews and thus make possible the establishment of the Jewish State."
I asked Tarek who had made that a Zionist objective. He named Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism. Now, I have read a lot of Herzl, and I just couldn't think of where he says such a thing. Herzl's main political tract, The Jewish State, is mostly about why Jews cannot remain in the Diaspora. Herzl discusses several possible sites for a Jewish state without even mentioning the subject of prior inhabitants, much less advocating their removal. (See, for example, pages 95-96 in the Dover edition.)
Herzl also wrote a book called Altneuland, envisioning a utopian Zionist society--in which Jews and Arabs live as friends, side by side. I asked Tarek where Herzl wrote that non-Jews needed to be removed, but Tarek declined to say. "He did say it," Tarek insisted. "Go study more."
THAT SAS UTTERLY FAILS to distinguish between reality, revisionism, and rubbish--or at least chooses not to make such distinctions--is not even the most offensive part of its flier.
SAS circulated a paper claiming to define Zionism and state its objectives. The flier did not cite or quote any Zionist authority. Perhaps SAS thinks that it has the right to define Zionism. Nothing doing.
The Association Against Learning in the Absence of Religion and Morality (AALARM) does not have the right to define gay liberation. The Fly Club does not have the right to define feminism. And SAS does not have the right to define Zionism. Zionism is a movement for Jewish national liberation. And when it comes to defining exactly what Zionism is or will be, Tarek's favorite Zionist authority has this to say: "This is a private affair for Jews alone." (Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State, page 80.)
Herzl's principle has a name: self-determination. It means that each people decides its own political expression. SAS seems to believe in that principle in certain cases only. I believe in self-determination for everyone, including me. That's why I'm a Zionist. And SAS can't tell me what that means.
IF TAREK COULD define Zionism for me, however, he couldn't tell me that Zionism is racism. Why not? Tarek says that decisions of the UN are "right," remember? Well, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly repealed the equation of Zionism with racism yesterday, by a vote of 111 to 25. According to Tarek, then, equating Zionism with racism is "not right." I'd love to hear him say so, or to explain why not if he's changed his mind.
Tarek, my last name is Primus and my phone number is 493-1656. I'm waiting for a phone call.
Richard A. Primus '92, a Crimson editor, is a Social Studies concentrator. His senior thesis deals with the history of conflict between Zionist and anti-Zionist ideologies. He would hate it if we mentioned that he just won a Rhodes scholarship.
There's a Middle East Peace Conference going on right now. The United Nations just repealed its "Zionism is Racism" resolution.
But the Society of Arab Students told me two nights ago that they weren't interested in promoting a productive discourse about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
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