Israel presents itself as a “homeland for all Jews” that welcomes and provides safe haven to all Jewish people. The ironically-named Law of Return, passed on July 5, 1950, declared that all Jewish people had the right to come to live in Israel. But does Israel actually accept all Jewish people? Of course this law is inherently racist towards the Palestinian people, whose land was stolen to create the state of Israel. And it is also clear that the Zionist political movement has a particular history of anti-Black racism.
This helps us understand not only the contradictions within pro-Israel ideology, but also the deep connections between the Black struggle for freedom and the Palestinian struggle.
The Uganda Scheme
At the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland in 1903, a proposal titled “The Uganda Scheme” was put forward by the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl. Herzl had been approached the year before by the infamous imperialist and Colonial Secretary of Great Britain, Joseph Chamberlain. Chamberlain had a vested interest in the ongoing settlement of the African continent and the pillaging of the continent’s resources. He once wrote, “It is not enough to occupy great spaces of the world’s surface unless you can make the best of them. It is the duty of a landlord to develop his estate.”
The British had already carved up most of the continent after the Berlin Conference of 1884 — the meeting of imperial powers where they decided what lands they would occupy. Chamberlain had a special interest in East Africa, specifically the colonies of Kenya and Uganda.
On a trip to Uganda, Chamberlain thought of Herzl and the budding Zionist movement while on the Uganda Railway. He said, “If Dr. Herzl were at all inclined to transfer his efforts to East Africa; there would be no difficulty in finding land suitable for Jewish settlers.” He offered 5,000 square miles of land between Kenya and Uganda. Herzl was greatly interested in the idea of a Jewish homeland in Africa, and presented it at the Sixth Zionist Congress. It was formally supported by the Congress but caused controversy amongst members.
Chamberlain eventually rescinded the offer, but eventually the Zionist movement with the essential assistance of imperialist powers succeeded in setting up the state of Israel in Palestine. Israeli leaders worked for years alongside Britain and the United States to create a white supremacist colonial state. The Uganda Scheme shows that Zionism, at its core, is about taking the lands of Indigenous people in order to steal their resources.
Racism towards Ethiopian Jews
Racism is integral to Zionism, and we see this not just in the treatment of Palestinians, but also in how they treat Jewish people of African descent. The Zionist project is fundamentally about capitalism, settler-colonialism and maintaining an “ethnically” Jewish state. The Ethiopian Jewish community has existed for thousands of years, tracing its history to the ancient kingdoms of Aksum and the Ethiopian Empire. Many Ethiopian Jews immigrated to Israel in the late 20th century.
Since arriving in Israel, many Ethiopian Jews have faced constant discrimination.Their faith was questioned by rabbis and their communities ostracized from the rest of Israeli society. In 1990, the National Israeli Blood Bank routinely destroyed blood donated by Ethiopian Israelis because they were “afraid that the Ethiopians carried HIV.” There was a cap on the number of Ethiopian Jews entering Israel until relatively recently.
The minority status of the Ethiopian Jewish community creates poor material conditions. They have the highest poverty rate among the Jewish population in Israel, and face the highest levels of police violence after Palestinians. Israel calls itself a bastion of human rights and progress, while denying rights to both Palestinians and Ethiopian Jews. The treatment of Ethiopian Jews is completely different from the warm welcome offered to Jewish people from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, for instance.
The anti-Black racism is consistent. And it doesn’t stop with the Ethiopian Jewish community — it also affects Jews of African descent around the world.
Israel’s discrimination towards the Abayudaya
For example, in Uganda there is a community called the Abayudaya, which in Luganda means “people of Judah.” They practice both Conservative and Orthodox Judaism. The Law of Return was meant to provide Jewish settlers from all over the world citizenship and a “homeland” on Palestinian land. However, this Law of Return does not apply to the Abayudaya.
Even though this community keeps Jewish law by keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath, and converting according to Jewish religious doctrine, they are not able to access citizenship. Israel’s interior ministry claims that the Ugandan Jewish community and their conversions are invalid because they were not part of a “recognized” or “established” Jewish community. Several attempts by the Abayudaya to be formally recognized have failed.
Netanyahu has likened the Ugandan Jews seeking citizenship as “outsiders.” The Law of Return does not apply to Palestinians nor does it apply to many non-white Jewish people.
The very existence of Israel relies on racist, settler-colonial logic. Zionism privileges a select few while dehumanizing, discriminating and killing others that are deemed lesser by white supremacist ideology.
Black people around the world have been victims of settler colonialism, imperialism and war. We have had our lands taken, our bodies dehumanized and our communities decimated. Whether it’s the Congo, Ferguson or Sheikh Jarrah, our struggles are the same. The struggles of Black people worldwide and that of the Palestinians are connected. We must connect Israel’s history of anti-Black racism with its abhorrent history of occupation and genocide towards the Palestinian people as we fight for freedom.
Feature photo: 1884 illustration of the imperialist Berlin Conference