Memorializing the Munich 11.
Memorializing the Munich 11. Photo by AP
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“Everyone’s a little bit racist,” goes the hit song from the Tony-award-winning Broadway musical Avenue Q. As Sesame Street-style puppets bop to and fro; audiences are in howls, laughing at society and at themselves. It’s therapeutic to safely acknowledge one’s flaws, suggesting that individuals might even be able to transcend their own inherent weaknesses. The scourge of prejudice can only be wiped out if we first acknowledge its existence within us.

But the Palestinian claim that the request by two of the widows of the 11 slain Israeli athletes from the 1972 Munich Olympics for a minute of silence at this year’s Olympic opening ceremonies in London is “racist” prompts laughter of the tragic sort.

Any commemoration of the loss of human life - especially, but not only, when it is recalling the murder of civilians - can only be considered racist if one views some lives as being cheaper than others. And in that case, the accusation itself is racist.

Since 1975, when the UN General Assembly declared that “Zionism is racism,” the question of whether Zionism has racial undertones has lurked in the background of the Israeli-Palestinian debate. Israelis and their supporters have predictably recoiled in the face of this verbal attack, interpreting it as blind hatred of the country and of Jews more generally.

But Zionism is, like any “ism,” a philosophy, and any philosophy or worldview deserves to be held up to the light.

Racism implies the belief that at least one race is inherently superior to another. Whether Jews are or not a race is still being debated, as new DNA-based discoveries come to light. But as a belief system, Zionism does not rest on a racial view of Judaism (there are white Jews, and black Jews, and everything in between). Only with Jews conceiving of themselves as a nation - that is, as a group sharing certain ethnic, linguistic, or religious characteristics that possess a common past and a common destiny - could Zionism become a clearly articulated political ideology.

But let’s leave strict semantics aside for the moment. Even if we broaden the term racism from its original meaning of one actual “race” being viewed as superior to another, to the looser definition of one ethnic or ethno-religious group as being targeted as inferior, is Zionism racism?

Let’s rephrase the question. Is the belief in the right of Jews, as a nation, to achieve self-determination - meaning, at its core, a sovereign state joining the family of states on the world stage - a racist one?

I don’t think so. If the very notion of one nation desiring and seeking self-determination is called racism, it suggests that that nation is less deserving than another seeking the same, which is itself ethnically discriminatory. And so the circle continues.

As liberal political philosopher Michael Walzer wrote recently, “My Zionism is...a universal statism. I think that everybody who needs a state should have one, not only the Jews but also the Armenians, the Kurds, the Tibetans, the South Sudanese - and the Palestinians.”

That said, the dominant execution of Zionism in its current form has many problems associated with it, problems that liberal Zionists have been doing a very good job identifying and working to address. I have written extensively on these issues - especially but not only the occupation, and will continue to.

But in thinking about the more symbolic issue of the desired minute of silence, the 100,000 signature petition in support of it, the backing of the Israeli government as well as American elected officials and many others around the world, and the Palestinian opposition to it on the other, we need to get back to basics.

Both how we live and how we die matters. Israelis and Palestinians - and their respective supporters - should do a much better job of standing up for the well-being of the other. Israeli athletes don’t deserve to live in fear of being murdered while pursuing their Olympic dreams. Neither does a Palestinian child deserve to be grabbed and kicked by the IDF border police, or to go to sleep each night with the fear of IDF night raids penetrating the walls of their family home.

Conflicts don’t always operate via moral equivalencies, certainly. But until each side starts publicly acknowledging the experience of the other’s suffering, we will not get anywhere. The minute of silence itself may have been an important step, but more crucial would have been the Palestinian acknowledgment - as surprising as that may have been, sadly - that the request itself is legitimate. Because every life is sacred.

Follow Mira Sucharov on Twitter @sucharov