While Zionism is not racism, mistreatment of Arabs may be

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Israel has been coming under fierce and relentless attacks on its human-rights record, seemingly well-orchestrated in preparation for the upcoming United Nations' World Conference Against Racism. We have taken a beating from the U.S. State Department, Amnesty International and the European community. The banner headline, and impetus for much of the assault, is that our prime minister Ariel Sharon is being accused of perpetrating war crimes following the 1982 Lebanese invasion.

Hypocrisy is alive and well in the world. Compared with China, Israel is a paragon of virtue. But the International Olympic Committee recently voted to grant China the right to host the 2008 Olympics. Here is an event that is supposed to represent international tolerance and understanding, equality and decency. And lo and behold, China, a repressive state, known for its brutality and wretched human-rights record, becomes instantly legitimized by the world community.

To imply that Zionism is racism is the height of folly. Any attempt at the U.N. gathering to replicate the blasphemous U.N. resolution that equated Zionism with racism would support an Israeli view that the world is basically anti-Semitic. More so, such a move would be incredibly cynical, since Jews have been devastated throughout the ages by all forms of racism. Would one declare that Christianity is racist because of the acts of Christian societies against the Jews over the centuries? And what of Islam? Is the slow disappearance of Christianity in this part of the globe an indication that the Muslim world is basically racist? No one would dare make such a claim.

But Israel (and by association all Jews) has become fair game for such labeling. Zionism is not racist. However, that does not mean that our policies and the attitudes of too many of our citizens toward Arabs are not prejudicial in nature. While racism is a loaded word, it is clear that while it cannot be ascribed to the modern state of Israel formally, discriminatory actions toward Arabs — those who are citizens of Israel and those who are Palestinians — are all too present. But let us not relate to the Palestinians, because some would argue, albeit wrongfully, that since we are at war with them, virtually anything goes.

There are some traditions in Judaism that, while not based on halachah, have become mandatory because of minhag, or custom. Such is the case with our actions toward Arabs in this country. There is no official policy of discrimination in Israel. But habit and disposition have seen bigotry, prejudice and intolerance become seeming watchwords of the Jewish state when it comes to its Arab minority. As a result, we have committed terrible injustices against Israeli Arabs.

One would have to be blind not to see them and foolish not to admit it. Just take a look at the difference between the Jews and Arabs of Nazareth: The discrepancy between the two sectors should be an embarrassment to us all. Nowhere is it written that the Arabs of the town should have inferior schools, fewer medical facilities or a dilapidated municipal infrastructure.

But such is the case, and in one Arab town and village after another. Since such discrimination is not random but universal, habit and attitude have effectively become policy. It is subtle, but the results for the Arab community (and I would posit for the Jewish community as well, but on a moral plane) are devastating. We have provided ample justification for the increasingly volatile attacks on the Jewish state by the Israeli-Arab community.

It is not only the horrid treatment that Israeli Arabs received during the demonstrations in the north of the country almost a year ago that indicates something has gone terribly wrong with the Zionist enterprise. Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism, envisioned a state based on three principles: democracy, technological enlightenment, and social and human equality for the Arabs already in the land.

The shooting deaths of 13 citizens of Arab descent during those rocky October protests should have been ample proof that Herzl's vision had been blurred. But what further marks our unacceptable actions toward the Arab population is that close to 100,000 of them live in "unrecognized" villages, which essentially means that they live without water and electricity. Why? Because one day we may need to expropriate the lands they have lived on for years for Jewish needs.

We have contradicted the tenets of Zionism by introducing discriminatory practices into our body politic. The best way to defend Israel against international condemnation, despite the world's double standards, is by doing everything to right these wrongs. This will enable us to realize the Zionist dream which began after the fall of the Second Temple — long before Herzl — when we dreamed of returning to "Zion" and Jerusalem. A dream not only to regain our independence, but to build a state based on the prophetic ideals of social justice and equality.

Those attending the U.N. conference on racism could serve us well if, instead of condemning us for actions that are less horrific than many nations of the world (and certainly far better than the governmental policies of the countries in our region), they urged us to live up to the principles of Zionism and the values of Judaism: principles and values that call on us to be a "light unto the nations."