Is Anti-Zionism the same as Anti-Semitism?

Skye Graham-Welton

Increasingly, Jews are worried about rising anti-Semitism from both the white nationalist right and from the anti-Israel left. In addition to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories being promulgated on the far-right, on the left, many are speaking out against Israel and their human rights violations. Newly elected members of Congress on the left are speaking out against Israel and in favour of the movement known as BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) which seeks to use economic pressure on Israel to secure Palestinian rights. This movement is controversial in American politics for several reasons. Opponents argue that singling out Israel is unfair and discriminatory, since the country is far from the world’s worst violator of human rights. Further, the movement calls for the right of Palestinian refugees and for millions of their descendants to return to Israel, which could end Israel as a majority-Jewish state. Several BDS supporters also champion a single state solution for both peoples. Many have denounced this stance as anti-Semitic.

Others have argued against this conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism; while the interests of the State of Israel and of Jews may at time coincide, they have never been identical. Right-wing anti-Semites have sometimes supported Zionism because they don’t want Jews in their countries (e.g. the Polish government in the 1930s). However, Jewish people have historically been both anti-Zionist and pro-Zionist. In 1950, Jacob Blaustein, the president of the American Jewish Committee said: “Jews of the United States, as a community and as individuals, have no political attachment to Israel.” The centrality of Israel to American Jewish identity is a modern development and has put American Jews in an awkward position of defending multiethnicity in the US, where they’re a minority, while opposing it in Israel, where Jews are the majority.

A binational state is nice in theory but in practice it is often extremely difficult. The two-state solution appeared to offer a route to both satisfying Palestinian national aspirations and preserving Israel’s Jewish character. However, now, Israel has shut-down the possibility of a two-state solution and has continued to expand into the West Bank.

Further, Israel appears more and more willing to ally itself with foreign leaders who share its nationalistic outlook, even when they’re hostile to Jews. For instance, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has developed a particularly close relationship with the Hungarian right-wing populist Viktor Orban, whose government is waging an aggressive campaign against Jewish billionaire George Soros. Recently, Soros’ Central European University announced that it had been forced out of Hungary. For Netanyahu at least, being pro-Israel and pro-Jewish is not the same thing.

The other side of the argument would hold that there is something disproportionate in the left’s fixation on Israel; you also do not hear large groups of college students calling for the end of a Ukrainian state or Lithuanian state. There is only one state whose human rights abuses are considered so pernicious that they do not require a change in Israeli behavior but an end to Israel itself.

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens promotes this view and further emphasizes an important distinction: Zionism is the belief that Jews should have a sovereign state of their own and anti-Zionism is the belief that they should not. He holds that anti-Zionists are not advocating the reform of a state, or calling for the adjustment of a state’s borders, or talking about the birth of a separate state, or championing the division of a multiethnic state into ethnically homogenous components. Rather, anti-Zionism insists that one state, and one state only, does not just have to change, but has to go.

Stephens notes: “the typical aim of the anti-Semite is legal or social discrimination against some set of Jews… the explicit aim of the anti-Zionist is political or physical dispossession… what’s worse: to be denied membership in a country club because you’re Jewish or driven from your ancestral homeland and sovereign state for the same reason?”

Stephen concludes his article by stating: “When you find yourself on the same side as Hassan Nasrallah, Louis Farrakhan and David Duke on the question of a country’s right to exist, it’s time to re-examine every opinion you hold.”

Overall, it appears that where you fall on this debate depends on your definition of anti-Zionism; whether it merely constitutes any criticism of Israel or whether it calls for the end of the Jewish state. Nevertheless, it is apparent that anti-Semitism is often guised and excused as anti-Zionism with many of the tropes used to defame Israelis today mirroring the tropes historically used by anti-Semites to defame Jews. With the resurgence of anti-Semitic rhetoric it is important to be cognizant of the line between reasonable criticism of the Israeli government and anti-Semitism.

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