Anti-Zionism Isn’t Anti-Semitism. Except When It Is.


There are two sentences I can’t say with absolute certainty:

Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.

Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism.

The first has become an article of faith in the Jewish establishment. It’s an applause line at most Jewish events. It drives a cottage industry of support for pro-Israel activism on campus. It is part of President Trump’s executive order on combatting anti-Semitism on campus, which cites an international definition of anti-Semitism that includes “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination.”

It was applied recently at the Fieldston School in the Bronx, where, as JTA reported, a Jewish teacher was fired after posting “multiple tweets disparaging Zionism.” Among other things, the teacher tweeted, “I refuse to ‘reaffirm the value’ of ethno-nationalist settler colonialism.” The teacher also appeared to endorse remarks by a previous guest speaker, who angered Jewish students and parents when he said those who had suffered under the Nazis are now perpetuating “unthinkable” violence against the Palestinians.

An outsider — and more than a few insiders — might wonder why a strongly worded condemnation of Israel might be considered anti-Semitic and a fireable offense. Let’s put aside the complex series of events at Fieldston that has Jewish parents on edge. Let’s look at perhaps the strongest case that “anti-Zionism is not inherently anti-Semitic,” by liberal Zionist Peter Beinart.

In an essay last year, Beinart challenged “three pillars” of the argument that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.

First, he argues, many people are denied a state of their own: Opposing Zionism is no more anti-Semitic than opposing an independent Kurdistan is anti-Kurd. Second, those who oppose “ethnic nationalism” — or “states created to represent and protect one particular ethnic group” — and instead favor “civic nationalism” (“in which no ethnic group enjoys special privileges”) aren’t necessarily bigots.

And finally, Beinart points to the Jews who support some form of anti-Zionism. They include the Satmar chasidim, who reject political Zionism on theological grounds, and far-left Israelis, who believe a single state of Israelis and Palestinians is the only way to preserve Israel’s democracy, even at the expense of its distinct Jewish character.

Beinart makes a compelling case, especially in defending Palestinians who oppose Zionism now that a two-state solution seems to be off the table. If they are not to get a state of their own, why would they accept a political philosophy that relegates them to second-class status?

Beinart in fact suspects that “the Israeli government wants to define anti-Zionism as bigotry because doing so helps Israel kill the two-state solution with impunity.”

But what Beinart’s fiercely logical argument fails to capture is the emotional toll of anti-Zionism, especially as experienced in progressive spaces. If not anti-Jewish at the root, contemporary anti-Zionism sure feels bigoted in its unaccountable trendiness and its consistent demonization of those who support a historical haven for the Jews. Consider the experience of Blake Flayton, a sophomore at George Washington University, who in a New York Times op-ed wrote of being hounded and ostracized by fellow progressives because he dares to support Israel. Or the students at the University of Toronto who learned that a kosher food program was being rejected by student legislators who felt such food is “pro-Israel.” Or the Jewish student leader at McGill University in Montreal who faced ouster from the student union for accepting a Hillel-sponsored trip to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Two New York Reform rabbis, Ammiel Hirsch and Joshua Davidson, made the case for when anti-Zionism becomes anti-Semitism when they spoke to Fieldston students at the invitation of the administration. Summarizing their talk in another Times op-ed, the two “stated emphatically that criticism of Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitic. To the contrary: it is often helpful and motivated by sound principles.”

But anti-Israel speech dives into anti-Semitism when Jews are compared to Nazis, when self-determination for the Jews is dismissed as racism and Israel is constantly singled out with “such venom.”

The two make the distinction articulated first, I believe, by former Harvard President Lawrence Summers, between anti-Semitism in intent, and anti-Semitism in effect. “A hateful obsession with Israel too often descends into hatred of Jews, even if it doesn’t start there,” they write. “Hateful words lead to hateful deeds.” They also cite, as I did, incidents of hair-raising anti-Israel activity at colleges.

Like the rabbis, I am suspicious of the faddishness of anti-Israel views.

I know the arguments: The U.S. aid package implicates taxpayers in Israeli policy, the Holy Land is dear to three major religions. But they don’t account for the zeal with which progressives embrace anti-Zionism, or demonize the Israelis while lionizing a corrupt Palestinian leadership and their regressive neighbors, or hold Jewish peers accountable for Israel’s perceived crimes. Nor do those arguments account for the ignorance of portraying Israel as a bastion of white, European colonialism, ignoring Israel’s Mizrachi majority, erasing historical Jewish claims to the land, and denying the complex nature of Israel’s founding.

Fair-minded critics of Israel believe Palestinians suffer under Israeli control, but believe in two states that allow both peoples self-determination. Possibly, they believe in one state that guarantees both peoples their basic democratic rights. What they don’t insist on is the notion that Israel is illegitimate from its birth, and its people are interlopers in their historic homeland.

I worry that insisting that anti-Zionism always equals anti-Semitism hobbles our ability to fight other, more immediate forms of Jew hatred. We also risk being seen as a community that, by supporting campus and statehouse speech codes, wants to restrict free speech.

But we can’t ignore the effect of anti-Zionism and the drumbeat of scorn that has nothing to do with a just solution for all parties in the Middle East. 

is editor at large of the New York Jewish Week and managing editor for Ideas for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.