‘Anti-Zionism = Antisemitism’ isn’t Just Wrong, It’s the Problem

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Earlier this year, before Hamas’ attack and Israel’s siege of Gaza, and before the House of Representatives passed a resolution declaring it so, Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said the following: “Anti-Zionism is antisemitism. Full stop.” This phrase encapsulates precisely what’s wrong with the present discourse on antisemitism. Around 2500 years before Greenblatt’s proclamation Socrates taught us that the fundamental principle of thinking is making distinctions. Once you stop making distinctions, thought comes screeching to a halt and the process of demagoguery begins. He knew that well, and paid for it with his life.

Of course, certain forms of anti-Zionism may indeed be antisemitism. And some are merely seeking to cloak their antisemitism in anti-Zionism. Few would contest that. But to go one level deeper, we need the word that now has become the great enemy of our time: “context.” What is meant by what is said? Perhaps nobody is more aware of the importance of context than the university presidents who, in their recent congressional testimony on campus antisemitism, attemptedunsuccessfullyto argue that context was critical. The war on context is akin to the war on distinctions. It flattens, it exceptionalizes, it dehistoricizes—largely in the service of weaponization. Greenblatt’s proclamation is guilty of all of that, and more.

In his recent article for the New York Times, Jonathan Weisman attempts to make sense of this thorny issue, though it fails the Socrates test. First, of course, is defining antisemitism, a subject of immense complexity. As is Zionism. And anti-Zionism. But Weisman, author of (((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump, clearly sees all three through a pretty reductionist lens. Zionism, he says, “was once clearly understood.” Really? Not by most Zionists it wasn’t. Anti-Zionism, he declares, “is predicated on one concept, the denial of rights of one people.” Really? I have a shelf of books to recommend. And he defines antisemitism pretty much according to the IHRA definition (which wasn’t even written to be adopted, but to be used as a working paper for discussion). And herein lies the problem.

To begin with, his declaration that “Anti-Zionism is predicated on one concept, the denial of rights of one people,” illustrates a deep misrepresentation of various forms of anti-Zionismcertainly of the forms of anti-Zionism held by many Jews. Setting that aside, his formulation assumes that “rights” are equivalent to a “state.” Do anti-Zionists who fit his definition claim that Jews have no right of equal citizenship anywhere in the world (what Hannah Arendt called “the right to have rights”)? No. It’s a claim about the right to a state (if that) not the rights of a “people.”

But do any people have a “right” to a state? Nation-states certainly exist, but do they have a right to exist? Irish people have a state, but do they have a right to a state? There’s a robust debate about this in the study of nations and nationalism that’s nowhere to be found here because it doesn’t serve the purpose of collapsing anti-Zionism with antisemitism, which is to weaponize it in order to fend off justified criticism of the state of Israel, whether you agree with it or not. 

Let’s be honest, for anyone with basic liberal values, even if you are a Zionist, the state of Israel is presently very problematic (as the Israeli protests have shownto say nothing of the occupation) and thus many of the criticisms are not prejudicial by definition. 

Some Jewish anti-Zionists argue that the nation-state is not the best or healthiest collective structure for Jews. Nation-states are, after all, pretty egregious entities, responsible for mass murder, inequality, and oppression. One can argue with that for sure, but is that statement antisemitic? 

Weisman also claims that anti-Zionism “suggests the elimination of Israel as the sovereign homeland of the Jews.” “Sovereign homeland of the Jews” is a strange phrase. The homeland of the Jews, known by Jews as the Land of Israel, isn’t connected to sovereignty, and in fact existed long before the concept of sovereignty. The Land of Israel has been the homeland of the Jews for millennia without sovereignty. The concept of “homeland” or in Hebrew morasha (inheritance) is not dependent on statehood or even residence in the land. It is, in its origins, a theological concept. 

Most anti-Zionism does not, or at least should not, deny that; even the biggest Orthodox anti-Zionists never denied the Land of Israel as the homeland of the Jews. In addition, the concept of “homeland” is not the language of exclusive ownership. The land can be a homeland for more than one people. Homeland and state are not identical as Hannah Arendt argues in her essay “To Save the Homeland.” Written on the cusp of statehood, it notes that the state can, in fact, endanger the homeland. Again, all these points can be contested, but are they antisemitic?

Most people remember the Pittsburgh massacre of 2018, but fewer know of the Pittsburgh Platforms of 1885. In that emblematic statement of Reform Judaism, it was argued that Jews aren’t a nation but rather carriers of a religious tradition, and that they do not seek to return to the land of Israel in the future. One could argue with thisand indeed Reform Judaism has revised that statement in numerous ways. But was Reform’s anti-Zionism antisemitic? 

There has always been a complex and vexing relationship between antisemitism and Zionism, beginning with the towering figure of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, who wrote that antisemitic acts “could be useful for him with the Sultan.” For many European antisemites, Zionism was a perfect solution, as it rid Europe of the Jews. Well aware of that, Zionist leaders often mirrored negative, even heinous, antisemitic depictions of Diaspora Jews. And there have been many antisemitic “Zionists,” from Arthur Balfour to John Hagee. White nationalist Richard Spencer once told Israeli television, “You should support my [White nationalist] agenda, because what you have created here [an ethnostate] is what I want to create in America.” Put another way: let the Jews in America go to Israel, or live here as second-class citizens, and let us have our White Christian state. But somehow, while Balfour and Hagee are not called antisemites by the ADLbecause they were, or are, pro-Israelprogressive anti-Zionists are.

In addition, classical Zionists knew that one of the greatest threats to the Zionist project was a healthy and safe Diaspora. From the founding of the state, Israel has consistently tried to convince American Jews of the “negation of the Diaspora—the idea that they’re not quite safe in America. Just this past Monday, in fact, President Biden echoed this refrain, telling attendees of the White House Hanukkah Party, “Folks, were there no Israel there wouldn’t be a Jew in the world who was safe.” This is indeed a strange thing to hear from the president of a country whose very foundations sought to ensure the safety of religious minorities, including the Jews. One can cite George Washington’s letter to the Jews of the Touro Synagogue in 1791. But this is standard Zionist fare. In 1971 David Ben Gurion came to the U.S. and gave a speech to American Jews, in English, telling them that if antisemitism doesn’t get them, assimilation will. He even mentioned Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe and said, “I am not sure his grandchildren will be Jewish.” 

The Satmar rebbe didn’t have grandchildren as his daughters tragically died young in Europe before the war. And Teitelbaum built the largest Hasidic court in the world with an intermarriage rate of almost zero. My point is that the “anti-Zionism is antisemitism” dictum is just another chapter in the narrative to make sure Jews in America don’t feel too safe, or too wanted, as Jews. Jews are a successful well-integrated minority in America, which is not very good for Israel. We can see this by the numbers of native Israelis, increasingly part of a globalized economy, who move to the U.S., or Berlin, or Amsterdam, something Ben Gurion could never have quite imagined. 

A new phase of this project of post-religion Jewish identity is to make Israel/Zionism the centerpiece of Jewishness. And thus, if you challenge Israel/Zionism, for whatever reason, you are antisemitic because, Israel and Judaism have become fused. In the new documentary, Israelism, a reform rabbi says it very clearly, “For me, Israel is Judaism.” In that vein, if you oppose Israel you oppose Jews and Judaism, and thus you are antisemitic.

The problem with all this is none of the categories are being interrogated, challenged, or even defined. Why should a nation-state I choose not to live in (which is what Israel is for American Jews) be the sine qua non of my Jewishness such that Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy, writing for Tablet, called those Jews who do not support Israel “Un-Jews.” How this happened and why are questions for another time. I raise them only to point out that the equation “anti-Zionism is antisemitism” is by definition founded on shaky premises that are intentionally never examined because it serves two important purposes. First, because it perpetuates the “negation of the Diaspora” ethos whereby Israel is necessary for the very survival of the Jews; and second, because it gives American Jews, who have largely abandoned religion, a solid foundation of Jewish identity that requires very little effort. 

“Anti-Zionism is antisemitism” is useful on both sides of the ocean such that the complexity of what it means matters less than the identitarian purposes it accomplishes. This is so critical to the project that some Jews are even willing to align with real antisemites simply because they are pro-Israel. Again, this is not new, it goes back as far as Herzl.

My point in all this, and where I think Weisman forfeited an opportunity, is not to deny that certain forms of anti-Zionism, like certain forms of Christian Zionism, are indeed antisemitic. This is surely true and we should follow Socrates and make the necessary distinctions to reach accurate conclusions. What’s at issue here is the absolutist equation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism, which  is where weaponization begins. The slide from “you are antisemitic because you deny the right of Israel to exist,” to “you are antisemitic because you protest Israel as it presently exists,” is often a sleight of hand. And “anti-Zionism is antisemitism” easily allows, perhaps even promotes, that slide.

Perhaps at the end of the day, three things might emerge from subverting this problematic equation. First, we can begin to engage different forms of anti-Zionism to determine whether they are, in fact, antisemitic or whether they are simply a principled political or humanitarian stance. Second, Israel can get out of the business of telling America Jews what they should think, must think, about the Jewish state they choose not to live in. And third, perhaps most importantly, American Jews can begin to think about that old forgotten artifact in the attic, Judaism, and reconstruct new forms of Jewish communal life built on a robust and beautiful tradition that contains much wisdom and hope for peace—not just for Jews, but for the world.