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Roman Movshovich
A Former Soviet Youth Communist League (Komsomol) Member

A different perspective on the ‘anti-Zionism is antisemitism’ debate.

My first foray into the “anti-Zionism is antisemitism” debate took place on YouTube. It was hosted by the IQ2 forum in June 2019. I came across it on happenstance, searching for content related to “Einat Wilf.” It was early 2024, and I previously happened to watch Dr. Wilf as a guest on several podcasts, first hosted by Dr. Kenneth Stein of the Center for Israel Education, later in Dan Senor’s “Call me back” and probably several others. Back to the IQ2 debate. Dr. Wilf was on one team, and Mehdi Hasan was on the opposing team. My apologies to the other two debaters, but the point I want to bring up was made by Mr. Hasan. In Mr. Hasan’s opening statement, he said that (and I’m paraphrasing here) “it is cynical, ridiculous, outrageous, offensive, ahistorical, and outright Israel propaganda to call anti-Zionism antisemitism, because … the first and very ardent opponents to Zionism were the Jews…” Mr. Hasan was in fact very much correct about the role of Jewish anti-Zionists in the pre-1948 era.

A bit of a short history on Zionism is in order here. Zionism is a movement that originated in the late 19th century. Theodore Herzl is credited with its founding. Many debates took place at the time within the Jewish community on how to best respond to the wave of rising antisemitism in Europe. The various contending movements included socialist (Bund) and communist (Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, and quite a few others) movements, which advocated for various forms of Jewish assimilation. Even Zionism had several flavors, such as Labor Zionism and Revisionist Zionism. The goal of the Zionist movement, declared at The First Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, was “to establish a national home for the Jewish people secured by public law in Palestine.”[1] The Zionist debate continued among Jews and non-Jews until 1948. Anti-Zionists (Jewish and non-Jewish) took the position that Israel should not be established, and this position was espoused in oral and written word by Jewish, Arab, and other (e.g. European and American) anti-Zionists. Opposition towards the movement was also expressed through violence by Arabs living in Mandatory Palestine prior to the establishment of the state, including attacks on Jewish settlements in the 1920’s, the Arab revolt of 1936-1939, and the civil war of November 1947 to May 1948, to name a few. Anti-Zionism’s appeal to the Jews of Europe vanished in the fires of crematoria in Nazi concentration camps. As it turned out, much of Europe simply was not interested in Jewish assimilation.

The goal of Zionism was achieved in November 1947 with UN resolution 181, and the subsequent Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, with Israel as the name of the new Jewish state. A fait accompli, the reality on the ground within the former British Mandate of Palestine. Since the state’s establishment, Zionism should be viewed as a historical political movement. Therefore, any present-day discussion of Zionism should be historical in nature, related to a movement that spanned the late 19th century to mid 20th century. Zionism gave birth to Israel, fulfilling its mission. Like salmon going up the river to spawn.

In 2015, Einat Wilf wrote a book “Winning the War of Words: Essays on Zionism and Israel.” To be blunt: the unfortunate truth is that we lost the war for the word “Zionism”. We know to who, how, and even the precise moment of when. The Soviets started the war on Zionism in the late 1960’s with the study of Zionism, dubbed Zionology. There is a long and ugly history of antisemitism masquerading as anti-Zionism within the FSUs’ national and international activities, which kicked into ever higher gear after the 1967 Six-Day War. The pinnacle achievement of their international antisemitic campaign was the 1975 UN resolution 3379 which equated Zionism with Racism. The Soviets’ propaganda campaign was brilliant. They were (are?) the ultimate masters. Well done, comrades, you won!

So now what? We can continue to wage our own “war of return” (wink to Dr. Wilf) of our beloved word, or we can admit the defeat, and move on. The word that we so dearly love has been coopted, inverted, its meaning rooted out, and poisoned. The inverted meaning is used in the current political debate: “anti-Zionism” lends a fig leaf to a genocidal anti-Israel position, robbing Israel of its legitimacy. The logic is quite simple: if Zionism is still a matter of political debate, and not the name of the successful pre-1948 National Liberation movement, it might be bad or wrong, and thus Israel itself is its illegitimate child.

What do we really mean when we use the word “Zionist” in the current context? Most of us use it to declare our support for the existence of the State of Israel.

As an example, let’s look at the home page of The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). It is described as “an American nonprofit pro-Israel organization…”. ZOA’s Mission is to “speak out for Israel… Always on the front lines of pro-Israel activism…” Let’s give the ZOA homepage and Mission Statement an A+ (regardless of geopolitics).

You can guess where this is going… My suggestion is simple: say what you mean. Substitute the words “Israel” or “pro-Israel” for “Zionist”. Instead of Zionist Organization of America, how about Pro-Israel Organization of America? It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, but it provides a clear and accurate message.

American Zionist Movement? This one is easy: AIM (American Israel Movement). This name might even be able to compete with CAIR on the catchiness score. Especially with a Tavor in the emblem. Kidding.

Now let’s apply the same approach to the word “anti-Zionism”. What do people really mean when they say “anti-Zionism”? If Zionism was a movement for creating a Jewish state, then anti-Zionism was a movement against the creation of a Jewish state. As previously mentioned, before 1948 anti-Zionism included bona fide mainstream Jewish political movements, which argued against the goal of the formation of a Jewish state. While the word “Zionism” lost its meaning in 1948 as a political movement, the meaning of the word “anti-Zionism” has morphed, together with the goals of anti-Zionism.

Post1948 anti-Zionists are arguing, advocating, and fighting against Israel’s very existence. The current strains of the anti-Zionist movement must be called the anti-Israel-existence movement, or anti-Israelism (for those who prefer the -isms) or anit-Israelology for the fans of Soviet nomenclature. The bottom line is the same: delegitimize Israel. What is the next step that these individuals and movements are pursuing? Genocide in the truest and most accurate sense of the word: wipe Israel off the map entirely by annihilating its population. It is hard to argue that anti-Israelism is not an antisemitic movement at its core. Calling it anti-Zionism is simply applying a thin veil over the Jew-hating “anti-Israel movement”. No more, no less.

In the 1949 Knesset, none of the four leading political parties used the word “Zionist” in its name [3], in spite of their leaders and members being instrumental in the Zionist movement. They all realized that the era and the task has changed from creating a Jewish state to defending and building Israel. Zionism became a movement of the past.

We too need to drop the word “Zionism” from everything that has anything to do with the current discourse on Israel. By doing so we will deny the Jew-haters that fig leaf of an anti-Zionism as a legitimate form of academic discourse. Because there can be nothing legitimate in discussing the legitimacy of an existing sovereign nation.

We love Zionism, we love what it gave us and the world, the state of Israel. We love our founding Zionist fathers and mothers. We love the word “Zionist”. But as a part of present-day political discourse, we must let it go. Study Zionism as a brilliant part of Jewish history. But do not misuse it and confuse it with present-day politics. Deny the Jew-haters the use of our dear word “Zionism”. Jews should keep it to themselves.

Circling back to the IQ2 debate and Mr. Hasan’s argument. The argument that some Jewish movements and some Jewish leaders were against Zionism and that anti-Zionism therefore can not be antisemitic is a fine argument. The argument is fine, but the time frame is all wrong. Mr. Hasan will have to acquire a time machine, and travel back a century, give or take a few decades. Then his weak argument will make some sense. Without a time machine… no chance.

References:

[1]. See, for example, “The First Zionist Congress, An Annotated Translation of the Proceedings”, Translated by Michael J. Reimer, March 2019; Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “1897: The First Zionist Congress takes place in Basel, Switzerland”

[2]. Hashim S. H. Behbehani (1986). The Soviet Union and Arab nationalism, 1917-1966. Routledge. p. 69. ISBN 978-0-7103-0213-7; for a modern review see Izabella Tabarovsky, “Mahmoud Abbas’ Dissertation- … deformations of Soviet Zionology …”, Tablet, January 17, 2023

[3]. The list of the 12 parties of the first Knesset of 1949. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/elections-to-the-1st-knesset-january-1

About the Author
Roman Movshovich is an experimental physicist, working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory for the last 30+ years. He plays soccer, skis, fly fishes, hikes, backpacks, skydives (used too), gardens, target shoots. He grew up in Crimea, then part of Ukraine, in the Soviet Union era. Studied in the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys, Caltech, and Cornell.
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