Gefen Bar-On Santor

Anti-Israel protesters remind us why Zionism came to be

People who assert moral superiority over those who support Israel often state that “not every criticism of Israel is Jew hate.” They sometimes express a feeling of being “under attack” because what they believe to be their own well-informed and principled criticism is unfairly depicted as hate.

In principle, and in many real contexts, it is true that criticism is not the same as hate. Israeli and Jewish culture, in fact, is filled to the brim with self-criticism.  But among those without close ties to Israel, “criticism” of Israel often “happens” to fall into two tropes that suspiciously recall Jew hate:

  • Israeli Jews are falsely assumed to be exceptionally powerful and brutal, despite lack of empirical evidence when the conduct of the Israel Defense Forces is compared to that of other armies, or when one remembers that the Hamas is committed to murdering Jews and destroying Israel. The distortion that Israeli Jews want to act without restraint goes hand in hand with the exaggeration that the Palestinians have been utterly helpless or deprived of opportunities.  Thus people might remain blind to the attitude of superiority that animates organizations such as the Hamas and to the fact that that superiority is directed not only toward Israel but also toward the rest of the world, including moderate Muslims.
  • The Jews do not have the right to defend themselves against violence and threatened genocide—and anything that they do to defend themselves is excessive and criminal in nature.

Working within these paradoxical tropes (paradoxical because they assume power but expect submission to helplessness), some people go further than to say that they are criticizing Israel and declare themselves to be against Zionism.

If you went on a time machine to the late nineteenth century, then you could say that you were anti-Zionist without being genocidal because back at that time, Zionism was still mostly an idea.  But today, millions of people have been born in Israel for 3-4 or even more generations.  So to say that you are anti Zionist is like saying that you are anti Canadian and wish to see Canada gone.  The state of Israel is a fact no less than Canada is a fact.

Do you know anyone whose name is illegitimate?  We have seen the forced changing of names in abusive contexts such as, in the past, residential schools for Indigenous children in Canada—institutions that today are widely regarded as having been a grave moral error and a mechanism of cultural genocide.

My last name, Bar-On, is unambiguously Zionist.  To the best of my knowledge, Bar-On did not exist in Europe or in any other place where Jewish people lived prior to Zionism.  My grandfather, who grew up in Hungary as Andor Braun, changed his last name to Bar-On (Bar-On and Braun are spelled the same in Hebrew with the exception of the hyphen).  My grandfather was one of countless Zionists who changed their Germanic surnames or surnames in other languages to “invented” Hebrew names that sounded similar to their original names.  Zionist immigrants to the British mandate of Palestine or later to Israel often changed their names to assertively assume a Zionist identity.  Do I have the right to feel safe in Canada with my Zionist last name, to carry my name with the pride that I feel in my family and in my personal history?  Do Canadian protesters have the moral right to tell me that my name is essentially, in their view, a symbol of a crime against humanity?

I will be the first to admit that Zionism was naïve—but it was (to quote an expression I once heard) a noble mistake to assume that the Jews could fit into the Middle East.  Zionism was influenced by socialist and quasi-colonialist ideas that assumed that Europeans would be embraced in non-European lands if they brought with them increased prosperity.  As a number of commentators have pointed out, socialism focused on class struggle, not on religion, and many Zionists believed that the improvements in agriculture, commerce, health and other infrastructure brought by the Jewish immigrants would be accepted as a blessing by the local Palestinians.

But Zionism was, first and foremost, a response to antisemitism.  Had there not been antisemitism, there would have not been Zionism.  When my grandfather on my mother’s side was growing up in Poland, more than a decade before the Holocaust, Christian Polish children used to taunt Jewish Polish children by saying, “dirty Jew, go to Palestine.”

With the tropes that they invoke, some of today’s demonstrators are taking us back to the memories of ground zero of Zionism.  As their words thunder against Israel, demonstrators are performing  rhetorical reminders of the threats that led to the rise of Zionism in the first place.

On October 21, protesters stopped outside of Cafe Landwer in Toronto and shouted calls to boycott the establishment because it is owned by a Jew.  Cafe Landwer originated in a business that the Landwer family opened in 1919 in Berlin before they fled Germany to the British mandate of Palestine in 1933 (no doubt they would be boycotted in Berlin).  The Nazis at that time had an active policy of encouraging Jewish immigration to the British mandate of Palestine, which only later changed to a policy of extermination.

“Gas the Jews,” shouted protesters in Australia. They thus reminded us of the Nazi project that likely gave the greatest justification for Zionism.  Zionism emerged after the pogroms so that there would not be any more pogroms (this is partly why the October 7 pogrom was so devastating).  And after “gas the Jews” became a reality during World War 2, the support of the world for Zionism greatly increased.

“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” shouted protesters in several cities—typically without elaborating on nuances such as what freedoms LGBTQ people will enjoy in the freed land.

If you are not familiar with a map of Israel: from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean sea is the entirety of the state of Israel.  In other words, just as “Bar-On” is a synonym for “my grandfather was a Zionist,” “from the river to the sea” is a synonym for “get rid of the Jews” (rationalizing “from the river to the sea” as a call for social justice as some have tried to do does not reflect the empirical reality of the Hamas’s actions).

And there is nothing like the threat of genocide to make Israelis abandon their fantasies that they have a “normal Western life” and to reconnect with the Zionist spirit that brought their grandparents and great-grandparents to the land.

About the Author
Gefen Bar-On Santor teaches English at the University of Ottawa, as well as adult-education literature courses at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre in Ottawa, Canada. She is an enthusiastic believer in life-long learning and in the relevance of fiction to our lives. She also writes at
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