Anti-Zionism — why now?

Efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel have been going on in certain circles for decades. In recent times, however, we have seen a surge in such initiatives, particularly from mainstream sources. Labeling Israel as an apartheid state, for example, has become so common that it is often not seen as an extreme example of bias against the Jewish state, though that is exactly what is.

It is useful to ask why this trend has surfaced recently? Is there something about Israel or Israeli policies that has generated such hostility? Or are there other factors involved?

While Israeli treatment of the Palestinians or Jewish-Arab relations within Israel are all subjects that invite different views, and even criticism of Israel, there is little that has taken place in recent years that would explain the recent hyper anti-Israel, even antisemitic, activity we are witnessing.

True, unfortunately, negotiations for peace and a two-state solution, which flourished in the first decade of this century, have been at a standstill. There’s plenty of blame to go around on all sides as to why this is true, but nothing of such a monumental nature that would so directly turn the tide against Israel. Let us not forget that during that first decade, Israel took three steps — at Camp David in 2000, in withdrawing from Gaza in 2005, and at Annapolis in 2007 — which, had the Palestinians responded positively, would have created a path for an independent Palestinian state. So in sum, there is nothing intrinsically in Israeli behavior that warrants this explosion of extreme anti-Israel activity, especially in the mainstream.

Rather, it forces us to look externally to ascertain what is going on that has catalyzed this new fierceness, hyper aggressiveness, mainstreaming and antagonism toward the Jewish state.

Indeed, a series of factors have come together to provide a perfect storm for hostility to the State of Israel, to the very idea of the existence of a Jewish state and to the Jewish people who see in the existence of Israel a remarkable return of the Jews to their historic homeland and a place of safety and hope after the decimation of the Holocaust.

First, is the realization that the shame about the Holocaust, which for decades served to impede and minimize manifestations of anti-Jewish sentiment, has largely disappeared, as the Holocaust recedes into history because of time and the passing of survivors. Antisemitic attitudes never disappeared despite the images of Auschwitz, but that sense of shame about where centuries of antisemitism had ended up have now largely dissipated. Attacks against Israel’s legitimacy is one result of this loss of shame.

Secondly, it is no mere coincidence that anti-Israel activity has dramatically picked up at the very time that many of Arab states originally most hostile to a Jewish state, are moving towards normalizing relations with Israel and accepting its legitimacy. Unlike the cold peaces of Egypt and Jordan, states like the UAE, Morocco, and Bahrain are now developing intimate ties and partnerships with Israel and its institutions. How to justify anti-Israel behavior in an environment where Arabs themselves are legitimizing the Jewish state? Raise the level of condemnation of the Jewish state from current criticism to a full-blown rejection of the state from its very beginnings, much like Amnesty International did in its February report.

Third is this moment in history, ripe with opportunity for antisemitism, which so much of this hyped up anti-Israel behavior clearly represents. Criticism of Israel is, of course, legitimate as it is for the policies of any country. What is happening today — the combination of hugely exaggerated condemnation of Israel as an apartheid state, as a colonialist intruder, as an illegitimate entity, together with conspiracy theories and tropes that long were applied to Jews and now transferred to the Jewish state — smacks of anti-Jewish impulses in the guise of human rights concerns. It speaks to the unique character of antisemitism as a form of prejudice, which is the notion of the Jew as not being what he or she appears to be, but instead is a source of secretive and poisonous power. This means that whenever anxiety enters society as a powerful force, whether in politics, economics, or culture, as we are witnessing in the extreme today, blaming the Jew, or in this case the Jewish state is an available option.

And fourth, the polarization and surfacing of extremism on both the right and the left in many societies, its spread through social media as exemplified by the dangerous Mapping Project, as well as the illiberalism of sectors of the left — in which generalizations are made about large groups of people, and the world is divided up between oppressors and oppressed — is an element at work as well.

In this anti-liberal world view, those who are seen as representing the values of the West are automatically placed in the category of oppressors. In that framework, Israel falls into that group both for its relationship with the US and because elements of its culture and legal systems are depicted as Western and foreign to the region. The fact that significant parts of its Israeli citizens were born in or descended from individuals born in the Middle East and North Africa, and that the Jewish people’s attachment to the land dates back millennia, are of no interest for those who seek to depict Israel as representing a foreign, oppressive implant in the Middle East.

And so the coming together of these various factors goes a long way in explaining this new and expanded assault on the reputation and legitimacy of the Jewish state, even as others move in the opposite direction toward normal and peaceful relations.

About the Author
Kenneth Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.