Antony Wolkovitzky

Anti-Zionists and Zionists should talk

Three-day Palestinian/Israeli Conference in the Peace Palace in The Hague. From left to right: mr X, Bassam Abu Sharif (Palestinian representative), Alex Safian (PLO-representative in The Hague), mr Y. and Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Hans van den Broek. Date 31 January 1989 unknown photographer (ANEFO) Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication

As I write these words, I bet that somewhere and somehow a Zionist is arguing with an Anti-Zionist. Flamewars between these two camps seem to repeat both online and in real life more often than not.

Just like the tide, debates and clashes between the two camps come and go all the time — and yet, both sides seem to not really understand the actual arguments of the other side.

It’s as if all these multiple internet clashes were between a group of deaf people or a bunch of NPCs.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand that when there is such a big gap in both ideology and narrative between the two sides of a conflict, it’s unlikely that they’ll change their minds, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t still acknowledge the other side’s answers instead of just repeating the same slogans every time.

On the other hand, it shouldn’t be surprising, because usually the people who participate in these debates mostly come to speak and not to listen. They are there to “sell” something: be it Israeli “hasbara” or the Arab-Palestinian narrative.

Here I want to make something clear: I’m not talking about the divide between Israelis and Palestinians, or between Zionism and Palestinian nationalism — but between Zionists and Anti-Zionists. Both of these groups can include Jews and ethnic Palestinian-Arabs, or other nationalities and ethnicities.

The Zionist/Anti-Zionist debates are almost always in bad faith. The participants focus less on discussing the actual ideals in question, and more on discrediting the other person, distorting their arguments and labelling them as supremacists, antisemites, Islamophobes, fascists, nazis etc.

The most annoying way of doing this is by repeating generalizations that are not only meant to discredit that one person but all people that identify with this ideology — in a way that will shut down any discussion.

In this opinion article, I would address the different kinds of arguments, both on the Zionist and Anti-Zionist side, which are meant to falsely discredit anyone who holds the opposing point of view — and will argue in favour of a real and constructive discussion between the two groups.

Anti-Zionism is not (necessarily) antisemitism

Zionists would usually cry out that Anti-Zionism is inherently antisemitic, or in short: “Anti-Zionism is antisemitism“.

They would usually justify this argument with different variations of these two points:

  1. Zionism is about the right of Jews to self-determination, therefore those who oppose Zionism are against Jewish self-determination, and thus are antisemitic.
  2. Anti-Zionists want to bring about the dismantling of Israel, and this would inevitably lead to the oppression, displacement, or even genocide of the Jewish population.

I’ll address each point in turn:

Zionism is about the right of Jews to self-determination, therefore those who oppose Zionism are against Jewish self-determination, and thus are antisemitic.

This point, in my opinion, is false since it misrepresents both the terms “Zionism” and “self-determination”.

“Self-determination”, as defined by Oxford Languages on Google, is:

the process by which a country determines its own statehood and forms its own allegiances and government.

Meanwhile, “Zionism” is defined as:

a movement for (originally) the re-establishment and (now) the development and protection of a Jewish nation in what is now Israel.

In other words, modern Zionism is not simply about Jewish self-determination just about anywhere, but in a very specific place. That specific place, as we know, happens to be home to several other ethnic groups — and at least one of them wants self-determination in the same territory as well.

This would be absurd to say that it’s antisemitic of them to want a government and symbols which represent their own culture and national identity. It would be even more absurd to tell them that if they really want it, then they should move out, because “there are 22 Arab countries, but there is only one Jewish state”.

Nation-states are not some kind of commodity that is being handed around according to how many ethnic groups have it.

It’s like saying: Oh, Assyrians, you don’t have your own nation-state yet? Come take one! Not you, Québécois — Francophones already have 29 countries!

Now, of course, that those who are absolutely against any Jewish self-determination, even in the theoretical borders of Tel-Aviv, might need some better explaining to do to justify their positions. However, even in this case, there are still ideological, religious or even practical arguments that could be made which are not rooted in ethnic hatred or chauvinism.

For example, many opponents to the succession of Scotland from the UK, Catalonia from Spain, or Kurdistan from the countries between which it’s divided, often make arguments that are not necessarily rooted in hatred of Scotts, Catalonians, or Kurds — but rather in practical and administrative reasoning. Often they would claim that those ethnic groups would be better off within a greater union. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t those who have these hateful, imperialist or chauvinistic motives — in some of these cases, they could even be a majority. However, even if there is a majority of chauvinists among those who hold a certain position doesn’t make this position inherently chauvinist.

So if we’ll go back to the example of opposing Israel even within the borders of Tel-Aviv — I just want to make it clear: what I wrote doesn’t mean that this position is necessarily correct or convincing. I actually think that the case against any Jewish sovereignty is very problematic and hard to defend — yet it can still be made, as weak as it is, without being antisemitic.

This last point is very important because I’d also address it again from the other side of the divide: when confronting a certain position, we cannot accuse it of being chauvinist based on our own suspicions and speculations regarding the motives of that person. We need first to listen in good faith to what that person is actually saying, and only then to point out where in their arguments we see that chauvinism.

In regards to non-antisemitic ideological reasons for opposing Zionism, we’d obviously have to talk about the hard left. Now, I know that there is also an actual antisemitism problem on the left — and I’m not denying it: wiser people than me have written enough about these issues already. Yet, regardless of this, there are still plenty of non-antisemitic leftists who are Anti-Zionists, and their reason is pretty simple: Zionism is a type of ethnic nationalism, and there are very few things that the anti-nationalist and the internationalist left hates more than ethnic-nationalism.

I think that we all can agree that a person who opposes all nation-states, as a concept, and considers himself Anti-Zionist for the same reason — is most likely not antisemitic. Well, at least there is no reason to assume he is.

In the same way, even if that same person would actually be ok with nation-states, but would oppose only ethnic-nationalism — I think that most of us can still safely agree that this type of Anti-Zionism is not antisemitic, as his views seem to come from a more general perspective and not some double standard that applies to Jews or Israel only.

Also, there are some very solid religious reasons for being an Anti-Zionist. Two such examples are Ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects like Satmar and Neturei Karta, which have their Anti-Zionism rooted deeply in their own interpretations and understanding of the holy texts.

So to conclude so far: Opposing Zionism doesn’t necessarily mean “opposing Jewish self-determination”. However, even if you do oppose it, there are still plenty of non-antisemitic reasons to do so.

Now to the second point:

Anti-Zionists want to bring about the dismantling of Israel, and this would inevitably lead to the oppression, displacement, or even genocide of the Jewish population.

Anti-Zionist would often make light of this argument, claiming that there’s no reason to think that Jews would be displaced, that it’s just a projection on what Israel did to Palestinians during the war of 1947, or even that it’s racist to presume that Palestinian-Arabs might do something like that — but this would be historically dishonest.

In fact, it is safe to assume that a major influence on the creation of the UN 1947 partition plan was the multiple cases of Palestinian-Arab militant attacks and massacres against the Jewish population in Palestine, which go as early as the 1920s. It took about two decades until Jewish militants appeared and began to do the same.

So while the assessment of these possible consequences of a forceful and immediate dismantling of Israel is not necessarily wrong, this argument is still problematic, because it labels the Anti-Zionist position as antisemitic solely based on possible future consequences of implementing this position. In other words, it’s not even about being suspected of having antisemitic sentiments anymore. According to this logic, you don’t even have to be prejudiced against Jews at all to be considered an antisemite — it’s enough that the possible consequences of your position might lead to putting them in harm’s way — even if you personally convinced that this is not the case.

I hope that anyone who reads this understands how much this over-streched definition of antisemitism is absurd.

Zionism is not (necessarily) racism

The Anti-Zionist common perceptions regarding Zionism are often just as twisted. The Anti-Zionists claim that Zionism is inherently racist.

In the past, this accusation was actually put into a UN resolution in 1975, until it was revoked in 1991.

If I had to point out the main arguments of Anti-Zionists in favour of this generalization, I’d have to break it out to these two points:

  1. Zionism is a colonial project, so if colonialism is inherently racist, thus Zionism is inherently racist as well.
  2. The sustaining of a Jewish nation-state, as derived from Zionism, can’t be achieved in current conditions without resorting to the displacement and oppression of ethnic minorities. This makes Zionism inherently racist.

The first point:

Zionism is a colonial project, so if colonialism is inherently racist, thus Zionism is inherently racist as well.

Zionism involvement with colonialism is a very strong point to make. Not only that key figures of early Zionism didn’t shy away from their view of the movement as a colonial project, but also just like many other white colonialists — when they made their colonial plans, they didn’t take much into account the native population that was already living there. They didn’t even take into account the possibility of their possible desire for their own self-determination, which would be at odds with the colonialists.

Nevertheless, simply dismissing Zionism as another type of western colonialism would be ignoring some very important nuances and oversimplifying things.

Just as it can be understood from its definition — Zionism is first and foremost a Jewish national movement. I think it’s safe to say that when English and Spanish colonialists settled the Americas, they most likely didn’t think of themselves as people who are “returning” to their ancestral homeland. The English and Dutch colonialists in South Africa didn’t have thousands of years of continuous cultural and religious connection to that land. The French colonialists in Alegria didn’t reach there to escape genocide and prosecution in the land where they were born. It is fair to presume that most of these European colonialists were(at least at first) seeing themselves as extensions of their own respective nations, those who are pushing further the borders of their civilizations, but not as those who are building their nation’s only home.

Considering all that, it is not surprising that many modern Zionists today are turning around this accusation, and arguing that Zionism is in fact “an act of radical decolonization“.

I find this argument is repulsive and unsettling. In my opinion, it diminishes the suffering of Palestinian Arabs, who for sure didn’t feel like they were “radically decolonized” by the process of establishing Israel.

Besides, if this is really the “decolonization” of a country after two thousand years, then where are the colonizers? It has been two thousand years since the fall of Judea. The Romans are nowhere near. If this is a “radical decolonization”, then from whom exactly was it “decolonized”? It’s so cynical and heartless to imply that it was decolonized from the Palestinian-Arabs, that lived here for centuries, who are our actual blood brothers, and many of whom most probably come from ancient Jewish ancestry themselves.

On the other hand, Anti-Zionist scholars like Prof. Joseph Massad absurdly claim that only in the last 10 years Zionists began to put forth about Jewish self-determination. This claim could be easily debunked — after all, it’s enough to look at the words of Israel’s national anthem, which was written in 1878 for the Zionist movement by the Jewish poet Naftali Herz Imber. Famously, the song features the line: “To be a free nation in our land”.

What would that be if not the expression of the desire for national self-determination?

So is Zionism a colonial project, or anti-colonialism? In an interview with “openDemocracy”, Prof. Derek Penslar, former professor of Israel Studies at Oxford University, suggests that it might be both:

The Zionist project combines colonialism, anti-colonialism, and postcolonial state-building, The entire twentieth century, wrapped up in one small state.

This summarizes the entire issue pretty well. Yes, Zionism might have some colonialist elements within it, but they don’t define it. If to be fair, many modern nations had colonialist beginnings, but it doesn’t make the national identities of these nations to be inherently racist.

In the way that I see it, Zionism is first and foremost a national movement — a type of nationalism. Sure, I have some criticism towards nationalism as a concept(“Nationalism is poison” is my favourite Fredric Von Hayek quote), and towards this specific type of nationalism for not being inclusive enough — but does it make it inherently racist?

Just like in the case of equating Anti-Zionism with antisemitism, to deal with this question we will need to examine cases in which a person would support Zionism, but still wouldn’t be racist. For instance, a person which supports a national home for the Jews in Israel, but at the same time still wants to see an inclusive society for other ethnic minorities. This should be a person that opposes and abhors discrimination of minorities, and deeply cares about the human rights of all inhabitants of the land, regardless of their ethnicity.

Well, this description might fit without any problem to a large chunk of the Liberal-Zionist camp. Most notably organizations like Peace Now, Yesh Gvul, and the party of Meretz — which had way bigger influence back in the ’90s, but still active even now.

I won’t deny it — for decades now, as a result of constant conflict and turmoil in the region, the Israeli society becomes more and more nationalist and less tolerant, compared to the time when I was a child. This scares and upsets me. The liberal forces in Israel today are weak while nationalist populism prevails.

However, as I pointed out before regarding a similar argument about Anti-Zionists:

 even if there is a majority of chouvinists among those who hold to a certain position doesn’t make this position inherently chouvinist.

So yes, the situation is dire, but it doesn’t make anyone who identifies as Zionist into a racist. He might still be racist regardless, but you should first talk to that individual, and then decide.

Finally, we’re reaching out to the second point:

The sustaining of a Jewish nation state, as derived from Zionism, can’t be achieved in current conditions without resorting to the displacement and oppression of ethinc minorities. This makes Zionism inherently racist.

This is a fair point, especially because such events already had happened — like the displacement of Palestinians during the creation of Israel, the military rule between 1948–1966, and the 50 years of occupation of the Palestinian territories.

To a certain extent, I even agree with this argument. I’m not a fan of nation-states in general. Zionism as a national movement is built upon an ethnic-national identity that excludes large chunks of Israel’s population — and thus makes it harder for them to identify with it.

In my opinion, this is not sustainable in the long run, and will eventually lead to either a complete rejection of this identity by the majority of the population or to an ultra-nationalist theocratic ethnostate.

Nevertheless, just like in the case of a similar Zionist argument against Anti-Zionists: it’s a bit absurd to consider a position to be racist or chauvinist just based on possible future consequences.

To explain it better, I’d like to use the example of communism: most of the countries which tried to achieve the ideal of communism have descended to tyranny and indulged in a political prosecution. One could rightfully argue that this is because the communist ideal cannot be achieved without using such force. However, this would not mean that every communist automatically supports tyranny or the use of that force.

Zionism, in my opinion, at some points an overly idealistic and utopian ideology just as communism is, and both of them are unsustainable in the long run. But nevertheless, so many of the people who are attracted to these ideologies often believe in good faith that their ideologies will not lead to such consequences.

Why does it even matter?

Let’s say that the idea of establishing a national home for Jews in Palestine as a refuge from antisemitism and prosecution was both morally and strategically wrong from the start. I’d say: “thank you for that observation, Captain Hindsight, but you’re one-hundred years too late!”

There are already at least 7 million Jews living there who identify as Israeli, and there’s no chance that they’ll give up on their identity, nor on their national independence anytime soon.

On the other hand, the modern Palestinian identity developed through the years as predominantly Arabic. Their flag, anthem, and coat of arms are exclusively Arabic.

Any one-state solution would involve either some serious compromise regarding the symbols of national identity(which will be very hard for both groups, considering how ultra-nationalistic they have become) or a brutal tyranny of one national identity over the other.

Israelis and Palestinians developed so differently through the years, that even if in 1947 some kind of mutually-concessional one-state solution was possible, today it will surely lead to a civil war, which will be disastrous for both nations.

The solution could be achieved only through conversation between Zionists and Anti-Zionists, between Israelis and Palestinians. Be it a two-state solution, or some kind of bi-national EU-style confederation with full autonomy and self-governance to both major nationalities — it will require to stop demonizing and delegitimizing each other, and to start moving forward.

About the Author
Born in Soviet Belarus, but grew up in Israel. Graduate of a bachelor's degree in Political Science from the University of Haifa, as part of which also studied International Relations at the University of Warsaw. Lived for about two and a half years in the EU (Poland, France, Greece), and was active in European Students for Liberty.
Related Topics
Related Posts