Razi Hecker
“You Can Make Anything by Writing” - C.S Lewis

Beyond Red Lines

Is anti-Zionism antisemitism? Yes…and No.

In a recent YouTube video, Bassem Youssef — a Lebanese comedian who has garnered attention for his outspoken criticism of Israel — made a striking observation:

This accusation of antisemitism has become so empty. It used to freeze the blood in your veins…but it doesn’t anymore, because it’s been overused. They’re calling everyone antisemitic.

The problem? He’s not entirely wrong.

No need to take my word. The State Department’s definition of antisemitism of “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” feels anachronistic in face of commonplace calls for Palestinian freedom from the “River to the Sea.”

And yet, for many American Zionists, and especially since October 7th, this conflation is a ubiquitous part of daily discourse. “Can you believe the antisemitism on college campus” has become a canonized greeting, as posts on X weave effortless analogies between protestors, Palestinians, and Nazis. But despite the conviction of many Jews — both Israeli and Diaspora — that anti-Zionism is the 21st century manifestation of a millennia-old hatred of Jews, this blending of definitions feels simplistic at best.

Arguing for a “free Palestine from the River to the Sea” can’t inherently necessitate a call for genocide when Palestinians have so clearly articulated the counterfactual. Cornell West’s explanation that October 7th was a “counter terrorist response” doesn’t necessarily reveal a disdain for the Jewish People, especially in light of his constant reassurance that “a precious Palestinian baby [has] the same value as a precious Jewish baby”.

What’s more, is that Jews themselves stand in solidarity at marches, and even cite their own Judaism to oppose Israel on the world’s largest stages. And, as Bassem Youssef aptly points out, tagging Jonathan Glazer, a Jew who won an Oscar for a film about the Holocaust, as an antisemite…feels a bit ridiculous.

Of course, all these statements, chants, slogans, and beliefs lie well outside the purview of “classic-antisemitism,” a Jew hatred that protestors and Palestinian intellectuals alike vociferously condemn and distance themselves from.

In fact, they seem quite self-assured about the correct definition.

Antisemitism? That’s claiming that Jews control the world, that Jews are racist, imperialists, devils, crooked…the list goes on. Protests are quick to distance themselves from using the word “Jew” and will frequently decry the growing antisemitism around the world. A picture posted by a Harvard Palestinian group showing a hand with a Star of David and a dollar sign holding a noose with two African-American men? Clearly antisemitic. So clear, in fact, that it prompted a swift condemnation and apology from the very same group. Same goes for the widespread and swift condemnation of Abbas’ comments in September of 2023, when he claimed Hitler targeted Jews merely for their “social role.”

Just the other week at a GW encampment, a protestor instructed a young camerawoman to “get that Jewish flag in the frame.” When I pointed out that it was an Israeli flag and his comments were antisemitic, he quickly fist-bumped me, apologized, and thanked me for the clarification.

But despite the supposed sensibility of these arguments, something feels off. Really off.

Something feels off when Bassem Yousef, typically quick to label others’ as racist and Nazis over and over, suddenly decries the overuse of antisemitism. Off when Erdogan asserted that Netanyahu’s genocidal policies would make Hitler jealous. Off like the UN condemning Israel more times in 2022 than all other countries combined.

Off like a Columbia student calling for the explicit murder of Zionists, a professor lauding the October 7th attack as awesome, and both still being affiliated with Columbia — while at Harvard, admissions are rescinded for outdated racist comments on private chats. Off when you realize that the Harvard’s Palestinian group could transform a deplorably antisemitic image into something acceptable simply by removing the dollar sign (Jewish) while keeping the Star of David (Zionist). And off like Harvard’s graduation speaker decrying allegations of antisemitism because those against her are from “power and money and want power and money.”

Holocaust denial? Undoubtedly antisemitic. Zionists weaponizing the Holocaust to establish a settler-colonial empire rooted in racism and discrimination? The canonized narrative. Jews are racist? Antisemitism. Zionists are racist? The raison d’etre for the widespread popularity of the protests.

The problem?

Besides the ever-pervasive sense of something being fundamentally wrong, articulating what’s “off” has become increasingly challenging — especially when the word “antisemitism” isn’t used.

Today, articles flood the media (just google the two phrases!), attempting to tackle this complex decoupling of anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Many strive to inextricably link the two, and while often persuasive (Jews are the only national and ethnic group not deserving of self-determination?), more pensive thinkers realize this can’t be true across the board, especially when one’s exercise of Jewish self-determination is another’s loss of a homeland.

Thus, the more introspective articles highlight the double standards applied to the Jewish state in hopes of delineating red lines where anti-Zionism crosses into antisemitism. Yet, it’s hard to imagine people truly believe it’s the Jews who are at fault, especially given the extensive efforts of most anti-Zionists to decouple anti-Zionism from Judaism — a rhetorical feat also performed by prominent Jewish scholars.

So, instead, it’s argued that Jew-hatred manifests as the time’s greatest evil. Jews become greedy capitalists in socialist countries, isolationists in expanding empires, and now, colonialists in an anti-imperialist era. However, it’s an argument ultimately too deterministic, subjective, maximalist, and non-falsifiable to be convincing to postmodern sensibilities. Identifying racism is straightforward: treating someone poorly because of their skin color. Simple enough. But a post-racial, shape-shifting existential belief embedded into the socio-cultural fabric of humanity? That’s a harder sell.

Maybe it’s time to shift our terminology altogether? As Sam Harris notes, the label “antisemitic” shouldn’t be the ultimate measure of evil. Condoning and legitimizing October 7th while maintaining wholeheartedly you have nothing against Jews?  Shouldn’t matter – evil is evil. And while logically sound, I worry that his statements don’t accomplish much. Worst case, he’s overlooked the uniquely pernicious nature of true antisemitism. Best case? Still too amorphous, too subjective.

This isn’t to say I have a solution, a new magical red line that can masterfully delineate where legitimate anti-Zionism merges into antisemitism. Perhaps we can only ever articulate an impossible frustration — the Jewish people’s enduring struggle for acceptance as the world continually generates new reasons for our exclusion. The deep sense that this “round” of hating the Jewish story is no more legitimate than its historical precedents. The feeling of our ancestors and theirs before them, a deep-set sense of perennial rejection borne from thousands of years of oppression, our brow forever scarred with history’s mark of Cain.

And so, it seems, that once again, we’re left helpless. Helpless in the face of a world which seems uniquely interested in pursuing the Jewish state. Helpless as classmates at Harvard chant for the Intifada to come to America and worldwide escalation with Intifadas at every capital. Down the river at MIT they’re even more forthright — calling for the death of all Zionists. Powerless as we watch antisemitism reach new heights, all while being assured that these acts have nothing to do the “legitimate” call for the destruction of the Jewish homeland.

And yes, powerless in our hesitancy to label the unparalleled vitriol towards the Jewish state as antisemitic, despite the overwhelming, historical, and heartbreaking anecdotal evidence that something, surely… simply isn’t right.

About the Author
After finishing his B.A in Near Eastern Language and Civilizations at Harvard University, Razi moved to Israel and soon after enlisted in the IDF's Research Intelligence Unit. From religious angst in high school, wearing tzitzit in college, navigating Tel Aviv and the army, and even learning in Yeshiva, Razi uses creative short stories as a mouthpiece to express his struggles, thoughts, and goals.
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