Alan Silverstein

Is anti-Zionism always antisemitism?

Prior to the October 7th murder of 1,200 individuals and the kidnapping of 250 by Hamas, this issue was part of a dispassionate debate. Opposing the existence of only one among 200-plus nation-states, the only Jewish state, while shocking, was only theoretical. But once given the opportunity to demonstrate the behavior dictated by their anti-Zionism, Hamas’s rapes, beheadings, dismembering of bodies, burning people alive, and other atrocities concretized their antisemitic nature for all to see. Antisemitic supporters of Hamas’s unspeakable, barbaric actions on October 7 erupted-in-kind on campuses and on main streets and in legislatures throughout the world. Their messages and demeanor reinforced beyond a doubt the equation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism. It is no coincidence that the number of antisemitic hate crimes in the US and globally grew exponentially in the aftermath of the October 7 attacks. Hatred of Israel is expressed by Jew-hatred as well.

Masked “protestors” were not emulating Martin Luther King’s adherents of nonviolence to achieve amicable goals. They did not call for the pursuit of peace between Arabs and Jews. They oppose a two-state solution because it would include a Jewish state, anathema to them. Their focus is not to improve the quality of life for grassroots Palestinians. Instead they identify with antisemitic Hamas terrorism, which seeks the death of Jews throughout Israel and world-wide.

To imitate Hamas, the “protesters” act with anonymity by covering their faces with keffiyehs. They carry Hamas flags, Hamas-inspired posters and Hamas’s threatening symbols — like the upside-down red triangle, a label marking specific people for death. Like Hamas, they engage in verbal and physical harassment and intimidation of any Jews they can find. They chant slogans calling for mass murder, notably “Globalize the Intifada” (the death of hundreds by homicide bombings), “From the River to the Sea, all of Palestine will be Arab” (eliminating Israel and Israelis), and so forth. As noted by Sen. Chuck Schumer in a 45-minute speech to the US Senate: “Can you blame Jewish people for hearing a violently antisemitic message, loud and clear, anytime we hear that chant?”

The “protestors” brazenly accost people wearing identifiably Jewish attire and facial hair. Armed with items capable of assault and intimidation, on streets, on subways, and at landmark institutions, they demand that Jews identify themselves and then espouse opposition to Israel’s existence. The “protestors” restrict access to parts of campuses, communities, and public thoroughfares for people of Jewish persuasion. They demand that university academic partnerships with Israeli institutions, faculty, and exchange students be terminated.

They oppose the existence of Jewish organizations like Hillel and Chabad, as well as local synagogues on the basis of their religious/cultural connection to the Jewish state. They want to “cancel” Jewish students, faculty, and alumni participating in campus clubs, in student government, and in the workplace. They carry out their battle plan not just against Israeli policies and existence but also against any Jewish person who visits Israel or has any connection and identification with the Jewish state.

The mounting correlation between anti-Zionism and antisemitism was anticipated by the definition of antisemitism issued at the 2016 International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). As described by the American Jewish Committee, “the IHRA’s is the authoritative…definition of antisemitism, recommended by the European Council, the European Parliament, the UN Secretary General, the Organization of American States, and dozens of governments around the world, including the United States.”

For the purpose of the Biden administration’s 2021 paper on Combating Antisemitism, the IHRA definition was expanded/refined by the Nexus Task Force (the nexus between anti-Zionism and antisemitism). Nexus intended to clarify when objecting to aspects of Israeli behavior is not to be confused with antisemitism. The Nexus document states that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” The Nexus Task Force also clarifies why this distinction is important. “Mistaking political disagreements about Israel for antisemitism is counterproductive. It distracts from addressing real instances of antisemitism and bigotry.” Additionally, Nexus specifies that “making your case on its merits is the most effective way to refute unfair criticism of Israel.”

Importantly, the IHRA definition provides extensive examples of the manner in which anti-Zionism does morph into antisemitism:

  1. Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology [like Hamas terrorists] or an extremist view of religion [like Islamists’].
  2. Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government, or other societal institutions.
  3. Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.
  4. Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g., gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).
  5. Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
  6. Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
  7. 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.
  8. Applying double standards by requiring of it [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
  9. Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
  10. Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
  11. Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel.

The IHRA definition adds that “antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for ‘why things go wrong.’” IHRA observes that antisemitism might be “expressed in speech, writing, visual forms, and action and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.” It can appear “in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere.”

As expressed by journalist Douglas Murray in a Canada-based debate on this topic, “The only tolerated form of antisemitism [in mainstream society] is anti-Zionism.” Antisemitism is not simply a different political point of view, Murray says, “it is cruel and unfair treatment of people because they are Jews.” If certain episodes that he cited are not “antisemitism, then let this audience tell me why the following things have happened [here in Canada] since October 7…. Why in a Montreal suburb a synagogue should be bombed…, why should there have been gunshots against a yeshiva…in Toronto, why should a book store owned by a Jew be attacked…, why an assault upon a Jewish Community Center…upon a Jewish deli…why in Toronto two men opened fire on a Jewish girls school….”

Post-October 7, the need to distinguish between anti-Zionism and antisemitism is no longer hypothetical. It is very real. Lacking clear definitions impedes remedial action. Antisemitic episodes manifest themselves again and again in the United States and throughout the world. Israel’s war of self-defense against the terrorists of Hamas has unleashed Jew hatred among Israel’s detractors. We can ill afford to give anti-Zionists “a free pass.” Their political disputes have morphed into tangible acts and words of antisemitism.

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”
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