Is it antisemitic to be anti-Zionist?

Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, as Israel celebrates its independence 74 years after its creation, the debate over whether anti-Zionism is a form of antisemitism is gaining steam.

For Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, the answer is yes. Speaking at the ADL’s Virtual Leadership Summit, Greenblatt proclaimed: “To those who still cling to the idea that antizionism is not antisemitism – let me clarify this for you as clearly as I can – antizionism is antisemitism.”

Greenblatt was reporting on ADL’s annual Audit of Antisemitic Incidents, which found that 345 incidents last year “involved references to Israel or Zionism.”  Many of those occurred in response to the Israeli-Gaza conflict in May 2021. Some of those were violent. Others conflated all Jews with Israel. All of these were unequivocally antisemitic. They must be condemned and combated.

But the relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism is not binary.  And understanding the complexity of that relationship has concrete ramifications for both Israel and the fight against antisemitism.

It’s not hard to see why anti-Zionism is equated with antisemitism. Zionism is an existential movement. It embodies the principle of self-determination for the Jewish people. Without Zionism and the State of Israel, Jews would be in grave danger, both in Israel and in the Diaspora.

I know this to be true from my own family’s experience. My parents met at a Zionist summer camp in Hungary after surviving the Holocaust. Their Zionism was rooted in a narrative that reflects the Jewish experience of living in a world where Jews have been the objects of discrimination and hatred, where Jews have been oppressed and murdered.

My Zionism emerges from my parents’ experience. It has led me to dedicate my life to the survival and well-being of Israel. My Zionism motivates me to learn about Israel and understand its challenges. Understanding anti-Zionism is one of those challenges.

The author’s father at Bnei Akiva Camp on the shores of Lake Balaton in Hungary in 1945.

Many of the Palestinians I’ve met over my 40 years of work for Israel – both citizens of Israel and Palestinians in the occupied territories – think of themselves as anti-Zionists. Their personal or national experience has been adversely affected by the creation of the State of Israel. In their narrative, Zionism represents exile and occupation.

Are these Palestinians antisemites? Are supporters of the Palestinian cause who oppose Zionism antisemites? Is the Islamic Party Ra’am, which is part of Israel’s coalition, expected to support Zionism? I don’t think so.

This is not to say that there is no antisemitism among Palestinians. Islamist violence against any Jew is antisemitic. Cartoon images of greedy Jews are antisemitic. Attacking Jews and blaming them for Israel’s actions is antisemitic. These are not political expressions; their adherents are using their anti-Zionism as a cover for their antisemitism.

But the question at hand – is anti-Zionism antisemitism? – is a political question. And it’s not a black and white one.

In its white paper, Understanding Antisemitism at its Nexus with Israel and Zionism, the Nexus Task Force asserts that criticism of Zionism or opposition to Israel’s policies might be antisemitic if it treats Israel “in a negative manner based on a claim that Jews in particular should be denied the right to define themselves as a people and to exercise self-determination.”

There is nothing inherently antisemitic about a Palestinian opposing Zionism. But if that opposition denies Jews the same existential rights – from personal rights to national rights – that are legitimized for Palestinians, then a line has been crossed.

The existence of Israel is a moral and historical imperative. Whatever injustices may have been committed in the name of Zionism, dismantling the State of Israel would be just as unjust. As the historian David Biale points out: “We can’t turn the clock back that far. There are things that have been settled and are not going to change.”

Most of the Palestinians I know would understand what Biale means. Some still believe in a two-state solution. Others believe in a binational state where Jews and Palestinians have equal rights. Others hold out hope for a single state that is not defined by the nationalities of its inhabitants. But although “half of Palestinians still want all of Palestine,” says the political scientist David Pollack, “most would compromise for less.”

When a political compromise is reached, the relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism will become largely academic. Terminologies will lose their relevance when Jews and Palestinians have equal rights to define their identities and determine their futures.

But that compromise is not on the horizon. The Palestinian Authority is too weak to pursue diplomacy. The political landscape in Israel skews right and is doubtful to change in the foreseeable future. If the settlement project continues and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations languish, Palestinians will become more bitter; their opposition to Israel will grow and organically morph into anti-Zionism. This is a political reality.

It is easy to see why anti-Zionism is equated with antisemitism, but we cannot be satisfied with easy answers. Understanding when anti-Zionism isn’t antisemitic is just as important as understanding when it is.  This understanding will help us distinguish between genuine antisemitism and the political issues that underly the conflict between Zionism and anti-Zionism. It will help us fight antisemitism more effectively.  And it will help Israel resolve its conflict with the Palestinians, so that it can maintain its independence.

About the Author
Jonathan Jacoby, the former executive director of New Israel Fund and president of Israel Policy Forum, directs the Nexus Task Force, which is affiliated with the Center for the Study of Hate at Bard College.
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