Jewish support for anti-Zionism doesn’t mean it’s not antisemitic

(Wikimedia Commons)
(Wikimedia Commons)

In Macklemore’s new anthem for the anti-Israel protests spreading across college campuses, he raps: “we see the lies in them, claiming it’s antisemitic to be anti-Zionist. I’ve seen Jewish brothers and sisters out there and riding in solidarity and screaming….” It’s a trope that’s been repeated again and again: supporting anti-Zionism — the delegitimization of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, as opposed to criticizing specific Israeli policies — can’t be antisemitic because there are some people who identify as Jewish championing the cause.

Here’s the thing. Throughout history, there have been Jews who stood proudly in solidarity with their antisemitic oppressors. 

Let’s look at two glaring examples. At the beginning of the Common Era, the largest Jewish population in the world lived in its ancestral homeland of Judea (present day Israel and the West Bank), which is where the word “Jew” comes from. They enjoyed a form of semi-autonomy until the ruling Romans began denying their freedoms. In 66 CE, the Jews revolted, but a “group of Jews… supported Roman rule in spite of the numerous conflicts and tensions between the Jewish population and Roman officials.” The Romans quashed the uprising, destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, slaughtered and enslaved hundreds of thousands of Jews, and exiled most of the survivors from their homeland — creating an often bloody exile that lasted for the next 2,000 years. 

Fast forward to early 1930s Germany. Hitler rose to power on a platform that claimed Jews were responsible for Germany’s woes. Most Jews were terrified. Many tried to flee. But some believed that fears were overblown, that Hitler was just posturing, and that what Germany needed was precisely the national confidence being offered by the Nazis. So in 1934, the League of National German Jews, which numbered in the thousands, urged “all German Jews to vote for Chancellor Hitler.” In just a few short years, almost all of them were killed by the Gestapo.

The same has unfortunately been true of other groups and forms of discrimination. In the first few hundred years of the American colonies and the United States, millions of African Americans were brutalized, tortured, and killed by slavery. But there were some freed African Americans who owned slaves as well.

We’ll never know the inner psychology or intent of these people. But what is clear is that, in practice, they were on the side of oppression. It would be absurd to argue that Hitler wasn’t antisemitic because he had Jewish supporters, or that slavery wasn’t racist because there were Black slaveholders. 

If anti-Zionists, including people who identify as Jewish, want to claim their positions aren’t antisemitic, they should make substantive arguments, not associative ones based on who agrees with them, or how they identify. After all, discrimination in general, and antisemitism in particular, means treating one group of people, in this case Jews, worse than others. The identity of the person doing the discriminating is irrelevant. 

If they want to claim that Israel shouldn’t give preference to Judaism as a religion, then they should explain why Israel is different from over 80 countries (40% of the world) — including England, Spain, Italy, and, yes, the Palestinian Territories — that favor a specific religion, despite having religious and secular minorities.

If they want to argue that Israel shouldn’t give preference to Jewish immigration, then they should explain why Israel is different from other countries that give automatic citizenship to preferred ethnic groups, but not to others. To name just a few examples: Ireland to foreigners who have Irish grandparents; Italy to aliens who have Italian ancestors dating back up to 150 years; and Lithuania to immigrants who descend from people who lived in Lithuania before 1940.

If they want to argue that Israel’s Jewish majority should be forced to leave their homes because a significant portion of that majority descends from immigration rather than local birth, then they should explain why Israel is different from other countries with majorities borne from mass immigration, including the United States of America, Australia, and Canada.

If they want to argue that Jews shouldn’t have a claim to Israel because many, but not all, of them lived outside of their ancestral homeland for generations before returning, they should explain why there isn’t a cutoff for other national return movements, including Palestinian refugees.

It’s worth repeating that discrimination in general, and antisemitism in particular, means treating one group of people, in this case Jews, worse than others; and, for the reasons above, anti-Zionism appears to do just that. I invite anti-Zionists to explain why they think Israel is so substantively different than all the countries mentioned above, and we can debate the merits. But saying anti-Zionism isn’t antisemitic just because some people who identify as Jewish agree is simply, in Macklemore’s words, a lie.

About the Author
Ayalon Eliach is a rabbi and lawyer who loves to make complex ideas digestible, relevant, and useful.
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