The Blurred Line between Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism

Over the past week I was exposed to provocative Antisemitic material from the pre-Enlightenment era and the present day. Noticing both parallels and discrepancies between them I began to reflect upon the puzzling evolution of Jew-hatred. I decided that as modern societies develop, manifestation of prejudice and discrimination has been forced to evolve from ‘openly racist’ activity. The reason for this evolution is that in the modern Western world racism is seen as irrational, politically incorrect and outdated. The development of a modern sense of morality which seeks to prevail through all public or governmental action has however not created an environment which is necessarily any healthier or safer for Jewish life. On the contrary, in the present day, prejudice against Jews is often manifested in an even more dangerous way, as it is thinly disguised by apparently rational and factually based narratives which advocate for the boycotting of Israel’s existence, often legitimising such Antisemitism in the public eye.

Last week I went to see The Merchant of Venice at the Almeida theatre in London. It was an ostentatious and ambitious adaptation of an always contentious play, set in modern-day Las Vegas with modern societal issues infused into the story, in an aim to make the outdated text transcend to the information age. Shakespeare’s text presents us with the face of Antisemitism in the pre-Enlightenment era, a prejudice which in England was deeply rooted in religious grievances between Christians and Jews over Mosaic law among other things. The text of the play contains imagery which recalls the vile medieval blood libels. The immortal words of Shylock, who callously demands his ‘pound of flesh’ did much to perpetuate this vile demonisation of Jews as immoral, inhumane barbarians which ancient smear campaigns originally promoted. However, it struck me that, despite this Antisemitism being based on such an ancient prejudice, juxtaposed with modern and cosmopolitan issues facing the developed world, it was not as obviously incongruent as it really should have been.

This reflected the fact that Antisemitism in itself hasn’t evolved from being deeply rooted in discriminatory conspiracies which portray Jews as greedy, bloodthirsty, or as having other demon-like qualities. Ancient prejudices against the Jews as an ethnicity or religion have now been projected onto all the inhabitants of the State of Israel instead, with depictions of the IDF as blood-thirsty, immoral beings which recalls the similarly charged prejudice against Jews in the medieval ear for being venomous child killers. However, it also made clear to me that Anti-Zionist activity is carried out with such vehement hostility and aggression in campaigns and language and action used in them, that it is not really characteristically dissimilar from Antisemitic activity. The nature of Anti-Israel attacks, which involve the indiscriminate use of violent and provocative language that creates a hostile atmosphere surrounding debate which no other country is ever subject to, can therefore be deemed Antisemitic. Indeed, the EUMC (European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia) in 2005 identified Antisemitism as a term encompassing attacks on the right of the Jews to self-determination and enacting double standards when criticising Israel, among other things.

Anti-Israel activity in itself is a disproportionate and unjust thing.  This is because in relation to all countries around the world, of which many are perpetrators of war crimes or human rights violations, Israel is so far from  behaving immorally in comparison that there is no legitimate justification for it being the current priority and focus that it is for many campaigns. Regardless of this, Anti-Zionist activity does occur, and the majority of it sets unjustifiable double standards which further reveal the blurring of the line between Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism.  A most recent example of this is the recent letter signed by 700 British artists announcing a cultural boycott of Israel. The irony prevails that many of these figures, who protest at Israel’s behaviour in Gaza, are on the British government payroll, which is responsible for many more attacks against civilians than the Israeli government could ever possibly be accused of. This is just one example of the ways in which Israel is treated as a state unique from all others, a kind of pariah state, in terms of the kind of moral standards it is expected to uphold and the scrutiny it is expected to deal with.

Aside even from the cruel nature of Anti-Zionist campaigns, one could say that due to Israel’s characteristic as a Jewish state and as the only one in the world, all acts which demonise and aim to destroy it, no matter their nature, should be deemed inherently Antisemitic. This is true in the sense that in themselves, Anti-Zionist attacks are an attack on the right of the Jewish people to self-determination and autonomy, which has been defined as Antisemitic.

Denying the connection between Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism is like denying the inextricable link between the Jewish People and Israel, which is set out through the the post-modern ideology of Zionism as a Jewish matter but also through the personal, ancient connection of the Jewish people with the land of Israel which is inherent to the Bible. Israel is therefore characteristically linked with Judaism, just as many Western countries are also specifically linked with Christianity as part of their expressed character as a nation. A non-Jewish friend of mine recently made the assertion that Israel has no purpose or right to exist as a country which is a home specifically for a certain religion. I immeaditely explained to my friend that many countries have religious status, and their argument then fell down completely. However, the reason they felt the need to give this argument, which without them intending or realising was Antisemitic in itself, was due to the way in which mainstream media has been treating Israel for years as a pariah state in a clearly Antisemitic fashion. The recent media outcry against Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comments after both the Paris and Copenhagen attacks sought to portray his hospitable message to all Jews, that Israel would continue to act as their sanctuary and welcome them home should they wish to make aliyah, as a smear on the governments and communities of Jews in the Diaspora. What it really was, however, was the rightful expression of Israel’s position as the only Jewish State in the world, and Netanyahu’s right as Prime Minister of Israel to promote his country and its position as a home for world Jewry.

When we listen to the likes of George Galloway, one of the most vehemently anti-Zionist politicians in the Western world, asserting that he stands, morally, against all kinds of prejudice including Antisemitism, his narrative is clearly risible. His exagerated criticism of Israel’s actions when set against the failure to condemn the human rights abuses of Sadam Hussein and Hamas is evidence enough of the double standard he enacts. Furthermore, his abusive, aggressive language when describing Israel is even more evidence of his pre-disposed prejudice.

It’s time that we stood up for Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and to defend its citizens just as much as any other country does. It’s time that we expose unjustifiably prejudiced narratives which disproportionately criticise the actions- or call for an end to the existence- of the only Jewish State, and reveal them to be nothing but thinly veiled Antisemitism.

About the Author
Tamara Berens is a second year undergraduate student at Kings College London and a UK Campus Associate for CAMERA.
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