Avi Lewis

The true meaning of anti-Zionism

Illustrative: Students protest at an anti-Israel demonstration at the University of California, Irvine. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images/JTA)
Illustrative: Students protest at an anti-Israel demonstration at the University of California, Irvine. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images/JTA)

If Zionism is defined as the “movement to establish and maintain a Jewish state in the historical Jewish homeland” then opposition to it, or anti-Zionism, refers to its reverse. The belief that the Jewish people deserve no state, no political autonomy, and no armed forces anywhere in the world, but especially not between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

The anti-Zionist label does not refer to people that have genuine and legitimate criticisms of Israel’s policies, nor to people who campaign against the Israeli government, and not of course to people that define themselves as pro-Palestinian — with the caveat that they will allow for the existence of a Jewish state alongside an Arab one.

Those that reproach the Jewish state for its actions while not calling into question it’s essence or it’s right to self-define within viable borders are not anti-Zionists according to this definition. It’s only refers to those that cavil at the idea of a state that is Jewish.

Putting aside overt cases of anti-Semitism, the root-motivations of “logical” anti-Zionism can be divided into three principle umbrella categories:

  1. The Jews are not a national group, so they don’t deserve a state.

Claim: According to this axiom, the Jews are a religious group and not a national group. Since religions aren’t entitled to their own body politic the Jewish religion cannot govern a piece of territory, raise an army or wield control over other groups.

Rebuttal: While this belief is emphatically untrue (since the Jews are in fact a superb example of what defines a national group: historical homeland, unique national language, shared history, collective memory and culture, shared ethnic origins etc.), the great irony of this line of reasoning is that it’s normally voiced by people that aggressively campaign for the right of Palestinians to define themselves and their identity on their own terms. All the while denying the Jews that very same right!

If the majority of the world’s Jews want to self-determine as a national group, whatever their reasons, why shouldn’t they be allowed to? And in the event that the Jews are indeed a national group — does it not follow that they deserve their own state like the Palestinians?

If the Jews deserve no state on religious grounds, then that same line of reasoning also invalidates countries that define themselves purely along religious lines. The world’s 45 expressly Islamic states come to mind, as do countries that define themselves as exclusively Christian (for example The Vatican).

  1. Israel was born in sin / continues to sin, so it lost its right to a state through its actions.

Claim: Israel’s establishment amid the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and the associated displacement of 750,000 Arab inhabitants who lived in the territories governed by the former British mandate of Palestine – constitute the original, irredeemable sin which nullified any right the Zionist movement may have initially had to form a state. The fact that Israel continues to act in bad faith till this very day is further proof of its illegitimacy.

Rebuttal: This line of reasoning assumes that countries (rather than regimes or governments) can lose their right to sovereignty through ‘bad behavior’. I reiterate this point, because people who argue this line of reasoning don’t conclude by saying “… thus Israel should withdraw from the territories it captured in the 1967 war”. Rather anti-Zionists claim that the Jewish state has lost its right to exist because of its policies.

This differs totally from international criticism leveled at rogue states or examples of state-sanctioned terrorism. Critics call for the replacement of the Assad regime, not for the destruction of Syria or its essence as an Arab-majority state. Activists seek the demise of the North Korean leadership, not its people. As we speak, the Turkish military is the process of occupying large swathes of Kurdish-majority northern-Syria. Nobody calls into question the existence of the Turkish state. The year before Israel’s establishment, the 1947 partition of British India into a Muslim and Hindu state led to the forced displacement of 10 – 12 million people and the deaths of 200,000 – 2 million people. If Pakistan was born in sin, I have yet to hear somebody call its downfall.

Which legal precedent in the modern world can be pointed to that calls for the eradication of a state, its institutions, official language and the removal of its inhabitants because of the displacement of 750,000 people 70 years earlier — whatever the context? This is not to belittle the real suffering of people that lost their homes, land and landscape in any way. But according to which hierarchy of values does the mass displacement of one people justify the mass displacement of another?

Should 4th generation Israeli Jews “return” en masse to Europe and North Africa — where they do not belong nationally or historically and where they will not be accepted — to make way for 4th generation Palestinians from Chile, Canada and Dubai?

Campaigning for peace and for an end to the conflict is noble and admirable. But doing so at the expense of Israel’s existence is not. If aggregated human rights violations are what earn countries pariah status — and if in the minds of anti-Zionists Israel has crossed this threshold, does that mean that other states that have caused far greater losses of life and displacement should be dismantled as well? Where are the campaigns against those countries?

These aren’t mere whataboutisms, but genuine attempts to apply the rule in the axiom fairly to all cases. No event exists out of context and no country exists in a vacuum, so it shouldn’t be treated as such.

  1. All nation states / international borders / nationalisms are evil, starting with Israel.

Claim: The entire international order of nation states is inherently unethical and should be replaced by an international system based on universalism and ‘no borders’. Since Israel is a nation state par excellence it is grounded in immorality and should be dismantled.

Rebuttal: Some may believe that replacing Israel with a utopian bi-national federation would usher in a kind of grassroots peace in which ‘all the people will just live together in harmony’. Obviously, these have activists have not experienced – or are willfully blind to – the harsh realities of the Middle East and why Israelis tend to hold hawkish views.

If extreme Palestinian groups such as Hamas reject the ideals presented by these activists and proceed to instigate an armed struggle against a denuded Jewish population, who will come to their rescue? The irony is that replacing a Jewish state with a Muslim-Arab one doesn’t put an end to a nation state, it simply replaces it with a different one.

Out of all 193 UN member countries, Israel is not be the ideal archetype of nation state. 25% of its voting and passport-holding citizens are not Jewish. Nation states with a far more homogenous demographic makeup include Japan, Armenia, Hungary, Malta and Poland. The Spanish enclaves of Cuetta and Melilla abutting Morocco feature far more imposing border fences than Israel’s security separation barrier.

Why is specifically Israel on the frontline of the attempt to put an end to all forms of nationalism and borders?


The purpose of this piece is to show that “logical” anti-Zionism is not logical at all. Rather it’s tainted by double standards. Questioning why people adhere to such double standards vis-a-vis the Jewish state is key to cutting through the layers of double-speak right to the heart of the matter and dismantling shaky arguments.

Anti-Zionist discourse is usually couched in socially acceptable language that obscures its underlying motivations. This discourse often plays upon buzzwords relating to human rights (“Zionism is racism”), universalism (“no borders, no nation-states”) and stale counter-cultural lingo (“down with imperialist-settler-colonialism”).

Anti-Zionists that hate Jews are usually not explicit about it – and when they are, they are normally relegated to the fringes of acceptable discourse. Ironically, because overt anti-Semitism is still socially unacceptable (at least as of 2019), anti-Semites that consider themselves ‘respectable anti-Zionists’ go to great pains to hide their beliefs from public view.

Explicit anti-Semites cannot be contested in the arena of logic, facts and ideas. They must be fought, but they cannot be convinced. Many neutral bystanders will (hopefully) be turned off by such bigotry.

On the other hand, some self-described anti-Zionists may be mislabeling themselves. They call themselves anti-Zionists and believe that they stand for a just and moral cause — but are usually unaware of the full extent of what anti-Zionism means and what such a position actually entails. Presenting such people with an exact definition of anti-Zionism could make them drop the label and moderate their positions.

About the Author
Avi was formerly a news writer at the Times of Israel. Originally from Australia, he served in the IDF and today works in Israel's thriving Hi Tech sector in Tel Aviv. He lives near Modi'in with wife and 3 kids
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