Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, Both, or Neither
Anti-Zionism is not inherently anti-Semitic.
If you don’t agree with that sentiment, you may want to open another tab right now. This article will address what I understand to be the nuanced difference between the two, and individuals who are incapable or unwilling to contemplate that distinction won’t find a great deal in this article that will resonate with their understanding of these issues. If the above describes your approach, I suggest you explore the vast assortment of websites designed specifically to accommodate those Jews and their extremist allies set on blocking out the negative feedback the world has to provide about Israel’s actions and pretending that any such criticism reflects the racist phenomenon that has resulted in the oppression and murder of countless thousands of Jews throughout the scope of history. There are plenty of articles that affirm this viewpoint and ensure that people triggered by Israel criticism need not take the claims of an increasing worldwide majority seriously. This is not one of those articles.
Anti-Semitism. These vile words have been resounding in the ears of the Jewish world these last few months, and aside from last month’s horrific synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, they’ve mostly been coming from American universities. UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and various schools in five other states across the country were targeted by “Daily Stormer Book Clubs” - white nationalist organizations that pasted fliers around the school blaming the Jews for the Kavanaugh scandal along with all “anti-white, anti-American” current events. I addressed this incident in passing in another article I wrote last month, in which I outline my daily experiences wearing a Kippah on the UC Berkeley campus. As a proud Zionist, I have never been asked about Israel or issues surrounding it solely by virtue of the Kippah that identifies me as a Jew. To me, that is ample evidence of the difference between the two issues. But not all Jews wear Kippot, and many still feel strongly that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism (or even Israel criticism) are one and the same. I’m here to dispel that notion.
Before this whole flier scandal, tensions in the Jewish world were already running high. Much of the attention was centered around University of Michigan, where certain professors had rescinded their letters of recommendation to Jewish students on the basis of their program being somehow connected to Israel. The reaction throughout much of the Jewish social media world and blogosphere was immediate condemnation. Many referred to this action as anti-Semitism, arguing that it was a display of disproportionate concern over the morality of the Jewish state at the expense of concern over the actions of other problematic countries. Many did not even feel the need to qualify anti-Semitism on this basis. To many, the fact that Jewish students were refused recommendation letters as a result of their support for the Jewish state was anti-Semitism in and of itself.
This viewpoint and its reverberations have continued to expand, to the point where I have many friends on social media condemning everything from BDS (the movement to boycott Israel until it ceases violating international law through its actions in the occupied territories) to someone’s use of the word “apartheid” in relation to the current “security situation” in Israel as anti-Semitic. Yes, there are many anti-Semitic incidents happening in recent times and there is certainly cause for concern. However, my personal belief is that one can criticize the State of Israel’s actions without being anti-Semitic, and I think that jumping to call someone anti-Semitic on the basis of a statement or action they’ve made in critique of Israel’s current management of the Palestinian territories is a grievous error that only sets back the cause of ending real anti-Semitism once and for all.
However – and here’s the catch - despite the fact that not all anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, the culture of Israel critique creates a scenario whereby Jews and their actions are an endlessly relevant subject of conversation, especially among circles associated with political activism. This creates a syndrome whereby the boundary between valid criticism of the current situation in Israel and anti-Semitic criticism of the Jewish people becomes increasingly thin. As the rhetoric condemning Israel becomes increasingly intense, individuals who lack the nuanced perspective necessary to recognize the difference between Israel and “the Jews” become increasingly prone to conflating the two. Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, but anti-Zionism destigmatizes anti-Semitism by allowing Jewish actions worldwide to become coffee table discussion. Once people are making generalizations about Israelis, they start making generalizations about Jews. Understanding this phenomenon is key to coming to a genuine understanding of how anti-Zionism can foment anti-Semitism.
The clearest example of the dissolution of the boundary between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the academic world’s “current events” was the lecture given by Emory Brown at the University of Michigan - the same university that had faculty members accused of anti-Semitism for acting in accordance with their anti-Zionist views.
Although University of Michigan’s apology letter was certainly more successful in delivering meaningful content than other academic “apology” letters for problematic content, the defense of the speaker’s use of the Hitler/Netanyahu slide on the basis of artistic license is nothing short of ridiculous. There was less art in that tossed together, unpolished, unaesthetic slide than there is in many hand drawn stick figure memes (look up “troll face” for an example). Clearly, Emory Douglas was invited to speak about his art but did what so many other university professors do and abused the platform to disseminate extreme anti-Israel propaganda. I had a teacher at UC Berkeley who did that with her poetry class, but it was at least passively relevant because the poetry class was covering Arab poetry at that part of the year and that lecture was about Palestinian Arabs and Palestinian liberation. A career artist, Douglas was not brought to U of M to discuss Israeli policy. I just don’t understand why if the speaker is actually an artist and bothered by this issue, he wouldn’t take the time to create a piece of artwork that addressed it and then display it, rather than photoshopping Hitler next to Netanyahu with a Times New Roman caption on their foreheads. That’s not art.
This exaggerated need to criticize Israel – to the degree that a visiting speaker with no ethnic or academic connection to Israel or Palestine feels the inexplicable need to deliver a lecture on that very topic – is a perfect indicator of the intersection between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. The obsessive desire to engage in Israel critique even when it is clearly beyond the scope of a particular academic discussion demonstrates a sick fascination the likes of which is replicated in the classic “Protocols” conspiracy theories regarding world domination. The comparison of Israel’s politicians to Hitler and the conflation of its border policies with apartheid are reminiscent of the outlandish accusations of blood libel perpetrators throughout history hell-bent on demonizing the Jews at the cost of elementary rationality and integrity.
I wrote most of these words before last month’s tragic shooting in Pittsburgh. Since then, this subject’s relevance has grown exponentially. It couldn’t be any more important for every Jew to be able to successfully identify true perpetrators and instances of anti-Semitism. Doing so requires turning a critical eye towards Jews who “cry wolf” at every Israel critical expression, just as it requires increased scrutiny of the approach of those in the anti-Zionist camp who cavalierly blur the lines between legitimate criticism and an anti-Semitic response. The fact that anti-Zionist groups too often allow their discourse to shift to anti-Semitism normalizes the sentiment for white nationalists beyond Trump’s passive encouragement of their outspokenness. White nationalist anti-Semites coming out of the woodwork find validation in the general anti-Jewish sentiment that is fomented by anti-Zionist organizations such as BDS. Again, BDS is not inherently anti-Semitic. However, its supporters blur the line between anti Zionism and anti-Semitism - it only takes a quick glance at anti-Zionist Facebook group posts and disparaging comments on Zionist posts to see this effect in action.
With a rising wave of anti-Semitism in this country, it’s particularly important to pay close attention to the way that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism intertwine. Doing so requires pushing back against excess defensiveness just as it requires calling out dubiously motivated critique. May we all be blessed to see peace in Israel, America and the entire world, speedily in our days. And in the meantime – may we make sure to think critically and rationally about even those issues which feel most triggering to us. Fighting fire with fire leaves the whole world in flames. And even beyond my wildfire stricken home in Berkeley, California – there are a lot of flames that still need to be contained.
. Jacob Schwartz regularly writes blog postings for Jewish Values Online.
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