Congress Is Absolutely Wrong to Equate Anti-Zionism With Antisemitism

Ben Burgis / Jacobin
Congress Is Absolutely Wrong to Equate Anti-Zionism With Antisemitism A community of Jewish groups gather in Manhattan during the first night of Hanukkah to protest Israel's attacks on Gaza in New York on December 7, 2023. (photo: Anadolu Agency)

The US Congress has passed an absurd resolution proclaiming that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism.” It ignores the many Jewish Americans who oppose Israel’s apartheid state and slanders advocates for universal democratic rights as antisemites.

The Satmar Hasidim are an orthodox Jewish sect with tens of thousands of members in New York state. Their religious beliefs and practices are extremely conservative, but in many ways their approach to politics seems blandly centrist. Their leadership tends to see cultivating relationships with politicians as a pragmatic way to advance the community’s interests. In the spring of 2016, for instance, both of the two main Satmar leaders urged their followers to vote for Hillary Clinton rather than Bernie Sanders in New York’s Democratic primary. In the general election that fall, they supported her again against Donald Trump.

According to a resolution passed earlier this week by the US House of Representatives, the Satmar are “antisemites.” The resolution “firmly and finally” declares “that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.” Well, the Satmar have been fiercely anti-Zionist since long before the state of Israel was founded in 1948.

To be fair, Jews like the Satmar — who believe that founding a Jewish state in the Holy Land before the coming of the Messiah is blasphemous — aren’t the kind of anti-Zionists that Congress had in mind. But the House accidentally calling tens of thousands of the most visibly ultrareligious Jews in New York “antisemites” demonstrates the larger problem with the resolution.

Zionism is a specific political ideology. Lots of people, including lots of Jews, disagree with it for lots of reasons. Equating all such disagreement with antisemitism is absurd in the same way it would be to equate all criticism of Stalinism with anti-Russian prejudice or all opposition to fascism with bigotry against Italians.

The people Congress intended to smear as antisemites were the many thousands of Americans who have been protesting Israel’s merciless bombardment of the civilian population of Gaza. This, too, is a group that includes large numbers of American Jews.

Indeed, the pages of “Whereas…” justifications at the beginning of the resolution mentions the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)’s running tally of “antisemitic” incidents. But reporting from the Intercept last month showed that the ADL was including protests organized by Jewish peace groups in that tally.

Not everyone who shows up to such protests is an anti-Zionist. Many are fine with the general idea of a “Jewish state.” They just want that state to stop bombing Palestinian civilians. But what about the ones who are anti-Zionists? Why should they be classed as antisemites?

The History of Zionism

It’s worth taking a long step back and remembering that Zionism has only even existed for a very small portion of Jewish history. Nationalism in general is a phenomenon of the modern world, and Zionism is a late-blooming form of nationalism. It only really got going in the late nineteenth century.

At one time, there were people who called themselves “Zionists” who advocated that Jews return to their historic homeland and advocated Jewish cultural renewal there — for example, the revival of Hebrew as a language of everyday conversation — but who didn’t necessarily want a separate Jewish state. “Zionists” like this imagined the eventual formation a binational Jewish and Arab state. It’s been a very long time since this was considered a form of Zionism, though, and for many decades both Zionists and anti-Zionists have considered advocacy of a binational state to be “anti-Zionism.”

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Zionism was only accepted by a minority of Jews. Today, anti-Zionists are in the minority — though it’s a much larger minority than you might think.

A poll in 2021 found that one out of every four American Jews agrees with the statement “Israel is an apartheid state.” Among Jews under the age of forty, it’s more than one out of every three. That’s a pretty stark expression of the view people usually have in mind when they talk about “anti-Zionism.”

You can tell yourself that one out of every four American Jews is a self-hating antisemite. But you can only take that position if you’re willing to ignore everything Jewish critics of Zionism say when asked to explain their position.

Zionism vs. Democratic Values

Not all anti-Zionisms are the same. As we’ve seen, some religious groups like the Satmar oppose Zionism for theological reasons. There are also illiberal opponents of Zionism who dream of replacing the oppression and displacement of Palestinians with the oppression or displacement of Israeli Jews. But at least in the United States and other Western societies, these are relatively rare positions. By far the most common motivation for both Jewish and non-Jewish critics of Zionism is a commitment to democratic values.

Anti-Zionists typically think a specifically Jewish state is as inconsistent with universal human equality as, say, a Christian state or a white state. A state whose majority population happened to be any of those things is fine, but one that officially declares itself to be specifically the state of Jews or Christians or white people is inconsistent with democratic principles. States should be of whoever happens to live within their borders.

Any American whose politics are to the left of the extreme right, for example, would be repulsed by someone who openly said that it’s important that immigration policies reflect the goal of ensuring that white Christians always make up a majority of the American population. And discriminatory policies about which new immigrants to let in would be mild compared to the human rights violations that have been justified by the supposed importance of Israel retaining its character as a Jewish state.

Refugees from the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948 — and their children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren — have never been allowed to return to the cities in which they once lived. And since Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, the Palestinian population of those territories has been ruled by Israel but never offered legal rights within the state.

Partitioning Israel’s current territory into separate Jewish and Palestinian ethnostates would solve the problem of the stateless status of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians by finally making them citizens of something. It wouldn’t solve the problem of the distinctly second-class status of the two million Palestinians who live within Israel proper and have Israeli citizenship. These are citizens whose relatives in refugee camps scattered around the region aren’t allowed to come home. If one of these Palestinian citizens of Israel marries a Palestinian in the West Bank, the couple aren’t legally allowed to live together in Israel.

Apologists for the status quo often emphasize that many Palestinian citizens of Israel have middle-class jobs. They’ll often mention that Arab parties have representatives in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. They generally don’t see fit to mention the way that Israeli prime ministers worry their governments will be seen as “illegitimate” if they have to rely on the votes of those Arab parties to cobble together a majority coalition.

Is Anti-Zionism Unrealistic?

Advocates for the rights of the Palestinians have long been divided among themselves about “one-state” or “two-state” solutions to the conflict. Right now, the debate is largely academic. Israel holds all the power, and the United States backs it to the hilt. The current government of Israel is explicitly opposed to either allowing the formation of an independent Palestinian state or offering Israeli citizenship to West Bank and Gaza Palestinians. Unfortunately, the leading opposition parties aren’t much better. So neither solution is likely to be implemented until there’s a sea change in the underlying political realities.

Such sea changes happen, though. No one in 1981 thought the Soviet Union was going to disappear within a decade. And the way that apartheid fell in a relatively peaceful way in South Africa was shocking at the time. Many observers around the world had predicted that if that system ever did fall there would be wholesale massacres of the white population.

I’ve long been sympathetic to the idea of a one-state solution for Israel and Palestine. Simply granting equality to everyone who lives within Israel’s current borders and letting the refugees return home would mean a state with roughly equal numbers of Jewish and Palestinian citizens. I suspect that a single democratic state where both populations made up big enough proportions of the electorate to block attempts to pass laws that discriminated against their group would be the best bet for peace and equality in the long run.

The common objection that after all the conflict and bloodshed it’s unrealistic to expect the two ethnicities to live together in peace ignores a crucial fact. A two-state solution would still mean millions of Palestinians and Jews living side by side within Israel — as they have since the foundation of the state. And, beyond these pragmatic considerations, I think the very idea of ethnonationalism should be offensive to anyone who cares about universal human equality.

That said, I can understand the pragmatic counterargument. As distant as either a one- or two-state solution is from realization now, it’s much easier to imagine the political situation changing in a way that allows for a two-state partition than a majority of Israeli Jews signing onto the idea of a single democratic state “from the river to the sea.” And perhaps these critics are right.

The most Israeli negotiators have ever been willing to offer in the past has been a “state” consisting of disconnected Palestinian cantons separated by Israeli roads and Israeli military outposts. And it’s been a very long time since even that was on the table.

If things changed dramatically enough to make a viable and meaningfully independent Palestinian state a possibility, though, we should support it as a long step toward justice. It would be better for West Bank and Gaza Palestinians to be citizens of a partitioned state than for them to continue to be citizens of nothing.

Principled anti-Zionists shouldn’t be dismissed as unrealistic utopians. History often moves in unexpected directions, and yesterday’s “unrealistic utopia” sometimes becomes today’s political reality. But I can at least understand where that accusation would come from.

Calling advocates for universal democratic rights antisemites, though, is obscene. It’s an insult to the victims of real antisemitism, and it’s an insult to the intelligence of the American people.

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