Zionism and Anti-Semitism

"One can be critical of the policies of the Israeli government without falling into anti-Semitism"

Tania Chen
Photo: Reuters
La Jornada Maya

Tuesday October 15, 2019

A few weeks ago, Israel banned the entrance of two progressive US congressional representatives -Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar- from entering the country. Before the ban, President Donald Trump tweeted that permitting the visit of these two lawmakers would show ‘great weakness’. The decision sent a wave of criticism against Israel that, in many cases has deeply anti-Semitic tones highlighting the renewed tide of anti-Semitism currently plaguing many parts of the world. However, legitimate criticisms of Israel’s decision on this and other issues should not be dismissed or conflated with anti-Semitism although, too often, they are.

To discuss contemporary Israel, the first point that must be emphasised is its right of exist, and that criticisms are not a challenge to the existence of Israel. While anti-Semitism may play a part in criticisms of Israeli policies, opposition to the Israeli government’s policies should not be conflated with anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism has been an enduring evil in western society since prior to the middle ages, although it gained traction with the pogroms of the 19th century. These were, in many cases, fuelled by personal greed rather than an issue of religion. Jewish communities were primary moneylenders and, in times of crisis, became scapegoats, as well as having their assets confiscated by the authorities under the excuse of religious differences.

After the Holocaust, the creation of Israel and for decades afterwards, anti-Semitism appeared to be struck from mainstream politics and society for good. Unfortunately, the resurgence of radical nationalism over the past decade has given a voice to anti-Semitism once again, showing that these prejudices have prevailed and have now once again returned to the centre stage.

In many ways, the tide of anti-Semitism is today linked to anti-Zionist sentiments.

So, there must a clear understanding of antisemitism and anti-Zionism, and the differences between the two.

Anti-Semitism is unacceptable racism directed at Jewish people, and has manifested in verbal and/or physical violence throughout centuries. Such ideologies have no place in society, and more importantly should not be given a place in politics.

Anti-Zionism is broadly understood to mean opposition to Israel as a state and the right of self-determination of Jewish people. While Anti-Zionism is as old as Zionism itself –that is to say, it is not a modern concept– the end of WWII brought both Zionism and anti-Zionism to the centre stage of politics and Jewish ideology. It is important to remember that prior to WWII many Jewish people regarded the concept of Zionism and the return to Israel as an unrealistic, impossible dream. The horrifying discovery of the Holocaust changed that.

However, like most ideologies, anti-Zionism encompasses within a variety of point of views, doctrines and academic and practical applications that make it impossible to be seen as having a single cohesive ideology. In the last decades, some have criticised that anti-Zionism equates to anti-Semitism and have used this argument as a silencing tactic to prevent criticism of Israeli policies, especially concerning the treatment of its Palestinian population and the Palestinians in Gaza. While others, especially within the political sphere such as French president Emmanuel Macron, have called anti-Zionism “a reinvention of anti-Semitism”.

There too has been a radicalization of Zionism and anti-Zionism. American Jewish philosopher Noam Chomsky says, “what was then called ‘Zionist’ ... are now called ‘anti-Zionist’ (concerns and views)” when discussing how his views in 1948 for a binational state would currently be considered modern day anti-Zionism.

To reiterate the point at the beginning of this article, one can be critical of the policies of the Israeli government without falling into anti-Semitism or questioning the right of Israel to exist. So, the question remains, can one separate anti-Zionist politics from anti-Semitism? The answer seems to be impossible to answer, even for academics who have devoted their lives to understanding the two ideologies, their respective evolutions and origins.

It feels inconceivable that a nation made of survivors who struggled with expulsion, forced conversion, violence and genocide would in turn become supporters of those same policies enforced on a new minority. Yet, the radicalization of ideologies and rise of anti-Semitism have backed Israel into a precarious corner where its critics seem to outnumber its allies.

If criticism of Israel is made, it should not be driven by sentiments against Jewish people nor the right of state of Israel to exist, but, rather, at the politics that are fuelling the state’s actions. If anti-Zionism is a new form of antisemitism it must not form part of any political discussions.

Israel should strive to have what all liberal democracies have: a representative government of its entire people - minorities included. However, whether it is a realistic goal in the current day and age, it remains to be seen. What is clear is that for criticisms of Israel to be made, they must adhere to the goal of stability and peace in the region, while seeking to minimize the suffering of all who live there.

Mérida, Yucatán