chagall exodus moses and his people

My article on anti-Semitism and the left, first published in the International New York Times last month, has drawn some comment. Perhaps the most interesting come from those who take issue not with my points about anti-Semitism, but with my points about anti-Zionism:

Many supporters of Israel today deem anti-Semitic any criticism of Zionism on the ground that it denies Jewish self-determination. That, too, is to confuse legitimate criticism of an ideology with illegitimate bigotry.

Many respondents have argued that anti-Zionism is necessarily a form of anti-Semitism because it denies ‘Jewish self-determination’ and uniquely denies the right of the Jewish people to their own nation. I disagree with this argument, but I also think that there is an important truth contained in it, a truth that many anti-Zionists today refuse to acknowledge. I disagree, in a sense, with the arguments of both Zionists and of anti-Zionists.

Since this is an important issue that requires wider discussion and debate, I thought I would republish here, as a stand-alone post, an edited version of one of my replies (to Mark Rosenthal, whose original comment is here) but also extend it to make the broader point about the problems with both Zionism and anti-Zionism today.

At the heart of Mark Rosenthal’s argument is the claim that an anti-Zionist is:

one who believes that the Jews should not have their own nation, willfully ignoring the fact that two millennia of history have demonstrated that this would return them to the condition of subservience and vulnerability that caused so many of them to lose their lives, livelihoods, and possessions. I feel that anyone who ignores that likelihood, or who believes they should be returned to that condition should also be considered an anti-Semite.

Rosenthal also argues that:

The English people have never faced persecution on a scale anything like that [which Jews have faced], yet I’m quite certain that they would consider anyone who suggested that the English don’t deserve a nation, and proposed that England ought to be dissolved and the English people should all be moved elsewhere would be considered an anti-English bigot. Zionism is simply a recognition that the Jewish people deserve no less than the English, and especially so in light of the long history of brutality the Jews have faced.

These are both arguments central to any Zionist perspective. They are also, it seems to me, mistaken.


Zionism is a form of nationalism. There are many expressions of nationalism that I oppose. I opposed, for instance, the Scottish demand for nationhood in the run-up the 2014 referendum for independence. That did not mean that I wanted to visit oppression or terror upon Scots. It simply meant that, in my view, the interests of Scots (and of non-Scots) were not best served through the creation of a separate Scottish nation.

It is true, of course,  that Scots have never suffered a Holocaust, nor the long history of oppression that Jews have faced. The fact of the Holocaust and of that history of oppression may, in one’s view, be an argument in support of Zionism. But it does not make those who oppose Zionism de facto anti-Semites. Far from it – the debate, fundamentally, is about whether or not Zionism best serves the interest of Jews. Given that the vast proportion of Jews live outside of Israel, the claim that it is the existence of the Jewish state that protects Jews from another Holocaust and that, without Israel, Jews would be ‘returned[ed]… to the condition of subservience and vulnerability that caused so many of them to lose their lives, livelihoods, and possessions’, seems, at the very least, disputable.

Prior to the Holocaust, and more especially prior to the creation of the state of Israel, Zionism was a minority view within Jewish communities. The majority of Jews, despite their history of oppression, did not accept the Zionist vision. That is not the case today. But the fact the majority of Jews now accept Zionism does not make opposition to it necessarily anti-Semitic, any more than it did in the days when the majority of Jews opposed it. To declare anti-Zionism in itself to be anti-Semitic is no more valid than declaring (as some do) that Zionism is in itself racist. Both are means of cutting off debate, of refusing properly to engage with contrary arguments, but simply of dismissing them as illegitimate.

The notion of the ‘right to self-determination’ expressed in most Zionist arguments is problematic. I opposed Scottish independence, but supported the right of Scots to make that decision. What I would not have accepted is the right of those of Scottish ancestry outside of Scotland to make that decision.

Similarly, I agree with the right of Jews (and of non-Jews) who now live in Israel/Palestine to collective determine their future. But the Zionist notion of ‘self-determination’  expresses something different. It embodies the idea that Jews anywhere in the world ‘self-determine’ by determining the founding and the future of a state in which the vast majority of Jews do not live, will not live, could not live, and do not wish to live. That, to me, is a highly implausible notion of ‘national self- determination’.

This is also why Mark Rosenthal’s analogy with English self-determination does not work. Mark argues that ‘anyone who suggested that the English don’t deserve a nation, and proposed that England ought to be dissolved and the English people should all be moved elsewhere would be considered an anti-English bigot.’

Let us leave aside the complication that England as a ’nation’ exists not as a self-standing state but as part of the state of the United Kingdom. The point that Mark is trying to make is obvious, and could be applied without complication to the case of France or of India. But the analogy is also false. ‘Self-determination’ when it comes to England is defined with respect to those who live in England, not to those who are defined as ‘English’ by certain norms of heritage wherever they may live in the world. Similarly with France, India, etc.

marcella doane exodus

To make the point I am about Jewish self-determination is not the same as to argue for the ‘destruction of the state of Israel’, which is usually (a not very veiled) code for the destruction of Jews. It is rather to insist that ‘self-determination’ in that piece of contested land that is Israel/Palestine means the self-determination of the people who live there, not of Jews worldwide. And that self-determination must include the Palestinians who lived on the land on which the state of Israel was constructed and who have suffered grievously as a result.

The people who live in Israel/Palestine may determine that they wish to live in two separate states, one Jewish and one Palestinian. They may also determine that they wish to live in a single state that serves the needs and aspirations of all of them, and that is niether specifically a Jewish state, nor specifically a Palestinian state, but open and secular and not rooted in religion or ethnicity. That might seem Utopian (though, today, a two-state solution, in which there are two fully fledged, independent, autonomous, democratic nations, might seem even more Utopian) but, Utopian or not, I would insist that the decision must be for the people who live there, not for those who live elsewhere. Whatever solution is forged would have to protect, and receive a democratic mandate from, both Jews and Palestinians. The right to self-determination of Palestinians should not constrain the right to self-determination of Jews who now live in Israel. But neither should the right to self-determination of Jews in Israel constrain the right to self-determination of Palestinians.

There is a sense, though, in which Mark Rosenthal is right. While he does not explicitly make the argument, implicit in his reasoning is the claim that anti-Semitism today is rooted in a hatred of Israel, and so cannot be separated from anti-Zionism. The former Chief Rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sacks, expressed this argument well in a recent interview on BBC Newsnight. The shape of anti-Semitism, he argued, has mutated through history. In the pre-modern world, it was rooted in a hatred of Judaism as a religion. Then, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it became a racial issue: a hatred of Jews as a race. Today, Sacks argued, anti-Semitism is inextricably linked to a hatred of Israel. Anti-Zionism, he argued, is ‘the new anti-Semitism’.

I do not accept, as I have already made clear, the elision of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. And, yet, there is much truth to the claim that anti-Semitism today is rooted in a hatred of Israel. As I argued in my original essay

Many who support the Palestinians now seem genuinely unable to distinguish between criticizing the policies of the Israeli government and sowing hatred against a people.

Before 1948, anti-Zionism was the argument that the creation of a separate Jewish nation would not best serve the interests of Jews. Today, of course, that Jewish nation exists, in the form of Israel. Any anti-Zionist argument (unless it is rooted in the demand for the ‘destruction of the state of Israel’) must begin with the acknowledgement of the existence of Israel and of the presence there of more than six million Jews, whose rights and needs and aspirations are central to any discussion of the future of Israel/Palestine. It is the failure of many anti-Zionists to acknowledge this that leads to the slippage between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. It is this failure of perspective that led Ken Livingstone, for instance, to claim, that ‘a real anti-Semite doesn’t just hate the Jews in Israel, they hate their Jewish neighbour in Golders Green or in Stoke Newington’. What lies at the heart of such a claim is not old-fashioned anti-Semitism but an anti-Zionism that fails to comprehend that the rights and needs and aspirations of Jews in Israel are as significant as those of Jews in Golders Green or Stoke Newington.

It is also why Labour MP Naz Shah could joke about Israel being ‘relocated’ to the USA. In making the analogy between Jewish and English nationhood, Mark Rosenthal observed that anyone who proposed that ‘the English people should all be moved elsewhere would be considered an anti-English bigot’. In my original response I argued that

Any suggestion that Jews in Israel should be ‘moved elsewhere’ would indeed be an expression of bigotry. But it is tendentious to suggest that to be an anti-Zionist is to demand that Jews who live in Israel be ‘moved elsewhere’.

That is true. I should also have acknowledged, however, that, in practice, the refusal of many anti-Zionists to accept that Jews in Israel have the right to be there leads them, indeed, to talk of ‘relocation’ and of Jews being moved elsewhere.

emilio merlina exodus

But if the starting point in any discussion must be the acknowledgement of the presence of more than six million Jews in Israel/Palestine, and of their rights and needs and aspirations, it must also be the acknowledgement that those rights and needs and aspirations should not have greater weight that those of others who, too, live in Israel/Palestine. This returns to my point earlier that ‘self-determination’ in Israel/Palestine means the self-determination of the people who live there, not of Jews worldwide, and that any reckoning of rights, needs and aspirations must also include those of Palestinians. That is why I object to the Zionist insistence that Israel must be a ‘Jewish state’ under all circumstances. It is for the people of the area – all the people of the area – and only for the people of the area, to make that determination. It may be, as I suggested earlier, that those who live in Israel/Palestine decide that they wish to live in two separate states, one Jewish and one Palestinian. It may also be that they decide they wish to live in a single state that serves the needs and aspirations of all of them. That is their decision and their decision alone.

Had I been alive and politically active before 1948, I would undoubtedly have seen myself as an anti-Zionist. I do not label myself as such today because the meaning of anti-Zionism has shifted so greatly. But it seems to me that what I am arguing here embodies the spirit of anti-Zionism as it originally developed, and indeed is the only way that the spirit of anti-Zionism can have meaning today.


The paintings are all different picturing of the Exodus: from top down, by Marc Chagall (‘Moses and his people, from the Exodus series), Mel Brigg, Marcella Doane and Emilio Merlina.


  1. “The English people have never faced persecution on a scale anything like that which Jews have faced”

    Those Irish, Scottish, English people subject to the ‘Enclosure’ suppression, starvation, and in essence expulsion from even the ‘English’ soil itself may strongly object & the Norman conquest and ‘extermination’ which followed may be an indication cultures other than the Jews have had a rough time.

    Being a descendent from all sides of this ‘Enclosure’ suppression side English, Irish, Scottish of the ‘English’ experience I to have felt aggrieved as to what has occurred to my ancestors and thought ‘justice’ would be going back and turfing out the ‘occupiers’ of my land – then what happens – what is happening at the interface of the ‘take back’ in Palestine orchestrated at the beginning paradoxically by the English elite. Has not the same grievance been repeated and as the turfed out are still resident at the interface have they not also the exact same right to take back what was once theirs?

    The problem is this it would be hard to find any culture which has not been subject at some time through history to the worst of times and has had to leave one space to start life in another it does not excuse the initialising act but why should the Jews as a culture be able to reclaim that which has been lost when the rest of us have to accept our lot in life?

  2. Kenan, thanks for this. I found the (tweeted) comments of R.Sachs inscrutable and did not know how to think about them without a fuller context which your post provides. Appreciate your analysis.

  3. damon

    There’s more rational there in Kenan’s article, than I found in a couple of years of reading the staunchly pro-Israel and antisemite exposing website ”Harry’s Place”.
    They are quite good at showing how useless the pro-Palestinian left is and how bankrupt the leadership of the Palestinians actually is, but they quickly fall into tribal positions and become utterly sectarian themselves when Israel is criticised for what it does.
    Listening to a radio interview with the new Israeli ambassador to London last week, reminded me of just how difficult the issue of Israel/Palestine is. He sounds utterly charming, but hides behind that facade of civility, an iron heart that would excuse the most callous of military acts that he thought were necessary to defend Israel from attack. And he does this with his very well honed skills as a talker and debater.
    One of the reasons that the I/P debate is so bitter IMO, is that arguments on both sides have become so polished and thought out. It has become a war of words as well as a sectarian stand-off.

  4. Speaking as a humanist with a Jewish father who lived through WW2 and felt deeply about Israel, but equally as someone who thinks many of Israel’s actions towards the Palestinians are shameful, and finds it hard to understand why a majority in Israel appear increasingly to support perpetual war rather than a vision of peace, this is a helpful analysis. Of course there should ultimately be self-determination on both sides based on respect for each others’ humanity and peaceful co-existence, whether in one or two secular states. Ideally over time, racial differences should disappear.
    We are a million miles away from that now, and will never get there while, on one side, there are people with power who claim a god-given right to land outside internationally-agreed borders, and on the other, people with power who want to destroy a country where 6million people live.
    To me, the flaw in Kenan’s otherwise excellent analysis is that Jews outside Israel feel a share in Israel’s identity in two ways. The first is that they (or at least a majority) feel a racial identity with Israelis. As Kenan implies, while this is made much more powerful by the appalling scale and intent of the Holocaust, and the fact that it took place (just) within living memory, in principle it doesn’t give non-Israeli Jews a greater right to a say than Americans of Irish descent have in the modern Replublic of Ireland.
    But the second factor is different. To judge from recent events in France, true anti-Semitism, in the sense of being in danger simply for being Jewish, is rarely far below the surface. For anyone anywhere with a sense of Jewish identity (and I don’t include myself) Israel provides an insurance policy. It’s a safe haven when all else fails. That does, I think, give those people a legitimate interest that goes further than simple racial or cultural identity. It is a direct result of anti-Semitism.
    But it does not give them, or anyone else, the right to ignore the rights and humanity of non-Jewish people whose recent roots date back before the state of Israel was founded, and whose forebears had no responsibility for the unimaginably awful persecution and murder of Jews in Europe.
    While the horrors of Syria, and the routine brutality of much of the Middle East, rightly deserves our attention, Israel is a “western” country financially supported by the US. Its government’s abuse of Palestinians must be challenged.

  5. The terms “Zionism” and “anti-Zionism” have become toxic, used at both ends of the spectrum to invite confusion; confusion between criticising the actions of the Israeli Government, and denying the right of Israel to exist. Like “Islamophobia”, such terms are best avoided.

    • Incidentally, I resigned from the Anti Defamation League some time ago, because it was treating reasoned criticisms of the Israeli government as instances of anti-Semitism.

  6. timanfire

    The context in which the zionist project has been deliberately sponsored in a truly colonial way as part of the strategic intention to disrupt and deny arab national self-determination on behalf of the driving forces of imperialism – has to be understood as the primary dynamic here – otherwise the extent of the US apparently bottomless support for Israel in preparation, during and through its most outrageous conduct cannot be understood or explained … and what zionism as an ideology actually represents in the US (and the UK) is the important question to examine – largely a cover for the most unreconstructed aggressive forms of imperialist colonial ideology as you should understand from your seminal studies on the ideology of discrimination and oppression.

  7. Thanks for a typically thoughtful and thought-provoking article. One thing I’m not clear about. You say:

    But the Zionist notion of ‘self-determination’ expresses something different. It embodies the idea that Jews anywhere in the world ‘self-determine’ by determining the founding and the future of a state in which the vast majority of Jews do not live…

    Is this still true? Hardly any Jews alive today had a part in the founding of Israel, and only Israeli citizens get to vote in Israel’s elections, so it seems absurd for contemporary Zionism to embody such an international notion of ‘self-determination’.

    Perhaps the difficulty arises because it is hard to say what anti-Zionism means without first defining Zionism. As you say in your final paragraph, the meaning of anti-Zionism has shifted greatly. So too has the meaning of Zionism. Isn’t it more like, “the belief that Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state” nowadays?

    Another thing I’m not clear about is when you talk about “that piece of contested land that is Israel/Palestine” – do you mean Israel, or Israel plus the occupied territories?

  8. Ravi

    It is also the case that many Palestinians have been displaced into neighbouring Arab states particularly Jordan, Syria Yemen and Saudi Arabia (as well as further afield). If they really don’t wish to return then they have no direct stake in what goes on in Israel/Palestine same as Jews happily living in Europe or America.

    If however they do aspire to return to a democratic secular Palestine then the current overseers of Israel might be less than happy about allowing that. It still makes the defenders of Israel in its current form, both the immediate and ultimate barrier to peace.

  9. damon

    I think that the terms ”Zionism” and ”anti-Zonism” need to be better understood as to what they are actually describing. I have no problem with there being a Jewish state in Israel. Therefore I must be favorable towards Zionism.
    But I do have a bit of a problem with the way that (it seems) that a majority of supporters of Israel argue their points of view. There does seem to be a bit of slight of hand tactics and dishonesty often employed.
    One minute they argue that you can’t regard the majority of Jews in the world in being complicit in anything that Israel does, and next they will criticise you if you ignore the feelings that a majority of the world’s Jews have for Israel.
    Then there are the political points of view put forward by Jewish interest groups as if they spoke for all Jews. I would include there the Boards of Deputies and Jewish newspapers.
    So ”Zionism” isn’t a well defined enough term IMO. I thought of a using something like ”Jewish nationalists” to describe the more gung- ho and right wing side of Zionism. But that is not quite good enough either. But at least one needs to acknowledge the kind of ”movement’ I’m trying to describe here.
    I used to refer to the ”Israel support movement” – but that would get knocked back and ridiculed too.
    And as a non-Jew in Europe, you will quickly come under suspicion of being antisemitic if you spend more than five minutes talking about I/P in a way they don’t like. Hostility is used as a debating tactic by the mainstream Israel supporting movement.
    So when discussing Zionism and anti-Zionism, I think you have to take these things into account.
    The pro-Palestinian movement is generally dreadful though I think.

    • Let’s not forget the self-styled “Christian Zionists” of the American Religious Right, whom Likud has been courting for some years and with some success (Tom DeLay is a member).

  10. You’re a brave man to enter this debate Kenan – it’s murky territory – but I respect you for doing so – and I thoroughly agree with your evenhandedness – pointing out what is wrong with both sides in this poisonously polarised conflict. Will they listen…? Sadly I doubt it very much – you’re more likely to draw down condemnation from both sides.

  11. What is Zionism ?

    As a very large number of the world’s Jews now live in Israel, objecting to Zionism, the Zionist Project, as such (i.e. Israel) is indeed anti-semitic, since it implies that Israeli Jews should be pushed out of Israel or permitted there only on the sufferance of others.

    But “Zionism” has become (under the hideous pressure of events and tensions from 1917 to 2016) something else as well – an increasingly right-wing, militarist, land-grabbing and chest-thumping political movement within Israel – and an extreme (but underhand) Lobby elsewhere in the developed world.

    Opposing these aspects of Zionism is NOT anti-semitic; merely common-sensical and decent.

    If Israelis object, using the argument that many governments around the world do far worse with far less criticism, we can reply:

    “But we respect you more, and had higher hopes of you, than we do regarding, Mr Putin or Mr Mugabe, for instance”

  12. Israel is the geographical centre of the world. Jerusalem is near to Arabia, to the tropical heat of Africa, to the Mediterranean and to the grasslands stretching north-eastwards and across Asia.

    Thus Israel, Jerusalem especially, has been the religious centre of the world too, the main site associated with humanity’s transcendent longings.

    But human nature is flawed and fallen – thus Israel, Jerusalem especially, is also the place where human nature is weighed and found wanting, judged and condemned.

    Only some sort of miracle – not politics of any shade – can sort out the problems there.

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