This essay, on the relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on Einstein, science and philosophy.) It was published in the Observer, 24 February 2019, under the headline ‘Antisemites use the language of anti-Zionism. The two are distinct’.
Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. So claimed France’s President Emmanuel Macron in a speech last week in which he promised to change policing regulations to criminalise anti-Zionism.
The condemnation of anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism has a long history, but in recent years has become increasingly accepted by mainstream politicians and organisations. This shift in perspective has taken place against the background of rising antisemitism, from physical attacks to racist tweets, fuelled by both the resurgence of the far-right and the growth of anti-Semitism on the left. Particularly in sections of the left, anti-Zionism has more and more appropriated, often unrecognised, anti-Semitic tropes.
All this is undeniably true. Yet, it remains important to resist the equation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
Critics of anti-Zionism observe that Zionism simply expresses the right of Jewish people to self-determination. Just as other peoples, from Armenians to Zimbabweans, have the right to self-determination, so do Jews. To deny that is anti-Semitic because it is to deny Jews the rights accorded to others. However, the issue is more complex. When Scots voted in their independence referendum in 2016, all residents of Scotland who were over 16, and were British, EU or Commonwealth citizens, had the right to vote. The right to self-determination did not extend to all those of Scottish ancestry living outside Scotland.
The Zionist notion of ‘self-determination’, on the other hand, embodies the idea that Jews anywhere in the world ‘self-determine’ and that such self-determination relates to a state in which the vast majority of Jews do not and will not live.
Zionism is a form of ethnic, as opposed to civic, nationalism. The distinction between the two is fiercely contested, and often blurred. Many modern states fuse elements of both in nationality and immigration laws. Nevertheless, the distinction between civic and ethnic nationalism is important because they embody contrasting conceptions of national belonging, citizenship, equality and rights.
Israel itself combines aspects of civic and ethnic nationalism. As the late historian Tony Judt put it in an essay for the New York Review of Books, Israel is both a democracy in which non-Jews can be citizens and ‘a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded’ and from which Palestinians grievously suffer. Judt faced great opprobrium for that essay, with many reviling him as ‘anti-Semitic’ or a ‘self-hating Jew’.
To oppose Zionism but not other forms of ethnic nationalism would indeed be anti-Semitic. But to oppose Zionism because one opposes ethnic nationalism is a legitimate view.
Judt, who in early life was a Zionist, came eventually to accept that the only lasting solution would be a single, secular state in which both Jews and Palestinians were treated equally. For anti-Zionists like Judt, ‘self-determination’ in that piece of contested land that is Israel/Palestine should adhere to principles of civic, not ethnic, nationalism; that is, be the self-determination of the people, and only the people, who live there, whether Jews or Palestinians.
This kind of anti-Zionism is very different from that which calls for the ‘destruction of the state of Israel’, usually (a not very veiled) code for the destruction of Jews. The latter is a form of anti-Zionism that refuses to acknowledge the presence of more than 6 million Jews in Israel/Palestine, whose rights, needs and aspirations are as central as those of Palestinians to any discussion of the region’s future.
There are, in other words, many forms of anti-Zionism, some progressive, some anti-Semitic. What has shifted is that leftwing ideas of anti-Zionism have become increasingly colonised by anti-Semitic forms. The reasons are complex, ranging from evolving notions of ‘anti-imperialism’ to the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories.
One key development that has helped foster the shift is the growth of the politics of identity and of the tendency to see ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in terms of the group to which someone belongs and the privileges that they are supposed to possess.
Identity politics has led many to target Jews for being Jews, especially as they are seen as belonging to a group with many privileges to check, and to hold all Jews responsible for the actions of the state of Israel. Many who support the Palestinian cause, including many within the Labour party, seem genuinely unable to distinguish between criticising Israel and sowing hatred against a people.
The elision of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is a feature, then, of both sides of the debate. On the one side, it helps to legitimise anti-Semitism, on the other to close down debates about Israel and to criminalise genuine struggles for Palestinian rights. We should reject both.
The image is Marc Chagall’s ‘Moses sees the sufferings of his people’ from his ‘Exodus’ series of lithographs.