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.
The arguments about Israel/Palestine and anti-Semitism are often both miserable and dishonest I have found. Certainly in the rows about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Most of the accusations are made up or exaggerated I would say. What did Marc Wadsworth do wrong? He was expelled from the Labour Party for apparently bringing one Jewish Labour MP to tears. It was a lot of hyped up sectarianism in my opinion.
The strong pro-Israel movement want to be able to support a pretty unpleasant and brutal country, without facing any criticism for that. It’s not the worst country in the world by any means, but the pro-Israelis insist that unless you are equally against a dozen other countries which commit human rights abuses, then you’re probably an anti-Semite – which is a bit of this dishonest “spinning” of the subject.
The pro-Palestinian movement aren’t much better – in fact I’d say both sides are equally as bad.
There was another media storm in the US a couple of weeks ago, when the Muslim Congresswoman Ilhan Omar tweeted about the Israel Lobby buying influence in American politics. To even suggest there is such a “lobby” gets pro-Israelis calling out accusations of anti-semitism. When asked who this supposed lobby was, she tweeted back “AIPAC” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
I can’t see what the big fuss is, because as far as I’m aware, AIPAC exists primarily to influence American politicians to act favourably towards Israel.
And I’d really like it if the word “trope” wasn’t used in these situations. Everything’s “a trope”.
If you were to use the word “blood” in retaliation to any of Israel’s wars and military conflicts, you’ll be told that that’s part of an “anti-Semitic trope”, because Jews were accused in the past of being blood thirsty or of stealing blood or human organs or something. Therefore you had better be careful about describing all the deaths and blood they cause to flow when they are bombing Gaza at times.
Dear Mr Malik
If the “vast majority of Jews do not and will not” live in the state of Israel, then by your definition of vast, the “vast majority of British subjects voted to leave the EU.
There are fewer than 15 million identifiable Jews worldwide. About 6.5 million live in Israel. That’s very nearly half, so those living outside are definitely not a vast majority. Therefore in the interest of accuracy better to state “a slim majority of Jews live outside Israel”, but that margin is reducing daily. Significant driving factors are gentile ignorance and prejudice, be that active or passive, and the economic prospects of an economy projected to pass the UK’s GDP per capita in the next 3 years.
You’re right, it was loosely-phrased. My mistake.
It’s really hard to define anti-Semitism I find.
Here was someone suggesting that students opposed to allowing a Jewish students society on campus must have been down to that prejudice against Jews.
We’ve also just had the ridiculous case of Derek Hatton being suspended from the Labour Party last week, two days after being allowed to join again after 34 years.
His “crime”? Something found by zealots who trawled back through his twitter history to a tweet he did in 2012.
This is the tweet I believe:
“Jewish people with any sense of humanity need to start speaking out publicly against the ruthless murdering being carried out by Israel.”
I think this is the crux of the problem.
That tweet maybe a bit crass, or not quite right in the way it’s worded, but if you disagree, then you should just tell the guy you think he’s got it wrong. This campaigning to get people banned and suspended if they dare say the wrong thing is just part of the sectarian struggle I think.
The Boards of Deputies of British Jews (who are definitely pro-Zionist) speak like they represent all British Jews, but if someone like Hatton then suggests that most Jews have strong feelings for Israel, then you get called anti-Semitic for suggesting that most Jews are pro-Israel.
It’s become a circular on-going struggle between different ideological camps.
Talking about “anti-Semitism” all the time, just makes proper discussion impossible.
The leadership of the Labour Party are being attacked and bullied with spurious accusations of anti-Semitism.
Of course some of the half a million members of the party say stupid and wrong things on twitter – but so what?
You can’t be responsible for every tweet people make or everything people say on blogs and forums.
I think your description of Judt’s position on Israel being that “the only lasting solution would be a single, secular state in which both Jews and Palestinians were treated equally” is something of an over-simplification (he was for a long time, in favour of a bi-national state), and it’s also worth noting that in an interview just one month before his death, Judt advocated a “federal state of two autonomous communities” – ie something very close to the two states position:
“that such self-determination relates to a state in which the vast majority of Jews do not and will not live”
Small correction re “do not”: according to this https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jewish-population-of-the-world ,
Israeli Jews are 44,4% of the world’s Jews. So, the majority of Jews indeed live outside Israel, but it’s the majority of 55,6% – something I’d call a “slight” majority, not a “vast” one.
Yes, that point was made in an earlier comment, and I accept it. It was too loosely-prased.
In an open letter, Howard Jacobson, Simon Sebag Montefiore and Simon Schama have put the opposing view. “We do not object to fair criticism of Israel governments but this has grown to be indistinguishable from a demonisation of Zionism itself – the right of the Jewish people to a homeland, and the very existence of a Jewish state.”
You suggest that Zionism “embodies the idea that Jews anywhere in the world ‘self-determine’”. I have never come across this view, but I have come across several others. One is ethnic nationalism – the same principle found in the constitutions of other democratic states, such as Ireland and Poland. A second is religious nationalism, comparable to the foundation of Pakistan. A third view – one of the most influential – is the idea that Israel would provide a refuge and safe space for a persecuted group. The fourth is the kind of nationalism based on other multi-national political communities – it is important not to under-emphasise the importance to Zionists of the presence of Arab, Druze and Christian citizens within Israel. The same emphasis on national identity can be found in other multi-ethnic societies – including Britain.
Israel is not unique in relying on violence during its foundation, or in having led to large-scale population transfer. It is treated as being unlike any other country in the world when it is condemned for its foundation or its history, when its existence is called in doubt, and whenever the United Nations passes another motion against it – Israel alone accounts for nearly half all the UN’s resolutions. And those condemnations have been accompanied by a farrago of antisemitic propaganda – look, for example, at David Collier’s report on antisemitic propaganda in Scotland, as circulated by the members of the Scottish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign [https://bit.ly/2GVsFnZ]. There’s a reason why many Jews perceive criticism of Israel as anti-semitic; lots of it is.
Paul, I would suggest that you treat the SPSC as just more sectarian headbangers.
I looked at that report, and they do seem like they are annoying obsessives who stray into antisemitism.
There’s also Catholic/Protestant religious bigotry in Scotland. I lived there for a couple of years and am of Irish Catholic origin, but I didn’t worry too much that there were quite a few people in Glasgow that would have seen me negatively because of my background.
There is a bit of anti-Semitism about, but there are also a lot of spurious and contested claims.
And I think it’s important to speak out when you think there are false claims being made also.
Just look what happened to “Count Dankula” the other day. The guy who taught his pug dog to do a Nazi salute.
He’s now convicted in the court of PC opinion, as a raging anti-Semite and was got rid off a BBC comedy show he’d been hired to take part in. The newspapers in Scotland had him on the front page, denouncing him as anti-Semitic. From what I’ve seen of him, he’s not. I think Jews in Scotland should be coming to his defence, as they are being held up as the victims of “his bigotry”.
Even Spiked, the online magazine, seem to be going too far on this.
They just did a piece today on Ilhan Omar the US Congresswoman.
They are wrong I think for criticising her over her AIPAC comments, and more crucially this:
They are saying that suggesting a US citizen also supports a foreign country (Israel in this case) is “an anti-Semitic trope”. But it’s perfectly reasonable to be a citizen of one country but still have feelings for another.
We sorted all that out when we dismissed Norman Tebbit’s “Cricket Test” years ago.
It was alright to support Pakistan or India in the cricket even if you were born in the U.K.
And it’s perfectly alright for Americans to support Israel – or Mexico, or any other country – as well.
Who says it has to be one or the other?
The only problem will be if the countries are in direct conflict.
Israel and the US aren’t, so no one is accusing anyone of “being disloyal” if they also happen to campaign to support Israel.
Are you suggesting that at the heart of Zionism is not the concept of self-determination for Jews? Or that the Law of Return is not central to Israel’s conception of itself?
I am not sure in what sense Irish nationality law embodies a form of ethnic nationalism of the kind that Zionism is. Irish nationality law is, as I understand it, based on broadly jus soli principles in that one becomes an Irish national if one is born in Ireland or to an Irish parent. The latter adds an element of jus sanguinis, but it could hardly be described as an embodiment of ethnic nationalism. It is not the case that anyone of Irish descent can acquire Irish citizenship by virtue of being of Irish descent. Polish law certainly is based on principles jus sanguinis (which I oppose) but it is still limited. And ethnic nationalism in all forms I oppose.
My view is that partition of India was wrong, as was the establishment of Pakistan as an Islamic state. I similarly oppose contemporary Hindu religious nationalist movements in India and the attempts to recast India as a Hindu nation.
Certainly, 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. 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.
British national identity is not based on ethnicity (though some would like it to be). I am as British as anyone who can trace their ancestry back to, say, the Anglo-Saxons. British law does not, and should not, in any respect distinguish between us.
What I find extraordinary here is your casual dismissal of the suffering of the Palestinian people. Is that really the moral grounding for your critique of anti-Semitsm? It’s the kind of whataboutery that some people use to dismiss anti-Semitism (faced with an act of anti-Semitism, their response is ‘But what about racism towards Palestinians or Muslims?’). It’s unacceptable in that context. It’s unacceptable in this context too.
Yes a lot of it is. I made that point. But that does not mean that all criticism of Israel or all forms of anti-Zionism is. That’s just a means of shutting down debate – and of dismissing the sufferings of Palestinians, too.