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Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism. … Or is it?

Updated: Aug 2, 2021

Non-Jews do not get to decide what is and is not antisemitic. And progressive people do not get to say that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism.

Well, if you say so.

Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism. This is The Mantra trotted out pretty much every time anyone calls out the antisemitism that is far too prevalent in the Palestinian movement.

There is a consensus among progressive people that the nature of discrimination, prejudice and bigotry is determined by its victims. African-Americans get to define what anti-Black racism looks like. Muslims get to determine what is Islamophobic. LGBTQ+ people define what is homophobic. Women, not men, have the right to define misogyny.

The only exception we make to this rule is when it comes to Jews. In this case, progressives feel remarkably comfortable telling Jewish people what is and is not antisemitism, when it is OK to speak up about it, what "appropriate" manifestations of it look like and, most notably, when Jews are "falsely" invoking antisemitism as a nefarious ploy to garner sympathy for a political agenda.

This approach is not so much an exception to one of core tenets of progressivism as a complete abrogation of everything we stand for.

People who insist that "anti-Zionism is not antisemitism" will contend that accusations of antisemitism are a decoy, a plot intended to "stifle" or "shut down" criticism of Israel.

If we accept this, then The Mantra actually sends two messages to Jewish people: Unlike any other identifiable group, you do not get to define discrimination against your people … plus you're liars who claim discrimination for crafty political ends.

See why this might not be a convincing position?

The Mantra might be excusable if it were employed on the very rare occasion when a criticism of an Israeli policy or action is condemned as antisemitic when it demonstrably is not.

But while Palestinian activists insist that legitimate criticism of Israel is condemned as antisemitism all the time, the disconnect comes because, actually, it happens almost never.

Legitimate criticism of Israel is almost never dismissed as antisemitism, but antisemitism is routinely dismissed as legitimate criticism of Israel.

Jewish people and their allies tend not to accuse people of antisemitism unless it smells, looks, talks and walks like antisemitism. So what we have are (1) People making statements that rely to varying degrees on antisemitic premises, (2) Jewish people pointing that out, and (3) "Progressives" accusing Jews of ulterior motives for accusing them of employing antisemitic motifs.

See the problem?

We are supposed to have learned that the victims of this sort of stuff are to be trusted to recognize the traits even when the perpetrators don't see it in their own behaviours. In the case of antisemitism, which has a million permutations beyond those most evident to the outside observer, this may be especially true. Antisemitism often manifests in forms that have been very unconsciously intuited generation after generation. So while the perpetrator might not even recognize the antecedents upon which their assumptions are founded, the recipients, Jews, almost invariably do.

This is something progressive people should not need to be told: If someone characterizes your position as influenced by bias, engage in introspection. Do not employ a dismissive, knee-jerk mantra. (Dictionary definition of dismissive, knee-jerk mantra: "anti-Zionism is not antisemitism.")

We shouldn’t have to go into much detail about the sorts of comments that are likely to raise accusations of antisemitism, but let’s consider a few.

The kinds of messaging that anti-Israel activists just simply can't resist, which you will see at almost any Palestinian rally or social media conversation, feature Israeli (Jewish) vampires, cartoon images of bloodthirsty big-nosed Israelis (Jews), Israelis (Jews) deliberately killing children – all depictions of evil that owe everything to medieval stereotypes and lies about Jews.

A more recent motif is the use of Holocaust imagery against Israel. Though some might quibble about whether this is "antisemitic" in its purest form, imagine painting an Israeli flag with a swastika instead of a star of David, or equating Israel with Nazis, or accusing Israel of perpetrating a holocaust, or depicting Israeli leaders as SS men or suggesting that "Jews, of all people, should know better ..."

The extraordinary cruelty of this approach is almost perfect. One could not possibly conceive of a strategy more strategically useless but more viciously effective in sticking it to the targeted victims. Its only purpose is to rub salt in the most painful historical wounds. This might be an understandable strategy for neo-Nazis or other far-right extremists. Yet it is self-defined progressives who employ it, and who do so with such dependability that one almost cannot attend a Palestinian rally or peruse a relevant social media page without encountering it.

We would not question whether it is racist when, as sometimes happens, noose imagery is used against African-Americans. Yet the employment of Holocaust imagery and language is deemed legitimate enough that progressive people will participate in rallies, marches and online discussions where this is present.

Agree or disagree with the examples provided, we can all agree, hopefully, that antisemitism is bad. That seems to be, after all, the value that underpins The Mantra: anti-Zionism (good, apparently, or at least defensible) is not antisemitism (bad).

But let’s consider further the idea that antisemitism is wrong, but that anti-Zionism is entirely legitimate.

“Anti-Zionism,” by definition, seeks to eliminate the Jewish state. Yet if we do not seek to eliminate the French state or the Japanese state or any other national grouping except the Jewish one, the shoe probably fits. If we advocate for Palestinian national self-determination but oppose Jewish national self-determination, it is hard to see how this could not fall under the category of antisemitism.

Perhaps the final irony is the assertion that Zionists are trying to stifle or shut down conversation. This is, perversely, what the invocation of The Mantra is intended to do. If someone is trying to have a discussion about antisemitism, and we say simply, “We are not having that conversation,” again, it may not mean that we are helplessly antisemitic. But we certainly don't get to call ourselves a progressive.

There is no way to prove that individual or collective attitudes toward Jews explain this. But the question does deserve more consideration than the rote incantation "anti-Zionism is not antisemitism."

The simple point is this: non-Jews do not get to decide what is or is not antisemitic. And progressive people do not get to say that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism.


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