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Debate | Is anti-Zionism anti-Semitic?

Join Forward contributing columnists Ari Hoffman and Joel Swanson for a live debate on April 21 about whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic.

At a time of rising anti-Semitism, the question of how to define that ancient scourge that still plagues our modern world is a central one. It’s also a difficult one, given that we Jews don’t always agree with each other about what constitutes anti-Semitism. While we all no doubt concur that cartoons with hook-nosed characters counting their money and extending their tentacles around the world are anti-Semitic, other areas are thornier. Perhaps most bedeviling is the question of whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic. Is opposing the state of Israel — its very existence — legitimate activism or anti-Semitic ideology? It’s something that Jews at Shabbat meals around the nation and even the world are hotly debating.

So we asked Forward contributing columnists Joel Swanson and Ari Hoffman to debate this crucial question: Is anti-Zionism anti-Semitic?

ARI HOFFMAN: First of all, best wishes for continued health for you and yours Joel, and for all of our readers, wherever they are. This moment has reminded me that even the most heated debates are a luxury.

Ari Hoffman | Artist: Noah Lubin

Ari Hoffman | Artist: Noah Lubin

It is of course possible to find individuals who oppose Zionism for whom the anti-Semitic glove does not fit. People might be made uneasy by the Jewish State or feel distant from it for a whole range of reasons. The Satmar Chasidim, religiously punctilious and theologically opposed to the State of Israel, are the paradigmatic example. And time travel would only thicken the ranks of the anti-Zionists; 1920’s Warsaw or Berlin would have featured them as robust factions, arguing against Herzl’s creed and for other answers to the Jewish question, which included assimilation, local nationalisms, world-wide socialism.

But Joel, these are the exceptions that prove the rule. The Satmar and their allied factions pursue a life at deep odds with modernity. The Bundists are long gone, not because they were wrong but because they were Jews.

Anti-Zionism in its contemporary form was synthesized in the Soviet Union as a way to wage war against Jews by other means. It was perfected in the vast open air laboratory for conspiracy theories of the Arab world, and then gussied up in the language of contemporary progressivism to become palatable on college campuses and in DSA town halls.

And here’s the reality: More than half of world-wide Jewry lives in Israel, speaking Hebrew, falling in love, and dying in their ancestral homeland. And it’s Zionism, the self-determination movement of the Jewish People, that underlies the repeated self-defense that preserves this reality. The attempt to oppose not just this or that policy, or inveigh against a corrupt prime minister, but instead to deny legitimacy to the entire project is anti-Semitism, often in intent, and nearly always in practice.

The effort to split the atom between Jews and the Jewish State inevitably reveals that malice to the latter is swiftly and seamlessly transferred to the former. Must it be so? I am inclined to think so. To see just how sui generis anti-Zionism is, try to find an analogue. Even those who march under the banner of anti-Americanism rarely assert that America should be abolished. Animated critics of China or Russia or Venezuela attack what these governments do, not that these countries exist in the first place.

The project of Israel is bound up in Jewish history, and to wish Israel away, or to see it as uniquely dangerous, or less deserving of sympathy or respect, is to tap into old and nefarious wells. Think of Israel less as an abstraction and more as what it is in reality: the landing spot for millions of people who belonged to a tribe that has been hounded nearly everywhere they have existed.

Perhaps more importantly, it betrays a blindness to current reality. The truth is that it is the presence of a Jewish state (one that, by the way, is democratic with robust Arab political representation) that underwrites the feasibility of a Palestinian one. Zionism, as one of the few national liberation movements that succeeded in building a prosperous, diverse state, is the blueprint for Palestinian national aspirations. Or it should be.

Anti-Zionists advocate a bi-national state, both Jewish and Palestinian. And yet, this dream involves cancelling the only Jewish state while leaving in place the nearly two dozen that in word and deed claim to embody Islam, and the many that embed a cross in their flag. That such a state would look more like the low-grade ethnic war that characterized pre-State Palestine than contemporary Switzerland is another strike against it.

Perhaps someone who was truly against borders of any kind, who believes in a post-history Pangea, might be able to sustain the anti-Zionist position. But I think the broad swath of us believe that the difference between countries is part and parcel of our global diversity. It is why a people with no place to go chose partition, and why those armies who wanted to eradicate difference opposed it. There must be room for all of us, or there will be dignity only for the bullies among us.

To support anti-Zionism is not only to express animus against the Jews. It is to make everyone a little less free.

JOEL SWANSON: I’ll begin with a point of agreement, on a topic that can so easily become overheated and slip into mere sloganeering: We’re perhaps not quite as far apart on this question as we might be.

Joel Swanson | Artist: Noah Lubin

Joel Swanson | Artist: Noah Lubin

Just as you grant that there are examples of anti-Zionists who are not motivated by bigotry against the Jewish people — the Satmar Chasidim being the paradigmatic example — I, too, will grant that there are plenty of examples where anti-Zionism is simply a way of rebranding plain old hatred of the Jewish people. “Anti-Zionist campaigns” in the former Eastern Bloc are perhaps the most obvious examples of this.

Even for anti-Zionists who begin with principled opposition to the state of Israel, and not simply by rebranding anti-Semitism with a new name, it can be easy to shade over into anti-Semitic tropes, and anti-Zionists should be especially careful not to fall into historical anti-Semitic conspiracies such as blood libel. Anti-Zionism isn’t a “get out of anti-Semitism free card.”

That note of concord aside, I have to disagree with your argument that in practice, today’s anti-Zionism means denying the right to self-defense and self-determination to the Jews currently living in the state of Israel.

If Zionism is defined as requiring a state where Jews make up the voting majority (an admittedly contested definition that would leave a lot of historical Zionists, like Henrietta Szold and Martin Buber, out of the Zionist tent today), then it isn’t anti-Semitic to demand that a state founded to prioritize the interests and protection of one particular ethnic group transform into a state based on civic equality.

There are currently about 6.5 million Jews living on the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, compared to 6.8 million Palestinians. Of these, one and a half million Arab Israeli citizens can vote, and five million in the West Bank and Gaza cannot. Is demanding equal voting rights and civic equality for all of them — a demand that is considered anti-Zionist today, because it means an end to a Jewish voting majority — anti-Semitic? By way of analogy, in 1994, South Africa shifted from a national identity that prioritized white Afrikaner national identity to one that guaranteed “the right of the South African people as a whole to self-determination.” Was that racist against Afrikaners?

The majority of Israeli Arabs favor a move to a society where all who live between the Mediterranean and the Jordan can vote for the government that governs them. Such a government could still defend the people living there from foreign invasions, could still guarantee legal rights and religious protections for all Jews, but without prioritizing maintaining a Jewish voting majority. Is that anti-Semitic?

One proponent of a move to such civic nationalism is former Knesset member Jamal Zahalka, who introduced a Knesset bill to do just that. He said about his bill, “We do not deny Israel or its right to exist as a home for Jews. We don’t say that the state is not for Jews. We say it is for Jews and Arabs.” Such a state would still promote the defense and welfare of the Jews from foreign enemies; it would just allow voting rights for all who live there. Even if you think Zahalka is naive about the future prospects of the Jews living in such a state, is such a demand anti-Semitic?

If your argument is that only if a people has a state where they comprise a voting majority are they able to practice self-determination, what does that mean about all the other peoples across the world who are demanding states of their own, from the Kurds to the Catalans to the Abkhazians? Am I racist against the Quebecois if I oppose Quebecois independence? Or might I simply believe that the self-determination of the Quebecois people can be sufficiently guaranteed within the framework of the Canadian nation, rather than through a state of their own?

And, if your answer is that self-determination requires statehood, and so those who oppose it are racist and bigoted, what does that say about those who oppose Palestinian statehood — a mainstream position in Israeli politics?

ARI HOFFMAN: The sophisticated anti-Zionist position you have helpfully outlined contains a presupposition I resist, that rights are all or nothing propositions, including the idea that Palestinian self-determination must entail the voiding of the Jewish aspiration for a public square that reflects their culture, language and history. I just don’t think that’s right.

It is true that a more or less equivalent number of Jews and Arabs live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. And it would be easy to look at that 50/50 split as a promising basis for a bi-national state. But zoom out a little further, and the picture looks rather different. In the Middle East as a whole, there are 300 million Muslims and only 6.5 million Jews.

I don’t need to remind you of the history of Jewish minorities in these countries, which ostensibly promised to protect their Jews but in fact ended up subjecting them to pogroms, public hangings, and book burnings. Likewise, Palestinian violence against Jews pre-dates the establishment of Israel, and flared especially viciously when something like a bi-national state was the status quo.

So it’s naive to think that the armature of a State is exactly what needs to be dispensed with, when it is that armature and nothing else that has protected Jewish lives after a century of Jewish blood.

But I think I would push the argument even further than that. It is not just that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, and in our fallen state we need the brutal certainty of a state to ward off chaos. It is that there is a beauty to particularity, and that a country that strives to embrace and embody a unique national story and be the vehicle whereby that story is conveyed into the future is a feature, not a bug. If like Israel that state also demonstrates the ability to protect minority rights (however imperfectly) and reach out its hand in peace to its neighbors (however imperfectly) then I think it has more than earned the right to exist, if such a thing must be earned.

JOEL SWANSON: But I think this is where I find the phrasing of “right to exist” troubling and potentially problematic. When people ask you to affirm that “Israel has a right to exist,” they’re really asking you to affirm that “Israel has a right to exist as a state with a Jewish voting majority in perpetuity, and maintaining that Jewish voting majority justifies disenfranchising millions of Palestinians from voting for the government that controls their freedom of movement.”

I don’t accept a framing that says Israel would “cease to exist” if you enfranchise all the people living there, any more than I accept that South Africa ceased to exist when it shifted from a political model where only one people could vote to a model where all who live there could vote. I wish people who talk about Israel having a “right to exist” would be clearer about what the “right to exist” means, and how it apparently is taken as a right to prioritize an ethnic majority over equal voting rights.

Of course, there are liberal Zionists who attempt to square the circle of reconciling their support for a Jewish majority state with their desire to enfranchise Palestinians by supporting an independent Palestinian state. But that requires that you be just as outspoken about Netanyahu’s stated plan for annexation of parts of the West Bank as you are about calling anti-Zionism a form of anti-Semitism. I know there are some groups — J Street comes to mind — who do meet that bar, but I don’t see many of the people who fight anti-Zionism in the US speaking out about annexation as loudly.

That means Israel’s “right to exist” is essentially a “right to disenfranchise part of its population.” And it shouldn’t be surprising that many on the left don’t accept a right to existence on those terms.

You invoke a “beauty to particularity,” and there I wholeheartedly agree. I don’t want to see Jewish culture disappear from any place Jews live, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to New York. But I don’t think a framing where cultural particularity requires statehood is particularly helpful here.

For one thing, Jewish culture and history provide us with a plethora of beautiful examples of preserving particularity in the absence of statehood. And secondly, if cultural particularity requires statehood, then lots of cultures in the world would be on the verge of disappearing, as there are many peoples who do not have a state of their own.

The standard you’re calling for as a way of preserving cultural particularity would require creating hundreds of new nations, from an Igbo nation to a Yoruba nation to an independent East Turkestan. Do you really want to see hundreds of new countries created in the next few years?

Finally, I want to raise another point. It seems to me that the attempt to define anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism has allowed a lot of people who support Israel to get away with anti-Semitism against the diaspora. For example, I’m thinking of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who has engaged in classically anti-Semitic rhetoric against Hungarian Jews as “an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.”

This isn’t mere rhetoric, but has a real impact on the safety of Hungarian Jews; the ADL has found that Hungary is one of the most anti-Semitic countries in the world. But Orban has received a kosher seal of approval from the Israeli government for his anti-Semitism, because his foreign policy is pro-Israel.

Another example would be the Brazilian government of Jair Bolsonaro, which has minimized the Shoah and openly cited Nazis, but which likewise has the support of the Netanyahu government.

I worry that if we define anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism, we too often end up with an opposite position of “My Zionism means I can’t be anti-Semitic,” and that in turn endangers non-Israeli Jews.

ARI HOFFMAN: A few things: I resist a framing that sees Palestinian enfranchisement and Zionism as a zero-sum game. The fact is that 20% of Israeli citizens are of Palestinian descent. While they might not see their story reflected in the State’s flag or national anthem, many do feel part and parcel of a state that affords minorities freedom unknown elsewhere in the region. And in a strange way, to call for the dissolution of Israel is to endorse exactly the same “state for every tribe” logic that you assail Zionism as promoting.

Of course, you might reply that the situation on the West Bank is a difference not of degree, but of kind. That is undoubtedly true, but I don’t think that the answer to it is one state. There never was such a reality. As our readers undoubtedly know, before 1967, Israel was en-ringed by Jordan and Egypt. Present day Palestinians lived under those regimes.

The notion that borderline-failed states like Jordan and Egypt would be left untouched while Israel would be forced to renovate itself to the bolts to accomodate a population that has repeatedly rejected pathways to their own sovereignty beggars the mind. The notion of a binational state for Arabs and Jews as envisioned by Judah Magnes and Martin Buber didn’t falter because it was too good an idea; it resides in history’s dustbin because it was vetoed on the ground by the peoples it was meant to encompass.

A quick note on the Central and Eastern European autocrats: I wouldn’t necessarily have a beer with them, and to the extent they promote anti-Semitism, they should be roundly condemned. But Israel is a small country in need of friends (especially in Europe, when the supposedly enlightened nations of the West are playing with labeling Jewish products, once again) and I think it has a right to play Realpolitik a little bit, although the devil will always be in the details. Besides, if Israel is a sought after ally, I’d hope that might be a source of pride. After all, who could have predicted that in Sighet, in 1944?

Of course Judaism has thrived in the Diaspora — that is how it has gifted the world so many treasures. But the project of Israel is not just another Jewish community. It is the work of a people charting its own course, thriving wildly despite a moment of instability and breakdown, the envy of much of the world.

To strive to short circuit that just exercise of national self-determination gestures at a special kind of animus. If we are to abolish all states based on particular ethnic, religious, or national traditions, I don’t think the Jews should be required to volunteer to go first.

JOEL SWANSON: It seems to me you’re expressing what I see as a double standard here, which is at the root of our disagreement: You say that European nations are “labeling Jewish products.” I don’t think that’s an accurate depiction of what the European Union court ruling does, even if you disagree with it. The court ruling requires labeling products produced in Israeli settlements in the West Bank — settlements that, after all, are classified as illegal under international law. It does not apply to any products produced in Israel within the Green Line, let alone to anything produced by Jews in the diaspora, so I don’t think it’s accurate to describe it as a Jewish label.

But beyond the semantics lies what I see as a deeper issue. You endorse the idea of a Jewish state, which requires that Jews comprise a voting majority. In a land with roughly equal numbers of Jews and Palestinians, the only way to maintain a Jewish voting majority without abandoning any pretense of democracy is to take steps toward creating an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, even if that doesn’t happen overnight.

That, in turn, requires that the West Bank be considered legally distinct from Israel within the Green Line, which is precisely what the EU court ruling says — that products produced in the West Bank cannot be legally labeled “made in Israel,” because the West Bank and Israel are legally distinct.

That’s what I see as the double standard here: Either the West Bank is legally identical to Israel, and in that case, how can you justify not extending voting rights to everyone who lives there? Or else the West Bank is legally distinct from Israel within the Green Line, in which case, saying that products made there are “made in Israel” is not an accurate statement.

But you’re essentially endorsing a position whereby Israeli Jews must be legally permitted to live wherever they want, while Palestinians in the West Bank cannot move to Israel within the Green Line and apply for Israeli citizenship, which would risk threatening the Jewish character of the state. That implies a situation where Jews have more freedom of movement than Palestinians. And I can’t see opposing that double standard as anti-Semitic.

And that gets us to what I see as another double standard here: You argue that while certain Central European autocrats like Viktor Orban may be bad, and may even engage in anti-Semitism, Israel has no choice but to make deals with the devil in the name of Realpolitik.

The problem is, the very statement “anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism” is an explicit statement that there should be red lines that we draw, that some positions are so bigoted that one should never accept them, not even in the name of the practical necessities of politics. Jewish groups in the US have never been sympathetic to the argument that allying with leaders like Louis Farrakhan is sometimes necessary for the betterment of the black community, nor that pro-Palestinian activists sometimes have to ally with leaders who use the slogan “from the river to the sea.” And that strikes me as unfair.

Either it’s acceptable for Israel to form alliances with leaders who depict Jews covered in banknotes, and Palestinian activists likewise sometimes have to work with those who talk about “Jewish supremacy,” or else we draw red lines in both directions. But a position where anti-Zionism is so bigoted that it is utterly out of bounds, but bigotry against the diaspora is acceptable as Realpolitik, seems to ask non-Israeli Jews to shoulder a burden we aren’t asking of Israeli Jews.

Finally, you cite the great freedoms Israel affords to its minorities, and while I won’t claim there’s no truth to that, it’s worth noting Netanyahu is currently attempting to hold onto power with the argument that Israeli Arabs should not count equally in the political process. Netanyahu’s claim is that he won the votes of the majority of “Zionists,” because the Israeli Arab-led Joint Listis not part of the equation” at all.

While I don’t think anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, I’ve always likewise resisted the broad brush claim that Zionism is always racism. But when the most powerful Israeli politician is explicitly saying Zionism requires excluding the votes of non-Jewish minorities, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion.

Ari Hoffman and Joel Swanson are both contributing columnists at the Forward.


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