“The truth,” writes Bernard Henri-Levy in his recent book, The Genius of Judaism, “is that one can now be anti-Semitic only by being anti-Zionist; anti-Zionism is the required path for any anti-Semitism that wishes to expand its recruiting pool beyond those still nostalgic for the discredited brotherhoods.”
Is that true, or has the ancient virus mutated once again? Is it now possible to be Zionist and anti-Semitic?
This is not really a new question. It was already brought into being years ago by right wing Christian Zionists who seem interested in supporting Israel for the sole purpose of bringing about an apocalyptic conflagration which will provoke the second coming, or maybe even earlier when the early Zionists seemed intent on erasing the Yiddish speaking, Talmudic Jew of the Shtetl from Israeli culture. One is also reminded, with black humor, of the bizarro theory floated years ago by novelist Tom Robbins in Skinny Legs and All that the Balfour Declaration was actually anti-Semitic: send all the Jews to a neighborhood where they couldn’t possibly survive, the logic goes, and watch the Jewish question resolve itself.
What is new is that a Zionist anti-Semitism has moved from the fringe to, quite literally, the center, and from the realm of the apocalyptic imaginaire to the realm of American nationalist-fascism. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the White House’s toxic rhetorical combination of support for rightwing Zionist aspirations like an immediate move of the American embassy to Jerusalem, or the abandonment of the two state solution, together with issuing a Holocaust statement that doesn’t mention Jews.
The new affection for Israel among populists stems largely from the perception that Israel is 1) an “ethnostate” which shares capitalist and democratic ideas with the US and 2) an enemy of Islam. Both of these assertions are problematic- despite the general commitment of Israelis to a “Jewish democratic state,” Israel is, in fact, a deeply multi-ethnic and multi-cultural state which is not fit to be a “poster country” for ethno-nationalists. Jews themselves are not properly a simple ethnicity- there are European, African, Arabic, Indian, and Chinese Jews- Jews are perhaps better characterized as a multi-ethnic tribe. On top of that, fully 20% of Israelis are non-Jewish Arabs, most of whom are Sunni Muslims. While not as large as the amount of Blacks and Latinos in the US so resented by white nationalists (about 30% of the population) the idea of Israel as ethnically homogenous, or as aspiring to be so, is a myth. Still, Israel was founded as a refuge for Jews and is still deeply committed to that ideal, and so is bound to serve as a perverse inspiration for white people who feel embattled, however delusional their sense of persecution is.
The belief that Israel is an enemy of Islam is likewise based on distortions of the reality. Israel grants religious freedom to its citizens, has a large Muslim population, and is committed to significant compromise and accommodation with its Muslim population- this is the country, we should remember, which allows Islamic control over the Dome of the Rock, a Mosque built by Islamic conquerors over a Church built by Christian conquerors over the holiest site in Judaism, a site Jews have prayed towards for 2,000 years and mention in their prayers dozens of times a day- even though Israel gained control over the site in the war of 1967.
What Israel does well is protect its citizens- Jewish and Arab- against attacks by terrorists, which in recent years has more often meant Islamist terrorists (though the main source of terrorism is not Islamism, but militant Palestinian Arab nationalism and opposition to Zionism). Again the analogy between the terrorist threats to Israel and terrorist threats to Americans is facile. Between 2000 and 2006 alone, Israel suffered 27,905 terror attacks. By contrast, from 1973 until 2016 there have been 38 Islamic extremist terror attacks in the United States.
Behind Zionist anti-Semitism is a bifurcation of the American relationship to Jews, in some minds, into two kinds of Jew. One kind is the Zionist hero, a militant nationalist and enemy of Islam. The other kind of Jew, the enemy, is the diaspora Jew. The diaspora Jew is an internationalist metropolitan who votes democratic and supports pluralism, progressive values, and degrades the integrity of ethnostates by supporting immigration and refugees. The diaspora Jew is the one believed to be in control of Hollywood, the media, the banks, and (until recently) the American government. While for many anti-Semites the sins of the diaspora Jew include Zionism, for the new alt-right the Jewish sin is being hypocritical- supporting a Jewish ethnostate while undermining other people’s ethno-states, all in their own self-interest. Alternatively, the sins of the diaspora Jew include being opposed to militant, rightwing Zionism (or of Zionism altogether) and thus being opposed to nationalist ethnostates.
When Rabbi Matt Rosenberg courageously confronted Richard Spencer, the white nationalist and alt-right pseudo-hipster wunderkind, asking to study a Torah of love with him, of “radical inclusion,” Spencer cynically and brutally shut him down: “Do you really want radical inclusion into the State of Israel?” Spencer responded as Rosenberg said nothing. “Jews exist precisely because you did not assimilate to the Gentiles… I respect that about you. I want my people to have that same sense of themselves.”
What I wish Rosenberg, thoroughly a diaspora Jew, had said, was something like this: “Israel is a tiny state with a landmass equal more or less to the state of New Jersey which accommodates a multi-ethnic society of Jews as a place of refuge for them from a world which has repeatedly tried to persecute or destroy them. Israel grants religious freedom to its citizens and has a 20% Arab population, as well as a robust Christian and Muslim population, all after only 70 years of existence governed by groups of quarreling refugee Jews speaking different languages who came from all over the world. Israel imperfectly attempts to defend itself from terrorism and conflict, sometimes upholding it’s best ideals and sometimes failing miserably. I support an Israel which welcomes the stranger and defends the rights of all of its citizens while maintaining its fundamental character as a Jewish homeland. My Israel has nothing in common with your ethnically cleansed white winter wonderland.”
The Trump administration, and it’s alt-right homeboys, combine seemingly authentic sympathy for militant ethnic nationalism with sincere hostility to Muslims (perceived by them as the common enemy that makes Israel a friend) together with an antipathy to non-white, non-Christian minorities at home and to “progressive elites”, a double identification that potentially renders diaspora Jews twice damned. That is their Zionist anti-Semitism: affection for a cartoon understanding of Zionist Israel paired with hostility to a cartoon understanding of the diaspora Jew.
Now to our horror, we have an Israeli Prime Minister who seems to be siding with the Zionist Jew against the Diaspora Jew, choosing to advance the strong-arm answer to Israeli problems pushed by the Israeli right wing while dismissing the fears and ethical concerns of the diaspora Jew (as he does to the Israeli left wing at home). Choosing might and security over Jewish values- choosing Zionist strength over the Jewish soul- Bibi too appears to be joining the ranks of the Zionist anti-Semites, a deal with the devil which may haunt us for years to come.