Where Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism Collide

Every time I write, as I did last week, that I don’t think anti-Zionism is necessarily antisemitic, I get emails from Jewish readers that are angry, disappointed or sometimes simply baffled. “Israel is the political entity through which the Jewish people exercises its natural right of self-determination and control over its own fate,” said one typical recent message. “How is singling out the Jewish people to deprive it of those rights not antisemitic?”

To answer this question fully would take more than a single column, but I want to make a brief attempt, because lately, in reaction to the grotesque suffering in Gaza, two ugly, intertwined trends are gaining steam. Well-intentioned opponents of Jewish nationalism, some Jewish themselves, are being falsely smeared as antisemites. At the same time, antisemitism is cloaking itself in anti-Zionism, with people spitting out the word “Zionist” when they really seem to mean “Jew.”

My own views on Zionism are ambivalent and conflicted. I’m a secular Jew with no particular attachment to Israel, spiritual or otherwise, though I also recognize that my ability to hold myself aloof from the country is enabled by the great privilege of an American passport. I think the idea of Israel as a colonial entity that will eventually be dismantled is a malign fantasy — most Jewish Israelis don’t have anywhere else to go — but I also recognize that the country’s creation can’t be disentangled from the dispossession of the Palestinians.

Yes, as Zionists often point out, Palestinians were far from the only people made refugees as maps were redrawn in the wake of World War II. After Israel’s creation, more Jews were uprooted from Arab and Muslim countries than Arabs expelled from their homes in historic Palestine. It is not Israel’s fault that some of its neighbors kept displaced Palestinians as stateless refugees rather than integrating them as full citizens. But I could never blame a Palestinian for thinking it obscenely unfair that I have a right to “return” to a country to which I have no family connection, while Palestinians who lost their homes in 1948 do not.

I also understand why many Jews, the survivors of millenniums of attempts to destroy them as a people, put their need for national self-determination above other, competing values. But one needn’t hate Jews to make a different moral calculus.

Right now, the relentless growth of settlements in the West Bank has created a one-state reality on the ground, although one in which people have very different rights and freedoms depending on their ethnic and religious background. There are people of good will who think the way out of this insupportable situation lies in the fight for equal democratic rights in a single state for everyone living in the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. “It is time for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish-Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish-Palestinian equality,” Peter Beinart wrote in Jewish Currents in 2020.

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