Is anti-Zionism same as antisemitism?

Protestors of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza are accused of being anti-Zionist and, therefore, antisemitic. Those defending the protestors argue that they don’t have a grievance against Jews but against Israel’s government for letting its military kill thousands of innocent civilians. 

According to Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, former President of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejects compromises with Palestinians because he is beholden to ultra-Orthodox parties and extremist religious settlers in the West Bank.

With their support, Netanyahu got Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, to pass the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People bill with a margin of only seven votes. It formally adopts a type of Zionism that treats Jewish citizens differently than other ethnic and religious groups. 

Minister Yariv Levin, a leader in Netanahu’s Likud Party, called it “Zionism‘s flagship bill… it will clarify that it is the nation-state of the Jewish people.” However, many, if not most, Jewish citizens also see Israel as a democracy, as the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel intended. 

Although the word “Democratic” is absent throughout the Israeli Declaration of Independence, it explicitly states that the State of Israel would “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture.” 

Nevertheless, a large portion of Israelis, Jews, and non-Jews opposed the law proclaiming Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People. Several groups in the Jewish diaspora believed it violated Israel’s self-defined legal status as a “Jewish and democratic state” in exchange for adopting an exclusively Jewish identity. 

Arab and Druze Israeli citizens see this new law just as the Likud leader Avi Dichter explained, “We are passing this bill to avoid even a scrap of thought or effort to turn Israel into a state of all its citizens.’’

How Israel defines Zionism will determine its future either as a democracy or a theocracy with democratic trimming.  

The type of Zionism, as promoted by the conservative Likud Party and its allies, moves Israel closer to making it operate within a tribal framework similar to Arab countries. In 23 of them, Islam is the state religion. Although Israel does not formally have Judaism as a state religion, it took the notable step of declaring that it is a “Jewish State.”

The First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897 did not use the phrase “Jewish State” when Zionists sought to “establish a home for the Jewish people.” Instead, according to Professor Sari Nusseibeh at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, the Zionist Organization preferred at first to use the description “Jewish homeland.”

When President Joe Biden said, “I’m a Zionist. Where there’s no Israel, there’s not a Jew in the world to be safe,” he was referring to Israel as a safe homeland for Jews, of which  870,000 Jews have left Islamic countries over a period of twenty years. 

Some left due to expulsion or fearing a change in their status after Israel became an independent nation. But Israel also encouraged Jews to immigrate by providing better living conditions than what they had in the Arabian countries.

The result is that the six Arab states adjacent to Israel all have less than one percent Jews. About half of Israel’s population are descendants of those refugees and immigrants. Meanwhile, the Muslim population of Israel is about two million; it had been one million in all of Palestine, current Israel, and the occupied territories before 1947. Arabs represent 18% of all Israeli residents; in 1944, they represented 61% living in that territory.

Roughly the same number of Palestinians left Israel as the number of Jews that departed from Islamic countries, however, over a much shorter period. While Israel did create conditions that pushed some Palestinians to leave, others left at the urging of the Arab leaders.

 In the Memoirs of Haled al Azm, the Syrian Prime Minister in 1948-49, he wrote that “we ourselves are the ones who encouraged them to leave.” Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Said declared as the war began: “We will smash the country with our guns and obliterate every place the Jews seek shelter in. The Arabs should conduct their wives and children to safe areas until the fighting has died down.” 

The Secretary of the Arab League Office in London, Edward Atiyah, wrote in his book, The Arabs: “This wholesale exodus was due partly to the belief of the Arabs, encouraged by the boastings of an unrealistic Arabic press that it could be only a matter of weeks before the Jews were defeated.”

Middle Eastern countries, regardless of whether they call themselves democracies, have some aspects of a theocratic or tribal-oriented state. The primary one is that the government or their society’s culture treats citizens along religious and ethnic lines. That orientation occurs in both Israel, Arab, and Muslim countries.  

While some Islamic countries guarantee freedom of religion, the practice is often at odds with that promise. For instance, Iran describes itself as an Islamic theocratic democracy. In its legislative body, one seat is reserved for its small Jewish community and three other seats for other minorities. However, they have no adequate power since a higher body, the 12-member Guardian Council, all appointed Islamic jurists, can veto legislation and disqualify candidates for office if they are not true to the Islamic faith. 

Unlike most Muslim countries, which do not have Jews in their legislative bodies, Israel has 15 Arab members in the 120-seat Knesset who were voted into office. Most are Muslim Arabs, with Druze and non-denominational members making up the rest.

However, they do not have the same rights as Jewish citizens in Israel, which critics would describe as a two-class system that has been called apartheid by Human Rights Watch.

An HRW report mentions how Israeli authorities revoke Palestinian residency rights and expropriate privately owned Palestinian land. Unfortunately, HRW did not identify whether these practices were in Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza. 

Mainstream international and Israel/Palestinian human rights groups consider Israel practices apartheid in the West Bank. Since no Jews live in Gaza, apartheid doesn’t apply there. 

However, Israel has enforced a 17-year siege of Gaza by which Israel effectively controls its airspace and its shorelines. As a result, it exerts strict control of what goes in and what goes out of that territory, making Israel the occupying power in Gaza. In critical ways, Israel has more control over Gaza than Hamas.

As for the treatment of Arabs within Israel, HRW makes no mention of any similar practices by Muslim countries against Jews. Their website does not list countries that practice apartheid, so a comparison of Israel’s practices to Muslim countries is not possible. And while the U.N. has a legal definition of apartheid, there is no list of countries that meet it. 

The form of Zionism that Israel has leaned into since the 1967 war is now the Likud Party’s policy, declaring that “The land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established.” 

Critics of Likud believe that this wording could be used to justify Israel annexing all of the West Bank. That action would eliminate a two-state solution. Even now, Israel directly controls 60 percent of the West Bank and can send military throughout it at will. 

The Israel-Hamas War has highlighted the connection between anti-Zionist and antisemitic. Israel contends that criticizing Israel’s war against Hamas is equivalent to being antisemitic. 

Jewish American political scientist Norman Finkelstein argues that anti-Zionism and often just criticism of Israeli policies have been conflated with antisemitism. The Jewish-American linguist Noam Chomsky argues: “There have long been efforts to identify anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in an effort to exploit anti-racist sentiment for political ends.”

Nevertheless, Republicans and many Democrats defend Israel’s invasion of Gaza by characterizing an attack on Israel’s government as an existential attack on Israel as a Jewish nation-state. 

Consequently, Republicans pushed through House Resolution 894, which rightly condemns the drastic rise of antisemitism in the United States. However, point four of the resolution reads, “The House of Representatives clearly and firmly states that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.”

Although the resolution is not a law, it condemns anyone opposing Israel’s war with Hamas as being anti-Zionist and hence antisemitic.  While 95 Democrats voted for it, more either didn’t vote or were absent, leaving only 13 to vote against it. All but five Republicans voted in favor. 

Israel and its supporters must understand that criticism of Israeli actions in Gaza is not an existential threat. It is a reality check on how a government of any country must be held accountable for needlessly contributing to civilian deaths by violence or famine. 

Democratic Representative Jamaal Bowman voted against H.R. 894 because it “conflates criticism of the Israeli government with antisemitism and ignores one of the greatest threats to the Jewish community, white nationalism.” Due to that vote and his outspoken support for making Israel accountable for its actions, AIPAC, the largest pro-Israel PAC in America, has led a $8 million campaign to unseat Bowman.

Sophie Ellman-Golan, the communications director at Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, came to his defense, saying he was a “leader for decades in fighting antisemitism and all forms of hate, as a principal and in Congress.”

This is just one example of how our Congressional leaders have come under pressure to swing toward equating anti-Zionism to antisemitism. All politicians have felt that tug, including Joe Biden when he served as a Senator. AIPAC donated twice as much to Biden than the next recipient of their funds since 1990.

While polls have shown that most Americans from both parties have supported an independent Israel nation-state, the same is not true for an independent Palestinian state. The last Pew Survey poll, taken in 2011, showed that more than 40% favor (42%) than oppose (26%) the United States recognizing Palestine as an independent nation, while nearly a third (32%) express no opinion.

However, since President Clinton, all presidents have supported the development of an independent Palestinian state. The UN passed a resolution intended that the West Bank, Gaza, and other lands be an independent Palestinian state, which 138 countries currently recognize.

A future for peaceful Israeli–Palestinian relations will be slim if the nation-states of the Middle East treat each other as enemy tribes by emphasizing that the “nation” within each state is the dominant ethnic/religious group.  The US can stand as a model of a democracy where freedom of religion and the protection of ethnic minorities are accepted and protected. 

At its core, Zionism is about sustaining an independent Israel nation-state. To define it as an Israel expanding its boundaries or dividing its citizens along tribal lines will not lead to any peace in the Middle East. 

Being anti-Zionist can be without prejudice against Jews and supportive of Israel serving as a homeland for Jews. And importantly, it allows for the recognition that Palestinians have a right to create a democratic nation-state for their homeland. 

NOTE: The information for this piece was gathered from reviewing 35 articles and websites, some of which are linked above. 

If you like this piece, become a Patreon patron or make a single contribution to help me reach others.  – thank you, Nick 

Nick Licata is the author of Becoming A Citizen Activist and Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the SixtiesHe is the founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 1,300 progressive municipal officials.

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