Once the exclusive domain of the far-right and far-left, the expression “anti-Zionism is not antisemitic” has crept into the mainstream. We hear it all the time on social media from athletes to politicians, from journalists to “influencers.” Most surprising is that the expression has even made its way into the vernacular of liberal, progressive Jews, going so far as to claim that not only is anti-Zionism not antisemitic, but “conflating Zionism and Judaism” is what’s really antisemitic, disregarding that Zionism is a core belief for the vast majority of Jews around the world. So, is anti-Zionism antisemitic, or isn’t it? Before we can answer that question, we need to define what antisemitic means and what anti-Zionism means, two concepts that are far more complex than they appear.
If you ask most people what antisemitic means, they would answer that it is the hatred of Jews, and they would be correct...if you were talking about a person doing the hating. A person can hate Jews. But when you are talking about an idea, hatred of Jews doesn’t make much sense. Ideas don’t hate, people hate. For example, if there was a law that Jews could not attend school, the law does not hate Jews. The law discriminates against Jews. So, when we talk about ideas, and anti-Zionism is an idea, antisemitic means “discriminatory against Jews.”
Antisemitic – Discriminatory against Jews.
The terms Zionism and anti-Zionism are much more difficult to define. Many people who claim to be anti-Zionist struggle just to explain what Zionism is. You will hear definitions that are all over the place. Nearly all of them are wrong, and many of them are downright offensive. To understand Zionism, let’s consider the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah or The Hope, which was inspired by a Jewish poem from the 19th century titled Tikvatenu by Naftali Herz Imber and revised by Dr. Yehuda Leib Matmon-Cohen. Hatikvah proclaims that that the two-thousand-year hope of the Jewish people is “to be a free nation in our home,” with home meaning the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people, the Land of Israel. That is the essence of Zionism. To put it more simply, it means the Jewish nation is afforded the same rights as any other similar nation of people, which includes a right to a home, just like Indians have a home, and Poles have a home and Arabs have many homes. Anti-Zionism denies that right to the Jewish nation and only the Jewish nation – to live as a free people in their nation state. Since the state of Israel already exists, it also means seeking the destruction of the nation state of the Jewish people while not seeking the destruction of any other nation state of any other people. When is the last time you heard a large section of the population lobby for the destruction of a country other than Israel – not a government but an entire country?
Anti-Zionism - denying the Jewish nation the same rights as any other similar nation of people
Even with those definitions, it can still be hard for some people to wrap their heads around how anti-Zionism is antisemitic. To better understand, let’s look at another instance where a group of people are denied a right not denied to a similar group of people – gay marriage. For a long time, the homosexual community was denied the right to marry (and in many places they still are) - a right granted to the heterosexual community. A person may oppose same sex marriage for any number of reasons, religion being the most common. The person may not hate gay people, but the idea is surely anti-gay. It’s hard to argue that not allowing gay people to marry when straight people are allowed to marry isn’t discriminatory against homosexuals. Ironically, the very same people that will argue anti-Zionism isn’t antisemitic will be the ones who shout loudest that denying same sex couples the right to marry for any reason is anti-gay.
You may be saying to yourself, “Wait a second, I hear liberal Jews all the time identify as anti-Zionist and say that anti-Zionism is not antisemitic. Gay people never opposed gay marriage.” That’s not true, actually. During the height of the gay marriage debate in the early 2010s, you could hear or read many stories of gay people who opposed gay marriage for one reason or another. Here are two examples: The Gay People against Gay Marriage and I’m Gay and I Oppose Same-Sex Marriage. It’s important to note that those in the gay community who oppose gay marriage don’t necessarily hate homosexuals (although they might), but there can be no doubt that their position on gay marriage discriminates against homosexuals and that opposition is anti-gay. In the same way, Jews who oppose Zionism and want to see the dissolution of the state of Israel don’t necessarily hate Jews (although they might), but there can be no doubt that opposing the right for Jews to have a state like all other similar nations of people is discriminatory against Jews and that position is antisemitic. The same rationale applies to all people who are anti-Zionist. The person may not hate Jews, but the idea is discriminatory against Jews and thus antisemitic (a large portion of people who identify as anti-Zionist also happen to be anti-Semites or at least hold antisemitic views which drives their anti-Zionism).
What about the argument that “conflating Zionism and Judaism” is antisemitic? First, let’s define Judaism. Judaism put simply is the religion of the Jewish people. It is not the religion of every single Jew, some Jews do not practice Judaism while others may be atheists, but rather the religion of the nation of Jews. It can also be called an ethnoreligion.
Judaism – the religion of the Jewish people.
Considering the definition of Zionism – the longing to be a free nation in the Jewish home – and Judaism – the religion of the Jewish people – it is hard to see how longing to be a free nation in the Jewish home in anyway discriminates against the religion of the Jews. It seems to be quite the opposite. In order for the Jewish people to be a free nation in their home it would imply that part of that freedom would include the ability to practice their religion openly and safely, something that has not been the case throughout Jewish history in nearly every land where they lived as a minority. Even when replacing Judaism for a Jew, an idea for a person, it is still hard to see how Jews longing to be a free nation in the Jewish home is hateful to any Jews or discriminatory against that Jew. No one is forcing them to live in that home. Is it because the home founded by Jews, made up of a majority of Jews, and who are able to live free of religious & ethnic persecution as Jews, uses the word “Jewish,” as in Jewish state, that they think discriminates against them? Is the website Christian Mingle anti-Christian? Because some Christians do not want to date other Christians does that mean the site is discriminating against them because the site uses the word Christian? Since they don’t see a need for Christian Mingle, and they themselves are Christian, does it mean the site has no right to exist? The answer to all those questions is clearly no. But would trying to shut down Christian Mingle for any of those reasons, while having no problem with JDate or BlackCupid or Muslima, be anti-Christian? Sure. So why is okay for so many people when they apply the same exact logic to Jews and Israel?
The argument that “by conflating Zionism and Jews you are causing antisemitism” really tells more about the people that “become” antisemitic than the relationship between Zionism and Jews. Notwithstanding the fact that the people who make that statement have to jump through many hoops and unquestioningly accept many far-fetched stories to feel that the policies of the state of Israel are irredeemable, even if they were true it would still be wrong to hate people that have nothing to do with those actions, other than sharing an ethnic background and feeling a connection to that land. And that response is not applied to any other people on the planet. It is exclusively reserved for Jews. People do not say “by conflating Iran and Iranian-Americans you are causing anti-Persian racism.” Have you heard of anti-Persian racism in America based on the actions of the Iranian government? Have you heard of anti-Persian racism in America at all? For a person to hate an Iranian because something the Iranian government did thousands of miles away, they would have had to hated Iranians before those actions. The actions become an excuse to justify their hatred. You don’t see that with Iranians, or any other people. You only see that with Jews. Has there ever been an anti-Israel protest that did not include antisemitism? Let’s look at an example were the actions of a distant government were the catalyst for creating hate for an ethnic group. Consider America during World War 2. After Pearl Harbor, discrimination against Japanese Americans increased, including against many people who were born in America and had no direct connection with Japan. Was conflating Japan and Japanese Americans what caused the racism? Of course not. Was the racism any more legitimate because of the actions of the Japanese government? Would anyone say that Japanese Americans caused the racism or brought it upon themselves by being proud of their Japanese heritage or even having a Japanese flag? Racism caused racism, nothing else. Conflating Zionism and Jews does not cause antisemitism. Antisemitism causes antisemitism.
So, is a person who is an anti-Zionist necessarily an anti-Semite? No, but they most likely are. Their anti-Zionism, however, of course is antisemitic.
Hatikvah (The Hope)
As long as in the heart within,
The Jewish soul yearns,
And toward the eastern edges, onward,
An eye gazes toward Zion.
Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope that is two thousand years old,
To be a free nation in our land,
The Land of Zion, Jerusalem.