No, anti-Zionism Isn’t anti-Semitism

Israel’s own policies are fueling the very debate it wants to quash.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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A Pro-Palestinian protester holds a BDS placard during a gathering on the sidelines of "Tel Aviv Sur Seine", on August 13, 2015.
A Pro-Palestinian protester holds a BDS placard during a gathering on the sidelines of "Tel Aviv Sur Seine", on August 13, 2015.Credit: AFP
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

Last week, the Regents of the University of California adopted a set of “principles against intolerance.” They declared that “opposition to Zionism often is expressed in ways that are not simply statements of disagreement over politics and policy, but also assertions of prejudice and intolerance toward Jewish people and culture.” That statement moderated an early one, from January, which declared outright that, “Anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.”

In January, in other words, the University of California first called anti-Zionism a form of bigotry against Jews. Now it’s merely declaring that anti-Zionism “often is expressed” as bigotry against Jews.

Let’s think this through. In principle, it should be obvious that opposing an ethnic or religious group’s desire for a state of its own does not make you bigoted against that group. The vast majority of Kurds appear to want an independent Kurdish state. So, it appears, do most people in Kashmir. A lot of Basques feel the same way. The University of California does not call the people who oppose these nationalist projects bigots. Indeed, if opposing an ethnic group’s desire for sovereignty makes you bigoted against that ethnic group, then many of the same American Jewish leaders who equate anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism could be called bigots themselves. After all, they oppose a state for Palestinians.

So why is Zionism different? Why is it bigoted to oppose this form of ethno-religious nationalism but not others?

I can think of three answers, none ultimately convincing. The first concerns the Holocaust. The greater the evidence that a people cannot live safely without a state of their own, the stronger their claim for a state dedicated to their self-protection. By that metric, the Jewish people’s claim to statehood in the 1940s was very strong. Given anti-Semitism’s historical resilience, as demonstrated by its recurrence in Europe today, I think the claim remains strong today. That’s part of the reason I’m a Zionist. But saying there’s good reason to believe a people needs a state to protect itself is still different from saying that opposing such a state makes you a bigot. Today, Kurds in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran are more endangered then any group of Diaspora Jews. To my mind, their predicament provides a strong rationale for a Kurdish state. But the University of California would still never dream of calling people who oppose Kurdish secession from Iraq or Syria anti-Kurdish bigots.

The second answer concerns practical effects. If anti-Zionism generally leads to the abuse of individual Jews, then the University of California is right to say that it “often is expressed” as anti-Jewish bigotry. Obviously, some anti-Zionist groups — Hamas, for instance, and ISIS — are deeply anti-Semitic. On American campuses, however, I don’t think the University of California’s claim is correct. Some American Jewish students certainly experience anti-Semitism. Some anti-Zionist students perpetrate it. But were anti-Zionism simply a cover for the abuse of individual Jews, individual Jews would not join anti-Zionist groups. Yet many do. Jewish students are well represented in anti-Zionist groups like Students for Justice in Palestine. And SJP often hosts Jewish anti-Zionist speakers like Max Blumenthal and Judith Butler. To believe that, on American campuses, anti-Zionism generally expresses itself as anti-Semitism against individual Jews, you have to believe that the Jews in SJP are experiencing a lot of anti-Semitism. Yet in my experience, they say almost exactly the opposite.

Thirdly, opposing Zionism may be different from opposing other forms of ethnic nationalism because Zionism has succeeded. Opposing it doesn’t merely mean opposing the establishment of a state. It means dismantling a state that already exists. Practically, that makes a tremendous difference.

But even wanting to dismantle a state doesn’t necessarily make you bigoted against the ethnic group that state represents. I don’t think Israel is the equivalent of apartheid South Africa. Still, the South African example proves the general point. Wanting to dismantle apartheid — and turn South Africa from a state dedicated to representing Afrikaners into a state dedicated to representing all South Africans equally — did not make you an anti-Afrikaner bigot.

Many states, including many democracies, privilege a particular ethnic group in some way. Britain has a cross on its flag. Germany makes it easier to immigrate if you’re ethnically German. Poland, Greece and many other European countries do the same. But as the South African example shows, when in the name of representing one ethnic group a state denies people who aren’t in that ethnic group the right to vote, or the right to live under the same law, that state throws its moral legitimacy into question.

That’s what Israel is doing in the West Bank. And in so doing, it’s strengthening the very anti-Zionism it fears. It’s making it easier for anti-Zionists to say that a Jewish state can’t really be a democracy at all.

A few days after the University of California declaration, Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he was appointing as Israel’s new consul-general in New York, Dani Dayan, a former settler leader who wants Israel to maintain permanent control of millions of West Bank Palestinians who lack citizenship in the state that controls their lives. In New York, Dayan he will join Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, another passionate opponent of Palestinian statehood, and a man who during Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas, suggested cutting off electricity and fuel to the Gaza Strip. They will work closely with Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, who in 2009 called the media’s focus on Palestinian statehood “stupid and childish.”

These are the men Netanyahu has chosen to represent Zionism in the United States. Is it any wonder why anti-Zionism is growing? Or why the effort to quash it by equating it with anti-Semitism will ultimately fail?

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