Why Rabbi Sacks Is Wrong: Palestinians Don’t Have to Be anti-Semites to Be anti-Zionists

The former British chief rabbi is a wise and brilliant man, but his recent essay does to Palestinians what anti-Semitism does to Jews: it dehumanizes them.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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A Palestinian protester holds a Palestinian flag as she stands next to Israeli border police during clashes at a protest against Jewish settlements in the West Bank village of Bil'in, Feb. 27, 2015.
A Palestinian protester holds a Palestinian flag as she stands next to Israeli border police during clashes at a protest against Jewish settlements in the West Bank village of Bil'in, Feb. 27, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

I often meet Jonathan Sacks, the former British chief rabbi, for lunch. He just doesn’t know it.

I eat at my desk while watching one of his ten-minute lectures on the weekly Parsha on YouTube. Sacks’ erudition—not just about Jewish texts but also about Western history, philosophy and literature—is extraordinary. Once, sitting in a synagogue in London, I came across an essay in which he employed the African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr’s work on Br’er Rabbit, the wily trickster from Southern folk tales, to understand the Biblical Jacob. I was amazed. How many Orthodox rabbis read African-American literary criticism? And even if they did, how many would dare use it to analyze one of the Patriarchs?

Like many English-speaking Jews, I owe Sacks a debt. I daven from his siddur. I’ve led Seders from his Haggadah. He’s a wise and brilliant man. Which is why his recent essay declaring that, “Anti-Zionism is the new Anti-Semitism,” is so disappointing.

In it, Sacks argues that anti-Semitism is “a virus that survives by mutating.” In every age, it latches on “to the highest source of authority available within the culture. In the Middle Ages, it was religion. In post-Enlightenment Europe it was science. Today it is human rights.” Thus, Sacks argues, today’s anti-Zionism—which on human rights grounds challenges not merely Israel’s policies, but its very existence as a Jewish state—is merely anti-Semitism in a new guise.

It’s an elegant formulation. But there’s a problem. The claim that medieval Jews deserved blame for the murder of Christ, or that nineteenth century Jews were genetically inferior, had no rational basis. To believe it, you had to be an anti-Semite. It’s not irrational, however, to believe that Israel is seriously abusing Palestinian human rights. Anti-Semites may exploit those abuses to vilify Jews. But you don’t have to be anti-Semite to find them profoundly troubling. In the film The Gatekeepers, one former Shin Bet head, Avraham Shalom, says that in the West Bank, Israel has become “a brutal occupation force.” Another, Carmi Gillon, says “We are making the lives of millions unbearable.” There’s no place in Sacks’ historical schema for them.

Sacks dismisses Israeli human rights abuses in one phrase: Israel is “the only fully functioning democracy in the Middle East with a free press and independent judiciary.” But in the West Bank, Israel is none of those things. The vast majority of people in the West Bank are Palestinians who cannot vote for the state that controls their lives. They are not citizens of the country in which they live. Their Jewish neighbors enjoy a free press and an independent judiciary. But West Bank Palestinians live under military law, which, among other things, forbids ten or more of them from gathering for a political purpose without prior approval from the Israeli military, even if they gather in someone’s home.

In his essay, Sacks only mentions the word “Palestinians” once. But it’s impossible to understand contemporary anti-Zionism without them. Palestinians didn’t become anti-Zionists because they needed a rationale for hating Jews and found the old ones outdated. They become anti-Zionists because their experience with Zionism was extremely rough.

In the early twentieth century, Palestinians constituted the vast majority of people in British mandatory Palestine. Like colonized peoples around the world, they began developing a national consciousness and a national movement aimed at securing their independence. As Jews began migrating to Palestine in large numbers, the Zionist movement—which sought a Jewish state—became an obstacle to their national desires.

Yes, Palestinian nationalists made mistakes (for instance, their rejection of the 1947 partition plan) and committed crimes (for instance, the 1929 Hebron massacre). But you don’t have to consider Palestinians blameless to understand why they might view Zionism in a negative light. After all, it was a Zionist army that displaced roughly 700,000 Palestinians between 1947 and 1949 and would not let them return. A Zionist army controls the Palestinians who live without basic rights in the West Bank. A Zionist army oversees Israel’s partial blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Some Palestinians accept the two state solution on pragmatic grounds. But the vast, vast majority of Palestinians are anti-Zionist. Even most Palestinian citizens of Israel (often called “Arab Israelis”) vote for parties that seek to turn Israel into something other than a Jewish state.

The growing anti-Zionism that Sacks decries is a Palestinian export. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement began with a call from Palestinian civil society groups in 2005. Since then, BDS—and the anti-Zionism that undergirds it—has grown in direct proportion to Israeli policy. When Zionism, as practiced by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, means entrenching Israel’s undemocratic control over millions of stateless Palestinians in the West Bank, converting people to anti-Zionism becomes easier. As BDS leader Omar Barghouti declared in 2014, “We’ve got to give credit to Netanyahu. Without him we could not have reached this far.”

Yes, some anti-Zionists are anti-Semites. And yes, of course, some Palestinian anti-Zionists are anti-Semites. But equating anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism means claiming that virtually all Palestinians are anti-Semites, even Palestinians like Knesset Member Ayman Oudeh, whose political party, Hadash, includes Jews, or intellectuals like Ahmad Khalidi and commentators like Rula Jebreal, who have Jewish spouses.

Equating anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism turns Palestinians into Amalekites. By denying that they might have any reason besides bigotry to dislike Zionism, it denies their historical experience and turns them into mere vessels for Jew-hatred. Thus, it does to Palestinians what anti-Semitism does to Jews. It dehumanizes them.

Like Sacks, I am a Zionist. Like him, I oppose the BDS movement. But one can be a Zionist, and celebrate the miraculous rebirth of Jewish statehood in the land of Israel, yet also recognize why Palestinians—even Palestinians who don’t hate Jews—might see our blessing as their curse. One might even call that recognition, to borrow the words of a great man, the “dignity of difference.”

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