Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism

Is anti-Zionism a form of anti-Semitism?  What is anti-Semitism anyhow?  How do we differentiate criticism of Israel’s policies/actions from anti-Semitism?  Many have struggled with this question since the beginning of the settlement of the Land of Israel.  Those who wish to castigate Israel for anything and everything have used the excuse that they are not being anti-Semitic, but simply anti-Israel or against Israeli policies.  Those who would eliminate Israel claim that an Arab or Jew can’t be anti-Semitic, because they themselves are semites.  How do we respond to these myths?

What is anti-Semitism?

The US State Department defines anti-Semitism using the Working Definition of Anti-Semitism by the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia as follows:

Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) defines anti-semitism as:

The belief or behavior hostile toward Jews just because they are Jewish. It may take the form of religious teachings that proclaim the inferiority of Jews, for instance, or political efforts to isolate, oppress, or otherwise injure them. It may also include prejudiced or stereotyped views about Jews.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Plenary in Budapest in May, 2016 adopted the following working definition of antisemitism:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for “why things go wrong.” It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.

While we can find nuanced differences in definitions such as these among other organizations and academics, the general idea is the same as for other types of discrimination – making a judgment about someone or someone’s actions because of an unrelated characteristic – one which is irrelevant to the act or person being judged – in anti-Semitism’s case, toward Jews just because they are Jews.*

What kinds of activities are considered anti-Semitic?  Again, the European Union’s examples:

  • Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.

  • Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.

  • Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.

  • Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).

  • Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.

  • Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.

When does anti-Israel or anti-Zionist rhetoric become anti-Semitism?

The United States Department of State states the following:

What is Anti-Semitism Relative to Israel?

EXAMPLES of the ways in which anti-Semitism manifests itself with regard to the state of Israel, taking into account the overall context could include:

DEMONIZE ISRAEL:

  • Using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism to characterize Israel or Israelis
  • Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis
  • Blaming Israel for all inter-religious or political tensions

DOUBLE STANDARD FOR ISRAEL:

  • Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation
  • Multilateral organizations focusing on Israel only for peace or human rights investigations

DELEGITIMIZE ISRAEL:

  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist

However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.

The European Parliament Working Group on Antisemitism addresses the question as follows:

… manifestations [of anti-Semitism] could also target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for “why things go wrong.” It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.

  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
  • Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
  • Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
  • Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
  • Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.

Antisemitic acts are criminal when they are so defined by law (for example, denial of the Holocaust or distribution of antisemitic materials in some countries).

Criminal acts are antisemitic when the targets of attacks, whether they are people or property – such as buildings, schools, places of worship and cemeteries – are selected because they are, or are perceived to be, Jewish or linked to Jews.

Antisemitic discrimination is the denial to Jews of opportunities or services available to others and is illegal in many countries.

The Inter-Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism (ICCA), is composed of 140 parliamentarians from 40 countries.  They affirmed the definition of anti-Semitism by the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), which states, “Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” is anti-Semitism.

The US Congress agrees with these definitions.  On December 2, 2016, the US Senate passed Senate Bill 10 (S. 10), which instructs the Secretary of Education to include the US State Department definition of anti-Semitism…

…In reviewing, investigating, or deciding whether there has been a violation of title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. 2000d et seq.) on the basis of race, color, or national origin, based on an individual’s actual or perceived shared Jewish ancestry or Jewish ethnic characteristics, the Department of Education shall take into consideration the definition of anti-Semitism as part of the Department’s assessment of whether the alleged practice was motivated by anti-Semitic intent.

Can an Arab be an anti-Semite?

It is often said that an Arab can’t be anti-Semitic because Arabs are Semites.  But this is false in two ways.  The first is in the historical context of the term anti-Semitism, which was initially…

…invented and popularized by anti-Jewish German writers and intellectuals in the closing decades of the 19th century. The anthropology of that era gave the name “Semitic” – from the Hebrew “Shem,” one of Noah’s sons – to a family of languages that included Hebrew, Arabic, Assyrian and Phoenician; and labeled members of groups that spoke these languages as “Semites.” Through the ministrations of late-century racial “science,” Semitic was increasingly used to designate Jews as a “race” with inborn biological attributes. The use of the term “anti-Semitism” to specifically denote opposition and antagonism to Jews was first suggested by the German journalist Wilhelm Marr in his 1879 work The Victory of Judaism over Germanism, a best-seller that helped push “the Jewish question” to the center of German politics.

Quite simply, anti-Semitism refers to the hatred of Jews, whatever the nationality, race, color or creed of the perpetrator. Attempting to dismiss the term anti-Semitism because of semantics does not erase the fact of its existence or its history.+

Can a Jew be an anti-Semite?

At first blush Jewish anti-Semitism can sound like a contradiction in terms.  How can a Jew be anti-Semitic?  As we’ve seen from the prior definitions of anti-Semitism, anyone who holds such anti-Semitic views is anti-Semitic, no matter their birth (or conversion) origin.  Some may call them self-hating Jews, but this is not usually the case – they aren’t self-hating, they are other-Jew hating for whatever reason.  This would include self-identifying Jews who apply double standards to Israeli behavior, or common stereotypes that are demeaning of Jews, or common conspiracy theories related to Jewish power or economic domination.

Here’s an interesting, short (5 minute) video illustration on anti-Semitism by the previous chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

A transcript and video of a longer talk by Rabbi Sacks, “The Future of the Jewish Communities in Europe” Conference at The European Parliament on 27thSeptember 2016 in Brussels eloquently elaborates on this and can be found on his website here (RabbiSacks.org).


Endnotes

*The philosopher Alan Wertheimer says in his text Exploitation (1996, p 17):

A discriminates against B when A wrongly deprives B of some opportunity because of some characteristic of B that should not have been relevant to A’s action.

+From the ADL handbook “Israel – a Guide for Activists.”