“I refuse to characterize as opinion,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre in Anti-Semite and Jew, “a doctrine that is aimed directly at particular persons and that seeks to suppress their rights or to exterminate them.”
This was the French philosopher’s answer to the contention that anti-Semitism is merely an “opinion,” when it is more properly understood as a “passion” rooted in a hatred that lies outside of reason. “If the anti-Semite is impervious to reason and to experience, it is not because his conviction is strong,” Sartre observed. “Rather his conviction is strong because he has chosen first of all to be impervious.”
Sartre’s characterization of anti-Semitism as outside “the category of ideas protected to the right of free opinion”—a clear statement that Jew-baiting is the preserve of knaves and fanatics—has more or less prevailed in the Western democracies since his eccentric yet invaluable study was first published in 1944. Perhaps the best evidence of that, today, is the fact that someone described as an anti-Semite almost always objects that this is a personal insult, rather than a provocative observation about the manner in which they interpret the world around them. As to what they call themselves, some of them are “patriots,” “nationalists” or “socialists;” others use terms like “anti-racist.” Most will see at worst no harm, and even some honor, in the descriptor “anti-Zionist.”
That is one critical reason why—in an opinion piece billed as an apology for the anti-Semitism that has plagued the British Labour Party since he became its leader in 2015—Jeremy Corbyn felt compelled to point out that “anti-Zionism is not in itself anti-Semitic, and many Jews themselves are not Zionists.”
There are, Corbyn conceded, “a very few [sic] who are drawn to the Palestinian question precisely because it affords an opportunity to express hostility to Jewish people in a ‘respectable’ setting.” In other words, the intentions of anti-Zionists are usually noble, and a few bad apples should not let us lose sight of that.
So, as Sartre might have asked, is “anti-Zionism” simply an “opinion”—a legitimate and perhaps valuable component of the discourse aimed at securing Palestinian national rights? Or is it, in his words again, “a doctrine that is aimed directly at particular persons and that seeks to suppress their rights or to exterminate them?”
In answering that question, I want to briefly take at face value Corbyn’s claim that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, even though there are some dubious persons who try to smuggle anti-Semitic ideas and memes into the mix. Let us, with him, assume that these two phenomena are separate until definitively proven otherwise.
The first thing placed in front of us is the following distinction: Anti-Semitism is hostility towards Jews in general, whereas anti-Zionism is political opposition to the colonial project that transplanted Jewish settlers into Palestine at the expense of the indigenous Arab nation.
So enlightened, we investigate further why it is legitimate to oppose Zionism. We discover that Zionism is the source of colonialism and apartheid, the essence of a regime in which Jews enjoy greater civil and political rights and privileges than non-Jews—an affront, if that were true, to the basic principles of democracy. We learn the moral narrative that the Palestinians are the victims of the Jews, blamed and chased from their homes for a crime committed by the Germans and their collaborators on another continent. As we face up to this injustice, we are reassured of any lingering concerns we have about anti-Semitism by the revelation that many Jews also grasp this reality and oppose Zionism accordingly. These Jews, we conclude, represent an open and honest response to the lies and fictions of the Zionists among them—and us.
Thus disabused, we gain renewed confidence in dismissing complaints of anti-Semitism as Zionist smears. Even if the example before us includes a cartoon of a hook-nosed banker or a claim that the Holocaust never happened, we don’t necessarily assume that the perpetrator has bad intentions towards Jewish people.
Sometimes, sadly, that will be the case. But rarely, because as we know, anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism. We oppose Zionism because we oppose wars and empires and corporate exploitation of occupied nations. Out of this viewpoint, the tactics flow naturally: Campaigns to boycott Israel’s universities, propaganda that paints as Israel as the world’s blood-thirstiest country, the deployment of slogans like “resistance” and “return” in justifying why a single Arab state should replace the Jewish one in the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
And then, if we are honest with ourselves, we come to the realization that the movement of resistance and return with which we are aligned is soaked in theological and ideological enmity towards “the Jews”—Islamists like Hamas and Hezbollah, Marxists like the PFLP, nationalists like the militant youth of Fatah. We find that some of those who share our hostility to Israel come from surprising quarters: from Polish ultranationalists who believe that they, like the Palestinians, are the victims of a Holocaust swindle, to Salafi preachers who explain that moderate violence against one’s female partner is the key to a successful marriage.
At this point, we are entitled to wonder about the true nature of the goods we are being sold. It will start to dawn that for all the apparent differences between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, we spend—through our determined opposition to the Jewish state—an enormous amount of time thinking and speaking negatively about Jews as a group.
A few nostrils might start to curl by now, but not all. Certainly, not those of Jeremy Corbyn, who, like Sartre’s anti-Semite, “has chosen first of all to be impervious.”
To his supporters, this will be another welcome example of good old “Jeremy” sticking to his principles. To the rest of us, it’s another dismal example of the mindset that may yet get him elected prime minister.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.