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Scholars against anti-Zionism

"Israeli Apartheid Week," the annual international anti-Israel showcase, in May 2010 on the University of California, Irvine campus. Credit: AMCHA Initiative.
"Israeli Apartheid Week," the annual international anti-Israel showcase, in May 2010 on the University of California, Irvine campus. Credit: AMCHA Initiative.

By Ben Cohen/

Over the years, I’ve spoken at or attended a number of academic conferences on the subject of rising anti-Semitism. Parleys like these are essential for boosting our understanding of why, seven decades after the end of the World War II, the taboo around anti-Semitic invective—whether directed at Jews as Jews, or through code words like “Zionists”—has been broken. Historians, sociologists, and political scientists, along with scholars from similar disciplines, all play a decisive role in determining how the trajectory of anti-Semitism changes even as its core themes, like its implacable opposition to Jewish sovereignty and its dark warnings about powerful Jews working against the national interest, remain the same.

From April 2-6, all these topics are again coming under the spotlight at a major conference at the Indiana University Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism, under the able direction of Professor Alvin Rosenfeld. The papers being delivered suggest that the conference is digging deep into the weeds: Over four days, attendees are discussing why anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism exercise little attraction in countries like Japan, India, and China; examining the manipulation of the Holocaust in public debates around Israel and Zionism; and revisiting, through such subjects as Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry of 1946 on the future of the land of Israel, the historical foundations of anti-Semitism in our own time.

All very interesting and perhaps even a little obscure, you might think, but don’t make the mistake of believing that a conference like this one is a purely ivory tower affair. The very title of the conference—“Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, and the Dynamics of Delegitimization”—makes clear what the conference organizers correctly regard as the heart of the current problem. “Our goal is to open more eyes toward what is happening,” Rosenfeld told The Algemeiner, “to get more people to start paying attention to contemporary anti-Semitism and the role that hostility to Israel plays in generating it.”

Thus do we come to the perennial question of whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. It’s a question that is often put to me, and my brief answer is that “historically, the two were distinct, but today, they are largely the same. The great scholar of anti-Semitism, Professor Robert Wistrich, whose sudden passing in 2015 robbed the academic community of one of its sharpest and most charismatic figures, put it much more precisely, and it is worth quoting in full:

“Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are two distinct ideologies that over time (especially since the creation of Israel in 1948) have tended to converge, generally without undergoing a full merger. There have always been Bundists, Jewish communists, Reform Jews, and ultra-Orthodox Jews who strongly opposed Zionism without being Judeophobes. So, too, there are conservatives, liberals, and leftists in the West today who are pro-Palestinian, antagonistic toward Israel, and deeply distrustful of Zionism without crossing the line into anti- Semitism. There are also Israeli ‘post-Zionists’ who object to the definition of Israel as an exclusively or even a predominantly ‘Jewish’ state without feeling hostile toward Jews as such. There are others, too, who question whether Jews are really a nation; or who reject Zionism because they believe its accomplishment inevitably resulted in uprooting many Palestinians. None of these positions is intrinsically anti-Semitic in the sense of expressing opposition or hatred toward Jews as Jews. Nevertheless, I believe that the more radical forms of anti-Zionism that have emerged with renewed force in recent years do display unmistakable analogies to European anti-Semitism immediately preceding the Holocaust.” (My emphasis in the italics.)

In this regard, Wistrich stressed the “grim associations” between the Nazi boycott of German Jews during the 1930s and the current Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) hate campaign targeting the Jewish state. It is these functional overlaps between old and new forms of anti-Semitism, rather than the stated intentions of those who engage in boycotts of Israel, that really matter. Put another way, most boycotters will, often at the same time, angrily deny that they are anti-Semites and insist that the charge of anti-Semitism is a meaningless smear designed to choke off free debate about the legitimacy of Israel. But what counts is how these political views are put into practice. Examine that and you will find, as recent research by the AMCHA Initiative watchdog group has revealed, a verifiable correlation between anti-Zionist activism and anti-Semitic outrages.

What AMCHA has shown is that the more exposed a university campus is to the propaganda of anti-Zionism—the slander that Israel is an apartheid state, the denial of Jewish indigeneity in the land of Israel, the celebration of Palestinian violence against Jews and Israelis—the more likely it is that Jewish students will face harassment. The fact that it is Jews living in the Diaspora, rather than the State of Israel itself, that are first in the line of BDS fire tells us a great deal about both the beliefs and tactics of this campaign.

Of course, campus bien-pensants will tell you that such data means nothing because the real challenge is not perceived anti-Jewish prejudice, but the hierarchy of oppression which determines that Jews are the beneficiaries of white privilege. As Harvard University professor Larry Summers put it in a recent Washington Post column, on too many American campuses, “[T]here is hypersensitivity to prejudice against most minority groups but what might be called hyper-insensitivity to anti-Semitism.”

Yet the portents are changing, and for the better. Seven states in the U.S. have now passed legislation to counter any material impact that the BDS hate campaign might have. The Board of Regents of the University of California recently determined in a statement that there are “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism.” While this manifestly doesn’t mean that BDS advocacy is banned, it does stigmatize the underlying message as hate speech.

We need more of these victories against the anti-Semitic incarnation of anti-Zionism, and scholars of the phenomenon have a critical role to play. Our adversaries have, for too long, enjoyed an uncontested playing field upon which to stake their claim that opposing Zionism is duty towards global justice. Now, though, the triangle of pro-Israel advocacy, anti-BDS legislation, and further scholarly unmasking of this movement’s malicious aims is finally making its mark.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for 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. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).

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