One topic preoccupying pundits who write about Israel is whether anti-Zionism amounts to anti-Semitism.
Those who claim that the two are equivalent, such as New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, emphasize that Israel, the only Jewish state in the world, “is singled out in ways that apply to no other country.”
On the other side of the debate are those, like Peter Beinart, a former New York Times contributing opinion writer, who contend that conflating mere criticism of Israel with Jew-hatred is a “tragic mistake.”
The anti-Zionist faction argues that its criticism is directed solely at Israeli policy (i.e., the occupation of the West Bank, the settlements, discrimination against Arab-Israeli citizens and other secular issues)—not at Jews per se, as is the case in classic anti-Semitism. The members of this group self-describe as pro-justice and pro-equality, not anti-Semites. This is precisely what the company Ben & Jerry’s argues about its decision to boycott Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The fine distinction between criticism of Israeli policy and Jew-hatred more generally is often lost on pro-Palestinian advocates. In May, during “Operation Guardian of the Walls”—Israel’s 11-day war against Hamas terrorists in Gaza—people waving Palestinian flags and chanting “Death to Jews” assaulted Jewish diners at a Los Angeles sushi restaurant.
In New York City’s heavily Jewish diamond district, firecrackers were thrown out of a car during altercations between pro- and anti-Israel demonstrators. In a separate incident, a man wearing a yarmulke was assaulted in Times Square.
In London, a convoy of cars, covered with Palestinian flags, drove through North London as passengers shouted anti-Semitic epithets, such as “rape their daughters.”
As the above illustrates, attacks on Israeli policy have evolved into assaults against Jews. In today’s world, anti-Zionism indeed is indistinguishable from anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is a relentless virus that has infected mankind for thousands of years. It has been cloaked in various veils throughout history. Today’s mask is anti-Zionism. “Zionist” is a code word for “Jew.”
From antiquity to the present, one can find the use of various and sundry rationales for anti-Semitism. In 56 BCE, the great Roman orator, Cicero, criticized Jews for being “too influential” in public assemblies. Today, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) calls AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, “too powerful.”
And there was the boisterous crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, who shouted “Jews shall not replace us.” However, according to the rationale espoused by the anti-Zionists, none of the above are anti-Semitic; they are merely criticizing the Jews’ “occupation” of the public sphere.
Over the ages, anti-Semitism has worn many cloaks: cultural, national, religious, economic, political, historical and racial. Although the actual motive was always Jew-hatred, the underlying animosity was generally disguised under some less hideous raison d’être, much like today’s “anti-Zionism.”
In 1850, the German composer Richard Wagner published “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (“Jewishness in Music”). The essay accused Jews, including Wagner’s rival, Felix Mendelssohn, of being a harmful and alien element in German culture who corrupted morals and were, in fact, parasites incapable of creating truly “German” art. Was Wagner the notorious anti-Semite he is considered to be today? Or was he merely an art critic?
Was Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery captain in the French Army, falsely convicted in 1894 of passing secrets to the Germans because he was a Jew in an anti-Semitic-charged atmosphere, or because he was thought to be a traitor regardless of his religion? Were those who convicted Dreyfus anti-Semites or merely anti-German?
Were the communists who relentlessly persecuted Jews in the 1950s anti-Semites? Or did they merely oppose capitalism, which, in their view, Jews symbolized? Likewise, were right-wing fascists in the 1930s anti-Semites, or did they merely oppose communism, which, in their view, Jews also symbolized?
As for the long history of Jews being expelled from country after country—Rome (139 BCE), Alexandria (415 C.E.), England (1290), Hungary (1360), Spain (1492), Yemen (1679)—were the proponents of these expulsion orders anti-Semites or merely urban planners?
In the classic episode of “Seinfeld” when Jerry criticizes his Jewish dentist, is he being an anti-Semite or, as the character Kramer famously calls him, “an anti-dentite”?
At the end of the day, anti-Zionism is just another in a long line of fig leaves concealing deeply rooted anti-Semitism. Like any virus, it mutates, and today’s variant is anti-Zionism—the current politically correct form of anti-Semitism.
Since the Holocaust, attacks on Jews per se have been generally condemned. Thus, contemporary anti-Semites direct age-old accusations of treachery, greed and world domination against the democratically elected government of Israel, rather than against Jewish individuals. Israel has become the Jew among the nations. They call it “anti-Zionism.” But it’s just the modern manifestation of anti-Semitism with ancient anti-Semitic tropes.
In 2016, a working definition of anti-Semitism was adopted by 31 countries, including the United States. That definition includes among its examples “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination.” Such denial lies at the very heart of anti-Zionism.
Of all the countries in the world, many guilty of hideous human-rights abuses, Israel is the only state whose right to exist is questioned. If that’s is not anti-Semitism, what is?
Thomas Friedman, yet another New York Times columnist, has stated: “Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction—out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East—is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest.”
In short, an anti-Semite by any other name smells as noxious.
Steve Frank is retired after a 30-year career as an appellate lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. His writings on Israel, the law and architecture have appeared in publications such as “The Washington Post,” “The Chicago Tribune,” “The Baltimore Sun,” “The Jerusalem Post,” “The Times of Israel” and “Moment” magazine.
Be a part of our community
JNS is your ideological home. Situated at the center of the pro-Israel ecosystem, we provide readers with the critical context they need on issues facing Israel and their Jewish world.
You can help support our efforts — and enjoy an ad-free experience, as well as premium content and other community benefits.
Join our community and help us continue to keep you engaged and informed.