Last month, the Israeli NGO B’Tselem launched a discriminatory and hateful campaign titled, “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid.”
The NGO attacked Israel’s role as a haven for the Jewish people (the Law of Return) and used the phrase “from the river to the sea”—echoing long-standing Palestinian terminology for the destruction of Israel.
Most analysis has pointed to the incongruity and offensiveness of the “apartheid” analogy. However, B’Tselem’s troubling adoption of the term “Jewish supremacy” has received far less attention.
This phrase originated among anti-Semites who believed that the Jewish people considered themselves superior to non-Jews and manipulated the banking system and the media. Its usage in the Israeli context deliberately draws parallels to “white supremacy” and the worst forms of racism.
The trope of “Jewish supremacy” first gained modern prominence in 1921, when Henry Ford, the anti-Semitic American business magnate, published 87 articles critical of Jewish power under the heading of “The International Jew.” One, titled “Jewish Supremacy in Motion Picture World,” alleged, “the motion picture influence of the United States—and Canada—is exclusively under the control, moral and financial, of the Jewish manipulators of the public mind.”
Unsurprisingly, this terminology reappeared in the Third Reich. In 1938, anti-Semitic German journalist Rudolf Kommos wrote a book Juden hinter Stalin: die jüdische Vormachtstellung in der Sowjetunion (Jews Under Stalin: Jewish Supremacy in the Soviet Union). The book supported the anti-Semitic canard of “Jewish Bolshevism” and the “Jewish” 1917 Russian Revolution.
In 1940, following the premiere of the preeminent anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda film “The Eternal Jew,” the Reich Security Service published a memo reviewing the movie, stating “The cartographic and statistical representations about the spread of Judaism (the comparison with the rats was emphasized as particularly impressive) and about the expansion of its influence in all areas of life and in all countries of the world was noted. Particular attention was noted about the acceptance/reception of Jews in the USA. It is surprising how openly the Jewish influence and the Jewish supremacy in the USA are at display.”
The term “Jewish Supremacy” was later repurposed by those opposed to the existence of Israel in order to undermine the legitimacy of the state by linking it to racism. For instance, in a 1975 interview, Moshe Machover, founder of the anti-Zionist, Revolutionary Communist League Matzpen, stated, “This is the equivalent of what in other places is known as white supremacy. Here there are exact parallels in terms of Jewish supremacy.” (Notably, in the same year, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the notorious “Zionism is racism” resolution.)
BDS activist Ilan Pappe has used this term repeatedly in his writings. In The Israel/Palestine Question (1999) Pappe writes, “Whereas the First Aliya established a society based on Jewish supremacy, the Second Aliya’s method of colonization was separation from Palestinians.”
In The Idea of Israel: A History of Power and Knowledge (2012), he added, “From a Zionist perspective, the new state promoted the arrival of a million Arabs after expelling exactly that number in order to ensure Jewish supremacy and exclusivity in Palestine.”
The most widely known contemporary usage appeared in 2003 when former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke published Jewish Supremacism: My Awakening to the Jewish Question. According to the book, “One might argue that the existence of a supremacist Israeli state does not necessarily mean that the Diaspora (Jews outside of Israel) has the same supremacist agenda. However, one should consider the fact that organized Jewry all over the world devotedly supports the supremacist state of Israel.”
Duke further writes, “The truth is that the Zionists not only seek Jewish supremacism over the hapless Palestinians; they seek supremacism over all of us no matter what our race or nationality. It’s not just America they want supremacy over, it’s Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and every other nation upon the earth.”
Another frequent user of the term is Columbia University professor Joseph Massad. In 2002, he gave a lecture at Columbia “On Zionism and Jewish Supremacy,” and in 2003, prefiguring B’Tselem, wrote an article on “the military apartheid system imposed on those Palestinians who remained in Israel from 1948 until 1966, which since then has been relaxed to a civilian Jewish supremacist system of discrimination.”
In 2006, he published The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, writing that “Israeli Jewish society in Israel, as well as the Israeli Jewish leadership, continue to uphold Jewish supremacy as sacrosanct and non-negotiable.”
In 2019, Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association and co-chair of the 2017 Women’s March, participated in the American Muslims for Peace annual conference discussing how Israel was “built on supremacist foundations.”
According to Sarsour, “Ask them this, how can you be against white supremacy in America and the idea of being in a state based on race and class, but then you support a state like Israel that is based on supremacy, that is built on the idea that Jews are supreme to everyone else.”
In parallel to the anti-Semitic intellectuals and activists who use the term, a number of NGOs also added “Jewish Supremacy” to their lexicons. Since 2018, the Palestinian-run, Israel-based NGO Adalah referenced this to discuss Israel’s Jewish Nation-State Law.
According to Adalah, the Nation-State Law “enshrines Jewish supremacy over Palestinian citizens,” and “Israel has made discrimination a constitutional value and has professed its commitment to favoring Jewish supremacy as the bedrock of its institutions.”
Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch Israel/Palestine Director, also commented, stating that “this law more or less states as a matter of constitutional principle, which could have implications on a range of issues, that Jewish supremacy is a core—the core, in many ways—value of the state.”
In Nov. 2020, Raja Shehadeh (founder of Al-Haq), Sam Bahour (Al-Shabaka Policy Advisor), Hanan Ashrawi (founder and chair of the MIFTAH Board of Directors), Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian (Mada al-Carmel) and Noura Erekat signed a letter opposing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism, stating, “The suppression of Palestinian rights in the IHRA definition betrays an attitude upholding Jewish privilege in Palestine instead of Jewish rights and Jewish supremacy over Palestinians instead of Jewish safety.”
Ironically, these NGO activists were using anti-Semitic rhetoric to delegitimize the efforts to combat anti-Semitism. The IHRA working definition, adopted by nearly 30 countries and counting, has become an international consensus and a tool for distinguishing between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. An example of the latter includes 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).
This returns us to B’Tselem, an Israeli and nominally Jewish NGO that, until 2021, had not spoken openly of its opposition to the existence of the State of Israel. However, with the latest campaign, the leaders of this NGO are seeking to legitimize a term that has clear anti-Semitic connotations and has been used frequently to demonize and delegitimize Jewish people and the Jewish state. Unfortunately, as a result, the noxious and dangerous trope of Jewish supremacy will gain further traction.
Ariella Esterson is the Harry C. Wechsler Memorial Fellow at NGO Monitor.