You’re not antisemitic? Sure?

There’s no thick red line separating “progressive” anti-Zionism from “reactionary” antisemitism.

A pro-Palestine rally in Ljubljana, Slovenia, on Oct. 13, 2023. Credit:  Hladnikm via Wikimedia Commons.
A pro-Palestine rally in Ljubljana, Slovenia, on Oct. 13, 2023. Credit: Hladnikm via Wikimedia Commons.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

Amid the current debate over whether a new front will open up in Israel’s war against Hamas and its regional allies, it might be observed that this is already happening.

In the aftermath of the Oct. 7 Hamas pogrom in southern Israel, war has been waged on four main fronts. Israel’s campaign of bombing and infantry incursions in the Gaza Strip, and to a lesser extent the West Bank, is the first; Hamas firing volleys of rockets at Israeli population centers is the second; missile attacks from and skirmishes with Hezbollah terrorists on the northern border is the third; the explosion of antisemitic attacks against Jews living outside of Israel’s borders represents the fourth.

This last front is the most vulnerable and unpredictable. Israel’s military might cannot defend Diaspora Jews from vandalism, physical assaults or terrorist attacks. In diplomatic terms, Israel can appeal to foreign governments to intensify efforts to protect their Jewish communities, but not much more. In short, when it comes to Jews in the Diaspora, the Jewish state is more powerless than in any other dimension of this war.

Alongside these outrages is a corresponding political offensive that seeks to delegitimize Jewish fears of antisemitism, recasting them as a sledgehammer response to claims that the Palestinians suffer from apartheid and genocidal policies at the hands of the Israeli government. Central to this strategy is the aim of debunking the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which has been adopted by dozens of governments and hundreds of civic associations around the globe.

As anyone who has followed this dispute in the decade since IHRA adopted the definition knows only too well, its main offense is its inclusion of popular anti-Zionist tropes—for example, that Jews do not constitute a nation and have no right of self-determination, that Israel is a “racist endeavor,” and that Jews are more loyal to Israel than the states of which they are citizens. According to the definition’s opponents, the inclusion of these clauses amounts to blatant censorship of Palestinian rights discourse, since its key terms—racism, apartheid, genocide and so forth—are deemed “anti-Semitic” from the get-go.

An article in the latest issue of the left-wing journal The Nation regurgitates many of the arguments leveled against the IHRA definition by anti-Zionists in the context of the present conflict in Gaza, citing its “weaponization” for the purpose of “McCarthyistic campaigns to silence human-rights advocacy in public and on college campuses.” But rather than counter this set of arguments, which I’ve done a few times before, I want to try a different approach.

Opponents of the IHRA definition often point out that they don’t object to the first four examples mentioned in the definition, which relate to classical antisemitism, but to the last seven, which deal with antisemitism in the context of Israel and Zionism. They don’t object to the first four, they say, because they do not dispute that these are examples of genuine Jew-hatred, as opposed to what they allude to as the seven politically manipulative, slyly pro-Israel examples that follow immediately after.

There’s just one problem though: All of those four examples, which ostensibly have nothing to do with Zionism, anti-Zionism or Israel’s existence, are painfully visible in the signs, symbols and slogans of the pro-Hamas protest movement that has mobilized millions of demonstrators in cities around the world.

Example one classifies as antisemitic “[C]alling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.” Most people would think immediately of the Nazis in interpreting this point, but the horrors of Oct. 7, rooted in Islamist hatred of the Jews, are no less pertinent. Hamas murdered more than 1,000 Jews (as well as many non-Jews whose crime was to live or work in the Jewish state) in the worst single burst of antisemitic violence since World War II and the Holocaust.

Of course, Hamas supporters in the West will say that these victims were targeted not as Jews but as “settlers.” The absurdity of this position is revealed by the only conclusion that it can possibly reach: that the SS officer who raped a Jewish woman in Ukraine before shooting her in the back of the head engaged in a criminal, antisemitic act, but the Hamas terrorist who raped a Jewish woman in the sands of the Negev before shooting her in the back of the head engaged in an act of “exhilarating” liberation (or, in the minds of Hamas’s more nuanced apologists, a misguided yet historically understandable act of violence.)

Example two says it’s antisemitic to make “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.” I’ve lost count, frankly, of the number of social-media posts and TV soundbites over the last 10 weeks that have endorsed precisely this myth for the purpose of explaining why Western countries have failed to back an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

Example three says it’s antisemitic to accuse “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.” Yet how many synagogues, Jewish schools, kosher restaurants and community centers have been daubed with “Free Palestine” graffiti since Oct. 7? And is that not an example of assigning Jews collective guilt for Israel’s military response? And yes, while the vast majority of Jews support Israel and make no apology for doing so, legally and morally it is an enormous stretch to say they are responsible for the deaths in Gaza. To target Jews because you object to what Israel does is antisemitic in exactly the same way that gunning down Palestinian Americans because of Hamas’s crimes is racist and Islamophobic.

Example four says that it’s antisemitic to deny “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).” Yet Palestinian leaders—not just Hamas, but even more notoriously Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas—do exactly that, repeatedly and with impunity. Their cruder supporters then go a step further by denying the first Holocaust while wishing for a second one.

The fact that supporters of anti-Zionist mythology can so easily and readily embrace those aspects of antisemitic ideology that predate the State of Israel’s existence underlines that there is no thick red line separating “progressive” anti-Zionism from “reactionary” antisemitism. The two are intimately related, sharing common obsessions about the nature of Jewish power and influence, the false claim of the Jews to be a nation (they are better understood as “parasites” or, if you prefer, “colonists”) and the irredeemably colonial nature of Israel as a state.

Moreover, in the Middle East, anti-Zionism—or “antizionism” as I prefer to dub it—doesn’t restrict itself to political debates about Zionism and Israeli sovereignty but manifests primarily through violence. Given this month’s Harris/Harvard University poll showing that two-thirds of Americans aged 18-24 regard Jews as “oppressors,’ we should be anticipating similar patterns here, too.

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