Anti-Zionism Is Antisemitism at Scale

People holding banners and Palestinian flags stage a demonstration on May 14, 2021, in New York. (Photo by Lokman Vural Elibol/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

There is an old saw, with some truth in it, that in the days of enforced legal segregation Northeastern liberals accepted black social equality in theory while avoiding in practice most social interactions with African Americans, while Southern segregationists sometimes had friendly relationships with individual African Americans but bitterly rejected the idea of categorical black equality. In other words, Northeastern liberals accepted African Americans as a group but rejected them on an individual basis, while Southern segregationists took (at times) roughly the opposite approach. 

That surely runs the risk of overstating the liberality of Southern social norms at the time. Some of that one-on-one amicability was no doubt conditioned on general white supremacy. But there is something to the observation. In 1960, nearly 21 percent of the population in the South was black, while the black population of Vermont was 0.1 percent. More than 40 percent of the residents of Mississippi in 1960 were black: You could be a bigot there, but it was hard to avoid social interactions with African Americans, which was not so in Minnesota, where less than 2 percent of the population was black. 

I sometimes think of that distinction when people who justify anti-Israeli barbarism protest that they are not anti-Jew but anti-Zionist. I am sure that Rep. Rashida Tlaib would be happy to tell you that some of her best friends are Jews, and that may even be true. Anti-Zionists don’t hate Jews on a one-by-one basis—they hate them on a corporate basis—not as neighbors but as a nation. 

I am not sure that is the high moral ground that the anti-Zionists think it is. 

The well-scrubbed anti-Zionists you meet on Ivy League campuses and in polite salons are careful never to make openly essentialist arguments about Jews. Nobody wants to sound like Henry Ford or George Lincoln Rockwell. But try as they might to root their arguments in history or political economy or “anti-colonialism,” the anti-Zionists in the end always end up making the case that the Jews are a special class of people who must endure special disadvantages: Other peoples have the right to aspire to self-determination, but not the Jews; other peoples have a right to self-defense, but not the Jews; other peoples deserve the protection of the rule of law and international norms, but not the Jews; etc. 

The anti-Zionist view of the Palestinians is hardly any less essentialist. Other peoples—the Jews of Israel above all—must be expected to behave decently even when engaged in warfare, but not the Palestinians, who simply cannot help themselves when it comes to, say, gang-raping Jewish hostages to death or decapitating Jewish children; the Palestinians are practically unique among the world’s people in that their refugee status is understood to be eternally heritable, as though the Arabs of Palestine had not themselves arrived there as conquerors but rather had sprouted from the ground like mushrooms; other peoples are expected to take collective responsibility for their communities, but the Palestinians apparently are destined to be eternal wards of the United Nations and international philanthropists. 

Remember the hospital in Gaza where the explosion happened? It was built in the 19th century by Christian missionaries, maintained for decades by the Southern Baptist Convention, and currently operated by the Episcopalians—that funny old Islamophobia. The first war between the Arabs and the Israelis happened three-quarters of a century ago. For comparison, consider that the people of Hong Kong transformed their city from one of the world’s poorest places to one of its richest in about 40 years—and did so while colonial subjects of the British, who blessed Hong Kong with a policy of positive noninterventionism. Seventy-five years on, and Gaza’s main export is homicidal fanaticism. 

One would think that American progressives would positively admire Israel, which, alone in a sea of religiously derived social atavism, offers an island of rights for women and gays, for religious and ethnic minorities, and for secular-minded progressives on the Western model. But of course, they don’t.

It should be noted here that “anti-Zionism” does not denote a critical attitude toward the Israeli government—lots of people, beginning with the Israelis, have criticisms to offer about the Israeli government. Anti-Zionism is the rejection of the idea of a Jewish state. It holds that the existence of Israel is per se immoral. 

The hatred for Israel among Western progressive elites is in part an accident of history and a Cold War relic: Anti-Zionism is, like the antisemitic fraud known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, largely the creation of Russian propagandists. The Palestinian cause, once championed by largely secular and nationalistic Marxist-Leninists such as Yasser Arafat, was a useful cudgel for 20th century allies of Moscow who wished to paint the worldwide activities of the United States and its allies as imperialistic. Hostility toward Israel and indulgence toward Arab brutality is, at this point, mostly just an old habit, a toxic tradition. If it had served Soviet interests to celebrate the Israelis as champions of enlightened progress against the feudal and quasi-theocratic norms of the Arab world, the propaganda would have run the opposite direction. But, as it turned out, the United States embraced the Israelis and the Palestinian leadership embraced V.I. Lenin, and so the Palestinians joined everyone from the Sandinistas to Idi Amin as useful allies to Moscow—the actual interests of the Palestinians, the Nicaraguans, or the Ugandans be damned. 

The problem for Western apologists for Hamas is that Hamas is more than willing to admit what its benefactors will not: Killing the Jewish state means killing a great many Jews. Hamas’ founding documents are pretty clear about the group’s program, which is the annihilation of Israel: “Hamas rejects any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea.” As Bruce Hoffman argues in some obscure magazine I’ve never heard of, we Westerners would do well to take Hamas at its word, beginning with the words of its founding documents. 

But because we insist on infantilizing the Arabs of Palestine, Westerns typically insist that the enormities carried out by Hamas are not authentically representative of the aspirations of the Palestinian people. If the Palestinian people are unhappy with Hamas, they are awfully quiet about it. True, the Palestinians have not had a chance to vote against Hamas since voting in Hamas going on two decades ago, and resisting Hamas while living under Hamas rule would require of the Palestinians a degree of national gumption that they have not previously exhibited. It is not as though the Palestinians are unable to perform feats of self-sacrifice, but they are by all appearances inclined to undertake such feats only in the project of killing every Jew they have the opportunity to murder. One hopes that Hamas is not a perfect representation of the political character of the Palestinian people, but it is not entirely an alien imposition, either. 

National aspirations are a tricky thing—they are tricky today, just as they were in 1948. Many of us in the liberal-democratic world sympathize with the aspirations to self-determination expressed by many nationalist movements around the world, even when the banner is carried in some part by less than admirable people. There is a reason Irish republicanism found so much support among Americans. Americans sometimes seem more keen on formal independence for Taiwan than the Taiwanese do.

At the same time, that does not mean that we necessarily support every revolution that comes along, from the Basque to the Flemish to the Kurds to, goodness gracious, the Texans and the Californians. But Jewish nationhood in Israel is a fait accompli and has been for many, many years. The rhetorical war on Zionism in the West and the literal war on Zionism in the Middle East isn’t a war against some hypothetical development, and it isn’t an argument against a political persuasion: Anti-Zionism means war on a real nation, one that actually exists, one that is full of real people with real families. 

The Palestinians are real people, too, not that their so-called benefactors treat them as such. Instead they deploy them as human shields, political abstractions, and strategic martyrs. In effect, Hamas treats them as automatons who can be of use to the world only by killing Jews and by suffering in photogenic ways. One would hate to believe—and I do not believe—that this is all the Palestinians have to offer the world. 

It is not at all obvious to me that the vandal who paints a swastika on a synagogue is really a different kind of Jew-hater from the Columbia law students who justify the violence of more direct and physical Jew-haters of the kind who do Hamas’ dirty work. If anything, the Columbia law students are the more vicious and dangerous kind of Jew-hater in the long run, because most (not all) of the synagogue vandals reach the peak of their destructive powers with a can of spray paint rather than as, say, senior diplomats or members of Congress. Synagogue vandals do not shape the coverage of the New York Times, but the anti-Zionists do, with destructive results

Maybe 75 years isn’t that long in the grand sweep of history, but Israel is an older country today than the United States was when the first Macy’s opened, as old as the United States was when Moby-Dick was written. Israel is not a passing historical whimsy. Israel is a fact. It is a lie to pretend that eliminating that fact means anything other than naked violence. Hamas may lie to the world about many things, but it is, at the very least, honest about its ultimate aims. The so-called anti-Zionists here in the West might have the … decency isn’t the right word … the candor, at least, to do the same.

Click here for more coverage of the war in Israel.

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