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How Anti-Zionism Shrugs Off Antisemitism
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How Anti-Zionism Shrugs Off Antisemitism

New words and ideas can’t sanitize very old facts.

Anti-Israel protesters at Potsdamer Platz during a "Freedom for Palestine" march that drew thousands of participants on November 4, 2023 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Let’s chat for a moment about anti-Zionism. 

For some of the reasons I laid out in my latest column, I think the Chinese Communist regime is objectively evil and tyrannical. If we could topple it at no significant cost in blood or treasure, I’d be all for it. But we can’t. The regime has a stranglehold on power domestically, and possesses a significant nuclear arsenal and an increasingly formidable conventional military. So, we have to deal with the China we have, not the one we want. Problems without solutions aren’t problems, they’re just facts of life. Or as James Burnham put it, “Where there’s no solution, there’s no problem.”

But for all my issues with the Chinese state and the Communist Party that runs it, it really wouldn’t occur to me to say that the nation of China shouldn’t exist. I mean, I do think several historic nations—or peoples (it gets complicated)—oppressed by China should be allowed to have self-determination. But I don’t think anybody who calls for a free Tibet thinks Tibetan sovereignty would need to come at the expense of the Chinese nation. 

Well, of course not, you might say. China is ancient. Indeed, Xi Jinping has sparked a kind of cultural pissing match with Egypt over which has claim to the title of oldest player on the block. Xi has conceded that the Egyptian nation is a bit older, but claims that Chinese civilization is the oldest continuous civilization on earth. I think this is a garbage argument insofar as it’s just an effort by a secular authoritarian regime to steal authenticity and legitimacy from history because it can’t risk testing its authenticity or legitimacy with elections. But whatever. 

Israel is a “new” and “artificial” country that was a “mistake,” anti-Zionists insist. It’s true that modern Israel was founded in 1948. As far as modern nation-states go, that makes it sort of middle aged. Sure, it’s two years younger than Jordan, but it’s six decades older than South Sudan. Indeed, as an actual modern nation-state, Israel is older than a lot of countries in its broader neighborhood, including Qatar, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Tunisia, and UAE. As you go further south into the African continent, Israel looks almost like an elder statesman, given how many nation-states became independent in the early 1960s. Heck, there are more than a few European states that are younger than Israel. Have a look

Now, I understand that this is a bit tendentious. The Czech Republic may technically be a younger state or country than Israel, but it’s old in many other important respects (which can also be said of, you know, Israel). But in the Middle East and Africa, there are a lot of countries that were never actual nations until very recently. The lands were simply territories and regions that were controlled, for a time, by competing powers, tribes, empires, and the like. Borders moved at the point of a sword for centuries until the swords were replaced by guns. 

There’s a stretch of the Saudi-Jordanian border that has long been informally dubbed “Winston’s Hiccup” or “Churchill’s sneeze.” It’s called that because Churchill boasted that he drew the border between the two countries “with the stroke of a pen” one afternoon in Cairo, and people believed that the weird concave deviation came because he wasn’t sober enough to draw a straight line—or because he sneezed. Again, it’s probably not true, but the fact is that the borders between these two allegedly ancient nations were created in the 1920s. Before that, they were all part of the Ottoman Empire for a very long time. 

Anyway, my only reason for going through all of this is that if I were to say, “China shouldn’t exist” you’d think I’m a crank. Same if I were to say, “Kuwait was a mistake,” or “Jordan is an imperial creation and has no legitimacy.” Normally, if you talk about your desire to erase a people, nation, or culture, you’d get accused of bigotry or even genocidal designs. 

Not so with anti-Zionism. 

Indeed, anti-Zionism is not only a widely accepted term: It’s a widely celebrated concept. It’s taught in universities, formally and informally. Anti-Zionists claim the moral high-ground and often take great offense at any suggestion they are antisemitic. 

But that’s the amazing thing. 

We spend so much time on that debate, everyone thinks it’s just normal to say, “I don’t think Israel should exist.” Because that’s what anti-Zionism means. Zionism is the idea that Israel should exist as a Jewish homeland. It’s not more complicated than that. Anti-Zionism is the idea that Israel shouldn’t exist as a Jewish homeland. Forget the debate about whether the slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is genocidal (it certainly is when used by groups favoring, you know, genocide). Merely saying you think the country should be “returned” to Palestinians is saying that Israel shouldn’t exist. 

A lot of anti-Zionists insist they don’t want to see Israelis slaughtered to rectify the “mistake” of Israel—though it’s very hard to credit the sincerity of those who say this when they also celebrate or refuse to condemn what Hamas did on October 7. Still, I know committed anti-Zionists, many of them Jewish, who sincerely don’t want to see Jews slaughtered. I know fewer anti-Zionists who have a plausible argument for how, exactly, they could avoid such a thing. When you ask them, they just fall back on declarations that Zionism is bad and needs to go. The details can be worked out later.  

Think about how weird that would sound about any other country. You don’t have to try very hard. That’s what Vladimir Putin and his crowd say about Ukraine, and most enlightened people think that’s outrageous. That’s true of even the (intellectually and morally serious) opponents of U.S. support for Ukraine. (Only Putin lickspittles and trolls say they’re glad Putin is trying to erase Ukraine from the map.) They just argue that Ukraine isn’t our problem, or we’re to blame because we “provoked” Russia to do this terrible thing. Obviously, I disagree with them, but they aren’t “anti-Ukraine” the way anti-Zionism is anti-Israel. 

Or consider Taiwan, whose current government is about the same age as Israel. Most people I know think Taiwan has the right to exist as an independent country. Some people think that if China chooses to invade, we shouldn’t get in the way. But this idea doesn’t have an equivalent theoretical construct to “anti-Zionism.” The view that we shouldn’t oppose China’s annexation of Taiwan and the crushing of democracy there is simply absorbed into larger discussions of geopolitics, strategy, “realism,” etc. As wrong as I think the appeasers are, I am not aware of any who just cavalierly talk about how it would be not merely acceptable, but morally desirable to see an independent, democratic nation-state violently crushed under China’s authoritarian heel.

But with anti-Zionism, people are free to preen about their moral superiority, historical literacy, and analytical seriousness by simply subscribing to the idea that Israel shouldn’t exist. And if you suggest antisemitism might be involved, you’re the thug and bully.

Again, I don’t think all anti-Zionists are conventional, Jew-hating bigots. It’s certainly the case that many of them don’t think they are bigoted, and that should be acknowledged in its own right. (Say what you will for the gang at the Daily Stormer or wherever Nick Fuentes puts up his hooves, they own their bigotry.)

But as someone who believes that structural antisemitism is a very real thing, I still think this stuff is very often objectively antisemitic. If you have one standard for every other nation in the world, and another for the only Jewish nation in the world, whether you realize it or not, you’re open to the charge of antisemitism. For instance, if celebrating the bigoted murder of black people can get you expelled or punished on a college campus, but celebrating the bigoted murder of Jewish people is considered fair comment or legitimate discourse, then that school is structurally antisemitic regardless of intent. They’re also wild hypocrites, since the whole concept of “structural racism” is one of the defining projects of the campus left. 

Or take a more relevant example. If you aren’t disgusted and outraged by Russia’s open and egregious violations of international law, the laws of war, or basic decency, I’m going to need to know why Israel’s crimes—real or alleged—justify so much outrage that you think Israel should be destroyed. Even if you credit the most incendiary accusations against Israel, most of which I think are false, what Russia has done in the last two years is worse. They bomb hospitals, maternity wards, schools, playgrounds, daycare centers, constantly. There are no credible allegations that Ukraine hides troops or weapons in such places, the way Hamas openly does as a matter of policy. One reason why Ukraine doesn’t do that—other than the immorality and illegality—is that the Ukrainians know that Russia wouldn’t care. They’ve shelled more than 1,000 schools.

If your response to these obvious facts is that Israel is different because it’s a “settler-colonial project” you’re still going to have to explain to me how Russia’s project isn’t settler colonialism. They’ve been moving Russians into captured lands since 2014. Actually, they’ve been moving Russians into conquered lands since 914 or thereabouts. 

I’m coming around to the view that the whole “settler colonial” indictment of Israel is a post hoc rationalization. During the Cold War, there was plenty of anti-Zionism—egged on by the Soviets—but the settler colonial argument really only took off after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sure, there were intellectual antecedents in the writings of Frantz Fanon and others. But the intellectual project really only took off after anti-Zionists needed a new excuse for their pre-existing hostility to Israel. In other words, the popular view that anti-Zionism is the product of hostility to settler-colonialism gets the causality backwards. The concept of settler-colonialism is the product of hostility to Israel. When the Israelis captured Adolf Eichmann in 1960 (when Israel was inside those pre-1967 borders and not “occupying” the West Bank) the leading Saudi government newspaper headlined their story, “Arrest of Eichmann, who had the honor of killing six million Jews.” 

Again, non-antisemitic anti-Zionists can insist that anti-Zionism has nothing to do with antisemitism. But it sure seems like a lot of anti-Zionism gets the causality backward, too. As a historical matter, the concept of anti-Zionism is the product of antisemitism, just as the concept of antisemitism was the product of Jew-hatred. 

It’s almost as if people just want to come up with new words and ideas to sanitize some very old ones about Jewish people, wherever they find them.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.