Skip to content
The Thin Line Between Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism
Go to my account

The Thin Line Between Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism

How much—and when—does the distinction matter?

A pro-Israel demonstrator, wrapped with an Israeli flag, attends a counter-protest as pro-Palestinian demonstrators set up an encampment at University of California San Diego (UCSD) on May 5, 2024. (Photo by Grace Hie Yoon/Anadolu via Getty Images)


It’s rare for me to be the last to know about a viral social media controversy, at least in my circles. (I am sure news of the Ice Bucket Challenge probably still hasn’t made it to some corners of Bhutan.) But that’s what happened last week on the Dispatch Podcast. Sarah Isgur and special guest star Megan McArdle were all up-to-speed on this “Man or Bear?” controversy that apparently swirled around the interwebs. Indeed, Megan had just filed a column on the topic for the Washington Post—which you can now read here. But until they brought it up, I didn’t know anything about it. 

Anyway, the controversial question was: If you are a woman, hiking alone in the woods, would you rather encounter a man or a bear? 

That’s it. That’s the test. No other information about the kind of man or bear, or the circumstances. (Are you carrying a picnic basket? Do you have a gun? Is the bear hibernating? Protecting her cubs?)

A lot of people, mostly women, failed the test. Yes, fail is a subjective term, because a good number of the women who insisted that they’d much rather run into a bear than a human male were, for their own ideological or cultural reasons, Kobayashi Maru’ing it to score rhetorical points about sexual assault, toxic masculinity, etc. This was a big part of the problem for Megan. She writes:

But it doesn’t help women to slander the overwhelming majority of men who would never dream of attacking a woman they had stumbled across in the woods. And it outright hurts women to reinforce harmful stereotypes about our sex: namely, that we are irrational, neurotic and bad at math. Far too many of these arguments commit statistical malpractice, especially the ones that purport to prove their point with statistics.

It’s too late to wade into the whole thing now, but I think Megan’s 100 percent right on the stupidity and counterproductiveness of the whole thing. Wilfred Reilly also had a good take on the brouhaha, with more math. The short explanation of why the whole thing is silly is that while most sexual predators, and most criminally violent people generally, are male, most men are neither violent, nor criminals, nor sexual predators. Even most men in the prime age for being a threat aren’t dangerous. That’s relevant because if the question was, “Would you rather encounter a bear or a baby boy?” you’d be pretty crazy to say, “Can’t take the risk, I’m still going with the bear.” Ditto if the question referred to an 80-year-old man versus a spry and youthful bear. “He can use his aluminum walker as a weapon!”

But here’s a hypothetical question that would have elicited a very different debate: “Would you rather encounter a bear or a black man?”

Now, just to be very clear: My advice to my wife or daughter or any other woman would be “Pick the black guy!” 

Still, you can see why the debate would play out very differently. Instead of the issue being about “maleness” and all the icky “toxic” things people of a certain feminist bent associate with abstract men, the debate would—legitimately—be about the pretty obvious racism of the question. The how-dare-yous would come down on the person who posed the question like a shock-and-awe attack. How dare you traffic in racist stereotypes? How dare you compare black men to dangerous animals? The feminists would have very different answers and alt-right types would lob bogus statistical bombs and gross memes. Much blocking-and-reporting would ensue. 

I’m not going to explore any of the potential arguments that would be deployed any further, save to say that even though as a statistical matter black males are overrepresented in crime statistics, that doesn’t mean that the typical black male is a criminal, violent, or otherwise sexually predatory. Meanwhile bears—not counting pandas—are much more dangerous and interchangeable. 

What’s interesting to me about this alternate question is how it illuminates, I think, the way people can be primed or prompted to initiate cascades of motivated reasoning on various topics. The abstract category of “man” elicited one kind of response. But “black man” elicits another. In neither case do statistics, facts, or logic drive the argument, at least for some people. (By the way, the recent moral panic over David French is a good example of how all sorts of unreasonable reasoning can be triggered just by saying a name. But that’s a subject for another time.) 

 I never liked David Hume’s observation that, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them. …‘Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” 

While I don’t wholly agree with this, I think it is wholly true some of the time for all of us, and wholly true all of the time for others. When it comes to certain topics, passion drives the bus,  and reason and facts are often just passengers being pulled to a destination they do not point to. 

Now, you’re free to disagree with me about what the response to the “Black Man or Bear?” hypothetical would be, but I’m quite confident I’m right. If you think otherwise, feel free to test it out on Twitter. You might also try “Muslim Man or Bear” and see how that plays out.  

You might even try asking the question: “If you were alone in the woods, would you rather encounter a bear or a Zionist?”

I strongly suspect that we’d see a lot of really stupid, unhinged, hateful, and silly responses. 

And with the longest lead-in to a point ever out of the way, I can get to my actual topic. 

Anti-Zionism vs. antisemitism.

I caught this video of author and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi offering a primer of how antisemitism manifests itself. It’s not a new argument—I’ve made similar points here—but it’s quite brilliantly succinct. 

“What antisemitism does is it takes the Jews—‘the Jew’—into the symbol of whatever it is that a given civilization defines as its most loathsome qualities,” Halevi explains. Under Christianity, “the Jew” is defined by the antisemite as the Christ-killer. Under communism “the Jew” is the capitalist (Hence Marx’s vile writings about “the Jewish question.”). For the Nazis, Halevi argues, the Jew was the “race polluter.” I’d note that the Nazis also hated the Jews for being capitalists, but also for being communists. Really, the Nazis left no reasons for hating Jews on the shelf. 

Regardless, Halevi argues that we now live in a civilization where the most loathsome qualities are racism, colonialism, and apartheid. And “lo and behold, the greatest offender in the world today … is the Jewish state.” He then quotes Yaakov Tolman, who said “the state of the Jews has become the Jewish State.”

I agree with all of this. 

I’ve written about “structural antisemitism” a few times before. My basic argument is that if you take the logic of “structural racism” and apply it to, say, the United Nations, then there’s really no way to avoid the conclusion that the United Nations is structurally antisemitic.  Theories of structural racism hold that intent is not relevant to whether or not an institution or system is structurally racist. Rather, racism is found whenever the patterns and practices, embedded in culture, yield inequity or some other results that are in some way unfair or unjust. I don’t reject all claims of structural racism out of hand, by the way. I think there are instances where the idea has some real explanatory power. 

The argument isn’t that there is a double standard deliberately applied to one group, but rather that the existing standard unintentionally yields unjust consequences for one group. 

The hitch, of course, is that single standards look like double standards if they are selectively applied. For instance, the universities that fall back on boilerplate about free speech do not enforce it uniformly. Jewish groups are denied permits to counterprotest while “anti-Zionist” protesters are given permission (or were for quite a while) not only to protest but to maintain illegal encampments, intimidate “Zionists,” and shout hateful things, all in the name of free speech. 

I’m fond of the line that goes something like this: “Behind every double standard is an unspoken single standard.” Well, it works the other way around: Every private single standard can be made a public double standard simply by applying it selectively.

I have spent way too much time trying to figure out exactly where the line is between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. It’s obviously something of a moving target, made all the more difficult to pin down because many anti-Zionists sincerely think, rightly or wrongly, that they’re not being antisemitic. I think intent matters a lot when trying to adjudicate moral questions. Intentionally running down a child with your car is vastly, categorically, more evil than doing so accidentally, even negligently. But both are still horrible things.  

And that’s why the structural antisemitism construct is useful. I don’t know what fraction of the people who think Israel shouldn’t exist are intentionally antisemitic. It’s surely larger than the most doctrinaire defenders of anti-Zionism claim, but surely smaller than their opposite numbers on the pro-Zionism side claim. What I struggle with is how much this distinction matters—and when it matters. I don’t want to accuse people who are simply wrong or uniformed of being bigots. Nor do I want to slander the people who sincerely believe in Israel’s right to exist and defend itself (within their preferred limits) but who are also understandably and laudably empathetic about the plight of Palestinians. It would help me distinguish between all of these various groups if more of them were more willing to denounce the people who don’t speak for them and stop apologizing for the loudest voices. At some point anti-anti-Zionism just gets too convoluted for me to parse, given the stakes. 

And that’s where the selective enforcement of single standards comes in.

It’s not just a debating tactic when I ask people who claim to be morally outraged by Israel’s alleged “settler colonialism” or “apartheid” why they have little or nothing to say about China. Xi Jinping’s China is an apartheid system. Non-Han minorities, particularly Uyghurs and Tibetans, aren’t just second-class citizens, they are victims of outright settler colonialism and textbook cultural genocide. Han supremacy is a real thing. Similarly, Russia—from the czars to the communists to Putin—has been run by settler colonizers more or less for 1,000 years. North Korean apologists speak at some of these rallies. I don’t know if settler-colonialism or apartheid are the right terms for North Korea’s brutal neo-feudal caste system, but at some point the labels matter less than the moral reality. How many of the people who get outraged by Israel’s alleged Islamophobic crimes even know who the Rohingya people are? Are they aware of religious persecution in Pakistan? Do they care? It’s fun to mock all of the “Queers for Palestine” stuff, particularly given Israel’s thriving gay community and Hamas’ brutal repression of homosexuals, but it does suggest that something other than the facts is driving the bus of anti-Zionism. 

I think Halevi’s answer is extremely useful. But I think there are other factors at play. A few off the top of my head. 

Israel is seen as an extension of the West and a quasi-outpost for America. That makes it a demonic target for the anti-Western and anti-American pathologies of academia and the radical left. The guilt-mongering and civilizational self-hatred that infects so much “postcolonial” theorizing coalesces around Israel.

Israel is vulnerable, or at least it is perceived to be. People might actually care about far, far worse oppression elsewhere but which seems unfixable. But if America could just be convinced to yank its support for Israel, or if Israel could be convinced to admit millions of Palestinians in some “one state solution,” many think, the “problem” of Israel could be fixed. 

Israel is successful. And its success is an insult to the numerous failures of its neighbors. Indeed, today—the day after Israel declared its independence in 1948—is Nakba Day. Nakba means “catastrophe” and for many Arabs in the region Israel’s success in fending off five invading armies, surviving, and ultimately thriving, is humiliating. The whiners see Israel as a constant reminder of their humiliation. 

Israel is confident, and civilizational confidence in Western values is an affront to those who think Westerners should be ashamed.

Israel is capitalist (with the usual welfare state bells and whistles), and there are some who just can’t abide acknowledging any proof of concept when it comes to capitalism. 

And, last, Israel is Jewish. 

Obviously, this fact looms very large for committed antisemites of all ideological stripes. But I think Israel’s Jewishness is an affront to some for other reasons as well. Jews, the world’s oldest oppressed minority, are problematic not because they have survived, but because they have thrived. For those who wallow in the self-pity of victimization and insist that the “system” is rigged against them, Jewish success is an unwelcome rebuttal to their fatalism. They demonstrate that agency and commitment to faith, or bourgeois values, or self-reliance works. This is too bitter a pill for some to accept, so other explanations flood in. Rather than abandon the idea that the system is rigged, they conclude that the Jews must be doing the rigging. Operationally, most antisemitism is really just a conspiracy theory. And like all conspiracy theories, the theorist starts with the conclusion and “reasons” backward. Jews are to blame for what’s wrong with the system, the world, or my life, and the evidence is backfilled to prove the conclusion.  

I should get back to my point. I often fall victim to thinking that people are simply irrational. In reality, I think a lot of people are being rational on their own terms. It’s just that their premises as much as their passions are driving the bus. What I mean is that the conversation they want to have is rational if you grant the soundness of the motivating assumptions and the legitimacy of the passions they unleash. The feminists insisting that men are more dangerous than bears are objectively wrong, but their point isn’t really about the dangerousness of bears. Their point is to communicate that men are more dangerous than they should be. The bear isn’t an alternative set of facts, it’s an opportunity to talk about the problems—real and perceived—with men. They might as well be shouting, “Stop telling me about bears, that’s not what I want to talk about. I’m here to tell you about men.”

The people who still refuse to admit or care that Hamas brutally raped Israeli women—some having their pelvises broken by repeated assaults—are on the same kind of psychological autopilot. “Stop telling me about Hamas, that’s not what I want to talk about. I’m here to tell you about Israel.” This isn’t just a phenomenon of individual people, but of groups and institutions. The Man vs. Bear thing went viral because large numbers of people think the same way, and they reinforced each other. The anti-Israel movement—and it is a movement—works on a much larger scale. It’s why the U.N. literally said it didn’t want to hear about Hamas’ sexual violence. 

I haven’t answered my own question about how to reliably find the difference between antisemitism and anti-Zionism in real time. I don’t think I ever will, because that would require stopping Hume’s bus and letting the passengers drive.

Jonah Goldberg's Headshot

Jonah Goldberg

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.