The Damaging Conflation of Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism

There is a famous story about the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl. As a young journalist in late 19th century Vienna, Herzl came to believe that the solution to the problem of Jewish emancipation in Europe was the creation of a Jewish state. His ideas remained fringe across European Jewish communities until after the Holocaust, but they did raise some eyebrows with Jewish leaders. 

Upon hearing Herzl’s plans to redeem the Jewish people, the chief Rabbi of Vienna decided to visit him. When he arrived on a cold December day at Herzl’s apartment, he found a Christmas tree in the living room. Legend has it that the Rabbi simply left and never even spoke with Herzl, believing him far too assimilated to Christian customs to be a savior for the Jews. 

This story highlights the myriad counter-narratives and differing opinions within the Jewish community over political Zionism. Since the earliest days of Herzl’s plans to create a Jewish state, Jewish communities have been divided on whether Jews even needed a state in the first place. Even today, there are almost equal numbers of Jews that live outside of Israel as there are living in the Jewish state. While many Jewish diaspora communities call themselves Zionist, the fact is that they refuse to realize the basic tenet of modern Zionist ideology and immigrate to Israel. 

Despite the deep difference inside the Jewish community over Zionism, the Israeli government and its allies have long pushed the idea that anti-Zionism and antisemitism are two sides of the same coin. The conflation of these terms over the last month of fighting in the Gaza Strip has reached fever pitch and is contributing to a flare-up of antisemitism worldwide. 

Professor Avi Shlaim, one of the revisionist Israeli scholars known as the “new historians,” spoke about the differences between anti-Zionism and antisemitism in a recent clip that went viral across the internet. Antisemitism, Shlaim notes, is the hatred of Jewish people because they are Jews. Anti-Zionism is opposition either to the Zionist ideology or, more commonly, criticism of specific policies of the Israeli government. While antisemitism is a grotesque form of hatred that should never be justified, anti-Zionist rhetoric tends to be evidence-based. 

The Israeli government and its supporters argue that anti-Zionism deprives the Jews of a state of their own because they are Jews. Thus, anti-Zionism is antisemitism because it singles out the group. This argument doesn’t hold much water as anti-Zionists don’t say that Jews can’t have their self-determination. Instead, the issue is how Zionism has sought to exercise that self-determination in a specific place at the expense of another people’s self-determination. 

The deep issue is how Israel deliberately conflates anti-Zionism and antisemitism to silence any criticism of the Israeli government or its policies of occupation vis-a-vis the Palestinians. When the UN secretary-general called for a ceasefire to protect civilians in the Gaza Strip early in the war, the Israeli representative immediately branded his position antisemitic. This is a clear example of how the conflation strategy is deployed to divert attention over legitimate criticism of Israeli policy. 

Israel’s aggressive PR tactics have allowed the far right to push antisemitic ideas without getting into trouble. For decades, far-right leaders worldwide have claimed to be pro-Israel while directly or indirectly supporting antisemitism at home. Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, is one of the most vocal supporters of Israel in the European Union and also flames antisemitism at home. 

Elon Musk recently found himself in hot water after agreeing with antisemitic comments on his social media platform X. Media watchdogs have since cataloged how antisemitism is flourishing on the platform. Musk says that X is a place for free speech, and that’s why such vile rhetoric is shared. Yet, in response to high-profile advertisers fleeing his platform, Musk announced that using terms like “decolonization” and “from the river to the sea” in support of Palestinians, will get you banned from X. So much for free speech. 

Musk is rushing to embrace pro-Israel positions in the hope people will overlook his antisemitic tendencies. The very fact he can do that is a by-product of the Israeli government’s conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism.

These dynamics are particularly concerning in light of rising antisemitism in the United States. In a piece for Futurism, Maggie Harrison notes that in 2017 “white supremacists marched on Charlottesville with their hands in Nazi salutes [and] shouted ‘Jews will not replace us.’ The next year, in 2018, a shooter motivated by the conspiracy killed 11 people at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Shortly after that, in 2019, the theory was linked to yet another shooter who murdered a worshipper and injured three others at a California synagogue.” 

The Jewish people never elected the Israeli government to represent it worldwide. Given the varied nature of Judaism today, such an election would be impossible. Yet, Israel speaks in the name of all Jews to provide cover for its policies with the Palestinians. With rising antisemitism worldwide, there will need to be some sort of reckoning between Jewish communities and Israel but such an event feels far off. 

Joseph Dana is a writer based in South Africa and the Middle East. He has reported from Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo, Istanbul, and Abu Dhabi. He was formerly editor-in-chief of emerge85, a media project based in Abu Dhabi exploring change in emerging markets. X: @ibnezra


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