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June 7, 2021 11:39 am

Anti-Zionism: the Modern Antisemitism

avatar by Lev Stesin


A supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood holds a Palestinian flag and chants slogans during an anti-Israel demonstration after Friday prayers in Amman, Jordan, April 13, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Muhammad Hamed.

What is antisemitism? Despite many recent and more seasoned articles, and as many long scientific papers written over the years on the subject, all have painfully failed to answer this question. But the answer is extremely simple: Antisemitism is hatred of Jews. However, this answer makes sense under only one condition — we need to know who is a Jew. That question, a little more complicated than the first, was perhaps much easier to answer a few centuries ago, when Jews were a little more uniform in their beliefs and attitudes. But even today, it is not as impossible a question as it is being presented by some Jews and gentiles alike. To be part of the Jewish collective, the People Israel, is to share and identify with its history, current vision, and hopes as defined by the vast majority of the people at any given time. To be a Jew is as much a personal choice as it is an act of communal acceptance. Interestingly, antisemitism and its modern incarnation, anti-Zionism, agree.

But is anti-Zionism really a modern variant of antisemitism or, as many of its practitioners claim, just a political stand against racism, colonialism, and imperialism? As with any radical political statement, this one being no exception, the claim makes certain broad assumptions in order to reach a forgone conclusion. Anti-Zionism states that Zionism is a political movement that exists not as an expression of the will of the Jewish people, as part and parcel of the people’s centuries-old history, but rather as a historical aberration perpetrated by a small group of deranged individuals who happen to identify as Jews. This historically untrue and factually incorrect claim boils down to the very simple argument, the one most commonly expressed in public: Zionism does not represent the majority of Jews and does not relate to Judaism itself.

Since the destruction of the Second Temple, Judaism has been looking to Zion as its final redemption. The Siddur (the daily prayer book), the Haggadah (the Passover story), Jewish liturgy, and the vast majority of Jewish religious texts of the last two millennia are saturated with longing for the Land of Israel and hope for the reestablishment of the Jewish commonwealth. To claim otherwise is to declare oneself illiterate or pretend that nobody else can read.

But does Zionism represent the majority of Jews? Yes, it does. Based on recent polls, in Israel, the US, and the rest of the Diaspora the vast majority of Jews identify, to one degree or another, with the Jewish national idea as it is expressed in the State of Israel. Why is that important? It is important because being Jewish is a communal experience. Yet, is it nevertheless antisemitic to be anti-Zionist? Yes, it is.

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Let’s consider Judaism. It is another central pillar of Jewish self-identification. The very same polls show that the vast majority of the world’s Jews are non-religious in the traditional sense of the word or perhaps even atheists. However, only very few of the same progressive groups who claim that being anti-Zionist is not antisemitic would claim that being anti-Judaism is not antisemitic. Wait a minute, one could say. Given that the Jewish religion does not represent the majority of Jews, wouldn’t making such a claim simply follow the same logic these progressives employ in regard to anti-Zionism? Why not? Why is it socially acceptable to be anti-Zionist, but not anti-Judaism? The answer is simple: the Holocaust.

The Holocaust did not put an end to antisemitism, but it made all its existing forms unacceptable. Had the Nazis entered Palestine and eliminated the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish population of the Land of Israel) anti-Zionism might have followed the fate of its predecessors, but fortunately the Nazis did not. Yet, prior to the Holocaust, Judaism played the role that Zionism plays today. Hatred of Judaism was shared by both the right and the left; though on the left, it took not a religious — as with the Church — but an ideological approach. Karl Marx in his notorious “On the Jewish Question,” written in 1843, proclaimed the antisemitic manifesto of the hundred years that followed: “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” Thus Judaism, as an expression of Jewish particularism, as the culture of the People of Israel in the Diaspora, was declared persona non-grata. Hitler’s ideas about the impossibility of peaceful coexistence between the Jews and the rest of the world, and his view of the inevitability of the final solution, stemmed from Marx’s maxim.

After the Holocaust, however, it seemed for a brief short moment that the Holocaust had not only failed to finish off the Jews, but had killed antisemitism for good. Not so fast. As happened many times during the twentieth century, the Soviet Union came to rescue. The 1930s saw the USSR slowly return to the antisemitic roots of the tsarist regime. The pact with Nazi Germany and the dismissal of Maxim Litvinov were the turning points, and the war that followed only injected the Soviets with the rabid antisemitic propaganda disseminated by the Nazis. After the war ended, with the dawn of the Cold War, Stalin, for many different reasons, needed a new internal enemy. With the class struggle being officially almost over, Jews proved to be a perfect candidate.

Yet Judaism proved to be irrelevant, as the Soviet Union was anti-religious, with most religious practices either banned or under strict government supervision, not to mention the association of traditional antisemitism with the Holocaust. Thus Zionism presented itself as an excellent replacement for Judaism, fitting perfectly with Marx’s ideological antisemitism. And for naive or conniving Western intellectuals, the allure of the rebranded hatred proved to be irresistible.

It is important to note that, prior to the Soviet turn to anti-Zionism, anti-Zionism itself as a defined ideology and political stance did not truly exist. There were groups of people, some large, of both Jews and non-Jews who advocated against the Zionist enterprise. However, they did so either on a purely religious basis, like some Orthodox Jews, or because they saw the enterprise as unfeasible and undesirable. Very few argued against the Jewish state as such.

And there is a reason for this: anti-Zionism, as an idea, is absurd. Imagine a political movement calling itself anti-France. It is a laughable idea that one can support only as a joke or due to a mental disorder. So why does anti-Zionism not get similar treatment? The answer is antisemitism. The defining feature of antisemitism is to treat the Jews in a way that is the opposite of one’s treatment of other people: what is allowed to everyone else is forbidden to Jews. What is tolerated in others is condemned in the Jews. And so France is fine, however questionable its long history, but Israel is not.

The general rule when observing the oldest hatred is that if one singles out Jews from among all other nations, then one is antisemitic. Anti-Zionism is no exception.

Lev Stesin lives and works in Silicon Valley, California. He is a founding member of San Francisco Voice for Israel.

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