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Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism

Filed under: Antisemitism
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 16:3-4 (Fall 2004)


Anti-Zionism has become the most dangerous and effective form of anti- Semitism in our time, through its systematic delegitimization, defamation, and demonization of Israel. Although not a priori anti-Semitic, the calls to dismantle the Jewish state, whether they come from Muslims, the Left, or the radical Right, increasingly rely on an anti-Semitic stereotypization of classic themes, such as the manipulative “Jewish lobby,” the Jewish/Zionist “world conspiracy,” and Jewish/Israeli “warmongers.” One major driving force of this anti-Zionism/anti-Semitism is the transformation of the Palestinian cause into a “holy war”; another source is anti-Americanism linked with fundamentalist Islamism. In the current context, classic conspiracy theories, such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, are enjoying a spectacular revival. The common denominator of the new anti-Zionism has been the systematic effort to criminalize Israeli and Jewish behavior, so as to place it beyond the pale of civilized and acceptable conduct.


The question of whether anti-Zionism can or should be equated with anti-Semitism is one of those pivotal issues that refuse to go away. It is of considerable importance in any effort to define the nature of the “new Judeophobia” and strategies to deal with it. Recently when I addressed British MPs in the House of Commons, this was the first order of business. Surely, they wanted to know, doubts about Zionism or alarm at Israel’s policies must be distinguished from loathing toward Jews? Was it not true that anti-Semitism was frequently confused with “anti-Sharonism,” as The Guardian likes to claim? Did not Jews themselves often engage in the fiercest opposition to Israeli government policy without being accused of anti-Semitism? Finally, exaggerated use of the Judeophobic charge, it was suggested, might raise the suspicion that Israel’s leaders were seeking to deflect or even silence justified criticism.

My answer to such objections is that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are two distinct ideologies that over time (especially since 1948) have tended to converge, generally without undergoing a full merger. There have always been Bundists, Jewish communists, Reform Jews, and ultra-Orthodox Jews who strongly opposed Zionism without being Judeophobes. So, too, there are conservatives, liberals, and leftists in the West today who are pro-Palestinian, antagonistic toward Israel, and deeply distrustful of Zionism without crossing the line into anti- Semitism. There are also Israeli “post-Zionists” who object to the definition of Israel as an exclusively or even a predominantly “Jewish” state without feeling hostile toward Jews as such. There are others, too, who question whether Jews are really a nation; or who reject Zionism because they believe its accomplishment inevitably resulted in uprooting many Palestinians. None of these positions is intrinsically anti-Semitic in the sense of expressing opposition or hatred toward Jews as Jews.

Nevertheless, I believe that the more radical forms of anti-Zionism that have emerged with renewed force in recent years do display unmistakable analogies to European anti-Semitism immediately preceding the Holocaust. One of the more striking symptoms has been the call for a scientific, cultural, and economic boycott of Israel that arouses some grim associations and memories among Jews of the Nazi boycott that began in 1933. (Indeed, such actions go back at least fifty years earlier when anti-Semitic organizations first used economic boycotts as a weapon against Jewish competitors.) There are other highly visible manifestations. An example is the systematic manner in which Israel is harassed at international forums such as the United Nations, where the Arab states have for decades pursued a policy of isolating the Jewish state and turning it into a pariah. An offshoot of this campaign was the hate-fest at the UN-sponsored Durban Conference against racism of September 2001, which denounced Zionism as a “genocidal” movement, practicing “ethnic cleansing” against Palestinians. In these and similar public forums, as well as in much of the Western mainstream media, Zionism and the Jewish people have been demonized in ways that are virtually identical to the methods, arguments, and techniques of racist anti-Semitism. Even though the current banner may be “antiracist” and the defamation is being carried out today in the name of human rights, all the red lines have clearly been crossed. For example, “anti-Zionists” who insist on comparing Zionism and the Jews with Hitler and the Third Reich appear unmistakably to be de facto anti-Semites, even if they vehemently deny the fact! This is largely because they knowingly exploit the reality that Nazism in the postwar world has become the defining metaphor of absolute evil. For if Zionists are “Nazis” and if Sharon really is Hitler, then it becomes a moral obligation to wage war against Israel. That is the bottom line of much contemporary anti-Zionism. In practice, this has become the most potent form of contemporary anti-Semitism.

Indeed, Israel is today the only state on the face of this planet that such a large number of disparate people wish to see disappear – itself a chilling reminder of the Nazi propaganda of the 1930s. The most virulent expressions of this “exterminationist” or genocidal anti-Zionism have come from the Arab-Muslim world, which is the historical heir of the earlier 20th-century forms of totalitarian anti-Semitism in Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet Union. Even “moderate” Muslim statesmen such as Mahathir Mohammad have publicly repeated the classic anti-Semitic belief that “Jews rule the world” while eliciting virtually no objections in the Islamic world. The more radical Islamists from Al-Qaida to the Palestinian Hamas go much further since they fuse indiscriminate terror, suicide bombings, and a Protocols of Zion style of anti-Semitism with the ideology of jihad. In this case, the socalled “war against Zionism” unmistakably embraces the total demonization of the “Jewish other”: as the “enemy of mankind,” as deadly poisonous snakes, as barbarian “Nazis” and “Holocaust manipulators” who control international finance, not to mention America, or theWestern mass media, while they busily instigate wars and revolutions to achieve world domination. Such conspiracy theories sailing under “anti-Zionist” colors constitute a highly toxic, even murderous worldview that today is linked to religious fanaticism and a worldwide revolutionary agenda. The same demonizing stereotypes can, however, be found in moderate pro-Western Egypt (home to the Protocols based anti-Semitic soap opera Rider without a Horse), secular Baathist Syria, conservative Wahhabite Saudi Arabia, and the Shiite fundamentalist Iran of the ayatollahs. This is an ideological anti-Zionism that seeks both the annihilation of Israel and a world “liberated from the Jews” – in other words, it is a totalist form of anti-Semitism.

The danger has become especially grave because this “annihilationalist” anti-Zionism is spreading under the guise of anti-Israelism and hatred of Sharon to Western Europe, America, and parts of the Third World. It has found grassroots support in the Muslim diaspora among radicalized youth and an echo among antiglobalists, Trotskyites, and far-Right groups as well as parts of the media. There is a loose and shifting coalition of red-brown-green bigotry focused against both America and Israel. Osama bin Laden is a hero not only to those who wish to restore Islam’s global hegemony but also for some of those who still believe in the “world revolution” of the proletarian masses or the demise of “Judeo-American” domination.

Much of the mobilizing power of “anti-Zionism” derives from its link to the Palestinian cause. Since the 1960s, the PLO has worked hard to totally delegitimize Zionism and the policy has largely succeeded: this anti-Zionism involves a total negation of Jewish nationhood and legitimate Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Israel, a denial of the link between Judaism and the land, or of the existence of the two Jewish temples in Jerusalem. No wonder Israel never existed on any Palestinian maps throughout the Oslo “peace process.” Nor should it be forgotten that the Palestinian Authority has frequently combined anti-Semitic motifs – including Holocaust denial, updated blood libels, and Jewish conspiracy themes – with its general incitement to violence. Moreover, some Palestinian Christians have developed a “liberation theology” that plays on older anti-Semitic efforts to de-Judaize the Christian tradition and finds a sympathetic echo in the West. As for the Islamic groups among the Palestinians, they openly see themselves as engaged in “a war against the Jews.” Hamas, for example, has embraced a full-fledged Islamicized vision of the “Jewish peril” derived from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Palestinian suffering and Arab “anti-Zionism” have helped to infect Europe with an old-new version of anti-Semitism in which Jews are rapacious, bloodsucking colonialists. The theme is that Jews were rootless, imperialist invaders who came to Palestine to conquer the land by brute force, to expel or “cleanse” it of its natives. They are the modern “Crusaders” with no legitimate rights to the soil – an alien transplant, absolutely foreign to the region. They succeeded only because of a gigantic occult conspiracy in which the Zionists (i.e., the Jews) manipulated Great Britain and subsequently America. This is a typically anti-Semitic narrative of which Hitler might have approved – widely believed around the world, even credited by millions of educated people in the West.

The popularity of the Protocols today is the one telling symptom of the growing merger between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Zionism is increasingly depicted in some mainstream media as being “criminal” in its essence as well as its behavior. This flows from the leftwing mantra that brands Zionism as a racist, apartheid, colonialist, and imperialist movement, reviving a stigma that has anti-Semitic echoes on a European continent still grappling with the guilt of its genocidal and colonial past. Israel seems to be losing on both counts. Its military actions offer Europeans the tantalizing prospect of saying “the victims of yesterday have become the [Nazi] perpetrators of today,” along with the opportunity to present Zionism as heir to the darkest pages of Western colonial history such as Algeria, Vietnam, or South Africa. Such aspersions are not a priori anti-Semitic, but through endless repetition they are becoming the ideological rationalization for dismantling Israel. This is the aim of “progressive” anti- Zionism, which, unlike the classic forms of racist anti-Semitism is not ethnically nationalist or völkisch. But it is highly discriminatory in negating the possibility of a legitimate Jewish nationalism. The antiglobalists either ignore or excuse the terrorism, jihadism, and anti- Jewish stereotypes to be found in PLO nationalism/fundamentalism. For much of the Western Left, Palestinians can only be victims and never perpetrators.

On the far Left as well as the far Right, anti-Zionism uses a type of discourse and stereotypes concerning the “Jewish/Zionist lobby,” Israeli/Jewish “criminality,” and Sharonist “warmongering” that is fundamentally manipulative and anti-Semitic. This has penetrated the mainstream debate to the point where 60 percent of all Europeans regard tiny Israel as the greatest threat to world peace; where over a third of those surveyed in Europe and America regularly attribute to Jews excessive power and influence; where Jews are suspected of dual loyalties by ever greater numbers of non-Jews; and where “anti-Zionist” attacks on Jewish institutions and targets show that we are talking about a distinction without a difference. Anti-Zionism is not only the historic heir of earlier forms of anti-Semitism. Today, it is also the lowest common denominator and the bridge between the Left, the Right, and the militant Muslims; between the elites (including the media) and the masses; between the churches and the mosques; between an increasingly anti-American Europe and an endemically anti- Western Arab-Muslim Middle East; a point of convergence between conservatives and radicals and a connecting link between fathers and sons. Anti-Zionism is much more than an exotic collection of radicalchic slogans that survived the debacle of the late-1960s counterculture. It has become an “exterminationist,” pseudoredemptive ideology reconstructed in the Middle East and reexported back to Europe with devastating effects.

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1. This article was originally presented as a written statement at the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, and published in its official record on 10 February 2004.

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PROF. ROBERT S. WISTRICH is Neuberger Professor of Modern European and Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He previously held the Chair for Jewish Studies at University College, London, as well as guest professorships at Harvard, Brandeis, and Oxford universities and at the Royal Institute of Advanced Studies in the Netherlands. Between 1999-2001, Professor Wistrich was one of six historians appointed by the Vatican to the Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission, which examined Pope Pius XII’s record during the Holocaust. He is the author of many books including the award-winning Socialism and the Jews (1982) and Anti-Semitism: The Longest Hatred (1992). He also scripted, edited, or presented several key documentary films for British television including The Longest Hatred (1991), Good Morning Mr. Hitler (1994), and Blaming the Jews (2003). His latest study is Hitler and the Holocaust (2001). In 2002 he became director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is editor-in-chief of its annual journal, Anti-Semitism International.