A detailed look at the recent Intelligence Squared debate on the motion “Anti-Zionism Is Anti-Semitism” can help illuminate some of the main points to be considered in examining this controversial topic—and some of the misunderstandings that commonly arise on both sides of this question.
The Parameters of Acceptable Criticism
The debate opened with Melanie Phillips arguing that the frequent anti-Semitic manifestations of anti-Zionism within the British Labour party and the Palestinian solidarity movement in general, are a feature, not a bug. She asserted that anti-Zionism seeks to demonize, dehumanize and delegitimize Jews through a series of false accusations, including allegations of apartheid, ethnic cleansing, indiscriminate killing of children and occupying someone else’s land.
Philips is not the first to suggest that anti-Zionist terminology is anti-Semitic. In 2016, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote:
The legitimization [of anti-Semitism] has also changed … Today it is human rights. It is why Israel—the only fully functioning democracy in the Middle East with a free press and independent judiciary—is regularly accused of the five crimes against human rights: racism, apartheid, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and attempted genocide. This is the blood libel of our time.
Liberal Jewish columnist Peter Beinart has taken issue with this portrayal of the human rights concerns of anti-Zionists:
It’s an elegant formulation. But there’s a problem. The claim that medieval Jews deserved blame for the murder of Christ, or that nineteenth-century Jews were genetically inferior, had no rational basis. To believe it, you had to be an anti-Semite. It’s not irrational, however, to believe that Israel is seriously abusing Palestinian human rights. Anti-Semites may exploit those abuses to vilify Jews. But you don’t have to be an anti-Semite to find them profoundly troubling.
A pro-Israel blogger has responded to Beinart’s critique in a manner that is highly illustrative of the problem with blanket terms, such as demonization:
In Beinart’s twisted mind, the difference between classical antisemitism and today’s anti-Zionism is that the old antisemitism had no “rational basis,” giving as examples accusations of deicide and racism. But that implies that Beinart would not consider other accusations against Jews that had a germ of truth in them to be antisemitic. Therefore, Beinart’s logic would imply, saying that Jews should be hated because they control the banks and Hollywood and the media is not antisemitism, because there is a rational basis for believing it—at least as much of a rational basis as for hating Israel because that country is supposedly guilty of genocide and apartheid.
Whether or not criticism is viewed as demonization will depend on how rational it is perceived to be. Since that will vary depending on one’s political views, an objective red line is impossible.
Even something as intuitively appalling as drawing parallels between Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the Holocaust has engendered disagreement. Daniel Blatman, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, argues that more nuanced parallels to Nazi Germany should not be dismissed out of hand, but argued on their merits. Former Israeli Defence Minister Mosche Ya’alon once notoriously said that what frightens him “in remembering the Holocaust is recognizing nauseating trends that took place in Europe in general, and in Germany specifically back then, 70, 80 and 90 years ago, and seeing evidence of them here among us in the year 2016”—though he later walked back the comparison. On the other hand, Jonathan Freedland notes that—aside from being hyperbolic—the claim seems like an attempt to redirect any sympathy one might feel toward the Jews as a result of the suffering they experienced during the Holocaust into antipathy toward the state of Israel:
Jews end up with the gravest hour of their history first taken from them—and then returned, with themselves recast as villains rather than victims. If anti-Zionists wonder why Jews find this anti-Semitic, perhaps they should imagine the black reaction if the civil rights movement—or any other vehicle of black liberation—was constantly equated with the white slave traders of old.
Clearly, then, it is extremely difficult to discern anti-Semitic intent. Thus Philips’ portrayal of these terms as anti-Semitic will only convince those who share the narrative upon which this characterization is premised.
Self-Determination and Its Implications
In their opening statements of the debate, Ilan Pappé and Mehdi Hasan both attempted to characterize the motion, anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, as absurd, due to its sweeping nature. Pappé pointed to pre-state anti-Zionism, which was initially an internal evangelical debate and later an internal Jewish debate, neither of which could be described as anti-Semitic. Hasan noted that the motion would suggest that some current prominent Jewish intellectuals and ultra-orthodox anti-Zionists are anti-Semites too.
While technically correct, these are semantic arguments. There is little similarity between religious objections to Zionism and anti-Zionism in general, and no one is actually arguing that the former is anti-Semitic. To the extent that there is any similarity between secular Jewish pre-state opponents of Zionism and modern anti-Zionism, the very fact that the former ideology did not survive the trauma of the Holocaust calls the comparison into question. As for the Jewish intellectuals who are vocal anti-Zionists today, their existence proves little. As Melanie Phillips noted, it is perfectly possible to be a Jewish anti-Semite.
Mehdi Hasan spent a significant amount of time discussing Zionist anti-Semites and far right anti-Semitic violence, despite the fact that no one denies their existence. The notion that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic need not mean that anti-Semitism is the exclusive purview of anti-Zionism. On the contrary, proponents of this idea invariably insist that anti-Semitism exists on both sides of the political spectrum.
But the opposition did address some important points. Pappé said that Palestinians initially opposed Zionism as a colonial movement they feared would dispossess them, and continued their anti-colonial struggle, enshrined in the PLO charter, after the formation of the state. He could have chosen a better document to support his point, since the PLO charter excludes any Jew who arrived in Palestine after the Balfour Declaration from the state it envisions. Nevertheless, Mehdi Hasan compellingly noted that the motion would force Palestinians to either accept the ideology of their oppressors or be labelled anti-Semitic.
Addressing the issue that anti-Zionism denies Jewish self-determination, Hasan notes that most ethnic groups do not get their own state and no one would reasonably suggest that opposing a Kurdish state is a form of bigotry. Anticipating this argument, Phillips pointed out that Israel is not an aspiration: Jews have already achieved self-determination in their ancestral land and thus attempts to strip them—and only them—of that right should be viewed as anti-Semitic.
But should self-determination never be revoked? Surely this principle cannot be applied to all scenarios. Suppose that the Kurds conquered a territory in which they were the minority, and subjugated the rest of the population. In such a scenario, Philips would undoubtedly agree that self-determination should be revoked. It is clear, then, that the right to self-determination must be weighed against the cost of its realization. If, by granting rights to some, it deprives others of more fundamental rights, it cannot be seen as discriminatory to advocate its revocation.
Mehdi Hasan acknowledged the Jewish historical and religious connection to the land of Israel, but insisted that this was not the issue at hand. Rather, the issue is “whether historic and religious claims justify creating and expanding a Jewish majority state in which one ethnic group is privileged over another while another group is permanently disenfranchised, dispossessed and subjected to an endless military occupation.” Pappé similarly framed his argument as an objection to the nature of the regime.
Many supporters of Israel, if they accept this characterization at all, will reject the assumption that it is inherent to Zionism. Yet this is precisely the premise from which anti-Zionism frequently stems. Anti-Zionists generally subscribe to the Palestinian narrative of the events of 1948, as espoused by Ilan Pappé (who writes that there was a blanket plan of expulsion for the purpose of creating a Jewish majority in Palestine) and agree with those legal scholars who assert that Palestinians have an individual right of return enshrined in international law. From this perspective, it seems unreasonable to suggest that advocating for a full return of Palestinian refugees is anti-Semitic. To throw someone out of their home, an anti-Zionist would argue, and then complain that their desire to return is a form of racism conforms almost perfectly to Leo Rosten’s definition of chutzpah. Furthermore, anti-Zionists generally believe that a state cannot be both Jewish and democratic, and thus the structure of the state of Israel, as a Jewish state, is inherently illiberal and should not be preserved. The historical and scholarly works that support these views are not anti-Semitic, nor should the conclusions that arise from them be seen as such.
The same logic applies to the assertion that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic insofar as the geopolitical outcome will lead to the deaths of a great number of Jews, as Einat Wilf indicates would be the case in the event of a binational solution to the conflict. Within Zionism itself, there are very different ideas about what solution will make Jews most secure. Many on the Right propose full annexation of the West Bank to Israel, a scenario that others see as a security disaster. Some even propose that Gaza be included. Others propose a federated solution, which allows freedom of movement and joint armed forces, a proposition that presents security difficulties of its own. None of these proposals should be viewed as anti-Semitic, simply because their proponents have different views as to what will secure the safety of both Israelis and Palestinians in the long term.
Anti-Zionists tend to see the desire for a Jewish majority state and the demographic concerns that accompany it as a major factor in perpetuating the conflict. They see minimal value in a two state solution. Yousef Munayyer writes:
Every attempt to resolve this conflict between Zionist ideology and demographic reality for the past hundred years has included some form of gerrymandering—drawing oddly shaped, impractical, winding borders around often sparse Jewish populations to encompass them in a single geographic entity … In the best-case scenario, a Palestinian state would be demilitarized and have not a semblance of the sovereignty afforded to every other state in the international system. It would, more or less, be under glorified occupation. Palestinian refugees would not be permitted to return to their homes.
A number of Israel’s critics believe that a two-state solution is no longer feasible, leaving one state with equal rights for all as the only viable option. This would likely mean the end of Israel as a Jewish majority state, but from this perspective it is the only option, unless permanently subjugating Palestinians can be considered a viable strategy. It is a common view among Zionists that the two-state solution can still be implemented, but it is in grave peril. Proponents of this view warn that settlements will soon make a contiguous Palestinian state impossible to establish, rendering the combination of a Jewish and democratic state impossible. Will they too become anti-Semitic if, when that threshold is crossed, they opt for the latter?
To Phillips, none of this is particularly important. In her view, even if one reaches these conclusions without a trace of malice, that simply shows that one has been fooled into supporting an anti-Semitic cause. She distinguishes between anti-Semites, who are driven by a deep-seated hatred of the Jewish people, and the anti-Zionism of useful idiots, who unwittingly support them.
Unique Focus and Double Standards
A member of the audience touched on a cornerstone of this debate when he asked about the unique focus on Israel relative to other states with poorer records on human rights, echoing the repeated assertions by the proponents of the motion that Israel has been singled out and held to a double standard. Mehdi Hasan responded by rejecting the premise, noting that other human rights abusers have been sanctioned and expressing the hope that Israel will be treated in a similar fashion. He conflated the focus with the outcomes of the focus, each of which have distinct causes.
There is no doubt that Israel receives a disproportionate level of scrutiny by the UN, human rights organizations and the media. This is perhaps the most significant contributory factor to the feeling among many Jews that there is little difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. It is seen as incontrovertible evidence that little has changed since the Holocaust—global hatred of the Jews has simply taken on more socially acceptable manifestations.
Matti Friedman, a former AP correspondent, notes that, in 2013, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict claimed forty-two lives, a total roughly equivalent to the monthly homicide rate in Chicago. Yet the media prioritized Israel over Pakistan, Tibet, Congo, the Central African Republic and Mexico, all of which were dealing with more egregious human rights abuses, which produced far higher death tolls. Friedman sees this as the result of a combination of laziness and anti-Semitism: “Many in the West clearly prefer the old comfort of parsing the moral failings of Jews, and the familiar feeling of superiority this brings them, to confronting an unhappy and confusing reality.”
Writing for Haaretz, Mira Sucharov offers seven more charitable explanations for this fixation on Israel: military aid (specific to the US); religious significance; unique story (“plucky state that survived against all odds”); political violence; disproportionate number of prominent Jewish figures in the public eye; occasional American casualties in Israel; perception of Israel as a colonial transplant; and perception of Israel as a democracy. Ian Buruma suggests that Israel is singled out because of “moral racism,” rather than anti-Semitism: the groups that are committing greater atrocities are viewed as African or Asian savages, from whom such behaviour is to be expected, while Israel is perceived as a more Western country.
The iconic Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, once said,
Do you know why we Palestinians are famous? It’s because you are our enemy. Interest in the Palestinian question flows from interest in the Jewish question. Yes. People are interested in you, not me! The international interest in the Palestinian question merely reflects the interest people take in the Jewish question.
While this may be an exaggeration, there can be little doubt that fascination with Jews plays a role in the level of attention paid to this conflict, which feeds the obsessive passions of philo-Semites and anti-Semites alike.
Critics of Israel tend to explain the focus on Israel by pointing to what they portray as its colonial nature. Gilbert Achcar contends that the anomalous nature of this conflict lies in the fact that “Israel is the only European colonial settler state in which the political rights of the native population have yet to be restored,” other than those in which the natives have been largely wiped out. Mouin Rabbani similarly explains that “Palestine remains the only Western colonial venture that continues to deny the indigenous population either national self-determination or legal equality,” though he also notes tribal loyalties and Western complicity as factors. Yet, even if one accepts the colonial approach to the conflict, it is unclear why colonialism ought to attract more attention than incidences of large scale ethnic cleansing and genocide occurring elsewhere.
In Stealth Conflicts, Virgil Hawkins demonstrates the disparate coverage of African vs. Israeli/Palestinian fatalities in several studies. He explains that media coverage is driven by “national/political interest, geographic proximity and access, ability to identify, ability to sympathize, simplicity and sensationalism.”
Despite its complexity, the Israel–Palestine conflict lends itself to remarkably simplistic conceptions. Many Evangelical Christians feel a straightforward religious obligation to support Israel, whether due to end times theology or the belief that they will be blessed if they assist the Jews. Many Muslims see Israel as an imperialist entity in control of Muslim holy sites. Anti-Semites see Israel as a reflection of Jewish power and control. Leftists tend to see it as the last vestige of colonialism, while some on the right see it as a bulwark against Islamic terrorism.
Hawkins views the importance of this conflict to policy makers in the West as due to concern over campaign contributions and in the Middle East as due to public opinion. These, he argues, are the primary drivers of the disproportionate media coverage. Political interest in Israel justifies stationing reporters there, which makes fresh news cheap and easy to obtain. Due to what he calls “pack journalism” and the inability of most outlets to actually gather news themselves, this focus quickly spreads to other countries as well. Hawkins notes that this disproportionate coverage affects the public perception of the conflict. In classroom surveys in Japan and Australia, a far greater portion of the students named Israel–Palestine as one the world’s deadliest conflicts, than the DRC, though the DRC conflict is roughly 1,000 times as deadly.
It seems logical that those who apply a double standard to Israel are driven by anti-Jewish animus. But is it a double standard to be more concerned about issues that are discussed more frequently by the media? Is it a double standard to criticize a country that is an ally of the US more harshly than a country against which the US has instituted sanctions? Is it a double standard for a Jew or a Palestinian to be more concerned about this conflict than others?
Anti-Semitic in Effect?
Einat Wilf positions anti-Zionism in the context of previous forms of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semites brand Jews with labels, such as Semite, Zionist or Zio, and then attach characteristics to those labels, such as Christ-killer, racially inferior, capitalist or imperialist or, increasingly, the greatest violators of human rights today. Such accusations are supported by the greatest moral authority of the day, be it religion, science or human rights activism.
This argument presents the same problem as the argument made by Phillips above. It rests on the assumption that the anti-Zionist narrative is a perversion of the true history and human rights record and thus will only appeal to those who accept that premise. But Wilf takes the point further, arguing that we are beginning to see the effects of anti-Zionism on Jews in college campuses and liberal activist spaces, much as we did with the creeping pernicious effects of older forms of anti-Semitism.
The question of whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic in effect has been a topic of vociferous debate among British academics, particularly since the rise of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS has become the cornerstone of the Palestinian solidarity movement, and is often a central tenet of the allegation that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic, yet this debate failed to explore the issue at all.
For many Jews, boycotting Israel is understood as part of the rich history of anti-Jewish boycotts, which date back to medieval times. The Irish Limerick boycott, the Nazi boycott and the Arab League boycott all occurred during the twentieth century and specifically targeted Jews. Notably, the Limerick boycott distinguished between “irreproachable” Jews and Jews who “grind and oppress” others.
Proponents of the idea that the boycott is anti-Semitic “in effect if not in intent” make two general, related arguments. The first is that, while there may be sociological reasons for the selective focus on Israel above all other causes, these reasons do not stand up to logical scrutiny. It is perfectly legitimate for an individual to prioritize whichever cause speaks to them. However, for an institution to enact an irrational, and thus unjust, boycott singling out the Jewish state is anti-Semitic in effect—even if this characterization does not reflect the intentions of boycott advocates.
Opponents of this notion argue that no racism motivated the singling out of South Africa for a boycott, though it was not the worst human rights offender at the time. Furthermore, it is the Palestinians who are singling Israel out—quite understandably—by calling for the boycott; others are simply answering the call. They also point out that PACBI guidelines make it clear that the boycott targets institutions, rather than individuals. Lastly, they emphasize that the boycott is directed at Israelis, rather than at Jews, and conflating the two can itself be reductionist and anti-Semitic.
Proponents counter that the South Africa boycott is not comparable, since there is no history of anti-white sentiment leading to a boycott. Boycotts against Jews, on the other hand, are clearly reminiscent of earlier anti-Semitic boycotts against Jews. They dispute that the boycott originated among the Palestinians, pointing to earlier efforts by British academics to initiate a boycott. When these efforts failed, they travelled to the Palestinian territories in an attempt to sell the concept there.
Even if the PACBI guidelines were heeded, they argue, this boycott would largely affect Jews. However, there have been several deviations from these guidelines. One institution has even resolved to create a litmus test for Israeli academics—a practice with a storied anti-Semitic past.
The second argument that proponents make is that the boycott and the ideology behind it lend themselves to anti-Semitic thinking and behaviour. Variations on anti-Semitic themes, such as Jewish power and blood libels, can be found in anti-Zionist texts. This has created a climate in which Islamic anti-Semitism is dismissed as rhetoric and has normalized anti-Semitism in anti-racist circles. Anti-Zionist organizations have failed to distance themselves from individuals who have clearly crossed the line into anti-Semitic discourse. Specific concerns of anti-Semitism are routinely dismissed by anti-Zionists as general attempts to silence criticisms of Israel. Furthermore, they assert that the boycott portrays the Jewish state as a “unique fulcrum of global imperialism and as a uniquely racist state which is uniquely worthy of boycott.”
Opponents often dispute the alleged prevalence of anti-Semitism within the movement. They assert that truth must be spoken, even if it means that it will be abused by some, though everything possible should be done to mitigate that. They argue that, while anti-Semitism may exist within the boycott movement, this possibility cannot outweigh the pressing need to take action on behalf of the Palestinians.
The fundamental issue here is that boycotting is both a legitimate tactic and something that has historically been used to discriminate against Jews. How it is understood in this context will largely depend on whether one sees a boycott of Israel as just and productive. If one sees the logic of the boycott as outside the bounds of reason, comparisons to South Africa and assurances that it is only institutional will ring hollow. By contrast, if one views a boycott as the only means to achieve rights for Palestinians, concerns over singling out Israel will sound like whataboutism, parallels to earlier boycotts will be rejected as irrelevant and instances of blatant anti-Semitism will be seen as a bug rather than a feature.
The presence of Mehdi Hasan, who is not Jewish, in a debate about anti-Semitism may be viewed as further evidence for the claim that, unlike other minority groups, Jews are not afforded the exclusive right to define their own oppression. Nurit Baytch recently wrote that the claim that BDS is not anti-Semitic “stands in contrast to the Macpherson principle, which generally ascribes to the targets of racism the right to define racism against themselves.” If this principle were followed, BDS would need to be classified as anti-Semitic because, in “a recent survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 88% of European Jews regarded the statement ‘The world would be a better place without Israel’ as anti-Semitic, and 72% considered boycotting Israel to be anti-Semitic.”
The Macpherson principle technically only applies to the opening of an investigation: it does not stipulate that the victim’s perception should provide the final determination of whether or not an incident constitutes a hate crime. Nevertheless, the idea that such subjective determinations should be accepted prima facie is not uncommon in anti-racist circles. In her best-selling book, So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo posits that “it is about race if a person of color thinks it’s about race.” If this principle were applied to Jews, BDS would certainly be about anti-Semitism. However, the application of this sort of logic is particularly fraught when it comes to an ethnic conflict. After all, Palestinians—and perhaps even Muslims in general—may feel that Zionism is inherently discriminatory towards them. This would leave everyone with the rather uncomfortable choice of supporting anti-Semitism or anti-Muslim bigotry.
Even if this principle cannot be neatly applied to concerns about bigotry pertaining to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, surely we can seek to apply the actual Macpherson principle: to accept and investigate all accusations of bigotry in good faith.
The Intelligence Squared debate may have failed to clearly elucidate the issues that divide us on this issue, but one can hope that it will inspire more nuanced discussions and perhaps impart lessons to those interested in a more constructive dialogue.