According to my calculations, it has been well over 20 years since American Jewry has been doing mental acrobatics trying to prove to the world that anti-Zionism is antisemitism. It has also been 20 years since the appearance of Alan Dershowitz’s worthy book, The Case for Israel, a prominent work written in response to the deluge of criticisms of Israel.
How I wish Dershowitz would have named his book, “The Case for the Jewish People,” and in this way, contributed to the resolute link between Jewish identity and the Land of Israel. How I wish we would stop saying “pro-Israel,” thus gifting our detractors a permission slip to “denounce antisemitism” while hurling classic anti-Jewish tropes toward the only Jewish country, Israel.
I was an undergraduate student in 2002 and first encountered anti-Zionism in the form of calling Israel a “Nazi state” and accusing Jews of land theft. From the moment I saw it, I knew what it was. And not because I was smarter or better, but because my family, like thousands of Soviet Jews, had the unfortunate fate of being its first victims of the Soviet anti-Zionist campaign of the late 1960s.
I watched how Jewish professionals tackled having to prove to college administrators that anti-Zionism was antisemitism. It was like hitting one’s head against the wall. University officials could not understand, surely anti-Zionism did not prohibit Jews from practicing their faith: from going to Hillel on Shabbat or from celebrating Hanukkah by lighting a colossal Menorah on the main quad. But celebrating Israel Independence Day: that was strange to college administrators. Why would American citizens be so overjoyed on May 14? This, they believed, was a political statement. Ergo, anti-Zionism was merely a political position.
It has been painfully difficult to watch my people construct the soundest arguments for why anti-Zionism is antisemitism. First and foremost, let me put the following foolishness to rest: anti-Zionism is criticism of Israeli policy. This sounds just about as reasonable as stating that antisemitism in the 19th century was a form of criticizing Jewish intermarriage rates. Allow me to explain.
Any serious student of Jewish history will tell you that Jew hatred is an age-old virus that mutates. As French Jewish philosopher Bernard-Henry Levi writes, “Anti-semitism is a very special form of madness, one of the features of which has always been, at every step in its history, choosing the right words to make its madness look reasonable.” Keyword: the right words. Yes, the antisemite is a wily creature who markets this age-old hatred in such a fashion as to offer the civilized world a reasonable reason to hate the Jews.
Origins of the term "antisemitism"
A vivid example is that of failed German politician Wilhelm Marr who, in 1872 coined “antisemitism” precisely so as to distance himself from the benighted term, Judenhass (Judeophobia) which was rooted in Medieval Christian tenets. A man of reason and science, Marr proudly proclaimed that he does not harbor hatred of Jews for their religious character, but rather for their racial type.
Popularizing the term “antisemitism,” salons around Western Europe proudly used this term. Sound familiar? How many times have we heard from the pulpit, “I would like to make it clear: I am not an antisemite and vehemently denounce all forms of bigotry and racism. I am an anti-Zionist because I care about human rights.”
Understanding the shapeshifting profile of Jew-hatred, we identify three distinct historic eras: the era of Judeophobia, antisemitism, and anti-Zionism. In the era of “Judeophobia” the Jew was hated for his religious character; in the era of “antisemitism” he was loathed for his racial impurity, thus the buffoonish statement that antisemitism is a form of criticizing Jews for marrying non-Jews; today, and in the era of “anti-Zionism,” the Jew, vis-à-vis Israel, is hated for violating human rights.
Once you understand this paradigm, you will certainly not only realize that anti-Zionism is a form of Jew-hatred, but stop employing language such as “anti-Israel,” because really, what you mean is “anti-Jewish.”
Whether you believe in a God that bestowed upon His people the Land of Israel is irrelevant; in this era of anti-Zionism, Jewish identity is being tried. Are we a religion, a race, a nation? If we are a nation, we originate from a place.
Take the Irish, for instance. Their sense of belonging does not come from their Catholic faith, but rather from the fact that they are a nation with a shared history that originates from Ireland. The sooner we all agree and embrace our Jewish nationalism, the faster and more efficient we will be in uniting around the basic idea that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.
I understand that this is quite difficult for many Jews in America because for close to 150 years Jewish identity has been centered around religion. The authors of the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, a formulation of principles agreed upon by the Reform Movement, clearly identified Jewish identity with “the Mosaic faith… a progressive religion.” Moreover, they willfully jettisoned Jewish ethnicity: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine… nor the restoration of a Jewish state.” Few American Jews know of this transformative manifesto, but boy has it contributed to the erosion of Jewish self-awareness.
I do not cast blame on the architects of the Pittsburgh Platform; after all, their efforts make quite a bit of sense considering that they were charting freedom and civility largely absent from the Jewish diasporic experience in continental Europe. America was and remains a land of liberty, and more specifically, a land that guarantees religious protection. We cannot blame the Jews in Pittsburgh for wanting to express a Jewish identity that would become not just tolerated but accepted in this new land.
But anti-Zionism is not an attack on the Jewish faith; at its core, it is an attack on Jewish history, the notion that Jews constitute a nation, which does not merely have a historic, but a sovereign connection to the Land of Israel. We did not simply dwell in the Levant but had a kingdom with secure borders and laws. This, then, is the heart of Zionism: Jewish nationalism because Jews are a nation.
Leaders of the liberated Jewish state recognized that Zionism was a deep commitment to being a Jew: “In order to understand Zionism,” Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel said, “it is necessary to comprehend the deep connection between the people of Israel, the God of Israel and the Land of Israel.” To be a Zionist is not to support an ideology or a political belief; it is to be a Jew.
This is why every year, thousands of Jews come together for the annual New York City Celebrate Israel parade and wave the Israeli flag high and proud, and not because they support Israel; no, they do this because by flying the Israel flag, they are celebrating a fundamental principle of Jewish identity: Israel. It is no different than wearing a Star of David necklace.
It is a miraculous moment for Jewish history: to live in a time when Jews do not merely live in the land of Israel but are sovereigns there. Surely, Jews in Israel have their own challenges when it comes to understanding their Jewish identity; for us in the Diaspora, however, anti-Zionism may just be a very necessary and opportune reminder to reclaim our ethnic identity and in doing so, become effective in fighting anti-Zionism.
The writer was born in the former Soviet Union and came to the US with her family in 1989. She received her Ph.D. in Russian literature and wrote her dissertation on Holocaust literature in the Soviet Union. She is the education editor for White Rose Magazine, and a research fellow for the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy, as well as an educator specializing in teaching Jewish history, the Holocaust, and world literature.