Search

Is Anti-Zionism Antisemitism?

This Week, Movement Worker Josh Marks writes about his experience at a recent event which posed the question above. You're sure to come out more knowledgeable on the topic by the end of this article; so too should you become more confident in your opinion of it after reflection.



What we talk about when we talk about anti-Zionism.

What do Burning Man Festival, the Scout movement, subscriptions to London Review of Books and mindfulness all have in common? There are two answers. Firstly, they are all becoming increasingly popular. secondly, they are all avowedly slow. Away from the fast-paced life of emails and of Instagram stories, these four institutions and ideas all champion a return to the slowness of natural states: building with our own hands, savouring the outdoors, taking time to read properly, and allowing the world to slow down around us.


It was in a similar frame of mind that I attended a ThinkIn event with Tortoise, a new kind of news and media platform whose emphasis is on taking time and doing things the proper way; the slow way, as they see it. Their ThinkIns are a refreshingly old style of panel discussion; a group of interesting people sit in a room for an hour and share their views about a difficult question. The question that I was there to discuss was this one...


Is anti-Zionism antisemitism?

I have a firm answer to this question, but I do not think that Movement Workers should necessarily use The Young Zionist to make that case. Instead, I want to guide you through the different key comments and ideas that informed, and will continue to inform, the discourse that surrounds Zionism and anti-Zionism.


Definitions Matter

The discussion highlighted one key debate which is equally contested among Jews and among non-Jews; what is Zionism? The dictionary describes Zionism as…

"A movement for (originally) the re-establishment and (now) the development and protection of a Jewish nation in what is now Israel."

All the speakers raised interesting points about what Zionism means to them, but it was clear that there were two major camps when it came to defining Zionism. On the one hand were a group of people whose Zionism reflected Herzl’s – that is, they focused more on establishing Israel than on developing it. These people thought of Zionism as an idea which might still need to be fulfilled, echoing Herzl’s concept of a never-ending, Utopian dream. Just as A D Gordon might not be happy with the lack of socialism in modern Israel, so too did these people acknowledge Israel’s imperfections. However, they considered Israel today to be just one step on the Jewish people’s journey to create a perfect state in Eretz Yisrael.


On the other hand, a number of people argued that Zionism has outlived the ‘re-establishment’ phase of the above definition, entering a moment of ‘development and protection’. For this second group of people, the leader of Zionism is not Theodor Herzl, who founded an idea, but Benjamin Netanyahu, who has spent the last decade at the helm of the Zionist State in Israel today. Netanyahu was elected by a plurality, rather than a majority, but he often views his role as spokesman-in-chief of Israel, of Zionism, and sometimes even of the Jewish people.


Members will have different opinions about which of these is the correct approach to take. The one clear outcome, however, is that it becomes very tricky to define anti-Zionism if there’s no agreement on Zionism itself.


Theoretical Anti-Zionism Versus Actual Anti-Zionism

Another fascinating element of the discussion was the distinction between the idea of being opposed to a Jewish State, and the day-to-day behaviour of anti-Zionists. Several attendees suggested very logical reasons that people might be anti-Zionists. They referenced the small number of anti-Zionist Jews today, and they also discussed the opposition to Zionism amongst Jewish groups and leaders at the start of the twentieth century. On this side of the debate were a handful of individuals whose anti-Zionism was more general. They argued that there should be no such thing as a religious state, or even that all nation-states were irrelevant in an era of global issues such as climate change and migration.


But after outlining all of this, several voices in the room raised concerns. Their counter-argument accepted all of these objections to Zionism, but highlighted that actual anti-Zionists tended to speak a different language. Actual anti-Zionists, rather than engaging with theories about nation-states, were much more likely to invoke hatred, hostility, or antisemitism. According to the esteemed speakers in the room, actual anti-Zionism on both sides of the political spectrum was quick to descend into caricatures of Israel that invoked Nazi imagery, or conspiracy theories about global, financial elites. There was a clear distinction drawn between the softly spoken (often Jewish) intellectuals who opposed Zionism, and the (almost never Jewish) flag-burning, Intifada-praising anti-Zionists.


More Definitions

Back in 2004, Jewish Political Discoveries Review put forward Natan Sharansky’s "3D test for antisemitism", which asks three questions of an anti-Zionist statement to work out whether or not it is antisemitic:

Does the statement delegitimize Israel? (Does it question the Jews’ right to self-determination?)
Does the statement demonize Israel? (Does it turn Israel into a sort of demon or monster, or call Israelis evil or demonic? Does it draw upon antisemitic conspiracies of "blood libel"? Does it suggest that Israel is responsible for all problems in the world?
Does the statement invoke double standards? (If the country in question were not Israel, would people still say the same things and be equally outraged?)

During the ThinkIn, a generous amount of attention was paid to the notion of double standards, which was Sharansky’s third ‘D’. This was an attempt often to make sense of the flag-burning, Intifada-praising anti-Zionists that I mentioned above, and it was a helpful tool to understand the relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. For many non-Jewish attendees, this element of the discussion was particularly useful, because it began to allow them to understand why antisemitism is different from other forms of racism. It also was the springboard for further conversation about power, powerlessness and elites, all of which are drenched in antisemitic connotations.


Still, it would have been helpful to have looked at the other two ‘Ds’ from Sharansky’s model, or indeed to look at other definitions of antisemitism, like the IHRA Working Definition. So much of what is dangerous within anti-Zionism are the drawings of Netanyahu, complete with horns, or even the way in which legitimate institutions like universities feel comfortable to question the Jewish right to self determination.


Again, I imagine that FZY’s members may have a range of opinions about what might constitute antisemitism. Nevertheless, we cannot be engaging in debates like these without rigorously entertaining questions about where to draw those lines.



Tortoise’s ThinkIns may well be the future of journalism. The discussion was slow, methodical, thoughtful, and still lively. There was a real sense that people in the room were not just defending their chosen corner, but seeking an answer to a difficult question. As this, and other challenging debates continue to face us, my message to our bogrim and our engaged members is to help form and mould the answers, wherever they may be produced. In my opinion, slow, thoughtful engagement will leave us well informed and will ensure that we are well placed to continue FZY’s mission.

112 views

FZY is proudly supported by the UJIA.

© FZY.