It May Be Time to Go Beyond Zionism


Photo of Israeli settlers harassing Palestinian farmers under the protection of the IDF.

While it is entirely possible to be both anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic, the two are not coterminous. Anti-Semitism is a collective mental illness that has destroyed millions of lives. Anti-Zionism is a critical political framework and potentially a moral stance. To be Jewish and critical of Zionism is not to hate oneself, but rather, to have the courage to go against the grain of conventional wisdom and speak truth to the misuse of power and passions.

The madness of anti-Semitism is on the rise again, of that there can be no doubt. Among the dark forces of nativism and white supremacy that Donald Trump’s election unleashed in 2016 is the irrational hatred of Jews and Judaism. Only a few years ago, most Americans could not imagine seeing Swastika flags held aloft–and even used as weapons–in public demonstrations. But nearly two years ago, during the “Alt-Right protest” in Charlottesville, Virginia, we indeed saw such images, and even more chilling, the sight of hundreds of white men marching with torches held high in the night shouting “Jews will not replace us!” And just four months ago in Pittsburgh (my hometown), this hate again erupted horrifically when a gunman shouting anti-Semitic epithets burst into a synagogue during Sabbath services and shot dead eleven worshippers. It was the worst act of violence against Jews in the history of the United States. Clearly, something toxic has been unleashed into the public realm in America, and not to speak out against it is a dereliction of civic and moral duty.

In Europe, too, anti-Semitism is rising, as evidenced by the increasing vandalism of cemeteries and synagogues, and in the discourse of leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and growing far-right groups in Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden. (Oddly, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his far-right government are happy to cozy up to Orban.) For the last month, though, most news headlines in the United States focusing on anti-Semitism abroad have centered on the British Labour Party. It seems odd that a party devoted to social justice and anti-racism would suddenly become a hot-bed of anti-Semitism and mutual recriminations between the party’s leadership and its rank and file, but the Labour Party is now in danger of splitting apart, and several Labour party MPs, some of them Jewish, have resigned from the party to form a new group. Some friends in the United Kingdom see this as cynical attempt to divide Labour because Jeremy Corbyn is vocally—and justly—pro-Palestinian. Others express frustration, and even anxiety, about anti-Semitic tendencies and discourses among some Labour party leaders. The situation is certainly more complex and troubling than a quick glance at Twitter would suggest, and what many perceive as anti-Semitism is likely the result of insensitivity and essentializing tendencies among Labour leaders that ought to be checked.

Similarly, the government of Emmanuel Macron in France, under pressure from the gilets jaunes’ (yellow vests) protests, has singled out anti-Semitic factions within this wide and amorphous movement for special concern and legal action, even going to the extreme of making anti-Zionism a criminal offence. Anti-Semitic discourses and platforms should be singled out for unequivocal public approbation. But it seems unlikely that large swathes of the French public could suddenly have become virulent anti-Semites overnight. While some of the gilets jaunes’ views and discourses are indeed anti-Semitic, it’s just too convenient for Macron to dismiss and delegitimize an entire movement mobilized by the inequalities of globalization with this accusation. Meanwhile, on the right in France, Marine Le Pen, daughter of an infamous Holocaust denier, is now on good terms with Netanyahu’s Likud government. It is all quite mind-boggling.

Here in the United States, Democratic Muslim congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota again finds herself in the cross-hairs of accusations of anti-Semitism for supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and for justifiably criticizing the pro-Israel lobby’s outsized influence on congressional campaign financing and constraints on open debate about Israel. American Jews are among both Omar’s supporters as well as her detractors. I do not believe that Omar is anti-Semitic in the least; her stances are grounded in a commitment to social justice, and are of accord with her political stances about pressing domestic concerns in the United States. Further, her recent comments about “loyalty to foreign governments” has been taken out of context and twisted in media coverage.

Yet it is necessary to examine closely accusations of anti-Semitism, and to distinguish between irrational hatred of Jews and valid (and overdue) criticisms of the state of Israel, more precisely, US support for Israeli violations of international humanitarian law. Israel does not represent or stand for all Jewish communities in the world. Clearly, dissent over Zionism within the Jewish community in the United States reveals a growing divide between young and progressive Jews on one hand, and older pro-Israel groups and individuals on the other, many of whom comprise the senior leadership of the Democratic leadership in Congress. As the Democratic party moves further to the left in the run-up to the 2020 election, which the Democrats must win in order to rescue the United States from the disaster of the Trump presidency, a frank discussion of the differences between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is imperative if the Democratic party is to avoid the tumult and chaos now engulfing the UK’s Labour party.

The situations in the US and the UK are not comparable, though. The British Jewish community is small, and divided equally between left and right. While the Jewish community in the United States is larger, more unified, and generally supportive of the Democratic party, the largest base of US support for Israel is found on the right of the American political spectrum. Christian Evangelicals support Israel unconditionally, and the pro-Israel lobby both nurtures and depends upon them to ensure that pro-Likud politicians and policies prevail on Capitol Hill. Evangelicals, though, are indeed anti-Semites who view the establishment of Israel as a necessary step paving the way for the return of Jesus Christ and the dawn of the End Times. In this bizarre and corrupted Christian theology, Jews must be ingathered into the Holy Land before Jesus can return and the Rapture can happen. Jews who do not accept Christ will be cast into the fires of Hell along with other non-believers. Large and well-organized groups like Christians United for Israel (CUFI) spew this insane discourse, and the US pro-Israel lobby is more than happy to ally with them, which is a dangerous game in the current nativist and racist US environment. So, some forms of anti-Semitism are quite acceptable to and instrumental for the pro-Israel lobby in US politics. Evangelicals, though, are rarely accused of anti-Semitism in mainstream discourse, because they are absolutely crucial to congressional support for the worst excesses of the Israeli government.

In early 2001, as I was writing the final chapters of my doctoral dissertation about Palestinian identity formation and municipal politics in Nazareth, the largest all-Arab city in Israel, some Israeli intellectuals were writing about “post-Zionism.” [https://www.amazon.com/Postzionism-Reader-Laurence-Silberstein/dp/0813543479 ] I found their analyses and critiques very useful, not to mention hopeful, as I finished my dissertation, in which I noted that Zionism seriously constrains the human rights, dignity, and life-chances of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who then represented one-sixth of Israel’s population. The Al-Qaida attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September of that year, however, silenced these and similar discourses in US and Israeli academia, and anyone concerned with the future of either Israel or the Palestinian people should review this literature. My own view is that the fairest solution to the nightmare of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a secular one-state solution. For most Americans, though, this is a pipe-dream that elicits sardonic laughter, and it is probably unacceptable at present among most Israelis and Palestinians.

Having lived in Israel for 18 months, though, I can state unequivocally that anyone whose anti-Zionist commitments entail the removal of all Jews from Palestine is living in a dangerous dream world, and I’d wager that most of my Palestinian friends inside Israel would agree with me. But Israelis, and those who support them, must grapple honestly with the racist and murderous policies and practices of the Israeli government—whether under the Likud or Labour. The Israeli Army’s merciless serial assaults on the besieged people of Gaza has led some of my Jewish friends in the United States to see Zionism as part of the problem, not a solution. As an Israeli lawyer told me during my field research, “Zionism was meant to distinguish, not to discriminate, between Jews and non-Jews. But in practice, any non-Jew on the receiving end of Zionism cannot help but feel discriminated against and treated unfairly.” If a safe homeland for the Jewish people is predicated on the suffering of Palestinians, and worse, the silencing of their suffering, Zionism is a failed project deserving of serious critique and open debate.

It appears that the current Israeli government and its supporters in the United States and the United Kingdom are actively weaponizing the notion that anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism. Honest and open debate is imperative in the lead-up to the 2020 elections, and the possibilities for creating broader-based alliances and a renewed commitment to human rights hang in the balance. The Democratic party must resist the tendencies to see any criticism of Israel as inherently anti-Semitic. At the same time, those criticizing Israel should be very sensitive to the anxieties of Jews who have experienced millennia of persecution. Conscious and well-considered critiques of Zionism should be a key component of the Democrats’ platform in 2020. Perhaps it is time to reframe the debate not as “anti-Zionist,” but as “post-Zionist.”

Laurie King is a professor of anthropology at Georgetown University and a member of ACW’s Academic Advisory Board. This article appears on Dr. King’s blog and has also been translated into Arabic and published in al-Modon in Beirut.