Anti-Zionism as a prerequisite for antisemitism

Nowadays, “Zionist” is often used as a derogatory term. Both the white-nationalist Right and the woke Left use it interchangeably with “Jew.” Deliberate or not, the term avoids being characterized as antisemitic. With the unsavory depiction of Zionism on social media, many young North American Jews have become reluctant to identify as Zionists.

From Soviet propaganda to contemporary university campuses, Zionism has been used as a slur. To avoid being labeled antisemitic, perpetrators claim a detachment of Zionists from Jews. Recently, I had a conversation with a fellow student about Judaism that rapidly devolved to them saying, with a smile, “I won’t ask if you’re a Zionist, we don’t need to go there.”

Weeks prior, I was told by someone else he had nothing against me as a Jew but that as a Zionist, he had no respect for my beliefs, as they were automatically racist and supremacist. Were these encounters malicious or intentionally antisemitic?

I think situations like these come from ignorance. This attempt to detach Zionism from Judaism, despite their inextricable connection, for the purposes of criticizing Zionism and not Jews or Judaism in general, speaks to ignorance about what Zionism is.

Before defining Zionism, let’s examine what anti-Zionism looks like. In November 2022, a student group at UC Berkeley Law School decided to ban speakers who identify as Zionists. Anti-Zionists’ real problem with Israel is not policy or annexation of disputed regions but its very existence. In January, hundreds protested at the University of Michigan, chanting: “There is only one solution, Intifada, revolution!” – “Intifada” refers to the waves of suicide bombings and stabbings by Palestinian terror groups against Israeli civilians in the 1990s and 2000s.

There is also the popular chant: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” – a call for the complete dismantling of Israel, not from the 1967 disputed borders but from the entire region. The vast majority of North American Jews identify as Zionists and support Israel’s right to exist.

Jews on campuses feel unsafe and threatened by these demonstrations, condemning the very existence of the only Jewish nation in the world and advocating for its destruction. Historically, anti-Zionism precedes antisemitic attacks: Jews imprisoned in the Soviet Union are persecuted and ethnically cleansed from Arab countries following the establishment of Israel and Jewish people in the Diaspora today are being harassed and held accountable for Israeli policy.

As with any country, critiquing Israel’s policies or actions is expected and not antisemitic but this isn’t what anti-Zionists do. Natan Sharansky distinguishes legitimate criticism versus antisemitism with three Ds: delegitimization, demonization and double standards.

Critiquing Israel doesn’t mean you’re an anti-Zionist

THOSE WHO deny Israel’s very right to exist use classic, age-old, cruelly outlandish antisemitic tropes when referring to Israel or hold Israel to different standards than they hold other nations and are crossing over into antisemitism. These are clear criteria but an issue remains: many people do not even know what Zionism is.

Critiquing Israel doesn’t mean you’re an anti-Zionist. No one opposes Russia’s right to exist following the invasion of Ukraine or the United States’ right to exist following Trump’s Muslim ban. Even Iran is spared despite the regime’s danger to the world. Criticizing a country’s actions does not mean opposing its very existence and advocating for its destruction.

That is exactly what Zionism is: the belief in Israel’s right to exist; specifically, the support for Jewish self-determination in the ancestral home of the Jewish people, Israel (a.k.a. Zion). Being a Zionist does not require supporting Netanyahu or annexation of the West Bank. Nor does it require unequivocally supporting all of Israel’s actions. It simply means supporting Israel’s existence as the revived homeland of the Jews.

Zionism is the modern-day manifestation of the over two-thousand-year-old Jewish aspirations to return home. Despite what some think, it doesn’t ignore the existence or legitimacy of Palestinians. The founders of the political Zionist movement were secular socialists who deeply believed in peace and prosperity for all peoples of the land.

Many Jews and Israelis support the self-determination and aspirations of the Palestinian people, as well. Zionism has always been a diverse spectrum but the common denominator is the support for the existence of a Jewish state in the indigenous 3500-year-old homeland of the Jewish people.

Zionists get to define their own word. Just as Jews get to define when they feel threatened (antisemitism); Black people get to define anti-Black racism and Muslims get to define Islamophobia. So, if you are anti-Zionist and deny the Jewish people the right to self-determination – a right you support for all other peoples – then you are antisemitic. If more people understood that, there would be fewer people identifying as anti-Zionists and there would simply be people critical of aspects of Israel.

Anti-Zionism is a form of antisemitism; not always out of ill intent but often from ignorance to a term regularly spewed but rarely defined clearly.

The question for discussion is:

Do anti-zionists deny that anti-semites use anti-zionism as a cover for their their hatred?