The Guardian • Issue #2076

Criticism of Israel and Zionism is not antisemitism

Photo: Alisdare Hickson – (CC BY-NC 2.0)

On 13th October SkyNews asked former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett about the plight of Palestinians in Gaza. Bennett shouted back “are you serious? these people “are Nazis.” The use of “Nazis,” “evil,” “monsters,” and “human animals” demonises and de-humanises Palestinians, allowing Israel to carry out revenge with impunity. As Raz Segal writes in “A Textbook Case of Genocide,” in Jewish Currents, Israel is carrying out genocide on the Palestinian people: no food, no water, no power, and no hope. In a letter to the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh wrote that “Israeli atrocities amount to war crimes.”

As policy, Israel considers any criticism of its violent acts against Palestinians  to be antisemitism.  Antisemitism is discrimination against or hostility towards Jews. The US Anti-Defamation League (ADL) accuses critics of Israel of antisemitism in the following circumstances; all Jews are held responsible for the actions of Israel, Israel is denied the right to exist as a Jewish state, or when critics use antisemitic symbols and images. The ADL sees the Jewish people as having the right to self-determination, a universal right afforded to others.

However, the ADL also sees any anti-Israel comments as an extreme form of ‘anti-Zionism.’ Is that the same as antisemitism?

Zionism is a relatively modern Jewish political movement, which believes that all Jews are one nation, not simply a religious or ethnic community. Zionists hold that the only solution to antisemitism is the establishment of a Jewish state, Israel.

Israel equates anti-Zionism with antisemitism, based on three arguments. First, that opposition to the Zionist state is antisemitic because it denies a Jewish state the right to exist. Second, that anti-Zionism seeks to remove Israel’s right to statehood, thereby politically dispossessing its nine million citizens. Third, that anti-Zionists are always also antisemites. None of these arguments stand up to scrutiny.

Israel is a Zionist state that uses religious beliefs to justify its existence. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel occupied Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. On 10th November 1975, the United Nations General Assembly passed the “Zionism is Racism” resolution, equating Zionism with racism and apartheid. Criticising Israel, a Zionist state, for its inhumane treatment of Palestinians is not antisemitism.

Zionism is a form of ethnic nationalism, which denies equality to non-Jews who live under Israeli control. Israel’s claim that all peoples have a right to self-determination does not include Palestinians. Israel has a population of 1.9 million Arab Israelis (21 per cent of the population), who refer to themselves as Israeli-Palestinians. There are 5 million non-citizens, Palestinians, who live under Israeli control in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, without basic rights. If they all gained citizenship, the Jewish state would not have a Jewish majority.

A commission created by the Israeli government in 2003 described Israel’s handling of the Arab sector as “discriminatory.” For Palestinians, Zionism represents political dispossession. Palestinians are not anti-Zionist because they have a hatred of Jews. They are anti-Zionist because Zionism is behind their loss of their country.

To seek to replace Israel’s ethnic nationalism with civic nationalism, is not racist or antisemitic. In 2019 three Palestinian members of the Knesset introduced a bill to turn Israel from a Jewish state into a “state for all its citizens.” Jamal Zahalka, explained: “We do not deny Israel or its right to exist as a home for Jews … . The state should exist in the framework of equality, and not in the framework of preference and superiority.”

Anti-Zionism and antisemitism do not always go together. In 2018 Avrum Burg, former speaker of Israel’s Knesset, argued that the Jewish settlements in the West Bank had rendered the two-state solution impossible saying that “Israel must belong to all of its residents, including Arabs, not to the Jews alone.” Meron Benvenisti the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Gideon Levy the Haaretz columnist, and the Federation Movement, all Jewish, have all criticised Israeli Zionist policies towards Palestinians, but they are not antisemitic. There are also Ultra-Orthodox Jews who oppose Zionism for religious reasons.

Antisemitism is an irrational and abhorrent prejudice, as are all forms of racism. Anti-Zionism, like criticism of Israel, is being against an ethnonationalism and apartheid system which has caused serious harm to Palestinian people, and which will ultimately harm Israel itself.

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