Does Anti-Zionism=Antisemitism?

Arguments about whether anti-Zionists are antisemitic are part of the broader international
debate about how to define antisemitism. An
ADL report states unequivocally that “anti-Zionism is indeed antisemitism.” Peter Beinart strenuously objects to this idea in The Guardian, arguing that “Anti-Zionism is not inherently antisemitic” -– and claiming it “uses Jewish suffering to erase the Palestinian experience.”

TTN asked David Schraub, a law professor who has written extensively on definitions of
antisemitism, to help our readers sort out the claims and counter-claims. Here is his analysis:

“Is Anti-Zionism antisemitic?” Rarely has a question been so important without it being entirely clear what the relevant words mean. The answer depends almost entirely on the meaning ascribed to two words often defined differently depending upon the viewpoint of the user–“Zionism” and “antisemitism.”

The latter term’s definition is being hotly debated; I’ll leave that controversy aside for now (as one of the drafters of the Nexus Definition, my crack at the term is publicly available). But “Zionism” is at least as beset with ambiguity, engendering intense animosity.

And the problem isn’t just that “Zionism” itself has many meanings. It’s that many speakers and commentators flit—sometimes unintentionally, sometimes opportunistically—from one meaning to another within the same conversation. The result is that, in most debates over whether “anti- Zionism is antisemitic,” we have little idea about what we’re debating.

Definitions of Zionism

Consider a few potential definitions:

  • “Zionism” is the policy set of the current Israeli government.
  • “Zionism” is the broad sweep of policies that characterize how the Israeli state generally operates across history (and different governments).
  • “Zionism” is the belief in the validity of an autonomous Jewish state in Israel.
  • “Zionism” is the belief in the Jewish right to self-determination.

As one moves down the list, the charge of antisemitism for anti-[that form of] Zionism becomes increasingly plausible. It is hard to argue that opposing the policies of the current Israeli government is, by necessity, antisemitic (though some no doubt will try). And it is hard to argue that denying Jews any right to self-determination, via any mechanism, is not antisemitic (though again, some will eagerly accept the challenge). In the middle things get muddier.

And that ambiguity can easily be exploited. One frequently hears a certain type of anti-Zionist who quite clearly denounces the very existence of the state of Israel—i.e., someone whose anti-“Zionism” is of the third or fourth type—respond to allegations of antisemitism by scurrying back to the first or second iteration: “oh, so you’re saying any criticism of Israeli policies is antisemitic?”

But one also frequently hears a certain form of Zionist who, after solemnly intoning that “Zionism” is naught but a word denoting the project of Jewish self-determination, proceeds to declare that attacks on particular Israeli policies they deem too harsh or intemperate are tantamount to attacks on the very “legitimacy” of the state and thereby incidents of the forbidden, antisemitic anti-Zionism.

Both sides use relatively innocuous points as cover for extreme positions: hardline anti-Zionists, who oppose Israel’s existence, hide behind the incontestable point that straightforward criticism of Israel is not antisemitic; far-right Zionists, who want Israel to have carte blanche dominion over the Palestinians, begin with the right of the Jewish people to self-determination.

Inaccurate Conceptions of ‘Zionism’

Yet the problem is not merely one of opportunism. When I hear someone condemn “Zionists,” I cringe because I take that term to encompass the wide spectrum of Jews who don’t oppose the existence of Israel outright; I have no quarrel with sharply criticizing the narrower band of Jews who support things like settlement growth or indefinite occupation. In fact, many people who are “Zionists” according to the third or fourth definition described above—including me—are stridently opposed to a slew of contemporary and historical Israeli policies. Using those definitions, the vast majority of Jews are “Zionist,” while a minority are uncritical backers of the right-wing Israeli governmental policies.

But I have personally encountered colleagues—well-educated, thoughtful, and sensitive
colleagues—who earnestly assumed that “Zionism” referred only to the ultras in Israeli society. When a friend of mine who held such a view said she opposed the “Zionists,” she thought she was referring only to right-wing nationalists; she clearly understood that most Jews support the existence of the state of Israel and had no quarrel with Jews holding that affinity.

Her assumption was that Zionism was less akin to India’s independence from Britain, based on the principle of collective self-determination, and more analogous to Hindutva—the particular iteration of current reactionary nationalism in India. Although we used the word “Zionism” differently, in practice my friend and I landed in the same place in our objections to many current Israeli policies sitting alongside recognition of the underlying legitimacy of Jewish self-determination in Israel.

This gap in the understanding of “Zionism” is exploited by savvier anti-Zionist operators, who very much want to exclude the bulk of Jews who identify as “Zionist” in the broad sense and leverage the mass assumption that in attacking “Zionism” they’re only taking on the reactionary right fringe. This shuffle-move is one of the most insidious and dangerous mechanisms by which “anti-Zionism” does enact genuine anti-Jewish exclusion. But in my friend’s defense, it was not mere naivete or deception that caused her to come to her understanding of what Zionism meant. Given the loudest voices who call themselves “Zionist” and how they use the term, I can’t quite bring myself to say that her mistake was an unreasonable one.

So the gravity of the question “is anti-Zionism antisemitic” can be dissipated if people are just clear on saying what they mean. My friend was gracious enough, upon learning that what she understood “Zionism” to mean was not often shared by Jewish interlocutors, to simply drop the word. After all, the problem was merely one of terminology—none of her actual positions on Israel required the label “anti-Zionist,” and indeed, she was not “anti-” the Zionism held by most American Jews.

But the simplicity of this solution makes it worth asking what utility the word “Zionism” has in the bulk of contemporary debates about Israel, given the reality that Israel does exist and does stand as an instantiation of Jewish self-determination. No doubt there are some people who bitterly resent that fact, and whose fondest dream is to unmake that reality. But the vast majority of practical debates about Israel are not about this foundational question.

Is ‘Zionism’ Still a Meaningful Term?

One hears in some quarters the provocative argument that the word “Zionist,” in the contemporary world, is obsolete. The Jewish state exists, the mission was accomplished in 1948. Now the germane questions are how that state should behave and what Jews ourselves ought to determine.

The process of answering those questions is not aided by raw assertions that “Jews have the right to self-determination.” That transforms what should be normal policy disagreements and critiques that might beset any nation into existential arguments about the very existence of the Jewish state. One can believe that there remain those who wish the Jewish state abolished while also recognizing that in 2023 ending the occupation simply does not threaten the very survival of a militarily-advanced, nuclear-armed Israeli state.

Framing the issue of occupation in terms of imminent extinction, as if were 1948 or even 1973, is an exercise in self-delusion. Bringing “Zionism” into the equation, and treating ordinary controversies and contretemps about Israeli government policies as if they’re all one step towards liquidation of the state, distorts far more than it clarifies.

On the other side of the debate, we can ask those who insist on targeting “Zionism” why that term is so essential. “What does ‘anti-Zionist’ do for you that other words don’t?” Contrary to the assumption that the bulk of the Jewish community reflexively deems virtually all “criticism of Israel” as antisemitic, recent polling suggests that even the harshest criticisms of Israeli policies—accusations of “apartheid” or even “genocide”—are not widely viewed as antisemitic amongst the American Jewish community.

The major outlier that is overwhelmingly viewed as antisemitic is the contention that Israel has no “right to exist”—a claim that unabashedly attacks the type of “Zionism” that truly is broadly shared amongst Jews and which goes beyond support or defense of any particular policy. Only if one wishes to target that consensus—the right of Jews to self-determination, a right equally guaranteed Jews and Palestinians alike—does one absolutely need the label “anti-Zionist” to function, and so it is not unreasonable that Jews who sees the label “anti-Zionist” understand the bearer as urging extirpation of Israel outright.

It seems there is a chance for a grand bargain to be struck: disavowing the “anti-Zionism” that demands Israel’s outright dissolution, in exchange for even the harsh substantive criticisms remaining in play. And for the rump remainder who insist on holding the line and saying Zionism—not the occupation, not unequal rights, not settlements, but Zionism—is the problem, well, for that group the antisemitism charge does I think become more feasible.

Such speakers, in my experience, tend to take a little too much pleasure in seeing their Jewish interlocutors squirm. The desire to see Israel change its policies is legitimate; the thrill in making Jews wonder if they will return to their frequent historical status of being politically and socially subjugated is not.

So to a large extent, the question “Is anti-Zionism antisemitic” resolves down to the most boring answer possible: it depends. It depends on what people mean by “Zionism,” and it depends on what people mean by “antisemitism.” But it’s far from clear that “Zionism,” as a term, has much in the way of salutary rhetorical value.

For the “Zionists,” framing contemporary controversy as questions of Zionism vs. anti-Zionism dramatically raises the stakes of basic political disputes, making anything and everything a matter of existential survival. For the “anti-Zionists,” the ambiguity behind the term “Zionism” is regularly exploited as a mechanism of exclusion; they smuggle in broad-based attacks on the Jewish community as a whole while pretending to target only a narrower band of reactionary conservatism. Neither maneuver has lent itself to salutary debate over justice in Israel and Palestine. So perhaps it’s best we find a way to move past it.