The news that the man responsible for the shootings in Toulouse claims to be a member of al-Qaida and says that killing Jews was his way of avenging the deaths of Palestinian children is bound to set off a fresh round of debate over the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism and whether the two can be separated or if the former is just a cover for the latter. To be clear, by anti-Zionism I do not mean criticism of Israel but the delegitimization of Israel and the position that it has no right to exist. It’s a really difficult question and something with which I often grapple. On the one hand, it seems from a logical standpoint that the two concepts can be distinct – Jews are a people, Israel is a state, and since the two categories overlap but are not completely parallel, someone who opposes Israel does not necessarily oppose all Jews. Jeff Weintraub has thoughtfully touched on this issue in the past, arguing that an analytical distinction exists despite the fact that those who argue as such are often doing it insincerely. It is well known that there was a genuine split within the Diaspora Jewish community in the early 20th century over the question of Zionism and whether it was a movement that Jews should support. As someone who tries to think through things rationally and logically, I understand this argument and I accept it intellectually even while categorically rejecting anti-Zionism and what it stands for.
And yet. Why is it that the most depraved attacks on Jews now all come under the guise of anti-Zionism? I have no doubt at all that Mohammed Merah hates Jews qua Jews, yet he did not attempt to justify his homicidal actions by referring to classical anti-Semitic tropes but rather by Israel’s behavior toward Palestinians. If we stick with the theme of making logical distinctions and categorizing concepts correctly, in what sphere of logic does it follow that Jewish schoolchildren in France should have to answer for the actions of the Israeli government? Israel defines itself as a Jewish state and thus the argument that a fanatic like Merah makes is that all Jews are to be held responsible when Israel causes Palestinian deaths, but this of course blows up any distinction that exists between Jews and Israel and leaves us back at the conclusion that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are one and the same.
It is not entirely fair to let a violent killer like Merah be the spokesperson for the anti-Zionist movement, so moving off him for the moment, there is still an emerging and growing strain of argument that explains away attacks on Jews by referencing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At some point, anti-Zionists need to explain how to resolve this gap – if anti-Zionism is distinct from anti-Semitism, how does anyone ever arrive at the conclusion that non-Israeli Jews are somehow understandably targets of violence? And relatedly, if the argument is that it is Jews’ fault for their association and embrace of Israel, then doesn’t that effectively mean that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are different terms describing the same concept? It seems to me that anti-Zionists – even if they genuinely do not believe that their position is an anti-Semitic one and harbor no ill will toward Jews – need to come to grips with the consequences of their stance and deal with the inescapable fact that when people murder or harass Jews in the service of exacting revenge on Israel, anti-Zionism ceases to be a meaningful distinction.
Would love to hear some thoughts on this from both sides.