It’s been a pretty terrible run recently for British politicians who like to wear their opposition to Israel as a badge of honor. The former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, paved the way for the deluge in the course of defending his colleague Naz Shah – herself suspended for anti-Semitic ravings – with his fever dream conspiracy theory that Hitler supported Zionism “before he went mad.” This opened the floodgates, and now it turns out that fifty Labour Party members have been suspended for anti-Semitism and racism (although dollars to donuts the racism part of the Venn diagram that does not overlap with anti-Semitism is nearly non-existent), with surely more to come. This is before one even begins to mention Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who himself has a dodgy history of giving cover to Hamas and Hizballah, defending 9/11 conspiracy theorists who blame the attacks on the Mossad, and cavorting with Holocaust deniers.
The vitriolic rot is not limited to the other side of the pond. Right here at home, there has been Harvard Law student Husam El-Qoulaq asking Israeli MK and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni why she is “so smelly;” the questioner at the Bernie Sanders rally who asserted that “Zionist Jews” run the U.S. economy and control American political campaigns; the UCLA student who was initially barred from joining the student judicial board because her Jewish heritage would allegedly prevent her from fairly considering cases related to Israel activism and BDS; and countless others. All of this has naturally reinvigorated a long-running debate on whether anti-Semitism can be distinct from anti-Zionism – a topic I briefly weighed in on years ago – and how to oppose Zionism without it bleeding over into opposing Jews writ large.
The question is important both intellectually and practically, but it is the wrong question. The question of the moment shouldn’t be whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, but why anti-Zionism as it is being practiced is considered to be within the bounds of acceptability at all, irrespective of the anti-Semitism angle. Whenever someone draws an unwarranted spotlight these days for traversing the thin red line between denouncing Israel versus denouncing Jews, there is an immediate race to say that the offending comments or actions are not anti-Semitic, only anti-Zionist. The unsaid implication is that wholesale delegitimization of Israel is fine so long as it does not extend to Jews as a group, but it is unclear to me why this is somehow seen as a legitimate way of distinguishing cases; the virulence of many of these instances of anti-Zionism is just as ugly as straight anti-Semitism.
Go back and take another look at the various recent examples at the top of this piece. With the exception of the UCLA incident, one can pretty easily make a cogent argument that none of these are anti-Semitic. That doesn’t make them alright. We have arrived at a place where committed anti-Zionists must ask themselves not whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic or not, but whether anti-Zionism itself can be sustained in any real way that is not violently and offensively bigoted. Bigotry is the hatred and refusal to accept members of a particular group based on nothing but their inclusion in that group. The most widespread form of anti-Zionism, that seeks to boycott and hound Israelis no matter who they are or where they are, is bigotry, plain and simple. That it is directed at Israelis rather than Jews makes no difference. The laughable refrain that “Israel is the most brutal country on Earth and does not have a right to exist, but hey, I love Jews and have many Jewish friends, and by the way the best Jews are not Zionists” doesn’t send the message that you’re not anti-Semitic. It sends the message that you are a callous bigot, ignorant of history and any sense of factual proportion, who for some reason believes that hating Jews as a group is ok as long as you only hate the group of Jews who live in one particular place.
I will defend anyone’s right to criticize the Israeli government, and I exercise that right myself all the time (almost certainly too much for some readers’ tastes). The notion that some hold of supporting everything Israel does, right or wrong, is not one with which I identify. If the litmus test of what it means to be pro-Israel were applied to talking about the U.S., then literally every American I know would be classified as anti-American. I can understand – although I neither condone it nor agree with it – those who go further than mere criticism and boycott Prime Minister Netanyahu’s appearances because of their harsh disagreement with the Israeli government. But if you think that comparing Netanyahu to Hitler and Israelis to Nazis, or referring to Israeli politicians as olfactory nightmares, or barring Israelis from academic conferences around the world, is simply “criticism” that doesn’t cross a line of what should be acceptable in civilized company, you are badly in need of a history lesson, if not a lobotomy.
For the purposes of this exercise, lets give anti-Zionism the largest possible benefit of the doubt. Perhaps an anti-Zionism that claims to reject nationalism and decries Israel’s right to exist but at the same time endlessly shouts Free Palestine is not anti-Semitic. Perhaps an anti-Zionism that lauds Hamas as anti-colonial freedom fighters while whitewashing its annihilationist rhetoric against Jews – not Israelis, but Jews – is not anti-Semitic. Perhaps an anti-Zionism that has nothing to say about countries that forbid non-Muslims from entering entire cities or enact legislation based on religious law but that harps on Israeli immigration preferences for Jews is not anti-Semitic. Even if you grant all of that, it doesn’t make this anti-Zionism any less noxious, less offensive, less bigoted, or less dangerous. Anti-Semitism is a black scourge upon the face of human history, but the fact that it is singularly terrible does not make other forms of vile hatred any less worse than they actually are.