Is anti-Zionism anti-Semitism?

Is anti-Zionism anti-Semitism?
5 min read
29 Apr, 2016
Comment: Remarks made by NUS President Malia Bouattia may be anti-Zionist, but conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is dangerous and wrong, says Hilary Aked.
The younger generation of Jews are increasingly turning away from Zionism [Anadolu]

The British press has been awash in recent weeks with claims that leading figures on the left have made anti-Semitic statements.

In some cases straightforwardly racist comments have indeed been made and concerns rightfully raised. But others have in fact been expressions of anti-Zionism. Comments made by Malia Bouattia, the new president-elect of the UK’s National Union of Students - the first ever black woman to hold the role – is perhaps the most prominent example in this latter category.

The media has allowed room for those who explicitly assert that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are the “same thing”. But this conflation is dangerous and wrong. It attempts to elide a political movement (Jewish nationalism), with an ethno-religious identity (Judaism). Apart from being analytically flawed, it is also empirically baseless.

Zionist ideology has many strands but all variants of political Zionism are united by a belief in the rectitude of a nation state for Jews. Theodor Herzl’s 1896 tract Der Judenstaat provided one of the most influential early statements of this movement, which has not existed for much more than a century and which was, for almost half of that time, a very marginal political movement within Jewish communities.

Though today it is true that a majority of Jews would probably say they support Zionism, there are still a significant minority who do not and never have, for a variety of both, religious and political reasons.

The media has allowed room for those who explicitly assert that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are the “same thing”.

Moreover, the younger generation is increasingly turning away from Zionism even in its theoretical, abstract form, precisely because of what actually existing Zionism - embodied in the modern state of Israel – does in practice, and has been doing for decades. Witness, for instance the recent growth of Jewish Voice for Peace in the US, which advocates Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) to pressure Israel into respecting the rights of the Palestinians.

In the United States in particular, the Zionist political movement today relies heavily on Christian Zionism. As the Jewish Socialists Group pithily summed it up: not all Jews are Zionists and not all Zionists are Jews.

Yet because she distinguished between Judaism and Zionism, Bouattia was accused by Hannah Weisfeld from liberal Zionist group Yachad of displaying a “lack of understanding of Jewish identity”. This is a weaker version of the thesis that the two concepts are synonymous. Regrettably, it is in fact Weisfeld’s comments which risk fomenting anti-Semitism by seeming to imply that all Jewish people are somehow intrinsically linked to Israel’s oppressive actions.

This notion has actually been dismissed before in a UK court. When lecturer Ronnie Fraser alleged that his union was anti-Semitic for considering a boycott of Israel, his claims were rejected and the court noted that “belief in the Zionist project or an attachment to Israel…is not intrinsically a part of Jewishness”.

If, then, anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, what is it?

In its earliest incarnations, the Zionist movement - which developed in the context of British and European imperialism in the Middle East - recognised itself to be a colonial movement; one of its earliest institutions, for example, was named the Jewish Colonization Authority. Meanwhile, Herzl himself wrote to British colonialist Cecil Rhodes – whose statue in Oxford University has become the symbol of a rising anti-racist movement there – appealing for support for his project, which he called a “colonial” one.

The younger generation is increasingly turning away from Zionism even in its theoretical, abstract form, precisely because of what actually existing Zionism has been doing for decades.

But as anti-colonial movements across the world emerged and won freedom, pro-Israel groups saw the need to re-brand Zionism. They have done so very effectively; today, Zionism is presented as a “liberation movement” and anti-Zionists are accused of denying Israel’s “right to exist”, though there exists no such concept in international law.

This is all despite the fact that the Palestinian people’s most basic rights – among countless others to live, to return to their homes, to freedom of movement – are, and have been for decades, denied. Incredibly, we are encouraged to believe that it is not the ethnically exclusivist nation state responsible for these abuses that is dangerous; but those who criticise the Zionist ideology underpinning this regime.

Importantly, this is not to say that anti-Zionists cannot be anti-Semitic. Sometimes the two do overlap. Nor does it preclude acknowledgement of the fact that, after the horrors of the Holocaust, growing support for Zionism in principle was in many ways understandable.

But Zionism is not merely an abstract question and most anti-Zionists are not attempting “to deny Jewish people the right to self-determination”, as it is often today framed. They simply point out the historical fact that this was realised - through the creation of the state of Israel – and has been maintained, at the expense of the indigenous inhabitants of the land.

As Palestinians prepare to mark the 68th anniversary of the Nakba it is time that more people in the West learnt that one of Zionism’s main ‘achievements’ was the ethnic cleansing of 700,000 Palestinians, who remain refugees, along with their descendants, today.

Faced with the demise of the two state paradigm and the re-emergence of the one state solution idea – which would mean an end to the Zionist project – as well as the growth of BDS, the renewed attempt to equate anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is a fundamentally desperate move by Israel’s supporters.

In fact the strong anti-racist records of people like Malia Bouattia are entirely consistent with opposition to Zionism. Palestinians are oppressed by the state of Israel specifically on the basis of their ethnic identity. From Jewish-only roads to the illegal settlements (colonies), de facto Zionism has meant a society based on ethnic privilege for one group and subordination for another. Anti-Zionism today is nothing more or less than opposition to Israel as a settler-colonial state.  

Hilary Aked is an analyst and researcher whose PhD studies focus on the influence of the Israel lobby in the United Kingdom. Follow her on Twitter: @Hilary_Aked

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.