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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Anti-Zionism and antisemitism: Questioning, reflecting and understanding

We are living in a tense and terrifying time. This past month, protests around Palestine and Israel have flooded the nation, exploding both on college campuses and within the walls of the United States Congress. Conversations about antisemitism, political Zionism and the State of Israel have become commonplace. Debates, political confrontations and even violence have affected communities impacted by the conflict in Gaza and the West Bank. This has led to a noticeable splintering within political parties, religious spaces and even in the classroom. However, when people voice their political opinions about Palestine, too often they are silenced. [1] Anti-Zionist and anti-Israel sentiments have overwhelmingly been labeled as antisemitic, sparking disputes across the country.  

In this current moment, it is more important than ever to question the present narratives surrounding Israel. Therefore, I ask this question in good faith: Is anti-Zionism antisemitism? Exploring each term’s history, implications and impact on the world can reveal answers, if not more critical questions.

The Jewish people have existed long before the Zionist movement and the modern creation of the State of Israel. Antisemitism has existed far longer than anti-Zionism. Antisemitism, as defined by the Mirram-Webster dictonary, is “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic or racial group.” [2] These disgusting, abhorrent beliefs extend past stereotypes and myths—they show up in our world every day. Antisemitism has been tightly woven into countless societies across the globe, including the United States. You needn’t look much farther than the beliefs of white-nationalist groups or even comments made by our coveted politicians. It is an indisputable fact that Jewish people have and continue to face relentless and unjustified persecution that has extended over thousands of years.  

Zionism as an ideology has only existed since the late 1890s, when the “Jewish question” was being debated across Europe. Government officials and theorists alike were faced with deciding the best way to “deal with” the Jewish people. Some suggested assimilation into Christian societies, some proposed segregation and economic disenfranchisement, while others recommended the creation of a Jewish homeland. Theodor Herzl, an Austrian journalist, argued that Zionism was the solution to the rampant antisemitism across the globe. In his eyes, any other measures taken to address the contentious issue were irrational and unrealistic. Herzl proclaimed that Jewish people could only be safe if they were to form their own ethnostate. 

This belief is reinforced by Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who said in 2019 that Israel is “the national state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people,” as reported by NPR. [3] “Political” zionism has long been understood as a movement for the statehood and self-determination of the Jewish people. Herzel and his colleagues decided at the First Zionist Congress (in 1897) that Zionism called to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. [4]

Over the next century, Zionism expanded, with the formation of sects such as cultural, religious and diaspora Zionism. Not all Zionists are Jewish—interestingly enough, many hold antisemitic views. Recognized within the Christian Zionist movement are antisemitic sentiments, such as the belief that Jews must return to Israel to enable the Christian Messiah’s final coming. Afterwards, the majority of Jews in Israel are thought to be killed and condemned to hell. [5] Another group of antisemitic Zionists can be found within white supremacist circles, where supporters endorse Zionism as a method of expelling Jews from the countries they live in.

Anti-Zionism, by contrast, is a position opposed to Zionism. Anti-Zionists view the State of Israel as unjust for a variety of reasons, both religious and political. Consequently, anti-Zionists also critique the efforts of the ongoing Zionist movement and condemn the actions of the Israeli government. One does not have to be a non-Jew to be an anti-Zionist. And despite popular belief, not all Jewish people identify as Zionists. [6] Zionism as a movement only began to gain global traction after World War II, when Jewish people were displaced and traumatized by the Shoah. There are many reasons why some Jewish people reject Zionism. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, some Orthodox Jews believe that the formation of the state of Israel is, in fact, against the word of the Torah. [7] Others believe the Zionist movement to be fundamentally flawed, its impact being the complete opposite of Jewish values and ethical codes. Finally, there are a multitude of Jews that oppose Zionism because of the ongoing Nakba and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Some view Israel as an apartheid state that Zionism has had a hand in creating. 

Recently within the United States’ government, a contentious and difficult conversation has opened up in the House of Representatives. This ongoing situation reflects the real-life implications of perceiving anti-Zionism as antisemitism. On Nov. 28, the House of Representatives voted and passed a bill meant to condemn all forms of antisemitism. Resolution 894 was introduced by two Republican representatives and supported by the majority of the House. Before voting, testimonies were heard from those who opposed the language of the bill. The major concern was section four, which states, “anti-Zionism is antisemitism.” [8] Democrat congressmembers Jerry Nadler, David Goldman and Jamie Raskin dissented in a press release, stating that the resolution “does not account for the complexity of Judaism,” as found on Representative Nadler’s website. [9] Other questions were raised about the motives of the Republican introduction of the bill, such as the well-documented antisemitism within the party. Politicians and citizens alike have asked if this bill was formed out of true concern for the safety of Jewish people. Or perhaps its purpose was more political, a way to quell free speech and garner more support for the Republican party.

It is not only inappropriate, but incredibly offensive to weaponize the historical trauma and oppression of the Jewish community to silence criticism of Israel. This position grossly implies that all Jewish people are Zionists who endorse Israel and are collectively responsible for the actions of the Israeli government. That is antisemitic. Jewish people are not a monolith, no more than any other religious group. Moreover, it puts anti-Zionist Jews in the position of being deemed antisemitic or self-hating. Accusing people of being antisemitic when they are not is disingenuous—it proves that one does not truly care about the well-being of the Jewish community. 

True antisemitism must be addressed appropriately. Those who are using the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people to justify their antisemitism should also be called out. Continuing to conflate antisemitism with anti-Zionism—whether it’s out of ignorance or not—only further puts Jewish people in danger. Likewise, this rhetoric also works to demonize and harm those criticizing Israel, its government and military actions who are not Jewish. Ultimately, to be in support of the Palestinian people has become disfigured and misconstrued as antisemitic in nature. It is not.

I am writing as a Jewish student. I recognize the real threat of antisemitism that has exploded over the past months; I live in fear every day. However, I want to encourage critical thinking and challenge the claim that criticism of Israel or Zionism is inherently antisemitic. I know I’m not antisemitic—I am Jewish and proud! I am a Jew who questions, argues and critiques Zionism and the state of Israel.

Over the past two months, I have felt my Jewish identity be invalidated, my opinions mocked and disregarded, and my confidence burned. I am angry. I am ashamed that members of our UMass Boston community are using silencing tactics within spaces on campus and online where conversations about the war in Gaza are occurring. In an academic setting, there must be serious intellectual discussions and debates that are not censored. I urge everyone at UMass Boston to think fully and openly. It’s essential to engage in genuine exchanges of ideas and be open to new knowledge. I encourage you to be inquisitive, critical and authentic. Let’s question together, holding the deep importance of human safety and the pain of those suffering close to our hearts.

[1] https://thehill.com/homenews/4296741-first-private-university-bans-students-for-justice-in-palestine-as-middle-east-fallout-spreads/
[2] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/anti-Semitism
[3] https://www.npr.org/2019/03/11/702264118/netanyahu-says-israel-is-nation-state-of-the-jewish-people-and-them-alone
[4] https://ufdc.i ufl.edu/UF00072101/00001/images/1
[5] https://www.leftvoice.org/a-brief-history-of-anti-zionist-jews/
[6] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/christian-zionism
[7] https://t.e2ma.net/message/cfdcml/44rer16c
[8] https://www.congress.gov/118/bills/hres894/BILLS-118hres894ih.pdf
[9] https://nadler.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=395108