What do we talk about when we talk about Israel? Not about Israel, and not even about Palestine, not about the occupation and not about the mechanisms that hold it in place, not about the political cartography in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Gaza City, not really about the history of the conflict. As dominated by the hard core anti-Zionist left, we end up talking about something else –first about simple things like apartheid, boycotts, settler colonialism, and then about anti-normalization, and on to Jews, and Jewish control of the media or universities, assertions of Jewish privilege, transferring Israeli Jews to the United States, and Hitler.
The Jewish rightwing in Israel and the United States are all too happy to play the anti-Semitism card when it is handed to them. But it’s the left that shoots itself in its own foot, over and over again in universities in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, and now in the British Labor party. Reflecting no doubt a minority opinion, anti-Semitism pops up all over the place. The most charitable conclusion would be to say that many people on the hard core anti-Zionist left simply have no idea what they’re doing when they traffic in old, rancid tropes –except for maybe Ken Livingstone, who most probably knows what he’s doing when he starts Jew-baiting by comparing Zionism and Nazism.
Compare in contrast these recent words from Norman Finkelstein, which you can read here.
Once he was a pariah in the Jewish community. Now they hate him over at BDS. He’s a loose cannon. You can see it in his judgment re: the “reactionary” nature of the African American vote in the Democratic primaries. He swings hard all at once in multiple directions. Sometimes he misses, sometimes he hits. A staunch critic of Israel and Israeli policy, he has turned withering attention towards BDS as well.
What do we talk about when we talk about Israel? It’s his view here that the serious problem is not Zionism per se as much as it is Israel. In its focus on Zionism, BDS along with the rest of the anti-Zionist left politically undercuts the cause of Palestine which they would otherwise promote. By attacking Zionism tout court, BDS bangs into the wall of a strong consensus. The strength of Zionism in the Jewish community rests on its very heterogeneity. Its strong support across the larger American political spectrum rests upon international norms and agreements.
This is what Finkelstein recently had to say:
“If you want to reach a broad public, you have to focus on things like Israel’s human rights record, the occupation, the settlements and the blockade, which a lot of liberal Jewish opinion also opposes. But if you switch the conversation to Zionism and anti-Zionism, a lot of Jews get queasy. What exactly does anti-Zionism mean? If it denotes the dissolution of Israel, it’s a nonstarter for the vast majority of Jews, and public opinion generally. Such a conversation also doesn’t go anywhere. The difference between Zionism and Apartheid—which clearly became a term of opprobrium—is that there was never a quarrel about what Apartheid signified. Everyone understood it meant separate and effectively unequal development. It had a clear, unambiguous meaning. So the debate was not subtle. It was actually pretty straightforward, and in the West no one tried to defend Apartheid on ideological grounds, because it was so antithetical to the dominant ethos of the post-Civil Rights era, which had just repudiated the separate-and-unequal doctrine. But Zionism doesn’t have a clear-cut definition, that’s why both Chomsky and Netanyahu can call themselves Zionists. It’s a much more elastic term. Historically, it contained within it many competing currents, some of which were not awful, although the dominant tendency, which won out, was obviously noxious. So, once you get into a conversation about Zionism, you’re talking about an elusive phenomenon, which might be useful to parse in a graduate school seminar, but I don’t think it has much to do with politics. It’s just a distraction, which is why Israel loves to talk about it.”
It is harder and harder to maintain the easy bromide offered on the left that anti-Zionism “is” not anti-Semitism and that Zionism isn’t Judaism. Both statements are ostensibly true. In both cases, the terms are, indeed not identical. But that doesn’t mean that the one half of the term has “nothing” to do with the other half of the term. Refusing to see the complex imbrications, it is no surprise that the radical anti-Zionist left jumps off the rail. In using flat rubrics like “apartheid” and “settler colonialism,” staking maximalist positions, encouraging intifadah and other extreme slogans, distorting the history of Zionism and the contexts that shaped it, discouraging dialogue and pushing anti-normalization, the anti-Zionist left gets itself mired in anti-Semitism. This is the rhetorical bed that vocal segments of the anti-Zionist left makes for itself. We end up no longer talking about Israel or the occupation. It always comes back to Hitler.