What We Talk About When We Talk About Israel (Anti-Zionism & Anti-Semitism)


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.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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3 Responses to What We Talk About When We Talk About Israel (Anti-Zionism & Anti-Semitism)

  1. Sydney Nestel says:

    As long as we’re quoting Finkelstein so approvingly lets loook at what he actually has to say about the current hysteria around the Bristh Labour Party.

    “These campaigns [accusations of anti-Semitism in the anti-Israel left] occur at regular intervals, correlating with Israel’s periodic massacres and consequent political isolation. If you search your nearest library catalogue for ‘new antisemitism’, you’ll come up with titles from the 1970s proclaiming a ‘new antisemitism’, titles from the 1980s proclaiming a ‘new antisemitism’, titles from the 1990s proclaiming a ‘new antisemitism’, and then a huge uptick, including from British writers, during the so-called Second Intifada from 2001. Let’s not forget, just last year there was a hysteria in the UK over antisemitism. A couple of ridiculous polls purported to find that nearly half of Britons held an antisemitic belief and that most British Jews feared for their future in the UK. Although these polls were dismissed by specialists, they triggered the usual media feeding frenzy, as the Telegraph, the Guardian and the Independent hyperventilated about this ‘rampant’ ‘new antisemitism’. It was exposed as complete nonsense when, in April 2015, a reputable poll by Pew found that the level of antisemitism in the UK had remained stable, at an underwhelming seven percent.

    This farce happened only last year. One would have imagined that its mongers would be hiding in shame, and that we would enjoy at least a brief respite from the theatrics. But lo and behold, in the blink of an eye, right in the wake of the Pew poll showing that antisemitism in the UK is marginal, the hysteria has started up all over again. The reality is, there is probably more prejudice in the UK against fat people than there is prejudice against Jews.

    Ask yourself a simple, but serious, question. You go for a job interview. Which trait is most likely to work against you: if you’re ugly, if you’re fat, if you’re short, or if you’re Jewish? It’s perhaps a sad commentary on our society’s values, but the trait most likely to elicit a rejection letter is if you’re ugly. Then fat; then short. The factor least likely to work against you is, if you’re Jewish. On the contrary, aren’t Jews smart and ambitious? Pew found antisemitism levels at seven percent. Is that grounds for a national hysteria? A May 2015 YouGov poll found that 40 percent of UK adults don’t like Muslims and nearly 60 percent don’t like Roma. Imagine what it’s like to apply for a job if you’re a Roma! So where is your order of moral priorities?”

    The full interview is worth the read:


  2. jzeballo says:

    Tov! Zachary, es una perspectiva nueva a un debate que suele estar por todos lados bastante intoxicado y estéril.

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