Antisemitism Has Always Slipped Into Anti-Zionism (A Note from Damascus) (1929)


Here’s an interesting bit from Norman Stillman’s anthology of documents, Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times. It was written in 1929 by A. Silberstein, the director of the Alliance School for Boys in Damascus in the wake of the anti-Jewish riots and massacres in British Palestine of the same year. (Regarding that event, see Hillel Cohen’s  book 1929: Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict about which I have blogged here at JPP). Stillman takes care to note that Silberstein was actually an anti-Zionist and worked against Zionist activity in the Syrian Jewish community. But here’s what he had to say. “The Arabic and even the French newspapers of Syria and Lebanon continue to be very  violent in their attacks against the Zionists. The term ‘anti-Semite’ has disappeared from Syria; today there are no more anti-Semites among us, but rather anti-Zionists! In employing this term, the papers believe that they are permitted to say anything against the Jews! Should our Syrian co-religionists rejoice by this change of vocable? I think not, since for the masses, Zionists and non-Zionists are Jews. It is true that for a few of our neighbors, the Zionists are something else entirely, and many have gone so far as to ask us whether the Zionists have the same religion as other Jews” (p.358).

It would be not too hard to gloss these remarks on to today, when the worst possible things can be said about “Zionists” or “Israel” as if the words had no connection to antisemitism. Israel and racism. Netanyahu wearing a necklace made of the skulls of Palestinian children. Israel and Nazis. Gaza and the Warsaw Ghetto. Israel harvesting the organs of dead Palestinian protesters. Israel maiming Palestinian protesters in order to control the population. Zionist control at the American University in Beirut, Zionism and white supremacy. Israel and police violence against African Americans, Zionism and genocide. Should we be happy about the change of “vocable”? Apparently what is sometimes called “the new antisemitism” (Israel taking the place of world Jewry as a central locus of evil) picks up and transforms the classical expression.

What Silberstein already saw in 1929 is that there is no way to control the slippage between “Jews” and “Zionists” or “antisemitism” and “anti-Zionism.” Certainly not when one gives free reign to the imagination, to the most hateful expression about Israel. Non-binary in character and for good and for bad, the categories –Jew, Zionist, antisemitism, and anti-Zionism– are too cooked, one into the other and the other into the one. There’s no way to make such hard and fast distinctions, try as one might. In Silberstein’s letter, what one is left with at best are well-meaning but ridiculous questions about whether or not the religion of Zionists is the same as the religion of the Jews. I imagine this happens a lot on the anti-Zionist Jewish left, that these questions get asked by well-meaning gentiles or even Jews, these attempts to unscramble the omelette.

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.
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