Anti-Semitism, Anti-Zionism & Jewish Power (In Search of Some Definition)

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Apologies for this long, unpleasant post and the reactive content. Some of the material began to gestate last summer. Rather than string them out over a number of days as individual blogposts, I have composited a set of smaller single posts into the longer super-post. It runs the equivalent of 10 pp. on Word with a 14 pt. font.  The attention given to the relations tagged in this post does not mean that the author believes that most of the serious problems facing the Jews and Jewish society today are not self-inflicted in some more or less great part. These problems have nothing to do with either anti-Zionism or anti-Semitism, and that the won freedom vis-à-vis anti-Semitism enjoyed by Jews today has everything to do with political power and social capital.

Hard as it may be to get at that kind of clarity, some definition is in order about key terms.

For the purpose here, anti-Zionism will simply stand for opposition to Zionism. By Zionism is meant an idea and the putting into practice of the idea. That idea is that the Jews are a people with a legitimate right to have created a political home in a place of their own, historically in Palestine or a part of Palestine, and today in the borders of the State of Israel. Part of a modern political project, theoretically and practically, that right (posited, fought for, secured, and subject to critique) has been considered to be dependent upon international recognition, the democratic character of that polity, and is limited in relation to Palestinian rights. Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the settlements there are outside the international consensus.

For its part, anti-Semitism is formed out of many compacted things, more or less active and more or less subliminal. Anti-Semitism is the exclusion of Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism from the public sphere. At its highest pitch, anti-Semitism is [1] the expression of conscious hatred for all things Jewish, including eruptive acts of violence directed against Jews and Jewish symbols as such. Following Langmuir, we add the attribution of nefarious qualities, malevolent powers, and alien status to Jews and Jewish things; these powers exist only, primarily, largely, or mostly in the imagination of the anti-Semite. More subliminal forms of anti-Semitic expression and practice are [2] contempt for real and perceived Jewish things (people, culture, religion, symbols) and the programmatic subordination (supersession) of Jewish interests to more powerful and putatively superior cultural, economic, moral, political, social, religious positions, [3] the contribution to Jewish invisibility; included is the denial or disavowal of anti-Semitism.

Ignored in discussions about these two things (anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism) but central to discourse of anti-Semitism is the reality and imagination of Jewish power. About them one can make this group of tentative claims. [1] Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism constitute two distinct “things” that over time have become difficult to separate. [2] This dynamic owes itself to structures, not persons, insofar as discourse in general operates outside the bounds of good and bad intentions. As a Jewish thing, the State of Israel and its founding ideology are subjected to many of the same characteristics attributed to Jews. Whether one is or is not an anti-Semite, one can “be” anti-Semitic without intending to do so or knowing that one is doing so. [3] Subject to legitimate critique, power is the pivot between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. How much power does one attribute to Jewish biological, social and/or political bodies and under what circumstances? Anti-Semitic is the attribution of insidious omnipotence and other hypnotic powers to Jews and to real and perceived Jewish things, including the State of Israel.

Summer 2018

Summer 2018 was a clarifying moment, what with the simultaneous passage of the Jewish Nation State Law in Israel, widely panned as racist, and the ongoing anti-Semitism/anti-Zionism outbreak in the British Labour Party. For the purpose of this blogpost, I will not try to convince critics either to my right about the Jewish Nation State Law in Israel or on the left about the anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Not every criticism of Israel or criticism of Zionism is anti-Semitic, as the right wants to have it; neither is violent resistance to the State of Israel and Israeli state-actors, at least not necessarily. But, while anti-Zionism may not “be” anti-Semitism, it consistently offers itself to anti-Semitism, a contention resisted bitterly by the anti-Zionist left. The distinction between a thoughtful, political anti-Zionism and explicit and subliminal anti-Semitism hangs on the balance between criticism based on evidence, on the one hand, and antipathy and fantasy, on the other hand, as an affective structure.

Not every criticism of Israel or criticism of Zionism is anti-Semitic. One only needs to consider manifestations such as the Jewish Nation State Law, Jewish supremacism and anti-Arab racism, the 1967 occupation and settlement of West Bank lands, an electoral democracy that flouts liberal principles of minority rights, inclusion, and equality. Criticism is critique about power and, most importantly, the conditions and limits of power, in this case, both internally as matters of intra Jewish politics, and, externally, in relation to Palestine and Palestinian rights. Cool and hot criticism invite conversation and contention, respectively.

Anti-Zionism slips into anti-Semitism with such frequency that one has the right to posit a hypothetical relation.  By formal definition, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism represent two distinct phenomenon without being necessarily separable. Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism have different intentional objects, the State of Israel on the one hand, and Jews on the other hand. What seems to be the utter invariability with which anti-Zionism slips into anti-Semitism suggests a formal relation having to do with the relation between Zionism and Jewishness in the modern period. Statements like “Zionism is racism” and “Zionism is a racist endeavor” are conversation stoppers. Antipathetic and thoughtless, the people who make these kinds of judgment skirt a border with anti-Semitism because they write off a central chapter in the modern Jewish experience. The judgment is passed as if there was no principle of sufficient reason at work in the emergence of Zionism as a cultural, political, and social movement leading up to the creation of the State of Israel and after, particularly in relation to anti-Semitism and other problems relating to Jewish life and minority status in majority gentile societies.

Jewish anti-Zionism in the Diaspora is its own thing. It has historical roots that go back into the early twentieth century when the Zionist movement represented a tiny and marginal political and social avant-garde, and when the Jewish settlement in Palestine (the Yishuv) represented an isolated outpost under Ottoman and then British rule. But what to do after the establishment of the State with the political and social fact and force of some six and a half million Jews living today in Israel? Israeli Jews constitute half or more than half of the world Jewish body, and they comprise a demographic majority within internationally recognized borders; and “support” for Israel remains an amorphous consensus position in the American Jewish community, especially among the most active members of the community. There are also practical questions. Do young Jewish anti-Zionists really want to exclude “Zionists” from left politics? Do they want to join and legitimate efforts to exclude Hillel from campus events or to expel Hillel from campus as part of a pro-Palestinian anti-normalization plank? Are American Jews supposed to renounce Zionism? Can they be “forced” to do so? Do anti-Zionist Jews want to legitimate the kind of exclusion of other Jews by setting themselves up as the token Jews who count? Anti-Zionist Jews want to be good allies, but because of the perception of majority Jewish whiteness, one could argue that the Jews have no genuine allies on the left. At moments of collision between Jews and others, anti-Semitism is not regarded anymore as significant. A parallel to the historical subordination of women’s rights and racial justice in the left or the subordination of race in the women’s movement, might that programmatic subordination of Jewish political interests not count as a an active or subliminal form of anti-Semitism?

Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, Jewish Power

Anti-Zionism is not “essentially” or necessarily anti-Semitic. But structurally, the fact that anti-Zionist rhetoric so often slides into anti-Semitism suggests not only that the two are on adjacent planes, but that they are drawn up closely and stitched together along the edges. What has not been sufficiently theorized is the hinge or pivot that holds them together. Anti-Zionism is preoccupied to the point of obsession with the same thing as modern anti-Semitism, i.e. with the actual and notional exercise and existence of Jewish power.

Zionism in its historical development is the exercise of Jewish political power, inevitably the turn to state power to secure as a movement of self-determination the national and political interests, and the very survival of the Jewish people. Viewed broadly, power was something that fascinated Zionist ideology across the board and with few exceptions, in political Zionism and also cultural Zionism going back to the late 1890s and early 1900s. With all due respect to the thesis drawn by historian David Biale against the simplistic binary between Zionist power and Diaspora powerlessness, power was the crux of the matter for a vulnerable people living precarious lives at a particularly sustained moment of unprecedented crisis from the 1880s through the 1930s and 1940s, and then in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Systemic anti-Jewish violence and broad anti-Semitic prejudice in this historical period establish the principle of sufficient reason for the emergence of Zionism with which anti-Zionism has the most trouble coming to terms.

There is, of course, a principle of sufficient reason against Zionism, and it should go without saying that anti-Zionism on the left today, after 1967 and 1948, rejects not Jewish power as such. In this it is different from anti-Semitism. It reacts instead against Jewish state power in Israel, and the way the Palestinian people has borne and continues to bear its brunt. Anti-Zionism tracks what is already a long history pocked to the core by daily violence and moments of eruptive violence. But as an ideological formation, anti-Zionist rhetoric always heats up when real Israeli power is most manifest. A quick review of Palestinian nationalist documents will show that Israel was once looked upon as merely a local platform for Zionism, which is represented as a global phenomenon with a much larger economic and political reach. Zionist control of Palestine slips into wild claims regarding Israeli and Zionist lobbies, control of the media, U.S. policy in the Middle East, banks, anti-black policing in the United States, and so on and so on.

The more and more Israel and Zionism become objects of overt hatred, the more anti-Zionism has already taken shape in increasingly bizarre form of anti-Jewish expression obsessed with imagined Jewish power. There are activists who replace swastikas for stars of David. One activist scholar once claimed that Zionists cost him an academic post at the American University in Beirut. A well-regarded theorist maintains that the Israeli state intentionally maims Palestinian people in the deliberate exercise of bio-power. With or without knowing, there are activists on the left who will have sometimes embraced anti-Semitic racists and Holocaust deniers. Then there are claims that a diffuse Zionist Lobby not just has influence but actually controls U.S. policy and owns the allegiance of American citizens and political representatives. An index to the severity of the phenomenon of anti-Semitism on the left is that some prominent activists might turn to Louis Farrakhan for inspiration, never minding what he says about Jews or members of the LGBTQ community, while David Duke might endorse statements made by activists on the left that “Zionist” money like AIPAC controls Congress.

(Disavowal) Anatomy of Left-Wing Anti-Semitism

With roots in the French Enlightenment, liberal and leftwing anti-Semitism in the west is a social contempt that pales before the violence of rightwing anti-Semitism. But since the liberal-left became over time the home inhabited by most American Jews, it is this form of anti-Semitism that draws a unique share of attention from liberal Jews. Liberal and leftist anti-Semitism is also more interesting than rightwing anti-Semitism because it is so convoluted and difficult to track. Not an active antipathy, anti-Semitism on the left is structured on disavowal.

Today, the disavowal involves [1] the polite or condescending assumption that Jews are white, that antisemitism has lost its social and political force, that it isn’t systemic. Unlike rightwing anti-Semitism which exaggerates Jewish difference, old school and contemporary anti-Semitism on the left suppress Jewish difference under universal categories of moral and political value, judgment, and belonging. Parochial Jewish interests are forced into the background before some more important class position or racial other. [2] Leftist anti-Semitism stands in opposition to anti-Semitism. Overt expressions of anti-Semitism are held at a distance, where they are safely put away, assuming that anti-racists do not engage in prejudice. [3] What then happens is that the attention of those on the anti-Zionist left snaps back and latches onto an object, onto figures of power like Israel or AIPAC, whose actual power the left fails to assess critically and about which it begins to imagine as lurid and nefarious in its power to control, dominate, hypnotize. It’s at this point that things get said on the left about Jewish power that cannot be distinguished from something that a neo-Nazi might say. [4] Then comes denial; these are the increasingly furious claims that there is no anti-Semitism on the left and that such expressions as do appear there are only marginal and, ultimately, unimportant. [5] This denial is followed by anger and abuse directed at Jews, especially liberal and leftist Jews who are not anti-Zionist for pointing this out. At this point, anti-Semitism on the left has nothing anymore to do with Israel and Zionism per se. Increasingly untethered, the phenomenon has become sublimated.

Like liberal racism and racism on the white left, anti-Semitism on the left is hidden deep into conscious and unconscious structures of feeling and thought. Unlike anti-black racism, which demeans its object and presumes the power of white supremacy, anti-Semitism on both the right and the left rests on assumptions made about Jews, Jewish power, and Jewish privilege. The idea, both true and false, that Jews can pass into majoritarian whiteness on the basis that most Jews in the United States are “white,” is one aspect to the larger problem regarding the paradoxical relation between Jewish invisibility and Jewish power. That a Jew can maybe pass, (and this is not always true) is the potential of Jewish invisibility. Jews can always disappear, into the social fabric. They don’t have to be so Jewish, and even if they choose to be so, they won’t be abused in and by the justice system, shop owners won’t hassle them, banks won’t refuse to loan to them, and so on. And the left will support them as long as they and their “oppression” comport to movement norms.

Anti-Zionists would be better served by bracketing catch-all terms like “colonialism” and “settler colonialism” as theoretical frames with which to understand Zionism. Placing onus on the relation between Zionism and European colonial power keeps one from seeing how modern Jewish history and modern anti-Semitism provide for a more complete understanding of the emergence of Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel, which is a political project with deep cultural and affective ramifications for so many Jews today. Anti-Zionists ignore this at their own moral peril and court a heavy political price. To refuse to see or even consider Jewish historical exigency in the formation of modern Zionism is already anti-Semitic.

Viewed one way from the other side, the occultation of Jewish difference and Jewish power is the fear and panic lived, imagined, and expressed by Jews in the face of being made invisible and, at the same time, being made visible and exposed. A lot of Jews since the election of Trump in 2016 now weigh the real and imagined threat of being powerless in the face of re-emergent anti-Semitism; and they fear being one day expelled from the public sphere. Will what has happened to Jews in the Labour Party in Britain happen here in the Democratic Party? Probably not. But liberal and liberal-progressive Jews have lost allies on the radical left, which has turned more and more to anti-Zionism, and which seeks to subsume Jews into a general body under the condition of a litmus test regarding Zionism and Israel. Furious with Israel, Zionism, and the “Jewish establishment,” many Jews on the anti-Zionist left are willing to pay a price that is the flip side of rightwing anti-Semitism.

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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1 Response to Anti-Semitism, Anti-Zionism & Jewish Power (In Search of Some Definition)

  1. dmf says:

    Zionism as Jewish Power may leave little left worth holding onto fortunately the people and their efforts on behalf of cosmo-politanism aren’t bound to/by territory.

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