Anti-Zionism is Not Anti-Semitism: Thoughts from an anti-zionist Israeli Jew

 

 

On November 7th, I attended a panel on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, hosted by LSE’s Department of Government. On the panel was Omar Barghouti, who founded the movement in 2005. Mr. Barghouti’s introductory statement articulated the aims of BDS, a non-violent, intersectional, international, and progressive effort to pressure the Israeli state to leave the occupied territories. Unfortunately, Mr. Barghouti hardly uttered a sentence before he was interrupted by audience members denouncing him as an “anti-semitic shit”. I can only imagine how the members of the panel must have felt in the face of this interruption, shamelessly repeated throughout the event. As an Israeli-born Jew, I find these attacks, frequently waged by people who have never been to or lived in the state of Israel, to be an insult. It is time to stop equating the defense of Jews with a defense of discrimination, occupation, and hate.

The relationship between Israel and the Jewish people internationally has never been without complications, and has deteriorated in recent decades. Of the 23 million people eligible for an Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, only 6.6 million have accepted the offer [1]. The majority of Jews have never lived in Israel, and do not want to. Moreover, the ideological gulfs between Jews within and outside of Israel are great, and growing as the hope for a peaceful settlement dissipates. Pew Research Data serves to highlight this divide. Both American and Israeli Jews polled note pride in their Jewish identity and tradition (nearly 95% in both communities). However, when asked about the meaning of that identity, American Jews highlighted “working for justice and equality” (56%), “leading an ethical and moral life” (69%), and “intellectual curiosity” (49%). The comparable numbers for Israelis are 27%, 47%, and 16% respectively, suggesting that the two largest concentrations of Jews in the world share very few values.

While Americans tended to agree on the principles that define their Jewish identity (between 40% and 70% agreeing on 6 out of the 8 principles proposed),  the Israeli community was far less united, hovering between 15% and 35% for 6 out of 8, and only crossing 50% when asked about the importance of the Holocaust [2]. Not only is there little overlap between the two forms of Jewish identity, but it seems that “Jewishness” is more clearly defined outside of Israel than within it. There is nothing essentially “Jewish” about the actions of the state of Israel, nor the views of its inhabitants.

Ideological differences translate into political rifts, perhaps best represented by the amicable relationship between Bibi Netanyahu and Donald Trump. The president of the United States is not only disliked by nearly three quarters of Jewish Americans [3], but closely associated with the rise of far right groups, having offered tacit encouragement to right wing organizations since he launched his campaign. Neo-fascist leader Richard Spencer regularly refers to himself as a “white zionist”, expressing respect for the ethno-nationalism that Israel advances. The affinity between the Israeli government and the far right extends around the world. Likud MK Oren Hazan recently endorsed Marine Le Pen, the leader of a party founded by her father, a Holocaust denier.  The overwhelming majority of politicians in Germany’s AfD, whose anti immigrant rhetoric is all too reminiscent of anti Jewish propaganda in the 1930s, agree with Merkel that “Israel’s security is Germany’s raison d’etre” [4]. Clearly, pro-zionism and anti-semitism are not mutually exclusive.

Towards the conclusion of the panel, Rafeef Ziadah mentioned that Palestinians are always told that they have people beside them, but that sometimes it’s important to “look over your shoulder and see who is actually standing there” [indirect quote]. The statement was a show of appreciation for the community involved in the BDS campaign. However, I would encourage champions of the zionist cause to equally reflect in this way. There is much to draw from in the Jewish tradition: the many voices of the diaspora, the commitment to inquiry and debate, and an enduring desire to see a society free from economic, political, and ethnic oppression. The Israeli state, and the ideology it espouses, negate this heritage. Far from anti-semitism, anti-zionism should be the moral and political undertaking of Jewish people, and the broader global community today.  

[1] Sergio DellaPergola “World Jewish Population 2015”. American Jewish Yearbook via the Berman Jewish Data Bank, 2015. Accessed online Nov. 12 2017

[2] “American and Israeli Jews: Twin Portraits from Pew Research Center Surveys”. Pew Research Center, 2017. Accessed online Nov. 12, 2017

[3] “American Jewish Committee Survey of American Jewish Opinion 2017” American Jewish Committee, 2017. Accessed online Nov. 12, 2017

[4] Raphael Ahren, “Loathed by Jews, Germany’s far-right AfD loves the Jewish state”. The Times of Israel, 2017. Accessed online Nov. 12, 2017

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