Distinguishing Between Anti-Israelism and Antisemitism

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Jerome Chanes, a fellow at The Center for Jewish Studies of the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of  a number of books, including “A Dark Side of History: Antisemitism Through the Ages.” In the interest of stimulating a discussion, he’s suggested that I share his recently published op-ed in the NY Jewish Week, “Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism And The Line Between Them.”
I like his examination of how antisemitism has evolved to fit different eras and their respective zeitgeists.  But he sees the differences as more superficial than I do. For example, he regards philosophical anti-Zionism — questioning Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state — as a kind of antisemitism (because it denies Jews their right to self-determination as a people), but he also respectfully lays out the alternative view distinguishing between “anti-Israelism” and antisemitism; I would argue the other way, that anti-Israelism is not inherently antisemitic, while respectfully pondering his view that it is.  Nevertheless, we both regard anti-Israelism (insofar as it’s an ideology) as problematic.    

He actually agrees with me that his piece suffers for not making any mention of the ongoing occupation that weighs down Palestinian-Arab lives and allows continuing settlement expansion at their expense.  He cited a word limitation and promises a further essay to address this issue.  What follows is an abridged version of Chanes’s op-ed, retaining the points that I found most interesting:

. . . At what point does anti-Israel rhetoric become anti-Semitism? It’s a threshold question, and is therefore subjective. My threshold: Any criticism of the policies of the government of the State of Israel — indeed harsh criticism — is entirely legitimate. The Israeli public is itself deeply divided over the peace process, settlements, its relations today and tomorrow with the Palestinians, government policies on religion and personal-status matters and economic policy. The point at which attacks on the policies of Israel become anti-Semitism is the point at which the legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise — or of the State of Israel — is questioned. Because it is at that point that the legitimacy of Jewish peoplehood is questioned.

But one might indeed argue for the necessity of distinguishing anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism. Let’s not confuse these, goes the argument. Anti-Israelism is a concerted prejudice against Israel, birthed in large measure by leftist anti-globalist politics, but without a discernible hatred of Jews. Oppression and liberation, oppressors and oppressed — it’s another riff on the political rivalries that characterized much of ancient anti-Judaism.

Is there a specifically anti-Jewish bias here? Perhaps what motivates the Israelophobes is anti-Semitism. Perhaps not. But to tar all critics of Israel with the brush of anti-Semitism is unfair, so the argument goes, and may be counterproductive.

This view is bolstered by the numbers. The various polls commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League in Europe show a sharp fault line between attitudinal anti-Semitism (the numbers fluctuate, but are generally down) and anti-Zionism (the numbers are up).

. . .  The primary political challenge for Europe today is that of moving beyond the nation-state, that is, the problem of European integration — a problem that is framed as the clash between nationalism and post-nationalism (with progressive or “good” opinion very much on the side of the latter).  . . .  Israel, as the product of 19th-century European nationalism, acts as the ideology of nationalism suggests sovereign states do and should act: It is ready to employ the force of arms to defend the nation’s interest. This behavior is what drives Europeans crazy. It strikes their post-nationalist sensibilities as retrograde and racist.  Israel squares off against the Arabs in the same benighted manner as the French used to against the Germans, and so on.  . . .

I should add that Zionism, the darling of the left 75 years ago, became successful — created a nation-state — precisely at a time when the nation-state fell out of fashion. It’s one of the great ironies of history.

So what’s “new?” First, the collective expression of anti-Semitism, with Israel as a focal point, rather than the individual animus of the past. This gives weight to the claim of distinguishing between anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism. Second, the center of gravity of much of anti-Semitism is now in the Islamic world. Finally, what’s new is also very old: the “double-standard.” That’s the assertion that Jews may not defend themselves as may any other people or person. If this is the case, then by extension the legitimacy of a Jewish historical identity is challenged. Deriving from this, of course, is the isolation of the State of Israel and the relegation of Israel to the status of “pariah state.”

And that’s what’s playing out on many campuses, in church councils, in academic circles. There’s nothing “new” about it.

Read more at http://www.thejewishweek.com/editorial-opinion/opinion/anti-zionism-anti-semitism-and-line-between-them

About Ralph Seliger

A veteran editor, freelance writer and blogger, I edited the print magazine, "Israel Horizons," from 2003 until 2011; and I've blogged for and edited the Meretz USA and now Partners for Progressive Israel Blog since its inception in 2006 (although I no longer edit the PPI Blog). I've been an active supporter of the Zionist peace camp since 1982. Other print and online platforms where I've been published include: The Forward, The Daily Beast, History News Network, Tikkun, In These Times, Jewish Week, New Jersey Jewish News, Jewish Currents, Huffington Post, and Dissent.
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2 Responses to Distinguishing Between Anti-Israelism and Antisemitism

  1. Ralph Seliger writes that Israel became a state “precisely at the time when the nation-state fell out of fashion.” That being the case, it makes no sense to support the idea of an independent Palestinian nation-state.

    • Ralph Seliger says:

      George Jochnowitz and I know each other. First, a minor point: he’s quoting Jerome Chanes (from his article in Jewish Week), not me. But Chanes was pointing this out not to invalidate Israel, but to explain part of why Israel’s cause as a state for the Jewish people is increasingly hard to sell in Western countries and among many who identify themselves as progressive.

      Still, Jochnowitz is only being logical in his deduction. Yes, many if not most progressives surely prefer “one democratic state” for Israelis and Palestinians. Chanes agrees with us that this one-state vision is not realistic — it’s a recipe for continued conflict rather than a solution. I wonder where George stands on this?