Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism or is there no business like Shoah business?

If the way that we envisage a change in Israeli policies and an advent of Palestinian freedom is rooted in democratic ideals and a belief in the equal rights of human beings,  then the connection between progressive criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism must be severed.

By Augustine Zenakos


Protest against the Gaza War in Melbourne, 2009

The latest killings of Palestinian protesters by Israeli forces in Gaza and the widespread condemnation that rightly followed have rekindled the discussion on the relationship between criticising Israeli policies and anti-Semitism. Not that it ever really goes away. In every reflection about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is simply impossible to avoid considering the nature of criticism that can be uttered against Israeli policies without the critic veering onto the anti-Semitic path.

There are a lot of people, particularly on the Left, who believe such a consideration may be rather neatly resolved through a distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism: “anti-Semitism” is directed against Jews as a people, whereas “anti-Zionism” is directed against the state of Israel and its policies.

While I agree that Israeli policies are deplorable, I do not think we can do away with the problem of anti-Semitism in anti-Israeli criticism quite so easily. To put it another way, I do not think that the assertion of not being anti-Semitic is sufficient in itself to dispel the possibility that anti-Israeli criticism is in many cases engaged in what is in the very least a “conversation” with anti-Semitic traditions, discourses and concepts. The surprising ease with which people, who otherwise profess to find anti-Semitism abhorrent, claim for themselves the title of “anti-Zionist” is very telling – particularly as the apparent connection, if only in terms of nomenclature, with the most virulent slogans of some Islamist factions seems to not concern them at all.

“Anti-Zionism is merely the new anti-Semitism” is a phrase that belongs to legendary Israeli politician Abba Eban. Interestingly, it was Eban who also famously quipped, “there’s no business like Shoah business”. We should, I think, agree with both statements.

Starting with the second one, I think it is obvious that Israeli diplomacy has used and is using the accusation of anti-Semitism to de-legitimise criticisms of Israeli policy. Of course, the instrumentalisation of Holocaust memory is central to this practice. It should therefore be made absolutely clear that criticising Israeli diplomacy and pro-Israeli public discourse on these grounds is not anti-Semitic, while attempts to paint it as such are most definitely propaganda. Significantly, many members of Jewish communities within and without Israel are disputing Israel’s right to implement its policies in their name, and oppose its use of the charge of anti-Semitism to counter all criticism.

There is however a more general and more uncomfortable question to be asked, which springs from the rather obvious observation that all state powers and all nationalist discourses instrumentalise memory in comparable ways. In Greece, for example, the memory of the plight of Greeks at the hands of Turks or Bulgarians, with Greek army atrocities committed in Asia Minor or Macedonia conveniently muted, continues to be critical to a sense of Greek nationalist entitlement. The justification of sovereignty in national states depends on such an instrumentalisation. So, why is Israeli official politics of memory treated so differently?

What I mean is that while criticising the “Shoah business” is not in itself anti-Semitic, implying –as quite a lot of such criticism does– that this politics of memory is somehow uniquely orchestrated taps, wittingly or unwittingly, into a very identifiable anti-Semitic discourse: the conspiratorial Jew who plots to manipulate public perception and sentiment for their private gain. Theories of Jews who control the world financial system are often not far behind – Jews not as “inferior”, but as “all-powerful”, a “fetishised form of anti-capitalism” as Moishe Postone has put it.

A similar question is revealed when we consider Abba Eban’s claim, which has become central in Israel’s diplomatic rebuttals to its critics, that “anti-Zionism is merely the new anti-Semitism”. For many, this is a preposterous statement, precisely indicative of Israel’s efforts to smear its critics – particularly as Eban wrote it with the New Left specifically in mind. And I have no doubt that when many critics of Israeli policies, particularly from the Left, draw the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, they are trying to honestly repudiate anti-Semitism.

The core of Zionism, however, is the very belief in the historical necessity of Jewish statehood. It is a nationalism. So, being an anti-Zionist by definition means a lot more than opposition to Israeli policies; it signals a fundamental dispute with the expression of Israeli nationalism as a territorial aspiration.

To give, again, but one example, Saudi Arabia, a state that has emerged through relatively recent conquest and British support, is certainly no stranger to brutal oppression and no friend of human rights. Yet, nowhere in the well-deserved criticism against its transgressions, including its savage intervention in Yemen, can one find a fundamental negation of its territorial existence: there is no comparable term to anti-Zionism that would describe opposition to Saudi policies – or the policies of any other state for that matter, however cruel or condemnable.

So, why does opposition to Israel’s policies necessitate, uniquely among states, a perpetual revisitation of its moments of constitution and an interminable questioning of the historical justification for its existence? Is it not evident that, once more, what purports to be a criticism of policies actually connects to a long tradition of excepting “the Jew” from the conditions that otherwise apply?

Some will say that concerns over anti-Semitism constitute tacit support for Israel, since the only issue now must necessarily be the killings of Palestinians and the despicable conditions imposed on Palestinian territories. This is a demagogic argument. It is obvious that the type of opposition, which accepts or is indifferent to anti-Semitic discourse, hinders the denunciation of Israeli policies and the support for Palestinian freedom.

But it is not my intention to argue for the political expediency of dropping anti-Semitism – though expedient it would most certainly be. Presumably, the way that progressive criticism envisages a change in Israeli policies and an advent of Palestinian freedom is rooted in democratic ideals, and a belief in the equal rights of human beings. Whether a relic of history or the result of an unholy opportunistic alliance, the connection between progressive criticism of Israeli policies and anti-Semitism must be severed. Not for the sake of tactics; but as a matter of political principle.

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