Beyond Erasure: A New Look at Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism

Jews and non-Jews have internalized varying degrees of antisemitism, including the insidious idea that Jews should “disappear.” This trope of erasure opens up a new frame through which to consider the connections between antisemitism and anti-Zionism.

In November of 2018, one sentence uttered at a U.N. Solidarity Day for Palestinians got Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill fired from his job as CNN analyst. The problematic words: his call for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea.” This incident highlighted a debate that has been going on for some time now, both within and outside the American Jewish community: Is it inherently antisemitic to be anti-Zionist? And if not inherently so, is it sometimes so, and how do we know when it is and when it isn’t?

There are a number of things confounding the issue. One is the crass use of accusations of “antisemitism” by the Netanyahu government and its supporters to quell any opposition to its far-right policies. We live in an extraordinary era, when the prime minister of Israel accepts the support of openly antisemitic leaders in the American white nationalist movement and international leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, yet bars American Jews from entering Israel if they are suspected of supporting the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. Accordingly, to be “pro-Israel” from this perspective means to embrace an anti-democratic, openly racist version of Zionism, while critics of Israeli policy are deemed both anti-Zionist and antisemitic. Given this reality, it is tempting for those critical of Netanyahu and current Israeli policies to dismiss any and all attempts to link antisemitism and anti-Zionism.

Another complicating factor is something I discuss in my Evolve essay, “Israel and Us: Creating a New Narrative.” For a significant segment of American Jews—and not just those in powerful leadership positions—support for Israel arises from a cognitive frame that I have called “existential.” In this frame, Israel is understood as a sanctuary for Jews and is vitally connected to Jewish survival in the modern world. An attack on Israel—whether physical or ideological—is experienced as an attack on the entire Jewish people and, by extension, on oneself. In this frame, Palestinians and their supporters are seen, at worst, as the most recent in a series of historical enemies bent on our destruction, or at best, hapless victims of the necessity of Jewish survival. One can entirely disagree with the premises of this cognitive frame, but I would argue that it is a mistake to dismiss the reality of feeling and conviction of those who function within it. It is true that politicians like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expertly manipulate the fear of both Jewish Israelis and other Jews who share this perspective, but that fact does not obviate the sincerity with which it is held.

After 1967, the “existential” frame became the official position of the American Jewish establishment. To be a Jew was to be a Zionist, meaning a supporter of both the State of Israel and its government’s policies. While the election of the first non-Labor government in the late 1970s opened up some ideological schisms among American Zionists—and while there were always Jewish Israelis opposed to the occupation of the West Bank and other territories captured in the Six-Day War—the overall thrust of official Israeli engagement with American Jews was an emphasis on Israel’s “security” which, in turn, translated into American Jewish affirmation of any and all Israeli policies towards Palestinians and neighboring Arab states. The three toxic letters in the 1980s, when my own work for Israeli-Palestinian peace and justice began, were “PLO.” Like today’s “BDS,” mentioning those three letters in any context other than condemnation could get individuals or organizations booted out of the organized Jewish community. To support Palestinian liberation or even the concept of a Palestinian people was seen as inherently dangerous to the “security” of Israel, and thus to the survival of the Jewish people.

These factors have led us to a moment when, even as ever -larger sections of American Jewry are comfortable openly challenging the current Israeli government and even questioning founding principles of the Zionist enterprise, the past 50 years of American Jewish Israel education and advocacy has caused a general confusion between the terms “Jew” and “Zionist.” This conflation is echoed in much of the Middle East, where all Israeli Jews are simply called “Zionists” by virtue of their being Israeli. What meaning the term “Zionist” even holds anymore—70 years after the Zionist movement achieved its goal of creating a Jewish state—is somewhat moot. At this point, the term has become a weapon to be used both by those who support the Israeli government—by calling any enemy an “anti-Zionist/antisemite”—and by those who oppose the existence of an explicitly Jewish state, demonizing “Zionists” as those who are complicit in the ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, both the demonstrations in 2017 in Charlottesville, Va., and the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh have opened up a new conversation about antisemitism. While those incidents were carried out by far-right white nationalists, the awareness that antisemitism is alive and well in 21st-century America has caused greater vigilance about antisemitism in all its manifestations. This concern has emerged recently in the progressive world in the struggles around the Women’s March and accusations of antisemitism among some of its leaders.

Muddying the water in discussions of antisemitism on the left is a general lack of understanding of what, exactly, antisemitism is, and how it operates. If it looks like an angry white man murdering people in a synagogue or David Duke supporters openly embracing Nazi memes, then most people are off the hook. But just as racism cannot be reduced to robe-wearing KKK members and their ilk, we need a more nuanced understanding of antisemitism and its manifestations. This is especially true if we are to be able to discuss how and when it arises in discourse around Israel and Zionism.

There are now some very good pieces available tracing the history of antisemitism and its manifestations in America, and Reena Friedman and Mordechai Liebling have written excellent pieces for Evolve. There are a just a few points I would like to lift up here in order to examine the intersection with anti-Zionism.

The first has to do with understanding that antisemitism, like racism, exists not just in social structures, but also in our minds. We know from extensive research that Americans of all races have an implicit bias against black people; our brains are soaked in anti-black racism from the time we are born. For people of color, this manifests as internalized oppression; for those of us with white-skin privilege, it manifests in attitudes and actions that hurt black people, even if we have no intention of doing so. I would suggest that—given the long history of Christian antisemitism that has touched much of the world over the past thousand years through conquest and colonization—antisemitic tropes are similarly embedded in our consciousness. For Jews, this manifests as internalized oppression; for non-Jews, it manifests in attitudes and actions that hurt Jews, whether or not intended. If we can understand antisemitism as part and parcel of the oppressive structures and attitudes that shape our society—something we participate in without needing to consciously hold anti-Jewish views—it’s much easier to explore how antisemitism manifests in all types of movements and communities. Progressives are no more immune to antisemitism than they are to racism, and we should not be particularly surprised when it rears its ugly head in a variety of settings.

The second point has to do with an aspect of antisemitism that I have not seen extensively discussed. I owe this insight to Cherie Brown of the National Coalition Building Institute, who shared it during a workshop I attended many years ago. Cherie pointed out that a central trope of every type of antisemitism is that ultimately, Jews should not exist. In classic Christian antisemitism, Jews would cease to be Jews through conversion to Christianity. The stubborn refusal to accept Jesus as messiah was historically seen as the primary sin of the Jews. In medieval Christian Spain, anti-Jewish legislation by local rulers and terrible massacres caused hundreds of thousands of Jews to convert to Christianity. But local Catholics did not fully accept this new identity, and the notion of “New Christians” developed. By the 15th century, this belief had taken on a racial aspect, with the idea that “New Christians” were still tainted by “Jewish blood.” Jewish erasure in the Iberian peninsula (which, in the 12th century, had been home to the vast majority of the world’s Jews) culminated in the decree of expulsion in 1492. Yet even after the expulsion, the Inquisition persecuted conversos both in Spain and beyond, seeking to complete the task of erasing any trace of “Judaizing.”

The racialization of Judaism reached it apogee in Nazi Germany. In the racial schema of the Nazi regime, Jews were not a “slave” race, like Africans or Slavs; they were actually an “anti-race” that—because its very being threatened the Aryan nation—had to be exterminated. The earlier Christian aim of erasing Judaism became a project to physically erase all Jews.

This trope of “erasure” continues to haunt Jews as a manifestation of internalized antisemitism. We are often very busy either denying our own Jewishness or the Jewishness of those whom we oppose. The non-Orthodox are not true Jews, or right-wing Jews have betrayed the foundations of Jewish values, or BDS-supporting Jews can’t possibly be part of the Jewish community. The early Zionist movement tried to erase the “ghetto Jew” by creating a “New Jew,” while in the United States many Jews were busy erasing all signs of their own Jewishness in an attempt to fit into gentile, white America. The revulsion and shame that many American Jews feel in response to different expressions of Judaism and Jewish identity arises from internalized antisemitism. It is an expression of our own attempts to erase some aspect of who we are.

Among non-Jews, this trope of erasure arises on both the left and the right. When reactionary white racists chanted “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, they were expressing a belief that it’s “them” (Jews) or “us” (white Christians); there is not room here for both, and it will be Jews who have to go. When, a month later, a large march in Boston was organized in response to another right-wing rally and no one referenced the blatant antisemitism of the events in Charlottesville, Jews were once again erased. This latter example was most likely unintentional, but did not go unnoticed by Jews in attendance, and to my mind is an excellent example of an implicit antisemitism active among organizers and activists on the left.

Which brings us back to Marc Lamont Hill. I do not believe that Professor Hill is in any way intentionally antisemitic, nor that he should have been fired by CNN or his tenure threatened by Temple University. I have also been moved by the ways he has listened to those who were hurt by his words and his attempts to make amends. What is significant here is less what he intended by his remark than the way in which it echoed an antisemitic trope. When many Jews hear “Palestine from the river to the sea,” what is clearly erased in their minds is, of course, Israel. When left-wing organizations disallow any mention of Zionism or even connection to Israel from Jews who wish to remain part of those organizations, they are effectively erasing an aspect of Jewish experience and deciding who is a “good Jew”—one of the oldest of antisemitic tropes. The “good Jew” is the useful Jew, the co-opted Jew, the Jew who is allowed to exist. The “bad Jew,” by extension, is the one who must be erased.

Jews have spent much of the past 2,000 years figuring out how to remain in the good graces of the dominant society, and either assimilating (if possible) or moving on to another when those good graces disappear. One of the explicit aims of the Zionist movement was to end this dynamic for good by creating a place where, in theory, Jews would no longer be threatened by erasure. Ironically, the creation of the state has given rise to a new calculus of who is a “good Jew” in the eyes of the American Jewish mainstream, and increasingly within Israel itself, as dissent from state policy is increasingly vilified. Sadly, this intolerance on the right is increasingly mirrored on the left. Today, American Jews are being told we need to “take sides” in a struggle framed, from one perspective, between Israel and her enemies or, in the other perspective, between Palestinians/the cause of justice and those who perpetuate oppression.

What I would like to suggest is that this binary, from either perspective, is both untrue and deeply problematic. The embrace of the “existential” frame in both Israel and among the American Jewish establishment has led to an attempt to erase Palestinian history and Palestinian claims not only to statehood, but to basic human rights. We Jews have taken our own traumatic history of erasure and externalized it onto another in a way that has not only led to profound suffering for the Palestinian people, but to an existential crisis for the State of Israel and, by extension, Jews around the world.

In response, many progressives and people who identify deeply with the Palestinians have turned to their own form of erasure. The canard, made famous by Golda Meir, that there is no such thing as the Palestinian people, has been met by a mirror claim that Judaism is just a religion, and “Jewish” is no more than a religious identity. Thus any Jewish claim to cultural or national identity (and, by extension, a right to a national liberation movement) is false. In this framing, Zionism becomes nothing more than a manifestation of European colonialism. This claim erases centuries of Jewish experience and history, as well as the lived experience of millions of Israelis, and as such is a manifestation of antisemitism.  

I would argue that it is quite possible to reject the existential frame and even to desire an Israel that is a fully democratic state of all of its citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish, without needing to disavow the premises of the early Zionist movement. One can fully embrace the project of achieving true justice and equality for Palestinians “from the river to the sea,” and still affirm the existence of the Jewish people and a commitment to the well-being of Israelis. Did Israel take shape in the context of European colonialism? Of course, as did many of the currently existing nation-states in the Middle East. Must Israel, and all those who claim to love and support it, honestly acknowledge and begin to wrestle with the “original sin” of the destruction of Palestinian society that accompanied the founding of the state? I would vehemently argue “yes.” But I would also argue that Palestinian liberation will not be achieved by the erasure of Jewish claims either to the land of Israel or the right of national self-expression. As others have eloquently argued, at this moment in history, Jewish and Palestinian liberation are intertwined, and we must somehow find a way to seek it together. We must leave behind the blinders of choosing “sides,” and instead come to understand how both antisemitism and anti-Palestinian oppression are two sides of an ancient oppressive coin.  

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One Response

  1. Rabbi Spitzer— thank you for taking a complex subject and reframing it so it makes sense. I love my Judaism and could not have been a practicing Jew if it wasnt for your wise thoughtfulness.
    Thank you again.

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