Is anti-Zionism the same as antisemitism?

Two definitions of antisemitism present different understandings of what antisemitism is and isn’t. Is opposing Zionism inherently antisemitic, or could this be a form of legitimate political speech and action?
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Protest against Israel's Gaza blockade in Melbourne, Australia, June 5, 2010. (takver/flickr)

Is anti-Zionism the same as antisemitism? Ahead of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), two proposed definitions of antisemitism have drawn increased attention to that question in the Jewish world.

Much of the debate centers on an example of contemporary antisemitism given in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Definition (IHRA), created in 2016: the document states that “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” and “claiming that the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavor” could be antisemitic when “taking into account the overall context.”

By contrast, a new proposed definition released last week — the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA) — asserts that “opposing Zionism as a form of nationalism” and “evidence-based criticism of Israel as a state” (including its founding principles), are not “on the face of it,” antisemitic. The authors note that “Hostility to Israel could be an expression of an antisemitic animus, or it could be a reaction to a human rights violation, or… the emotion that a Palestinian person feels on account of their experience at the hands of the State.”

A common argument made by those who say anti-Zionism is inherently antisemitic is that while it is legitimate and acceptable to criticize Israeli policy, denying legitimacy to the entire project of Zionism and the state of Israel is antisemitic. They view anti-Zionism as just the latest form of antisemitism, as the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt’l argued: “In the Middle Ages Jews were hated for their religion. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century they were hated for their race. Today they are hated for their nation state, Israel.”

Others reject the idea that anti-Zionism is always antisemitic as a broad brush claim, and argue there are legitimate reasons why someone might oppose Zionism. For instance, in his book “The Conflict Over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate,” Kenneth Stern, who was the lead author of the IHRA Definition, pointed out that Satmar Hasidic Jews oppose Zionism on theological grounds.

“Most Jews would say Satmar Jews… are part of the Jewish family,” Stern wrote. “But Jews who might have other theological objections to Zionism (because they can’t square Zionism with their interpretation of what it means to be a Jew and how the stranger should be treated… or ideological objections, are called traitors [and] antisemites.”

Defining antisemitism is important precisely because the phenomena has taken so many different forms throughout history. Although some expressions of antisemitism are overt, others are more subtle, concealed behind rational appearances and seemingly logical arguments. As Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, said in her 2017 TED Talk about Holocaust denial: “We’ve got to look underneath [rational appearances], and we will find there the extremism.”

Is this anti-Jewish hatred similarly hidden behind the guise of anti-Zionism, or is this an overly simplistic understanding of what can actually motivate anti-Zionist ideas? Having clarity about this question will help us better understand and identify today’s antisemitism. We’ll explore what Jewish thought leaders think about this topic, but first, here’s why defining antisemitism even matters and a breakdown of the two definitions.

Why This Matters

Rabbi Andrew Baker, the director of international Jewish affairs at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), and Holly Huffnagle, AJC’s U.S. director for combating antisemitism, wrote in a Times of Israel blog post that the IHRA definition “is an essential, effective tool in the fight against antisemitism” because it “helps government authorities and civil society to understand antisemitism and recognize it in its multiple forms.”

Baker and Huffnagle added that dozens of countries have used the IHRA definition “to aid police and other authorities responsible for monitoring and identifying antisemitic incidents, and that the U.S. State Department, “under Democratic and Republican Administrations, has been using it in its worldwide efforts to monitor” anti-Jewish hate.

Defining antisemitism so authorities can recognize it is particularly important at a time that antisemitic incidents are rising in the U.S. and globally. According to a poll released last week by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), 63% of Jewish Americans have either experienced or witnessed some form of antisemitism in the last five years — an increase from 54% in the 2020 survey. Additionally, nine percent of the respondents said they had been physically attacked in the last five years because they are Jewish.

The IHRA Definition

According to the IHRA definition, “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” and includes “rhetorical and physical manifestations…directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

The document provides a list of examples that “could, taking into account the overall context,” be antisemitic. The list includes:

  • “Denying the Jewish people their right to self determination” such as “by claiming that the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavor”
  • Applying double standards by requiring of [the Jewish state] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation
  • Comparing Israeli policy to that of Nazi Germany

Notwithstanding the given examples of antisemitism targeting the Jewish state, the IHRA definition clarifies that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

The IHRA definition, which was produced in 2016, has been adopted by dozens of countries. It has also been endorsed by the United Nations Secretary General, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. In the United States, the IHRA definition has received bipartisan support: The Biden administration stated that it “enthusiastically embraces” the definition, and former President Donald Trump issued an executive order instructing all U.S. executive agencies to consider the IHRA when determining antisemitism. The administrations of former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush also used the definition as guidance.

The JDA Definition

In a preamble section to the JDA, the authors explained that their document is meant as an alternative to the IHRA definition, which they say is “unclear in key respects” and “has caused confusion and generated controversy, hence weakening the fight against antisemitism.” They explained that their goals were to offer a “clearer” definition and guidelines and “to protect a space for an open debate about the vexed question of the future of Israel/Palestine.”

According to the JDA, “Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).” Like IHRA, the JDA definition underscores the importance of context when applying the guidelines.

The JDA definition characterizes as antisemitic “applying the symbols, images and negative stereotypes of classical antisemitism to the state of Israel” and “denying the right of Jews in the State of Israel to exist and flourish, collectively and individually, as Jews.”

However, the JDA definition also states that efforts to boycott Israel “are not, in and of themselves, antisemitic” since “boycott, divestment and sanctions are commonplace, non-violent forms of political protest against states.” It also identifies the following as not, on the face of it, antisemitic: 

  • Criticizing or opposing Zionism as a form of nationalism
  • Arguing for a variety of constitutional arrangements for Jews and Palestinians in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean
  • Evidence-based criticism of Israel as a state” including its founding principles
  • Comparing Israel with other historical cases

The JDA was signed by over 200 scholars in the fields of Jewish, Holocaust, Israel, Palestine  and Middle East Studies. The signatories included political commentator Peter Beinart, Dartmouth Jewish studies chairwoman Susannah Heschel, former Princeton professor Michael Walzer, UCLA Israel studies chairman Dov Waxman, Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua.

Comparing the Definitions

Setting aside the context of the particular situation (which both definitions say should be taken into account), it is still possible to draw conclusions about what each definition would consider antisemitic and not antisemitic.

  • Comparing Israel to Nazi Germany would likely be considered antisemitic under the IHRA, but would not necessarily be under the JDA.
  • While the IHRA asserts it could be antisemitic to “deny the Jewish people their right to self-determination,” the JDA says it is not, on the face of it, antisemitic to oppose Zionism as a form of nationalism.
  • While the JDA explicitly states it is not in and of itself antisemitic to support boycotts of Israel, BDS could be considered antisemitic under the IHRA as denying the Jewish people’s rights to self-determination.

Is Opposing Zionism Inherently Antisemitic? 

In the Jewish world, we’ve seen a debate over the question of whether opposing Zionism is inherently antisemitic, with some maintaining anti-Zionism is the newest form of antisemitism and others arguing the two phenomena ought to be interpreted differently.

Amanda Berman, executive director of the Zioness Movement, said in an email: “‘Anti-Zionism’ is the desire to return the Jews to a state of total systemic powerlessness, vulnerable to the whims of social and political movements that have, throughout history… exhibited their contempt for Jewish life. It is just the newest manifestation in an age-old hate.”

Michael Walzer, a former editor of Dissent Magazine who signed the JDA draft, argued in a 2019 op-ed that anti-Zionism is often tightly connected to antisemitism. Considering common anti-Zionist arguments — such as “the Jews aren’t a people” and “no one should have a state” — Walzer wrote, “It is at least possible, and sometimes it seems likely, that the people making [anti-Zionist claims] also believe that Jews ran the slave trade, that the Zionist lobby controls U.S. foreign policy… that Jews are disloyal to every country in which they live except Israel, and that Jewish bankers control the international financial system.”

Similarly, in comments to Jewish Insider last month, William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, referred to the “new antisemitism” in which “anti-Israel activity is often a proxy for antisemites.” Daroff explained that “It’s more acceptable… to call someone a ‘dirty Israeli’ than it is to call them a ‘dirty Jew.’”

The day the JDA definition was released, Isaac de Castro, a senior at Cornell University and co-founder of the Jewish on Campus Instagram account, and Blake Flayton, a senior at George Washington University and co-founder of the New Zionist Congress, argued on Twitter: “Antizionism is antisemitism.”

However, others resisted the idea that anti-Zionism is inherently antisemitic as a broad brush claim. In his book, “The Conflict Over the Conflict,” Kenneth Stern, the lead author of the IHRA, warned against jumping to the conclusion that antisemitism is behind all anti-Israel speech and action. Stern pointed to an incident at the University of California, Irvine, in 2010 in which a group of student protestors, organized by the Muslim Student Union, disrupted a speech by Michael Oren, then Israel’s ambassador to the U.S.

Noting that some students oppose giving a platform to speakers with conservative viewpoints, and that “support for Israel is seen by many as a conservative position,” Stern concluded that Oren might have been shouted down “because he was seen as representing a conservative position.”

In a 2019 op-ed for The Guardian, Stern further argued that the IHRA definition was being “weaponized” by “rightwing Jewish groups” to suppress anti-Zionist speech on college campuses. “On a college campus, where the purpose is to explore ideas, anti-Zionists have a right to free expression,” Stern argued, adding that if he “had been born into a Palestinian family displaced in 1948,” he might oppose Zionism, for reasons other than “vilifying Jews.” 

Stern’s argument is illustrated by the Islamist Ra’am party in Israel, which is currently being courted by other parties competing to form a government in the aftermath of last month’s elections. Ra’am’s charter supports a right of return for Palestinian refugees — a position Zionist Israelis oppose as spelling out the end of the Jewish state — and calls Zionism a “racist, occupying Zionist project.” These positions are undoubtedly anti-Zionist, but are they antisemitic?

In comments to the London-based Middle East Eye, Derek Penslar, a Jewish history professor at Harvard University and one of the signatories to the JDA, said that judgment and discernment are needed to determine whether intense views against Israel are antisemitic: “It takes a little bit of time and effort to listen to people… and ask yourself: Where are they coming from? What are their intentions? What are their goals? That’s the best way to figure out if the speech is antisemitic or not.”

David Hirsh, a lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and the author of “Contemporary Left Antisemitism,” emphasized in a Jewish Chronicle op-ed that the IHRA definition leaves room for these kinds of questions: “IHRA does not designate anything as being antisemitic. IHRA gives examples of things that we know are frequently antisemitic, and it says that a given case which is similar may, according to context, be antisemitic.”

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