Anti-Zionism Is Not the Same as Antisemitism. Here’s the History.

By Benjamin Moser

In December 2023, amid catastrophic bloodshed in Gaza, the U.S. House of Representatives resolved that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism.” The vote was 311 to 14, with 92 members voting present, reflecting a consensus among American political elites that opposition to Zionism is equivalent to the conspiratorial hatred of Jews.

If the resolution itself had no immediate practical consequences, the consensus behind it did. The lopsided vote reflected the U.S. government’s absolute diplomatic, military and ideological support of Israel while that state, under the leadership of the most right-wing government in its history, was pursuing a campaign in response to the terrorist attack of Oct. 7 that has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Palestinians, including, in just a few weeks, at least 7,700 children.

When learning of this vote, many people familiar with Jewish history might have suppressed a sardonic laugh. Anti-Zionism, after all, was a creation of Jews, not their enemies. Before World War II, Zionism was the most divisive and heatedly debated issue in the Jewish world. Anti-Zionism had left-wing variants and right-wing variants — religious variants and secular variants — as well as variants in every country where Jews resided.

For anyone who knows this history, it is astonishing that, as the resolution would have it, opposition to Zionism has been equated with opposition to Judaism — and not only to Judaism, but to hatred of Jews themselves. But this conflation has nothing to do with history. Instead, it is political, and its purpose has been to discredit Israel’s opponents as racists.

Race has always been at the heart of the debate. Many anti-Zionists believed the Jews were, in their parlance, “a church.” This meant that, although they shared certain beliefs, traditions and affinities with co-religionists in other nations, they nonetheless belonged as fully to their own national communities as anyone else. For them, an American Jew was a Jewish American, just as an Episcopalian American or a Catholic American was an American first of all. They were unwilling to subscribe to any idea suggesting that the Jews were a race, separate and, as the antisemites would have it, unassimilable. These people did not consider themselves to be in exile, as the Zionists would have it. They considered themselves to be at home. They feared that the insistence on ethnicity or race could open them to the old accusations of double loyalty, undermining attempts to achieve equality.

In fact, anti-Zionist thinking predates Zionism. It emerges from the possibility that first appeared at the end of the 18th century. In 1790, in his famous letter to the Jews of Newport, R.I., George Washington declared that “all possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.”

Only a few years later, Napoleon offered the Jews of France the possibility of full citizenship in a secular state — and then brought this principle into the vast territories he conquered. The opening of the ghettos unleashed a burst of creativity. Jewish thinkers began to contend with an idea preserved in traditional prayers: that the Jews would return to Palestine, where, in their ancestral land, they would be ruled by a scion of the House of David, restore the sacrifices under the priesthood of the descendants of Aaron and worship in a rebuilt Temple.

Many modernizing thinkers rejected this, and many other ritual formulas, as antiquated and fanciful. Rather than awaiting a personal messiah — one who would bring about the bodily resurrection of the dead — they hoped instead for a messianic age of peace and brotherhood. This was not conditioned on the mystical hope of a return to Zion. Instead, Jews should work in the here and now of the real world. Along with this idea came the precept that the Jews are, in the words of one rabbi, “citizens and faithful sons of the lands of their birth or adoption. They are a religious community, not a nation.” Though considered radical at first, this precept would eventually be embraced by the majority of Western Jews.

This view would ultimately find its most enthusiastic adherence in the United States. “This country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our Temple,” said Rabbi Gustavus Poznanski of Charleston, S.C., in 1841. A century later, during the Holocaust and World War II, Rabbi Samuel Schulman of Temple Emanu-El in New York stated that “the essence of Reform Judaism for me is the rejection of Jewish Nationalism, not necessarily the eating of ham.” Many Jews noted that talk of a “diaspora,” even of a “Jewish people,” resembled the calumnies of antisemites, which held that the Jews were an unassimilable foreign imperium in imperio. They noticed, as they could hardly have failed to notice, that many antisemites were fervently pro-Zionist: the better to get rid of the Jews. After the Balfour Declaration of 1917, promising a Jewish homeland to the tiny minority of Jews then living in Palestine, Edwin Montagu, the only Jew in the British cabinet, observed: “The policy of His Majesty’s Government is anti-Semitic in result and will prove a rallying ground for anti-Semites in every country in the world.”

Only a catastrophe as overwhelming as the Nazi Holocaust could have papered over these divisions. No matter how the Jews thought of themselves, the Zionists argued, the Gentiles would never accept them. No matter how much they felt at home, no matter how much loyalty they expressed, no matter how many of them died defending their country, they would always, eventually, be persecuted. It didn’t matter whether they called themselves a people or a race or a church; it didn’t matter whether they thought of themselves as Germans or Romanians or Canadians. The outside world saw only Jews.

This calamitous reality proved that the Jews could rely only on themselves, that they needed their own land, their own army, their own state, which needed to exist in Palestine. The Holocaust seemed to prove the Zionist argument. For nearly all Jews, the rise of the state of Israel, only three years after the defeat of Hitler, seemed to be a miraculous resurrection. Israel’s spectacular military victories over its apparently much more powerful enemies were a guarantee that the Jews would never again suffer what they had suffered. For many Jews throughout the world — even Jews who had never set foot in Israel — pride in Israel replaced a faith that many of them had lost. After the long night of exile — galut — brilliant dawn had come at last.

Yet beneath this apparent unanimity, Zionism remained controversial. It was controversial among certain strict religious communities that believed that only the Messiah could usher the Jews back into the Holy Land and rejected what they saw as the materialism and impiety of the Zionist settlers. It was controversial among socialists and communists, who rejected all forms of nationalism. But after the foundation of the state of Israel, the debate took a different turn. The heart of the objection was among those horrified by what Israel had meant for the native population of Palestine. For these people, the lesson of antisemitism was a rejection of all forms of racism, and especially of the kinds of atrocities that had been visited upon the Jews. They were dismayed that another people, one that bore no responsibility for the Nazi crimes, would be forced to pay for them. And their commitment to universalism brought them into conflict with the Jewish state. For decades, and particularly given the danger that Israel continued to face from its neighbors, their arguments were seldom heard and often ignored, and they themselves were described as “self-hating” or even “mentally ill.”

Even thinkers who continued to view the establishment of Israel as a mistake nevertheless hoped that the question could be resolved with a peaceful partition. The Oslo Accords pointed toward this possibility. But the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the direct consequence of those agreements, put paid to that assumption and brought to power a series of increasingly right-wing governments. Their policies rendered a future Palestinian state impossible.

As a result, anti-Zionism, rather than decreasing, has increased. No other state in the world has seen its “right to exist” as frequently questioned. This lack of recognition has been a major, perhaps the major, preoccupation of Israeli diplomacy. It might sometimes be the result of the rejection of people who hate the Jews, but among Jews it is the rejection of the idea of Zionism. It is a rejection of the idea of ethnic nationalism. It is a rejection of the idea of citizenship tied to race. Israel, far more than any other country that defines itself as “Western” or “democratic,” is still based on these ideas. And because it has increasingly, and now officially, come to define itself as a Jewish state, its defenders have often described its opponents as antisemites. The problem with this description? Many of those who share these convictions are, and always have been, Jews.

“There is no debate,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, in December. “Anti-Zionism is predicated on one concept, the denial of rights to one people.” To people who know nothing about one of the oldest and most persistent debates in Jewish history, this might sound plausible. Anyone who does can only admire the panache required in presenting such a deeply divisive question — one that, for two centuries, has gone to the very heart of the identity of the Jews — as unanimous. Never has the debate been louder than it is now.

—Benjamin Moser is the author of Sontag: Her Life and Work, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for biography. His latest book, The Upside-Down World: Meetings With the Dutch Masters, was published in October. Born in Houston, Texas he is a respected writer and translator; he resides in the Netherlands with his partner. This article first appeared in The Conversation on January 2, 2024 and is reprinted with permission.


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