Mondoweiss

Antisemitism and its useful idiots

(Image: Carlos Latuff)

All over the world people who challenge Zionism are being accused of antisemitism. You might imagine the one group of dissidents who are safe from this kind of delegitimization is the Israeli Jews—we are not. This cruel irony, when exposed, may actually play a productive role in decoupling antisemitism and anti-Zionism. As actual antisemites take positions of power in the US government while maintaining a pro-Israel stance, the need to oppose the false accusations of antisemitism becomes ever more vital.

I was recently accused of antisemitism over an article I wrote about resistance to Israeli apartheid in the Jordan Valley. At first I was perplexed—could I have said something antisemitic? Surely I’m not immune to bigotry just because I am a Jew whose grandmother fled Nazi Germany to find refuge in Mandatory Palestine with her parents losing their entire livelihood in the process. But after a close reading of the accusations I found them a revealing example on the accusatory phenomenon as a whole. They cite as evidence of antisemitism my citation of reliable UN sources indicating that a process of ethnic cleansing has been occurring in the Jordan Valley since 1967, with no shred of compassion for the Palestinians whose situation I try to make visible. They see the Israeli soldiers and bureaucrats whose actions I condemn as representatives of the Jewish people en bloc, as if we Jews were all one likely-minded monolith. In this logic, however incoherently framed, anyone who criticizes Israel could be accused of antisemitism. This empties the word of meaning, which is a very dangerous prospect when the Nazi salute is being performed minutes away from the White House to celebrate an actual bigot’s presidency.

Zionism and antisemitism are long-time bedfellows, and not strange at that. They’ve been consistently sharing the cause of emptying Europe of Jews while transplanting them in Palestine. Theodore Herzl, the founder of colonial Zionism, stated very clearly in his Diaries: “The anti-Semites will become our most dependable friends, the anti-Semitic countries our allies.” This alliance continues to this day as the burgeoning extreme right aims to have a Jew-free white America while maintaining a staunch support for Israel. Trump’s friendship with Netanyahu is emblematic of this tendency.

Zionists like to think of themselves as the saviors of the Jews, as if Jews were compliant lambs until the Zionists came over and put pitchforks and guns in our hands. This way Zionism attempts to overshadow Judaism’s important contribution to legacies of struggle. In my own life, Judaism informs my resistance to the Israeli state (and to all states, for that matter). I lit candles on Hanukkah commemorating the Jewish rebellion against Hellenistic imperialism almost 2200 years ago. I cherish the legacy of the ZOB, who led the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and wrote: “All people are equal brothers…. To separate peoples, colors, races – is but an act of cheating!”

If I felt anxiety at the site of my own picture flagging the word “antisemite,” and thought I may need to choose my words more carefully next time, I can imagine it being quite daunting for non-Jews who feel compelled to support the Palestinian call for equality. Indeed, international groups I speak to often say that fear of the “antisemitism accusation” is the biggest challenge they face as activists. We need to be crystal clear about the illegitimacy of this invocation: to support the Palestinian call for equality and freedom is not antisemitic. It is not a call against Jewish people, but against the dehumanizing policies of a state. Opposing Israel is not opposing Jewish people (on the contrary). Following are five reasons for which these accusations should be opposed and discredited:

  1. Jewish people are not a single monolithic group. Zionism and the State of Israel do not represent all Jews. To consider opposition to Israel as opposition to all Jews makes the assumption that Jews are all represented by the Israeli State – this is a racist assumption. (A similar argument is often made by Omar Barghouti)
  2. The Zionist idea that Jewish people have a birth-given right to colonize Palestine comes out of a nineteenth century white European notion that Ashkenazi Jews are not Europeans, that they are “strange Asiatics” who come from the Middle East and therefore must all “return” to it. This is an unfounded and antisemitic argument. (Authoritatively articulated by Joseph Massad and others)
  3. Accusing people who oppose the State of Israel of antisemitism is an equation that works both ways—it creates a false image of antisemites as people who uphold Palestinian rights. It is therefore an accusation which strengthens actual fascists, as it puts them in a positive light. (See an article by Michael Lesher)
  4. Zionists accuse people of antisemitism in order to silence resistance to Israeli crimes.
  5. At a time in which fascism strengthens globally, the groundless allegation of antisemitism drains the word itself of meaning, making it incoherent and irrelevant, allowing racists who support Israel, such as Donald Trump or his chief strategist Steve Bannon, to hide their antisemitism.

Profiling activists as antisemites, whether those with Holocaust survival in our family history or those without, is not only rhetorically dangerous, but may actually put people at risk. Right now Palestinian solidarity efforts are being criminalized the world over. But fearing these kinds of accusations and limiting ourselves to a false political correctness only leaves a void to be filled by authoritarian politics. It’s time we call antisemitism for what it is. The recuperation of anti-racist politics as a whole is at stake.