Is it possible to be anti-Semitic and pro-Israel at the same time? Your answer depends on how you define the terms. As Toni Morrison wrote, “definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” If you define anti-Semitism solely as criticism of Israel, the answer is dangerously simple. It establishes a logic that can excuse the racism of a white nationalist and encourage him to quote Theodore Herzl. The controversial appointment of Stephen K. Bannon as Donald Trump’s chief strategist shows how difficult it is to disentangle definitions of anti-Semitism from attitudes toward Israel and makes it all the more urgent to do so
Only one major Jewish organization, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), has condemned the appointment of a man who “presided over the premier website of the ‘alt-right’ — a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists.” Along with smaller liberal Jewish groups, the ADL defines anti-Semitism as a form of prejudice, hatred and exclusion that intersects with other kinds of racism and bigotry.
In contrast, Bannon’s defenders maintain an exclusive definition of anti-Semitism. The Zionist Organization of America lauds Bannon as “the opposite of an anti-Semite.” “Every article [on Breitbart News, the website Bannon ran] about Israel and the Palestinian Arabs he has published are all supportive of Israel.” These included “fighting anti-Semitic rallies at CUNY,” “courageously… reporting that the Palestinian authority defames Israel”; “bravely” publicizing “Iran’s violations of the Iran deal–which pose an existential threat to Israel”; and “sympathetically” reporting on the “scourge of anti-Semitic anti-Israel boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS)”. The evidence that Breitbart News is not anti-Semitic, is simply that it hurls that label at those who oppose the Israeli occupation and support Palestinian rights.
Hardline defense of Israel immunizes Bannon from any accusation of anti-Semitism. Praising him as a best friend of Israel, his supporters reprise a long-derided defense against racism: “Why, some of my best friends are …” They discount Bannon’s negative statements about Jews as the exaggerated rant of an ex-wife, or perhaps the off-the-cuff equivalent of Trump’s “locker room talk.”
The ADL bears some historical responsibility for the powerful conflation of anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel.
In 1974, the ADL published The New Anti-Semitism, a book that radically redirected the concept: away from prejudice against Jews and toward animus against the State of Israel, and simultaneously, away from the political right toward the left. “Classic anti-Semitism” was on the wane, the book claimed. Once espoused by right-wing groups such as the John Birch society and the KKK, the old stereotypes seemed an anachronistic throwback in an America where Jews had made it.
The new dangers of anti-Semitism instead came from the New Left and Black Power movements, which refused to understand Jews as the sole victims of persecution. In the context of the Vietnam War and the 1967 Six Day War, some leftists condemned Israel’s imperialist conquests and championed Palestinian resistance as an anti-colonial liberation movement. The ADL read these responses as warning signals of a virulent new strain of anti-Semitism on the rise.
Since the 1970s, the ADL has wielded this new definition of anti-Semitism as criticism of Israel to monitor groups supporting Palestinian rights, especially Arab-American and Muslim organizations.
Ironically, the “new anti-Semitism” seems to be discovered again and again, decade after decade. It has come to a hysterical crescendo in the 21st century. To name a few titles, there’s The Real Anti-Semitism in America (1982), The New Anti-Semitism(2003); The Return of Anti-Semitism (2004); Resurgent Anti-Semitism (2013).
The argument is always the same: Israel is the victim of international persecution as the “Jew among nations.” The circle of persecutors has been expanded beyond 60s radicals to include the UN and Third World nations, which condemned Zionism as racism in the 70s, and to the mainstream media in the 80s, for broadcasts of Israeli brutality in Lebanon and during the First Intifada. New accusations of new anti-Semitism started targeting human rights groups and the Nobel Peace Prize in the 90s. The term became capacious enough to include Jewish critics of Israel, who had once been considered merely “self-hating.” Since 2001, definers of the new anti-Semitism have circulated anti-Muslim stereotypes of “Islamofascists” who purportedly fuse anti-Semitism with Anti-Americanism.
This “new anti-Semitism,” according to its definers, is immutable. They no longer understand it as a prejudice that can be educated away, a stereotype that can be challenged, or discrimination that can be remedied by law— the ADL approach to anti-Semitism in the 40s and 50s. Consequently, they have no hope that criticisms of Israel might abate if its policies change, and they believe that murderous hatred of Jews is the only obstacle to peace in the Middle East.
History shows that anti-Semitism and pro-Zionism have never been mutually exclusive. Advocates for a Jewish state enlisted stereotypes of Jews –wittingly or not–to further their cause. Theodor Herzl himself appealed to European leaders that Zionism would resolve the “Jewish Question” by sending Jews elsewhere. Some British supporters of the Balfour Declaration recycled an inflated image of Jewish financial power to sway the US government to enter World War I. After World War II, some American Congressmen called loudly for the British to open the gates to Palestine so that Jewish refugees—feared to be communists—would not contaminate the U.S.A.
Today, those who identify anti-Semitism with any critique of Israel from the left (broadly construed), have too often been willing to overlook anti-Semitic sentiments from partisans for Israel on the right.
Consider the case of the right-wing Christians who formed the Moral Majority in the 80s and then the Christian Zionist movement in the 90s. They are among the strongest supporters of Israel in America today. They meld strident endorsement of Israel’s most right-wing policies with anti-Semitic attitudes toward Jews. Theologically, they love Jews to death. As a precondition for the final coming of the messiah, they believe, all Jews will gather in Jerusalem. A fraction will convert, but most will be killed with all the other unbelievers.
Here on earth, Christian enthusiasts for Israel have cast secular Jews both as subversive amoral influences from below, responsible for the depredations of the counterculture, but also as powerful bankers in the shadowy upper reaches manipulating the New World Order for their own financial gain. There are good Jews and bad Jews. The good ones are marked by their nationalist identification with the State of Israel, the bad by their liberal cosmopolitanism. A striking example can be found in the enormously popular Left Behind series of novels. A small militia group fighting the Antichrist consists of rugged born-again white Americans and brainy Israelis converted to Christianity, but not one American Jew appears in the 16 volumes.
This pattern of loving Israel and feeling lukewarm, at best, about Jews resonates with the Alt-Right white nationalists on Breitbart News. At a trivial level, there’s no contradiction between a Bannon who opens a bureau in Jerusalem to “get out Israel’s true story,” and a Bannon who recoils at the prospect sending his daughter to school with “whiney” Jews.
While the white nationalists believe that Jews do not belong in the white nation, they do admire Israel as a model for an ethnically homogeneous nation gutsy enough to dominate or expel Muslims. As the Southern Poverty Law Center reports, one of the major spokesmen of the Alt-right, Richard B. Spencer “has termed his mission a “sort of white Zionism,” that would inspire whites with the dream of such a homeland just as Zionism helped spur the establishment of Israel. A white ethno-state would be an Altneuland—an old, new country—he said, attributing the term to Theodor Herzl, a founding father of Zionism.”
The president of the Zionist Organization of America would probably be flattered by the comparison, because he too sees Israel and America engaged in a common struggle to defend the homeland against Islam: “In an era in which the vast majority of terrorism is committed by Muslims, in order to protect American citizens, we should adopt the same profiling policies as Israel and be more thorough in vetting Muslims.”
But how will the ADL and more progressive Jews respond to this unholy alliance of white nationalism, Zionism and Islamophobia?
The history of the ADL response to Christian Zionism is instructive and worrisome. In 1982, ADL director Nathan Perlmutter wrote that he wasn’t worried about the Evangelical theology because of the more pressing needs to fund Israel’s military. In his words: “We need all the friends we have to support Israel…If the Messiah comes, on that day we’ll consider our options. Meanwhile, let’s praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.”
In 1994 Abe Foxman, the next director, showed more concern about Pat Robertson’s popular New World Order, which had condemned “cosmopolitan liberal Jews for their “assault on Christianity.” Foxman responded with The Religious Right: The Assault on Tolerance and Pluralism in America, warning of the imposition of a ‘Christian nation’ on America’s democracy.
By 2002, when America imagined itself to be fighting the same War on Terror as Israel’s assault on the Palestinians during the Second Intifada, Foxman reconsidered and wrote “Why Evangelical Support for Israel is a Good Thing.” Unsurprisingly he authored a “new” book: Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism (2003).
Let’s hope the current director of the ADL, Jonathan Greenblatt, stands firm this time and does not backtrack in his condemnation of Bannon. But much more is at stake than the question of Steve Bannon’s anti-Semitism. His legitimation of a white nationalism that hates Jews but admires Israel has forced a reckoning with the single-minded meaning of the “new anti-Semitism” as criticism of Israel.
It is time to dismantle this exclusive definition and undo the damage it has done to “the defined.”
Even now, the right is pushing back on criticism of Bannon by tarring as anti-Semitic progressive leaders and movements so essential to the current struggle against Trump. We cannot allow the charge of anti-Semitism to muzzle critics of Israel, nor blind allegiance to Israel to excuse bigotry. Americans must stop the new administration from justifying racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia on the grounds that it supports Israel.
A much shorter version of this article appeared at Al Jazeera’s website last year, focused on Steve Bannon. We are running the longer version because recent pieces by Suzanne Schneider, Yoav Litvin and Brant Rosen have made it more relevant than ever.