For more than 20 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, anti-Zionism was a regional phenomenon – a conflict between Arab and Jewish national movements. In the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, the Soviets exploited antisemitism for political purposes, but it was seldom part of international debate until after the Six-Day War in 1967.
By the end of the 1960s, and since 1975, anti-Zionism became international in scope. It first appeared in the universities in the West where the New Left, in cooperation with Arab student associations, attacked Israeli policy. 1
When the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 3379 on November 10, 1975, and declared “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination,” it significantly expanded anti-Zionism into the sphere of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and therefore into Third World countries. This was accomplished in collaboration between the Arabs and the Soviet Union that endowed anti-Zionism with legitimacy and official recognition.2
After the First World War, the Arabs expected Greater Syria – which included Palestine and Lebanon – to become a sovereign Arab empire. Instead, the French and the British divided the area into what the Arabs considered “irrationally carved out” entities that became the present-day states of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Trans-Jordan (later Jordan), Iraq, and Israel. The Arabs were outraged that a “non-Arab embryo state in Palestine” had been inserted into an area where it would never be accepted. They claimed that this shattered their dreams of unification and impeded their search for a common identity. 3
The fight against a Jewish homeland became an integral part of their struggle “for dignity and independence.” Israel’s existence, they claimed, “implied that not only a part of the Arab patrimony, but also parts of Islam, had been stolen. For a Moslem, there was no greater shame than for that to happen.” The only way to eliminate this deeply felt affront – this “symbol of everything that had dominated them in the past” – was to rid the area of “imperialist domination.” 4
Zionism was branded the enemy of the Arab national movement, but Arab governments use the Arab-Israeli conflict to divert attention from their own domestic, social and economic problems. If this were not a real concern, they claim, it would not resonate so strongly among the Arab masses. 5
Historian Bernard Lewis says Arab fixation with Israel “is the licensed grievance. In countries where people are becoming increasingly angry and frustrated at all the difficulties under which they live – the poverty, unemployment, oppression – having a grievance which they can express freely is an enormous psychological advantage.” 6
The Israeli-Arab conflict is the only local political grievance that can be openly discussed. If they were permitted freedom of speech, Lewis believes that the obsession with Israel would become far less important. Like most people, Arabs are concerned about their own priorities. For the Palestinian Arabs, who view themselves as permanent victims, the main issue is their struggle with Israel. If Arabs in other countries were permitted to focus on their own problems, they would do so. 7
For Arabs, the attempt to blame Western imperialism is nothing more than an excuse to attack Israel, historian Jacob Talmon asserted: “For decades the Arabs have been obsessed by memories of past glories and prophecies of future greatness, mocked by the injury and shame of having an alien and despised race injected into the nerve center of their promised pan-Arab empire, between its Asian and African halves, just at a time when the colonial powers had started their great retreat from their colonial possessions in Asia and Africa.” 8
To lessen their feelings of shame for losing every war against Israel, the Arabs attributed the success of the Jewish settlement and the Israeli military triumphs of 1948 and 1956 to Western imperialism. As the representative of the Great Powers, Israel became the Arabs’ scapegoat whenever they became frustrated in their attempt to transcend “centuries of social, economic, and cultural development, and catch up” with the West. 9
The crushing defeat of the Arabs in the 1967 Six-Day War shattered this fantasy and accentuated Arab humiliation, since the Israelis won without the backing of any imperialist nations. 10
At the same time, the Arabs persecuted their own Jewish residents. Jews were attacked in Yemen, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Morocco. Synagogues were burned and Jews were arrested and detained. In Damascus and Baghdad, Jewish leaders were fined and imprisoned, and 7,000 Jews were expelled after their property and most of their belongings were confiscated.11
Despite this treatment of Jews in Arab lands, the 1.2 million Arabs under Israeli governance did not experience any systematic mistreatment. Perhaps the greatest trauma for the Arabs was that Israel had conquered 42,000 square miles – and was now three-and-a-half times larger in size than before the war. 12
Anti-Zionism entered the international scene when Israel and Egypt reached political rapprochement after the Yom Kippur War by signing an interim agreement on September 1, 1975. That agreement emphasized, “The conflict between them and in the Middle East shall not be resolved by military force but by peaceful means.”13
Concerned that this might lead to peace, the Soviets, Syria, and the PLO tried to exclude Israel from international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), like UNESCO, “for having transgressed the United Nations Charter, and having failed to adopt its resolutions.” When this strategy failed, they began to question Israel’s legitimacy and discredit and condemn Zionism in the UN, and to internationalize their propaganda against her.14
1. Yohanan Manor, “Anti-Zionism,” (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1984): 8.
3. Saul Friedlander and Mahmoud Hussein, Arabs and Israelis: A Dialogue (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1975), 6, 18, 21.
4. Ibid., 9, 34.
6. “Islam’s Interpreter,” The Atlantic Online (April 4, 2004), Online.
7. Ibid; Friedlander and Hussein, Arabs and Israelis: A Dialogue, 32-33, 36.
8. Jacob L. Talmon, Israel Among the Nations (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970), 169-170.
10. Michael B. Oren, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 305-306.
11. Ibid., 306-307.
13. Manor, “Anti-Zionism,” 9-10.
Dr. Alex Grobman is a Hebrew University trained historian. He is a former director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and the author of a number of books, including Nations United: How The U.N. Undermines Israel and The West, Denying History: Who Says The Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?, and a forthcoming book on Israel’s moral and legal right to exist as a Jewish State.