Every time an article by Peter Beinart appears in Haaretz, I read it avidly. I don’t always agree with him, but I find his analyses deep and mordant and his prose elegant and eloquent. Often his predictions turn out to be right, and I believe that even his sharpest criticisms are motivated by a deep love for Israel and the Jewish people. Despite the opposition of many, I was honored to have him speak at the 2013 Jewish Funders Network annual conference.
However, I feel I need to raise to my voice against a few of Peter’s recent articles in which he argues that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism. Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. It holds that Jews, like any other people, have the right to national self-determination. Denying that right to Jews, and only to Jews, can’t be called anything other than anti-Semitism. It may be different for the tiny minority of utopians out there who argue consistently against nationalism in any form and in any country, seeking to bring about a world without nation states. But that’s not what anti-Zionism seeks. Anti-Zionism isn’t directed at any other national movement but that of the Jews. (Otherwise they’d have to call it something else.) Most anti-Zionists wholeheartedly embrace other national movements, or at least fail to condemn the existence of any nation state other than Israel. Most notably, anti-Zionists often champion Palestinian national aspirations, but the stark double standard seems to escape them.
Beinart notes that those who oppose the creation of, say, a Kurdish state are not necessarily anti-Kurdish bigots. Similarly, he argues, one can oppose the existence of the Jewish state without hating Jews. The problem with this analogy is that opposing the creation of a Kurdish state in a particular territory or circumstance is a far cry from holding an explicitly anti-Kurdish-national-movement ideology. But the latter is what you need for a real analogue to anti-Zionism—not merely an opinion that splitting up Iraq or Turkey would be harmful given the circumstances, but a positive belief that any aspiration of Kurdish nationhood is wrong in principle.
Beinart is even more wrong to argue that anti-Zionism is justified by Israel’s actions in the territories. As somebody who is sometimes critical of Israel’s policies in the West Bank, I find this contention ludicrous, because it fails to make the crucial distinction between criticizing a country’s policies and denying its right to exist. From America to Algeria, from Cambodia to Zimbabwe, from Belgium to Italy, many states and national movements have committed crimes and even massacres. But anti-Zionism deems only one of these national movements entirely illegitimate because of the crimes of its followers—a logical move it certainly does not extend (nor should it) to the religion of Islam or the Palestinian national movement.
Oppose the occupation, by all means, but why is Israel the only “country on probation,” the only country who’s very right to exist depends on its policies?
The anti-Zionist mutation of anti-Semitism is particularly pernicious, because it denies not only the right of the Jews to a state, but their very identity as a people. Very few anti-Zionists hold that Judaism as a religion should be eradicated. That distinction is, at the same time, their fig leaf and their weapon. By “tolerating” Judaism as a religion, they can try to shake off the designation of anti-Semitism, a curious attempt since they are trying to lecture the Jewish people about the nature (the negation, actually) of our own identity. The claim is that Judaism is a legitimate religion, but that the Jews are not a legitimate nation—just a collection of people of other nationalities who practice the religion of Judaism, who, therefore, are not entitled to a nation-state. This desire to dictate the parameters of Jewish identity to the Jewish people may be worse than traditional Christian anti-Semitism, or even than some forms of racial anti-Semitism, neither of which deny the Jews our place among the nations, hate us though they may.
Beinart’s biggest logical fallacy is failing to distinguish between non-Zionism and anti-Zionism, as if calling out anti-Zionism for its bigotry were the same thing as saying that everyone is a bigot who isn’t willing to sing Hatikva. It is obvious that nobody can expect Palestinians to be active Zionists, and Beinart is correct when he notes that Zionism has entailed terrible consequences for many Palestinians. But between non-Zionist and anti-Zionist there is a world of difference. Palestinians need not become Zionists any more than Israelis must wave Palestinian flags, but there’s nothing wrong in demanding that the Palestinian movement recognize, even if it can’t celebrate, the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their homeland, just as Jews should accept the Palestinian right to national self-determination.
Finally, Beinart’s arguments are spurious because the use of anti-Zionism as a fig leaf for anti-Semitism has passed a tipping point, beyond which a declaration of anti-Zionism usually stands for more than its literal meaning. The word “Zionist” is often used as a slur in contexts for which the simple, political meaning of “Zionism” just could not logically be intended, and in which attacking Jews per se is the only meaning that fits. Words have official meanings (denotations), but they also have connotations, and connotations matter.
That same importance of connotations in language leads to a dangerous situation for the future of the word “Zionism,” which is being battered cruelly from all sides. Anti-Zionist anti-Semites use it as an insult to attack both Israel and Jews more broadly. But radical Jews have also hijacked the term, attempting to strip it of its essential democratic and liberal connotations and using it to justify extremism. Pundits and image experts now advise us to stop using the term “Zionism” when advocating for Israel because it’s toxic.
Even for us passionate Zionists, it’s tempting to give up on “Zionism” as a word, and advocate the same principles while retreating to more convenient language that we don’t need to fight for. But I, for what it’s worth, refuse to cede that ground. The name of Zionism is worth defending.
Zionism is a dream made reality. It enshrines the right of the Jewish people “to be like every other people, living freely in its sovereign country.” It restored freedom and dignity to a people oppressed for two millennia. Zionism is profoundly liberal and democratic. It was rooted in Jewish humanistic principles and in progressive ideas of 19th century national democrats like the Italian Giuseppe Massini, who understood that true democracy and freedom can only take place in the context of a sovereign national state. Zionism does not seek to dominate other peoples. No foundational Zionist thinker advocated depriving Arabs of civil rights and even Jabotinsky, the most nationalistic of those thinkers and the progenitor of the Likud, envisioned equal rights and even an Arab vice president in the Jewish State.
The imperfections, excesses, and even crimes that came along with the implementation of the Zionist idea (just as has happened in each and every other national movement in human history) cannot erase the much larger truth that the Zionist movement’s creation of the modern State of Israel was, and is, a triumph for human rights.
The challenge for the Jewish community is to reclaim the banner of Zionism, both from anti-Semites and from our own extremists. Zionism doesn’t belong to either of them, it belongs to all of us Jews who believe in our inalienable human right to self-determination. We must own the name of Zionist, and we must defend it. We must insist that singling the Jewish nation out from all nations to delegitimize our rights is to be anti-Jewish. Standing up for Zionism, we stand up for ourselves and, by extension of principle, for all humanity. Let’s defy the image experts and bring back in reputation what Zionism has always been in truth: one of the most inspiring and justice-oriented movements in human history.
Andrés Spokoiny is President & CEO of Jewish Funders Network.