Defining antisemitism: Why anti-Zionism is a form of antisemitism - World Jewish Congress
Defining antisemitism: Why anti-Zionism is a form of antisemitism
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What is Zionism?

Zionism, the belief the Jewish people maintain a right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland, has been a central tenet of Judaism for thousands of years.

The roots of Zionism stem from the Jewish people’s 3,000-year connection to the Land of Israel, including roughly 1,000 years of independent Jewish-led civilization. This initial settlement is widely regarded to have begun in 1300 BCE, although the patriarch and matriarch of the Jewish people, Abraham and Sarah, are believed to have settled in the land generations prior. 

Despite Kingdom of Judea defeat and exile to Babylonia in 586 BCE, many Jews eventually returned seventy years later. This return was a precursor to the ideals and ambitions of the modern-day Zionist movement.

Jewish-led civilization in ancient Israel persisted for approximately 400 years until Jews were exiled again by the Romans. This exile would last approximately 2,000 years, although some small Jewish communities lived in the land during this period.

While most Jews were forcibly removed from the Land of Israel after the Second Exile, some Jews remained. For most of antiquity and modern history descendants of those exiled longed to return to their ancestral homeland, although they rarely had an opportunity to do so. Connection to the land always remained at the center of Jewish practice, with biblical festivals tied to the agricultural seasons in the Land of Israel. The Mishnah - the edited record of the Jewish oral tradition- was also compiled in Israel.  

Modern Zionism formally took root in the late 19th century as Jews throughout the world faced growing antisemitism. In a watershed moment, French army captain Alfred Dreyfus was wrongfully sentenced to life-imprisonment for allegedly selling military secrets to the Germans. The effects of his trial and subsequent events were felt throughout Europe and the Jewish world. These injustices caught the attention of Theodor Herzl, a young Jewish journalist from Vienna. Herzl, who had believed until that point that the assimilation of the Jewish people would bring an end to antisemitism, came to realize the tremendous and urgent need to form a modern state for the Jewish nation to ensure its protection.

Herzl published Der Judenstaat, a pamphlet outlining his vision for the founding of an independent Jewish state. In it, Herzl encouraged Jews to purchase land in the historic Land of Eretz Yisrael, then Palestine, and called for the creation of a Jewish state with international acceptance. 

Herzl’s writing galvanized the Zionist movement, leading to the First Zionist Congress, held in Basel the following year. There, some 200 Jewish delegates from across the political and religious spectrum adopted the Basel Program, clearly outlining Zionism’s aspiration as seeking “to secure for the Jewish people a publicly recognized, legally assured homeland in Palestine.”

What is anti-Zionism?

The term anti-Zionism refers to modern-day opposition to Zionism—or, simply put, the denial of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland. Whether motivated by politics, religion, or ignorance, those who espouse anti-Zionist views help to perpetuate a subtle form of antisemitism and often invoke historic antisemitic tropes to disenfranchise the national aspirations of Jewish people.

Expressions of anti-Zionism can manifest in threats to destroy the State of Israel or rid it of its Jewish character, unfounded and malicious claims about the nature or intentions of the Jewish State and its Jewish inhabitants, and the insistence on holding Israel to unreasonable standards when viewing its response to threats in comparison to the actions of other members of the international community.

Anti-Zionism as the latest form of antisemitism:

To grasp the malicious nature of anti-Zionism, one first must understand the shapeshifting nature of antisemitism. Jews have been the subject of antisemitic conspiracy myths for centuries. In Roman, and, later, medieval times, Jews faced accusations of deicide and the poisoning of drinking water and were the subjects of blood libel accusations. These conspiracy myths, which over the ages morphed into allegations that Jews were responsible for global political and economic turmoil, led to persecution and put Jews in grave physical danger.

Many of these antisemitic tropes or their derivatives persist today in the press and on social media, and frequently results in violence that harms Jews in communities worldwide. Now, however, the hate is often influenced by events connected to the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and those spreading it utilize terms such as Zionist and Zionism as euphemisms for Jewish people and their national belief systems.

This change in focus has led to frequent calls upon Diaspora Jews to renounce Zionism as a core element of Jewish belief or denounce actions taken by the Israeli government as a requirement to be welcome in institutions, forums, and larger societal discussions about identity. When members of the Jewish community push back or decline to comment, the tone and talking points revert to the antisemitism of old.

Why anti-Zionism is antisemitic:

Anti-Zionism denies Jews their right to self-defense

Anti-Zionists argue that actions taken by the Israeli government in defense of its citizens are disproportionate to the threats they face, while simultaneously justifying Palestinian violence as a means of resistance. No other member of the international community would be expected to lay down their arms in the face of attacks by militants and lone-wolf terrorists, but time and again Israel is chastised for ensuring the safety of its civilians. Opposition to these security measures as well as calls for increased support from the international community undermines and delegitimizes the Jewish national project and decreases the prospects of the success of a two-state solution that would deliver to Palestinians a state of their own.

Just like any other people, the Jewish people have a right to self-determination. This fact is all the more important in light of the Jewish people's history of persecution. Israel ensures that Jews have control over their future and have a safe haven, despite the tremendous uncertainties in the world. 

Anti-Zionism denies the historical connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel

A common tactic used to initiate condemnation of Israel and Diaspora’s support for it is the minimization or outright denial of any historical Jewish connection to the land. This spread of misinformation, ignoring archeological evidence and denying that Jews are indigenous to the land of Israel, helps to sow distrust and skepticism among the wider populace.  

Anti-Zionism perpetuates false accusations about Jews and Israelis

Anti-Zionists often weave age-old antisemitic tropes into their online posts and public discussions about Israel and Jews. These individuals, who knowingly spread hate, accuse Jews residing around the world of collaborating or conspiring with one another and using their perceived power to manipulate politicians, the media, and the international community to obtain support for Israel. Such accusations, which are often uncontested, lead to a perpetual cycle of distrust and skepticism.  

Anti-Zionism is used as a tool to ignore blatant anti-Jewish hatred

Antisemites frequently claim that their hateful and insensitive remarks are legitimate critiques of Israeli government policies and those who support them. These individuals claim that they don’t have any issue with Jews; rather, their problem is with Zionists—using the term as a catch-all for anyone who supports the existence of a Jewish state. Such a generalization, in essence, characterizes the vast majority of the global Jewish community, which holds Zionist beliefs, as antagonists.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. explained so succinctly, "When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You're talking antisemitism.” 

Anti-Zionism and its inherent demonization of Jews leads to violence

When critics of Israel falsely accuse the world’s only Jewish state of committing a genocide against Palestinians, it cynically sets the stage for violence to be carried out against Israelis and Diaspora Jews. Although the population of Palestinians residing in Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories has continued to increase, the government of Israel is often confoundingly referred to by its opponents as the modern incarnation of Nazi Germany, with allegations of Apartheid mixed in.

If such claims were true, they would, of course justify violent resistance, as the Nazi atrocities did during the Holocaust. But the facts don’t lie. As the Palestinian population continues to grow, and with Arab citizens of Israel being afforded equal rights and representation in government, these dangerous claims continue to lead to tragic consequences, cycles of attacks, and more hate.

This isn’t only an attempt to compare contemporary Israeli policy to Nazi Germany, but also to trivialize the Holocaust and use Jewish suffering during the Holocaust as a cudgel against the Jewish people, whether in the form of actual violence or the relegation of Jews to the status of pariahs.  

What isn’t anti-Zionism:

The Israeli government isn’t exempt from criticism—no government is. But critics of the world’s only Jewish State often hold it to a different set of standards than any other country and perpetuate a unique brand of hate that affects Jewish communities around the globe.

If you ask Israeli or Diaspora Jews what they think of the latest decision taken by the Israeli government, you’re bound to get different answers—often somewhat critical. However, the one thing that most, if not all, will agree upon is the need for Israel to exist as the home and refuge for the Jewish people. 

Open and respectful debate are essential ingredients in bringing about progress for all. Therefore, when discussing highly sensitive issues with colliding narratives, it is crucial to remove hate and misinformation from the conversation.