Thirteen Ways Of Thinking About Palestine, Israel, and Antisemitism
Anyone who knows anything about how not just the presence of Jewish human beings, but also the mere idea of Jews and Judaism, have been experienced as existential threats by those who are not Jewish; anyone who knows anything about how antisemitism, when allowed to progress to its logical conclusion, has almost always resulted in either the expulsion or (attempted) elimination of the Jews, either literally or through forced conversion; anyone who knows anything about that should be able to appreciate why so many Jews—not only, but perhaps especially the Jews of Europe—find the idea of a Jewish homeland so compelling.
Anyone who knows the history of the formation of the State of Israel who refuses to acknowledge as one foundational conviction of the Zionist project the belief that Jewish lives and aspirations (national and otherwise) were more important, more worthy of preservation and realization, than the lives and aspirations (national and otherwise) of the people who were not Jewish who were already living in Palestine, is engaging in willful ignorance at best.
It is not a contradiction to affirm both of the above statements. It is, however, dissonant at the very least to affirm the first one without recognizing that the assumption named in the second one is part of Israel’s DNA, if you will, and that it is embodied and operationalized in Israel’s ongoing occupation of and war against the Palestinians.
I know there are people who will criticize the statement I just made as unbalanced and unfair because I did not at precisely the same time, in almost the same breath, point out that the Palestinians, too, have committed acts of violence. This insistence on so-called fairness, however, makes it easy to forget that occupation is itself an ongoing state of violence, even if no overt violence is occurring at any given moment. More to the point, treating the violence done by the Palestinians as if it were equivalent to the violence done by the Israelis elides the fact that an occupied people, any occupied people, has the right to resist, to meet, in the service of their own liberation, the violence of occupation with a corresponding violence. The Palestinians have that right no differently than any other occupied people. Full stop.
I have, of course, an opinion about what the resolution to the Israeli occupation ought to look like, but whatever skin I feel I have in that game is rooted less in a personal commitment to Israel than to what I have long understood to be the false sense of security I was taught to seek in Israel’s existence as a safe haven for my people; and since the stakes for those who do have skin in that game are so high—and I’m talking about real skin, because they live there—to tell you what I think, especially in the aftermath of the death and destruction Israel has most recently wrought, would be breathtakingly presumptuous, not to mention pointless.
What is not pointless—because the skin I have in this game is very real—is calling out how antisemitism infects, insinuates itself into, is all-too-often willfully deployed in discourse that is critical of Israel. It’s not that I think calling out such expressions of antisemitism should be centered at the expense of criticizing Israel. Rather, it’s that not to call them out is to allow my interest as a Jew in the necessity of that confrontation to be pitted against the interests of the Palestinians on whose behalf criticism of Israel is absolutely necessary. It’s worth asking who benefits from putting me in that position.
Or, to put this another way, what is not pointless is to ask why so few people who are not Jewish call antisemitism out in general. To be clear, I am not talking about the relatively easy, though still important and necessary “antisemitism-has-no-place-in-my-movement/district/etc.” calling out that you see and hear after antisemitic incidents. I’m talking about something more substantive, with the kind of analytical bite—historical and otherwise—that, for example, increasing numbers of white people (though still far too few) are bringing to discussions of race, that people of color are expecting white people to bring to these discussions. Whose interests does the absence of that kind of analysis, that kind of silence about antisemitism, serve?
I’ve read it in online news reports and seen it on Twitter, and so, I am sure, have you: there are plenty of people happy to blame the recent surge in antisemitic incidents in the US and elsewhere on Israel’s recent attacks on the Palestinians. I have no doubt that some of the people responsible for those incidents were indeed motivated by Israel’s actions: that, in other words, they would not have chosen this moment to act if the Israeli government had not attempted to evict the residents of Sheikh Jarrah and then engaged in yet another war with Hamas. Those who draw this connection, however, also have a tendency to blame the antisemitic content of the incidents on Israel’s actions as well. This tendency, antisemitic in itself, is worth unpacking. Most obviously, of course, it is antisemitic because it holds all Jews, all of us, wherever we live in the world, responsible and accountable for the policies and actions of the Israeli government. Dig a little deeper, though, and this line of thought also suggests that there exists a version of antisemitism which is at least comprehensible as a response to Israel’s actions, as if a clear and unambiguous discontinuity separates the antisemitic violence committed by this pro-Palestinian group and, say, the antisemitism of the white supremacists who chanted “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville in 2017, or of the man who committed the antisemitic mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Who gains, and what to do they gain, by turning antisemitism into a divisible hatred in this way—something that would immediately be understood as racist were we talking, for example, about white people and Black people?
Another example: the idea that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism. Understood strictly to refer to the Zionist movement that has its roots in 18th century Europe and that resulted in the formation of the current State of Israel, this is a perfectly true statement. Just as French, or English, or German nationalism can be opposed without hating the people of those nationalities, Jewish nationalism can be opposed as nationalism without hating Jews for being who we are. Nonetheless, whenever someone who is not Jewish criticizes Israel in terms that refer specifically to Zionism or Zionists, especially if they are not Jewish, I cannot help but hear in their use of those terms echoes of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or the belief that there is a “World Zionist Conspiracy,” or that the US government is actually a “Zionist-Occupied Government (ZOG).” Those echoes, of course, do not justify pretending as if Israel did not exist because of the Zionist movement, but I wish I did not hear them nonetheless. Indeed, I think I might not hear them at all, or at least they would be much softer, if the same non-Jewish people who insist on the historical accuracy of calling Zionism a settler-colonial movement insisted on being similarly precise and outspoken about antisemitism in American society as a whole. For example, the degree to which the antisemitism promulgated in the documents I mentioned above forms what Eric K. Ward calls “the theoretical core” of an increasingly normalized and violent American white supremacy. (There’s another version of Ward’s article, with a different conclusion that is also worth reading here.)
Perhaps the most obvious way that antisemitism shapes and is by some willfully used to weaponize discourse about Israel and Palestine is in the analogy people try to draw between Israel/Zionism and the Nazis/Nazism. To be clear, the issue is not whether any individual who makes that comparison actively hates Jews. A world of difference exists—in intent, in motivation, in state of mind—between and among the Palestinian who calls the Israelis Nazis in a fit of rage in response to specific acts of Israeli aggression; someone who intentionally uses that comparison to be provocative whether or not they actually believe it—`on a sign at a protest, for example; and someone trying to legitimize the comparison through intellectual and scholarly argument. Rather, the issue is that the comparison is antisemitic in and of itself, regardless of who makes it, or when, or why. If Israel is like Nazi Germany, then the full logic of this comparison not only makes the Palestinians the Jews; it also attributes to Israel both the Nazi project of world domination and a version of the Final Solution that would have Israel seeking to eliminate the Palestinians worldwide. There is no way, in that formulation, that Israel is not a codeword for Jews. We are, in other words, back in the realm of The Protocols of The Elders of Zion and the World Zionist Conspiracy.
I understand why people often react when I try to raise these points in conversation by saying that all this talk about antisemitism is ultimately a distraction from the work that needs to be done to end the Israeli occupation. Those people are not wrong. What I am saying here is in its way a distraction from that goal. The problem is that the question of Israel and Palestine often feels, at least in my experience in the United States, like one of the only two contexts in which the issue of antisemitism is engaged by all parties involved, Jewish or not. (The Holocaust is the other one.) Indeed, I don’t think I have ever had a conversation about Palestine and Israel where the question of antisemitism has not come up. Either someone’s critique of Israel is nakedly, or not so nakedly, antisemitic; or someone who is Jewish calls antisemitism when it isn’t there; or someone who is not Jewish presumes to instruct Jews about the true nature of antisemitism when we call it out in a critique of Israel; or someone who is not Jewish claims they can’t be antisemitic because they support Israel; or someone who is not Jewish holds all Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s actions; and so on and so on and so on, with examples on both the left and the right and at every point in between. If it is true that the fight against antisemitism and the fight to end the Israeli occupation are the same fight, then the dynamic I have just described represents someone’s successful divide-and-conquer strategy. Whose?
As long as antisemitism is not taken seriously as a phenomenon in and of itself, as long as it is surrounded by the silences I talked about up above, then any discussion of when and whether criticism of Israel is antisemitic will end up having to account not only for the material reality of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians, but also for antisemitism as a whole. No single discussion will ever be able to bear the weight of that double burden.
The Palestinians are an occupied people. Israel is the occupying force. Occupation is in itself an ongoing act of violence, even if, at any given moment, no overt violence is occurring. An occupied people, any occupied people, has the right to resist and to meet, in the service of their own liberation, the violence of occupation with a corresponding violence. Nothing I have written here changes the fact that the Palestinians have this right no differently than any other occupied people. Full stop.