XI Combatting BDS: Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism

XI Combatting BDS: Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism


Howard Adelman

This blog, and the one I plan to write tomorrow morning on anti-Judaism, will be the most difficult ones both to write and to read. That is because they are both conceptual blogs, blogs that try to clarify concepts and ways of looking at and understanding the world. They are not directly about the world, but about how we make sense of the world, how we name what we experience in it. The concepts are informed by experience but are not defined by that experience. Quite the reverse. They define how we categorize that experience. We may call a whale a fish because it swims and lives in the sea. But it is not a fish, not a big fish, not a gad gadol, but a mammal. And there are good reasons why the latter is a far more accurate categorization for a whale than a fish.

The question this morning is whether BDS is anti-Zionism. Is that anti-Zionism anti-Semitism? Are they one and the same or two different ways for understanding experience? And if they are distinctive forms of comprehending the world, can something be both a fish and a mammal at one and the same time just as a meal can be both delicious and healthy at one and the same time and just as a body can be both repulsive and unhealthy at one and the same time. In other words, are they categories that can apply to a third entity in mutually exclusive ways, as mammal and fish do, where a thing is either one or the other, or can they apply to the same item in complementary ways by simply looking at something from a different perspective – its state of being versus its appeal to our sensibilities.

Note the different sense of health when applied to food and when applied to bodies. When calling food healthy, we say it is healthy because it contributes to the health of another. When it does not, when food actually contributes to making a body unhealthy, such as supposedly eating trans fats, it is unhealthy. But a body is unhealthy because it is somehow disabled in how it functions. In this meaning, the attribution of healthy or unhealthy has nothing to do with contributing to another entities’ health or state of being.

The last is a primary sense of health. It is a state of being. Healthy applied to food is about whether something contributes to that state of being. Rosy cheeks are said to be healthy because they are a sign of that state of being but are not usually depictions of the state of being itself. So the issue is not only whether anti-Zionism is properly applicable to depicting some entity or activity and whether anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism can or cannot be applicable to the same entity, but whether the terms anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are intended to depict a state of being, a contributing factor to a state of being or a sign, like rosy cheeks of a state of being. As will be seen, I will characterize both as attempts at essential and not superficial characterizing.

This very primitive lesson in categorization is important in how we comprehend and use terms like anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is defined as hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group, but not as a political group, not because Jews are Zionists or believers in self-determination for the Jewish people. Anti-Zionism opposes the ideology that Jews need and should have a state of their own, that Jews have the right to self-determination in a territory where they are a clear majority. But can these two approaches to Jews overlap? Can they overlap to such an extent that they become virtually indistinguishable? If you do not oppose the self-determination of any other group, if you use your energies and intellect and passion to devote that energy and passion virtually exclusively to the failures and shortcomings of the Jewish body politic, does not that mean that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism have become indistinguishable?

A rotten apple describes its state of being. But rottenness is also about signs and not just about an essential state. That apple could be described as rotten, being in an unhealthy state, and rotten in that it shows signs of being in an unhealthy state. But we usually mean that a rotten apple is unhealthy in a third sense, because it is not good for us though we can also mean that the apple shows none of the signs that is healthy – firmness, unblemished, good colour. So an apple can be healthy or unhealthy in all three senses. Can an organization or a person be anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic at one and the same time?

There is a different way to deal with these categories. They are not static but dynamic. They are not either mutually exclusive or complementary. One category can evolve into the other. In the May meeting in Buenos Aires of the Global Forum for Combatting anti-Semitism where non-Jews, largely evangelical Christians, were recruited to join the battle against anti-Semitism, the formula iterated at the founding Forum in 2003 by Natan Sharansky adopted Robert Wistrich’s 3-D test for merging the two forms of hatred, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. [http://www.jcpa.org/phas/phas-sharansky-f04.htm] (The basic argument appeared in Jewish Political Studies Review 16:3-4, Fall 2004.) Anti-Semitism had mutated into a new form as expressed in anti-Zionism.

Anti-Zionism has become the most dangerous and effective form of anti-Semitism in our time, through its systematic delegitimization, defamation, and demonization of Israel. Although not a priori anti-Semitic, the calls to dismantle the Jewish state, whether they come from Muslims, the Left, or the radical Right, increasingly rely on an anti-Semitic stereotypization of classic themes, such as the manipulative “Jewish lobby,” the Jewish/Zionist “world conspiracy,” and Jewish/Israeli “warmongers.” One major driving force of this anti-Zionism/anti-Semitism is the transformation of the Palestinian cause into a “holy war”; another source is anti-Americanism linked with fundamentalist Islamism. In the current context, classic conspiracy theories, such as the b, are enjoying a spectacular revival. The common denominator of the new anti-Zionism has been the systematic effort to criminalize Israeli and Jewish behavior, so as to place it beyond the pale of civilized and acceptable conduct.

There once existed two separate ideologies. Anti-Semitism is racism directed against Jewish individual bodies as distinct from opposing the body politic of Jews, Zionism as its ideology and Israel as the realization of that ideology. Anti-Zionism emerged at the end of the nineteenth century and grew enormously, especially towards the end of the twentieth century. Anti-Semitism, at least in its racist version,
characterized negative beliefs about Jews in the nineteenth century and reached the apex of destructive behaviour in the first half of the twentieth century culminating in the Holocaust. There is a visceral fear that anti-Zionism has merged with anti-Semitism in the twenty-first century to create a new virus that is of the utmost danger to the Jewish people, more specifically the vast majority of Jews who have become active or at least passive Zionists.

In this view of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, two categories that were once distinct have now merged. “Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are two distinct ideologies that over time (especially since 1948) have tended to converge, generally without undergoing a full merger.” Wistrich applied the 3-D test for that merger:

• Delegimization
• Defamation
• Demonization

Sharansky substituted the criterion of double standards for defamation rather than simply adding double standards as a fourth indicator of the merger, presumably because he liked the 3-D appellation, but perhaps because both defamation and the use of double standards are ways of dealing with Zionism and Jews as a collectivity rather than going to the heart of the matter which delegitimization and demonization both do. Let me elaborate.

Demonization is an activity characteristic of anti-Semitism. In the racist expression of anti-Semitism, Jews were characterized both as individuals and as a group as inherently evil. That evil was written into their genes, their genetic make-up. Demonization is the use of unbalanced, unverified, unqualified allegations against the character of another to suggest, as in the medieval witch hunts, that the devil resides in their very being. In racist anti-Semitism, it resides in their genes. When demonization is also applied to the political ideology of the Jewish people, the belief in a right to national self-determination, Zionism is depicted as inherently evil. This is a sign of the merger of the two concepts. Defamation may just be a way of expressing that demonization.

Delegitimization is an activity characteristic of anti-Zionism. It is an argument that since Jews have not lived as a collectivity continuously as the predominant population in a particular territory for hundreds of years, Jewish self-determination is an illegitimate enterprise. When Jews try to establish themselves as a majority population in a particular territory, this is colonization at the expense of the existing population. Such an activity is illegitimate. Americans, Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders, excepting their indigenous populations, may have gotten away with it because it has been underway for several hundred years, but Zionism is a Johnny-come-lately, an upstart in the enterprise of building a new nation.

Further, Zionism sought to establish itself in a territory that may once have been used to express the national aspirations of the Jewish people, but in the twentieth century, just when the age of colonialism was on the way out, Zionism tried to establish Jewish national self-expression in a territory where the existing population had its own aspirations for self-determination whether as Arabs or subsequently and more predominantly as Palestinians. Further, Zionism did so on the coattails of modern imperialism that was already being challenged around the globe and within fifty years would mostly have disintegrated.

The treatment of Zionism as an illegitimate operation and ideology when it is applied in the present when Jews do constitute a majority in a particular territory is then viewed as anti-Semitism. And here is where the double standard comes into play. What other people have been denied a right to self-determination just because a large part of that population came from elsewhere? Many Palestinians were not among the indigenous population of Palestine but came to the land from elsewhere as the territory became an attractive economic magnet. That does not delegitimize Palestinian nationalism which is more a Johnny-come-lately than Jewish nationalism.

The double standard criterion is a political standard. It insists that one is entitled to hold Jews or Zionism up to a standard that no other body politic must meet. It goes further. It not only makes the standards higher, but imaginatively multiplies and mischaracterizes the facts on the ground to show the behaviour to be not simply a shortcoming but the obverse of living according to that standard. And this is done when the use of a common standard would show that the Jewish polity falls nowhere near the middle let alone the bottom of polities that fail to meet that standard.

Demonization, defamation, double standards and de-legitimization are all used with a gross disregard of empirical facts and the need to have a falsification test. It is true because I claim it to be so. You devalue and discredit the other, not because you have valid evidence, and, in fact, do so, in the face of massive evidence that would falsify the claim.

So what are the facts? With respect to Zionism, it is the effort to provide a secure place on earth for Jews under the control of Jews who for millennia have been used as vehicles for projecting the fantasies of others. Anti-Zionism is an ideology dedicated to denying Jews such a place. Most people are non-Zionists, indifferent to the idea of self-determination for the Jewish people but often pro-Israel in defence of the self-determination of the majority of Jews who occupy that segment of the earth.

Anti-Zionism did not begin among Arabs in Palestine when the Jews became a significant presence, or when the Jews fought their war of independence in 1948, or when they engaged in a defensive battle and conquered the Golan Heights, Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. Arab leaders in Palestine were bent on denying Palestine as a place to which Jews could immigrate in the 1920’s. They opposed Jews finding a home in Palestine and not just founding a state. Look at this list of atrocities in the 1920s.

Jews Arabs Jews Arabs Oth.
Tel Hai 1.03.1920 Arabs 8 5
Nebi Musa Riots 4-7.04.1920 Arabs 5 4 216 18 7
Jaffa Riots 1-7.05.1921 Arabs 47 48 140 73
Jerusalem 2.11.1921 Arabs 5
General 23-26.08.1929 Arabs 133 116 339 232
Hebron 24.08.1929 Arabs 67 58
Safed 29.08.1929 Arabs 20 80

In examining the BDS literature, I find in the core group enormous evidence of anti-Zionism. The anti-Zionist hates the Jewish body politic. The anti-Zionist denies Jews the right to self-determination and the right to have a state of their own and even the right to use Palestine as a home and refuge from persecution. I certainly find the use of double standards and exceptional focus on one polity, Israel. There is some evidence of demonization, but not much. There is certainly an effort to de-legitimize Israel, to insist that the Balfour Declaration was a position taken by an imperial power in contravention to the rights to self-determination of the people already resident in that territory, but these same advocates see no need to push for a Kurdish state in the face of the boundary lines for Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey set up by the victorious powers. Hence, a double standard! They also believe that the recognition of a Jewish state in November of 1947 by the United Nations was carried out by a rump group of states still dominated by Western imperial interests.

BDS is anti-Zionist because it opposes not only Jewish self-determination, but Jewish settlement on Arab lands and presumes the land is the inherent possession of the Arab population which Jews cannot share. Many, if not most advocates of the boycott, sanctions and strategy of combatting the current expression and policies of Israel as the expression of the Zionist enterprise are not anti-Zionists. But the founders and the core proponents of BDS are unequivocally anti-Zionist. When those who are not anti-Zionist join in a common front with anti-Zionists and support parts of the BDS program, without distancing themselves from and criticizing the larger BDS program, end up legitimizing that program. Unlike the Palestinian Authority, they become fellow travelers rather than independent critics of both BDS and the settlement policies of the Israeli government.

Is BDS anti-Semitic? Does it demonize Jews as proponents of Zionism? Some advocates and partisans of BDS do and even deny the Holocaust. But this does not seem to characterize the core of BDS as an anti-Zionist enterprise. More significantly, when Danny Danon and Ronald Lauder characterize, not only BDS and its supporters and advocates, but those who want to sanction the settlements in the West Bank because those settlements make the emergence of a Palestinian state alongside Israel more difficult, and even apply the label anti-Semitism to those who simply want to permit individuals to boycott goods made in those settlements by designating the place of origin of those goods on labels, then those proponents and defenders of Zionism are engaging in precisely the defamation and delegitimization of their opponents. I wonder if we should call it a blessing that they do not engage in demonization!

Certainly a good case can be made that anti-Zionism, not the legitimate criticism of Israel, is an effort at delegitimization and, in doing so, misuses standards and defames, and, even in a very few cases, demonizes so that anti-Zionism becomes a new form of anti-Semitism There is a merger. But extreme caution is required in such labeling and in such a merger. Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are two different activities. The attempt to merge them, the effort to claim that current anti-Zionism is the new form of anti-Semitism ends up disfiguring both. At its extreme, it ends up branding all political moves against Israel as exercises in anti-Semitism. Such an exercise imitates its enemies in the use of demonization, delegitimization and double standards.


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