Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Peter Beinart

Peter Beinart, in addition to participating in the webinar criticizing the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) of antisemitism as an attempt to suppress criticism of Israel, published an article on 9 March 2019 entitled, “Debunking the myth that anti-Zionism is antisemitic.” In the opening paragraph, he acknowledged that antisemitism was rising. However, attempts to respond to the phenomenon were being used to victimize Palestinians. That is regular non-anti-Zionist antisemitism was being abused, not simply to undermine Palestinian claims, but to abuse Palestinians. This went significantly further than Lara Friedman’s claim examined in the last blog.

Beinart wrote that rhetoric “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” is equated with anti-Zionism, in turn equated with Jew hatred. This contains logical missteps. One can oppose Zionism without opposing the right of Jews to advocate Zionism, to press for the expression and application of the right to self-determination by the Jewish people. The IHRA definition, the supporters of that definition, do NOT equate “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” with anti-Zionism. Rather, that very specific form of anti-Zionism is equated with Jew hatred.  

There are many Jews, as well as non-Jews, who are non-Zionists and many who are anti-Zionists. The Bundists were anti-Zionist; they did not declaim the right to argue for Zionism. Even the Hasidic sects, Satmar and Neturei Karta, zealously opposed to Zionism, did not and do not claim that Jews did not and do not have a right to seek self-determination. They merely argued that such a quest should await the arrival of the messiah.  Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel are anti-messiah. The sects, therefore, deny the creation of Israel is legitimate according to the precepts of the Jewish religion as they understand them. They do not oppose the right of Jews to advocate that position, only the position itself in the current period as the appropriate time for such advocacy and belief. The legitimacy of such advocacy and measures to implement it at this time are challenged.

Beinart claims that the IHRA definition of antisemitism claims that “anti-Zionism is Jew hatred.” This is just false. It does no such thing. Instead, it claims that some forms of anti-Zionism are antisemitic and offers example of such forms, such as denying the right of Jewish self-determination. For detached observers, the latter may or may not be antisemitic. But that does not amount to a claim that anti-Zionism is antisemitic. Whether the 30 or more states that have adopted such a definition were or were not correct to do so, they were not adopting the position that anti-Zionism equals Jew hatred.

“Anti-Zionism is not inherently antisemitic.” Peter is dead right. But I can find no one who claims that it is. And Peter provides no examples. But Peter goes very much further. He not only insists that there are those who make such a claim, including the 30+ countries who adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism, but that, in doing so, it amounts to using Jewish suffering to erase the Palestinian experience. Perhaps organizations do this. But Peter offers no examples. Further, Canada adopted the definition and I have seen no effort by Canada to deny either the suffering or the rights of Palestinians.

Peter then writes the rest of his article attacking a ghost that evidently claims that anti-Zionism is inherently antisemitic without providing any evidence that any real body holds such a position. He argues that someone who holds such a position – and, again, he provides no case – claims that such an equation includes three pillars:

  • Zionism is antisemitic because it denies what every other people enjoys: a state of its own
  • It is bigoted to take away that statehood once it is achieved, namely the elimination of the Zionist identity and political dispossession of those who cherish it
  • Virtually all anti-Zionists are also anti-Semites; anti-Zionism is antisemitism.

Further, he argues that defining anti-Zionism as bigotry serves a political purpose – helping Israel “kill the two-state solution with impunity.”

Look at the large numbers of logical fallacies he commits in making his arguments. The core of the argument is as follows:

  1. Every other people enjoys a state of their own.
  2. Zionism claims that Jews also should have a state of their own.
  3. Those who oppose the Zionist claim are making an exception for Jewish self-determination if they do not oppose other nations having a state of their own.
  4. Hence, anti-Zionism is antisemitic.

Proposition 1 above is obviously empirically false. There are hundreds of nations that do not have their own state. Propositions 2 & 3 are accurate depictions of both Zionists and the type of anti-Zionism that Zionism declares as antisemitic. Proposition 4 does not follow from 2&3, only the claim that anti-Zionists who deny only Jews the right to self-determination are antisemitic.

Beinart also equates the claim that, “all other peoples can seek and defend their right to self-determination” is exactly the same as claiming a state of one’s own. But it is clear that a right to self-determination is not the same as having an actual state of one’s own or even claiming a state of one’s own. Many nations are satisfied with different degrees of autonomy as satisfying their right to self-determination. There are perhaps hundreds of nations on this earth who do not have such a state, do not claim such a state and do not even insist on any degree of self-determination in the territory where they find themselves. Further, denying them such a state does not deny their right to demand such a state.

Some authoritarian countries do compress the two claims, a right to claim and a right to have a state of their own and determine that claiming a right to have, for example, a Kurdish state is illegal. Similarly, China does that with Tibetans. Peter not only fails to point out that this collapsing of two notions into one is the problem, not opposing a nation’s right to claim a state of its own. He also fails to mention that the Israeli government does not follow the lead of Turkey or China in preventing Palestinians from claiming the right to have their own state even though the extreme right and even the not-so-extreme right would not agree to Palestinians being able to exercise such a right. In fact, the Palestinian parties in the Knesset all make the claim for Palestinian self-determination and it is not considered either illegal or immoral to do so.

There is a separate and related issue – opposing or defending states which are based on ethnic nationalism – such as Croatia or Serbia. Some believe in ethnic nationalism is a danger and prefer civic nationalism which does not favour any ethnic group. But no one declares proponents of civic nationalism, whether in Israel or elsewhere, to be against the right of others to argue for ethnic nationalism.

What about claims for exclusive ethnic nationalism? Beinart suggests Jewish Zionists make such a claim when they argue that Israel is and should remain a Jewish state. But what the latter are claiming generally is that the primary identification of the state should be Jewish and that the state should serve the Jewish people. This does not exclude equal rights for minorities, but it does not mean equality with respect to symbolic political identification, such as with the flag, the national anthem or national holidays.

Beinart’s repeated error is one of conflation. Take the second claim that it is bigoted to take away statehood once it is achieved, that is elimination of the Zionist identity as a political entity. It is an abuse of rights for China to have taken away the independence of Tibetans as well as to deny the right of Uyghurs to argue for and claim a degree of autonomy or even independence. Being a Catalan or Basque nationalist in itself in Spain or a Quebecois separatist in Canada is not a crime. Disagreeing with that position is not bigotry. It is just politics.

The argument, however, is those who would reverse history and seek to eliminate the Jewish state is considered an act of antisemitism. The reality is that a good number of Palestinians – and others – believe that Israel in exercising its right of self-determination effectively has denied the ability of Palestinians to do the same. Thus, there is an either/or choice – a State of Palestine or a State of Israel, possibly with a rump and fragmented Palestinian state alongside. Does pushing the last option amount to antisemitism?

First, the IHRA proposal does not say that it is. Many Arab states for years opposed the creation of a Jewish state in the Arab heartland; describing the effort to create such a state as “racist,” however, is what characterizes such claims as antisemitic. The context of the opposition is telling and not the opposition itself. Arab opposition could have been antisemitic, depending on the rationale. This is a case where one cannot make a determination without an examination of the details of the case.

From the above, it is clear that all anti-Zionists, or even most, are not antisemitic. Nor does the definition anywhere say that they are. One can even be an anti-Zionist and support a two-state solution with the argument that one would have preferred that Israel had not been created for a number of geo-political reasons but that, since it exists, it is better to accept that reality than fight for an alternative one.

Finally, what about the use of characterizing anti-Zionism as bigotry to deny a two-state solution? I do not doubt some right-wingers may use this approach, but it is certainly not the reason that Canada adopted the IHRA definition since Canada is a vigorous supporter of the two-state solution. Nor do I expect that this entered into the reasoning of any of the other 30+ countries that adopted the definition. 

Peter and Lara’s problem is that they conflate abuse with normal use, that they see an anti-Palestinian agenda behind such moves instead of just a pro-Israel and pro-Jewish agenda. Lara and Peter may prefer civic nationalism to ethnic nationalism and certainly to exclusive ethnic nationalism, but that preference should not colour any consideration of whether some anti-Zionist positions should be correlated with or even classified as antisemitism. Certainly, efforts the oppose Zionism on any of the grounds provided in the definition should not be equated with every kind of anti-Zionism and certainly not with the belief in reconfiguring the Israeli state into one which places civic nationalism rather than ethnic nationalism at its centre. Many Israeli academics that I know support such a position. Not one of them is antisemitic. Not one of them falls under the definition of forms of anti-Zionism that are antisemitic.

Peter Beinart has a strong propensity to exaggerate. He claims that Jewish ethnic nationalism “excludes many of the people under its control.” The reason it does this it to protect the dominance of the Jewish nation. Not because it may fear lifting such controls lest the population try to drive the Israeli Jews off the land. It may no longer be the objective of most Palestinians, at least in the West Bank, but it is generally recognized as a prominent motive among a large group of Palestinians, some of whom can legitimately be branded as antisemitic.

Mostly, Peter Beinart indulges in the use of straw men arguments, claiming that the intent of characterizing certain expressions of anti-Zionism as antisemitic is really a technique for disenfranchising Palestinians and delegitimizing the supporters of Israel. Peter also makes the point that a significant assortment of pro-Zionists is also antisemitic. I think this is incontrovertible but totally beside the point of whether the IHRA definition is a useful one in characterizing antisemitism. The definition does not say that all anti-Zionists are anti-Semites. Far from it. It also does not say that pro-Zionists can’t be antisemitic.

Peter is correct when he asserts that “antisemitism exists without anti-Zionism.” “Anti-Zionism also clearly exists without antisemitism.” The authors and promoters of the IHRA definition believe the same thing. The issue is how you recognize when they overlap so that anti-Zionism can be characterized as a form of antisemitism. When Beinart declares that the only reason why non-Jewish leaders – in Canada, in France, etc. – go along with this is because they are conforming to the pressures of Jewish leaders, he insults non-Jewish leaders of Western states and borders on a kind of antisemitism that suggests that the Jewish lobby is so powerful that it can get leaders of the West to vote against the interests of their own country as well as rational arguments. He has the conceit to believe that his arguments are rational. They are not.

The problem is that the arguments are full of holes and the aspersions of motives are insulting.

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