The debate about the “working definition of antisemitism” is mainly semantic. If one believes that discrimination is always racist, then wanting to destroy Israel (and no other state) is definitely antisemitic. But if one subscribes to a more restricted definition of antisemitism (i.e., Jew-hatred), can we call only avowed Jew-haters antisemites. That said, it is puzzling to see people so prompt to support the concept of systemic racism justify discrimination against Jews with all sorts of semantic acrobatics. However, they can’t deny that the radical Left’s (everything to the Left of well-established center-Left social-democratic parties) attitude toward the Jews is problematic.
The Far-Left’s Jewish problem is threefold (there is a fourth one related to the Far-Left’s problem with Holocaust commemorations, but that would be for a follow-up article):
- It calls for the dismantling of Israel (and no other state).
- It uses age-old antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories against Israel.
- It denies the existence of the Jewish people only.
- The Far-Left denies that by calling for the dismantling of Israel, it singles out the Jews. It cites the example of the South African apartheid regime that international pressure forcefully dismantled. This comparison is preposterous. Apartheid South Africa had an illegal government in which a minority denied a vote to the majority. By contrast, within the 1967 border, Israel is a legitimate state recognized by the international community, whose right to exist was reiterated both by UN Security Council resolutions and the International Court of Justice. Israel’s presence in the West Bank is controversial within Israel itself among Left-Wing and centrist parties, but this issue does not justify denying Israel’s right to exist. Those who oppose Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara do not claim that Morocco must disappear altogether.
Moreover, the Palestinians have rejected three peace plans in 2001, 2008, and 2014 enabling them to recover virtually all the West Bank. Palestinian terrorism, which increased when the Israeli Left was in power, also stymied its agenda.
In a Toronto Star op-ed against the IHRA definition of antisemitism published last year, Avi Lewis and Michele Landsberg evoked another argument to justify destroying Israel: Israel is a “colonial-settler state” based on the dispossession of the Palestinians.
Most states were born in sin. The Arabs have conquered and colonized the Near East and North Africa. Should we then dismantle all Arab States outside the Arabian Peninsula? Perhaps Lewis and Landsberg are among those simpletons who believe that only whites (and Jews) have engaged in colonialism. They should know that this is a universal phenomenon. The Iroquois have destroyed the Huron homeland. Does this mean that Mohawk national demands are necessarily a “racist endeavour”?
By the way, those who reject the claim that Israel is a colonial-settler state argue that as a homeless people, Jews had the right to return to their ancient homeland to exercise their right to self-determination. As for the Arab presence in the land, Israel’s founders invoked the wealth redistribution principle to justify the establishment of a Jewish homeland in a land inhabited by other people.
(One must remember the context. Although a Palestinian identity was already taking shape, this was still the Pan-Arabism era, which sought to establish a united Arab state encompassing all the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Hence, Zionist leaders such as David Ben Gurion, Zeev Jabotinsky, Berl Katznelson, and Chaim Weizmann argued that the Arabs, blessed with a vast territory, should share a small part of these expanses with the Jews who were a homeless people.)
One can, of course, disagree with this claim and argue that the territorial integrity of Palestine takes precedence over Jewish self-determination (even though there was no formal Arab sovereignty in this land during the advent of the Zionist movement).
What is “racist” about arguing that homeless people have the right to return to their ancient homeland and redistributing the land so all peoples can have what Trotsky (who appeared to depart from his anti-Zionism at the end of his life) called a “rich spot under the sun.”
Lewis and Landsberg invoke the Nakba (Palestinian exodus) to delegitimize Israel. Referring to the partial expulsion of Palestinians without mentioning that Arabs had first attacked the Yishuv, which later became Israel, is disingenuous.
2) The Far-Left also recycles traditional anti-Jewish tropes and transposes them onto Israel. If their anti-Zionism is devoid of antisemitism, why do they rehash these conspiracy theories about Jewish money, Jewish hidden power, and their so-called superiority complex toward non-Jews, among others? Should we give them the benefit of the doubt and presume they use these anti-Jewish tropes unconsciously ?
Moreover, for generations, antisemites accused Jews of thinking that they are superior to non-Jews. They now recycle this accusation against Zionists. But why is wanting self-determination, a right invoked by most peoples to achieve statehood or autonomy, deemed “supremacist” for Jews only?
‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ accused Jews of conspiring to control the world through financial means. Radical anti-Zionists are obsessed with the so-called unlimited financial means of the Zionist lobby, which allegedly “controls” the foreign policy of Western countries. US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Miss) insinuated this when she contented that US support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins.” This claim is baseless.
Is it rational to posit that Zionists helped the Nazis exterminate the Jews? (The famous filmmaker Ken Loach is the latest proponent of this conspiracy theory.) The Zionist movement did try to negotiate with Nazi Germany, most of the time unsuccessfully, to save Jews. Was it wrong to do so?
3) The Far-Left’s third problem with the Jews is not linked to Zionism but Jewish peoplehood. Marxist thinkers of nationalism had opposed the very concept of Jewish peoplehood since the end of the 19th Century, before Zionism as a political movement originated. They contended that Jews are not a “genuine” people and do not deserve collective rights. Shlomo Sand’s book The Invention of the Jewish People was a favorite among the Far-Left. The book dwells on this tradition that Marxist thinkers such as Otto Bauer, Stalin, and Abraham Leon developed in the early 20th Century. I can hardly imagine the Far-Left denying the existence of other people with such passion.
Jewish peoplehood deniers on the Left usually invoke the “strangeness” of the Jewish identity that mixes religion and nationality to explain their malaise with the very concept of Jewish peoplehood. They find it somewhat primitive, as it does not privatize religion. Interestingly enough, the Far-Left, which is so prompt to denounce “Eurocentrism” and “Orientalism,” argues that Jewish identity is guilty of not following traditional Western categories.
The Far-Left’s irrational attitude toward the Jews may not stem from sheer hatred. There is good reason to believe that it falls in the category of “unconscious bias.” Former radical anti-Zionists have explained that third-worldism (not Jew-hatred) is the main reason they insisted on Israel’s destruction. Hence, they felt the need to accept all the demands of the Palestinians blindly.
Nathan Weinstock, a former leading figure of the anti-Zionist radical Left, wrote in 1969 what used to be the “Bible” of Far-Left anti-Zionism, ‘Zionism: False Messiah.’ Weinstock later reconsidered the anti-Zionist views of his youth. In the 2006 article “Témoignage d’un ex-antisioniste” (Testimony of a Former Anti-Zionist), he explained that the third world was an extension for his generation of Far-Left proletariat activism. As victims of imperialism, they believed the Left should always uncritically champion their cause. Therefore, if Palestinians, part of this mythical third world, called for Israel’s dismantling, so be it. Third-Worldism more than Jew-hatred motivates radical anti-Zionism, although Weinstock admits that many unconsciously use anti-Jewish tropes against Israel.
Let’s play a mind game for these Lefties who still cannot understand that their attitude toward the Jews is problematic. What if, in 1995, Quebec had become independent? I can hardly imagine an international “solidarity movement” calling for a blanket boycott of Quebec (and no other state) until Quebecers accept to dissolve their country into Canada, despite its colonial origin. I can hardly imagine people on the Left saying that nationalism is acceptable for Scots, Irish, or Catalonia, but when it comes to Quebec, it is akin to Nazism. I can hardly imagine progressives worldwide declaring that all national identities are legitimate, except for the Quebec one, or using old anti-Quebecoise clichés to attack modern-day Quebec nationalism.
So, let’s say the Far-Left is not antisemitic: It just calls for a double standard against Jews, recycles antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories against Israel, and claims that the concept of Jewish peoplehood is a fraud. With friends like these, who needs antisemites!