The bitter truth about where anti-Zionism and antisemitism “collide”

A person holds a sign reading “Another Jew Against Zionism, Colonialism, Apartheid, Occupation, Genocide” at a protest at the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton, Canada, on Oct. 18, 2023. Credit: Jenari/Shutterstock.

by Ben Cohen

(JNS) — Collisions are often unintentional. Bumping into someone as you walk down a busy thoroughfare with one eye on your cell phone or scraping a parked car as you reverse along a narrow street are experiences most of us have had at one time or another. And generally speaking, because these events are accidents, reasonable people can reach an understanding in their aftermath.

So my concern when I saw the headline above a March 11 opinion piece in The New York Times by columnist Michelle Goldberg — “Where Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism Collide” — was that readers would interpret the word “collide” here as an indicating an unintentional accident, thereby reinforcing the widely held view that while antisemitism is an unacceptable, intolerable phenomenon, anti-Zionism is a legitimate, morally founded viewpoint that deserves to be engaged.

Hatred of Zionism isn’t a self-contained phenomenon that just happens to collide on occasion with hatred of Jews: That would amount to an unfortunate accident. But anti-Zionism and antisemitism are intimately related. Like non-identical twins, they have a handful of unique features, but fundamentally, they are the same. Hatred of Zionism is a natural outgrowth of the hatred of Jews. Of course, not all of those who define themselves as anti-Zionists see it that way, but that’s because they lack the historical and intellectual grounding to make that determination. When anti-Zionism collides with antisemitism, it’s anything but an accident.

Goldberg, it should be said, doesn’t belong to that crowd. While there was much to disagree with in her piece, I respected her frankness in admitting that as a secular Jew enjoying “the great privilege of an American passport,” she doesn’t feel much of a personal connection to the State of Israel. What she does understand is that the core fixations of anti-Zionism — and particularly its goal of dismantling the Jewish state and replacing it with an Arab one “from the river to the sea” — sound discordantly antisemitic in the ears of the vast majority of Jews in America and around the world.

“I can’t fault Jews who see, in the mounting demonization of Zionism, the replay of an old and terrifying story,” she wrote. “After all, anti-Zionism isn’t always antisemitism, but sometimes it is. And right now, some opponents of Israel seem to be trying to prove that the mainstream Jewish community is right to conflate them.”

This statement is basically true, but it doesn’t reveal the deeper, underlying truth, which is why Goldberg’s piece is fundamentally unsatisfying.

I’ve written in past columns about what I regard as the critical difference between “anti-Zionism” with a hyphen and “antizionism” without one. In historical terms, “anti-Zionism” was a phenomenon of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that commanded the loyalty of many Jews, who mistakenly if honestly believed that a separate Jewish state was not the answer to centuries of Jewish persecution. Not all the early generations of anti-Zionists were free of antisemitism — the Bolshevik ban on Zionist organizations and the study of Hebrew in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution was clearly antisemitic, for example — but there was a greater willingness to critique Zionism on the basis of its claim to be the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, and less reliance on the conspiracy theories and crude memes that pass for critique on social media today.

“Antizionism” without the hyphen marks a new and far more dangerous phase, however. Essentially, it involves tearing up a complex reality in favor of an ideologically blinkered, implacably hostile caricature of what Zionism actually is.

Today’s “antizionists” have made their hatred of Israel’s sovereign existence the main focus of their antisemitism, which then uncomplicatedly imports older themes — Jews as disloyal to the countries where they are citizens, Jews as engaged in well-funded conspiracy to mask the malign effects of their actions — into its discourse. This explains, as Goldberg seems to realize, how a Lyft driver in San Francisco is moved to punch a passenger in the face upon realizing that he is Jew from Israel, or how a literary magazine in Brooklyn can abruptly remove an essay on Israel and cancel its Jewish author solely because of the pressure of a fanatical mob.

The other overarching issue that troubles Goldberg is the unresolved Palestinian question. Again correctly, she understands that a binational state is a pipe dream, arguing that if the Walloon and Flemish nationalities in Belgium can’t get along, how could Israelis and Palestinians possibly do so? Yet what she seems unable to perceive is that the Palestinian vision of what such a state would look like for its Jewish citizens was provided on Oct. 7 last year, when Hamas terrorists executed a bestial pogrom against defenseless Israelis and opinion polls in its immediate wake indicated overwhelming support for the atrocities among ordinary Palestinians. Indeed, it made a mockery of the notion of a binational state. From the river to the sea, a “free” Palestine will be a place where Jews are brutally subjugated as a prelude to their eventual expulsion or even elimination. The stream of statements from Palestinian politicians — not just Hamas, but also Fatah, and notably Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas — describing Israel as a colonial interloper, the Holocaust as a fabrication and the Oct. 7 pogrom as an act of noble resistance are all the evidence we need here.

Acknowledging this ugly reality doesn’t, it is true, automatically suggest how the Palestinian question can be resolved humanely. And for most Israelis, frankly, that is not a priority right now, as they understandably are more concerned with preventing another Oct. 7 from occurring. If that outcome could be secured through a political solution, then few would object. But such a solution is only possible if two conditions are satisfied: First, that the Palestinians recognize Israelis as human beings with a right to self-determination in their historic homeland; and second, that any solution focuses on the physical separation of the two peoples, rather than attempts to bring them closer together.

For American liberals and progressives, among them many Jews, such a viewpoint is distasteful and jarring, to say the least. For Israelis, though, this is literally a matter of survival. Stop trying to kill us, let us live in peace, they are saying, and our guns will fall silent, and we’ll make a deal. That is the message the Palestinians refuse to hear, in large part because their political culture is saturated with antisemitism. For as long as the outside world mollifies them in this regard, nothing will change for the better.

Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and many other publications.