By “anti-Palestinianism” I understand prejudice against Palestinian Arabs based on perceived negative qualities of Palestinian cultural or natural identity. Views such as “Palestinian Arab culture is a culture of death and martyrdom,” “Palestinian Arabs hate Jews because of incitement,” “Palestinian Arab labor is inferior” are examples of this prejudice. Attempts to justify these prejudices are inevitably based on selective data, generalization, and bias.
By “anti-Semitism,” I understand prejudice against Jews based on perceived negative qualities of Jewish cultural, natural, or religious identity. Opinions such as, “Jews love only money,” “There is a worldwide Jewish conspiracy against gentiles,” “Jews are loud, noisy, and uncouth,” etc. are examples of this prejudice. Attempts to justify these prejudices are also inevitably based on selective data, generalization, and bias.
What I would like to discuss here is how the current vogue of identifying anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is anti-Palestinianist, i.e., the product of bigotry towards Palestinians. I won’t bother to “disprove” the identification itself, any more than I would bother to “disprove” anti-Semitic claims. I applaud those who have the stomach for such “disproofs”; I don’t.
“Anti-Palestinianism” and “anti-Semitism” should be examined in light of the broader phenomenon of group prejudice. Regrettably, they often are not. Anti-Semitism is considered a serious moral failing in Western society today, whereas anti-Palestinianism is not even recognized as a phenomenon to be studied. The reason for this has a lot to do with the prominence accorded to anti-Semitism in Western consciousness for well-known historical reasons. The founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, saw a nation-state of the Jews to be the solution to anti-Semitism. The Holocaust reinforced that view for many.
The so-called “New Anti-Semitism” was born of the increasing identification, shared by some Zionists and anti-Semites, of Israelism and Judaism. Although Zionism as a movement of national revival had many different aspects (some Zionists actively opposed the creation of a Jewish ethnic-exclusivist state), the particular form that Zionism took in the newly created laws and institutions of the state of Israel became identified with Zionism tout court. For Zionists like David Ben-Gurion, to be a complete Jew was to be a Zionist, and to be a complete Zionist was to be a citizen of the State of Israel, where “statism” (mamlakhtiyyut) was a supreme value. His view was resisted by many other Jews, Zionists, non-Zionists, and anti-Zionists, even after the creation of the state in 1948 (although a version of it has been embraced by latter-day Zionist ideologues like the writer, A. B. Yehoshua). But after Israel’s capture in 1967 of territories of historical significance for Jews, the growing acceptance of ethnic diversity in western societies, and the increasing prominence according to the Holocaust in popular culture, Israel became an important component in the identity for many Jews.
Especially for the generation of 1967, to oppose Zionism was in effect to oppose the self-determination of the Jewish people, which was to imply that Jews as a people have less rights to self-determination than other peoples. This purported “singling out” of the Jews was seen by some to motivated by, or identical with, anti-Semitism. And because anti-Semitism, like racism, had become a term of moral opprobrium in modern society, “anti-Semite” was applied to those who wished replace the State of Israel with another political system, for whatever motivation, even if they thought it better for the Jews.
Today, if one rejects the claims of Jews to a state of their own in Palestine, i.e., if one rejects statist Zionism, one is considered by these people to be at best an unwitting or inadvertent anti-Semite. The same is true if one wishes to replace the Zionist state with a state that is predominantly a civic one – Muslim, Christian, and Jewish. The same is true if one thinks that founding the State of Israel in the way it was founded was bad for Jews and for Arabs.
It also follows that if one is a Palestinian and shares any of the aforementioned beliefs, one is, at best, an unwitting anti-Semite. And that conclusion is anti-Palestinianist because it says that Palestinians can have no other motive for opposing a Jewish state than implacable hatred of the Jews. And if that conclusion seems too bizarre even for those who are wont to find “anti-Semites” everywhere, it is less so when applied to Palestinian sympathizers. “After all ,why should a British Labourite be sympathetic to anti-Zionism if she is not herself related to a Palestinian – unless that sympathy is, perhaps, unconsciously, tinged by anti-Semitism.” But aside from trivializing anti-Semitism, that conclusion is also anti-Palestinianist – because it implies that the Palestinians have little justified claim to sympathy, either because their suffering has not been so great, or, worse, they have brought it upon themselves. And because the accusation of “anti-Semitism” carries with it a particular tone of moral opprobrium following the Holocaust, the accusation is hurtful in ways that “anti-Zionism” or “anti-Israelism” are not. (Cf. the use of the term “apartheid” rather than “separation” or “segregation” as a term of moral opprobrium.)
My claim that the identification of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is itself an anti-Palestinianist canard does not exclude the possibility that there will be anti-Zionists who are anti-Semites, or who, more likely, use anti-Semitic tropes. Negative stereotypes of Jews have been found among some anti-Zionists, and they should and have been condemned. Ditto for the employment of anti-Semitic stereotypes and tropes by some Zionists. Internalizing the negative images of Jews of the anti-Semites, some Zionists “negated the diaspora” and looked forward to a new, “muscular” Jew who would replace the weak, effeminate, cunning Jew of the diaspora — when the Jews have their own state. Zionist-motivated anti-Semitism is alive and well every time a diaspora Jew is criticized for “kowtowing to the goyim,” or called a “Jewboy” (yehudon, in Hebrew) by a rightwing Israeli politician.
To talk of “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism” without mentioning anti-Semitic tropes within Zionism is, once again, to employ the emotive power of the “anti-Semitism” accusation to delegitimize critics of the Jewish state. The speaker may avoid identifying anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, but the implied guilt by association, though a lesser form of bigotry, is bigotry, nonetheless. And when one singles out anti-Semitism for moral opprobrium without even acknowledging anti-Palestinianism, one loses the moral high ground and simply parrots partisan polemic.
All bigotry should be condemned, whether the target group is powerful or weak. But there should be special concern for the consequences of bigotry aimed at the weak, since those consequences will be more dire. Anti-Semitism can never be justified, and it should be called out when found. And the pro-Palestinian movement has done that. But insufficient sensitivity to anti-Palestinianism is, under present circumstances, a greater sin for those who care about the real consequences of bias and bigotry.
To be sure, those who care for the well-being and equal rights of the people living in Israel/Palestine will not agree on how to achieve those rights. One can oppose many forms of political resolutions without being bigoted, and one can oppose tactics as inappropriate or counter-productive without bias or prejudice. Particular tactics endorsed by the Palestinian National Boycott committee have been criticized. But this opposition should be based on argument, not on bigoted insensitivity, especially when directed against the weak and vulnerable. Boycott, divestment, and sanctions are generally legitimate tactics, the wisdom of which can be debated. But delegitimizing or demonizing, much less criminalizing, the BDS movement is, in most cases, the product of anti-Palestinianist bias and should be rejected by decent people on all sides.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on April 14, 2016, on The Magnes Zionist, a website featuring commentary by Jewish studies and philosophy professor, Jerry Haber (a nom de plume). It was reproduced here with the consent of Professor Haber.