Nearly five years ago, I wrote a piece for this column in which I argued that the term “anti-Zionism” would be better rendered as “antizionism.”
My thinking on this subject was heavily influenced by a similar debate over whether to include a hyphen in the word “antisemitism.”
At the time, I argued that “anti-Semites are not people who are opposed to ‘Semitism,’ a non-existent word, and nor are they opposed to a race of ‘Semites’ since there isn’t such a race in the first place, just a language group. If you include the hyphen, the argument goes, then you are boosting antisemitism’s self-image as a revelatory, liberating and compelling explanation of why the world is such a rotten place. Leave the hyphen out and you see ‘antisemitism’ for what it really is: a malicious conspiracy theory about Jews that carries genocidal intentions towards them.”
Much the same point can be made about anti-Zionism.
The people who define themselves as “anti-Zionists” these days — from the thugs tearing down posters advertising the plight of hostages seized by Hamas during its Oct. 7 pogrom to the Hamas rapists and murderers themselves — are not opposed to Zionism as most Jews understand it, nor are they representative of the currents opposing Zionism that existed within Jewish communities prior to World War II, which argued upon tragically mistaken grounds that a sovereign Jewish state would not provide Jews with the security they so desperately needed.
• • •
The anti-Zionists of the 21st century are not simply rejecting the idea of a Jewish state — they are depicting the Jewish state as the root of the world’s evil, dedicated to the murder of children and the carpet-bombing of civilian areas as it pursues its nefarious goal of colonizing Palestine and permanently displacing its indigenous Arab inhabitants.
What we are dealing with here is not “criticism” of Israel’s policies, but outrage that Jews are even in a position where they can make policy! To illustrate this without any ambiguity requires the removal of the hyphen from the term “anti-Zionism,” so as to show that what is being pushed is not merely an objection to the program of the World Zionist Organization, but a full-blown conspiracy theory that transfers traditional antisemitic tropes about Jews to the Jewish state.
Like antisemitism, “antizionism” is genocidal in intent. And in the wake of the atrocities of Oct. 7, one can argue that it is the most lethal form of antisemitism in existence today.
The reason is that unlike other forms of antisemitism, antizionism is an open, generously proportioned tent. Anyone is welcome to stroll inside so long as they subscribe to a set of basic principles: that nowhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea should there be a place called Israel, that anyone complaining about antisemitism is engaged in a ruse to divert attention from the Palestinians, and that there isn’t a single place on earth — not Sudan, not Ukraine, not Kurdistan, not Burma, not China — where people have suffered as the Palestinians have simply for being who they are.
Sign up to those principles, and it doesn’t matter if you are black or white, Asian or Native American, a woman or a man or someone of fluid gender, young or old, gay or straight. You can even be Jewish, albeit within strictly defined parameters that will require you to hang your head in shame every time Israel is mentioned.
No other form of antisemitism — the most obvious example being the Jew-hatred espoused by white supremacists and other far-right groups — is this accessible.
• • •
The fact that a rainbow coalition is promoting antizionism these days is also a smart move, creating a set of optics that make it much harder to discern genocidal intent. By contrast, a muscled white male skinhead wearing a swastika and a pair of street-fighting boots doesn’t present the same problem. But when uninitiated members of the public look at images of the pro-Hamas demonstrations that have mushroomed globally over the last six weeks, seeing women in hijabs marching alongside transgender activists, they can be forgiven for concluding that what is in the spotlight is an alliance of diverse constituencies coming together in the name of human rights — and not a movement for the elimination of all Jews, everywhere.
Yet as Jewish communities, we have to admit that we have not made the case that antizionism is an insidious form of hatred, rather than a legitimate political position within the framework of the Middle East conflict.
Jewish organizations and the Israeli government have been delighted in recent years by the widespread endorsement of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which includes several examples of anti-Israel invective. However, the terms “Zionism,” “anti-Zionism” and “antizionism” are all absent from the definition, which means, much as I don’t like saying so, that it is very weak on this crucial point.
By adding a clarification that Zionism is a Jewish national movement with left-wing, right-wing and centrist varieties, as well as religious and secular adherents, the definition would act as a counterweight to the more ghoulish interpretations — for example, that Zionism is a form of racism or a conspiracy of the powerful. The sentence in the definition that identifies as antisemitic “[D]enying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” might be rewritten to say, “Depicting Zionism, the Jewish national movement, as inherently racist and the State of Israel as an illegitimate entity.”
This isn’t a matter of pedantry. If we have learned anything from the debates around antisemitism over the last two decades, it is that words matter and definitions matter, particularly when it comes to the application of the law.
In countries where there are no First Amendment-style guarantees of free speech (and that’s most of them), it is already a crime to deny the Holocaust or to traffic in traditional antisemitic memes. Advocating Israel’s elimination and bullying Jews into accepting permanent minority status — second-class, at best — should be seen in a similar light. The protection of our increasingly vulnerable communities demands nothing less.