One of the most debilitating and divisive aspects of the discourse surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the way constituencies engage the question of how anti-Zionism relates to anti-Semitism. Very often, the division on this question is dichotomous and creates a binary of extreme positions that cannot engage with one another.
One of these sides sees anti-Zionism, and indeed all criticism of what they call the settlement of Judea and Samaria, as anti-Semitism masquerading as political critique and individuals with humanitarian intentions being manipulated unwittingly by anti-Semites. These folks emphasize how Israel, even when they grant its imperfections, is singled out for disproportionate criticism, that it is inaccurately depicted as the root of all discord in the Middle East and the primary source of tension between the Muslim world and the west. And even when they grant that criticism of Israel doesn’t have to be anti-Semitic, at least in theory, they argue that it almost always is and must be viewed through the lens of this question. Israel’s critics must be considered guilty of anti-Semitism or of unwitting and naïve collusion with anti-Semites, until categorically proven otherwise.
The other side, as is so often the case in this ideologically over-determined debate, seems its mirror image. These folks argue that the accusation of anti-Semitism is a canard meant to silence valid criticism of Israeli policies and that the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza are the primary causes of contemporary anti-Semitism. Furthermore, they accuse the “Israel Lobby” of manipulating US politics, and thus international politics, to support Israel’s continued repression and exploitation of Palestinians against American interests and values. This accusation strikes their opponents as all too close to the ugly conspiracy theories emanating from the anti-Semitic forgery known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which depicted international Jewry as the ultimate source of all war and suffering in the world.
So we have one side that sees the other as driven by anti-Semitism and the other conversely accusing them as driving anti-Semitism by creating hospitable conditions for its germination and providing its rationale. If both arguments contain some truth, then everyone involved is participating in anti-Semitism in one way or another, some intentionally and some unintentionally.
Clearly, solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not lead to a peaceful utopian Middle East. Plenty of conflicts in the region are organized around cultural, religious, historical, and even ethnic fault lines that have little to do with Israel and Israelis. Many of these are exacerbated by unresolved issues emanating from the Western colonial endeavors that shaped the current map. They also have much to do with the history of the cold war and more recent interventions driven by global economic developments.
In addition to this, there’s no convincing reason to believe that any solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, even the creation of a single secular democratic republic between the river and the sea or the expulsion of most Jews from the region can bring about an end to anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is a quasi-religious ideology built on a history of slanders and twisted perceptions. As such, it will never lose its capacity to conceive evidence that corroborates its assumptions. Many of the Zionists who labored to found the modern State of Israel thought it would both serve in the near term as a bulwark anti-Semitism and haven for its victims and eventually normalize Jewish national existence in a way that would undercut the trumped up fantasies that animated the imaginations of anti-Semites. Zionism was both a defense against anti-Semitism and would ultimately function as its antidote. This hasn’t happened. Many contemporary Zionists have since moved to the position that anti-Semitism does not respond to realities of Jewish life or the ways in which Jews participate in global affairs. They see hatred of Jews as irreducible, potentially eternal, and anyone who ignores this as ignorant and dangerous, as at best an unwitting accessory to one of the most toxic and violent movements in history.
But granting that a solution to the conflict communities will neither solve all of the tensions in the region nor eradicate anti-Semitism does not undermine the primary rationale for ending the occupation. An accord acceptable to majorities of Palestinians and Israelis that creates a new reality that will continue to develop positive and productive relations between these national will not satisfy everyone. Conflicts will continue, but within a framework that may settle them, or at least manage them, in less violent and debilitating ways. And if this framework operates as it should and as many of us believe that it not only must, but that it can, these conflicts will attenuate both in tenor and in frequency. Indeed, even though other nations and movements in the region may attempt to disrupt relations, to fan resentments and exacerbate anxieties, if the accord is a functional one and if enough people of good will exercise leadership on both sides, one can expect moments of cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians in the face of regional conflicts. And if anti-Semitism does not require the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, transforming the relations between Israelis and Palestinians will undoubtedly make it easier to continue the potentially unending fight against anti-Semitic eruptions and canards. Israel has plenty moral and practical reasons to reengage the peace process energetically and pragmatically for its own sake. Any benefits to regional stability and to undermining and reducing anti-Semitism are secondary, if extremely welcome benefits.
Blanket, uncritical support for Israel does not equal opposition to anti-Semitism. Nor does criticism of Israeli policies require one to close one’s eyes to anti-Semitism, especially as it seems to wax in Arabic media and Eastern Europe at the moment. Jewish individuals and institutions have worked hard to promote Israel and to make the case for its existence. This is a form of hard won political power. To paint every criticism of the exercise of that power as anti-Semitic belies an anxiety about its achievement. Paranoia about the Jew pulling levers behind the curtain seems to mirror anxiety about being painted as the Jew pulling levers behind the curtain. The more these same individuals and institutions support efforts to reach an accord with the Palestinians, the more effectively they abandon the reflexive conception of Palestinian nationhood as an anti-Semitic plot, the more proud they can be of achieving and exercising political power and the more effective they can be at confronting anti-Semitism. At the same time, those who want to end the occupation through achievement of an accord between Israelis and Palestinians would do well to stop dismissing and denying anti-Semitism and focus more attention on the way complicates efforts to reach an accord.
As for Israel being singled out for criticism, I single Israel and Jews out in both celebratory and critical ways, because this is one of my primary affiliations. Just as I focus more attention on achievements and shortcomings of my own children than on those of others, so too I focus more on Israel’s achievements and shortcomings. And this need not result either in either chauvinistic jingoism or in hyper-critical self-flagellation. It’s evidence of a productive commitment, one that I still believe can prove even more productive in ways that currently exist only in our most cherished dreams.