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Are anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism one and the same thing?

By Philip Mendes - posted Friday, 4 February 2005

Historically anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism were divergent ideas. Anti-Zionism (particularly prior to the creation of the State of Israel) was based on a relatively objective assessment of the real actions undertaken by, and the prospects of success for, some Jews in Israel and Palestine. Opposition came from both Jews and the international Left. In contrast, anti-Semitism incorporates a solely subjective stereotyping of all Jews. It is not about what Jews actually say or do, but rather about what anti-Semites falsely and malevolently attribute to them.

However, the Nazi Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel transformed attitudes to Zionism. Jewish opposition to Zionism largely vanished. The creation of Israel was viewed as a form of compensation for the Holocaust and many years of Jewish persecution. The international Left also changed its views. The Soviet Union strongly supported the creation of the State of Israel, both via diplomatic means, and through the provision of badly-needed military supplies. In addition, social democrats provided considerable political and ideological support for Israel throughout the 1948-1967 period.

The 1967 Six Day War pushed Jews and the Left in sharply different directions. Many Jews - even those who identified as non-Zionists - were galvanised during the war in support of Israel. Since that time Jews have increasingly come to define support for Zionism and Israel as a fundamental component of their Jewish identity.


In contrast, Israel’s victory in the Six Day War provoked a sea change in the attitude of Left groups to Zionism and Israel. The radical Left discovered the Palestinians, and the romance with the PLO began. Many younger Vietnam era activists saw the Israeli-Arab conflict as an extension of the struggle between Western colonialism and the Third World, rather than as a regional struggle between Arab and Jewish national aspirations. Left anti-Zionism seemed to go on the backburner during the period of the Oslo Accord. However, the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada in September 2000 provoked a renewed outburst of anti-Zionist hysteria.

Today there are probably three principal views on the Australian Left.

One perspective - that held by the Australian Labor Party leadership, a significant number of ALP MPs from all factions, and some social democratic intellectuals and trade union leaders - is balanced in terms of supporting moderates and condemning extremists and violence on both sides.

A second perspective - that held by the Australian Greens, some of the ALP and trade union Left, and probably a majority of Left intellectuals - supports a two-state solution in principle, but in practice holds Israel principally or even solely responsible for the continuing violence and terror in the Middle East. In general, adherents of this view recognise that not all Israelis are the same, and understand the difference between particular Israeli government policies and the Israeli people per se.

Some components of this second perspective may reasonably be characterised as unbalanced and naïve at best, and as failing to offer a corresponding critical analysis of contemporary and historical Palestinian actions and strategies. But their criticisms of Israel are generally not anti-Semitic given that they are related, at least in part, to real everyday events in the Occupied Territories. And many of their concerns about either the efficacy or morality of Israeli actions are shared by a significant minority of Israelis and Diaspora Jews. It is arguable that the following concerns fall within the realms of legitimate non anti-Semitic political debate:

  • questions about the legal and moral legitimacy of Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip;
  • concerns about Israeli military incursions and assassinations within the Territories;
  • concerns about the impact of the Jewish security fence on the daily lives of the Palestinian population in the Territories;
  • concerns about continuing discrimination against Palestinian Arabs living within Green Line Israel;
  • reflections on the extent to which the creation of the State of Israel contributed to the historical injustice that has befallen the indigenous Palestinians; and
  • reflections on the extent to which a resolution can be found to the Palestinian refugee tragedy that reasonably satisfies both Israelis and Palestinians.

It is within the third Left perspective - which I call anti-Zionist fundamentalism - that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism undoubtedly converge. This perspective, held mainly but no longer exclusively by the far Left sects, regards Israel as a racist and colonialist state which has no right to exist. Adherents hold to a viewpoint opposing Israel’s existence specifically, and Jewish national rights more broadly, which is beyond rational debate, and unconnected to contemporary or historical reality.

In place of the fundamental and objective centrality of the State of Israel to contemporary Jewish identity, anti-Zionist fundamentalists portray Israel as a mere political construct, and utilise ethnic stereotyping of all Israelis and all Jewish supporters of Israel in order to justify their claims. They construct a subjective fantasy world in which Israel is detached from its specifically Jewish roots, and then miraculously destroyed by remote control free of any violence or bloodshed under the banner of anti-racism.

Anti-Zionist fundamentalism typically incorporates a number of manifestations including:

  • a pathological and obsessive hatred and demonisation of Israel unrelated to the actual actions and reality of that State;
  • proposals for academic and other boycotts of Israel based on the ethnic stereotyping of all Israelis;
  • the extension of the denunciation of all Jewish Israelis to all Jews - Zionist or otherwise - who are supportive of Israel’s existence, whatever their actual ideological and political position on solutions to the conflict;
  • stereotypical descriptions of Jewish behaviour, and attacks on alleged Jewish wealth and influence - conspiracy theorists accuse Jews of controlling western governments, banks and the media, and of responsibility for the US-led war in Iraq; and
  • deliberate attempts are made to diminish and trivialize the extent of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust by comparing Jews with Nazis - some Left commentators go even further and allege that Zionist Jews collaborated with the Nazis to perpetrate the Holocaust, or in some cases endorse overt Holocaust denial.

In summary, criticisms of Israel per se are not anti-Semitic, particularly when they involve judgments about real Israeli actions and policies. The worst that can reasonably said about most such judgments is that they may be unbalanced, and reflect a partisan pro-Palestinian view of the conflict. Nevertheless, anti-Zionism does become anti-Semitism when critics of Israel shift the analysis from one of objective reality to subjective fantasy. Instead of depicting Israel as a real state with real people, anti-Zionist fundamentalists collectively label all Israeli Jews and their supporters as guilty of colonialism and racism. And traditional anti-Semitic prejudices around disproportionate Jewish power, influence and wealth are utilised to justify these stereotypes.

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This is an edited version of a paper presented to the Antisemitism in the Contemporary World Conference at Monash University on  February 6, 2005:

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About the Author

Associate Professor Philip Mendes is the Director of the Social Inclusion and Social Policy Research Unit in the Department of Social Work at Monash University and is the co-author with Nick Dyrenfurth of Boycotting Israel is Wrong (New South Press), and the author of a chapter on The Australian Greens and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in the forthcoming Australia and Israel (Sussex Academic Press).

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