On October 7, the Islamist militant group Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, killed more than 1,400 people in Israel. Israel responded with military operations that have killed several times that number of Palestinians in Gaza, a territory described by Human Rights Watch as an “open-air prison” as a result of an Israeli and Egyptian blockade. In both cases, most of the casualties are civilians. The conflict has reverberated into other areas of the world, including the United States, where anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents have included the killing of a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy. The bloodshed has revived the perennial debates about anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
“Look, it’s clear that the hardened anti-Zionists from the far left are the photo inverse of the white supremacists from the far right,” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt told CNN’s Dana Bash earlier this week. “There is no argument anymore that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, that is as plain as day. And to think that extremism only comes from one side of the spectrum is a joke.” Greenblatt’s sentiments were echoed among supporters of Israel, including in publications like the Wall Street Journal and The Jerusalem Post, which editorialized that “to deny the Jewish people, and only the Jewish people, a right afforded to all nations—is to discriminate against Jews.”
The claim that “there is no argument anymore” is curious. Even within the ADL, staffers have objected to the argument that anti-Zionism is necessarily anti-Semitism, as Jewish Currents reported last year.
Political Zionism, defined concisely, is the belief that the Jews should have a Jewish state in their ancestral homeland. Anti-Zionism, in similarly brief terms, is the opposition to that belief. It should be no surprise that most Palestinians and those who sympathize with their plight are anti-Zionist. “The Arab has been on the receiving end not of benign Zionism—which has been restricted to Jews,” Edward Said wrote in The Question of Palestine, “but of an essentially discriminatory and powerful culture, of which, in Palestine, Zionism has been the agent.”
There are certainly forms of anti-Zionism that are anti-Semitic, such as the belief that Jewish Israelis should all be expelled or killed or that they should be forced to live as second-class citizens under an Islamist government. Storming the tarmac at an airport in Dagestan in the hopes of participating in a mob lynching of passengers arriving from Tel Aviv, or vandalizing synagogues in Madrid and New York in response to the Israeli government’s actions, or threatening Jewish students with rape and murder, are clear expressions of hatred toward Jews. Americans, both Jewish and not, can underestimate how common anti-Semitism remains in the rest of the world.
But there is nothing anti-Semitic about anti-Zionists who believe that the existence of a religious or ethnically defined state is inherently racist, and that the only real solution to the conflict is, as the Palestinian American advocate Youssef Munayyer writes, “equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians in a single shared state,” with a constitution that would “recognize that the country would be home to both peoples and that, despite national narratives and voices on either side that claim otherwise, both peoples have historical ties to the land.” Perhaps you think this idea naive or unrealistic; that is not an expression of prejudice toward Jews.
For one thing, there were prominent Jewish advocates for this idea before the founding of Israel, such as Hannah Arendt and Martin Buber. In 1921, the Jewish philosopher Ahad Ha’am wrote that Arab Palestinians “have a genuine right to the land due to generations of residence and work upon it. For them too this country is a national home and they have the right to develop their national potentialities to the utmost.” There are also some prominent Jewish supporters of a single binational state today, such as the former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg. The Jewish American writers Tony Judt and Peter Beinart have also made the case for a one-state solution.
I should say here that I do not have an answer to this question. Two states or one, my preference is for both Israelis and Palestinians to be able to live freely and in peace and equality, in whatever arrangement allows them to do so.
Nevertheless, it is a cruel absurdity to demand of Palestinians that they not only acquiesce to Israel’s existence, but also actively support the idea of an ethnically defined state that excludes them from equal citizenship, one that was made possible only by the flight and expulsion of 700,000 of their forebears in the Nakba of 1948. It is not anti-Semitic to want equal rights in the land you share with others, and to oppose a political arrangement that has resulted in what Israeli human-rights groups justifiably describe as a form of apartheid. While Jewish Israelis retain their rights wherever they go within Israel’s borders, Palestinians are subject to draconian restrictions on their lives and freedoms depending on their location.
“My mom was born and raised a mere 10-minute walk from my childhood home, but my father’s family is from Tulkarem, a small city in the West Bank. And so my dad, my siblings, and I have West Bank IDs while my mom, a Jerusalemite, has a Jerusalem ID,” the journalist Abdallah Fayyad wrote in The Boston Globe in 2021, describing life in his childhood neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. “That meant that while my mother had a right to live in Jerusalem, the rest of us were only guests in our own home, living there because we renewed travel permits that technically allowed us only entry into Jerusalem, not a permanent stay.”
Palestinians in the West Bank who have been displaced at gunpoint by Israeli settlers, Palestinians in Gaza who have watched their children die in Israeli missile strikes, Palestinians who have been evicted from their homes in Jerusalem as part of an effort to Judaize the city—are none of these people allowed to question whether a Jewish state is an optimal arrangement for them? Are none of their relatives, friends, and loved ones abroad allowed to do so?
Nor is the question of national self-determination as straightforward as the Post would have it. Since the beginning of the occupation in 1967, maintaining the Jewish character of the state of Israel has required an extraordinary amount of violence, because Jews are not a clear majority in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank put together. Even if they were, however, it is not as though Palestinian demands for equal rights would cease. Opposing that violence, or believing that it stems from the state having a specific ethnic character, is not a form of bigotry. It is not “self-determination” if you are determining the fate of your neighbors because they lack the same rights as you.
In the United States, the ADL itself has highlighted those on the far right who believe “they are fighting against demographic and cultural changes that are destroying the ‘true America’—a white, Christian nation,” and who want Jews to “either leave the country or be converted.” Sadly, this is a racist chauvinism that echoes sentiments expressed by politicians in the current Israeli government.
Few Americans who are not themselves white nationalists would think it prejudiced for those who are not white Christians to oppose such an arrangement in the U.S., least of all Jews.
Obviously, there are factors in Israel that make a commitment to one state with equal rights for all more complicated than in the United States, where the concept is foundational even if the execution is not. For generations, Palestinians have borne the brunt of the violence of war, occupation, and discrimination. The near-destruction of European Jewry is less than a century old, and the flight (both voluntary and involuntary) of the Mizrahim, who make up the largest portion of Israel’s Jewish population, from other Middle Eastern and North African countries is younger than that. Fears and grudges build up over years of conflict and separation, making the personal and emotional connections necessary for such reconciliation difficult, although brave souls on both sides of the divide are trying.
The ideal version of the one-state solution also remains unpopular for now among both Israelis and Palestinians (except for Arab citizens of Israel). You may think it impossible. You may prefer a different outcome. You may think it is dangerous. But the vision itself is not an expression of anti-Jewish hatred and should not be treated as such.
The effect of equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is to silence the criticism of the Israeli government by Palestinians and their advocates. Characterizing all such criticism as an inherent form of bigotry is used to justify the exclusion of such critics from mainstream society, to suspend them from their schools, or to fire them from their jobs. But it is not anti-Semitic to want equal rights for all in Jerusalem, in Tel Aviv, in Gaza, in Ramallah. That is, after all, what generations of Americans have sought in their own home.