At a protest in Berlin on October 28. Western support for Israel also stems from guilt about the Holocaust. | Photo Credit: SEAN GALLUP/Getty Images
Abram Leon, a Jewish Marxist murdered in Auschwitz by the Nazis, points out that more than three-fourths of Jews lived outside Palestine before the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans. Although Jerusalem was a place of pilgrimage for them in much the same way as Mecca became a place of pilgrimage for Muslims, the kingdom of Palestine was not of much importance. The reason for this dispersal was not violence but the lack of livelihood opportunities, which were better in other countries. Proselytisation in places where they settled turned the community into a multinational one, with members in India, Ethiopia, Yemen, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.
Most of the diaspora engaged in trade. There was prejudice against Jews among the Roman aristocracy, and later among Christians, but it was only in the 12th century that this became persecution and violence in Western Europe, somewhat later in Eastern Europe. The 14th century saw the first large-scale riots against Jewish moneylenders by artisans and peasants in Europe, who saw them as the cause of their ruin without seeing the princes or bourgeois who creamed off the profits of usury.i Of course, not all Jews were merchants or moneylenders, but this stereotype was propagated and created hatred of Jews.
Racism was entrenched in Western and Eastern imperialist powers, since domination, enslavement and extermination of other peoples had to be justified by deeming them inferior. But the late 19th century saw the rise of a vicious blood-and-soil nationalism which abandoned rationality and democracy and was even turned against other Europeans. Notions of racial purity and anti-Semitism grew in tandem. This was the environment that shaped Hitler as a young man and led to the horror of the Holocaust.ii
There were two responses from Jews in Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. One was an initiative to join the imperialist oppressors by creating their own settler-colony in Palestine: Zionism. As Edward Said says, “Zionism essentially saw Palestine as the European imperialist did, as an empty territory ‘filled’ with ignoble or perhaps even dispensable natives; it allied itself, as Chaim Weizmann quite clearly said after the First World War, with the imperial powers in carrying out its plans for establishing a new Jewish state in Palestine.”iii The other reaction was exemplified by the General Jewish Workers Union of Lithuania and Poland, better known as the Bund, which organised alongside other socialist groups to fight anti-Semitism, tsarism, authoritarianism and capitalism; they were staunchly opposed to Zionism.
A Jewish man with an anti-Zionist sign at a demonstration in New York City on October 26. | Photo Credit: Eduardo Munoz/REUTERS
During the First World War, Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in harmony in Palestine and aspired to independence; a UN study noted that there was sympathy for Jews on the part of the rest of the Palestinian population and no racial rancour against them. But that changed when the British, instead of granting independence, handed Palestine over to the Zionist Organization in accordance with the Balfour Declaration (1917), and aggressive colonisation of Palestine by Zionists began.iv Israeli historian Ilan Pappe explains that the main goal of the Zionists “was the ethnic cleansing of all of Palestine, which the movement coveted for its new state”; in 1948 almost 800,000 indigenous Palestinians — more than half the population — were driven from their homes by gruesome massacres, becoming refugees in other parts of Palestine and neighbouring countries.v Expulsions and massacres continued even after the Oslo Accord of 1993, leaving most Palestinians who remained in their country confined to non-contiguous ghettos in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and East Jerusalem. Palestinian residents of Israel were subjected to an apartheid regime of discrimination.vi
The Zionist project is thus racist to the core, so how has it been accepted so widely by the supposedly democratic countries of the West? One reason is that it resonates with racism engendered by their imperialist past, which has been exacerbated by rampant Islamophobia since 9/11. The geopolitical advantages of having a white colonial ally in West Asia is appreciated especially by the US, which funds and arms Israel and vetoes every UN resolution calling for Israel to abide by international law, except in December 2016, when the Obama administration abstained from the vote on a Security Council resolution describing Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 as a “flagrant violation” of international law. Netanyahu denounced the resolution as “anti-Israel”,vii and it was never implemented.
Western powers proclaiming Israel’s “right to defend itself” from Hamas by slaughtering children, bombing hospitals, ambulances, schools, residential blocks, mosques, churches, bakeries, water reservoirs, and UN shelters, and cutting off 2.3 million people from food, water, fuel, electricity and medicines, is another expression of racism, making it clear that Palestinian lives don’t matter. Their support for “the two-state solution” after having done nothing to prevent hundreds of thousands of illegal settlers occupy what is supposed to become a Palestinian state is both hypocritical and racist. Are they going to evict the settlers, who are armed and even now proceeding with attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem? Hardly. So where is this Palestinian state going to be?
Stars of David painted on a wall in Paris on October 31. French authorities have initiated investigations into the paintings, which are seen as anti-Semitic. | Photo Credit: Michel Euler/AP
Besides, the two-state “solution” fails to abolish apartheid in Israel and ensure the right of Palestinian refugees to return. The BDS movement calling for a Boycott of Israel, Divestment from it, and Sanctions against it until it complies with international law by ensuring Palestinian sovereignty in the Occupied Territories, abolishing apartheid, and implementing the right of Palestinian refugees to return has been denounced in many of these countries.viii
There is another driver of Western support for Israeli atrocities: guilt about the role their countries played in the Holocaust. This has given the Israeli state a powerful means of manipulating them.
The Israeli state has invested heavily in extremely sophisticated information warfare or hasbara, described as “communication calculated to influence cognition and behaviour by manipulating perceptions of a cause or position with one-sided arguments, prejudicial substance, and emotional appeals…. Although hasbara includes efforts to impede access to information through a wide variety of techniques…, it focuses on limiting the receptivity of audiences to information” contradicting its narrative.ix Key features of hasbara are the demonisation of Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims and the message that anti-Zionism constitutes anti-Semitism. This has succeeded very well in the West, where it fits in with prevailing racism and guilt about the Holocaust. It has resulted in widespread acceptance of the open-ended International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)’s “Working Definition of Antisemitism”, which includes “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” and “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” as examples of anti-Semitism. The IHRA suggests that such anti-Semitic acts should be criminalised.
Unfortunately, some Palestinians also blurred the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and some of their supporters still do so. For example, as Gilbert Achcar explains, seeing the Israeli state instrumentalise the Holocaust to justify its oppression of Palestinians, they engaged in Holocaust minimisation or denial.x In the first place, it is immoral to deny the enormity of the Holocaust and the persecution of Jews that continues to this day. But secondly, it is also counter-productive because it reinforces the Zionist narrative. For sincere anti-racists, it is critical to define anti-Semitism accurately and show how it differs from anti-Zionism.
This is what the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism sets out to do. Presented by 210 eminent Jewish scholars of anti-Semitism studies and related fields in March 2021, it now has around 350 signatories. According to them, “Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish)”. They make it clear that “while antisemitism has certain distinctive features, the fight against it is inseparable from the overall fight against all forms of racial, ethnic, cultural, religious and gender discrimination”.
The authors explain that the declaration is based on universal human rights principles, and is a response to two circumstances. One is the alarming resurgence of anti-Semitism by groups mobilising hatred and violence in politics, society and on the Internet, which make it imperative to have a usable, concise and historically informed core definition of anti-Semitism with a set of guidelines; and the other is the definition adopted by the IHRA, which they regard as unclear in key respects, widely open to different interpretations, and weakening the fight against anti-Semitism by causing confusion and generating controversy. They express particular concern that some of the “examples” of anti-Semitism included in the IHRA exclude legitimate political speech and action about Zionism, Israel, and Palestine. Thus, their aim is twofold: “(1) to strengthen the fight against antisemitism by clarifying what it is and how it is manifested, (2) to protect a space for an open debate about the vexed question of the future of Israel/Palestine”.
Regarding Palestine/Israel, they provide five examples of views and actions that are not anti-Semitic. These include: “Supporting the Palestinian demand for justice and the full grant of their political, national, civil and human rights…. Criticising or opposing Zionism as a form of nationalism…. Evidence-based criticism of Israel as a state. This includes its institutions and founding principles… Thus… it is not antisemitic, in and of itself, to compare Israel with other historical cases, including settler-colonialism or apartheid…. Boycott, divestment and sanctions are commonplace, non-violent forms of political protest against states. In the Israeli case they are not, in and of themselves, antisemitic.”xi
Palestinian workers gather at the Erez crossing between Israel and the northern Gaza Strip on September 28, after the Israeli authorities reopened it. | Photo Credit: MOHAMMED ABED/AFP
Thus, for example, if we argue that Israel is an apartheid state, we should make it clear that our objection is not simply to a Jewish state but to any state linked to any religion, which will inevitably be an apartheid state because it will discriminate against people of other faiths and none. And if we compare the policies of Netanyahu’s 2022 government with those of the Nazis, we need to provide evidence, as Israeli Professors Zeev Sternhell and Daniel Blatman do.xii
Anti-Semitism is racism against Jews. Zionism is racism against Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims. Racism against any group undermines democracy by violating its principles of freedom, equality and friendship. Racist states violate the democratic rights of all dissidents, not just the targeted communities, and move towards fascism unless replaced by democratic ones. At a deeper level, racism erodes our humanity by blocking our compassion for oppressed human beings who differ from us in some way. That is why we must combat both anti-Semitism and Zionism.
Rohini Hensman is a writer, independent scholar and activist who has worked on labour movements, feminism, minority rights, globalisation, and democracy movements, and has been published extensively on these issues.
- i. Abram Leon, 1970, The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation. New York: Pathfinder Press. pp.68–74, 241–244, 170–173.
- ii. John Weiss, 1977, Conservatism in Europe 1770–1945. Traditionalism, Reaction and Counter-Revolution. London: Thames and Hudson. pp.103–125.
- iii. Edward Said, 1979. ‘Zionism from the standpoint of its victims’ (excerpts). https://www.jewishvoiceforpeace.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Edward-Said-Excerpt.pdf
- iv. United Nations, ‘The Question of Palestine: Origins and Evolution of the Palestine Problem 1917–1947, Part 1.’ https://www.un.org/unispal/history2/origins-and-evolution-of-the-palestine-problem/part-i-1917-1947/
- v. Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Oneworld Publications Limited, 2006. https://oneworld-publications.com/work/the-ethnic-cleansing-of-palestine/
- vi. Amnesty International, ‘Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime Against Humanity,’ February 2022. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2022/02/israels-system-of-apartheid/
- vii. Peter Beaumont, 2016, ‘US abstention allows UN to demand end to Israeli settlements,’ The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/23/us-abstention-allows-un-to-demand-end-to-israeli-settlements
- viii. BDS, ‘What is BDS?’ https://bdsmovement.net/what-is-bds
- ix. Chas W Freeman, n.d., ‘Hasbara and the control of narrative as an element of strategy,’ Middle East Policy Council. https://mepc.org/speeches/hasbara-and-control-narrative-element-strategy
- x. Gilbert Achcar and Nader Hashemi, ‘The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives,’ University of Denver Center for Middle East Studies, pp.4–5. https://eprints.soas.ac.uk/21099/1/cmesoccasion