By: Jonah Kaufman-Cohen
On Thursday, November 20th, I attended the Center for Israel Studies’ discussion on antisemitism and anti-Zionism with Professor Dina Porat of Tel Aviv University and Professor David Myers of UCLA. While in my time at AU I have been to many CIS events with diverse arrays of distinguished experts, this event felt unique in that the discussion became a debate between the two speakers. Early in the discussion, it became clear that not only did the speakers have different perspectives when approaching the topic but that they also drew different conclusions about one central question. The disagreement boiled down to whether or not anti-Zionism is inherently antisemitic. As anti-Zionism becomes more and more politically fashionable as a standard progressive idea, this question is certainly an important one. Professor Porat took the stance that anti-Zionism is inherently antisemitic because it unfairly singles out Israel, the only Jewish state, while Professor Myers took the stance that there could be legitimate criticism of Zionism without going over the edge into antisemitism.
Before the discussion, I would have been inclined to agree with Professor Myers’s stance. However, Professor Porat persuaded me early on. She built a strong case based on definitions of antisemitism and anti-Zionism as well as on the inescapable fact of the double standard held by anti-Zionists who single out Israel, the world's lone Jewish state, for offenses they tolerate from other countries. Porat began by introducing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism including its standards for judging when anti-Zionism crosses the line into antisemitism. She then turned her attention to the proclivity of anti-Zionists to single out Israel. I felt that Porat made her only clumsy point when she contrasted the unquestioned right of sovereignty of the island nations of the Pacific with the perpetual questioning of Israel’s right to exist; however, her underlying point about the relentless and unique assault on Israel resonated with me. Porat noted that Israel actually does very well when it comes to human rights, yet it is the only nation targeted for delegitimization by a mass movement. She pointed out that there is no “anti-Chinese” movement despite the fact that China is far worse than Israel when it comes to respecting international law and human rights. This point in particular is one that I often think about. Porat also commented on the particularly gut wrenching rhetorical tactic of anti-Zionists accusing Zionists of being Nazis. In addition to the obvious antisemitic undertone and Holocaust denial such a comparison evokes, Porat pointed out that Nazis are not simply bad. They do not deserve to exist. She argued that anti-Zionists do not accuse Zionists of being Nazis because they believe that Israel is racist but because they believe it should be treated like the Nazis, expunged from the earth by a coalition of the free nations.
Myers opened his remarks by pointing out the interesting but unnerving quirk of antisemitism which allows Jews to be derided both as arch capitalists and as bringers of a communist revolution. He asserted that at the core of antisemitism lies its essentialism which seeks to reduce Jews to one quality. He also warned of the rising tide of antisemitism from right-wing groups around the world which has little to do with anti-Zionism, a phenomenon usually associated with the left. Myers claimed that while anti-Zionism can be antisemitic, anti-Zionism is not inherently antisemitic. He agreed that blaming all Jews for the actions of Israel, defining Judaism as a religion rather than a nation, the denial of the right of the Jews to live in Israel, and the conflation of Israelis and Nazis were cases where anti-Zionism becomes antisemitic. He then pivoted by mentioning the history of Jewish anti-Zionists who we cannot possibly consider to be antisemites. In terms of current non-Jewish anti-Zionism, Myers asserted that accusing Israel of being a racist state is not antisemitic. He fell short, however, of calling Zionism racist.
The discussion then turned from the more theoretical side of anti-Zionism to the actual situation on the ground in Israel. Myers alleged that Israel was technically an apartheid state according to international law based on a respected Israeli assessment of the occupation. He claimed that the unequal treatment of Jews and Arabs living in the West Bank is indeed racist. Porat countered this controversial assertion by making the interesting claim that Palestinians living in East Jerusalem overwhelmingly preferred to be included in a Jewish State rather than a Palestinian state . This point was taken with incredulity by Myers who responded by pointing out that as an Israeli, Porat is not allowed to visit Palestinian areas of the West Bank which may skew her perception. The two professors also clashed on the subject of BDS on campuses. Myers took the nuanced view that BDS negatively affected his Jewish students, many of whom had grown up with only positive views of Israel, while it gave his Palestinian students hope to see their fellow students taking up the cause of their national liberation.
I agree with Myers that criticism of Israel is not inherently antisemitic and is in fact quite necessary; however, there is a line between criticism of Israeli policies and denying Israel the right to exist. The first is common to any nation. The second is unique to Israel and lies at the very core of anti-Zionism. Both Porat and Myers agreed that denying Israel’s right to exist was antisemitic. Porat defined anti-Zionism as the denial of Jewish hopes to have a homeland in the land of Israel. This denial is not only unique to Israel but is inherently antisemitic. While I believe there are ways to criticize Israel without being anti-Zionist, I do not believe that there is a way to be anti-Zionist without being antisemitic.