It can be lonely to be a critic of Israel in Germany. Across the political spectrum most German media and all major political parties adhere to a strict consensus in defense of Israel. Even on the left, where Israel’s worst transgressions may inspire an occasional scolding, any position that questions Israel’s “right to exist“ on any grounds whatsoever is anathema.
One term is used above all to police the boundaries of acceptable discourse: anti-Semitism. In Germany, for understandable reasons, this is the worst thing you can be accused of.
One recent example caught my attention. Several major Jewish organizations signed a petition denouncing a heartbreaking documentary about the suffering of ordinary people in Gaza. It strongly implies that the filmmakers are anti-Semitic because of past associations with the Electronic Intifada. (Anyone familiar with EI knows how ludicrous this is, but most Germans had never heard of it before.)
As usual in such cases, it accuses the filmmakers of “one-sidedness“ because they don’t represent the Israeli perspective. Portraying the suffering of Israel’s victims without the required exculpations of Israel is, as usual, intolerable, and the anti-Semitism inference is never far away.
As a leftist and a Jew living in Germany, I feel the need to make some basic clarifications.
On anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism and leftism: Some elementary distinctions
Once and for all: anti-Zionism and criticism of Israel are not the same thing as anti-Semitism. If you’ve tied them together in your head, your brain is in a knot, not the things themselves. Even unfair, lopsided, and vituperative criticism of Israel is not necessarily “anti-Semitism”. Whether or not my rejection of Israel as a polity or of its specific policies and actions is anti-Semitic depends on my reasons for doing so. It they are based on Jew-hatred, that’s anti-Semitism. If not, it isn’t.
This isn’t complicated. The doctrine that you are anti-Semitic because you might reject the idea of a Jewish state per se, or because you think Israel bears most of the blame for the violence its occupation entails, is nonsense. The fact that this isn’t obvious to many people is testimony to the seductiveness of tribal thinking, on the one hand, and to the political distortion-effects of history and ideology, on the other.
That many people in Germany are especially devoted to protecting what they perceive as the collectivity of world Jewry from existential threats, or even from mild criticism, is both understandable and a shame. It’s a shame because Israel is not the same as world Jewry and doesn’t speak in any legitimate sense as the voice of world Jewry. And it’s a shame because the very crimes committed by Germany against Jews, for which many Germans seek atonement by devotion to Israel, should spur all rational people, including Germans, to oppose tribalism in all its forms. That, of course, includes Jewish tribalism.
Many Germans who are pro-Israel are also philo-Semites; it should hardly be necessary to point out that philo-Semitism is just the inversion of anti-Semitism. Both are habits of mind that involve imagining a mythic moral collective–good Jews/bad Jews–only with the pluses and minuses inverted.
But doesn’t “singling Israel out” for criticism imply anti-Semitism? Not only isn’t anti-Zionism per se anti-Semitism, but you can’t infer Jew-hatred from Israel-hatred (or dislike or disapproval) any more than you can infer anti-black racism from a critique, say, of the government of Zimbabwe. There are some people who mix their anti-Israelism with genuine anti-Semitism; in fact, there are millions of such people.
I wish this weren’t so, and I think such views should be exposed, denounced and resisted. But to extrapolate from them to anti-Zionists as a whole is both tendentious and illogical. It is to play a game set up in advance to excuse the Israeli government of any and all wrongdoing–a game whose designs are often as racist as the anti-Semitism it purports to oppose.
Moreover, there is a form of obsessive anti-Israelism on the left that may be objectionable without being anti-Semitic. Israel has occupied a special place in left demonology for many decades, but that this is so hardly redounds to the moral advantage of Israel.
The leftist preoccupation with Israel is merely a negative imprint of the very ideological system that supports, coddles, shelters and arms Israel when it commits crimes against innocents in the West Bank, Gaza or Lebanon. It is a reaction to the “special” relationship between Israel and the United States since the late 1960s, involving massive, automatic and unquestionable annual military transfers and reflexive diplomatic support at times of violent conflict. And it emerges almost unavoidably from the unending miseries caused by one of the world’s oldest and most brutal military occupations.
At another, perhaps less rational level, the left’s Israel fixation simply reflects the centrality of Jews to recent world history (not to mention the prominence of Jews like Noam Chomsky on the left itself), together with the obvious symbolic importance of a place three of the world’s leading religions claim as their Holy Land. In this last sense, the left’s preoccupation with Israel is a symptom of the *world’s* preoccupation with Israel. By “singling out” Israel, left anti-Zionists are no different from almost every news editor of every newspaper on the planet. If this makes them anti-Semitic, then what about the others?
This doesn’t mean that some leftists haven’t crossed the border into anti-Semitism. When critiquing Israel veers into laughable references to “the Rothschild connection” or lurid talk about “Jewish domination” of the media, that looks more like the real anti-Semitism to me. But such people are a subgroup of a subgroup, and on behalf of world leftism I hereby revoke their membership in my club. By my definition, which strictly excludes racism of any kind, conspiracy-mongering anti-Jewish anti-Zionists are simply not leftists. Fortunately for me, almost all the self-described leftist anti-Zionists I have ever known would agree with me.
So there is no self-contradiction when I tell you I am a leftist, non-believing, non-observant Jewish anti-Zionist. Anti-Zionism, like anti-Semitism and many other isms, comes in many shapes and colors. There are anti-Zionists who accept the necessity of a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine, and there are anti-Zionists who argue for a single, democratic state. There are anti-Zionists who think the idea of an ethno-religious political entity is intolerable, and there are anti-Zionists who think history has made its continued existence in some form unavoidable. There are anti-Zionists who believe that “Zionism is racism,“ and there are those who resist such language.
My own reasons for being against Zionism have to do with my understanding of what democracy is, together with my reading of the history of who did what when in the Israel-Palestine conflict. At bottom, like many Jews and non-Jews, I am philosophically opposed to the very concept of a Jewish state for the same reasons I am against a Christian, Muslim or Hindu state. I am neither anti-Christian, anti-Muslim, anti-Hindu, nor anti-Jewish. I am in no possibly meaningful construal of the term an anti-Semite. Depending on your politics, this might disappoint you; but it shouldn’t confuse you. It’s not rocket science.
Anti-Semitism, of course, is real, and it’s on the rise both in Europe and the United States. But conflating criticism of the state of Israel with anti-Semitism does nothing to improve things; it merely cheapens the currency of the term. Recently, attempts to slander anti-Zionists as antisemites have snowballed, both in Europe and the USA, into attempts to criminalize anti-Zionism. So if you have conflated the two, you haven’t simply committed an academic error. Your confusion now encroaches on my political freedom. That’s not just a shame, it’s downright shameful.
Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit.