Events on college campuses in recent weeks raise, once again, the question of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and where to draw the line between them. Anti-Israel rhetoric and activity, the salience of radical Islam in Western Europe, BDS turmoil on the quad and in church councils: All of it, in contemporary parlance, is referred to as the “New Anti-Semitism.”
One question, of course, is, What’s “new” about the “New Anti-Semitism?” Another is, Is anti-Zionism the same as anti-Semitism?
If there is, indeed, any such thing as a “New Anti-Semitism,” it is “new” in the sense that it does not fit the historical pattern of ancient anti-Semitism, which was primarily cultural in nature; Christian anti-Semitism, which was religious; and modern anti-Semitism, the racial variety of the 19th and 20th centuries, which culminated in Nazism and ultimately in the destruction of European Jewry. Finally, there is the contemporary manifestations of anti-Zionism and Israelophobia, and how they fit (or don’t fit) the pattern.
First, there is the core question: At what point does anti-Israel rhetoric become anti-Semitism? It’s a threshold question, and is therefore subjective. My threshold: Any criticism of the policies of the government of the State of Israel — indeed harsh criticism — is entirely legitimate. The Israeli public is itself deeply divided over the peace process, settlements, its relations today and tomorrow with the Palestinians, government policies on religion and personal-status matters and economic policy. The point at which attacks on the policies of Israel become anti-Semitism is the point at which the legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise — or of the State of Israel — is questioned. Because it is at that point that the legitimacy of Jewish peoplehood is questioned.
But one might indeed argue for the necessity of distinguishing anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism. Let’s not confuse these, goes the argument. Anti-Israelism is a concerted prejudice against Israel, birthed in large measure by leftist anti-globalist politics, but without a discernible hatred of Jews. Oppression and liberation, oppressors and oppressed — it’s another riff on the political rivalries that characterized much of ancient anti-Judaism.
Is there a specifically anti-Jewish bias here? Perhaps what motivates the Israelophobes is anti-Semitism. Perhaps not. But to tar all critics of Israel with the brush of anti-Semitism is unfair, so the argument goes, and may be counterproductive.
This view is bolstered by the numbers. The various polls commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League in Europe show a sharp fault line between attitudinal anti-Semitism (the numbers fluctuate, but are generally down) and anti-Zionism (the numbers are up).
The political thinker Mark Lilla suggests that anti-Semitism in Europe has got to be more than “The French hate us!” or “The Muslims hate us!” or “Israel is apartheid!” Anti-Semitism, in Lilla’s construct, is historically linked to the political contours of each era. The physiognomy of European anti-Semitism in any given era is a function of the primary political challenge facing Europeans in that time and place. So — nationalism in the 19th century is linked to racialist anti-Semitism. Augustine’s anti-Aristotelian Christianity is linked to religious anti-Semitism. And so on.
What about the contemporary scene? The primary political challenge for Europe today is that of moving beyond the nation-state, that is, the problem of European integration — a problem that is framed as the clash between nationalism and post-nationalism (with progressive or “good” opinion very much on the side of the latter). It comes as no surprise, then, that Israel (and America) are reviled for acting like the nation-states they are. Israel, as the product of 19th-century European nationalism, acts as the ideology of nationalism suggests sovereign states do and should act: It is ready to employ the force of arms to defend the nation’s interest. This behavior is what drives Europeans crazy. It strikes their post-nationalist sensibilities as retrograde and racist. Israel squares off against the Arabs in the same benighted manner as the French used to against the Germans, and so on. Hence, European anti-Semitism — and anti-Americanism as well.
I should add that Zionism, the darling of the left 75 years ago, became successful — created a nation-state — precisely at a time when the nation-state fell out of fashion. It’s one of the great ironies of history.
So what’s “new?” First, the collective expression of anti-Semitism, with Israel as a focal point, rather than the individual animus of the past. This gives weight to the claim of distinguishing between anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism. Second, the center of gravity of much of anti-Semitism is now in the Islamic world. Finally, what’s new is also very old: the “double-standard.” That’s the assertion that Jews may not defend themselves as may any other people or person. If this is the case, then by extension the legitimacy of a Jewish historical identity is challenged. Deriving from this, of course, is the isolation of the State of Israel and the relegation of Israel to the status of “pariah state.”
And that’s what’s playing out on many campuses, in church councils, in academic circles. There’s nothing “new” about it.
Jerome Chanes, a fellow at The Center for Jewish Studies of the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of “A Dark Side of History: Antisemitism Through the Ages.”