Is anti-Zionism always anti-Semitic?

Part of: Hey Alma’s Guide to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Can you criticize Israel without hating Jews? Yes! Can you be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic? Well, it’s complicated, and even anti-Semitism experts don’t always agree on the answer.

Let’s get into it.

First, what’s anti-Semitism?

In the words of Deborah Lipstadt, a top expert on the subject, from her 2019 book Anti-Semitism: Here and Now: “It is hard, if not impossible, to explain something that is essentially irrational, delusional, and absurd.”

We hear you, Deborah, but let’s try.

Anti-Semitism is much more than just hating the Jews or holding prejudice against Jews (though it’s definitely that!). At its core, anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory that Jews wield disproportionate power and influence over the world, and therefore, they are evil. Anti-Semitism sometimes takes the shape of reducing Jews to harmful stereotypes or thinking they are part of an evil cabal. It sometimes looks like people chanting “Jews will not replace us” in the streets. And it is sometimes is used to justify the murder of elderly Jews in a congregation on Shabbat.

Makeshift memorial after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in October 2018 (Hane Grace Yagel)

But in its more subtle forms, it’s not always so easy to spot.

Okay, so what’s anti-Zionism?

If we define Zionism as the movement for the return of the Jewish people to — and their sovereignty in portions of — what they consider the historic and religious Land of Israel, anti-Zionism is opposition to the existence of a Jewish state in that territory.

Palestine solidarity protest in Berlin, Germany in 2017 (Hossam el-Hamalawy/Flickr)

People who espouse anti-Zionist views often consider Israel to be the product of an imperialist and/or racist movement that is illegitimately occupying land that rightfully should either be a secular state or under Arab Muslim sovereignty.

Sound simple enough? Ha!!!

Is anti-Zionism anti-Semitic?

It’s not inherently anti-Semitic to criticize Israel, nor is it an issue to dislike the way the country was founded. It’s also not a problem to dislike the policies of the Israeli government or its past or current leadership — you can open any Israeli (or Jewish!) newspaper and find many examples of these things. Jews themselves have debated whether Zionism was fair and just to the Arab inhabitants of historic Palestine since the beginning of the movement, right along with whether Zionism would resolve the problem of global Jewish persecution.

So, we repeat: Not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic!  

But, anti-Zionism can sometimes veer into anti-Semitism.

Okay, like when?

In short, it’s super complicated and there are no definitive answers because nobody quite agrees. But generally speaking, if you’re using tropes that suggest the Jews of Israel are bloodthirsty or murderous, that’s anti-Semitic. If you’re criticizing the mere existence of the state rather than its current policies, some will say that’s veering on anti-Semitism.

If you’d like to criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic, ask yourself:

  • Am I utilizing any anti-Semitic tropes, like that Jews are greedy and power hungry, that Jews are conspiring to eliminate non-Jewish peoples, or that Jews have hypnotized the media?
  • Am I criticizing a specific policy or demonizing the existence of any Jewish state in principle?
  • Am I conflating the actions and character of individual Jews or Israelis with the actions of the Israeli government?

If the answer to any of the above questions are yes, some people might call you anti-Semitic.

So how can I express criticism of Israel without being anti-Semitic?

Stick to critiquing Israel’s leadership or policies. That’s your safest bet.