Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism

Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism

What’s wrong with anti-Zionism is anti-Zionism itself. (With a response from Joshua Leifer.)

Jewish soldiers in the British army march in the city of Petach Tikva, British Mandate Palestine, 1942. (Zoltan Kluger/Israel's Government Press Office)

This article is part of a debate. Read Joshua Leifer’s response here


Anti-Zionism is a flourishing politics today on many university campuses and on parts of the left, and the standard response from many Jewish organizations and from most of the Jews I know is to call it the newest version of anti-Semitism. But anti-Zionism is a subject in itself; it comes in many varieties, and which ones are anti-Semitic—that’s the question I want to address here. I take “Zionism” to mean a belief in the rightful existence of a Jewish state, nothing more. Anti-Zionism denies the rightfulness. My concern here is with left-wing anti-Zionism in the United States and Europe.

Most versions of anti-Zionism first appeared among the Jews. The first, and probably the oldest, takes Zionism to be a Jewish heresy. According to Orthodox doctrine, the return of the Jews to Zion and the establishment of a state will be the work of the Messiah in the days to come. Until then, Jews are required to accept their exile, defer to gentile rulers, and wait for divine deliverance. Political action is a usurpation of God’s prerogative. Zionist writers hated the passivity that this doctrine produced with such passion that they were called anti-Semites by orthodox Jews, who would never have given that name to their own rejection of the Zionist project.

“Waiting for the Messiah” has a left version, which might be called “waiting for the revolution.” Jews (and other minorities) were often told that all their problems would be solved, and could only be solved, by the triumph of the proletariat. Many Jews took this to be an expression of hostility, a refusal to recognize the urgencies of their situation. But I don’t see anti-Semitism here, only ideological rigidity and moral insensitivity.

The second Jewish version of anti-Zionism was first proclaimed by the founders of Reform Judaism in nineteenth-century Germany. There is no Jewish people, they insisted, only a community of faith—men and women of the Mosaic persuasion. Jews could be good Germans (or good citizens of any state) since they were not a nation like the other nations and did not aspire to a state of their own. Zionism was perceived as a threat to these good Germans, since it suggested that they had an allegiance elsewhere.

Many leftists have adopted this denial of Jewish peoplehood, and then they go on to claim that a Jewish state must be a religious state, something like a Catholic or Lutheran or Muslim state—political formations that no leftist could support. But Reform Jews adopted this position knowing that most of their fellow Jews didn’t share it. If the nation is a daily referendum, as Ernest Renan said, the Jews of Eastern Europe, the great majority, were voting every day for peoplehood. They weren’t all looking for a homeland in the land of Israel, but even the Bundists, who hoped for autonomy in the Tsarist empire, were Jewish nationalists.

The early Reformers wanted to change the course and character of Jewish history; they weren’t ignorant of that history. Leftists who argue against Jewish peoplehood are, mostly, ignorant. They aren’t, however, the victims of what Catholic theologians call “invincible ignorance,” so we need to worry that what they don’t know, they don’t want to know.

If they were interested, they could learn about the radical entanglement of religion and nation in Jewish history—and about its reasons. You cannot separate religion from politics; you cannot set up a “wall” between church or synagogue and state, if you don’t have a state. Zionism was from its first days an effort to begin the process of disentanglement and to establish a state in which secularism could succeed. There are Jewish zealots in Israel today who oppose that effort—as there are Hindu nationalists and Muslim zealots who oppose similar efforts in their own states. One would expect leftists to defend secularism everywhere, which would require them to acknowledge the value of the original Zionist project.

I won’t say that it is anti-Semitic to assume, lazily, that Jewishness is a purely religious identity. But the refusal to recognize that large numbers of identified Jews are not religious is a little odd. We don’t call them “lapsed Jews” (the way we call irreligious Catholics “lapsed”); they are simply Jews. The assumption that there is no Jewish people that includes the faithful and the faithless, which is so easily corrected, must have a reason. It enables leftists who have supported so many national liberation movements to deny that Zionism is a movement of that sort: it can’t be, because there is no Jewish nation. So it’s a convenient argument, but that isn’t a good reason for making it.

The third version of Jewish anti-Zionism takes both religious and political forms. The religious argument serves also as an explanation of the long diaspora years. The Jews, on this view, are too good for statehood. The politics of sovereignty requires a toughness and brutality that are better suited to the gentile nations. The Jews, shaped by the Sinai covenant and by a long history of dispossession and persecution, can’t and shouldn’t try to imitate the gentiles. You might call this a philo-Semitic doctrine; the only difficulty is that it has no empirical basis. Even before 1948, the Jews survived as a nation in mostly hostile environments by using all the necessary political means, often with considerable skill.

The political version of this argument isn’t much better: it holds that the years of statelessness have turned the Jews into the first cosmopolitans. They are a people indeed, but a post-Westphalian people. Ahead of everyone else, they have transcended the nation-state. Zionism is a regression from diaspora universalism.

But the Zionist achievement, the state of Israel, is a definitive refutation of this characterization of the Jewish people. It reveals cosmopolitanism to be the program of some Jews, not a description of all Jews. And why should this be a program only, or first of all, for the Jews? Even if some Jews want to be cosmopolitans—a light unto the nations or, better, a light against the nations—why do so many non-Jewish leftists insist that all Jews take on this role, rather than claiming it for themselves? I can think of better candidates for a post-Westphalian politics. Let the French transcend the nation-state; after all, they started the whole business with the levée en masse of 1793; the Marseillaise, the first national anthem; the tricolor, the first national flag; and all the revolutionary oaths. Or the Germans, or the Danes, or the Poles, or the Chinese…


So here’s the rub. The most common leftist version of anti-Zionism derives, so its protagonists say, from a strong opposition to nationalism and the nation-state. Early on in the history of the left, this was a plausible argument with wide extensions, and it was made by many Jews. Rosa Luxemburg, for example, wrote with equal loathing about Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Czechs, Jews, and “ten new nations of the Caucasus . . . rotting corpses [that] climb up out of hundred year old graves . . . and feel a passionate urge to form states.” The only thing I admire about Luxemburg’s loathing is its universalism. But that’s precisely the feature missing from much contemporary leftism, where the loathing is much more limited.

There have been many opportunities for the application of Luxemburg’s argument. The second half of the twentieth century saw the collapse of the British, French, and Soviet empires and the creation of more nation-states than had existed in all of world history until then. A few leftists dreamed of turning the old empires into democratic federations, but most supported pretty much all the post-imperial creations—with less enthusiasm, perhaps, in the Soviet case—except one. Think of the missed chances to oppose the nation-state! Why support Vietnamese nationalism, for example, when the obviously correct position with regard to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia (the three parts of French Indochina) was one multinational state. Why didn’t leftists call for the incorporation of Algeria as a province of France, with its citizens enjoying all the rights proclaimed by the French Revolution? The Algerian FLN, championed by the international left, created instead a nation-state that has failed dismally to deliver those rights. I remember how enthusiastic people on the left were about U Nu’s Burma, now Myanmar and a prime example of what’s wrong with nationalism. Burma should have been a province of India, bringing Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims together in one state, but no one on the left argued for that. The British ruled Sudan as the “Anglo-Egyptian Sudan” and surely the two African countries, freed from Anglo imperialism, should have been joined: one state. Why didn’t leftists object to Sudanese liberation? Or to the Eritrean separation from Ethiopia? Why didn’t they call for one Baltic state instead of the nationalist threesome, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia?

I could pose many similar questions, but there is a single answer to all of them. The nation-state was in all of these cases the people’s choice, the democratic option even when it didn’t lead to democracy. So leftists were right to support the Vietnamese, the Algerians, and all the others. But then, why not the Jews? And why, now that a Jewish state exists and is very much like all the other states, is it on the receiving end of such a singular version of Luxemburgian loathing?


The common answers to that last question are, first, that the creation of the state of Israel required the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians. Israel is a “settler-colonial” state—like many other states if you go back far enough, but let’s leave that aside. The more immediate history is telling. There was no displacement of Palestinian Arabs in the 1920s and 1930s; despite Zionist colonization, the Arab population actually grew not only because of the birthrate but also because of immigration, mostly from Syria (the first British census in 1922 showed an Arab population of 660,267; the figure for 1940 was 1,068,433). There was no displacement during the Second World War when Jewish immigration slowed. And the state of Israel was proclaimed, first by the UN in 1947 and then in Tel Aviv in 1948, before the large-scale displacement began—so the idea that statehood “required” displacement can’t be right. It was the invasion of the new state by five Arab armies that led both to the flight of many Palestinian Arabs (Jews didn’t flee, because they had no place to go) and the expulsion of many others (Jews weren’t expelled, because the Arab armies lost the war). The numbers who fled and who were expelled are fiercely debated; they were large in both cases. Still, without the war there would be nothing to debate—very few refugees would be in camps today. The Nakba was a tragedy that took two agents, two political movements, and soldiers from both sides to produce.

And what about the flights and expulsions that have happened elsewhere, most obviously when the modern states of Turkey and Pakistan were created? Oddly, I haven’t heard the legitimacy of those states questioned by leftist writers, even when the policies of their governments are criticized, as they should be. (The force of “whataboutism” is often denied, but I think it is a powerful critique of one-eyed men and women who show great indignation at events here, wherever here is, and no interest at all in similar events elsewhere. Surely the phenomenon ought to be noticed.)

But—the second reason often given for anti-Zionism—Israel oppresses the Palestinians both in Israel proper and in the occupied West Bank. I won’t address the more toxic forms of this critique: that Israel is a Nazi-like state, a uniquely evil state, a child-killer state—which do in fact reinvent or update the tropes of classic anti-Semitism. But there is much to criticize; my Zionist friends in Israel have fought for years for full equality at home and against the cruelties of the occupation and the zealotry of the settler movement. Fierce opposition to the policies of the current Israeli government (as of August 2019, with no improvement in sight) seems justified to me, the fiercer the better. I will provide a list of what needs to be said since I want to be recognized as a defender of Zionism but not an apologist for what people calling themselves Zionists are doing in Israel today—and were doing yesterday, too. (Defenders of Palestinian nationalism might consider providing a similar list of the pathologies of Palestinian politics.)

—Israel’s Arab citizens face discrimination in many areas of common life, especially in housing and in the appropriation of state funds for education and infrastructure.

—With the recent Nation-State Law, the Knesset in effect gave the finger to its Arab citizens. Though the law has no legal consequences, it announces a second-class citizenship.

—The West Bank is a scene of invasive settlement, seizure of land and water, and lawless military rule.

—Settler thugs act violently against Palestinians on a daily basis, without effective restraint from the Israeli police or army.

—The current government uses anti-Arab incitement as a method of rule and is aiming at a single state dominated by what will soon be a Jewish minority (I will come back to “one state” later).

There is more, but this will be enough to make the point: criticism of this sort has nothing to do with anti-Zionism or anti-Semitism. These are the policies of governments, but governments only rule states; they don’t embody them. Governments come and go—at least, we hope they do—while states endure for the sake of the men and women whose common life they protect. So criticizing the governments of Israel shouldn’t involve opposition to the existence of the state. The brutality of the French in Algeria required fierce criticism, but none of the critics that I remember opposed French statehood. The brutal treatment of Muslims in western China today calls for fierce criticism, but no one is demanding the abolition of the Chinese state (although China is, in practice if not in theory, a Han nation-state).

Some leftists claim that the long years of the occupation and the right-wing nationalism of the Netanyahu government reveal the “essential character” of the Jewish state. This must be awkward for those men and women on the left who learned long ago, chiefly from feminist writers, to renounce essentialist arguments. Does the long history of intervention in Central America reveal the essential character of the United States? Maybe the opponents of intervention and occupation are more essential. Anyway, do states really have essences?

Many leftists these days simply endorse Palestinian nationalism without worrying about its essential character or even thinking about the program of the nationalists, who are often explicit in demanding the whole thing: “from the river to the sea.” There are Zionist Jews (in the government today) who make the same demand with equal fervor. Surely leftists should oppose both—with a similarly determined opposition. Those leftists who call for “one state,” with equal rights for Jews and Palestinians, would probably say that they are doing exactly that. Theirs is a program that seems to reflect a consistent abhorrence of nationalism and the nation-state—consistent, at least, in this one case.

But “one state” means the elimination of one state, the existing Jewish state, and how exactly are the “one-staters” going to achieve that? How do they plan to defeat the Jewish state and the national movement that produced it—or, alternatively, how do they plan to defeat Palestinian nationalism? What would the new state look like? And who would make decisions about immigration policy? (Immigration is the issue that scuttled bi-nationalism in the years before and immediately after the Second World War.) Finally, what if the new state—the most likely outcome—looked very much like Lebanon today? Given recent Middle Eastern history and given the history of Israel–Palestine, peaceful coexistence and equal rights under one government is a very sweet fantasy, but a fantasy still.

Surely it would be better to add a state rather than subtract one—and allow both national movements to attain (or hold onto) the sovereignty they seek. The two-state solution may also be a fantasy; there are significant political forces, on both sides, aligned against it. But there is also realism here. We know how to create nation-states; there is a lot of experience to build on. We don’t know how to create the ideal political community that the one-staters claim to want. And we don’t want, or we shouldn’t want, the kind of state they are likely to create.

Creating nation-states—that’s pretty much the policy leftists have defended throughout the postcolonial period. Yugoslavia is the obvious exception, where many leftists opposed the creation of seven new nation-states, preferring the tyrannical regime that once held the seven nations together. Another inconsistency: if tyranny is the alternative to national liberation, leftists should and most often do choose liberation. And the choice is a good one, for there is a lot of evidence that nations need states—often to protect them from foreign oppression. You can take the evidence for this from the history of the Jews—or the Armenians, or the Kurds, or the Kosovars, or the Palestinians. The strongest political forces in all these countries aim at a state of their own. And if the other four, why not the Jews?


Why not Zionism? Because the Jews aren’t a people; because they should be more cosmopolitan than anyone else; because the Zionist state has had some terrible governments; because no one should have a state (even if almost everyone does). Each of these claims can be made and reasons given, but the way they are made in the world today is bound to arouse suspicion. It is at least possible, and sometimes it seems likely, that the people making them also believe that Jews ran the slave trade, that the Zionist lobby controls U.S. foreign policy (as Representative Ilhan Omar has said), that Jews are disloyal to every country in which they live except Israel, and that Jewish bankers control the international financial system. There are too many men and women who believe these things—on the left as well as on the right. They are anti-Semites or fellow travelers of anti-Semites, and their anti-Zionism is probably tightly connected to their anti-Semitism (though there are now pro-Israel anti-Semites among, for example, American evangelicals and Eastern European right-wing nationalists).

Men and women on the left need to be sharply critical, especially critical, of other leftists who hold these views. It is obviously easier to condemn right-wing anti-Semites and pretend that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist on the left. But it does; indeed, it has been a regular topic here in Dissent (see, among other pieces, George Lichtheim, “Socialism and the Jews,” July–August 1968, and Mitchell Cohen, “Anti-Semitism and the Left that Doesn’t Learn,” January 2008). It may well be true that right-wing anti-Semitism poses the greater danger to Jewish well-being, but the leftist version should not be underestimated.

Still, I am sure that a lot of anti-Zionists and many leftist anti-Zionists don’t believe any of the anti-Semitic fables. Maybe they are willfully ignorant about the Jewish people, maybe they are peculiarly focused on the Jewish state; maybe they just don’t like Jews (as George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, said about Jeremy Corbyn). Maybe. But when it comes to leftist debates about Israel, Zionism is the issue, and it is Zionism that we should talk about. For all the reasons I’ve given, what’s wrong with anti-Zionism is anti-Zionism itself. Whether you are an anti-Semite, a philo-Semite, or Semiticly indifferent, this is a very bad politics.

Michael Walzer is editor emeritus of Dissent.