Students protests on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, April 25, 2024 // Photo by Joe Piette/CC

The blurring of the difference between antisemitism and anti-Zionism is a political error

Since the protests began on US campuses, the Israeli media has chosen to completely erase the very distinct line between anti-Israel attitudes and genuine antisemitism. It’s clear how this serves the government, but it actually hurt Netanyahu’s liberal opponents.

The Palestine Project
7 min readMay 11, 2024

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By Tamir Sorek • Translated by Sol Salbe

Two decades ago, I participated in a panel in Paris on Palestine/Israel. An audience of hundreds listened, sometimes cheered, and the atmosphere was, as expected, very supportive of the Palestinians and very critical of Israel. During question time, a woman with a European look and accent, dressed as a nun, raised her hand and asked how it was possible that the very same people who dragged the world into World War II could drag the world into another war.

The antisemitic-Nazi insinuation was blatant, leaving no wide range for interpretation. The late Peretz Kidron, who was also on stage, erupted in anger and declared that he would not remain at the event as long as the questioner remained in the hall. Pressure was put on her from the audience, and she was forced to leave.

I cite this anecdote as an exception to the rule. Since then, I have attended many conferences, demonstrations, and marches for Palestinian rights in Europe and the United States. I remember very well the few isolated incidents of overt antisemitism, because they jarred so much in the dominant message of these gatherings.

The distinction between antisemitism and hostility to Israel is always clear to the organisers. On the other hand, there are two groupings that always insist on blurring this distinction: one is Israeli Hasbara and its conservative collaborators, who are willing to sacrifice the struggle against real antisemitism for the sake of delegitimising the Palestinian struggle. Sometimes they receive support from politicians with a record of blatantly antisemitic statements. Not for nothing, because the second grouping is the antisemites who seek legitimacy for their positions under the auspices of “opposition to Zionism.” This is a long-established alliance.

In recent months, this blurring has turned into a whirlpool in the Israeli media. Since the protests against Israel began on US campuses, the Israeli media has chosen to completely erase the line between anti-Israel and anti-Zionist attitudes and antisemitism. It was also joined by Israeli students, and even lecturers who encounter hostility against them or their peers.

The range of statements and symbols interpreted as antisemitic is broad: raising the Palestinian flag, slogans condemning Zionism, or chants such as “Free Palestine.” It is no coincidence that the Israeli media rarely reports on blatantly antisemitic expressions. Unlike pro-Trump white supremacist demonstrations, where classic antisemitism is easy to identify, such slogans are difficult to find at anti-Israel demonstrations on campuses.

To be clear, the atmosphere on many campuses today, especially at protest sites, can be very unpleasant and even exclusionary for Israelis. There are also expressions of support for Hamas and for violence against Israeli Jews, and of course these messages, even if they are not at the epicentre of the protests, are threatening. But it is important to say three things about the Israeli discourse surrounding these phenomena: Firstly, the insistence on labelling them as antisemitic expressions is rooted in the inability of many Israelis to distinguish between Zionism and Judaism, and the lack of internalisation of the severity of the crimes committed by Israel. Secondly, it is worth emphasising the role that the discourse of antisemitism plays in distracting attention from Israel’s crimes. Finally, the deliberate exaggeration of campus antisemitism is the flip side of ignoring the fact that, in the context of US political tension over the war, the main violence is directed against Palestinians.

An important starting point for understanding the distress felt by many Israelis is that, from a Palestinian perspective, the essence of Zionism is their erasure and dispossession, and therefore genuine, rather than merely instrumental, support for Palestinian rights is also opposition to Zionism. Those for whom Zionism is an essential part of their identity will always feel uncomfortable in the struggle for Palestinian rights — that is inevitable. But it doesn’t end there. The insistence on labelling the protest against Israel’s crimes as antisemitism is rooted, consciously or otherwise, in the Zionist political agenda — which regards every Jew as would be Israeli and perceives Israel as the representative of Judaism.

For anyone who grew up in a social context in which 99 per cent of Jews are Zionists who believe that a Jewish state is a necessity, a non-Zionist Jew is seen as an anomaly. Therefore, any anti-Zionist position or hostility to Israel is antisemitic by default (some are actually willing to accept that there may be another interpretation, but this requires further proof as far as they are concerned). The frequently mentioned slogan, “From the River to the Sea,” has a wide range of meanings (talk to the activists) — from democracy and equality for all ranging all the way to a desire to expel Israeli Jews from their homes. In my assessment, among the demonstrators, those who support the latter interpretation are a minority, but in any case, it is an interpretation that does not stem from antisemitism, but from a superficial, immoral, and unrealistic understanding of decolonisation processes.

Problematic assumptions

Due to the unwillingness and inability to distinguish between Judaism and Zionism, Israelis tend to dismiss the clear and active presence of Jews in protest against Israel on campuses as a marginal exceptional phenomenon. But US Jews differ greatly from Israeli Jews in their political positions because they did not grow up in a context where Jewish supremacy is the default.

In a 2020 survey, respondents constituting a representative sample of US Jews were asked if they felt connected to Israel. The detachment from Israel was particularly large among Jews of no religion (about a quarter of Jews), the equivalent group to secular Israelis. In this group, 67 per cent said they did not feel connected (“at all” or “not so much”) to Israel. Another population feeling detached from Israel was the younger age group, 18–29 (the one represented in universities). In this group, 51 per cent responded in the negative. It is worth mentioning here, in order to learn about the gap between Israeli and US Jews, that among young Israelis aged 18–24, Religious Zionism is the largest political party. Of course, Zionist Jewish students feel threatened by slogans hostile to Zionism, but since most American student-age Jews do not feel connected to Israel, the assumption that any hostility to Israel threatens everyone as Jews is a very problematic assumption.

In addition, among Israelis there is a very high correlation, virtually a full correlation, between those who emphasise antisemitism on campuses and shine a spotlight on it and those who refrained from protesting Israel’s war crimes — before, and especially after October 7. It’s usually not a deliberate distraction. Many of those who do not protest Israel’s crimes believe that its actions are an inescapable necessity for defeating Hamas, and therefore they do not publicly criticise them.

But holding on to a stance point that necessitate the destruction in Gaza is also linked to the historical-political reality of social separation in Israel which starts from infancy. It creates a situation of total absence of first-hand exposure to the Palestinian perspective (as opposed to mediation by Israeli “experts”), as well as to a minor presence of Palestinians in the close social network of almost all Jewish Israelis. This is one of the conditions that enables the dehumanisation entailed in Israelis reconciling themselves to the killing of 14,500 children, the complete destruction of health and higher education systems, and the deliberate starvation of millions as necessary evils.

When these are perceived as justified, the protesters’ anger is interpreted not as a response to Israel’s actions, but as an expression of a primeval timeless force over which Israelis have no control — antisemitism. Thus, while the Israeli government uses the antisemitism card cynically and deliberately, Netanyahu’s liberal opponents, who are so disappointed that the radical left in Western countries is turning its back on them, provide this use with moral legitimacy and a tailwind in public opinion.

Finally, the victimhood stance of the Israeli media hides an objective fact: the political tension of the past seven months in the United States endangers Palestinians more than Jews. No Zionist or Jewish student organisation has been banned, as opposed to the ban on Students for Justice for Palestine activities on several campuses. Live fire shots were aimed only at Palestinians (three students were wounded, one was left paralysed). An organised and violent attack by masked assailants on university grounds, injuring demonstrators, as occurred UCLA, was directed only against a pro-Palestinian demonstration, and not against a demonstration of support for Israel. The attack received a supportive headline in the Hebrew Ynet headline: “Clashes between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian supporters at the University of California: ‘So you want to block Jews? Let’s see.’”

These incidents received little attention in the Israeli media, but needless to say, if in each of the above scenarios the victims were Jews, they would have made headlines, framed as evidence of the danger of antisemitism on campuses.

Since there are no signs of Israeli willingness to deal with the fundamental problems of the conflict, it is reasonable to assume that in the near future hostility towards Israel on Western campuses will only increase. The insistence of liberal Israelis in academia on entrenching themselves in the victimised position and attributing the phenomenon to antisemitism is not only an interpretive fallacy but a political error, since it prevents them from realising potential alliances among the progressive forces in the United States, and from helping to mobilise necessary external pressure on the Israeli regime.

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