Beinart: Antisemitic Zionism Isn't a Contradiction in TermsBreaking News
tags: Jewish history, Zionism, antisemitism
LAST NOVEMBER, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) awarded Donald Trump its highest honor, the Theodor Herzl Gold Medallion. Nine days later, the former president dined with two of America’s most prominent antisemites, rapper Kanye West and white nationalist provocateur Nick Fuentes. Noting the proximity of the two events, The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner asked ZOA president Morton Klein an uncomfortable question: Could Trump be among those “people who, for whatever reason, have sympathies with Israel but don’t like Jews?” Klein dismissed the proposition. “If you like Israel, which is the Jewish state filled with Jews, how can you hate Jews?” he replied. “It’s beyond my comprehension.”
The exchange illustrated the terms of mainstream American debate about the relationship between antisemitism and political Zionism, the belief in a Jewish state. For conservatives like Klein, the relationship is clear: Zionism and antisemitism are incompatible. The former precludes the latter. For liberals like Chotiner, by contrast, the relationship is obscure. “For whatever reason,” Trump loves Israel but derides American Jews. When faced with the coexistence of Zionism and antisemitism, liberals and centrists tend to describe the two beliefs as either unrelated or in tension. In October, an MSNBC commentator tried to reconcile Trump’s antisemitism and his Zionism by suggesting that he “didn’t necessarily understand his own policies” toward the Jewish state. A Politico essay in December described the Christian right’s support for Israel and distrust of American Jews as ideological “contradictions.”
But these positions are not contradictions at all. Trump’s fondness for Israel and antagonism toward American Jews stem from the same impulse: He admires countries that ensure ethnic, racial, or religious dominance. He likes Israel because its political system upholds Jewish supremacy; he resents American Jews because most of them oppose the white Christian supremacy he’s trying to fortify here. This synthesis isn’t unique to Trump. Since Zionism’s birth in Europe more than a century ago, it has attracted support from Christians who supported a Jewish state at least in part because they feared Jews would undermine the ethnic and religious purity of their own countries. That tradition remains alive in both Europe and the United States today, where research suggests that antagonism towards the Jews in one’s own nation correlates with support for Israel, which offers Jews a nation of their own. Most Zionists aren’t antisemites, of course. But neither are Zionism and antisemitism strange bedfellows. Often, they are different manifestations of the same preference: for nations built on homogeneity and hierarchy rather than diversity and equal citizenship. As such, they are frequent allies in the assault on liberal democracy sweeping much of the world.
THE AMERICAN MEDIA’S inattention to the links between Zionism and antisemitism stands in stark contrast to its preoccupation with the links between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Again and again, prominent commentators insist they are one and the same. Even analysts who acknowledge some theoretical difference between the two often describe them as close cousins. In a conversation last fall, Yehuda Kurtzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute wondered at what point “anti-Zionism crosses over into antisemitism.” Anti-Zionists may not all be antisemites, according to this logic, just as hard drinkers may not all be alcoholics. But they’re at high risk.
In the United States and Europe, however, the evidence suggests the opposite: Anti-Zionists appear less likely to hold antisemitic attitudes than Zionists. Anti-Zionism is strongest on the political left. According to a Pew Research Center survey from last summer, only 36% of liberal Democrats viewed Israel favorably, compared to 75% of conservative Republicans. Antisemitism, by contrast, is strongest on the political right. In 2020, two political scientists, Eitan Hersh from Tufts and Laura Royden from Harvard, asked 3,500 Americans three questions about American Jews: Are they “more loyal to Israel than to America?”; is it “appropriate for opponents of Israel’s policies and actions to boycott Jewish American owned businesses?”; and do “Jews in the United States have too much power?” The results were stark. “Overt antisemitic attitudes are rare on the left,” concluded Hersh and Royden, “but common on the right.” Since left-leaning Americans are more hostile to Israel, the two scholars even added a preamble to their questions telling respondents that American Jews generally support the Jewish state. In so doing, they tested whether progressive anti-Zionism shades easily into antisemitism. Their conclusion: It does not. “Even when primed with information that most U.S. Jews have favorable views toward Israel,” they noted, “respondents on the left rarely support statements such as that Jews have too much power or should be boycotted.”