Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > No, Prof. Meyer, Anti-Zionism is NOT Anti-Semitism

Feb 9, 2013

No, Prof. Meyer, Anti-Zionism is NOT Anti-Semitism


Swedish B.D.S. poster. Credit: Wiki Commons.

Andrew Meyer wants us to believe that anyone who opposes Zionism, for whatever reason, is inherently anti-Semitic. He starts from the premise that we should focus on historical effects rather than intentions. Perhaps he thinks that restriction works to the advantage of his argument.

After all, it’s obvious that plenty of people have opposed Zionism with no anti-Semitic intent. Before World War II many Jews -- perhaps a majority of the world’s Jews, and certainly a vast number of devout Orthodox Jews -- opposed the Zionist project in principle. They surely had no anti-Semitic intentions. There are still plenty of Jews today who oppose Zionism. Some of them, especially in Israel, make a very thoughtful case that Zionism is ultimately harmful to the best interests of the Jewish people. Their intentions are obviously not anti-Semitic. So looking at intent certainly would undermine Prof. Meyer’s case.

But even if we look only at historical effects, his argument is mistaken. It really boils down to one claim: “Israel has been the single greatest impediment to institutionalized anti-Semitism in the international arena.” Without a Jewish state, he argues, “Jewish communities throughout the world” would lack “concrete protections” from anti-Semitism, and there would be “a more favorable climate for the growth and spread of anti-Semitism.”  

That argument might have been convincing once upon a time. Historians will probably argue about it forever.

Today, though, there can hardly be any doubt that Israel is actually increasing anti-Semitism around the world. Every day Israel is creating more opposition, antagonism, and sometimes anger toward the Jewish state -- not because of its mere existence, but because of its palpably unjust treatment of Palestinians, its unjust (and too often violent) military occupation of Palestinian land, and its reluctance to make a just peace that would leave it living alongside a viable Palestinian state.

The growing atmosphere of world-wide criticism of Israel is hardly helpful to erasing the vestiges of anti-Semitism. On the contrary, it does more than anything else to keep anti-Semitism alive. Most critics of Israel’s policies know that this effect is unfortunate and unfair. They say that they object to the Jewish state’s treatment of Palestinians, not to Jews or Judaism, and there is no reason to doubt their sincerity.

However unfair it is, though, this historical effect of fostering anti-Semitism is understandable. The leaders of Israel’s government in recent years have insisted loudly that their state has, will always have, and must have a “Jewish” identity. As Prof. Meyer points out, there is no consensus on exactly what that means. But the general message comes across emphatically: Whatever Israel is and does, there is something uniquely Jewish about it.

What the rest of the world sees Israel doing, more than anything else, is occupying and oppressing Palestinians. So it’s easy enough -- even if illogical in the strict sense -- to conclude that military occupation and oppression are somehow essential expressions of Jewish identity. That’s bound to fuel anti-Jewish feelings.

Similarly, the leaders of Israel have always insisted that the state acts on behalf of all Jews, everywhere. Those leaders have done whatever they could to make that claim true, and they have largely succeeded. Israel is widely seen as the primary agent, and in a sense, the embodiment of the Jewish people on the world stage. So it is natural that many non-Jews would understand Israel’s actions as deeds done by the Jewish people at large. Since the most public of those deeds are morally dubious, at best, it is inevitable -- though again, illogical in the strict sense -- that many observers will have an increasingly negative view of Jews.

The process works in yet a third way: Growing numbers of Israel’s critics are persuaded that there is something inherently unjust in a state that privileges one group of people over all others. This argument is heard much more widely now that it was twenty or thirty years ago. Anyone who has watched events over those decades knows why: More and more people every year are concluding that the Jewish state is incapable of mending its ways. The facts on the ground give support to the (once again, logically erroneous) argument that a Jewish state is bound to be an oppressive state, which further fuels anti-Jewish feelings.

The points I’m making here are so well known and so widely discussed that I’m surprised Prof. Meyer ignored them. You can find some columnist worrying about them in the Israeli press nearly every day.

I’m surprised by something else. Prof. Meyer says he “stand[s] with the Palestinian people in demanding their right to statehood, and decr[ies] the injustice of the Israeli occupation.” And he defends his college’s sponsorship of a public discussion on the “boycott, divestment, sanctions” movement.  All laudable sentiments.

So I wonder why he ignores the actual effect of writing an article titled “Anti-Zionism Is Anti-Semitism.” He must know that this slogan is commonly used to stifle expression of exactly the views he holds. In fact, the slogan is most often used to try to silence all criticism of Israel’s policies and actions, no matter how unjust or inimical they are to the interests of peace.

Many readers of the news, on the web or in print, never get past the headlines. So by choosing to write on this topic Prof. Meyer, no matter how unwittingly, is serving the same unjust policies he criticizes. And he is aiding, no doubt unintentionally, the suppression of the free debate that he actually wants to foster.

He notes at the end of his article that critics of Israeli policies are often perceived, by supporters of those policies, “to be evasively concealing” their true agenda. Unfortunately the same perception readily applies to anyone who writes an article titled “Anti-Zionism Is Anti-Semitism,” regardless of his intent or the content of his writing. I absolutely do not believe that Prof. Meyer had any hidden agenda in writing this article. Other readers might not be so generous. Effects are often as unfair as they are illogical. But I heartily endorse Prof. Meyer’s view that they must be taken carefully into account.

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