Middle East Eye / June 10, 2021
We must reject Zionism’s attempts to co-opt progressive frameworks and to link Palestinian activism with antisemitism.
The righteousness of a cause cannot be defined by the terms of the oppressor. We cannot forget this lesson when it comes to Palestine.
Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinian families from the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, and its latest deadly assault on the Gaza Strip, drew thousands of protesters from around the world into the streets in solidarity rallies and actions.
Unfortunately, despite – or perhaps because of – this outpouring of support, Zionism is simultaneously being reaffirmed through corporate media outlets and in supposedly sympathetic spaces. We have seen a shift in discourse, from criticism of colonial Israeli apartheid policies, to linking the growing activism in support of Palestinian liberation to antisemitic attacks.
Zionist organizations have been capitalizing on this trope to conflate support for the Israeli state with protecting Jewish people. Bernie Sanders, a supposedly progressive US politician, opined that the use of terms such as “apartheid” to describe Israel’s policies should be “toned down”, as it could be contributing to antisemitism.
We have witnessed variations on the sentiment that there is “no room” for antisemitism in pro-Palestine organizing from politicians and across social media. Actor Mark Ruffalo, who had gained steady renown for his vocal support of the Palestinian struggle, tweeted an apology for saying that Israel was committing “genocide” during the recent onslaught, noting it was “not accurate, it’s inflammatory, disrespectful & is being used to justify antisemitism here & abroad”.
Conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism
In an important article for Jewish Currents, Mari Cohen points out that many news outlets linking Palestinian advocacy to antisemitism cite data from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which on 20 May reported an “uptick in antisemitic incidents linked to recent Mideast violence”. Cohen notes that this is problematic due to the ADL’s conflation of antisemitic attacks with anti-Zionist political rhetoric.
Cohen writes further: “The ADL’s narrative also serves to reinforce lurking anxieties that advocacy for Palestinian rights is inherently antisemitic – even as Palestinian leaders have condemned antisemitism publicly and repeatedly. Cynical advocates for the Israeli state are already using these reports as justification for keeping Palestinian territory occupied – and the Palestine solidarity movement marginalized – in the name of ‘security.’”
Palestine Legal has previously explained how Israeli government-aligned groups in the US have “coopted the language and tools of civil rights” to construct Palestine activism as antisemitic.
Antisemitism must certainly be fought alongside all other forms of oppression. But clarifying that there is “no space” for it in the movement for a free Palestine is not merely redundant because the Palestinian cause is inherently anti-racist and anti-colonial; it also has the damaging effect of reinforcing the false link between challenging Palestinian oppression and antisemitism that is so crucial to the Zionist project.
From its outset, modern political Zionism was inherently a settler-colonial movement, relying on imperialism and weaponized antisemitism to justify its colonial aspirations.
As Sumaya Awad and Daphna Thier write in Jacobin: “Zionism was born out of 19th-century European imperialism. Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau, the founders of Zionism, sought to resolve the sharp rise of antisemitism and the increasingly impoverished state of Jews in Europe, not by confronting the reactionary and racist ideas gaining influence at the time, but by advocating a separate ethno-Jewish state. Their proposal relied on two assumptions: that antisemitism was a permanent fixture in society, and that the only way to gain respect and autonomy was to convince imperial powers of the utility of a Jewish colonial outpost in the Middle East.”
Co-opting the rhetoric of liberation
As academic Joseph Massad further notes, though Zionism began as an openly colonial venture, Zionists would later shift tactics and co-opt the rhetoric of various liberation movements as a means of disguising the project of Palestinian displacement and dispossession as one of national liberation and a triumph against racism – a pattern that continues today. Massad has also explored how the Zionist movement relied on antisemitic governments, including the Nazis, for support of its colonization of Palestine.
Despite its propaganda, Zionism has never been interchangeable with Jewishness. As author and academic Sherene Seikaly has explained, Zionism, which sought to challenge antisemitism through a racialized hierarchy applied to Palestinians, was historically only one of many responses to European antisemitism in the 19th century, and not even the most popular from the outset.
Automatically equating Zionism with Jewish identity also erases the outsized role that Christian Zionism continues to play in shoring up support for Israeli colonization. Zionism is therefore not about ethno-religious identity – it is a racist political ideology that stretches across conventional positions of leftist, liberal, centrist and conservative.
Jewish Voice for Peace rejects Zionism in the following terms: “While it had many strains historically, the Zionism that took hold and stands today is a settler-colonial movement, establishing an apartheid state where Jews have more rights than others. Our own history teaches us how dangerous this can be.”
The struggle against colonialism
Regardless of the false associations between pro-Palestine sentiments and antisemitism, upon which Zionism relies for its success, Palestinians have always understood that ours is a struggle against colonialism and imperialism.
In 1965, academic Fayez Sayegh wrote an article titled “Zionist Colonialism in Palestine,” in which he identified Zionism as in line with other European colonial movements, separated only by its intention to erase (as opposed to merely exploit) the native Palestinian population.
And in 1972, Palestinian writer and political thinker Ghassan Kanafani wrote in a crucial study of the 1936 Palestinian uprisings against both the colonial British mandate regime and increasing Zionist settlement that Zionism had to be understood as a movement in line with and benefitting British imperialism.
Humouring a knee-jerk association between antisemitism and support for Palestinian liberation erases these anti-colonial rationales that have always been at the heart of the Palestinian freedom struggle. It also reinforces the logic used for such repressive purposes as political blacklisting, social media censorship, and attempts to institutionalize the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which links antisemitism to criticisms of Israel.
Finally, it is racist against Palestinians, as it affirms the Orientalist logic that constructs us as mindlessly violent, antisemitic “terrorists”, rather than active agents in a struggle for decolonization – and it upholds the justifications for our colonization in the first place.
The narrative shifts and support for Palestinian freedom that have taken place over the past few weeks have been staggering. But solidarity with Palestine will remain incomplete so long as our movements remain unable to fully challenge Zionism – a racist, settler-colonial movement and ideology that falsely constructs the racialised, violent dispossession of Palestinians as an anti-racist project.
We must accomplish this by rejecting both Zionism’s ongoing attempts to co-opt progressive and leftist frameworks, and the idea that Palestinians and our allies are any more accountable for antisemitism than others. Such logic only reinforces the power of Zionism, eroding the fullness of our fight for total liberation for Palestinians from the river to the sea.
Omar Zahzah is a writer, poet, independent scholar, and organizer; he holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and is the Education and Advocacy Coordinator for Eyewitness Palestine, as well as a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) and the US Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel (USACBI)