Sumaya Awad & Daphna Thier
Jacobin / March 25, 2021
The struggle against Israeli apartheid has nothing to do with antisemitism — and everything to do with winning liberation for colonized Palestinians.
Facebook is on the brink of deciding whether to formally classify criticism of Israel and Zionism as hate speech. This comes a year after Donald Trump signed an executive order endorsing the use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism in all investigations conducted by US federal agencies into Title VI claims. The executive order, like the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, is part of an attempt to enshrine the IHRA definition into law. The definition cites eleven examples of antisemitism, seven of which refer explicitly to criticizing Israel.
As leading figures of the Palestine movement have pointed out, this conflation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism is a blatant attempt to intimidate, persecute, and ultimately silence the Palestinian rights movement in the United States and around the world. It is built on the false assumption that Zionism is synonymous with Judaism, and that Israel’s seventy-three-year occupation of Palestine is a religious movement, not a settler-colonial project propped up by geopolitical conditions and imperial alliances.
A Brief History of Zionism
Zionism was born out of nineteenth-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.
Herzl, Nordau, and later the World Zionist Organization had no illusions about the brutality it would take to replace the indigenous population. In fact, Herzl’s writings reveal that from the outset the plan was to colonize an already-populated land with the help of imperial powers. Herzl targeted Britain, though he also courted the German Kaiser, the Russian Tzar, and even the Ottoman sultan (to whom Herzl offered help in covering up the Armenian Genocide in exchange for authority over Palestine). Vladimir Jabotinsky, one of the founders of the Zionist movement, wrote in 1923:
Zionism is a colonizing adventure and therefore it stands or falls by the question of armed force. It is important to build, it is important to speak Hebrew, but, unfortunately, it is even more important to be able to shoot — or else I am through with playing at colonization.
Zionism, then, should be understood in light of the reality it vigorously defends: settler-colonialism and the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinian population in 1948.
To this day Israel favours Jewish citizens and denies most Palestinians the right to vote, purchase land, build homes, and enjoy equal employment opportunities, freedom of movement, or access to medical care. Dozens of statutes enshrine these inequalities in law. The result isn’t just an undemocratic society — it’s an apartheid state.
Zionism and Socialism?
Although Herzl envisioned a European-style monarchy in Palestine, large sections of the Zionist movement sought to integrate Zionism and socialism. They created ostensibly egalitarian institutions like the Kibbutz (Jewish collectives) and promoted the idea that Zionism was a left-wing movement.
But this was always a contradictory enterprise, because Zionism necessitates Jewish exclusivity. In Russia, the Workers of Zion actively organized against non-Jewish workers in labour actions. In Palestine, the Histadrut, founded in 1920 as a Jewish-only labour union, fought to replace Arab workers with Jewish workers in factories and on farms. Zionist workers organizations openly espoused reactionary politics.
The Kibbutzim were complicit in the plan to Judaize the land. They built Jewish-only settlements on Palestinian land, using force to repel any Palestinian attempts to reclaim it. The Kibbutzim also played a central role in the Haganah and Irgun, the Jewish militias that carried out massacres and ethnic cleansing campaigns in Palestine in the 1940s. They are the predecessors of the expanding network of illegal settlements sprinkled across the occupied West Bank today.
In 1969, David Hacohen, member of the Israeli Labour Party, described what Zionist socialism meant in practice:
I had to fight my friends on the issue of Jewish socialism, to defend the fact that I would not accept Arabs in my trade union, the Histadrut; to defend preaching to housewives that they not buy at Arab stores; to defend the fact that we stood guard at orchards to prevent Arab workers from getting jobs there…. To pour kerosene on Arab tomatoes, to attack Jewish housewives in the markets and smash the Arab eggs they had bought.
Many Jewish organizations and radicals dating back to the days of Herzl opposed Zionism as a political ideology as well as its claim to speak for all Jewish people. As early as 1910, Karl Kautsky, a prominent Jewish Marxist theorist, wrote extensively about the reality of Zionist colonization in Palestine.
On the basis of the right of labour and of democratic self-determination, today Palestine does not belong to the Jews of Vienna, London, or New York, who claim it for Judaism, but to the Arabs of the same country, the great majority of the population.
Zionism’s colonial character helps explain why its leaders, past and present, have aligned with far-right and violently antisemitic figures: from Nazis in the 1930s to Viktor Orbán or Jair Bolsonaro today. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not an anomaly. His far-right, violent, expansionist agenda is exactly what Israel has advanced from the start.
Meanwhile, cynical claims of antisemitism are being used to attack the most basic forms of solidarity and organizing. In the United States, 217 bills designed to curb the speech of Palestinian rights activists have been introduced at the state level; 23 percent have passed. If the IHRA definition becomes the law of land, it would mean a simple statement like “Israel is an apartheid state” would be considered antisemitic, a violation of hate speech policies, and in some cases constitute a hate crime.
These measures intentionally distort what the Palestinian rights movement is calling for: holding a state and political movement accountable for their ethnic cleansing and war crimes. Antisemitism has nothing do with it.
Sumaya Awad is Adalah Justice Project’s director of strategy and communications, and co-editor of Palestine: A Socialist Introduction (Haymarket Books).
Daphna Thier is a socialist, the mother of a toddler, and activist based in Brooklyn; she is a contributing author of the volume Palestine: A Socialist Introduction (Haymarket Books).