Few people would trust Donald Trump to protect Jews from a rise in antisemitism. In the United States alone, there were more than a hundred cases of physical attacks, arson, vandalism, and threats in 2018, including last October’s assault in Pittsburgh that left eleven Jews dead at the Tree of Life synagogue. Tuesday’s shooting at a Jersey City kosher market appears to be the latest anti-Jewish attack.
Trump once called himself “the least antisemitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.” But his December 11 executive order, which claims to target antisemitism on campuses, ironically employs an antisemitic trope. By defining Judaism as a nationality, Jews, the logic flows, are inherently foreign. This should come as no surprise, given the home that white nationalism and antisemitism have found in the Trump White House.
This isn’t new territory for Trump, who famously refused to call out antisemitic white supremacy after the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Most recently, he told a room full of Jews at the Israeli American Council:
You’re brutal killers, not nice people at all. But you have to vote for me — you have no choice. You’re not gonna vote for Pocahontas, I can tell you that. You’re not gonna vote for the wealth tax. Yeah, let’s take 100 percent of your wealth away! Some of you don’t like me. Some of you I don’t like at all, actually. And you’re going to be my biggest supporters because you’re going to be out of business in about fifteen minutes if they get it. So I don’t have to spend a lot of time on that.
But the intention of the executive order is plainly not to protect Jews, but to silence the movement for Palestine. As Peter Beinart put it: “It is a bewildering and alarming time to be a Jew, both because antisemitism is rising and because so many politicians are responding to it not by protecting Jews but by victimising Palestinians.”
The executive order adopts the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which so broadly defines the term that it includes such items as: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” And by defining Judaism as a nationality, the order has power to withhold federal money from educational institutions that don’t adequately clamp down on these broadly and cynically defined affronts.
Trump isn’t actually trying to fight antisemitism here. He’s cynically trying to shut down criticism of Israel’s barbaric policies — the latest episode in Zionism’s long history of allying with antisemites.
“A Debate They Know They Can’t Win”
Trump’s order is but the latest salvo in a years-long campaign to redefine antisemitism for the purposes of shutting down criticism of Israel.
As Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, told the New York Times: “Israeli apartheid is a very hard product to sell in America, especially in progressive spaces. And realizing this, many Israeli apartheid apologists, Trump included, are looking to silence a debate they know they can’t win.”
Across the ocean, France’s parliament recently passed a resolution equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism. And in Britain, today’s elections, in which a victory for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party would dramatically turn around the state of British politics, have already been marred by nonstop smears purporting endemic antisemitism within the Labour Party. These attacks have mirrored the attempts to silence Ilhan Omar, an outspoken critic of Israeli aggression.
Supporters of Israel have been waging a coordinated, well-resourced counteroffensive to discredit the Palestine movement. The charge of antisemitism has been their weapon of choice, and campuses have been their ground zero.
As the Guardian recently reported, this strategy has been quite explicit, and it has been driven by a sundry assortment of right-wing forces. At a conference this summer of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative network that promotes right-wing policies, Republicans met with pro-Israel lobbyists.
Their aim was to draft laws that, in the words of Randy Fine, a Republican representative from Florida, would mean that “antisemitism [will] be treated identically as how racism is treated. Students for Justice in Palestine is now treated the same way as the Ku Klux Klan — as they should be.”
Joseph Sabag of the Israeli American Council — the same group that hosted Donald Trump and applauded his openly antisemitic speech — agreed:
[Students for Justice in Palestine] is one of America’s most prominent anti-Israel propaganda groups and has material connections to organizations designated by the US justice department as terrorism co-conspirators. In the course of promoting BDS, or national-origin based discrimination against Israel, SJP members typically employ classic antisemitic themes and blood libels.
In fact, US lobby groups have a long history of working with the Israeli government’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs and its hasbara (propaganda) efforts to sabotage Palestinian activism on campuses. Particularly, they have targeted the advances made by Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaigns to pass resolutions to divest their universities from companies that support Israeli occupation.
One Minoritarian Response to Antisemitism Among Many
Thankfully, a growing chorus of voices is making it clear that criticism of Israel cannot be equated with antisemitism — including a significant and ever-growing number of Jews and Jewish organizations.
Some progressives choose to differentiate between criticism of Israel’s most indefensible policies and deeper objections to the Zionist project as a whole. But this is a mistaken concession to a project that, no matter its claims, has always been one of colonization rather than Jewish emancipation. Not only does Israel not speak for the world’s Jews, but there is no correlation between support for Zionism or Israel on the one hand, and opposing antisemitism on the other.
Until the rise of fascism in Europe, Zionism was a fringe movement among Jews. Most had no interest in moving to Palestine, let alone driving out its native population. Between 1880 and 1929, almost 4 million Jews emigrated from Russia and Eastern European countries. But only 120,000 moved to Palestine, while more than 3 million moved to the United States and Canada.
In 1914, there were only 12,000 members of Zionist organizations across the entire United States. The Socialist Party had that many Jewish members in the Lower East Side of New York alone.
Modern antisemitism was born out of the tumultuous period of Eastern European and Russian history when feudalism was giving way to capitalist development. In Russia, antisemitic scapegoating deliberately organized and provoked by the czar was used as a means of dividing and weakening workers’ struggles. A wave of pogroms — anti-Jewish riots — exploded through Russia from 1881 onward, spreading to Poland and other Eastern European countries. Another outbreak of anti-Jewish violence reached even more barbaric proportions in 1903. Not coincidentally, both 1882 and 1904 saw waves of immigration to Palestine and other countries.
From its inception, Zionism was a secular rather than a religious movement and, in that sense, was never a “Jewish” idea. Religious Jews, by and large, opposed the growth of Zionism at that time, and some Orthodox groups still do today, on the basis of Jewish religious law.
Jewish liturgy refers to a return to the Holy Land on a spiritual level, and some Jewish religious pilgrims had emigrated to Palestine in the past to form religious communities — but not to establish a state. Political Zionism — which sought to form an exclusive Jewish state — was a new phenomenon that arose in Eastern Europe in response to the growth of modern antisemitism.
But Zionism was just one (minority) response to antisemitism, among many. Many more Jews flocked to socialist and communist movements, which were critical in the fight against fascism. Zionism’s response, on the other hand, was one of resignation to antisemitism and, at times, even collaboration with it.
The basic ideological starting point of Zionism was the idea that antisemitism could never be defeated. The notion that Jews and non-Jews couldn’t live together was raised by Zionists to a scientific principle. Leon Pinsker, an early Zionist leader, claimed that antisemitism was “a psychic affliction, it is hereditary and as a disease has been incurable for 2,000 years.” Theodor Herzl, commonly referred to as the “father of Zionism,” wrote of how his experience of antisemitism during the notorious Dreyfus affair in France allowed him to achieve “a freer attitude toward anti-Semitism, which I now began to understand historically and to pardon. Above all, I recognized the emptiness and futility of trying to combat anti-Semitism.”
As a member of the (now-defunct) Israeli Socialist Organization put it, Zionism “accepts at least tacitly the basic assumptions of racism.” That is, there is something inherent either in Jews or non-Jews that necessarily warrants a separation.
A number of leading Zionists concurred with popular racist ideas aimed at Jews themselves. Herzl accepted the idea that Jews were an economic burden to non-Jews, and in this way brought antisemitism on themselves anywhere they went. Thus, there has always been a disquieting symmetry between Zionism and antisemitism.
At minimum, Zionism resigned itself to antisemitism. Some major strands within the movement consciously articulated a common interest between Zionism, on the one hand, and antisemites — even fascists. One particularly appalling example of this attitude was expressed by Joachim Prinz, a Zionist leader in Germany in the 1930s. Commenting on Hitler, who pushed to institute total separation between Jews and non-Jews, especially a prohibition on intermarriage, he wrote:
The theory of assimilation has broken down. We have no longer any refuge. We want assimilation to be replaced by the conscious recognition of the Jewish nation and the Jewish race. Only those Jews who recognize their own specificity can respect a state founded on the principle of the purity of nation and race . . . From every last hiding place of baptizing and mixed marriage [the Jews] are being pulled out. This does not make us unhappy. In this coercion to acknowledge and clearly stand by one’s own community, we see at the same time the fulfillment of our dreams.
Practically speaking, the most overarching reason that emerged for why so many Zionists could view antisemitic regimes in a favorable light wasn’t necessarily that they actively preferred antisemites (though sometimes they did), but that the Zionist project was, and remains, dependent on the backing of imperial powers — first the Ottoman Empire, then the British, then the United States.
A minority settler community simply could not colonize a majority native population without the military support of one or more of the major powers. Zionists, including those in the mainstream “Labor” camp, weren’t discriminating as to where that backing came from, even when it was motivated by a disdain for Jews.
For instance, the British ruling class agreed with the Zionists that it would be mutually beneficial to support a Jewish state in Palestine, because a Zionist state could act as an important counterweight to growing Arab nationalism as well as to the tendency of many Jews in Britain to join radical and revolutionary movements.
Winston Churchill made this argument in an article called “Zionism versus Bolshevism,” which argued that it was important to “develop and foster any strongly-marked Jewish movement” such as Zionism that could “lead directly away from” the “worldwide conspiracy” of “the International Jews” (and here he mentions Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Emma Goldman, and Rosa Luxemburg) “for the overthrow of civilization.”
In 1917, Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, formally declaring support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Lord Balfour, who wrote the declaration, was a known antisemite who had sponsored legislation against Jewish immigration into Britain.
British officials began to give economic and political support to the burgeoning Zionist proto-state in Palestine. For instance, 90 percent of economic concessions were granted to Jews even though they made up a fraction of the population. As settlers drove Palestinians from their lands and workplaces, Arab nationalism grew in response to what was clearly an unfolding disaster.
It was with the rise of fascism in Europe that the Jewish population in Palestine experienced its greatest growth. But it was also in this period that Zionism showed its ugliest face with regard to Europe’s Jews. Within months of Hitler’s coming to power, the leading German Zionist organization sent him a memo offering collaboration. While the Nazis were smashing socialist and Jewish resistance organizations, they allowed the Zionists to continue operating. The leading Zionist organizations, for their part, worked to undermine a worldwide anti-German boycott.
Zionist leaders believed that fighting antisemitism in Europe was a distraction from winning a Jewish state in Palestine. Time and again, they chose to negotiate for more immigration of Jews to Palestine rather than confronting antisemitic regimes. In the process, they decided which immigrants were desirable. Chaim Weizmann, for instance, declared:
From the depths of this tragedy I want to save young people. The old ones will pass. They will bear their fate or they will not. They are dust, economic and moral dust in the a cruel world . . . Only the branch of the young shall survive.
Similarly, the Jewish Agency, the central Zionist organization in Palestine, refused to devote funds to the rescue of European Jews. It decided to spend the money on acquiring land in Palestine.
And David Ben-Gurion, who was to become Israel’s first prime minister, opposed a plan to allow German Jewish children to emigrate to Britain. His explanation:
If I knew that it would be possible to save all the children in Germany by bringing them over to England, and only half of them to Israel, then I would opt for the second alternative. For we must weigh not only the life of these children but also the history of the people of Israel.
By 1947 — on the eve of Israel’s establishment — Jews still made up less than one-third of the population of Palestine. Settlement alone couldn’t create a Jewish state. The other arm of the strategy had to be the “transfer” of the Arab population (an antiseptic euphemism for ethnic cleansing.)
This idea was embraced by the majority of Zionist leaders, from Herzl to Ben-Gurion. As Yosef Weitz, the head of the Jewish Agency’s Colonization Department, said:
Between ourselves it must be clear that there is no room for both peoples together in this country. We shall not achieve our goal if the Arabs are in this small country. There is no other way than to transfer the Arabs from here to neighboring countries — all of them. Not one village, not one tribe should be left.
The UN partitioned Palestine in 1947, reserving 55 percent of the land for a Jewish state and leaving the Arab majority with only 45 percent of their own country. The Zionist leadership publicly accepted the partition, but privately drew up plans to capture the rest of the country and drive the Arab population out. In the months between the partition and the British army’s withdrawal, Zionist militias took the opportunity to terrorize the Arab population. It was at this time that atrocities like the infamous Deir Yassin massacre — in which every man, woman, and child in the village, 254 in total, were killed — took place.
The final irony of Zionism is that it turned the oppressed minority Jews of Europe into an oppressor majority in Palestine. Rather than challenge domination, Zionists accepted discrimination and separation as natural principles of humanity. The rise of European fascism not only created a massive impetus for immigration to Palestine, it also, in the eyes of many Zionists, legitimized the ethnic cleansing of Arabs. The most right-wing strands of Zionism embraced ideas of racial purity as their own.
Ultimately, the fight against antisemitism has to be linked to the wider fight against oppression. For that reason, the fight against Palestinian oppression has far more in common with the struggle against antisemitism than Zionism does. This struggle must avoid compromising with the slanders against it — whether they come from the likes of Donald Trump or Israeli hasbara.
A movement that includes Jewish Voice for Peace and Bernie Sanders as much as it does Ilhan Omar and Jeremy Corbyn can get us a step closer to a world where the brutality of pogroms and occupations are consigned to the dustbin of history.