Thanks to Tom Pessah for editing suggestions to make this coherent.
This week the University of California Board of Regents issued a paper on intolerance that focused on anti-semitism. Early drafts explicitly conflated anti-semitism and anti-Zionism. But as the Electronic Intifada reported , “pressure force[d an] amendment” to the paper whereby only anti-semitic forms of anti-Zionism where to be disallowed. Whether this provides a safeguard for anti-Zionist organizing or is more of a slippery slope for anti-Zionism to be categorized as anti-semitic isn’t yet clear.
Anti-semitism isn’t rare in Palestine liberation organizing because anti-semitism isn’t rare in society and everything wrong in society also shows up in movement spaces, if less common or differently articulated. In the U.S. at least, it is not as common as settler colonialism, patriarchy, capitalism and anti-Blackness in movement spaces but it still shows up enough to notice.
What seems weird at first though is that anti-semites oppose Zionism in the first place because Zionism itself is anti-semitic. Of course in anti-semitism everything Jews do is wrong because it is Jews doing it, no matter what ‘it’ is, even if ‘it’ is being anti-semitic. For anti-semites the mere presence of Jews is sufficient cause for anti-semitism. Thus Israel, a settler colony ideologically premised in part on anti-semitism, can still be worked into anti-semites’ fantasies.
Joseph Massad writes about Theodore Herzl that:
Herzl and his followers insisted that it is the presence of Jews in gentile societies that caused anti-Semitism. Herzl put it thus in his foundational Zionist pamphlet Der Judenstaat: “The unfortunate Jews are now carrying the seeds of anti-Semitism into England; they have already introduced it into America.” Sharing this diagnosis with anti-Semites, the Zionists called for the exit of Jews from gentile societies in order to “normalize” their “abnormal” situation, transforming them into a nation like other nations.
Rejecting this “abnormality” in Zionist ideology is called shlilat ha-galut, the negation of exile. Eliezer Schweid writes that shlilat ha-galut “is a central assumption in all currents of Zionist ideology.” Ha-galut, exile, is the “abnormal” condition in question. Ha-galut in this construct is what non-Zionist anti-semites simply call being a Jew. In anti-semitism, Jewish presence amongst non-Jews is unnatural, a concept fully embraced by Herzl.
Shlilat ha-galut disavows Jewish cultural production and history outside of Zionism. In its most crudely anti-semitic, shlilat ha-galut perfectly mimics European anti-semitic imagery of Jews as spiritually, morally and even physically weak, parasitical, effeminate and defenseless. Herzl was not alone in this. Prominent early Zionist A.D. Gordon, for example, espoused such views. Zeev Sternhell quotes Gordon:
[W]e are a parasitic people. We have no roots in the soil, there is no ground beneath our feet. And we are parasites not only in an economic sense, but in spirit, in thought, in poetry, in literature, and in our virtues, our ideals, our higher human aspirations. Every alien movement sweeps us along, every wind in the world carries us. We in ourselves are almost non-existent, so of course we are nothing in the eyes of other people either.
Those notions fit comfortably alongside the crudest articulations of the neo-Nazis. Also not neo ones.
Shlilat ha-galut led to anti-semitic riots on the part of the settlers. For example on 27 September 1930 an anti-semitic mob of Jewish colonists gathered in Tel Aviv and laid siege to the Mograbi movie theater for playing a Yiddish-language film. Arthur Ruppin, discussed below, thought Yiddish was a “degenerate” and “impure” language, a view widely held by the settlers. For example, future Prime Minister David Ben Gurion thanked a young Partisan and shoah survivor for sharing her story in with him in 1945 “even though it was told in a foreign and ear straining language,” Yiddish, Ben Gurion’s native language. Zionists frequently characterize the Nebi Musa riots and others as anti-semitic rather than anticolonial but the militant mob actions and later state repression of Yiddishkeit are virtually never portrayed as anti-semitic, no matter their replication of European anti-semitism. Shlilat ha-galut is portrayed as part of a Jewish renaissance instead of destroying Jewish culture.
Zionist anti-semitism’s other Others
Zionist anti-semitism is not just, not even mostly, the suppression of Yiddish culture, but of Mizrachi, Ethiopian and other Othered Jewish populations as well. Here anti-semitism meets anti-Blackness and Orientalism. Arthur Ruppin is a leading figure in Zionist history. He is called the “father of Jewish settlement in Palestine” and there are few important Zionist developments in Palestine between 1905-1940 that he wasn’t involved with at some level. Ruppin was also a dedicated eugenicist whose academic work in the eugenics field was fundamental to his settlement programs in Palestine.
For example, Ruppin rejected Ethiopian Jews as potential candidates for settler colonialism in Palestine. Etan Bloom quotes Ruppin as saying that Ethiopian Jews were:
N****rs, who came to Judaism by force of the sword in the sixth century B.C. They have no blood connection to the Jews. […] [Therefore] their number in Palestine should not be increased.
This was and remains Israeli practice, partially interrupted, though articulated less crudely today. Israelis forcibly sterilizing Ethiopian Jewish women should be read in the context that “their number in Palestine should not be increased”. Bloom writes further about Ruppin’s views on Mizarchim.
The radical decrease in the number of Sephardim is explained by Ruppin as being the result of certain deficiencies in their biological structure. As the most Semitic component of the Jewish race, they came to represent, in his analysis, a degenerate strain in the Jewish Volk. According to Ruppin, not only had the (Ashkenazi) Jews preserved their racial characteristics, they had also succeeded in improving them through a long process of selection which promoted the fittest amongst them: rich Jews married their daughters to the most brilliant students, thus ensuring the mental development of the race. The Sephardic-Oriental (Mizrachi) Jews, Ruppin concluded, were lacking this urge for self-selection, a fact that certainly damaged their “vital force”. Another factor which differentiated the Oriental Jews, according to Ruppin’s assertion, was that most of them were actually Arabs and Moslems who had converted over the generations.
Orientalist and anti-Black ideologies are not relics from Ruppin’s time but present tense phenomena. For example, Israel has stopped Ethiopian Jews from settling in Israel entirely several times and Mizrachim continue to be peripheralized in the settler society. This is not just orientalism and anti-Blackness. Specifically groups of Jews are targeted so it is also anti-semitism.
Yehudon and Galuti
Former Netanyahu advisor Aviv Bushinsky called U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro a yehudon, or ‘little Jew boy’ after Shapiro offered very mild criticisms of certain Israeli policies in the West Bank. Right-wing former cabinet minister Rehavam Ze’evi called former U.S. ambassador Martin Indyk the same thing. Other prominent Israelis called prior U.S. ambassadors the same thing. Sometimes these crude anti-semitic slurs are denounced by high officials. Less crude ones embodying shlilat ha-galut are not.
Israelis use the word galuti, exilic – of exile, as a pejorative often meaning ‘weakness’ or ‘softness’. Having a “galuti mentality” is a common response to criticism’s of anti-Palestinian policies. A typical example is here where the author castigates those in galut for supporting Obama’s very mild opposition to some Israeli policies. Galut is not geographic distance from the supposed homeland but ideological distance from Zionism. Again, the idea of Jews as weak beings is part of European anti-semitism. Tying weakness to ha-galut is tying strength to settler colonial violence in Palestine. Alternately put, in the ongoing nakba, the destruction of the Palestinian world is the construction of an anti-semitic one.
Through forced sterilization, language and culture repression and more, Israel and Zionism have worked hard for decades to destroy groups of Jews. But being a settler colony the first group of Jews Zionism’s “new Hebrews” targeted for elimination were Palestinian. Palestinian Jews were a vibrant community, one of many communities pre-colonial Palestine. Zionism tore Palestinian Jews from their indigeneity, including from their relationships with Palestinian Muslims and Christians, and articulated them instead to the settler society, turning them into Israelis.
Massad wrote of early Zionism, “Much of what anti- Semitism projected onto European Jews would now be displaced onto Palestinian Arabs.” Zionism’s history is first and foremost the history of removing Palestinians and conquering Palestine. But in creating anti-Palestinian geographies Israeli also created anti-semitic ones that rejected Ethiopian, Mizrachi and Yiddish Jewish cultures. None of this is to minimize or forgive anti-semitism in the Palestine liberation movement. Anti-semitism, like any bigotry or oppression, is never excusable. Instead this essay seeks to be a corrective contextualization of the criticism of anti-Zionism as anti-semitic. When Zionists make this conflation they are not criticizing anti-semitism, they are saying it is being done wrong.