The anti-Semitism row within the Labour Party is part of a broader Israeli campaign which asserts that opposition to Zionism or the "right of Israel to exist" – which really means the right of Israel to be a Jewish state – is in itself anti-Semitic. Mark Regev, Israel's recently-appointed ambassador to Britain, told the BBC's Andrew Marr on 1 May, a few days after the row erupted, that, "Today, modern anti-Semites target the collective Jew, the Jewish state." Israel claims that pro-Palestinian activists, particularly the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, are engaged in the "delegitimisation of Israel… denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination in their homeland — Israel."
Yet, is anti-Zionism, or opposition to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state, anti-Semitic per se? Hostility or hatred towards Jews because they are Jews – truly unacceptable — is surely distinguishable from opposition to a political movement that established a Jewish state in Palestine, even if many Jews support it. Furthermore, Israel itself is a political construct and thus separate from the people it claims to represent, so opposition to it as a state does not constitute a form of racism against the Jewish people.
The real question is this: why is Israel so intent on promoting the idea that opposition to Zionism is specifically and necessarily a form of anti-Semitism? This assertion has only come to the fore of Israeli propaganda relatively recently and is distinct from the more general assertion that criticism of Israel indicates an underlying anti-Semitism because it singles Israel out for special treatment or is especially vociferous. And what will be the effect of the anti-Semitism campaign on Palestinian rights, if it succeeds in silencing all opposition to Zionism?
Why conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism?
Israel's motivation for the anti-Semitism campaign is clearly that it hopes to silence widespread international condemnation of its policies, particularly over illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank and assaults on Gaza. However, Israel's deeper objective is also to block questions about Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state.
By asserting that anti-zionism is a form of anti-semitism Israel aims to prevent discussion about the nature and consequences of Zionism by silencing debate about the political ideology that governs Israel's constitution and is therefore at the heart of its perceived legitimacy. It is an idea that has only been promoted intensely in recent years in direct relation to developments that threaten Israel's legitimacy or viability as a Jewish state.
In fact the suggestion that anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism dates back at least to 1973, when it was aired in an article written by Israel's then Foreign Minister Abba Eban, in an article for the American Jewish Congress.1 However, it only emerged prominently in Israel's political discourse in 2001 in response to the UN's Durban conference on racism in which the idea that Zionism is a form of racism was discussed. Israel then established the "Coordination Forum for Countering Anti-Semitism"2 to monitor anti-Semitism worldwide, defining anti-Zionism as a form of "new anti-Semitism".3
The most recent developments that have renewed the issue include the breakdown of negotiations for a two-state solution — itself rendered virtually impossible by Israel's illegal settlement enterprise in the West Bank — which has led Palestinians and their supporters to discuss alternatives. These include proposals for a single democratic state in Israel-Palestine, or for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to pursue a civil rights-style movement for voting rights in Israel. Both ideas, if implemented, would see the end of Israel as a solely Jewish state.
Moreover, and partly because the Oslo peace process failed to end the Israeli occupation, Palestinian civil society activism, with the BDS movement at the fore, has increased. BDS indirectly calls Israel's claim to be a Jewish state into question by placing the Palestinian right of return and equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel among its key demands; these demands explicitly challenge the state's self-proclaimed Jewish character.
In addition, Palestinian Israeli citizens have, since at least 2000 – the start of the second Palestinian intifada – become more demonstrative in support of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and more assertive in demanding their right to full equality in Israel. In part, this has been a response to the Israeli government's discrimination and increasingly hostile rhetoric towards them. For example, Israeli politicians, including Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, have advocated their transfer out of Israel altogether. Their demands for full equality in Israel also compromise its ability to be a state that privileges Jews.
In short, these recent developments have rendered Israel increasingly insecure about its legitimacy and viability as a Jewish state in the eyes of domestic and international opinion. Its response has been to promote the idea that opposition to Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism in order to prevent discussion of and opposition to Israel as a legitimate state.
Thus, and especially in response to the BDS movement, Israel's anti-Semitism campaign has become far more robust. For example, in 2012 the National Union of Israeli Students launched an initiative to spread propaganda on the internet to counter the "delegitimisation of the State of Israel". In 2014, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also complained of Israel's "delegitimisation" in his speech to the UN General Assembly, while Israel's 5th Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism, held in Jerusalem in 2015, developed an action plan to tackle anti-Semitism. It emphasised "the Jewish consensus that BDS is anti-Semitic" and the need to "reassert the legitimacy of Israel's founding as a state for the Jewish people."
The fact that Israel's anti-Semitism campaign is aimed at silencing debate about Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state, and not only at preventing criticism of Israeli policy, also explains why Israel has taken other measures to entrench its Jewish character. For instance, in 2011 Knesset members proposed a bill that would have confirmed Israel as the nation-state of Jews alone, thus disenfranchising its Palestinian citizens, although it has yet to be voted into law. In addition, since around 2009, Israel has insisted that any future peace treaty with the Palestinians will require their recognition of Israel "as a Jewish state".
Consequences for the Palestinians
If Israel's campaign is intended to label all anti-Zionist activism and questions about Israel's legitimacy as anti-Semitic hate speech, what will be the implications for Palestinian advocacy of such positions if the campaign succeeds? There are at least two major implications.
Firstly, Palestinian advocacy of rights that challenge Israel as a Jewish state would be considered to be a form of anti-Semitism. Thus, Palestinians could not demand the right of return to Israel, or full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel because these rights would make it impossible, or at least more difficult, for Israel to maintain its Jewish character. Hence, to advocate for them would be deemed to be anti-Semitic. Indeed, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website discusses the Palestinian right of return on its anti-Semitism webpage.
Secondly, because all opposition to Zionism would be anti-Semitic, all opposition to policies central to the Zionist project would also be classed as such. Thus, Palestinians would not be allowed to oppose, for example, Israel's discriminatory nationality laws that allow Jews anywhere in the world the right to obtain Israeli citizenship — a central plank of Zionism — whilst denying Palestinians parallel rights, for to do so would be to oppose Zionism and be deemed anti-Semitic.
Palestinian advocacy would then be limited to challenging only those Israeli practices that are not an inevitable consequence of Zionism; the Israeli army's treatment of Palestinian children in the West Bank, for example. Although this may be an important issue, it is hardly at the heart of the Palestinian cause. Palestinians, in short, could complain about Israeli behaviour but not oppose the ideology behind the laws and institutions that drive its oppressive practices. The anti-Semitism campaign will, in effect, inhibit Palestinian ability to seek basic rights.
An opportunity for Palestinians?
Yet, ironically, the campaign might have inadvertently created an opportunity for a broader, rights-based advocacy for Palestinians than that pursued in recent years. Since the start of the Oslo process, the Palestinian leadership has focused on an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and, in consequence, has marginalised the Palestinian right of return to what is now Israel. Indeed the Palestine Papers, leaked in 2009, indicated that the PA had been willing to give up this right in return for an independent state. Furthermore, the rights of Palestinian Israelis have been absent from the political agenda. Similarly, many Palestinian human rights organisations in the West Bank and Gaza have limited their objectives to achieving better treatment for Palestinians under military occupation, ignoring wider aspects of the Palestinian cause, particularly the rights of refugees and Palestinian Israelis.
By contrast, the current row has renewed, for the first time in many years, public debate on issues at the heart of Israel's legitimacy, such as Zionism and Israel's constitution as a Jewish state, and, by extension, issues that are central to the Palestinian cause. These include the dispossession and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948 by Zionist forces, the denial of the Palestinian right of return, and Israel's imposition of a regime of racial discrimination on Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, to ensure privileging of Jewish Israelis that Zionism demands. Israel's anti-Semitism campaign has thus brought into focus issues fundamental to both Israel's legitimacy and the Palestinian cause. This allows Palestinian campaigners to engage with these issues and, in so doing, to advocate for the full scope of Palestinian rights in ways that have been neglected in recent years.
Palestinians and their supporters have a choice: they can act defensively in the face of allegations of anti-Semitism and avoid a discussion of the fundamental issues, or they can respond to the campaign by raising matters central to the Palestinian cause. If their objective is to engage in advocacy that truly serves the Palestinians and seeks the full range of Palestinian rights, the choice clear.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.