Confusion about Antisemitism

Yakov Rabkin
July 2004

July 2004.

Confusion about Antisemitism

Yakov M Rabkin[1]

My children joke that I appear on television more often than I watch it. Indeed, I am not a frequent viewer, which disqualifies me from judging the wisdom of the CRTC to allow Al-Jazeera in. However, since I have just published a book on the history of anti-Zionism, I want to comment on the debate that surrounded this decision. While the anti-Zionists in my book are all Jewish, most of them rabbis, who cannot be considered anti-Semitic, many opponents of Al-Jazeera confuse all opposition to Israel and Zionism with anti-Semitism.

Those who create this confusion have scored important successes: some American dictionaries now define opposition to Zionism as anti-Semitism, and at a recent gathering of Jewish and Catholic leaders in Argentina, in an unprecedented step, Catholic religious leaders signed on to a statement rejecting anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism. Israeli leaders speak “in the name of the Jewish people” consciously blurring distinctions between Diaspora Jews and Israelis and claiming that Israel is “the state of the Jewish people.” This is why the Israeli philosopher Joseph Agassi, in his preface to my book, emphasizes the importance of these distinctions: “When one talks about Israel as the Jewish state this creates a real and dangerous confusion between faith and nationality.”

Zionism has brought about a new Israeli identity that negates the image and the traditional values of the Diaspora Jew. A recent book by the Israeli historian Noah Efron titled Real Jews (New York: Basic Books, 2003) that documents this negation, begins with the frontispiece picture of a chained Orthodox Jew carrying a sign that reads: “State of Israel – a state of anti-Semitism to Jews”. Indeed, much of the book is devoted to an analysis of anti-Semitism in Zionist theory and practice.

Efron’s analysis challenges the currently promoted view that brands opposition to Zionism as anti-Semitic. The recent wave of conferences sponsored by the government of Israel and its advocates elsewhere has portrayed Israel as a victim, rather than a source, of resurging anti-Semitism. However, in view of the material presented in this book, such Israeli invocations of anti-Semitism appear false, self-serving and dangerous.

Why dangerous? Because by designating the State of Israel as “Jewish” one associates all Jews with what Israel is and does. It is this confusion that breeds anti-Semitism. It is important to distinguish between Israelis and Jews, between the Raison d’État behind the action of Israel’s military and the traditional moral values of Judaism. When American Jewish leaders pressure for the liberation of a convicted Israeli spy or New Zealand’s Jewish Council blames the country’s government for imprisoning Israeli spies, these “leaders” harm the local Jews they claim to represent. In the words of the Israeli historian and former Israeli ambassador to France Elie Barnavi, they act as Israel’s “vassals.”

Israeli leaders worry about “the demographic bomb”, about Jews becoming a minority in the Holy Land. To counter this spectre, they encourage aliya (immigration of Jews to Israel). Since distress, not idealism has been the main stimulus for aliya, anti-Semitism benefits Israel. It is in this context that one should see Sharon’s recent plan to bring a million new Jewish immigrants to his country and his insistent calls on the world’s Jews to move to Israel.

Israel and its supporters attempt to discredit all criticism of Israel and of Zionist ideology by characterizing it as another form of anti-Semitism. This tactic breeds resentment that, in turn, feeds anti-Semitism. In the logic of Zionism, both of these phenomena are beneficial: they make Israel appear stronger while at the same time undermine the Jewish Diaspora and stimulate aliya. It is a testimony to the sense of discernment of our fellow Canadians who can tell a Zionist from a Jew that the anger provoked by the Aspers’ attempts to impose a pro-Israel line onto this country’s main dailies has not given rise to grass-root anti-Semitism.

In is in the interests of our democratic society to distinguish between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. It is in our interest to show that Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, can live here in peace and freedom. They need not import foreign conflicts and wage them vicariously here, igniting hatred between different ethnic and religious groups. In fact, many in these communities have joined efforts in organisations such as Shalom-Salaam in order to understand each other and to develop mutual empathy and compassion. It is this friendship and cooperation that may one day help those in the Holy Land to rebuild their lives after decades of bloodshed.

This is why it is important to distinguish between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, between opposition to terrorism and Islamophobia. This country’s commitment to universal human rights and equality is the best guarantee that such distinctions are real and can work. Censorship of Al-Jazeera or Fox News would be a lot less effective.

[1] The author is Professor of History at the Université de Montréal; his recent book is : Au nom de la Torah : une histoire de l’opposition juive au sionisme, Québec : Presses de l’Université Laval, 2004.

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