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Navigating the minefield of zionism and anti-semitism from a Jewish perspective

by Tovah bat Raḥel-Leah

I’m a British-born Jewish woman based in Israel/Palestine since May 2021. I’m a leftist, and a proud anti-zionist. I work for the liberation of Palestine full time and my work has brought me into close conversations and intimate contact with a wide cross section of Palestinians, from sweet young mothers and adorable innocent children, to members of militant organisations from Hamas to the Jenin Brigades.

Freedom fighters are clear it’s about resistance to the zionist regime, and even most militant Palestinians are not anti-semitic. So why does the British left struggle with anti-semitism, when actual Palestinians don’t?

This isn’t something I’d be talking about, with a full-blown military genocide taking place against Palestinians, unless it was also a useful thing to focus on at this time, in terms of the Palestinian struggle for justice. There’s a brutal knock-on effect for actions like these, in terms of support for zionism.

The left needs to address this with honesty, so barriers of anti-semitism are lifted, and everyone can show up to fight for liberation, and end the genocide and ethnic cleansing in Gaza, and the violence throughout the whole of the West Bank, without looking over their shoulders regarding either actual anti-semitism, or accusations thereof. But it is also true that anti-semitism benefits the zionist movement, however counter-intuitive that may seem.

The liberation struggle of Palestinians is indivisible with the liberation struggle of Jews. I hate the Israeli regime because it’s oppressive and disgusting, and in addition, because it’s pretending to speak on behalf of my people, when it clearly is not!

Rising anti-semitism in the West is actually useful for the Israeli regime, bolstering its claim to be the only protector of Jews. Anti-zionism is not anti-semitism, but rising anti-semitism is a feature, not a glitch, of zionism.

So it’s not substitionalist to argue that we as Jews belong in the heart of the pro-Palestine movement — anti-zionist Jews walk right behind Palestinians, as we all stand in solidarity with our intertwined cries for justice, and shared grief.

Let’s define some terms, as we acknowledge that these accusations aren’t as false as many people would like, as well as being able to identify when accusations are genuinely not justified, with clarity and precision. British leftists serious about being pro-Palestinian solidarity activists need to examine this issue, instead of refusing to acknowledge that it exists, so we can entirely nix it.

Zionism is a form of ethnonationalism, as opposed to civic nationalism. For zionists, one of the central tenets is the right to self-determination in the Jewish ancestral homeland, which was previously a land called Palestine, under British colonial rule that started as a “British Mandate” but evolved to be a regional outpost of the British empire. It cannot be ignored that zionism intersected with British colonialism, and that the backdrop to the transfer of power was World War II, the terrorism of the Jewish resistance fighters in the LEHI and Irgun, and a lot of active British support for Jewish immigration and land purchases.

 Tovah bat Raḥel-Leah]
[Pic: Tovah bat Raḥel-Leah]

But at its heart, zionism is simply the name for ethnonationalism in the Israeli zionist state. By using the “brand name” that zionists coined, we’re diffusing its essence. It’s ethnonationalism with some specific characteristics, but it’s not in any way “Jewish” in terms of a deeper link to our ancient ethics or cultural practices. 

There’s nothing that connects the ancient Jewish monarchy of Palestine, with the modern nationalist cruelty of zionism and the State of Israel, which is an oxymoron in terms of the tribal nomadic clan structure the term Israel originally denoted.

Also as a side note, never forget that the most ardent zionists are evangelical Christians, who are cheering the Israeli regime on with enormous wads of cash, rubbing their hands together in anticipation of the apocalypse, as brought about by the Jews simply existing in this land. Jews do their bidding, for the return of the sky-man-god, or something like that. It feels very Texan, especially when viewed from the West Bank.

Civic nationalism means that whoever is born somewhere is a part of that nation. Britain, the USA and France are examples of civic nations. 

Ethnonationalism means that whoever is a member of a specific ethnic group belongs, and not necessarily the people who were born there. Most Middle Eastern states are ethnonational states, which are mostly clan-based and tribal federations. So ethnonationalism is not necessarily the same as fascism. It’s not necessarily worse than civic nationalism as a way of defining who is “in” and who isn’t. It’s also a more local concept of nationhood. 

If you don’t understand this, you’ll be that guy on social media simplifying the occupation as one people stealing another people’s land, with a massive blind spot of how the West are complicit, as well as the ethnonational basis of these actions. It’s very British to have this blind spot, and lack awareness how the British, US and EU factor into the Israeli regime’s actions now and historically. 

Well-meaning Westerners are writing their own complicity out of the equation when they simply point at the Jews and say they stole land. 

Context is not an excuse: still, context matters. Context, in this case, also points a finger at the “innocent bystanders” in the West, who think they have the moral high ground. 

Context reminds us that Israel was created for Western interests in the region. Biden is quoted on October 13 2023 as saying: “I have long said: If Israel didn’t exist, we would have to invent it.” The British weren’t simply “guilty” about the Holocaust when the State of Israel was founded in 1948 — they were acting on behalf of ongoing Western neocolonial interests. British forces delegated the expensive hot front of an empire in decline to the Jews, out of self-interest, not just guilt.

This doesn’t excuse any of the actions of the groups which founded the Israeli regime in 1947, 1948 or at any time. Yet it’s important not to fall into the trap of erasing the difference between Jews in the diaspora, anti-zionist Jews inside Israel, and zionist Israelis, and how the West factors in. The West isn’t “neutral,” and Jews are extremely diverse in our political ideologies.

A proxy war with neocolonial intent keeps the lights on for well-meaning Westerners while they spin their yarns, even if they’re ignorant of, or feel guilty about, benefiting from the actions of the zionists, and their own government’s complicity. There’s financial gain in the West from the genocide via arms and bulldozers. New markets are opened, and all the other spoils of war provide funds for the comforts of the West via taxes.

Every gun and every bomb has “Made in America” stamped into the metal. We can and should talk about Israeli companies like Elbit Systems who are supplying the West, but we cannot turn a blind eye to British companies like BAE Systems, Land Rover, and MPE, whose contribution to, and benefit from, the Israeli regime’s aggression undermines any feeling of righteousness locals in the UK might have enjoyed before examining the ongoing neocolonialism of the British, and financial gain from these atrocities. We are inside a global system of control, it includes everyone, whatever our ethnicity, spiritual beliefs, or shoe size.

This makes sense of what zionism is, and helps to define anti-zionism, which is the belief that people born inside the land of Palestine/Israel have a right to claim nationality in this land, even if they’re non-Jews. That they should not be murdered for their ethnicity. Seems basic.

Anti-zionism extends this premise to demolish the second class status of Palestinians. Anti-zionists think everyone should have equality and justice, freedom of movement, and every right equally.

 Tovah bat Raḥel-Leah]
[Pic: Tovah bat Raḥel-Leah]

How can such a position be termed anti-semitic? Only through confusion about what anti-semitism means.

There’s an official definition of anti-semitism by zionists, which is known as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition, or IHRA for short. Worth googling to read it in full, but in short, it’s “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” There’s a long document, but this is the basic idea. It also states that anti-Israeli sentiment is invariably anti-semitic, with some wiggle room for criticising the actions of the state, as opposed to calling for the eradication of the state of Israel.

Why do zionists use it as a tool to silence people who oppose them, whether they’re anti-semitic, or falsely accused? Because, it’s the central reason that the state of Israel exists, according to zionists: to keep Jews safe. 

But we’ve already seen that the real reason is something to do with neocolonial interests, intersecting with a more recent desire by some zionist Israelis to connect with ancient Jewish sacred practices, while subjugating Muslim and Christian rights and freedoms. 

The IHRA definition is human-sized. It ignores anti-semitism as a system of oppression, which is what it is on a macro level. To keep Jews safe, it would be best to consider how to dismantle the system of anti-semitism, over and above safeguarding Jews as individuals.

Like anti-black racism, there are two kinds of oppression — hatred against individuals, and structural systems of oppression. 

For black people, particularly in the US, this includes structural tools of oppression, such as the prison system, redlining, and corporate capitalism. Yes, individual black people experience racism, but activists are focused on dismantling the structure, more than protecting black individuals as our main activity, because it’s structural racism that’s always the root of the issue.

Jewish structural oppression looks very different. It’s so different that activists often can’t see it. 

Anti-semitic tropes are embedded in Western culture, such as our internal picture of witches, with a grotesque hooked nose, olive middle-eastern skin, and frizzy hair that resonated with me when i was a kid, as “representation,” despite the pointed hat with a little brim, which is fashioned after the Judenhut, a medieval hat that was the predecessor to the yellow star Jews were required to wear much later, pinned to our chests. 

European culture is steeped in casual anti-semitic images and tropes, from the miserliness of Ebenezer Scrooge, to the violence of Punch and Judy. The Holocaust was the final expression of an anti-semitism that had been built up over centuries of oppression.

Ironically, the Israeli regime benefits from these tropes. The state of Israel is fuelled by anti-semitism because the central premise for the existence of Israel is the need for safety from anti-semitism for individuals. 

British and Americans funding the genocide, from Rishi Sunak to Barak Obama to Joe Biden, all point to anti-semitism as the excuse to send more weapons. Zionism requires Jews in diaspora to feel unsafe, and they feel more unsafe when pro-Palestinian activists deploy anti-semitic tropes or arguments. It’s a system that cycles and self-perpetuates.

When British leftists turn a blind eye, or indeed indulge in hateful language about people who were born this way, they are falling into a trap. Immutable traits are never relevant for protests, and anything that calls out “Jews” is not supportive for Palestinian justice.

Simultaneously, we need to urgently raise our awareness of how the rise of anti-semitism is real, and deeply problematic, and works for the zionist regime’s propaganda plan. 

This can be seen from the waves of social media campaigns connected with the central hasbara machine, which are co-ordinated and focused on diaspora experiences of anti-semitism. Also the fact that as I write this, the New York Times published a major investigation into Kanye, at this specific moment in time. These stories are being dug up, and it creates the circumstances needed for Jewish people to genuinely fear for their personal safety.

When we jettison the safety of diaspora Jews, or their perception of their own safety, and when we focus on violence against Jews, it counter-intuitively creates and strengthens circumstances for zionism to be supported and flourish unchecked, and for more “foreign aid” to be sent for the massacre of innocent Palestinian civilians, alongside militants. 

The state of Israel has harnessed the ancient structural oppression of Jews from Europe, serving the interests of Western powers in the region, as agreed at the formation of the state of Israel — by brutally oppressing local Palestinian Arabs, and now leading to the genocide we are watching on our phones.

This is why we need to refocus our attention towards anti-semitism as a system, and not only on the disgusting anti-semitic attacks on individuals, such as Samantha Woll, who was stabbed in a synagogue in Detroit, and whose murder was dismissed by police as not being motivated by anti-semitism, despite no other motive coming to light. We need to stop the rhetoric on the street about Ashkenazi or Hasidic Jews being “the problem” (they’re not).

As solidarity activists surely we should be responding to the requests Palestinians are making inside Palestine. Are they requesting anti-semitic attacks? Or are they simply asking Westerners to rise up and let our elected representatives know we don’t agree with their support for the Israeli regime? I’d suggest it’s the latter.

Not only does anti-semitism assist Israeli propaganda, we can even point to historical zionists who were themselves anti-semites.

British Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour is famous for the Balfour Declaration, which was the main document that led to the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, following the British Mandate of Palestine. However, one of Balfour’s previous greatest hits was the passing of the Aliens Act of 1905, which restricted Jews from immigration into the UK, at the time they were fleeing from the massacres of Eastern European pogroms. 

Why did Balfour become a zionist when he clearly was an active anti-semite? Because he was one of many British, European, and American anti-semites in the early 20th-century who wanted to get rid of their Jews. They considered zionism a useful tool for the expulsion of Jews into any place they could send them. Palestine, or wherever.

But Arthur Balfour was probably only the second most famous zionist in that era. 

The most famous zionist was the Jewish founder of the Zionist Organisation. Theodor Herzl was a part of the Austro-Hungarian elite, and the whole of polite society in that time and place was fermenting Nazi-adjascent nationalist ideologies in conjunction with racial superiority, the context for the formation of zionism. Herschel’s article “Mauschel,” about the “wrong kind of Jew,” is full of anti-semitic tropes about money and grotesque facial features, as well as generally describing Jews as being low and repugnant. 

In terms of anti-zionist Jews, Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld was the founder of a major Israeli Jewish organisation, Edah HaKhareidis, which still has thousands of members living in Israel. They reject the Law of Return for Jews, forbid any interaction with the state of Israel, including voting or financial interactions, and call zionism a heresy. They’re much larger and more powerful as an organisation than Neturei Karta, who are the ones who often show up at pro-Palestine protests.

Finally, Yehoshua Radler Feldman was a Jewish writer and artist in the first Aliyah time period between 1881 and 1903, and he envisioned a “pan-semitic” nation, where Jews did not dominate Palestinian Arabs. He was opposed to violence or discrimination, and sought to become allies with native Palestinian people. As such, he was an anti-zionist. 

In conclusion: when Jews in diaspora sense that anti-semitism is rising, it fuels zionism, however inconvenient or counter-intuitive that seems. Anti-semitism can’t be accepted, because immutable traits are never a basis for hate, but also because Palestinians are being massacred on the lie that it’s in direct relation to the safety of Jews.

Secondly, until there’s liberation for everyone, nobody is liberated. That includes everyone.

And finally, Palestinians need to be centred in their struggle for liberation, with anti-zionist Jews right behind them, as our liberation struggles are inseparable and intertwined. Westerners are a valued and essential element of this fight against genocide, but are never welcome to tokenise Jews, or to centre their own position in relation to Palestinians and anti-zionist Jews, who show up despite being ostracised, isolated, and disowned by our families and friends, and despite the many dangers we face in terms of the Israeli regime’s special place in hell for Jews they consider to be traitors.

Please stand with our Palestinian brothers and sisters as powerfully as you can. Protest, write to your political representatives, and donate to Palestine Red Crescent or these links in the sheet I created for your generosity. Thank you so much for your solidarity, and your time reading this.

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