Open Zion

10.16.12

Anti-Zionists Against Anti-Semitism

In the wake of the Greta Berlin tweet controversy—where the leader of the Free Gaza Movement tweeted an anti-Semitic video—a group of more than 100 Palestinian activists signed a statement in opposition to any anti-Semitism among their ranks. The statement came on the heels of widespread efforts by activists with a pro-Palestinian bent to distance themselves from Berlin.

Released Friday "in light of recent controversies"—a clear nod to the Berlin affair—the Palestinian activists said:

The struggle for our inalienable rights is one opposed to all forms of racism and bigotry, including, but not limited to, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, Zionism, and other forms of bigotry directed at anyone.

Such a statement should be welcomed by opponents of anti-Semitism, but some pro-Israel Jewish activists in America were less than pleased with it, understandably miffed by Zionism's inclusion with anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

"We want to make clear that our movement has no room for people who are anti-Semitic or Islamophobic," said Danya Mustafa, a 21-year-old signatory and student at the University of New Mexico. She added, speaking of the video posted by Berlin, that "conspiracy theories about such a horrible event in human history—the Holocaust—it has no place in our movement."

Ali Abunimah, another signatory and perhaps the most prominent proponent of a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said that, though he did not initiate or organize the effort, he was "glad to see it and very happy to sign on." (Abunimah's website published the statement.) Some bigots did try to use the struggle for Palestinian rights to further their own agendas, Abunimah said, adding, "In my experience, Palestinians and those who are really in solidarity have been good at spotting that and drawing a line at it." So far, so good.

It's no secret that many of these Palestinian activists view Zionism as a bigoted ideology, one that codifies Jewish privilege in Israel and, especially, beyond the "Green Line" into occupied Palestinian territory. But it's one thing to oppose Zionism as a political ideology; another to oppose it on grounds of being racist; and yet another to place Zionism on the same level as anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, words used to describe ideas that are, at their essence, bigoted.

"The minute they put [Zionism] on the level of bigotry or anti-semitism, they're saying that there's no room for your support of Zionism unless you're willing to own up to being bigoted," said Steven Bayme, the director of the Contemporary Jewish LIfe department at the American Jewish Committee. He said that pro-Palestinian activists have long sought "a cover of saying, 'We're not anti-Jewish.'" The Palestinians' release, irrespective of intent, "remained a statement aimed at the delegitimization of Israel, equating Israel with policies of racism and apartheid," he said.

I asked Bayme if there existed any anti-Zionism that was not anti-Semitic, according to his definition. "While theoretically there may very well be a distinction, in practice the two often become collapsed" into one, he said.

Ironically, the distinction between theory and practice was exactly the explanation I got from Abunimah when I asked if he worried that lumping in Zionism with these other forms of bigotry would dilute the effect of the message. "I think I have a long record," he said, "of explaining how Zionism—however people conceive of it in theory—is racist in practice, that Zionism depends on pracitices of racism, that in the 21st century the practice cannot but be considered racism."

The sides here are talking past each other: Bayme's notion that anti-Zionism, in practice, must be anti-Semitic seems to me just as absurd as the notion that Zionism must be in its essence bigoted. I don't buy either claim. The Palestinian activists and intellectuals could have rejected anti-Semitism in their movement—even while stating opposition to Zionism—without equating it with Isalmophobia and anti-Semitism. That move, in turn, made it difficult for Jewish pro-Israel activists like Bayme to accept the Palestinians' statement for what it is: an attempt to purge bigotry.

Abunimah, for one, seems unfazed that American Jewish Zionists might take his message the wrong way. "Defenders of Israel's actions will always try to paint [criticisms] as motivated by anti-Semitism," he told me. "Really, this is about what's right for Palestinians and a growing movement."