The Unbearable Lightness of Anti-Zionism

By Shlomo Ben-Ami*

Israel’s sins in the occupied territories are inexcusable, and the military campaign that is destroying Gaza is criminally lacking in sound political objectives. But if anti-Zionists declare every Israeli to be nothing more than a mouthpiece for power, there will be nobody with whom to make peace in the future.

There is a Jewish joke, often attributed to the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, that an anti-Semite is someone who hates Jews more than is absolutely necessary. One could say the same about anti-Zionists. After all, Zionism is an old concept, which was central to Jewish liberation long before it became synonymous with Palestinian subjugation.

Examples of more-than-necessary hatred of Zionists abound. In 1975 – when there were hardly any Israeli settlements in Palestinian lands and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had not yet accepted the two-state solution – the United Nations General Assembly passed a now-infamous resolution declaring Zionism to be a “form of racism.” The late British historian Arnold Toynbee condemned Zionism so vehemently that even he eventually acknowledged that his animus was “disproportionate,” and that he had over-applied to Zionism his contempt for Western colonialism. 

Such sentiment has persisted and even intensified, particularly since Israel launched its war in Gaza last year, in response to the October 7 terrorist attack by Hamas. For example, in March, the editors of the progressive magazine Guernicaretracted an essay in which Israeli writer Joanna Chen described the conflicting emotions she experienced in the aftermath of the October 7 attack.

Chen is a passionate peace activist, a conscientious objector who never served in the Israel Defense Forces, and a volunteer for Road to Recovery, a nonprofit that drives Palestinians from Gaza and the occupied West Bank to hospitals in Israel. Her piece in Guernica examined the deeply human struggle to “tread the line of empathy” and “feel passion for both sides” in the face of horror, and included expressions of sympathy and concern for Gazans, not least the poets whose work she had translated. The result was anguished lament for all the victims of the conflict.

That is not what Guernica’s staff saw, and several resigned in protest against the decision to publish Chen’s piece. One editor who resigned called the piece a “horrific settler normalization essay.” Another labeled it a “pillar of eugenicist white colonialism masquerading as goodness.” The magazine’s co-publisher Madhuri Sastry described it as a “hand-wringing apologia for Zionism and the ongoing genocide in Palestine,” as she resigned from her own post and called for Editor-in-Chief Jina Moore to follow suit. (Moore did ultimately resign, though she disagreed with the retraction.)

In her resignation letter, Sastry noted that she had been assured by her colleagues of Guernica’s commitment to “champion anti-imperialist work,” and that it “would never act as a mouthpiece for power.” But it is hard to see how Chen’s essay, which includes no trace of Israeli nationalist fervor, counts as an “exercise of colonial power.” If figures like Chen are being demonized, one can only wonder who these supposedly peace-loving people expect the Palestinians to be able to make peace with someday.

A similar observation can be made about Standing Together, a grassroots social movement that aims to mobilize Israelis and Palestinians in the name of peace and independence for both groups. Though Standing Together opposes the Gaza war, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel has called on “conscientious people, organizations, and unions around the world” not to engage with it, describing the group as an “Israeli normalization outfit that seeks to distract from and whitewash Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza.”

Perhaps Israeli peace activists and progressive Zionists are targeted for boycotts and retractions precisely because they challenge simplistic anti-Zionist narratives, which position Zionism as necessarily racist and purely evil. These narratives are often underpinned by a discourse of totalitarian political correctness in pro-Palestinian circles that is unscrupulously indifferent to the nuances of history.

For example, Canadian-Jewish author Naomi Klein discusses the mass displacement and dispossession of Palestinians in 1948 – known as the Nakba – but makes no reference to the war that had been declared by the Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries in response to the 1947 UN resolution partitioning Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. She also accuses Israel of regarding Palestinian children as a demographic threat, without acknowledging that it was PLO leader Yasser Arafat who first referred to the womb of the Palestinian mother as “the best weapon of the Palestinian people.”

Jewish anti-Zionism is as old as Zionism. Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, Karl Kautsky, the members of the General Jewish Labour Bund, and many others got there before Klein. Founding scholars of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, such as Gershom Scholem and Judah Magnes, and luminaries like Hannah Arendt supported a bi-national Jewish-Arab state (which the Palestinians opposed).

Then there are the millions of Israelis who have been demonstrating for seven months now against the perverted brand of messianic Zionism embodied by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government. But these very people are also Zionists. And they are the only hope for peace.

Jewish internationalism died in the crematoria of Auschwitz and in Stalin’s gulags. From the ashes of those tragedies, a Jewish state emerged, emancipating millions of destitute Jews, and the country Zionism created has made peace with key Arab states. It failed in making peace with the Palestinians, but not for lack of trying. In any case, the share of the Arab population in Israel has risen from 11% in 1948 to 21% today, with similar demographic trends apparent in Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinian population has increased ninefold since 1948. So much for genocide.

None of this is meant to excuse Israel’s sins in the occupied territories or diminish the urgency of Palestinian emancipation. It certainly is not intended to justify the appalling, Carthaginian destruction of Gaza in a military campaign that is criminally lacking in sound political objectives. Rather, the point is to highlight how the grand vision of peace is distorted by reducing a tenaciously complex conflict to a binary struggle between good and evil.

Then again, it might not be peace that they want. The tendency to declare every Israeli to be nothing more than a “mouthpiece for power” seems to betray the most fervent anti-Zionists’ ultimate goal: canceling Israel. Anti-Zionism might not be a synonym for anti-Semitism, but both are seemingly incurable pathologies.

Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace and the author of Prophets Without Honor: The 2000 Camp David Summit and the End of the Two-State Solution(Oxford University Press, 2022).