A few weeks after the October 7 Black Sabbath massacre by Hamas, an ad from a group called U.S. Labor Against Racism and War showed up in my Facebook feed. How it found me, I’m not exactly sure, but there was nothing particularly surprising about it. My algorithms presumably define me as a progressive type, certainly pro–organized labor, and, if not a pacifist, then most definitely a peacenik. Maybe over the course of a long career supporting leftist causes, I signed some petition for this group or one adjacent to it. But what was surprising, actually quite shocking, and definitely not something I signed up for was the accompanying poster. It boasted an impressively professional, if lurid, design to promote an “Emergency Labor Meeting” for the purpose of coordinating “resources, strategy and action” in support of Palestine. Dangling just below the word Palestine was a tiny map of the territory of Israel plus Gaza plus the West Bank, without any lines of demarcation. Apparently, for these labor activists, Israel itself didn’t exist or soon wouldn’t. Interesting that a group calling itself Labor Against Racism would present an eliminationist vision of a Land without Jews, or at least without a Jewish state.
Drawing on classic 1930s-era Soviet Communist iconography, the poster also depicts a gigantic, mighty proletarian fist punching—what, exactly?—a grotesque human or perhaps a humanoid insect, whose body is stamped “Apartheid” in large white letters. The accusation of Israeli apartheid is common enough in the rhetoric of many leftists. Its application is unfortunately plausible with regard to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. But it has little validity in relation to the status of Arab citizens of Israel. Still, perhaps if Palestine encompasses all the territory of the pre–1948 British Mandate, as the poster’s map suggests, such distinctions are beside the point.
That’s the least of it, however. The ad’s iconography depicts Israel not just as the site of apartheid but also as a pest, a pestilence—a seemingly six-limbed bug man (human arms and legs plus what are either the monstrous forelegs of an insect or the two ends of a stylized tie knocked askew by that giant revolutionary fist). This Israel is possessed of a grotesque human face with large jagged teeth and a mark emblazoned on its forehead—a crude crucifix or perhaps the mark of Cain. Gazing at it in horror, I wondered whether the good people behind this ad were even dimly aware of the stench of Nazism that pervades such depictions. What kind of labor organization was this? I went to its website, which contained otherwise respectable links to organized mainstream and labor left causes in the US and abroad, and then wrote to ask how the group could possibly authorize such a poster. I have not received a response. The image was still on the website the last time I checked.
The fact that such imagery is used to denounce Israel certainly suggests that anti-Zionism is just the latest chapter in the age-old saga of anti-semitism. And yet I believe that something new is going on here. For even if anti-Jewish stereotypes are deployed in the poster, they are used to defame not Jews per se but the State of Israel. Perhaps what we are seeing here is not identifiable simply as antisemitism or even anti-Zionism. Perhaps it is not the old enemy in a new guise but something novel. Call it “anti-Israelism.”
Anti-Israelism, or the blanket disapproval of all things Israeli, should not be automatically conflated with hatred of Jews. Aside from the fact that many Israelis are not Jews (including the approximately 20 percent who are Muslim, Druze, or Christian Arabs), even those who are Jewish differ in important ways from their coreligionists in other lands. Or, more to the point, although most Israelis are Jews, they are Jews within a Jewish majority Israeli society. These Jews live as a majority with an identity—Israeli—that is over and above Jewishness, a condition that is simply incomparable with life as a Jew in the diaspora. This unprecedented situation is compounded by a set of highly peculiar circumstances that have shaped Israeli identity.
Like America, Israel is a nation of immigrants, but it has had to absorb its waves of newcomers in a far more compressed time frame and within a landscape that is a fraction of America’s size while blessed with much fewer natural resources. Consequently, the process of acculturation or Israelization has been far more intensive. Successive waves of immigrants from the Middle East, Africa, and the former Soviet Union have made its Melting Pot into an Instant Pot. At the same time, many groups in Israeli society remain partly unassimilated linguistically and educationally, compounding internal tensions even while enhancing its richness. Israeliness is the by-product of this pressure cooker environment, one in which noisy divisions can easily disguise an impressive degree of social solidarity. Socialization takes place for most Israelis through what is as close to a people’s army as exists in any industrialized democracy. The military is so widely viewed as a social glue that its shocking failure on October 7 was experienced as a collective unraveling.
Israeli grief was compounded by the common perception of existential threat and a corresponding stubborn defiance at the world’s disapproval of the country’s response. While many diaspora Jews may feel a sense of isolation and embattlement, it is the nearly universal experience of Israelis. This feeling—rightly or wrongly—of standing alone is an important component of Israeli identity.
Anti-Israelism is an irrational feeling of repulsion against this hybrid national type, which is by no means synonymous with the Jew. And it is directed against one and all Israelis alike; in this sense it is certainly a form of bigotry, since it attributes inherent negative characteristics to an entire national group. Israelis traveling abroad, regardless of their personal political views, often must refrain from speaking Hebrew in public for fear of inviting attacks. Israeli scholars and scientists, among them leading leftists and critics of their government, are finding themselves excluded from grant opportunities and visiting fellowships. The BDS movement, once directed against Israeli institutions, is increasingly targeting individuals. Anti-Israelists do not distinguish between the country and its citizens, or between the society’s virtues and vices, but instead indict it thoroughly and indiscriminately. They view the entire country as a false construct, one lacking historical or moral validity. An Israeli-American colleague told me that one of the anonymous reviewers of his article submission at a respected political science journal refused to write the word “Israel” but resorted to “Zionist entity” instead.
Why should any of this be considered acceptable? When anti-Israelists say that every Israeli is a settler, an interloper, an agent of colonialism; when they believe that all Israelis, including children and elderly, are by definition oppressors and even combatants; when they claim that Israel is a counterfeit country, that Israeliness is a disease of mind and culture, they are being bigots, plain and simple.
Anti-Israelism has inspired its adherents to tear down pictures of the hostages whom Hamas on October 7 snatched from Israel and held captive in Gaza. Presumably, such photos are intolerable to anti-Israelists because they show the hostages as actual human beings and thus deserving of human sympathy. Many of these anti-Israelists believe, on the basis of the flimsiest of evidence or none at all, the most preposterous and nefarious allegations of wrongdoing, of plots, plans, and conspiracies. It is now easy to find allegations, on X (formerly Twitter) and elsewhere, that the atrocities of October 7 were false flags, staged theatrics by the Israeli government or concoctions of the Israeli media. Such denialism extended to many women’s and feminist organizations that long remained shockingly silent on the mass rapes that Hamas committed on that day. It is anti-Israelism to believe that Israel is willfully intent on committing genocide against the Palestinian people in Gaza and elsewhere.
I am talking about something entirely different from disagreement with, or even profound dissent from, major political and policy decisions by any given Israeli government. I, along with many Israelis and supporters of Israel, oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and support the creation of a Palestinian state alongside the Israeli one. But there is a difference between even fundamental criticism of Israel and the negation of its existence or of its right to defend itself against implacable enemies who would dissolve and destroy, annul and annihilate it. Enemies like Hamas, its sponsors and apologists. And that eliminationist goal threatens our entire political culture in the West, including many otherwise respectable leftist organizations along with the intellectual and educational life of our universities. The recent testimony by the presidents of Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and University of Pennsylvania offers ample evidence of its toll.
Israel is a tiny country whose all-too-real flaws have been blown up into cosmic significance in the global imagination. Anti-Israelism, then, is not a mere policy stance with which one might agree or disagree, like affirmative action or gun control. It is a prejudice, a sweeping judgment of an entire people, country, state, and culture that we would not tolerate if it were directed at anyone else.
Defenders of Israel tend to mislabel anti-Israelism as antisemitism for two reasons: the first, as noted, because almost every hyperbolic or libelous charge commonly leveled at Israel evokes some antecedent from the long history of Jew hatred, but second, because, one suspects, those who wish to fend off such attacks also believe they will be more effective if they link them to what has been called “the world’s oldest hatred.” I recently heard Israel’s special envoy for combating antisemitism, Michal Cotler-Wunsh, describe Israel as the “Jew among the nations.” It’s an effective slogan but ultimately a misleading one. If it were accurate, it would be an ironic admission of the failure of classic Zionism, which viewed the recovery of Jewish nationhood as a cure for antisemitism, not the agent of its metastasis.
At a certain point the dissimilarities between antisemitism and anti-Israelism come to so outweigh the parallels that a new paradigm is required. More to the point, the strategy of invoking antisemitism actually fails to do justice to the true insidiousness of anti-Israel rhetoric. In fact, it lets its perpetrators off the hook too easily, since many of them vehemently reject the charge of antisemitism and even regard the accusation as absurd. Charging antisemitism thus allows anti-Israelists to evade criticism by fervently denying that they hold any animus toward Jews.
Anti-Israelism builds on the legacy of antisemitism but almost as an inversion. Because Israel refuses to behave as Jews were alleged to behave—as a people who cowered in the shadows, manipulating events—Israeliness, with its frank, in-your-face character, comes as a shock. Whereas antisemites long falsely accused Jews of physical cowardice, Israelis’ widespread military service and formidable reputation as a fighting force invites a fundamentally different set of libels. They are bellicose bullies and brutal aggressors. But even (and perhaps more so) for the traditional admirers of the Jews, the philosemites who viewed them as a people of endearing intellectuals, nonviolent dreamers, good-natured shlemiels, and liberal universalists, the very health and robustness of Israelness appears to violate some unspoken contract. As Leonard Cohen once put it, “You loved me as a loser, but now you’re worried that I just might win.”
Jewish stereotypes served to maintain the useful fiction that Jews were a known quantity, a more or less manageable minority in a non-Jewish polity. With Israel, in contrast, all bets were off. It acted as all states inevitably act, on the basis of real-politik. In this sense it was not the continuation of Jewishness by other means but the antithesis of what Jews were thought to be. Israel had broken the rules of the game in a way that no other modern state could, since no other people had been forced to play that particular game. Anti-Israelism is in part an unconscious but ferocious reaction to this sense of norms violation.
Many diaspora Jews themselves experience Israeliness as jarring, as if encountering their own face in a trick mirror. The features are familiar but the physiognomy has been transformed. Chutzpah was almost never a positive attribute in traditional Yiddishkeit; in Israel it is a virtue. Zionism promised a revolution against what it diagnosed as galut passivity and weakness—and it succeeded resoundingly. Some American Jews find the metamorphosis refreshing, even charming; others are repulsed.
One conceptual advantage of distinguishing anti-Israelism from antisemitism is that it makes it harder for Jews who hold anti-Israelist views to argue that they can’t be prejudiced against themselves and even to insist that they are themselves victims of the Jewish state. Israel, they suggest, has usurped and occupied their Jewish identity, with the effect of causing the blame for Israel’s purported crimes to be laid at their feet. This view is epitomized in the slogan “Not in My Name” that has been frequently invoked by groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace.
It is revealing that such groups do not protest Israel as mere individuals or ordinary Americans but self-consciously as Jews. Their message seems to be: do not confuse me with the Israeli state, or the Israeli people, and certainly not with its acts. But the people who say such things seem to want it both ways: they want to disassociate themselves from Israel while also suggesting that their very Jewishness automatically endows them with special knowledge and credibility to criticize it. But are they experts on Israel? Have they studied its history and culture? Or do they simply assume that they know as part of their birthright, as it were, almost everything they need to in order to indict Israel? But even some eminent Judaic scholars have adopted anti-Israelism. They engage in a romanticizing of the history of Jewish diaspora life, a condition in which real power, state power, was not an option, and so Jews could be blissfully free of responsibility for the bad things that states (all states) do. Of course, the flip side of this romanticizing of powerlessness is the situation of extreme vulnerability to anti-Jewish persecution and violence.
Attitudes along these lines have often been described as “Jewish self-hate,” which is a crude term of limited value. It certainly doesn’t help much here, since the Jews in question embrace rather than deny their Jewishness and often do so precisely to disentangle themselves from Israeliness. If they are ashamed, it is not of who they are but of what they are suspected of being—supporters of Israel. Such Israel-phobia is sometimes so profound that it compels the most hysterical distancing from Israel and Israelis, most recently to the point of virtually excusing or rationalizing the atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7.
The anti-Israelism of Jews and that of non-Jews are distinct if related phenomena. But both demonize Israel, regarding it as fatally corrupted by the original sin of colonial dispossession. Its colonialist character is reflected in an origin myth that has been spun around Zionists’ sinister plotting with Western powers to occupy Palestine against the will and interests of its indigenous population and to expel the latter under the cover of war. The Nakba is thus presented as a premeditated and systematic land grab. Altogether left out of the story is the rejection by Arabs of the UN partition plan in November 1947, followed immediately by a Palestinian Arab attack on the Yishuv and months later by a concerted full-scale invasion by neighboring Arab states.
In the current popular version of this narrative, the Zionist achievement has somehow morphed into a tale of white supremacy. As the historian Simon Sebag Montefiore recently pointed out in the Atlantic, this is a misapplication of antiracist paradigms drawn from accounts of the American Black/White experience to the history and society of modern Israel. In a postcolonial age, when Africa and Asia are no longer under the thumb of European powers, those who long to experience the revolutionary elan of the good old anti-imperialist cause are forced to squeeze Israel and Palestine into a wholly inappropriate colonialist mold. The Nakba, reinterpreted as a metonym for the entire Western colonialist experience, thereby taints everything in Israel’s history that followed. Even the country’s remarkable achievements: its scientific breakthroughs in agriculture, medicine, and technology; its cultural attainments in literature, music, dance, and fashion; its global philanthropy in impoverished parts of the world; its advanced laws against sexual discrimination, harassment, and homophobia—all are seen as suspect at best, as tools of conquest, domination, whitewashing, and pinkwashing, or at worst, as fatally contaminated by the diseased nature of Israel’s corrupt, pariah, untouchable being.
Zionism evolved as a highly controversial movement within the Jewish world, opposed from the start by traditionalists, assimilationists, liberals, and socialists of various stripes. Some years ago, I regularly taught a college course on “Zionism and Its Jewish Critics.” I wanted to show my students that for years after its inception, there was no consensus on Zionism within the Jewish world. It turned out that examining debates over Zionism was a useful way to look at many crucial themes in modern Jewish history, including antisemitism, migration, and identity formation. But I abandoned the course when anti-Israelism grew from a whisper to a clamor in the liberal academy. These musty old debates had suddenly taken on a ghoulish afterlife. It was one thing to oppose the possibility or utility of a future state, quite another to reject one that already exists.
To embrace anti-Zionism today is effectively to wish away (or worse) a society that has struck deep roots, produced generations of citizens, and become ever more multicultural and that exists now as a living, breathing, thriving community, one old enough to have a history. Yesterday’s legitimate debate over Zionism is today’s illegitimate anti-Israelism.
Just as not every criticism of individual Jews or Jewish communities constitutes antisemitism, so, too, not every complaint about Israel is anti-Israelism. No state or society is perfect. As every Israeli knows, Israel today is far from any ideal. But it is an admirable society nevertheless. The democracy marches of 2023, so brutally terminated by the monstrosities of October 7, were a model of civic engagement, sustained peaceful protest, and enlightened dissent. Many of those murdered by Hamas epitomized this very spirit.
I was in Israel over much of the summer of 2023 and participated in the Saturday night mass protests against the government. Any vestiges of my own ingrained anti-Israelism were extinguished by what I have witnessed week after week: gatherings of Israelis of all ages, occupations, and even political orientations, including a robust contingent of veterans from elite military units demanding a halt to government efforts to undermine the country’s democratic institutions. Less reported in the Western press was the fact that a sizeable contingent linked the “judicial reforms” with the more than fifty-year occupation, carrying signs with such slogans as “Democracy and Occupation Cannot Coexist.”
It was the most remarkable sustained and disciplined display of collective patriotism I have witnessed in any country. Yet more remarkable still was the fact that in the aftermath of Hamas’s attack, the protesters set aside their signs denouncing Bibi and Ben-Gvir and took up the task of aiding the survivors, volunteering for national service in a time of unprecedented emergency and in many cases rejoining their reserve units for the ensuing battle.
Antisemitism and anti-Israelism are distinct prejudices with overlapping features. Both are dangerous and irrational ideologies resistant but not impervious to factual and historical refutation. For that reason, like antisemitism, anti-Israelism needs to be identified and analyzed—and decisively repudiated.
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