A Jewish Perspective on Anti-Zionism

Damien Kanner-Bitetti ’25 is an English Major and American Studies minor from Arlington, VA. In addition to the Flat Hat, he is a member of Club B Soccer, Jewish Voice for Peace and a DJ for WCWM. Email him at dskannerbitett@wm.edu

The views expressed in the article are the author’s own

In the last few months, discourse around Israel has become more volatile than ever. Anti-Zionism, which is a legitimate political and theological belief, has been conflated with the pure bigotry and hatred of antisemitism. This has in turn led to the term “antisemitism” being politicized, overused and ultimately cheapened. As a Jewish individual, I’m appalled at this devaluation, which is dangerous enough on its own. The fact that it is deployed in service of ideology and violence, however, makes it all the worse. It is therefore more important than ever that we take care to distinguish anti-Zionism from antisemitism.

In order to distinguish anti-Zionism from antisemitism, we must first take a look at what the term “Zionism” actually means. In contemporary discourse, Zionism generally refers to the nationalist political movement founded in the 19th-century that radically reinterpreted Jewish tradition. Proponents of this movement, such as Theodor Herzl, argued that the terms “Zion,” “Jerusalem” and “Israel,” as used in millennia of Jewish prayer and tradition, should be taken as a call for the establishment of a Jewish nation-state. 

Many Jewish people, however, opposed this idea for a wide variety of theological, political and moral reasons. This is a key factor in separating anti-Zionism and antisemitism: in fact, the history of Jewish anti-Zionism is as old as Zionism itself. Examples of theological anti-Zionism include the American Reform movement in the early 1900s and certain Orthodox groups in the modern era. The history of political anti-Zionism, on the other hand, is more secular; it includes groups like the General Jewish Labor Bund who argued that Zionism would undermine the presence of the Jewish people in Europe, and prominent Jewish scholars who worried that it would erase the history and culture of the Jewish diaspora. It is crucial to understand anti-Zionism as a legitimate political ideology, and that the multitude of reasons behind it — including Jewish tradition itself — are taken into account.

From this brief history, we can infer several things. First, that while Zionism is unquestionably based in Jewish religious belief, it is first and foremost a political movement. Second, we can see that from the ideology’s very inception, Jewish people have been some of its most prominent opponents and critics. And finally, we can see that the Zionist interpretation of Judaism is neither absolute nor beyond theological or political debate.

Why is this difference important? Why should this opposition matter to you or to me? It is important to understand that anti-Zionist ideology is often framed as inherently antisemitic, and that critics of Israel are systematically labeled antisemites. Additionally, and for a number of reasons, modern discourse around anti-Zionism has coalesced around college campuses, manifesting here at The College of William and Mary as well as at dozens of other schools. The US House of Representatives and the Israeli prime minister himself have criticized American college students for expressing legitimate political opinions, all based on the premise that anti-Zionism is antisemitic. When taking into account the power imbalance of such criticism, not to mention the false equivalence it is based on, any college student who believes in free speech should be alarmed.

Though distinguishing anti-Zionism from antisemitism is important in and of itself, I must ask how much it really matters in today’s climate. Such discourse comes far too late for Palestine, Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries, where the United Nations have documented decades of violence and forced displacement, circumstances that continue to this day. The Palestinian people in particular have endured conditions that Amnesty-International has designated as apartheid, conditions imposed and enforced at the hands of Zionist forces. It is thus imperative that Palestinian lived experiences take center stage in any critique of the ideology that is responsible for them.

This is to say that, ultimately, I wish we lived in a world where Zionism could be debated in the abstract. I wish we lived in a world where ideologies don’t have consequences, where Jewish history and religious belief weren’t weaponized, where the Star of David wasn’t emblazoned on Israeli tanks. But the reality is that we don’t.

We live in a world where over 28,000 people, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, have been killed in the last four months alone; where in the two weeks since I began this article, over a thousand more have been killed. We live in a world where, according to Human Rights Watch, almost two million more have been forced from their homes. We live in a world where Gazan children have been starved, disabled and traumatized by Israeli forces, with settlements planned on top of their graves. And in this world, refusing to embrace the ideology that is responsible for this violence is labeled antisemitic, while to many Jews, opposing it is their religious and moral duty. It should be yours too.


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