The anti-semitism of Israel is fundamental to Judaism, and that is the way that Israel would be free : a conversation with Jonathan Greenblatt
“I know it sounds ludicrous, but a lot comes down to what happens at the dinner table.” She said that her friend’s fifth- grade daughter was picked on at school because she was Jewish.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed several pro-Palestinian activists and scholars in America. Almost all of them described themselves as anti-Zionist, but in our conversations, all of them also condemned antisemitism. I spoke to the chief of the Anti-Defamation League Jonathan Greenblatt who sees anti-Zionism as a form of racism, just days after he appeared at the March for Israel. He told me, “Zionism is fundamental to Judaism.” He believes that the claim of being anti-Zionist is like someone saying in 1963, that I am against the civil rights movement, but I am also against racism.
The idea of punching up instead of down can be used to justify any form of opposition to those with power on today’s campuses. It’s how Hamas’s “resistance” — the mass murder and kidnapping of defenseless civilians — has become the new radical chic.
The Anti-Defamation League recorded 751 antisemitic incidents in the United States in 2013. There were 3,697 in 2022. The increase was almost 400 percent after the Hamas massacre. A letter from Jewish students in M.I.T. states that they were warned not to enter the front entrance due to a risk to their physical safety. In Montreal a Jewish school was targeted twice by gunfire.
One of those differences, I suggested, is that antisemitism is the hate that doesn’t know its own name — that is, that many of those who call themselves anti-Zionists or chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” would vehemently deny that they are engaged in antisemitic behavior.
Lipstadt allowed some people to have no idea what the chant means. But many more do: a call for “a purely Palestinian state without Jews.” She said, “You could try to change it but what it has stood for for decades is clear.” (Yes, there are those who imagine Jews and Palestinians coexisting harmoniously in some future river-to-sea Palestine. On October 7, Hamas massacred that fantasy along with many others.
What about more specific anti-Zionist arguments, such as the view that the Jews displaced native inhabitants to create Israel? Or that Israel is a racist state that practices apartheid?
The Israeli Right to Exist: Why Israel is Right and How to Stand Up for Democracy and Human Rights in the midst of the Palestinian War in Gaza
Last week, I gave a lecture at the University of California at San Diego about politics and social justice. Afterward, as I was signing books, a young Black woman approached my table and whispered a question, asking me what I thought about the horrors playing out in Gaza.
The next person in line was an older woman who implored me to do what I could to change people’s opinions because “everyone hates us now.”
Both women had come to hear me speak, expressed their approval of my work in general and, I would assume, agreed with me on many issues. But on the political fallout from the war in Gaza, it seemed pretty clear that they had divergent views, but each assumed that I agreed with her point of view.
Taking a position against the killing of civilians is easy if you take a position against Hamas. It gets more difficult to decide between supporting or opposing the overall prosecution of the war when calling for a cease-fire. And when the aperture is widened from the particulars of the current violence to the history of the broader conflict, the divergence of opinions becomes even more stark and complicated.
He believes that you can be a critic of the Israeli government without being anti-Zionist, as long as you support Palestinian identity and Palestinian nationalism.
In the dispute over definitions, when people on both sides see themselves as standing for righteousness, they are often seen by their counterparts on the other side as standing for hatred and cruel behavior.
People in the debates on Zionism do not seem to know which form they are for or against. What is political Zionism? What is cultural Zionism? Religious Zionism? Some combination of them? Does it matter?
One of them, the journalist and scholar Marc Lamont Hill, a co-author of “Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics,” told me he believes that “all nations deserve to have their territorial integrity honored and respected” and doesn’t believe we should be “harming Israel as a state.” He also believes the question is flawed because, in his view, it “presumes that every other state’s right to exist has been affirmed but Israel’s.”
When I told Greenblatt that none of my interviewees gave a direct “yes” to the right-to-exist question, he said that was “almost indescribably offensive” because he connects any hesitation on the question to historical antisemitism and a denial of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.
Greenblatt and Hill agree on a single point about discrimination against Arabs in Israel. Greenblatt said there is definitely discrimination there.
I emerged from the discussions feeling like I had been whiplashed by the turmoil in this country, with reports of Islamophobic and antisemitic incidents in the Arab, Muslim and Jewish communities.
It’s hard to accept that smart people who seem to want to do the right thing can’t find some common understanding on these issues, find more points of agreement and pull out of a descending cycle of recriminations.