Anti-Zionism: a realistic option?

“We have to differentiate between anti-Zionism and antisemitism”, say those who don’t like being called antisemitic. On the face of it, there’s nothing foolish about this demand: it’s necessary to distinguish between legitimate criticism of the Jewish state and dubious feelings towards Jews. But is it really necessary to invent a specific word for this criticism? Philosopher Julia Christ traces the various possible uses of the notion of “anti-Zionism” and asks under what conditions, and in what context, criticism of the State of Israel can legitimately be called anti-Zionist. This brief analysis of state criticism and its modalities provides a clearer picture of when anti-Zionism is just another word for antisemitism.


Philip Guston, ‘Aggressor’, 1978


The NYT reports that Columbia University has been unable to come up with a definition of antisemitism that would meet a consensus among all the members of the task force created ad hoc to better circumscribe which acts and words should be banned from the prestigious institution’s premises for their antisemitic nature.

The reason for this sudden search for the right definition of antisemitism is well known: words and deeds have taken place on American campuses which, one might think, fall under the condemnation of ” hate speech “. For this is how campus officials, in general, limit the absolute validity of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution within their institutions: by punishing all incitement to hatred, all racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic or other speech. Yet no such restriction of freedom of speech has occurred in relation to what was felt to be offensive or even threatening by Jewish students on campus, despite the fact that, within institutions of higher education, every minority in American society is protected against affront and aggression. Certainly, all must be able to tolerate the absolute freedom of speech of all, including the right to speak one’s hatred of the other – outside the protective walls of their alma mater. But inside these words are banned.

This is the constitutive principle of campus life, which was not respected in the case of Jews after October 7.

We recall the convoluted remarks made by some of the presidents of the largest universities in the United States when questioned by the House of Representatives Committee on the obvious unequal treatment of this specific minority. However embarrassed they may have been, their answers revolved around the same point and were basically unanimous: in order to be treated by the university administration as an offense in the same way as offenses suffered by other minorities, offenses against Jews must first be “contextualized”. We also remember the outcry this astounding response provoked, overlaid by the learned explanations, at least in Europe, of the absolute nature of freedom of speech in the United States, which would explain the convolutedness heard. But given that this freedom is quite limited on campus, these explanations touched on nothing real. The question of context referred to something else entirely. In a very clumsy way, it touched on the exact theme that Columbia University is currently preoccupied with: the question of what is antisemitism and what is anti-Zionism.

 What is at stake is whether criticism of the State of Israel, as the realization of the Zionist project, has a legitimate place in political debate, including at university, or whether such criticism should be constitutively suspected of antisemitism, and despised as such. 

What is meant by this distinction is the difference between a feeling of hatred towards Jews that has no justification other than itself (antisemitism) and the reasoned criticism of the reality of a state of the Jews, a historical fact called Zionism. Since American universities, like European ones, aim to promote critical thinking among their students, differentiating between the two modes of speech is absolutely crucial, in order to be able to stipulate which form of anti-Jewish speech is hate speech and which is simply a critical stance. Needless to say, the academic discussion here is, with all due delay, joining up with debates that have been agitating civil society for at least fifteen years, and which are generally formulated under the adage “criticizing the State of Israel is not antisemitism”. What we might have hoped from the academic takeover of this issue was that the academy would succeed in providing criteria for elucidating this debate. But this has not happened. The embarrassment has merely been staged, and the public debate has not been any more enlightened as a result.

But the stakes remain crucial. So let’s try to get to the bottom of it. What is apparently at stake in the quest for a distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism is whether criticism of the State of Israel, as the realization of the Zionist project, has a legitimate place in political debate, including at university level, or whether such criticism should be constitutively suspected of antisemitism, and despised as such. A detailed analysis of the elements of this question is necessary to understand the difficulties involved in resolving it – while, at the same time, the spontaneous modern conscience, whether American or European, is quick to assert that in liberal democratic societies, one has the right to criticize any state, so that it is unacceptable for the State of Israel to be an exception to the rule.

Criticizing a state, whichever it may be

We must take this assertion of spontaneous modern consciousness seriously, since it correctly expresses the self-understanding of individuals socialized  in democratic societies like ours. For us, anyone has the right to criticize states. First, anyone can criticize his or her own nation-state, of which he or she is a citizen. Secondly, anyone can also criticize all the states on the planet, all of which – a fact so obvious that we often fail to mention it – have now taken the form of the nation-state. What is implied in the right to criticize states that citizens of democratic nation-states are claiming is the right to criticize nation-states, i.e. states that are the states of a nation and derive their sovereignty from their people, who wanted to establish a state for themselves and are continually expressing this desire for statehood in different ways, ranging from demonstrations against certain forms of politics to general mobilization in a defensive war.

For positions critical of a state to be heard, and perhaps eventually translated into public policy or diplomatic pressure, they must put forward arguments based on principles of justice that justify their criticism. These principles differ according to the place from which the criticism is voiced. From outside a state, for example, it would be very unwise today to criticize it for not being Christian; this kind of criticism may exist, but would be understood as a mere opinion or preference of its bearer, and not as legitimate criticism based on principles of justice shared by the whole of the global society from which the judgment is made. On the other hand, from the outside, we can criticize any state if it fails to respect human rights, as long as we base our criticism on principles shared by this global society. Within a single state, however, the situation is different. In France, it would be ill-advised to criticize the State for not complying with Christian precepts. In Ireland, as the recent referendum on the family showed, it is perfectly possible to criticize the State on the grounds that it contravenes these principles. This is because the national histories of the two states, France and Ireland, differ in their relationship to the Christian religion, and probably to religion altogether, so that the expectations of justice formulated by their citizens inscribed in this national history can be formulated with different resources.

The first thing to remember, then, is that a state can be criticized from two points of view – internal and external – and that the criteria for criticism are not the same in either case. So let’s first examine the logic of internal criticism of states, to check whether this kind of criticism can be specifically anti-Zionist.

Israel’s inner double

No political camp has the exclusive privilege of internal criticism. In democratic societies, it is freely available to all. This is how we can criticize the American state for the police violence it admits and does not correct, or for its alleged inability to control immigration. In both cases, whether we like it or not, the spokespersons for these criticisms of state action or inaction believe that their criticism is based on principles of justice that should apply to American society as a whole. It is always in the name of an ideal of justice that is valid for the national society concerned (non-violence and respect for human rights by the forces of law and order, or protection of American citizens against any harm associated with immigration) that the state finds itself in the firing line, since it is the body that is supposed to promote and make this ideal achievable. Criticism of the state, whether from the right or the left, always asserts that it is failing in this task. In democratic societies, this internal criticism of the state is a regular feature of modern nation-states. It is only natural, in states that claim to hold their sovereignty inwardly and outwardly from the nation of which they are the state, that national society should be in a constant position to evaluate the actions of its state, in terms of the justice of which it believes or knows itself to be capable.

The case of the State of Israel is unique, and its singularity significantly complicates the baseline situation of internal criticism. As for it – and for it alone among all the nation-states that populate this earth – it is impossible to distinguish clearly between inside and outside.

In this respect, Israel is a democratic state like any other: Israeli civil society is constantly engaged in criticizing its state. This is a perfectly normal situation, fully accepted by the Israeli state which, like any democratic state, cannot fail to respond to criticism emanating from the national society on which it is founded, and therefore from its own. Clearly, this criticism, formulated from within Israel and demanding that the State better realize the justice that emerges from the internal controversies of the national society, can in no way be anti-Zionist; on the contrary, by being addressed to the State of Israel, it is fully in line with the Zionist project from which this State derives. We are faced here with the situation – highly commonplace in a democratic society – of the simple internal criticism of a state by its own national society. In this case, the state is Israel, the one that implements the Zionist project and follows in its wake, its internal criticism always meaning, in the final analysis, that it doesn’t implement it well or perfectly – but by no means that it shouldnt implement it.

However, the case of the State of Israel is unique, and its singularity significantly complicates the baseline situation of internal criticism. For it – and for it alone among all the nation-states that populate the earth – it is impossible to distinguish clearly between inside and outside. Being the state of the Jews, it must certainly confront criticism emanating from Israeli society, but it must also face criticism from outside Israeli territory, from people who are not citizens of the state, but who, as Jews in the Diaspora, arrogate to themselves the right to judge the policies of this state which is not their own. And to judge it in a very particular way: not as disinterested observers who, in the name of universally valid norms, judge the Israeli state and its policies, as they would any state that incidentally comes to their attention; but they relate to the State of Israel as the guardian of the Jewish people as a whole – and therefore also of themselves, Jews living in the Diaspora.

This very specific relationship between Jews all over the world and Israel can lead to a wide variety of critical and often contradictory responses. A section of the diaspora may demand that Israel adopt a particularly firm and uncompromising policy towards the Palestinian people and all its Arab neighbors, arguing that only police and military force can guarantee the security of this state which is, for all Jews, the refuge of last resort in the event that the antisemitism of the national societies into which they are integrated becomes so prevalent that flight to Israel remains the only recourse. The State of Israel’s role as guardian of all Jews is here reduced to the image of an impregnable fortress, ensuring at all costs the safety of the Jews who have chosen, or had to choose, to live there.

The different positions of Jews in the Diaspora demand a certain politics of Israel, not as a condition for joining that state, but as a condition for their feeling of security in continuing their existence in the Diaspora. 

Another section of the diaspora may conclude quite differently with regard to its relationship with the State of Israel as ultimate guardian. It may demand a pacification of relations with the Palestinian people, including the dismantling of settlements in the West Bank, aid and support for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and an end to the policy of domination that has characterized relations between Israelis and Palestinians since at least the death of Yitzhak Rabin. The decisive argument of the proponents of this position is not, as one might superficially believe, that the “fortress” option – with its consequent denial of international and democratic law – would basically be unlivable for those who barricade themselves in it. Rather, it is to emphasize that Israel is inevitably weakening as it tramples underfoot the standards of international law and democracy, in the name of the need to be strong and powerful. As a result, they fear that Israel will no longer be able to fulfill its role as guardian of the people in the Diaspora. What alliances could be forged, and with whom, if at all, as popular antisemitism gains ground, certain nation-states were to pursue a persecutory antisemitic policy? Who will help Israel evacuate the Jews potentially concerned? Who will open its airspace? Which democratic national society will declare its solidarity with the distress of the Jews, a persecuted minority, if at the same time the State of the Jews does not care about the protection of minorities?

These positions, however opposed, are both diasporic. Both demand a certain policy from Israel, not as a condition for joining that state, but as a condition for their sense of security in pursuing their existence in the diaspora. And Israel, the only state in the world in this polarized situation from the point of view of its people of reference – distinct from its national society of reference, which is and remains Israeli – cannot fail to hear the criticisms and demands formulated in this outside world, which has a certain inward gaze towards it. Criticisms and demands from people who have never been citizens of this state, nor wish to become so, unless necessity drives them to do so. Israel cannot fail to hear them, because as a state of Jews and not of Israelis alone, it is aware that it must ensure the security of all Jews, not just those who have chosen to live on its national territory.

With Israel, therefore, we find ourselves in the curious situation where internal criticism of the state can be voiced outside it. Before analyzing the consequences of this unique situation, we need to ask whether this internal criticism of the state formulated from outside can come to be defined as anti-Zionist. This is obviously not the case. The fact that part of the population lives outside the state in no way alters the recognition of the State of Israel as the one and only legitimate operator of the Zionist project, which is itself recognized as legitimate: the diasporic experience, which is also always the experience of antisemitism that never seems to die out, in no way leads to a questioning of the absolute necessity of a state of the Jews that can potentially rescue Jews from all over the world. What happens in this configuration is simply that the diaspora, by virtue of its singular exteriority, accentuates in its criticism of Israel an element of Zionism that is less emphasized by Israeli citizens themselves: namely, that the guardian function applies to all Jews, including those who do not join it.

Logics of external criticism

In this respect, the contrast that needs to be highlighted is that of external criticisms that have no intrinsic link with the national society inhabiting the territory of the criticized state. This, too, is a relatively banal process. As already mentioned, citizens of the various national societies that inhabit the earth do not hesitate to criticize other states. For those subsumed under the category of “Westerners”, congruent with what we have defined as liberal democracies, this criticism is most often formulated in the name of human rights. Symmetrically, citizens of so-called “non-Western” nations often criticize Western states for their failure to respect minority rights, their religious intolerance or simply their racism. In both cases, these criticisms are not formulated from the point of view of the justice of which the criticized national societies think themselves capable, so they do not mobilize criteria drawn from the inner life of societies, nor from their historical evolution and their own challenges, but apply principles for which they claim a universality, which is entitled to disregard the particularities of the national societies in question. There are universals, and they are the springboard for well-trained external critics.

In other words, it doesn’t happen that Swedish citizens, for example, start criticizing the American state because of its new pension law, even though the Swedes are perfectly aware of the massive demonstrations against this law in France. The external criticism of states does not stem from the identification of the proponents of this criticism with the internal critics. It is always based on principles that should be valid in the name of common humanity: human rights, anti-racism, minority rights, religious tolerance. As a member of humanity, everyone has the right to protest against the violation of these universal principles, even if they do not voice the same criticism within their own state.You may find it cowardly, hypocritical, even cynical, you may suspect an instrumental use of these principles, but that doesn’t change a thing. The fact that a group of Iranian Revolutionary Guards denounces the violation of women’s rights in Sudan and publicizes its criticism does not disqualify it. All that’s required is that it be legitimate in terms of the universal principles invoked.

It is said that Israel must live up to universal principles. How, then, are we to interpret the fact that the same people who expect this of Israel do not publicly address the same kind of demand and reminder to African potentates or Islamic dictatorships? 

Some of the external criticisms levelled at the State of Israel are part of this process, which is also quite common in an increasingly integrated globalized world, generating ever more numerous and consistent common standards. Accusing Israel of contravening international law by building settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories is part of this kind of criticism, which mobilizes principles valid for all and applies them to the particular case of Israel – without taking into account, and rightly so, the particularities of this State’s history and the fact that, within it, certain political camps may consider these acts to be justified or justifiable. Just as the United States was demanded to cease its use of torture in its war on terror after 9/11, regardless of the trauma suffered by the country and asking Americans to rise to this standard in the name of principles that must prevail over the particular history and experience of their nation, so Israel is being asked to bow to these principles notwithstanding its traumatic experiences and understandable fears of its Palestinian and Arab neighbors. What is being said is that Israel must live up to these universal principles.

How then, under these conditions, are we to interpret the fact that the same people who expect this of Israel do not publicly address the same kind of demand and reminder to African potentates or Islamic dictatorships? Certainly not as a sign of anti-Zionism. But simply as a signal that the Western world considers Israel to be one of those nation-states able and willing to rise to this level of abstraction in relation to what makes it distinctive. What we should note in passing, however, is that this signal expresses the somewhat embarrassing fact that the Western world has still not abandoned a position that is at best paternalistic, at worst simply racist, when it comes to considering what African or Arab countries are politically capable of.

However, if we believe that Israel is both capable and willing to reach this level of universalism of principles common to liberal democracies, even to the detriment of what it believes it must do to ensure its immediate security, it is because we consider Zionism to be an integral part of modern democratic politics. At any rate, it is deemed worthy of inclusion among the modern political currents compatible with this kind of politics, in the same way as, for example, the Scandinavian model of the modern nation-state or, at the opposite extreme, the Thatcherite model in Great Britain. For when we criticize these two versions of democratic politics in the name of human rights – as was rightly done with Thatcher with regard to her treatment of the miners or the IRA, and as we are currently hearing with regard to the Danish welfare state and its policy of closing the door to migrants – we are not expressing an opinion on the model of society achieved within these states. We are merely denouncing as unacceptable the drifts of a particular policy that does not engage the very purpose of the configuration in which it occurs.

Symmetrically, criticism of Israel in the name of human rights is not a criticism of Zionism and its own aims, but rather confirmation that it is one of the possible configurations of modern democratic politics. So there’s nothing anti-Zionist about this kind of criticism of a state, and no need to give it a particular name just because it’s aimed at Israel.

So far, classical criticism has yet to find a criticism that would require its own name, indicating that this criticism is about something more than simply criticizing the State of Israel, whether internally or externally. And yet, some fight hard for the right to be anti-Zionist. And, in the West at least, they claim to be progressive and democratic. So let’s take the analysis a step further. Let’s look at the other possible variants of state criticism, to see if the term “anti-Zionism” has any meaning at all, and let’s see what that meaning could be if that is the case.

Critical radicality: combining the external and the internal

There is, in fact, another way of critically relating to national configurations that, each in their own way, define modern politics. This is a mode that can be called radical, in the sense that it claims to attack the roots of acts that are treated as “drifts” by normal critique. We see this kind of radical critique at work, for example, in the critique of neoliberalism, to stay with opposition to the Thatcherite model. In this case, the failure to respect universal principles is deduced from the fact that a model of society that values unbridled competition between individuals and private interests – i.e., the neoliberal configuration of modern politics implemented in British society – cannot fail to leave aside certain elements of solidarity that are nonetheless constitutive of modern democratic politics. The same radicality can take on an entirely different target. Criticism of the welfare state can go so far as to point to the unacceptable prevalence of national solidarity over other forms of solidarity, the source of a protectionist and nationalist policy at odds with the openness of modern democratic politics. In this way, critics can appear who would gladly call themselves “anti-neoliberal” – if the word weren’t so dreadfully long – or, on the other hand, anti-socialist – if the word weren’t so reminiscent of good old “anticommunism”, which makes it so old-fashioned that nobody ventures to use it up until now. What’s important about this kind of criticism, which has reached this threshold of radicalism, is that it claims to be able to prove that a state’s domestic politics contravenes its claim to represent one of the possible configurations of modern politics, and that this inadequacy becomes apparent as soon as we apply the universal principles of external criticism to its case. What we’re saying here is not that there are abuses by this or that state, but that the model of society that expresses the political project of a certain national society necessarily results in acts that are unacceptable from the point of view of universal principles shared by all.

The different modes of “anti-” criticism

It is exclusively in this area of critical radicalism that something like anti-Zionism becomes possible, i.e., a critique of Israel that does not target particular acts of this state in the name of universal principles, but which stipulates that the Zionist project cannot fail to contravene these principles. Anti-Zionism understood in this way objects to the Zionist project in the same way as other radical critics calling themselves “anti” have done before it, with regard to other achievements of modern politics. In this family of “anti” we find anti-capitalism, anti-communism, anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism, in the case of radical opposition to forms of society that we believe can ultimately be defined by the socio-economic model they adopt; anti-fascism and, once again, anti-communism, for clear-cut opposition to forms of society that one believes can be defined primarily by their declared political ideology; and, finally, anti-Americanism and the anti-Deutsch (which translates as “anti-German”) movement, for opposition to forms of society that one believes can be defined by their national history.

To claim to be anti-Zionist, and thereby to underline one’s opposition to Zionist ideology, is to deny the Jewish people the right to have a state, by asserting that this particular nationalism must necessarily lead to acts that the international community must condemn, or even fight.

Is anti-Zionism a form of materialism?

Clearly, anti-Zionism does not fit into the first model of radical criticism: no one deduces their criticism of Israel from the socio-economic model chosen by that society; on the contrary, Israel’s transition from a socialist to a neo-liberal model, even though it has coincided objectively with a considerable weakening of Israeli efforts for peace – a coincidence that should be questioned just as objectively – is never put forward, or even mentioned, by today’s anti-Zionists. While there are those who assert that their criticism of this state is based on anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist convictions, the socio-economic dimension of these concepts does not enter into the denunciation of Israel as an imperialist and colonial state. The reason is simple: in this case, the usual springboards for this kind of criticism are lacking. For no metropolis has profited from the exploitation of the wealth resulting from the supposed colonization of Palestine by the Jews, and no Empire has extended its sphere of influence by settling in these lands.

Is anti-Zionism fighting a harmful ideology?

The second group of “anti-Zionists” – those who deduce their radical criticism of a state from an analysis of the ideology they are striving to achieve – seems at first sight more promising in helping us understand the driving forces behind anti-Zionism. Particularly when we hear assertions like “Zionism is racism”, which are very much part of the repertoire of this form of radical criticism. It was commonplace to say in the same way that “communism is freedom-destroying” or “fascism is racist”; in both cases, the conviction was expressed that, once communist or fascist ideology had been realized, in any state, the result that necessarily followed was the annihilation of individual freedoms or the discrimination, even persecution, of minorities. If anti-Zionism were this kind of radical critique, it would say: no matter in which state Zionist ideology is realized, in realizing it that state would inevitably become racist.

That this formulation seems intuitively incongruous to us stems from the fact that Zionism is not an ideology that could inspire any state-run society, but is simply the name for Jewish nationalism. Unlike communism or fascism, Zionism, while an ideology, is not an exportable product. It refers to the project of building a national home for the Jews, and this project has been realized in the State of Israel. In short, Zionism is just a nationalism, it boils down to the claim that the Jewish people have the right to self-determination within their own state. To claim to be anti-Zionist, and thereby to underline one’s opposition to Zionist ideology, is to deny the Jewish people this right. Worse still, it is tantamount to denying the Jewish people the right to have a state, by asserting that this particular nationalism – and indeed only this nationalism, since no other national will is put on trial in this way – must necessarily lead to acts that the international community must condemn, or even fight.

This criticism undoubtedly exists. But it is not true to say that it exists only against the Jewish national will. There are other, rather rare, cases that fall under a similar kind of trial. Here we come to the third group of “anti” critics, radical critics who attack the national histories of certain peoples in order to justify their opposition to the state these peoples have given themselves. In the final analysis, this group is the only one capable of shedding light on the complexion of anti-Zionism as a political position. In this group, there are really only two national histories in question: American and German.

Anti-Zionism: a legitimate political affect of the Palestinian people

But before examining these two cases, we need to look at a particular situation where opposition to a nation is expressed in terms that use the prefix “anti”. If it’s fair to isolate the two cases of anti-Americanism and anti-Deutsch as occurrences of the syntagm “anti” forming a separate group, it’s obviously because nobody says they’re anti-French or anti-Belgian, or anti-Swiss, or even anti-Russian or anti-Chinese. However, we can’t ignore the fact that expressions of this kind can emerge in certain specific historical situations. They appear in situations of hot war between two nations, where members of the belligerent nations are engaged in an oppositional mobilization in which determined feelings are formed, the affective basis motivating “anti…” positions oriented towards the enemy nation. We need to be more precise here. In this case, it is the members of the attacked or subjugated nation who formulate their resistance against the aggressor in this way, while the aggressor, for his part, does not recognize the national character of the adversary, denies it, and generally refers to it using a lexicon that is more akin to what we would call racism. The French, for example, harbored anti-Germanic feelings during the two world wars, as did the British and Americans. Each language has kept the contemptuous nicknames invented on those occasions to express such feelings (boche, schleu, krauts, etc.). The Algerians were anti-French throughout their struggle for liberation from the colonial yoke, the Indians anti-British, the Chinese anti-Japanese during and after the Second World War, the Eastern European countries anti-Soviet during the phase of their constitution into autonomous nation-states in the 1990s – whereas today, feeling threatened by the heir to the Soviet empire, they are anti-Russian.

Using the term anti-Zionism, the Palestinian people rightly express the view that there is a Palestinian “proper”, and assert that this determination grounds them in their political struggle against the State of Israel, insofar as the latter is perceived as an aggressor.

These are all oppositions to aggressor nation-states, motivated by a strong sense of the “own” that is perceived as threatened. This is why the affective order is a determining factor in the formation of the category. In passing, we should also note that the formulation of “anti” sentiment towards an aggressor, whoever he may be, only came about with the advent of political modernity, within which peoples formed nation-states. The common national belonging is then unanimously given as the basis of a feeling of “belonging”, or identity, which the invader attacks. And it’s hardly surprising that, when situations of warlike conflict come to an end and peace is re-established, these feelings of opposition lose their intensity as relations become more peaceful, and cooperation with the former enemy develops and extends its range.

The fact that sentiments support an “anti” attitude towards another nation-state places us on a different plane from that of rationally justified positions, or political projects formulated as such. What we’re highlighting here is the following fact: however intense anti-German sentiment may have been during the two world wars, or anti-French sentiment in Algeria during its war of independence, neither hatred, revulsion, anger nor pride based on the perception of one’s own identity led to political projects aimed at the abolition of Germany or the annihilation of France. The political projects driven by these feelings of opposition were always limited to victory over the aggressor, defeated in its illegitimate grip, expelled and returned to its territory, the only one legitimately allotted to it, and, in the rather extraordinary case of Germany, to the re-education of the people in democracy. Admittedly, one might think that this limitation of political ambition is based on a certain realism, forcing us to admit that we simply don’t have the means to eradicate the much-hated enemy from the face of the earth. In fact, it’s something else. What motivates the simple push-back of the aggressor to his land, and thus, in time, if he proves his worth, his reintegration in this retracted form into the concert of nations, is the shared knowledge of all modern nations, whether formerly colonial or formerly colonized, that none can allow itself to be occupied by another with impunity and deprived of its sovereignty, and that each finds within itself the fundamental impetus nourishing its capacities for resistance and opposition to the occupier.

It has to be said that in this specific declination of “anti” sentiment, anti-Zionism does indeed have a meaning. This meaning can be given to the Palestinian people, and to them alone. Through the syntagm of anti-Zionism, the latter rightly expresses that there is a Palestinian “own”, and asserts that this determination grounds them in their political struggle against the State of Israel, insofar as the latter is perceived as an aggressor. But this Palestinian sense is lost as soon as the term “anti-Zionism” implies criticism of the State of Israel as the state of a people – a Jewish people, in this case – who are suspected of being unfit to have a state, a criticism which consequently leads to demands for its dismantling. For if anti-Zionism is the kind of “anti” sentiment we know from the history of wars between nations or wars of liberation against colonial states, it is limited to the demand that the Israelis be confined to their territory. In short, taken as a political sentiment, anti-Zionism necessarily includes recognition of the State of Israel within borders which, in view of the history unfolding since 1948, are probably up for renegotiation between the two peoples, Israeli and Palestinian, but whose delineation is at least presupposed. Since Israelis – with the exception of those currently living on the West Bank – are not the settlers of a metropolis, in other words, since Israel is the only Jewish state in the world, turning back the invader until he is confined to his land can mean nothing other than recognizing the State of Israel as the legitimate land of the Jews.

Remarkably, it is precisely this position that is most often asserted in the West, when a self-styled “anti-Zionist” position takes shape. But is it really legitimate to call itself so? Can the national sentiment of the Palestinian people be so simply translated into a political position in the West? For what does the West do when it criticizes Israel for its policy towards the Palestinian people? In truth, it is simply referring to a post-colonial world order where it is universally agreed that every nation must remain within its borders, and that colonial expansion is by definition illegitimate. Since 1967, Israel has overstepped the borders that were internationally established following the 1949 war of independence – the first in a series of defensive wars, incidentally, that Israel did not initiate – and it is legitimate to demand that it return to its borders and confine itself to them.

On the part of the injured people, who react against this injury, opposition to the aggressor is supported by an affect called anti-Zionism. But on the part of Westerners, opposition is not based on any affect. It is, or is intended to be, based on principles of international law – to which, it is true, the West can claim an affective link by saying that this is what is specific to it – applicable and often applied to states other than Israel, and therefore requiring no specific designation as such.

It was the nationalization of the Palestinian struggle that gave rise to anti-Zionism as a political sentiment motivating an anti-colonial struggle in the strict sense of the word. And it must then deal with the following problem: as an anti-colonial struggle, it cannot demand anything other than the repression of the colonizer on its territory, which, in this case, implies recognition of the State of Israel.

So when Westerners call themselves anti-Zionists in order to express their attachment to international law, we have to recognize that we are dealing with a borrowed discourse. For anti-Zionist political sentiment is based on the Palestinian experience, linked to the situation of occupation undergone, which gives rise to the reaction that motivates this “anti” discourse and its own construction. As no Western nation is threatened by the occupation of the West Bank, no citizen of these nations can sincerely say that he or she is inhabited or moved by this kind of anti-Zionist sentiment. What they can proudly claim, however, is an attachment to the principles of international law established after 1945, and to their extension during the process of decolonization; and, from this attachment, they can formulate a criticism of the current State of Israel insofar as it currently contravenes this general movement. On the other hand, if, in demanding Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories, they claim to be anti-Zionists, they are taking themselves for someone they are not – namely, a member of the Palestinian people. The same thing applies symmetrically to Westerners who claim to be anti-Zionists by relying on the positions of anti-Zionist Jews. Whether there are Jews, ultra-Orthodox or Buberian, who argue that the “state” form is unfit for the Jewish people and therefore oppose the Zionist state project because it violates the “proper” of Judaism, this concerns Jews and their sense of proper, not people who do not belong to this people.

So there is a group, the Palestinian people, who can call themselves, without any contradiction, anti-Zionists. What is meant by this expression is the feeling of opposition to a current aggressor that is being fought in order to send it back to its own territory. Anti-Zionism at this level is not a political project, but a political affect or feeling experienced by a particular nation – the Palestinians – who draw from this adversarial background the resources they need to fight Israel’s occupation of territories that do not belong to them. In other words, paradoxical as it may seem, anti-Zionist sentiment understood in this way is tantamount to acknowledging the existence of the State of Israel – and the Zionist project on which it is based, yet against which it is directed. This is because it supports a national struggle for the self-determination of the Palestinian people. As the emotional support of a national struggle, it recognizes the adversary as a nation which, while having transgressed the borders of its state, nonetheless has a right to that state.

This full legitimacy to use the label of anti-Zionism, it should be noted, applies to the struggle of the Palestinian people as determined in the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unfolding over time, where Palestinian national consciousness has deepened and deepened in adversity, and has been reduced to living under occupation since 1967. In this respect, it is quite distinct from the anti-Zionism of the Arab world as a whole as manifested in 1948, when the aim was to drive the Jews out of the whole territory, or to subject them to a foreign power – the cause of the Palestinians intervening in this war declared against the Jews only as that of the legitimate inhabitants of this territory, but not yet as that of a people entitled to claim a state. In other words, it was the nationalization of the Palestinian struggle that gave rise to anti-Zionism as a political sentiment motivating an anti-colonial struggle in the strict sense. And it must then deal with the following problem: as an anti-colonial struggle, it cannot demand anything other than the repression of the colonizer on its territory, which in this case implies recognition of the State of Israel.

If Palestinian anti-Zionist sentiment, as reflected in the current conflict, can only be translated into an anti-Zionist political position in the West if the Palestinian people’s feelings are improperly captured by people who identify with their experience for no objective reason whatsoever, then it would be better not to call criticism of Israel in the name of international law “anti-Zionism”. Above all, it’s better for Westerners who want to make this perfectly legitimate criticism, on the grounds that their interventions are suspected of political irrationality: in the name of what, indeed, do they claim to feel the pain of the Palestinian people and share their experience? Only uncontrolled subjective projections can account for such abstruse identifications.

Anti-Zionism as a political position in the West

What about Western anti-Zionism then? Does it have resources of its own that would justify giving this external critique of a state a particular name that adequately defines it? All that remains is to examine the last two syntagms of “antis” mentioned above: “anti-Americanism” and “anti-Deutsch”. Both are products of Western thought. They express political positions in the true sense of the word, and not political feelings aroused in a current war situation in which the producers of the statements are caught up themselves.

The case of “anti-Deutsch” is of great relevance in illuminating anti-Zionism as a Western political position, different from the legitimate political sentiment of the Palestinian people.

In both cases, a nation-state is criticized as the state of a certain nation which, by virtue of its national history, constitutes an obstacle to the full realization of the modern politics of other nation-states around the globe. In fact, the “anti-Deutsch” case is more instructive in this respect, since anti-Americanism is so strongly linked to anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism, reducing the national history of the United States to a series of acts of foreign policy motivated in depth by its radically capitalist internal constitution, that the conceptual distinction remains unresolved. Similarly, in cases where anti-Americanism is limited to a cultural posture, the syntagm joins the “anti” sentiment, which sets its own identity against a potential aggressor, the only difference being that the United States, as a hegemonic power of unparalleled magnitude, is somehow perceived as a permanent aggressor. In short, in order to understand the logic of anti-Zionism, the comparison with anti-Americanism comes up short – unless one imagines that anti-Zionism is driven by the feeling of Westerners that their political life and modes of existence are threatened by the cultural imperialism of the State of Israel – a baroque argument that has yet to see the light of day, but history can always surprise us…

The case of ” anti-Deutsch “, on the other hand, is of far greater relevance in illuminating anti-Zionism as a Western political position, different from the legitimate political sentiment of the Palestinian people. What this curious expression designates is the political conviction formed in the 1970s on the extreme left in Germany, and therefore from within its national society, that the existence of a German state is constitutively detrimental to world peace. The idea is that German national sentiment, i.e. pride in Germany’s own defining identity, has historically demonstrated that it cannot be fully expressed without deviating into a fascist, warlike and exterminatory political project.

We know that the movement acquired a certain resonance outside the restricted circles of the extreme left at the time of German reunification, and that it was summed up in an explicit formulation of the founding statement of post-war Europe: “Never again“. For the anti-Deutsch, this expression was consequently unfolded in the formula: “Never again Germany”. What we have here, then, is an internal critique of the German state, calling into question the very existence of that state in the name of the concern that a just world will ever be possible as long as a sovereign state of the German nation is maintained. Note that this critique has nothing to do with the Jewish critique of the State of Israel mentioned above, which is “anti-Zionist” because it considers that the state-form does not correspond to the essence of Judaism. Anti-Deutschists are not saying that the state-form is at odds with Germanness. In fact, they say the opposite. They claim that the German people are the only people in the world to whom the nation-state form should be rejected, because the state is only suitable for the German people to develop into a politics that endangers humanity. In other words, we have here the curious formulation of an inner critique of the state form applied to a particular nation, based on universal principles that this nation would be structurally incapable of satisfying. The logical conclusion is that the nation should not be entrusted with a state.

This radical internal critique of the German state, like all internal critiques, was not echoed outside Germany. Although Germany is certainly regarded by many as a particularly distrusted state, and therefore more closely scrutinized than others, the criticism directed at it from outside follows the standard forms of this kind of criticism, i.e. refers, where appropriate, to human rights or international law. And the reason why the anti-Deutsch claim a particular name for their criticism is precisely because it cannot be subsumed under the normal criticisms – internally in the name of the justice of which the national society believes itself capable, externally in the name of universal principles.

Anti-Zionism, if it is to be consistent and not just a singular name for a quite banal form of criticism, must assert, in order to justify its particular posture, that Israel is a faulty state in a way that distinguishes it from all other states on this globe.

What then of the revindication of a particular term – anti-Zionism – for criticism of the State of Israel? Does the anti-Deutsch posture constitute a model for those fighting to ensure that anti-Zionism, as a political position in its own right, has a place in our Western societies? The question is legitimate, since anti-Zionism, if it is to be consistent and not just a singular name for a quite banal form of criticism, must assert, in order to justify its particular posture, that Israel is a faulty state in a way that distinguishes it from all other states on this globe. And the only case in which criticism of a state goes so far beyond the usual forms as to call for the formation of an ad hoc term is when one considers that a state should not exist, since the people who give it to themselves are not entitled, for the good of all, to have a political form of this kind.

The analogy with the anti-Deutsch position is illuminating. However, unlike the anti-Deutsch position, the anti-Zionists are at pains to base their critical arguments on the history of the intrinsic and perilous link between the Jewish people and the state-form. There is nothing in the history of the Jewish people to give cause for such concern, and there is nothing in the history of the young State of Israel that is so peculiar that one can in good faith judge that such a link is to be feared. It is undoubtedly at war more often than the average. But in most cases, and even in the current one, it does not start wars. It is not an aggressor state, and although the extreme right is currently integrated into the ruling coalition, it is neither fascist nor genocidal. As things stand, it is a democratic state governed by the rule of law.

So the basis for such a conviction, since it has no support in actual history, contrary even to the curious position of the anti-Deutsch, must in this case lie elsewhere. Here, the conclusion is clear: it is difficult to find any other reason for the fears for world peace associated with the realization of the Zionist project than simple antisemitism. Antisemitism, in other words, the hatred of Jews as Jews, in their claim to exist as a people, and to that extent to assert themselves politically, even to the extent of creating their own state. Or again: insofar as it claims to be more than one of the normal forms of criticism of a state – namely, the forms of internal and external criticism outlined above – anti-Zionism acquires the solidity of a political position only by drawing on the source of antisemitism.

Should anti-Zionism be recognized as a legitimate political position?

The State of Israel is open to criticism and must be criticized, as must any state. It is at fault in many respects, especially in the policies it has pursued for at least two decades. But anti-Zionism wants more and says more. It uses a particular term, to assert that criticism is essentially singularized in the case of this state and no other, to the point of touching the political principle on which it is founded – Zionism – and reaching its very existence, on the pretext that this political principle on which it is founded cannot structurally correspond to the ideal conditions of modern politics. But for it to say this, since there is nothing in the history of the Jewish people or the State of Israel to support such a suspicion, it needs to activate, in the modern era of nation-states, hatred of the Jews and the mode of existence to which they aspire here and now.

Let’s draw a practical conclusion from this analysis. It is not difficult to distinguish between criticism of the State of Israel and antisemitism. All we have to do is check whether the criteria for normal criticism of states are the same as those that justify criticism of the State of Israel. If so, then the criticism is not antisemitism, but, on the contrary, full recognition of this state, of its legitimacy and even of what we consider Zionism to be one of the possible configurations of modern politics. If one applies different criteria to Israel than to other states in this world, if one expects more of it, and suspects that the Jewish people are incapable of having a state without harming the whole world – by which they would join the anti-Deutsch Germany, which is certainly not to the displeasure of those who are so eager to say “Israel equals Nazis” – then one should not be offended by what one perceives. Behind the pretense of the claims of its opponents to the exceptionality of this state, behind the anti-Zionism claimed to name the exceptionality of their criticism, we perceive the antisemitism that ultimately motivates it.

Julia Christ

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