Is anti-Zionism also Antisemitism?

For some, there is little doubt that anti-Zionism is inextricably linked to antisemitism. Indeed, this is the consensus among Israel’s representatives and those who firmly support it. Some of these are very influential voices, both internationally and within their respective countries. British based Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, for example, insists;

“Antisemitism is a virus that survives by mutating. In the middle ages, Jews were hated because of their religion. In the 19th and 20th centuries, they were hated because of their race. Today they are hated because of their nation-state, Israel. Anti-Zionism is the new antisemitism.”

Similarly, British columnist Melanie Philips argues ‘Antisemitism always attacks Jews as a collective. First, it attacked us as a religion. Then it attacked us as a race of people. Now it attacks us as a people, as the collective Jew in Israel, with exactly the same characteristics as Jew-hatred through the centuries’.

In recent months, even French President Emmanuel Macron has joined the chorus of voices arguing there is no difference between the two. After an intensification of Anti-Semitic attacks in France Macron told Jewish community leaders that France would recognise anti-Zionism as a form of antisemitism. In May of this year, the German Parliament became the first in the European Union to pass a symbolic resolution that designates the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel as anti-Semitic.

The IHRA definition of Antisemitism

It is difficult, however, to discuss this issue without addressing, no matter how briefly, some of the definitional issues around what constitutes antisemitism. One of the definitions around which there has been much discourse, especially in British politics of late is the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition or ‘code’. The basic definition itself is not especially contentious, it states;

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

However, it comes with 11 attendant examples. In September 2018 the British Labour Party’s NEC (National Executive Commitee) after perhaps unprecedented pressure adopted the definition in full with all its examples. For present purposes, we will not delve on this issue in much detail (other authors have analysed the IHRA definition at some length) except to make a number of points about the IHRA ‘code’.

First, the IHRA definition of antisemitism, particularly with all its attendant examples, is deeply contentious. For instance, the very author of the ‘code’ Kenneth Stern has raised serious doubts about its application. He told the US House of Representatives in 2017; the definition had been abused on various US university campuses to ‘restrict academic freedom and punish political speech’, and had the effect of ‘chilling pro-Palestinian speech.’ Indeed, in recent weeks private e-mails showed London’s Tower Hamlets council cancelled a charity event that was raising money for sports equipment for children in Gaza on the basis that it might be perceived as anti-Semitic in accordance with the IHRA ‘code’.

Second, several leading legal experts have also raised doubts about the definition. Geoffrey Robertson QC, for instance,-a leading British/Australian human rights lawyer-has dissected the definition in some detail and reached a number of conclusions. He argues, for example; that the IHRA definition of antisemitism is ‘not fit for any purpose’ that seeks to use it as ‘an adjudicative standard’. He says ‘it is imprecise, confusing and open to misinterpretation and even manipulation’. For him, a particular issue with the IHRA ‘code’ is that it is ‘likely in practice to chill free speech’.

Finally, as it stands apparently the IHRA definition has only been formally adopted by 8 countries out of 31 governments whose countries are members of IHRA (It is not clear, however, how many countries or organisations have adopted the definition in full). Given that there are approximately 195 countries in the World, it is clear that the IHRA ‘code’ is neither universally recognised nor well established.

One definition of antisemitism, by contrast, that is well established-having been used since the 19th century in Britain-and over which there is little dispute is the idea that antisemitism is ‘hatred, bigotry, prejudice or discrimination against Jews’. Zionism appears to be a far less contentious term. While there are ideological differences between, for example, left-wing Zionists and right-wing Zionists few dispute that Zionism constitutes, in essence, as the Oxford English dictionary states ‘a movement for the re-establishment of a Jewish nationhood in Palestine’.

Historical context

It is perhaps unsurprising that some of the leading voices who challenge the notion that anti-Zionism is antisemitism are Jewish. After all, not all Jews support Israel; in fact, some proactively oppose it; some -perhaps a significant number-are either non-Zionist or anti-Zionist. Moreover, despite Israel’s claim to be the ‘homeland’ of the Jews; the vast majority of Jews don’t live in Israel. Israel’s Jewish population is approximately 6.5 million; while the global Jewish population is close to 15 million. In fact, almost as many Jews live in the United States as they do in Israel. Further, most ultra-orthodox Jews are either non-Zionist or anti-Zionist; they make up circa 10% of Israel’s Jewish population, many of them refuse to serve in Israel’s army and have a greater historical claim or ‘right’ to live in what is now Israel than many European Jews who migrated there after 1948.

In this vein, the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe argues that the most effective way to understand the difference between the two concepts is to ‘historicise’ them. He points out that antisemitism is a reflection of ancient anti-Jewish attitudes deeply rooted in the Christian faith and has led to centuries of Jewish persecution, vilification, mistreatment and even genocide (the Holocaust). Zionism by contrast he explains was initiated not by Jews but in fact by evangelical Christians on the basis that the return of Jews to Palestine would lead to the second coming of Jesus Christ. Some of the early proponents of Zionism were often deeply Anti-Semitic. Arthur Balfour, for instance, promoted Jewish statehood as he didn’t want Jews in Britain. As the writer Peter Beinart notes;

“Before declaring, as foreign secretary in 1917, that Britain ‘view[s] with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’, Arthur Balfour supported the 1905 Aliens Act, which restricted Jewish immigration to the United Kingdom.”

Ilan Pappe notes that the early opponents of Zionists were Jewish, and Jews only began to adopt Zionism towards the latter end of the 19th century. For him, Zionism is, in reality, a colonial ‘project’ and anti-Zionism is therefore anti-colonialism. He feels that Israel is now creating a ‘new’ form of antisemitism which links it to criticism of Israel. Indeed, it may well be in Israel’s interest to blur any distinction between the two terms. As Peter Beinart reflects;

“For years, Barack Obama and John Kerry warned that if Israel continued the settlement growth in the West Bank that made a Palestinian state impossible, Palestinians would stop demanding a Palestinian state alongside Israel and instead demand one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, neither Jewish nor Palestinian, that replaces Israel…Defining anti-Zionism as antisemitism reduces that threat. It means that if Palestinians and their supporters respond to the demise of the two-state solution by demanding one equal state, some of the World’s most powerful governments will declare them bigots…Which leaves Israel free to entrench its own version of one state, which denies millions of Palestinians basic rights.”

Judaism vs Israel

The Tel Aviv based Jewish activist, and writer Ronnie Barkan has little doubt that antisemitism and anti-Zionism are two completely different notions. He notes that initially, Zionism was a secular anti-religious and more specifically Anti-Jewish movement; in fact, early Zionists treated Jews with great contempt. If anything, he argues, Zionism has ‘used and abused’ Judaism for legitimacy. For him Israel is not a Jewish state; yes it is Jewish in the sense of ethnicity and supremacy, however, he notes most Jews don’t live in Israel, most Israeli’s are in fact secular, and most religious or ultra-orthodox Jews aren’t Zionists, and some are actively anti-Zionist.

Then there is the conduct of some of Israel’s own political leaders. The current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, in a speech to the World Zionist Congress in 2015 argued that Adolf Hitler did not want to exterminate Jews but was encouraged to do so by the Grand Mufti of Palestine. This is nothing short of a profoundly insensitive belittling of Jewish suffering and Netanyahu was widely castigated for his pronouncements. He is also an ally of Hungary’s Prime Minister Victor Orbán. In the 2017 parliamentary elections, Orbán promoted anti-Semitic tropes and imagery of powerful Jewish financiers scheming to control the World; in particular, he targeted and vilified George Soros.

Further, at the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem in 2018 the opening prayer was led by Pastor Robert Jeffress, who once declared that Jewish people were ‘going to hell’ and the closing sermon was delivered by John Hagee, an evangelist who had claimed that Hitler was ‘part of God’s plan to return Jews to Israel.’ Past Israeli leaders such as Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon have also made Anti-Semitic comments.

Many other Jewish and non-Jewish commentators argue along similar lines. The American Jewish activist and lawyer Stanley Cohen, for example, insists;

“Zionism is a political movement begun and moved by atheists. They rejected Judaism as but a convenient talisman, a cover to disguise a land grab for a step of faith. To oppose it is no different than to reject any other secular political movement as inhumane and criminal.”

Meanwhile, the Australian journalist and writer CJ Werleman opines;

“Antisemitism is a form of racism that has besieged the Jewish people since time immemorial. Zionism, on the other hand, is a racist ethno-nationalist ideology that has besieged the Palestinian people since the early 20th century…thus Zionism should be opposed as vigorously as antisemitism.”


It is naive to assume that ‘in reality’ there is not some overlap between antisemitism and anti-Zionism and of course there are some who will use anti-Zionism as a cover for their inherent Anti-Jewish racism. Conversely, as mentioned above it may be in the interests of Israel’s political leaders and its most ardent sympathisers to make the two terms indistinguishable so as to limit criticism of Israel’s policies, to silence pro-Palestinian voices and to label anybody who questions the character of Israel a bigot.

The two concepts have completely different historical trajectories. Antisemitism is an ancient and age-old hatred of Jews and Judaism, while Zionism is a modern notion which is just as much-if not more so-political than it is religious. Moreover, the founders and chief proponents of Zionism were not Jewish and in some cases- such as Arthur Balfour-were often outright anti-Semitic. As the writer Richard Silverstein surmises;

“Antisemitism is hatred of Jews. While there may be some, who hate both Israel and Jews who are real anti-Semites, criticism of Israel alone has nothing to do with antisemitism. Criticism of Zionism (including anti-Zionism) is aimed against a nationalist ideology, not against a religion. Criticism of Zionism is political in nature. It is not based on theology.”

The real danger with conflating the two terms is that it this will silence those who speak out against the injustices that Palestinians have suffered for so long at the hands of both Zionists and modern Israel. By the same token, if every criticism of Israel’s policies, behaviour or its character is labelled Anti-Semitic then in time the very term antisemitism will be rendered meaningless; causing enormous damage to the very necessary struggle against genuine anti-Jewish hate, abuse and violence. In-order, therefore, to have and sustain a mature and meaningful discourse about the Israel/Palestine issue perhaps the distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism is not only intellectually valid but also vital, important and deeply necessary.

I am a published writer. My book 'Lord Mountbatten and the British role in the genesis of the Kashmir dispute, 1947-48' is available on Amazon.

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