Why zionism is antisemitism
by Sam Kriss
Nearly one year ago, the Israeli soldier Hadar Goldin was captured by Hamas fighters in Rafah, in the south of the Gaza Strip, in the middle of Operation Protective Edge. He was taken a few minutes into a ceasefire declared unilaterally by Israel, without any participation from any Palestinian groups: under the terms Israel had negotiated with itself, its soldiers were still permitted to search for so-called ‘terror tunnels’ during the ceasefire, and this is what Goldin had been doing. His capture triggered something called the ‘Hannibal Directive’: a secret policy that requires Israeli forces to do anything possible to prevent its soldiers being captured (and then becoming the object of a media crusade, to be released in a costly prisoner swap), even if it means putting the soldier’s life at risk. The IDF insists that this does not mean it will intentionally try to kill captured soldiers, but the world learned exactly what the Hannibal Directive looks like in Rafah. Almost immediately, the town was blanketed in indiscriminate air and artillery strikes. A brigade commander on the ground was recorded yelling into his field radio: ‘Stop the shooting! You’re shooting like retards! You’ll kill one another!’ He didn’t seem to understand that that was the point. Hadar Goldin’s body was never found, but it’s assumed that he died in the bombardment. So did 190 Palestinians.
The Israeli army claims that it operates on a principle of the utmost respect for human life, and does everything possible to avoid Palestinian civilian casualties. If, for the sake of argument, we take them at their word here, the picture it reveals is horrifying: Israel loves and cherishes the Palestinians, it will do anything to protect them, but at the same time it’s willing to sacrifice hundreds of Palestinian lives in the hopes of killing just one Jew.
Imagine if any other country operated like this. There’s a word for this kind of behaviour: it’s antisemitism.
This isn’t a facetious point: there’s something very strange about the way the official mouthpieces of the zionist project behave towards the figure of the Jew as such. There’s a constantly repeated line, that anti-zionism is just a veiled form of antisemitism – but if you look at it closely, it becomes something highly unpleasant: if an insult to Israel is an insult to all Jews, then it follows that we’re all united, borg-like, behind the Jewish state, and that we’re all complicit in whatever it does. If this position were articulated by a Gentile, we’d rightfully accuse them of antisemitism. But this is how Israel expects us to behave. Why do they get away with it? Netanyahu describes himself as the leader of the Jewish people, empowered to speak on my behalf. The Jewish people have been around far longer than Benjamin Netanyahu, or the State of Israel for that matter. I never asked for him. Whenever Jews are attacked somewhere else in the world, some Israeli minister commands us all to flee to historic Palestine and shelter under his nuclear umbrella: the dream of state zionism is of a Europe without any Jews. Did they dream it themselves?
What does it mean to be a Jew? Over the centuries, Jews in every corner of the world have led any number of different modes of life; there’s very little to unite the Jewish experience beyond the Tanakh (some Jewish communities split before the composition of the Talmud) and the fact of being in exile. From Sinai to Babylon to Persia to Brooklyn, we’ve spent far more of our history pining after the Land of Israel than actually living in it. Throughout, this loss has been felt as a critical gap between how things are and how things ought to be, a recognition that things have gone wrong; this is why Jewish thought has always tended towards the Utopian. This is why Jews practice circumcision: there’s something missing. This is why the Torah begins with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, beit, a square missing one of its sides. This is why Kabbalah envisages a God that isn’t almighty and all-powerful, but fractured, broken and weak, a God that must be repaired. This is why Jews are commanded to dedicate themselves to tikkum olam, the healing of the earth. Throughout Jewish history, there’s been the vision of a better world, a Messianic return to Zion: it’s what animated Jesus Christ, Baruch Spinoza, and Karl Marx. For almost all of this period, the idea that the Messianic gap could be closed by simply sending thousands of armed men to the Levant to boot out the existing inhabitants and set up a Jewish state would have not just been premature, but ridiculous.
At the same time, Jewish thought – in Europe at least – has consistently veered towards universalism: the resolution of differences and the global confraternity of all humankind. (Again, see Christ, Spinoza, and Marx.) In the Tanakh, the Jews are forever backsliding; they’re perversely eager to worship any old object as long as it’s not the God of their forefathers. The idea of a separate Jewish identity in Europe has always been more of a European fixation than a Jewish one. For Europe, its Jews were a constitutive other; Christendom could define itself (and unite itself) as that which was not Saracen, not Indian, and not Jewish. (The situation was slightly different in the United States, in which the role of the internal other was largely imposed on the Black population.) European Jews served an important sacrificial function, acting as a collective pharmakos: in times of crisis, they would be exiled or massacred, a mass catharsis restoring the metaphysical separation between within and without. This is why, despite the fervent Christian hope for a grand conversion of the Jews, actual Jewish converts were treated with such suspicion: Conversos and their descendants were a primary target of the Spanish Inquisition; secular, integrated Jews were often the first to be slaughtered in the Nazi genocides. Behind the violence there’s a desperate thirst for identity: the antisemite needs to Jew to constitute himself; Europe is not Europe without its Jews.
Jews have lived on every continent, for hundreds of years, but zionism arose in 19th-century Europe. This is because zionism is not, in terms of its ideological content, a particularly Jewish project, but a European one. This was a period when national groups within the great multi-ethnic empires – Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman caliphate – were increasingly agitating for self-determination along strict ethnic lines, while at the same time other European states were brutally capturing and colonising areas of land elsewhere on the globe. Early zionism, with its demand for a Jewish national homeland outside of Europe, wasn’t much more than a combination of these two tendencies. Zionism was simultaneously a hypostatisation of Jewish difference, and assimilation by other means. The Jews would finally become just like any other respectable European people: we would colonise like them, ethnically cleanse like them, and set up a perfect imitation of the despotic European ethnic state in the Middle East. This is how we got to where we are today, with Jews messing around with tank battalions, repressive state infrastructures, the systematic dispossession of a colonised population, and other such fundamentally goyische inventions.
This dangerous shift in Jewish identity would not be possible without some kind of violence. Early zionism was fixated on the idea of a ‘New Jew’: while Jews in the diaspora were sedentary, spiritual, intellectual, and the objects of state violence, the New Jew would be an active, tanned, muscular agricultural fascist, the subject of state violence, a creature virtually indistinguishable from the porcine Gentile peasants who had so brutally suppressed the Jews over the centuries. The birth of this figure required the erasure of all Jewish history up until its creation. The past would be prologue, a brief coda between the Kingdom and the State of Israel, expressible only as that period in which the Jews allowed themselves to suffer. Diaspora could only ever mean suffering; the Jew in exile – in other words, the Jew as such – became an object of near-pathological loathing. Every antisemitic slander was repeated: the Jews really were weak, ugly, etiolated, usurious; the goal of zionism was to put a spade in one hand, a rifle in the other, and turn them into something else. With bullets and bloodshed they would get rid of the cringing Jews of the past: it was an article of faith among those zionist pioneers that, before long, all Jews would become the New Jew.
Of course, this was impossible. The problem was that, alone among the European settler-colonial projects, the Jewish state was a colony without a metropole. Unlike any other imperialist outpost of the 19th century, it didn’t have any mother country to support its wars against the natives. And when the zionist project first emerged, the attitude of a great many Jewish populations – especially those Jews already living in Palestine – was one of total hostility. Zionism had to effect a dual colonialism: it had to seize, with violence, the land of Palestine, while also seizing the Jewish diaspora. It goes without saying that there can be no equivalence between the two: the Palestinians have suffered immensely, from bombs and missiles to house demolitions to the everyday indignities of living under occupation, while the diaspora Jews have been given free holidays. But the colonisation of the diaspora Jews has been total. Despite the fact that many Jews outside Israel are deeply ambivalent about the entire project, every major mainstream Jewish body is explicitly zionist. In Britain, every Jewish youth movement tries to instil zionist values, every Jewish newspaper assumes a zionist readership, every university Jsoc agitates against the boycott movement. The Board of Deputies of British Jews coughs up the Israeli line on any given issue, the synagogues plant JNF pine trees to poison the soil of Palestinian farmers to mark barmitzvahs. The idea that any facet of organised Jewish life might be entirely indifferent to the State of Israel is now absurd. Israel spends millions providing young Jews from around the world with subsidised Birthright tours of the country, to emphasise the deep and organic connection between the Jewish people and the Holy Land. But if this connection really were so deep and so organic, why would this vast ideological operation even be necessary?
The Israeli state doesn’t regard diaspora Jewry as its progenitor, or as a community in which it is embedded; it sees us as a colonised population under its command. Our leaders are its hostages. Our institutions are its instruments. It imposes its taxes: we have to give to the JNF, volunteer in its army or on its kibbutzim, sign its petitions, share its propaganda. We have to dive gleefully into the supermarkets and fill our trolleys with houmous to break the boycott. We have to suffer, out here in the desert, trapped with a strange people, so that it can have its reason to exist. We are unable to speak, and so the state of Israel will speak for us: it knows what we want better than we do ourselves, and what we want is war. Jews in the English-speaking world are commanded to buy holiday homes in Eilat; Jews in Continental Europe are commanded to pack up their belongings, abandon their homes and identities, and become Israelis. (The Hebrew word for migration to Israel, aliyah, has echoes of the German Aufheben: to go up, but also to cancel out.) When Jews refuse to submit, when we break ranks to speak out against Israeli atrocities or the mad, antiquated idea of zionism, there’s the terror of a slave revolt; the fury that rises against an anti-zionist Jew is far more terrible than that which faces any ordinary Gentile antisemite. Israel barfs the history and diversity of the Jewish people in the face of the world, all sparkles and tapestries, but when we’re alone together it grabs us close by the lapels and hisses through bloodstained teeth: know your place.
If being a Jew isn’t just about kvetching and chicken soup, if it means living with the ambivalence of otherness and the hope for Utopian justice, then Israel is not a Jewish state. The idea of a Jewish state is, once stated, already contradictory and meaningless. In practice, it’s a monster. A state that tries to erase Jewish history, Jewish subjectivity, and Jewish life is not something that has anything to do with any Judaism I recognise. There’s a word for this kind of behaviour. It’s antisemitism.
Love this! Your essays on Israel always blow my mind.
Is it better to be happy and evil, or suffering and virtuous?
Do we really need Israel to be whole?
Good questions raised in this article.
You overlook the apocalyptic/messianic strain that subsists at the heart of Zionism. A redemptive tikkum olam is the other side of the same coin to historical [demonic] revenge. This, taken from a blog post lays the argument, in nuce:
The messianism at the heart of Zionism means that the fulfillment of the dream is also its apocalyptic end. Catastrophe and the culmination of a destiny, ordained from on high, fall together.
Zionist nationalism, which views itself as destined, represses its own contingency. In doing so, it negates any potential national claims of the indigenous people and brooks no dissent with regard to its legitimacy. To question the latter is to attack it.
The militarism that has become emblematic of the Israeli state is a response not so much to the suffering of the Holocaust but to the humiliation and shame associated with the Holocaust (and the pogroms that proceeded it).
A strong and aggressive Zion is the only way to blot out this shame and undo the legacy of Jewish passivity and powerlessness. Survival becomes the overriding value of the state, justifying any means employed to ensure it.
This is excellent. We must not forget who we are. Our holy books and history are not the Galil rifle and the Apache helicopter. Bravo.
A wonderful piece of writing! But I have two main reservations, which I expressed in a comment to a posting of your piece on Facebook. This is what I wrote:
ZIONISM IS NOT ANTISEMITISM, ITS A VIRULENT HYPERSEMITISM!
This article by Sam Kriss is brilliant, in many ways, & I not only agree with much of what he says, but also think I’ve been saying some of those things for some time but never as incisively & brilliantly (I don’t mind repeating this word, he deserves it) as he does. His descriptions of how Zionists relate to Diaspora Jews, of Jewish experience as a history of “being in exile”, of the rise of Zionism as a European (if anomalous) movement, are nothing short of — you guessed it — brilliant. Here’s an example:
‘ […] there’s something very strange about the way the official mouthpieces of the zionist project behave towards the figure of the Jew as such. There’s a constantly repeated line, that anti-zionism is just a veiled form of antisemitism – but if you look at it closely, it becomes something highly unpleasant: if an insult to Israel is an insult to all Jews, then it follows that we’re all united, borg-like, behind the Jewish state, and that we’re all complicit in whatever it does. If this position were articulated by a Gentile, we’d rightfully accuse them of antisemitism. But this is how Israel expects us to behave. Why do they get away with it? Netanyahu describes himself as the leader of the Jewish people, empowered to speak on my behalf. The Jewish people have been around far longer than Benjamin Netanyahu, or the State of Israel for that matter. I never asked for him. Whenever Jews are attacked somewhere else in the world, some Israeli minister commands us all to flee to historic Palestine and shelter under his nuclear umbrella: the dream of state zionism is of a Europe without any Jews.’
But I don’t agree with two major things. First — that Zionism is antiSemitism. (I’m continuing the stupid use of that term for anti-Jews activity). While I agree with Kriss’s sentiments, with why he wants to call it antiSemitism, I disagree with the semantics. What I think Zionism is may be called a virulent hyperSemitism, which in its present condition, concurrently with & as a consequence its continuing abuse of the human rights of the Arab Palestinians, is indeed accelerating the growth of antiSemitism worldwide (& that has had in the past & may still have common interests & even dealings with antiSemitic movements). Second — while I think there is much truth in what Kriss calls the “colonization of the diaspora”, I totally disagree that this colonization “has been total”. It’s true that, not only in Britain, ‘every Jewish youth movement tries to instil zionist values, every Jewish newspaper assumes a zionist readership, every university Jsoc agitates against the boycott movement. The Board of Deputies of British Jews coughs up the Israeli line on any given issue, the synagogues plant JNF pine trees to poison the soil of Palestinian farmers to mark barmitzvahs. The idea that any facet of organised Jewish life might be entirely indifferent to the State of Israel is now absurd.’ BUT there are probably more Jews in the Diaspora who are not affiliated in any way with any of those organizations that constitute “organised Jewish life” than Jews who are. Certainly many of the universalist, humanist or utopian Jews Kriss refers to would have nothing to do with those Zionist agencies. So I say the Zionist colonization of Diaspora Jewry extends only to the Jews who belong or submit to those agencies. True, they have the chutzpah to speak in the name of the Jews of their district or country or whatever. But those of us who care that they’re speaking in our name can call them out, as Kriss does so well here.
Nothing is more antisemitic than Zionism
The people who call themselves Jews today have no Semitic or Hebrew relationship to the Biblical lands. Ever. All of those who call themselves Jews today converted to Judaism in 748 AD came from Asia the Ashkenazi, which means German, came from there. They then usurped the name Jew. The word Jew has never appeared in either the Old or New Testaments or any other Bible until the late 1800s. It was then that the Rothschilds hired and paid Cyrus Scofield, a religious snake oil salesman and jailed criminal, to re-write the St James version of the Bible to include that the Jews were the Chosen, that Armageddon would occur and that the Rapture would happen from Israel. This Bible was distributed to all the Evangelical Churches in American and the one that they all subscribe and believe in. All of which is a lie and complete and total BS…… The single biggest threat to America is Israel. They claim to be Semitic and all to often use the phrase ‘anti-Semitic’. Well they aren’t Semitic people at all and never were. The Palestinians are but they aren’t. Today’s so called Jews never ever stepped one toe in the Biblical lands. Today’s Jews are nothing more than Hebrew speaking Gentiles… Israel is the biggest threat of all countries to America and its People. This country has it clutches into our Government, our politicians through their Aipac lobbyists who threaten our politicians to sign an agreement saying that they will support Israel or else.
That’s only because so-called stupid Jews as yourself. Your article is so fade and false that I can see the seeds of new Goebbels in your writing.
Then how do you account for the fact that I had my DNA tested by three different organizations, and they ALL came back showing a major component of my ancestry is Levantine or West Asian? With some East Mediterranean thrown in? Yes, indeed, my ancestry is in Judea, which was falsely named Palestina by the Romans in order to erase Jewish identity with and claim to the land. But just as Native Americans, even mixed ones, are indigenous to the Americas, so are we, the Jews of Europe, the Middle East, and other Muslim countries, indigenous to Judea.
The Palestinians, on the other hand, when tested genetically, show a major African and Arabian component, so their ancestors invaded the land with the rise of Islam. They also have Semitic (Levantine) roots, because they intermarried with, and probably forced the conversion of, Christian (originally Jewish) and Jewish people already living in the land. Either way, whether a person identifies as Jewish or Palestinian, the roots go back to the early Jews. I’m sorry you didn’t know the facts when you wrote your piece.
you also need to shut up
Excellent work, Mr. Kriss. A very profound meditation on Zionism and Jewishness. And correct, too, from my experience living in the West and in Israel. I do find the notion of “hypersemitism” more instructive and, perhaps, more useful when talking to people with inflexible minds.
The conflicts with the Israeli Jewish community also show these signs. In Israel, the ultra-Orthodox are the “leeches” who do not serve in the military, and the secular are the “oppressors” who seek to press them, and the Palestinians, into service. The “Old Jew” still has a voice in Israel.
The Renewal Jew, who faces the dwindling identification of Diaspora Jews with Judaism and Israel, says, “if Judaism is not palatable to this generation and rejected, or worse is observed out of guilt, then let it perish.”. The Renewal Jew inherits the traditions and makes them relevant to the radical transformations occurring as the next step of radical liberation and universalism. This Jew is deeply engaged with the tradition, and seeks to renew it not by colonizing, but by liberating.
Your thoughts on this would be most appreciated.
I have been saying similar things for years, but never in public. I don’t know if you realize how liberating it is to know that someone else feels the same.
I would add, though, that Israel’s Zionist character might be more self-justification than formative ideology. The state was born from the emergency of the Holocaust. Certainly the Yishuv was Zionist, but the State of Israel arguably has embraced the Zionist idea merely to aggrandize itself in the ways you describe and to avoid the elementary moral criticism that two wrongs don’t make a right, i.e., to deny that it is the outgrowth of a theft intended to compensate for the Holocaust while advancing a supposedly legitimate ethnic claim to property. On this reading, the state is founded in improvisation rather than ideology. Anyway, I’d be interested to know where the Holocaust fits into your analysis.
Ruthless critique of all that exists indeed! But especially Zionism: that is the essence of Left-wing antisemitism.
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‘Jews have lived on every continent, for hundreds of years, but zionism arose in 19th-century Europe. This is because zionism is not, in terms of its ideological content, a particularly Jewish project, but a European one.’
Zionism is a bourgeois project.
[…] his essay, Why Zionism is Antisemetism, Sam Kriss (who also happens to be Jewish) […]
I believe this is a typo:
“. . . but at the same time it’s willing to sacrifice hundreds of Palestinian lives in the hopes of killing just one Jew.”
“killing” should be “saving”
Feel free to delete my post after review.
it is not a typo
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