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.