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Fight anti-Palestinianism as we would anti-Semitism

While anti-Semitism is considered a serious moral failing in Western society today, anti-Palestinianism is not even recognized as a phenomenon worthy of being studied. 

By Jeremiah Haber

"Pro-Israel" rally, during Gaza offensive, New York Nov 20, 2012 (asterix611/CC BY NC ND 2.0)

“Pro-Israel” rally, during Gaza offensive, New York Nov 20, 2012 (asterix611/CC BY NC ND 2.0)

By “anti-Palestinianism” I understand prejudice against Palestinian Arabs based on perceived negative qualities of Palestinian cultural or natural identity. Views such as “Palestinian Arab culture is a culture of death and martyrdom,” “Palestinian Arabs hate Jews because of incitement,” “Palestinian labor is inferior” are examples of this prejudice. Attempts to justify these prejudices are inevitably based on selective data, generalization, and bias.

By “anti-Semitism,” I understand prejudice against Jews based on perceived negative qualities of Jewish cultural, natural, or religious identity. Opinions such as, “Jews love only money,” “there is a worldwide Jewish conspiracy against gentiles,” “Jews are loud, noisy, and uncouth,” etc. are examples of this prejudice. Attempts to justify these prejudices are also inevitably based on selective data, generalization, and bias.

What I would like to discuss here is how the current vogue of identifying anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is anti-Palestinianist, i.e., the product of bigotry towards Palestinians. I won’t bother to “disprove” the identification itself, any more than I would bother to “disprove” anti-Semitic claims. I applaud those who have the stomach for such things. I do not.

“Anti-Palestinianism” and “anti-Semitism” should be examined in light of the broader phenomenon of group prejudice. Regrettably, they often are not. Anti-Semitism is considered a serious moral failing in Western society today, whereas anti-Palestinianism is not even recognized as a phenomenon to be studied. The reason for this has a lot to do with the prominence accorded to anti-Semitism in Western consciousness for well-known historical reasons. The founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, saw a nation-state of the Jews to be the solution to anti-Semitism. The Holocaust reinforced that view for many.

The so-called “New Anti-Semitism” was born of the increasing identification, shared by some Zionists and anti-Semites, of Israelism and Judaism. Although Zionism as a movement of national revival had many different aspects (some Zionists actively opposed the creation of a Jewish ethnic-exclusivist state), the particular form that Zionism took in the newly created laws and institutions of the state of Israel became identified with Zionism tout court. For Zionists like David Ben-Gurion, to be a complete Jew was to be a Zionist, and to be a complete Zionist was to be a citizen of the State of Israel, where “statism” (mamlakhtiyyut) was a supreme value. His view was resisted by many other Jews, Zionists, non-Zionists, and anti-Zionists, even after the creation of the state in 1948 (although a version of it has been embraced by latter-day Zionist ideologues like the writer, A. B. Yehoshua). But after Israel’s capture in 1967 of territories of historical significance for Jews, the growing acceptance of ethnic diversity in western societies — and the increasing prominence according to the Holocaust in popular culture — Israel became an important component in the identity for many Jews.

David Ben Gurion (Government Press Office)

David Ben Gurion (Government Press Office)

Especially for the generation of 1967, to oppose Zionism was in effect to oppose the self-determination of the Jewish people, which was to imply that Jews as a people have less of a right to self-determination than other peoples. This purported “singling out” of the Jews was seen by some to motivated by, or identical with, anti-Semitism. And because anti-Semitism, like racism, had become a term of moral opprobrium in modern society, “anti-Semite” was applied to those who wished replace the State of Israel with another political system, for whatever motivation, even if they thought it better for the Jews.

Today, if one rejects the claims of Jews to a state of their own in Palestine, i.e., if one rejects statist Zionism, one is considered by these people to be at best an unwitting or inadvertent anti-Semite. The same is true if one wishes to replace the Zionist state with a state that is predominantly a civic one – Muslim, Christian, and Jewish. The same is true if one thinks that founding the State of Israel in the way it was founded was bad for Jews and for Arabs.

It also follows that if one is a Palestinian and shares any of the aforementioned beliefs, one is, at best, an unwitting anti-Semite. And that conclusion is anti-Palestinianist because it says that Palestinians can have no other motive for opposing a Jewish state than implacable hatred of the Jews. And if that conclusion seems too bizarre even for those who are wont to find “anti-Semites” everywhere, it is less so when applied to Palestinian sympathizers. “After all, why should a British Labourite be sympathetic to anti-Zionism if she is not herself related to a Palestinian – unless that sympathy is, perhaps, unconsciously, tinged by anti-Semitism.” But aside from trivializing anti-Semitism, that conclusion is also anti-Palestinianist – because it implies that the Palestinians have little justified claim to sympathy, either because their suffering has not been so great, or, worse, they have brought it upon themselves. And because the accusation of “anti-Semitism” carries with it a particular tone of moral opprobrium following the Holocaust, the accusation is hurtful in ways that “anti-Zionism” or “anti-Israelism” are not. (ie. the use of the term “apartheid” rather than “separation” or “segregation” as a term of moral opprobrium.)

My claim that the identification of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is itself an anti-Palestinianist canard does not exclude the possibility that there will be anti-Zionists who are anti-Semites, or who, more likely, use anti-Semitic tropes. Negative stereotypes of Jews have been found among some anti-Zionists, and they should and have been condemned. Ditto for the employment of anti-Semitic stereotypes and tropes by some Zionists. Internalizing the negative images of Jews of the anti-Semites, some Zionists “negated the diaspora” and looked forward to a new, “muscular” Jew who would replace the weak, effeminate, cunning Jew — for when the Jews have their own state. Zionist-motivated anti-Semitism is alive and well every time a diaspora Jew is criticized for “kowtowing to the goyim,” or called a “Jewboy” (yehudon, in Hebrew) by a right-wing Israeli politician.

To talk of “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism” without mentioning anti-Semitic tropes within Zionism is, once again, to employ the emotive power of the “anti-Semitism” accusation to delegitimize critics of the Jewish state. The speaker may avoid identifying anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, but the implied guilt by association, though a lesser form of bigotry, is bigotry, nonetheless. And when one singles out anti-Semitism for moral opprobrium without even acknowledging anti-Palestinianism, one loses the moral high ground and simply parrots partisan polemic.

All bigotry should be condemned, whether the target group is powerful or weak. But there should be special concern for the consequences of bigotry aimed at the weak, since those consequences will be more dire. Anti-Semitism can never be justified, and it should be called out when found. And the pro-Palestinian movement has done that. But insufficient sensitivity to anti-Palestinianism is, under present circumstances, a greater sin for those who care about the real consequences of bias and bigotry.

To be sure, those who care for the well-being and equal rights of the people living in Israel/Palestine will not agree on how to achieve those rights. One can oppose many forms of political resolutions without being bigoted, and one can oppose tactics as inappropriate or counter-productive without bias or prejudice. Particular tactics endorsed by the Palestinian National Boycott committee have been criticized. But this opposition should be based on argument, not on bigoted insensitivity, especially when directed against the weak and vulnerable. Boycott, divestment, and sanctions are generally legitimate tactics, the wisdom of which can be debated. But delegitimizing or demonizing, much less criminalizing, the BDS movement is, in most cases, the product of anti-Palestinianist bias and should be rejected by decent people on all sides.

Jeremiah (Jerry) Haber is the nom de plume of an Orthodox Jewish studies and philosophy professor, who divides his time between Israel and the United States. This post was originally published on his blog, The Magnes Zionist.

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    1. Lewis from Afula

      Anti-palestinianism is not fought seriously because the so-called “palestinians” do not exist. What you’ve got is a hoax.
      Who was the 1st Arab palestinian King?
      Where was his palace?
      Where was their parliament located?
      What was their capital city?
      Who were their poets, philosophers or intellectuals in the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries?
      None can be cited!

      In fact, their storybook is empty until this famous nation was magically appeared in 1968 when the Egyptian psychopath (arafat) invented them.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        An authoritative refutation of Lewis’ shop-worn anti-Palestinianist canard can be found here, in the four sections under the heading, “Do the Palestinians exist?” ==>

        The page linked to illuminates as well many others things that it is often claimed we ‘know’ but that just ain’t so. Enjoy.

        Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        At one point there wasn’t anything called “The United States” and then at another point there was. Reality changes, new things come into being.

        Reply to Comment
    2. i_like_ike52

      As a Palestinian Jew, living in the country called Israel which is on the territory that the Arabs are currently calling Palestine and which Jews call Eretz Israel, I am all for for ending “anti-Palestinianism”. All people should show respect for Palestinian Jews just as they show respect for Palestinian Arabs. That will bring peace closer.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “just as they show respect for Palestinian Arabs.”

        Yeah? It looks like a good many of the Palestinian and non-Palestinian Jews never got the memo on this showing respect thing. In the past 70 years. Perhaps you could resend it? Or perhaps I’m totally misunderstanding you. Perhaps you’re in favor of all people occupying, brutalizing and stealing the land out from under the feet of the Palestinian Jews? You know, “show respect” to them? Or maybe I’m misunderstanding you still. Perhaps you mean that Jews are not a subset of “all people,” that Jews in your mind have a special dispensation that places them above and apart from “all people” and not subject to the rules all other people need to follow? Please clarify. Thanks. So we can “bring peace closer.”

        Reply to Comment
        • i_like_ike52

          I, as a Palestinian Israeli Jew, would appreciate it very much if official Palestinian Muslim preachers would stop telling their congregations that “Jews are descendents of pigs and monkeys” and that “if we hide behind trees, good Muslims should come and attack us”. That would certainly help clear the air and allow all forms of anti-Palestinianism to disappear.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            And the form represented by Lewis From Afula, you want that to stop too, I Like Ike 52, or does that get a special dispensation? And while we’re at it, what exactly would be your Palestinian credentials? A native of Palestine has an enthusiasm for a 1952 Eisenhower election slogan. Odd, that. Perhaps you could explain? Because to bandy about such a credential cheaply or snidely would also be a form of anti-Palestinianism. You see, sometimes people who are racists and condescending and disrespectful are not even aware of how easily they slip into it. It just comes naturally to folks when they have the entitled perspective of an overlord. Perspective is so important, don’t you think?

            Reply to Comment