Jews don’t know what antisemitism is because they don’t have the right definition of Judaism. Such is the claim of many self-identified progressives who deny Israel’s right to exist. Israel has no connection to Judaism, they say, so therefore anti-Zionism has no connection to antisemitism. William Kolbrener explains why they are wrong.
Those advocates of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement who claim no connection between antisemitism and anti-Zionism have their own definitions of both antisemitism and Judaism. For them, religion, revolves around faith, as it does for Christians, but not the distinctly Jewish conception of nationhood – so that the State of Israel is seen not as a genuine expression of Judaism, but a cynical colonialist grab for power. This is one thing Trump gets right – Judaism is a nation before a religion in the Christian sense.
The refusal of Jewish exceptionalism has a long history. BDS-supporting progressives, wearing the multi-cultured garment of intersectionality, are not unlike most Christians before the founding of State of Israel: both seek to deny Jewish difference. The idea that ‘there is no Jew nor Greek,’ asserted by the apostle Paul, informs contemporary progressive versions of community. Such progressives may bristle at hearing themselves described as akin to Christian universalism, but in their urge to deny Jewish difference, they show many affinities to older forms of antisemitism. Just as they did in relationship to Christianity, today Jews give the lie to universalist claims. Then, as now, the Jew is made the excluded outsider, the one difference excluded from the universalism of difference.
Today, the most obvious expression of Jewish exceptionalism is the State of Israel, and thus the target of antisemitic attack. For those progressives who reject Judaism as defined through peoplehood and practices, mere Judaism as faith does not justify Jewish nationhood, in fact it’s an affront to their sensibility, a betrayal of what real faith should be. But Judaism encompasses every aspect of public and private life – mandating not only laws about diet, sex and work, but laws in relationship to farming, commerce, charity. The latter category of laws also includes ways in which produce of the Land of Israel must be designated for the poor. That is, Judaism imagines itself – in its ideal form – as a way of life and aspires to found that encompassing life in relationship to Jewish community in the Land of Israel. This is the way Jewish peoplehood has been expressed as an ideal in exile for at least two thousand years, and as a lived reality, however flawed, in the current State of Israel. Those who advocate BDS, however, having determined what Judaism is, can go ahead and deny any connection between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, calling out the Jewish State as colonialist because they insist that religion, and therefore Judaism, must be determined by faith alone.
To those progressive humanists who hold up the ideal of the exilic, cosmopolitan, and universalist Jew, Zionism is an affront to their image of the Jew of the past, for whom home was never actual, but always ideal. For them, Jews lose their authentic identity when they coalesce into a nation. But, note, only the Jewish nation is forced into this ‘all or nothing’ of stateless utopianism or rabid nationalism. While Americans, French, and British can be proud citizens, despite the cultural inequalities and injustices that characterise their societies (and every other one), Jews are held up to the impossible standard of perfection. Israelis don’t tell Americans, for example, to close-up shop – sorry the whole thing is misguided – because of Trump’s various immoral, sometimes deadly, policies. In other countries, you get to be an idealist and a skeptic; but not Israel.
Judaism and dwelling in the Land of Israel
Many Israelis today would like to cultivate a greater universalism, fed up with the theological and political particularism of Netanyahu and his right-wing government. And quietly, on campuses, in hospitals, in a variety of places in the public sphere, Israel’s Arab minority takes a more and more prominent role in public life, adding to the cosmopolitan nature of Israel culture. With all that, the Occupation and the lack of Palestinian Independence remain a taint on Israeli society. But Israelis remain sceptical of negotiations to end this status quo, and largely because of the denial of the legitimacy of the Jewish State. You don’t need to uphold a conception of a two-state solution if your adversary’s claims are just a fiction: why even consider anything other than a one-state solution – ‘from the river to the sea’ as the chant goes? Most Israelis, despite some fundamentalist theocrats and politicians, do want to embrace their cosmopolitan nature, embrace diversity, and be a Light to the Nations once again. But as long as Zionism represents to BDS supporters and other anti-Semites (like Corbyn’s Labour Party) a fictional pretext for a land and power-grab, that embrace will have to wait.