The following was adapted from remarks recently delivered on a Munk Debate podcast.
Zionism is the idea that there should be a state that privileges Jews, that has a special responsibility to protect and represent Jews. You see that in the state of Israel’s symbols, which are religious, and with immigration policy, which allows a diaspora Jew like myself, to come to Israel and become a citizen on day one, and makes it virtually impossible for a Palestinian to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen. I am a Zionist because as a Jew, I believe in the importance of a state that has a special responsibility to Jews. But I also think that there are many, many examples of people who do not support that Jewish privilege in the state of Israel who are not anti-Semites.
For instance, there is a component of the Jewish world that opposes Zionism. The Satmar Hasidim, who are the largest Hasidic group in the world, have meetings in football stadiums that are larger than the AIPAC National Convention (which brings together more than 18,000 pro-Israel Americans). They are anti-Zionist, because of their traditional reading of Jewish texts. Jewish Voice for Peace, on the left, is a Jewish organization that believes that its liberal-democratic values are in tension with the idea of a state that privileges Jews over Palestinians. It’s true that most Jews around the world are Zionists, but that wasn’t always the case, and there still is a robust debate about Zionism. If you look at younger American Jews today, you would probably find that there’s an even larger number of people who have significant questions about the idea of Zionism, either because traditional Jewish religious texts say that it’s incompatible with Jewish religious law, or because it violates their liberal-democratic values. In either case, those people are simply not anti-Semites.
Many Palestinians want Israel to not be a Jewish state, but to be a state for all its citizens
Secondly, the idea that almost all Palestinians are anti-Zionists because they don’t support the idea of a state that privileges Jews over Palestinians is incorrect. Some of their anti-Zionism is absolutely anti-Semitic, if you look at the Islamic, kind of dominationist ideology of Hamas. But there are many other Palestinians who say very openly and simply, that they want Israel to not be a Jewish state, but to be a state for all its citizens, in which everyone lives under the same law.
Now, it’s true that there are many ethnically based states around the world, but we do not as a general principle share the idea that every nation that wants its own state should have one. The Kurds don’t, the Catalans don’t, the Basques don’t, the Quebecers don’t. I don’t think we would say that people who oppose a Kurdish state are anti-Semitic. In fact, there are states that were built on ethnic or racial privilege that have been dismantled.
I do not consider Israel an apartheid state in the way that Africa privileged whites over blacks, which was much more extreme than the way that Israel privileges Jews over non-Jews. But, when the South African apartheid state was dismantled, and the project of national self-determination for Afrikaners ended and it became a state for all its citizens, that wasn’t anti-Afrikaner bigotry. If you say that all Palestinians who are anti-Zionists are anti-Semites, even those who say that all they want is one state in which Jews and Palestinians live under an equal law, then in fact, you are essentially delegitimizing all Palestinian politics. You’re equating Palestinian politics with bigotry, and I think that’s very destructive for our appreciation of Palestinian human dignity, and I think it also undermines the quest for peace.
Peter Beinart is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.
For more on the Munk Debates podcast visit Munkdebates.com/podcast
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