There has been a massive rise in anti-Semitism around the world. Anti-Semitic violence has increased more than 50 percent in the United States alone since 2016, the year President Donald Trump was elected. The US is home to the world’s second-largest Jewish community and is a critical ally (some would say enabler) of Israel, the world’s largest Jewish community.
In the US and Europe, the majority of anti-Semitic crimes and hate language are the work of far-right nationalists. Despite this, mainstream Jewish organizations under the direction of the Israeli government have tried to link anti-Semitism to anti-Zionism, claiming the latter is an extension of the former. Therefore, goes the argument, we cannot ignore the rise of “leftist anti-Semitism,” which purportedly disguises itself as anti-Zionism (ie, as a political position). Such a reading of history and of the anti-Zionist movement is wrong – willfully so.
For not only does this overlook the threat from actual anti-Semites, but it puts Palestinians in the absurd position of being blamed for the work of the far-right. It is time Palestinians and their supporters reclaimed the narrative, reject this dangerous comparison that puts everyone at risk, and stand in solidarity with other persecuted minorities, including Jews. There is no better way to break the dangerous equivalence propounded by Israel than through genuine Palestinian-Jewish cooperation against racism in all its forms.
Let’s start from the beginning. The Israeli government has a long-running public relations campaign to redefine any anti-Zionist act as anti-Semitic. The thinking goes that anti-Zionists deny the Jewish right to self-determination and statehood, which is itself a form of anti-Semitism. This argument is wafer-thin; anti-Zionism does not deny Jews’ right to statehood, but rather the nature and maintenance of the Israeli state in Palestine and the dispossession of Palestinians from their native land as a result of Zionist colonization.
It also conveniently ignores the fact that the origins of modern anti-Zionism can be traced back to, in fact, Jewish communities. Ultra-religious Jews have long viewed Zionism as heresy. According to their reading of scripture, a Jewish polity can only be reconstituted when the Messiah returns.
As the idea of a Jewish state was taking shape at the turn of the 20th century, most Jewish communities in Europe, the US and across the Middle East were also ambivalent about Zionism; just consider the small numbers of Jews who moved to historic Palestine before the Second World War, or the very few American Jews who feel the need or desire to move to Israel today.
The “anti-Zionism-is-anti-Semitism” trope hit hyperdrive with the rise of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement, in which Palestinians tried to mobilize international support by promoting various forms of boycott against Israel. The Israeli government sought to paint this non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation as anti-Semitic. Thus began the blurring of lines between criticism of the state of Israel and of Jews in general.
Another highly successful PR maneuver has been Israel taking up the right to speak for world Jewry, despite the fact that no one appointed it to the task. This self-designation enables Israel to assert that all criticism of its treatment of Palestinians essentially is off-limits. How often have we heard the BDS movement being compared to the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses? There is no basis for this argument, but that hasn’t stopped the pro-Israel community from propounding it.
The result of this confusing narrative is that coherent mainstream discussion about the real facts of the Israeli occupation is all but impossible because everything is wrapped in the language of anti-Semitism. With this distorted world view, even the very existence of Palestine now is deemed to be anti-Semitic because it presents an obstacle to Jewish sovereignty.
What makes the present moment so dangerous is that the global Jewish community is threatened with genuine anti-Semitism. Far-right gunmen have stormed synagogues, killing Jews. Neo-Nazis have held rallies in major American cities chanting, among other things, “Jews will not replace us.” And what has been the response from the Israeli government and pro-Israel surrogates to these tragic developments? Of course, they have responded to the violent attacks, but not nearly as forcefully as they speak about anti-Zionism. Indeed, they have instead focused on leftist anti-Zionism, the BDS movement and the tenability of Israel’s occupation. The imbalance in response is shocking but not surprising.
Ultimately, the burden of combatting this dangerous narrative falls on the Jewish diaspora and, ironically, on Palestinians. The Palestinian leadership has a unique opportunity to break apart the false marriage between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. It can do this by stating as a principle the Jewish right to self-determination. This doesn’t mean abandoning their own right to Palestinian self-determination – on the contrary, it strengthens their case.
Israel has demonstrated that even with anti-Semitic violence on the rise around the world, the country’s eyes remain fixed inward on its own expansion and not on the safety of its fellow Jews. So much for Israel speaking for world Jewry.
As a targeted minority, Palestinians can underscore their own self-determination by standing in solidarity with Jews persecuted by dangerous, intemperate far-right nationalists and, by flipping the narrative, open a new chapter in the conflict.
Joseph Dana, based between South Africa and the Middle East, is editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact.