Last year, the Students’ Society of McGill University, in Montreal, barred the reelection of three Jewish members of the board of directors. The issue, according to a report undertaken on behalf of the university, was not the students’ Jewishness, but their Zionism. It was, the report concluded, a political issue, not one of discrimination against Jews. There is a great deal to unpack in this story.
B’nai Brith Canada has launched a petition calling for a comprehensive investigation into antisemitism on the campus, noting that the SSMU incident was far from the only concerning episode in recent years.
Sometimes, antisemitism is unequivocal. Swastika graffiti and statements that overtly target Jews for condemnation or murder are uncontestable. But, in many cases, unwitting perpetrators are so unaware of the history of antisemitism and its associated symbols and tropes that they employ antisemitic concepts without consciously knowing it. For example, many images and much of the language of the anti-Zionist movement dovetails with traditional images of scheming Jews merely recast as scheming Zionists or Israelis. Note the term “Israel lobby,” which does not imply a legitimate political position but rather suspect coercion.
With the McGill situation, part of the problem is that “anti-Zionism is not antisemitism” is often stated as a self-evident truth. A more accurate statement would be “anti-Zionism is not necessarily antisemitism.” Because, sometimes it is. For example, the most casual perusal of online discussions about Israel turns up volumes of images evoking blood libels of the Middle Ages. And the equation of Zionism with Nazism, which can plausibly be denied as explicitly antisemitic, intentionally rubs salt in the most painful of Jewish historical memories. Label such comments as one will, they have the very deliberate effect of inflicting pain on Jews.
And this is the important point here. People can defend their positions by saying that their criticisms are of Israel, not of Jews; that their positions are political, not based on ethnicity or religion. But, as we have said in this space before, outcome matters as well as intent. Israel may be the intended target but Jews feel the effects.
It doesn’t matter that not all Jews are Zionists. It would not matter even if most Jews opposed Zionism. The fact is that opposition to the existence of a Jewish state – which is the definition of “anti-Zionism” – is arguably de facto antisemitic. There are all sorts of defences, of course. Some people claim to oppose all forms of nationalism, yet the practical application of their ideology is to start by boycotting the Jewish state rather than, say, the Mexican, Malaysian or Dutch nations. As well, opposing Zionism, while knowing the historical impacts of Jewish statelessness, including history that took place in the memory of living generations, could be viewed as such disregard for Jewish individual and collective security as to be antisemitic.
Others claim they support Israel’s right to exist, but then take positions that defy these words, such as denying Israel’s right to defend itself, which in effect is a denial of, if not statehood outright, the right of Israeli citizens to live free from terrorist murder and missiles. What name should we give that?
When Jews say they feel singled out because of their Jewish identity or because of their support for a Jewish state, they are met with responses ranging from outright denial of the legitimacy of their experiences to accusations that they are fabricating their concerns as a political weapon. The idea that anti-Zionism is not rife with antisemitism would be more believable if its purveyors acknowledged that such a thing does exist, and condemned it.