Debates over the link between antisemitism and anti-Zionism are not going away, but in some ways they are beside the point. Anti-Zionism can be just as noxious as antisemitism, and something need not be antisemitic to be beyond the pale.

Since the horrific events of October 7, I have written about the situation on the ground in Israel and Gaza nonstop. But there is another dimension to October 7, and it is what has been happening here in the U.S. Hamas’ attack upended many things, and one of those has been the sense of relative comfort and safety felt by most American Jews in the pre-October 7 world. The air is full of clear and virulent expressions of antisemitism and anti-Zionism, and violence against and intimidation of Jews are on the rise in every direction you look. This has fueled the already roaring debate about whether anti-Zionism is antisemitism, with the overwhelming majority of American Jews—who identify as both Jewish and Zionist—subjected to the crossfire. This week saw different resolutions on antisemitism introduced in the House of Representatives, each condemning the hate directed at Jews related to Israel but dealing with the larger issue of whether anti-Zionism is antisemitism in different ways, and college presidents equivocating in Congressional testimony on whether calls for genocide against Jews that aren’t backed up by actual genocide violate university codes of conduct. The backdrop of continued fighting between Israel and Hamas only guarantees the volume being turned up further.

There is a long-running debate about whether anti-Zionism can be separated from antisemitism. The existence of anti-Zionist Jews—whether Satmar Hassidim or Brooklynite Yiddishists—and the heated arguments about Zionism during the first half of the 20th century in the American Jewish community demonstrate that the Venn diagram between antisemitism and anti-Zionism is not a complete overlap. Attempts to force the issue—whether it be in definitions of antisemitism, Congressional resolutions, or arguments that to be anti-Zionist is to be “unJewish”—are not going to definitively settle anything. Many Jews will insist that anti-Zionism equals antisemitism while others will insist the opposite, and it will remain in the category of disagreements that feed the joke about one Jew on a desert island building two synagogues so that he can have the one he goes to and the one he doesn’t.

But even if this debate will exist until the end of time, two disturbing and dispiriting recent events demonstrate why it is time to bypass it. The first is the widespread trend in some progressive circles to deny, dismiss, downplay, or distract from the documented rape and sexual assault of Israeli women as part of the October 7 attacks. The most high-profile instance of this, though hardly the only or most egregious one, was Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal’s CNN interview during which she condemned the sexual violence against Israelis but then raised subsequent Palestinian casualties in Israel’s military response to the attacks and voiced her desire “to be balanced about bringing in the outrages against Palestinians.” It is difficult to come up with any other situation in which rape and violence against women are subjected in polite circles to a desire to bring in context, but when “Zionists” are involved, it magically becomes a gray area for some, where allegations of rape should be discounted and it is actually Israel’s fault for not distributing rape kits literally in the midst of combating an ongoing terrorist massacre.

Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal

The second event was Sunday’s demonstration outside of Goldie, a Jewish-owned kosher Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia (full disclosure: Goldie’s co-owner is married to my wife’s first cousin), where protestors nonsensically charged the business with genocide and plastered Free Palestine stickers on its storefront. The ostensible justification for protesting a restaurant that serves (excellent) Israeli food was that owners Mike Solomonov and Steve Cook had donated proceeds from Goldie and their other restaurants to the Israeli military. In actuality, the proceeds were donated to United Hatzalah, an emergency services non-profit that provides medical services to everyone—which currently includes medical equipment and medical training for the IDF—and partners with both Magen David Adom and Red Crescent. But it doesn’t take more than thirty seconds on any social media network of your choosing to see that plenty of people want to protest and boycott Goldie not because of any money it gave to United Hatzalah, but because it is associated with Israel through Solomonov (whose brother was killed while serving in the IDF) and through the cuisine that it serves. In this instance, association with Israel makes anything and anyone fair game for some, and so protesting outside a falafel and hummus joint owned by two American Jews with personal connections to Israel is as valid a way to register anger at Israel’s operation in Gaza as is protesting outside the Israeli embassy.

United Hatzalah volunteers helping out in a hospital in Ashkelon on October 20, 2023

Are either of these trends, or the specific incidents illustrating them, antisemitic? Or are they just anti-Zionist? I’m not sure it matters. I can absolutely point to anti-Zionism that I would not dub antisemitic, and I also know that given what is taking place in the streets of cities and on college campuses, this does not seem to be the time to take stands based on theoretical frameworks. The common sense response to these things is to point out how awful they are and demand that they stop, and not be consumed by arguments over the semantics of antisemitism versus anti-Zionism. If you think it is ok to tear down posters of Israeli hostages, claim that October 7 was an Israeli false flag operation, insist that Israeli women and children abducted by Hamas who waved goodbye when released by their captors demonstrates Hamas’ humanity and decency rather than the forced stage directions of terrorists who still hold those women and children’s relatives and friends hostage, or refuse to condemn rape of Israeli women on its own terms, then whether your abhorrent behavior is antisemitic or just anti-Zionist is of little practical relevance.

What this should demonstrate is not that anti-Zionism is or is not antisemitic, but that it can be corrosive and wrong on its own terms. This should be common sense, but it somehow is not. How have we arrived at a place where it is justifiable to cheer the mass murder, torture, and abduction of Israeli innocents so long as it can be categorized as anti-Israeli and not anti-Jewish? My view is and always has been that if someone wants to be anti-Israel, that is well within their rights, but that doesn’t mean that anti-Zionism should be broadly acceptable any more than other bigotry is broadly acceptable. Anti-Zionism is now wielded as a shield against charges of antisemitism, but the fact that antisemitism is viewed as a moral stain should not automatically make anti-Zionism non-problematic if someone can demonstrate that it isn’t antisemitism.

Pro-Palestinian protesters rally outside Goldie’s restaurant in Philadelphia on December 4, 2023. (Screen capture/X)

If you are Palestinian, I both expect and understand your opposition to Zionism. It still doesn’t justify glorifying Hamas’ terrorism, but Palestinian anti-Zionism is inseparable from Palestinians’ struggle for justice and recognition of their national aspirations. It is why absolutist statements about anti-Zionism and its relation to antisemitism don’t work in theory or in practice. But the majority of anti-Zionism that is threatening American Jews is not coming from Palestinians, and we have ceded ground in doing everything we can to insist that it must be antisemitism. It may indeed be antisemitic, but we should be able to call it out without any nuance or hedging on its own terms.

Nuance only seems to be called for when it comes to the Jewish state and its denizens. When it comes to hatred of other groups, people, or nationalities, there is far less tolerance. Yet I find myself subjected to lectures from non-Jews about why and how anti-Zionism is not antisemitic, and why and how insisting that any anti-Zionism is antisemitic detracts from the “real fight against antisemitism.” Maybe they are right, and we should be able to always tease out when anti-Zionism crosses the antisemitism line and when it doesn’t. But all of this elides the point that anti-Zionism is often just as objectionable as any antisemitism that is unrelated to Zionism. So long as it remains acceptable in respectable circles to purvey or excuse hate and bigotry against Israelis for being Israeli, we will continue to dizzy ourselves with arguments about antisemitism and anti-Zionism rather than calling out behavior as unacceptable, irrespective of the category to which it properly belongs.