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The Cult of ‘Antizionism’

American progressive ideologues have formed a new ideology based on the negation of an all-powerful phantasm they call ‘Zionism.’ To fight them, we need to understand the origins of their beliefs in the Soviet academic propaganda apparatus.

Izabella Tabarovsky
September 20, 2023



This article is part of Refuseniks.
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A group of anti-Israel academics and BDS activists have taken a new step toward rebuilding the long-forgotten Soviet discipline of “scientific antizionism” on American campuses. The “founding collective” of 10 has established an Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism, which aims “to support the delinking of the study of Zionism from Jewish Studies” and “to reclaim academia and public discourse for the study of Zionism.” The new institute defines Zionism as a “political, ideological, and racial and gendered knowledge project, intersecting with Palestine and decolonial studies, critical terrorism studies, settler colonial studies, and related scholarship and activism.” This October, ICSZ will hold its inaugural conference titled “Battling the ‘IHRA Definition’: Theory and Activism.”

The ICSZ’s website presents a vision of an overtly academic institution that will churn out politically motivated “research” designed to move the American public toward the idea of doing away with American support for Israel and, ultimately, with Israel itself. Coming at a time when American Jews and Jewish identity are under comprehensive attack within mainstream institutions, ICSZ sounds like bad news—and it is.

American progressives have scored numerous successes in recent years by using the power of tenured academic positions, in-class bullying, and threats of physical intimidation to enforce anti-Zionist culture at American universities and within the elite cultural spaces that employ American liberal arts graduates. Now, they have taken opposition to Zionism a step further, by transforming their hatred of “Zionists” and rejection of the historical dynamics of Jewish self-identification and national self-determination into its own free-standing ideology, which is politically aligned with, but not dependent on, the wider progressive movement.

Anti-Zionists, as part of the broader far left, are eerily reproducing elements of the cultural deformations that once defined the lives of the citizens of the communist bloc: They have introduced Americans to the practices of collective demonization, blacklists, and denouncing friends and colleagues. They have injected political reeducation and oversight committees into workplaces and academic institutions as part of a new cultural revolution that overtly targets “Zionists” as present-day villains and boogeymen, on a par with “white supremacists” and “fascists.” And they have forced colleagues and coworkers who don’t agree with them to either hide their true opinions, or, more often, to stop having opinions at all, in order to keep their jobs.

Within academia, progressives who primarily derive their personal and professional identity from expressing extreme loathing of Israel have notched additional victories. They have reorganized the missions of entire academic disciplines, including Middle Eastern, Jewish, and Israel studies, around demonization of the Jewish state. They have pushed states to introduce radical “liberated ethnic studies” maligning Jews and Israel in K-12 schools. They have coopted countless academics into signing defamatory anti-Israel petitions that are of questionable academic validity and, word has it, are now working to place signatories on the synagogue lecture circuit, as part of their strategy of legitimizing the openly racist, and even genocidal, views at the heart of anti-Zionist ideology by co-opting wealthy Jewish institutions and funders who seek to buy protection from progressives, despite the radical unpopularity of their views among ordinary American Jews.

The establishment of ICSZ marks a new stage in the relentless regressive march of this bizarre progressive movement. How delighted would the institute’s forebears in the Soviet security and propaganda apparatus have been to witness the spectacle of Americans, including Jews, coming together of their own free will to provide academic legitimacy and a Jewish institutional imprimatur to conspiracy theories about Zionism that they spent their entire careers developing, and then inculcating with sympathetic audiences around the globe?

The ICSZ’s founders are known figures in the BDS movement and the movement for the academic boycott of Israel. They include Rabab Abdulhadi of San Francisco State University, who tried to bring convicted PFLP terrorist and airline hijacker Leila Khaled to SFSU; Lau Barrios, who has served as campaign manager at Linda Sarsour’s MPower Change and as a co-organizer of the “No Tech for Apartheid” campaign geared at pressuring Google and Amazon to end their work with Israel; and Emmaia Gelman, ICSZ’s founding director, who serves as a trustee of the Sparkplug Foundation, a funder of IfNotNow and Palestinian Youth Movement, and also a co-sponsor of the ICSZ conference.

ICSZ’s advisory board, which has grown from 16 to 29 members as of this writing in less than two weeks, now includes the UC Berkeley professor Judith Butler, an academic superstar of the American BDS movement who famously described Hezbollah and Hamas as progressive social movements that are “on the Left” and are “part of a global Left,” and New York University’s Lisa Duggan, who defended Rasmea Odeh, a PFLP operative who helped organize two deadly bombings inside Israel.

ICSZ claims it has the backing of well-funded pro-BDS NGOs like Jewish Voice for Peace and American Friends Service Committee, both listed as co-sponsors of the conference, and that it plans to grant “annual fellowships for students and academics, conferences, [and] publications.” The ICSZ’s apparent affiliation with the NYU and University of California at Santa Cruz, which the founders have claimed will be hosting their first conference, furthers its veneer of academic legitimacy, though both the NYU and UCSC have denied affiliation with the conference or providing space for it but remain listed on the site. Those who are tempted to dismiss ICSZ as fringe today need only to remember that it is part of a network of NGOs that also began on the margins before raising millions of dollars and going mainstream on campuses like NYU and UCSC. The rapid expansion of ICSZ’s advisory board and the inclusion on it of celebrity BDS activists such as Butler, suggests that ICSZ is already capturing the imagination of the anti-Israel crowd.

ICSZ presents the clearest articulation yet of the philosophy, goals, and methods of the anti-Israel hard left as it breaks free from conventional modes of progressive analysis and coalition-building and becomes its own self-contained ideological universe.

The first thing that an examination of ICSZ’s website makes clear is that, contrary to their claims, ICSZ’s founders are not, in fact, anti-Zionists. ICSZ describes Zionism as “a broad set of colonial and repressive work and solidarities, efforts to curate knowledge and identities, and to dismantle movements that resist it.” It views it as a “political ideology tightly enmeshed with racism, fascism, and colonial dispossession” and intends to demonstrate “how the critical study of Zionism is deeply and essentially connected to the study of global forces including contests over power, race, colonialism, capital, militarism, and violence.”

This deeply contrived view of Zionism bears no relationship to how the founders of Zionism framed their beliefs, nor how Jews have historically perceived and experienced Zionism. Jews who argued against Zionism as the answer to the “Jewish question” in the run-up to World War II (an entirely legitimate debate until the war proved Zionism right in the most terrible way possible) would not have recognized in this description the Zionism that they opposed.

Calling ICSZ founders anti-Zionists, then, is a profound misnomer. To find a better term for them, let’s turn to the work of British scholars David Seymour and David Hirsh. In a 2019 paper, Seymour argues that the philosophy of those who oppose an imaginary, rather than real, Zionism should be framed not in opposition to Zionism but as a free-standing ideology and should be spelled, akin to antisemitism, as “antizionism”—i.e., without the hyphen. Just as “the ideology of antisemitism tells us nothing about Jews” but everything about antisemites, writes Seymour, “the ideology of antizionism tells us more about itself” than it does about Israel or Zionism.

Expounding on this, Hirsh notes in his essay in the forthcoming The Routledge History of Antisemitism that the “‘Zionism’ against which antizionism defines its ideology” is “something conjured by the anti-Jewish imagination.” The antizionist conceives Zionism as “colonialism, apartheid, racism, the surveillance state, as being like Nazism, and as everything else that good people oppose”—in other words, as a phenomenon that is “profoundly different” from the Zionism embraced by Jews. Just like antisemites do battle against a fantasy of “the Jews” that exists in their own heads, the new antizionists battle a “Zionism” that exists nowhere on earth, and is instead conjured up by their own fevered imaginations. Dropping the hyphen may not seem like the radical step this moment calls for, but just like changing the spelling of anti-Semitism to antisemitism, it has important conceptual implications, and helps us view the phenomenon from new angles.  

While most American Jews understand why it is important to know the history of Nazi Germany and its antisemitic ideology, even though Nazi Germany has ceased to exist and its ideas are widely discredited, few American Jews can identify the provenance of ideas espoused by today’s antizionist left. As I have noted here, here, here, and here, today’s antizionists reproduce, with extraordinary fidelity, the tropes, the motifs and the explanatory logic of Soviet antizionism. But Soviet history vanished from Americans’ curricula as though that vast totalitarian empire never existed. Americans’ understanding of communism today seems limited to opposing McCarthyism, resulting in a deeply provincial perception of communists as a powerless minority of well-meaning idealists standing up to a bigoted, nativist American establishment.

It is no wonder, then, that American Jews are unable to trace the kind of demonizing antizionism that ICSZ’s founders preach to its source. Nor do they know that ICSZ’s language associating Zionism with racism, fascism, capitalism, colonialism, and militarism was once monotonously weaponized against millions of Soviet Jews, who suffered exclusion, professional and educational discrimination, and severe limitations on their Jewish identity as a result. Only a fraction of Soviet Jews were openly Zionist (these were tried in kangaroo courts and given lengthy sentences in prison colonies), but the antizionist campaign put a mark on every Soviet Jewish citizen. A million and a half Jews left the country the moment they could.

What American Jews are experiencing today, as the ideology of antizionism spreads in left-of-center spaces, looks eerily familiar to anyone who came of age in the 1970s-80s USSR. American Jews increasingly find themselves under pressure to disavow their connection to Israel and lower their Jewish profiles. They are excluded from progressive groups. They are losing professional and educational opportunities. Some were physically attacked during the 2021 flare-up of the Israel-Hamas conflict. Nearly 60% of American Jewish college students report being targeted by antisemitism directed against them, personally. Even more alarming than this explosion of anti-Jewish bigotry is the blanket silence with which it has been greeted by institutions whose reactions to even a handful of such incidents targeting other social groups is easy to imagine.

The fact that there is no formal apparatus of state repression behind American antizionism offers only a measure of relief. If there is anything the last few years have shown, it’s that the radical left is capable of imposing its norms on society without directly capturing institutions of the state.

One implication of viewing antizionism as a standalone philosophy with a distinct historical and political lineage, then, is that it gives the lie to ICSZ’s claim that it is not anti-Jewish (we’ll come back to this in a moment). Another is that there is nothing remotely organic about contemporary antizionist language. Far from being an outgrowth of grassroots activism on behalf of Palestinians or an attempt to speak truth to power, this language is imposed from the top down, by antizionist ideologues and activists whose own views are the products of professional Soviet Cold War propagandists such as Yuri Ivanov and Yevgeny Yevseyev (for more on them see here and here), Vladimir Bolshakov, Valery Yemelyanov, and others like them—right-wing antisemitic conspiracy theorists employed by an authoritarian regime that perceived Zionism and Israel as its biggest ideological enemies. Contemporary antizionists should ask themselves whether this is a political tradition they want to associate themselves with.

What American Jews are experiencing today, as the ideology of ‘antizionism’ spreads in left-of-center spaces, looks eerily familiar to anyone who came of age in the 1970s-80s USSR.

ICSZ leads with the bizarre proposition of supporting “the delinking of the study of Zionism from Jewish Studies.” Doing that is as weird as, say, attempting to describe Armenian or Basque nationalism outside the context of the history of Armenians or the Basque. “Zionism’s project,” on the other hand, ICSZ informs us, “extends beyond the borders of Palestine,” and so the study of Zionism needs to be spread “across multiple fields,” to include “Asian American studies, Asian studies, critical race and ethnic studies, feminist studies, queer studies, Palestinian studies and beyond.” This idea could be dismissed as silly if it weren’t so malicious. The point being that Jews are the universal oppressor, and so the Jewish story can be maimed as the haters please.

There is a reason, of course, why ICSZ’s founders are so keen on amputating Zionism from its Jewish context, and that is to avoid being labeled as antisemitic. If you can convince the gullible that Zionism is not related to Jews, then you can demonize the former with impunity: Accusations of antisemitism will not apply. Here, too, the founders walk firmly in the footsteps of their Soviet predecessors. Soviet propagandists cannibalized the history of Zionism to underscore its supposedly inherent evil nature, ripping Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau quotes out of context and presenting Zionists as the Jewish people’s greatest enemy. For ICSZ to cut Zionism off conceptually from its roots in the Jewish faith, Jewish history, and Jewish collective popular memory is an obnoxious attempt to undermine the integrity of the Jewish story, and to propagandize its followers.

What draws the antizionist left’s special ire is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism. Alone among several existing definitions, the IHRA definition, which has now been adopted by over 1,100 global entities and 43 countries and numerous other political entities, provides tools to distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israel and demonization. ICSZ’s upcoming conference intends to help out those battling the definition, which, it claims, “both amplifies and hides repressive power and state violence.” The conference also plans to address IHRA’s “enabling conditions,” which range from the “neo-liberal university” to “the ways that the idea of antisemitism has been constructed,” to “student organizing,” to “the DEI as a cooptable and abusable format for leveraging demands for rights and attention” (presumably, by Jews and Zionists). ICSZ intends to center the work of “activists and communities whose lives are shaped by Zionist institutions’ political work” through “points of unity” that all academics will be expected to sign onto, in order to continue engaging in academic work. Zionist Jews, obviously, will not be part of the conversation.

ICSZ’s “points of unity” are the most obvious proof that ICSZ’s academic mission is a fiction. “Is it even legal to impose loyalty oaths on a college campus?” asked Jarrod Tanny, a Jewish history professor and founder of the Jewish Studies Zionist Network with reference to its upcoming conference. In a letter to UCSC, David Bernstein and Marcy Braverman Goldstein of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values arguedthat ideological litmus tests go against university policy and urged it to “immediately withdraw sponsorship from this event.”

The “points of unity” betray ICSZ as a political project in search of academic legitimacy. What kind of scholarship a project like this might produce is, once again, apparent from the history of “scientific antizionism” in the Soviet Union. One of its emblematic products is Mahmoud Abbas’ dissertation, which the Palestinian leader defended in 1982 at the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies—the linchpin of Soviet “Zionology.” The dissertation is shot through with factual errors, decontextualizations, distortions, and outright falsifications of sources. It is a safe assumption that ICSZ’s “scholarly” output will be of similar quality.

When it comes to conceptualizing Zionism, ICSZ’s founders think big—very big. In their minds, Zionism is a global, powerful, and malevolent entity. It needs to be studied “transnationally” because of its “direct work for the Israeli state and its ‘other work,’” ICSZ informs us, leaving unexplained the insinuating quotes around “other work.” Not only is Zionism central to such societal ills as “racism, colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and the appropriation of liberatory rhetoric by repressive political forces, among other harms,” but it is impeding numerous crucial “political pursuits” animating the good people of the earth, ranging “from democracy to decolonization.”

It doesn’t end here, however. “The study of Zionism,” we learn from the institute’s FAQ page, “extends to Zionist institutions and logics, their role in the production of racial and gendered knowledge, their function in naturalizing and reproducing structures of militarized colonial violence, and the ways that Zionism interplays with, and relationally shapes, bigger spheres including politics, culture, the movement of capital, and ways of thinking about the world.”

ICSZ’s vision further incorporates “research on the role of Zionism in the development of U.S. hate crimes policy and homonationalism, the linkages between Zionist and Hindutva politics, the ties between Zionist institutions, the Israeli state, and the evangelical Christian right, the Zionist surveillance technology deployed at the U.S.-Mexico border, the destruction of Indigenous agriculture in Guatemala, the centrality of Zionism in the opposition to and attempted cooptation of ethnic studies in the United States, and the fostering of post-9/11 interventionist human rights politics with regard to North Korea.”

As if this were not enough, critical study of Zionism, we’re told, is “deeply and essentially connected to the study of global forces including contests over power, race, colonialism, capital, militarism, and violence.” In a Mondoweiss op-ed, Abdulhadi and Heike Schotten, another ICSZ co-founder, tell us that new and “exciting” work on Zionism is being done in “seemingly unexpected domains” such as “surveillance, education, farming, and critically analyzing how Zionist logics are reproduced and utilized in ideas and arguments about race, policing, land usage and climate change, and neoliberal capitalism.” Cue in cartoons of hook-nosed octopuses and spiders holding the world in their tentacles.

It’s unsurprising that contemporary antizionists trade in the tropes of right-wing antisemitic conspiracy theory, replacing the word “Jew” with the word “Zionist.” Soviet Zionology grew out of the right-wing Russian nationalist movement that emerged in the USSR after Stalin’s death and was nurtured on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. ICSZ founders may hide behind contemporary academic jargon, but they are reproducing eliminationist antisemitic conspiracy theory under the guise of progressive language. The fact that some antizionists may not be entirely aware of the origins of their ideas doesn’t diminish the damage that they are doing. 

Peeking through the lines of ICSZ’s web pages is a deeply dismal vision of society that is as anti-Jewish as it is anti-democratic. The complaint about DEI councils as a “cooptable and abusable format for leveraging demands for rights and attention” hints at a desire to put an end to all the democratic nonsense of discussion and compromise. The intention to keep “Zionist” Jews—i.e., the majority of American and Israeli Jews—out of discussions about Israel, Zionism, antisemitism and other topics crucial to the well-being of the community—reveals a vision that is dangerous not only to Jews but to any other minority that gets in the way of the hard-left manifesting its utopia. The founders think nothing of trashing a fundamental aspect of the academy—academic freedom—while arrogating to themselves the right to decide who has a right to speak. 

ICSZ is the latest product of the growing anti-Jewish sentiment on the left, but it most certainly won’t be the last. The confusion that has greeted its establishment is symptomatic of the failures of the Jewish leadership, which has for decades looked exclusively to the right for sources of danger to the community. In the current environment, it is entirely possible that ICSZ will manage to secure a valid academic base and respectable sources of funding and start churning out anti-Jewish propaganda couched in the language of antizionism.

Unfortunately, American Jewish institutions are three decades too late coming into this fight, and it is still not clear that they fully grasp the landscape in which they are operating. We need to recognize that teaching about the dangers of Nazi antisemitism does nothing to prepare the next generation of American Jews to defend themselves against antizionist antisemitism. Along with German Nazism, American Jews need to be learning about Soviet communism and the disasters that the left visited on the Jews in the 20th century. Young American Jews in particular need to be inoculated against the siren song of woke antizionists seeking to usurp their Jewish identity and draw them into fighting their own people, before it is once again too late.

Izabella Tabarovsky is a Tablet contributor. Follow her on Twitter @IzaTabaro.