“If six million people were walking around saying that they were ‘chosen,’ you would want to kill them, too.”
A few months ago, I was shocked to hear these words from a fellow Brown University student. With a remarkable degree of ignorance about the history of the Holocaust and Jewish theology, he suggested that the Jews are so repulsive that we brought the Nazi genocide upon ourselves. He shut down another student for daring to bring up her grandparents’ Holocaust experiences at a Shabbat dinner conversation, calling her selfish for recounting her own family’s history. He declared that Jewish religion and ethics are meaningless as long as Israel, which he regarded as the epicenter of global evil, exists.
He was Jewish.
He had internalized a toxic culture of anti-Semitism and grown to resent Holocaust survivors, Zionists, and all who represented resistance to the mentality that he had chosen to adopt. Anti-Zionists had repeated the narrative that they represented “young Jews” and “our generation” until he believed them. He couldn’t stand to be confronted with millennial Jews like me who had taken the harder path, had chosen to name anti-Semitism, talk about it, and fight back.
People like him claim to speak for the whole of my generation, but they are a small minority of Jewish millennials. According to Pew’s comprehensive study of American Jews, a full 81 percent of Jewish 18-29 year-olds consider “caring about Israel” to be “essential” or “important” to being Jewish. Only 11 percent of us say we are “not at all attached” to Israel. We may be critical of its policies and politicians, but not its existence.
Thus, even on those campuses where Students for Justice in Palestine reigns supreme and where university institutions might openly host or manufacture anti-Zionist propaganda, most young Jews do care about Jewish history, Jewish liberation, and the Jewish state. Ultimately, no matter how much the anti-Zionist movement tries to appropriate Jewish voices, those anti-Zionist “young Jews” who claim to speak on behalf of our generation in condemnation of Israel and the Jewish people are nothing more than tokens.
Anti-feminist women do not make feminism any less crucial. The single Trump-supporting Syrian American I know is not representative of his community. And the handful of Jews that Brown’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine dug up in Providence to help them protest a “Jewish Journeys” event at my university do not make Zionism and Israel any less important to Jewish students on campus.
With increasing frequency, however, token anti-Zionist Jews claim to speak for my generation, and for the Jewish people in general. Their voices are often louder, because unlike young Zionists, who must make decisions about the cost (in friendships, political legitimacy, and sometimes even personal safety) of vocalizing our dissent from anti-Israel campus discourse, anti-Zionists accrue social capital through their hatred of Israel. Those of us who stand up for Israel are berated and excluded from meaningful social justice work. For this reason, students often speak to me privately about their Zionism but are afraid to speak up about it in public. This power dynamic allows anti-Zionist Jews to posture as representative voices.
We must not let them get away with it.
Now, one might reasonably question whether this is really such a pressing concern at this perilous time. How can American Jews fret about anti-Zionism or Hamas or Iran while neo-Nazis march through our own backyard? The Huffington Post recently ran an important article listing examples of public anti-Semitism in the United States since the white supremacist rally and terrorist attack in Charlottesville. And indeed, after listening to one marcher list his “values” as “standing up for local, white identity,” “the free market,” and “killing Jews,” it is difficult to think about anything else.
Nevertheless, it is more important now than ever to deal with the issue of anti-Zionist Jews and their false claim to represent my generation. As anti-Semitism becomes a more significant part of the public conversation on bigotry in America, American Jews have a rare opportunity to be heard in social justice communities. This is our chance to give voice to our communal needs—including why the existence of a Jewish state matters to us. But anti-Zionist Jews, like the student I quoted above, will do their best to hijack this moment. If Jews are finally given a seat at the table in discussions about oppression and social justice in the United States, anti-Zionist Jews will try to seize that seat for themselves. They will coopt the struggle against anti-Semitism on the political right, while suppressing mainstream progressive Jewish voices—Zionist voices—on the political left.
For this reason, we need to confront anti-Zionism among American Jews now, because we cannot allow a fringe element to dictate the terms of our communal engagement with social justice movements. We must choose, in this crucial moment, to lift up all marginalized communities, including our own, and not to be represented by those few among us who would rather put their own community down than see Jews heard and protected.
Anti-Zionist Jews, although they sometimes affiliate themselves with social justice movements, generally are not concerned with representing Jewish needs in those movements, or even with pushing forward the important work of those movements in general. Truly effective Jewish social justice work, like the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s advocacy for refugee and immigrant rights and the Anti-Defamation League’s work against hate crimes and in support of criminal justice reform and voting rights, is usually accomplished by groups that are openly and deeply passionate about Israel.
Rather, the primary function of anti-Zionist Jews in progressive spaces is not to stand up for Jews or Jewish rights, but to bolster the claim that anti-Zionism does not significantly overlap with anti-Semitism. Thus, the ironically named “Jewish Voice for Peace” has partnered with an array of anti-Semites posturing as mere anti-Zionists, from Miko Peled, who dubbed Jews “sleazy thieves,” to Alison Weir of “If Americans Knew,” who complained about there being too many Jews on the Supreme Court, championed the medieval blood libel, and repeatedly partnered with white supremacists and Holocaust deniers like Southern Poverty Law Center-designated Clayton Douglas. (JVP briefly distanced itself from Weir, only to reinvite her to events soon after.)
By offering themselves as Jewish tokens to the powerful, worldwide anti-Zionist movement, anti-Zionist Jews promote a dangerous distinction among progressives between good Jews (American, anti-Zionist, and nearly 100% Ashkenazi—like the tokens) and bad Jews (Israeli, Zionist, less economically privileged, and more diverse—like the majority of Israeli Jews who are Mizrahi, Sephardi, Ethiopian, or Indian). The anti-Zionist argument is that if any Jews, even in small numbers, are anti-Zionist, anti-Zionism by definition cannot be at all related to anti-Semitism and the two rarely, if ever, meet. Israelis and the Zionist majority of American Jews, therefore, are fair targets for draconian discrimination and must forfeit their right to speak out against anti-Zionism, even as it serves as a frequent cover for anti-Semitism today.
One of the many problems with this argument is that token Jews have always played important roles in anti-Semitic claims. As such, a movement’s success in recruiting small numbers of Jews does not make it immune to scrutiny. By way of illustration, Fordham University’s Dr. Doron Ben-Atar, in his important article “Historicizing the Transhistorical: Apostasy and the Dialectic of Jew Hatred,” places contemporary anti-Zionist Jews in a historical context with Theobald, the converted former Jew whose 12th century testimony justified the first ever blood libel known to historians; Nicholas Donin, a Yeshiva student whose testimony justified King Louis IX’s mass burning of the Talmud; and Karl Marx, whose polemics against Judaism helped introduce the traditionally right-wing ideas of anti-Semitism to the political left.
Similarly, Norman Cohn, in his book Warrant for Genocide: the Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, cites at least two Jewish figures in the development of that most infamous of anti-Semitic documents. In the mid-19th century, a Jew by the name of Jacob Brafmann wrote The Book of the Kahal and Jewish Fraternities, Local and Universal, while another Jew, a man named Millinger who trafficked in anti-Semitism for financial gain, wrote World Conquest by the Jews. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which would later become the centerpiece of the modern anti-Semitic canon and which, this summer, influenced the white supremacists in Charlottesville, thus depended on Jewish testimony as well.
But Theobald’s testimony did not make centuries of anti-Jewish violence in Europe acceptable. Donin’s analysis did not validate book burning. Marx’s words did not legitimize Soviet anti-Semitism. The writing of Brafmann and Millinger did not make the outlandish accusations of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion true, and they certainly did not make the Holocaust or the chants of “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville any less horrible. Likewise, the ranting of token Jewish anti-Zionists today does not legitimize anti-Zionism or anti-Semitism, and it does not make the too-frequent overlap between the two any less significant.
There have always been some Jews who are willing to sacrifice the Jewish people for a chance to fit in or attain power in a hostile culture. Sometimes, these individuals have come from the political right, not unlike those token American Jews who have collaborated with Donald Trump’s administration, even as the overwhelming majority of their brethren voted against him. Other times, as in the case of anti-Zionist Jews, these tokens have hailed from the political left. But in either case, never have these Jews’ testimonies made the fundamentally anti-Semitic ideas that they supported acceptable.
Most Jewish millennials whom I know, and most who have been captured by today’s sociological studies, are not anti-Zionists. Rather, we are committed Zionists who believe in peace, who care deeply about Israel and often disagree with its government, who value the lives and dignity of both Israelis and Palestinians, and who are passionate about a wide range of social justice causes, including the struggle against anti-Semitism. These things are not contradictory.
Anti-Zionist Jews have convinced many people, and possibly even themselves, that they are more than tokens. They claim that their reactionary ideology, which at its most innocent calls for the obliteration of a society and culture and the subjugation of the Jewish people once again to the whim of the global community, is widespread among Jewish youth. They then leverage that claim to posture as representatives of the Jewish community, especially in social justice spaces. But they do not speak for this people, they do not speak for this generation, and they certainly do not speak for me.
Benjamin Gladstone studies Judaic Studies and Middle East Studies at Brown University and has written for the New York Times, The Forward, and The Tower, among other publications.