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When discussions of antisemitism turn to the issue of Israel and Palestine, the conversation often derails.


On the one hand, criticisms of Israel sometimes reflect antisemitic stereotypes. On the other hand, some accuse Jews and allies of using claims of antisemitism as a “shield” against criticism of Israel.


Three Important Considerations …


1. Zionism is the movement for Jewish national self-determination. “Anti-Zionism,” then, is not “criticism of Israel.” It is opposition to the existence of the state of Israel. If we endorse self-determination for other people but not for Jews, can this be seen as antisemitism?


2. The common assertion that “anti-Zionism is not antisemitism” assumes that preconceptions, assumptions and biases about Jewish people have absolutely no impact on our ideas of the Jewish state. This is plainly implausible.


3. When allegations of racism (in this case, antisemitism) are raised, the appropriate response is self-reflection, not blanket denials. Worse, accusing Jews of exploiting their experience with discrimination for political advantage is wrong.



Rather than getting bogged down in the possibly unwinnable arguments over whether and where antisemitism and anti-Zionism intersect, let us try to find a common ground that allows us to address discrimination and bias without side-tracking into arguments that are unproductive.


Start with These Two Steps …


It is impossible to definitively prove a person’s motivations. Therefore, any argument over whether anti-Zionism is driven by antisemitism is unwinnable. We could circumvent the entire problem by adopting two remarkably simple approaches.


1. Be pro-Palestinian. The more constructive contributions self-declared Palestinian allies make to the well-being of Palestinians, the more difficult it will be for others to accuse them of antisemitism. To be genuinely pro-Palestinian, we need to encourage compromise and coexistence – the only things that will lead to a negotiated settlement and therefore to peace and Palestinian self-determination – not violence, inflexibility, intolerance and the demonization of Israelis and Jews. Is your activism likely to have a constructive impact on the lives of Palestinians? Or is it merely attacking Israel?


2. Be pro-Israel. Yes, that’s actually a prerequisite, even for the most committed Palestinian activist. Compromise, in which both sides lose some and both sides win some, is the only way this ends peacefully. We cannot be pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel. We cannot be pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian. We can only be pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel. We help make peace when we strive for mutual understanding. We perpetuate pain and conflict when we advance one side against the other.


Is anti-Zionism antisemitic? In some ways, the answer doesn’t matter. Even if it could be proven that there was absolutely no connection between the two, both anti-Zionism and antisemitism are wrong.


Both peoples live between the river and the sea and must find a way to do so in peaceful coexistence. Arguing that either people does not have the right to national self-determination does not advance coexistence and peace.




Natan Sharansky developed a three-part test for determining when anti-Zionism is antisemitic.




When Israel and its leaders are made to seem completely evil; when Israel’s actions are blown out of all sensible proportion; when Israel and Israelis are equated with Nazi Germany and Nazis; when Israel is seen as the sole cause for the situation in the Middle East.




When criticism of Israel is applied selectively and in a grossly unfair manner and Israel is singled out when clearly immoral behavior of other nation-states is ignored.




When Israel’s fundamental right to exist is denied alone among all peoples of the world.






One of the challenges in having a constructive conversation around antisemitism as it relates to Israel is that many non-Jewish people do not understand the centrality Israel plays in the individual and collective identity of most Jewish people.


To understand the impact that extreme anti-Israel rhetoric has on Jewish people in Canada, it is necessary to understand the deep emotional, religious, familial, cultural and other connections that almost all Jewish people feel toward the land and the state of Israel.

Jewish people who are religious obviously have theological connections. For Jews who are less religious, including atheists, agnostics, cultural Jews and those who define themselves in other ways, Israel is, for many, no less significant.

We must understand that criticizing Israel is as legitimate as criticizing any other country. However, we must also recognize that when that criticism takes the form of extreme rhetoric, it can understandably appear to be (and be in fact) a form of irrational behaviour.


Most Canadians (unless we are Indigenous) have some connection to countries of our, or our ancestors, origins. The connection of Canadian Jews to Israel is similar to this, but different in many ways.



The successive tragedies of Jewish history can almost all be traced back to an overriding historical reality: Jewish statelessness.


Jewish history includes centuries of displacement, exploitation, expulsion, dhimmitude (subordination under Islamic law), ghettoization, humiliation, forced conversion, social and economic marginalization, torture, collective violence, gender-based violence, and more. Without a country of their own, for 1,800 years, Jews were often at the whims of those among whom they lived.


Jewish statelessness culminated, in the 20th century, in the Holocaust. The murder of six million Jews was possible not only because of the evil of the Nazi regime and their collaborators. It was achievable because every other country in the world closed their doors to Jewish refugees at that pivotal period. This is a lesson not lost of Jewish people today.

The state of Israel is important to Jewish people outside Israel for many reasons. One reason, though, is because it represents a bulwark against any repetition of a situation in which the Jewish people are stateless and find no country willing to defend or admit them.


To respond to this explanation with anything other than empathy – for example, to accuse Jews of experiencing a “persecution complex” – is to dismiss the legitimate lessons learned from very recent history. Further, it ignores decades of continual and unconcealed expressions of genocidal intent from religious, political, social, educational and other leading voices in the Arab and Muslim world, and elsewhere. It also diminishes the human capability for genocide — which has proven itself again and again since 1945.


This is not a theoretical threat. The fundamentalist regime in Iran has explicitly expressed the intent to commit genocide and they have a nuclear program to realize it. A Jewish state does not guarantee that a future genocide cannot happen. The existence of a strong, defensible Jewish country, though, remains the best assurance.

If we are not sensitive to the centrality that Israel holds in the hearts of our Jewish neighbors — and the historical understanding that they have of the impacts of Jewish statelessness — this may not fall under the strict definition of antisemitism. However, it implies an indifference to the fate of Jewish people and, whatever we might term this, can understandably be heard by Jewish people as menacing.




The perceptual relationship around the Holocaust, which ended in 1945, and the creation of the state of Israel, in 1948, is complicated. It is not appropriate to view the state of Israel as a "consolation prize" for the Holocaust, or to describe the creation of Israel, as it is sometimes stated, as "Arab people paying the price for European crimes.”

The land of Israel is the ancestral home of the Jewish people. Zionism – simply the idea that Jewish people have a right to national self-determination – was as valid in 1938, before the Holocaust, as it was in 1948.


Moreover, Zionism is not, as it is often presented, a “colonial” or “imperialist” ideology. On the contrary, it is one of the most successful cases of postwar decolonialization.


Beyond all this, we must contest the idea that Israel was somehow “given” to the Jewish people. Although the United Nations passed a resolution setting the stage for a Jewish and an Arab state in Palestine, at the critical moment, the Jewish (now Israeli) people of the region were left almost entirely alone, confronted by the combined armies of all neighboring states, many of whose leaders explicitly promised the second genocide in a decade.

While the Holocaust is not the reason Israel exists, conversely, the Holocaust was able to happen because Israel did not exist. This complicated fact is necessary to understand the way many Jewish Canadians respond when they hear chants like “From the river to the sea …”.




Finally, but crucially, we must understand the role Jews worldwide have played in the building of Israel. In the aftermath of the murder of 6 million of the world’s 16 million Jews, the surviving remnant resisted the understandable temptation to collapse into collective depression and instead mobilized one of the most constructive acts of redemption and nation-building ever conceived.


Jews worldwide made a profound connection with this new country, placing their hopes and energies in the redeeming act of creating and sustaining the Jewish state.

Across eight decades, despite successive defensive wars and unceasing terror attacks on its civilians, Israelis have built one of the world’s most successful societies, including some of the world's greatest universities, inventions that save and improve human lives, technologies that confront hunger and famine by maximizing arable land and food production … the list is of accomplishments is literally endless.


Jewish people worldwide take deep pride in these achievements and feel profoundly the pain of Israelis when they are attacked, as they have been in successive wars and terror attacks, including the horrors of October 7, 2023.

When critics say that their expressions are targeted not at "Jews" but at "Israel," we should remember two important things. First, Israel is where half of the Jews in the world live, so the distinction is, at best, only half valid. Second, the deep connection with Israel felt by almost all Canadian Jews means that the most vociferous language chanted on the streets against Israel impact, necessarily, the Jews closest to us — our Jewish neighbours.


Israel is as legitimate a state as any that was formed in the postwar decolonial period.


Further, Zionism does not preclude Palestinian self-determination. It is not an either/or. The 1947 UN Partition Resolution was premised on two states coexisting. The Jews agreed; the Arab League rejected compromise. A reasonable reading of history makes clear that successive efforts at realizing Palestinian self-determination have been stymied as much by Palestinian intransigence as by Israeli approaches (though there is enough blame to go around).


It is also worth noting that, while the UN endorsed the creation of Israel (and Palestine), this was, in many instances, based less on altruism than on a desire for a place where the survivors of the Holocaust could go that would not require countries like Canada to accept them as refugees.

Finding a way for all people between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River to exist in peaceful coexistence is the responsibility primarily of the people who live there. The responsibility of overseas observers, no matter how intense our connections or passions, should be to encourage that coexistence — not to exacerbate the conflict by stoking the flames of intolerance, here or abroad.



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