Brown University: Where Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism Do (and Don’t) Meet

The last couple of weeks have been very intense on the campus of Brown University, especially for Jewish students. It began with a Students for Justice in Palestine petition against a Jewish group, Moral Voices, which is affiliated with Brown RISD Hillel but not at all connected to Israel, for inviting human rights activist Janet Mock to speak on campus. Mock decided not to speak on campus as a result of the petition, a victory for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Soon after she announced the cancellation of the event, there was a graffiti attack: “Holocaust 2.0” and “Gay will die” scrawled across the walls of the building that houses fraternities with large Jewish and LGBTQIA+ populations.

One factor that is complicating the campus discussion around Students for Justice in Palestine’s successful effort to prevent Janet Mock from speaking at Brown is the thorough lack of understanding of Zionism. Most students probably see Zionism simply as a movement to establish a Jewish State. In fact, Zionism is an extensive political ideology, and even worldview, that impacts the manner in which Jews across the globe, consciously or not, see themselves. At its core, it is the suggestion that after millennia of oppression, marginalization, betrayal, and massacres, Jews have a right and even an obligation to stand up for ourselves and our people. Zionism is an aspiration for equality in the international community after thousands of years of subjugation. Whereas it has manifested itself as a nationalist movement in a global political system that privileges the nation-state over other forms of political and social organization, its deeper essence is a right to be treated the same as other peoples are, and moreover the right to demand such treatment. Zionism should be regarded not as a nationalist movement but as a revolutionary movement for equality and justice.

There are many instances in which anti-Zionism blatantly crosses the line into anti-Semitism. The anti-Semitic and homophobic graffiti attack on our campus stemmed from an environment of hatred generated by Students for Justice in Palestine’s resistance to a Jewish organization hosting a trans speaker. The bleeding of anti-Zionism into anti-Semitism on college campuses is frequent and well-documented by Jewish and Israeli sources, although it rarely finds its way into the mainstream American media.

Anti-Zionism, then, becomes a part of structural anti-Semitism. Many people, mostly non-Jews, have told me that anti-Semitism is no longer real, which takes a lot of chutzpah and a lot of non-Jewish privilege. Members of Students for Justice in Palestine have tried to tell me what constitutes anti-Semitism and what does not, what I have a right to feel and what I do not. They have lectured me on when it is and is not appropriate to reference the suffering of my people in the Holocaust. Meanwhile, I am accused of murdering Jesus; I am told that I have too much power; I suffer from microaggressions that evoke the Holocaust regularly. What gives them the right to tell me whether or not Zionism is an acceptable way to access my Jewish heritage and peoplehood? What gives them the right to tell me what it means to be Jewish or what it means to face anti-Semitism?

It is important to note, of course, that criticizing Israeli policies does not constitute anti-Zionism, let alone anti-Semitism. Israel is a country, with a government, a military, a wide political spectrum, and a great diversity of citizens — naturally, it cannot be perfect. I have written before against settlement construction, for example, and I oppose the occupation of Palestine (the West Bank), which often puts me at odds with Israeli friends who are afraid of a repeat of the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip that has led to so many wars. I also believe that it is natural for Zionists to be sympathetic toward Palestinian nationalism because of the many commonalities between the movements, and I have written in defense of Palestinian nationalism as well.

That said, Israel’s very existence is challenged far too often on Brown’s campus and in general in a way that no other country’s is. Unlike most Zionists, who seek a two-state solution in which Israel and Palestine exist side by side, anti-Zionists almost never offer solutions for Jewish refugee issues. They propose the end of the State of Israel but have no interest in the fates of the more than six million Jews, almost half of the global Jewish population, that such a political upheaval would displace. Even relatively moderate Palestinian leaders, such as Mahmoud Abbas, have promised to expel the Jews from Palestine if given the opportunity, while more radical factions, such as Hamas, the group that primarily benefits from BDS, have promised to massacre any Jew they can find.

Attacks on Israel’s legitimacy are extremely disproportionate. The United States, Europe, and other countries in Southwest Asia all generally take fewer precautions to protect civilian life at war than does Israel, and tend to kill greater numbers of civilians per militant (and total) as a result, but are almost never criticized on Brown’s campus. Racism in other countries is often worse, and the political spectra of other countries move far more quickly and severely to the right under far less existential pressure. At least in Southwest Asia, no other country offers as much religious freedom. And yet, as I have written about before on campus, the world’s only Jewish state is portrayed time and again as the ultimate villain in global politics.

Einat Wilf, a former Member of Parliament and a leader in Israel’s Labor Movement, has drawn an important parallel between feminism and Zionism. Both are revolutionary movements of liberation that meet with bitter opposition. Women have been oppressed for so long, Wilf writes, that many people (women, men, and others) have a visceral negative reaction to the idea of women’s equality; similarly, society has come to believe, even subconsciously, that the natural place for Jews is beneath non-Jews, and so the idea that we should define ourselves as a nation and build a state like other peoples is viscerally opposed. Anti-feminists whom I have met have rarely said that they are anti-women (some are women themselves), but they are comfortable telling women that they have no right to stand up for themselves and no right to be treated as equals: that they should “be kept in their place.” Anti-Zionists, similarly, will rarely admit to anti-Semitism, but have no trouble with the idea that Jews do not deserve equality and should not have the rights to represent and stand up for ourselves. Blatantly anti-Semitic graffiti is wrong, they say, but Jews should still be kept in their place.

Another parallel to anti-Zionism is the frequent attacks in conservative American media on the cultures and laws of Muslim-majority countries. Under the guise of human rights advocacy, talking heads who oppose women’s equality in the United States justify military interventions all over Southwest Asia with claims that Muslim women need special protection. In my Middle East Studies classes, I have learned to cringe at such statements, seeing them for what they are: neoconservative and Islamophobic. Why, though, are disproportionate attacks on Israel not regarded as neoconservative and anti-Semitic as well?

The parallel with Muslim-majority countries, particularly in Southwest Asia, leads to a related and little-discussed (in the United States) point, which is the demographic difference between the American and Israeli Jewish populations. While the majority of Jews in America (although certainly not all) are Ashkenazi, descended from families that spent much of the last millennium in Eastern Europe, the majority of Israeli Jews are Mizrahi, descended from families that never left (or left but long ago returned to) Southwest Asia. Mizrahi Jews have become a majority in Israel since the expulsions of some 850,000 Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews from surrounding Arab countries in the 1940s and 1950s. They are increasingly influential in Israeli politics, which is why Students for Justice in Palestine has made increasingly desperate efforts to erase them from the American consciousness by, for example, claiming that hummus is “appropriated” by Jews, as though there had not been Jews living in the Arab world since before hummus was invented. Those Mizrahi Jews often (although, of course, not always — every individual makes their own political and social decisions) represent political and social views that are more religious and more conservative than those of most Ashkenazi Jews, which is part of what generates dissonance between the generally left-wing American Jewry and Israeli society. When Students for Justice in Palestine clarifies that their qualms are not with American Jews but only with Israeli Jews, what they are saying is that they are willing to accept the existence of Jews only as long as our culture is influenced by Europe and our skin is light-colored. Why should Students for Justice in Palestine have the right to determine what kind of Jew is a legitimate target and what kind is not? What a Jew may and may not look like? Is it only considered anti-Semitism if it affects Ashkenazi Jews?

Of course, it is undeniable that many Jews do oppose Zionism, and they, of course, have the right to do so. That is part of the reason that I say that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are not one and the same. It is important to note that not all anti-Zionism is necessarily anti-Semitic — my point is to clarify that the two are linked, not to imply that they are entirely synonymous. Every marginalized and minority population has members who have decided it is best to accept something that approximates equality without earning the right to stand up for themselves fully, and those people are entitled to their opinions. As Einat Wilf notes, however, anti-feminist women do not make feminism any less legitimate or important. Likewise, anti-Zionist Jews do not negate my right to stand up for myself and my people. No matter how Students for Justice in Palestine may want me to interpret my own oppression, I plan to exercise that right.

I am a Zionist, and I am proud to say it.

Ben Gladstone is a sophomore at Brown University and a 2015 Tower Tomorrow Fellow.

[Photo: chensiyuan / Wikimedia]