When Jewish Anti-Zionists Are Compared to White Supremacists

"Anti-Zionism is accused of being antisemitic when it is critical of Israel, which, in many people's formulation, is the primary vector of Jewish safety," says Shane Burley.

When Jewish Anti-Zionists Are Compared to White Supremacists

A protester carries a sign that reads, “Jews 4 Palestinian Liberation” at a march in Chicago on October 18, 2023. Photo: Kelly Hayes

About 300 Jewish Americans were arrested on Wednesday as they staged a sit-in at the Capitol demanding that members of Congress pursue an immediate ceasefire in Israel and Gaza. The protesters also demanded that Congress support the “Ceasefire Now” resolution introduced on Monday, and push for humanitarian assistance to be allowed to enter Gaza. “It has never been more important for Jews and all people in the U.S. to rise up with literally everything we have,” said Jay Saper of Jewish Voice for Peace, “the way that we would have wanted others to rise up for our ancestors.” Jonathan Greenblatt, the National Director and CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, responded to the protests by stating, “We long have said that these are hate groups, the photo inverse of white supremacists.”

Comparing Jewish people who are demanding an end to genocidal violence to white supremacists, many of whom hate Jewish people, may seem extreme, but anti-Zionists in the U.S., including anti-Zionist Jewish people, have long faced accusations of antisemitism, particularly from people and groups who conflate Jewishness with the Israeli state. The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, for example, has faced legal attacks, as dozens of states in the U.S. have passed laws that penalize people and businesses who refuse to associate with Israel. Lawmakers typically promote these laws by claiming that they are combatting hate speech, or that boycotts are not a protected “expressive” activity. (These laws have unsurprisingly opened the door for legislative attacks on other divestment campaigns, including campaigns targeting the fossil fuel industry.)

Unfortunately, false allegations of antisemitism complicate efforts to address real concerns about antisemitic violence during a moment of intense right-wing radicalization and increased tensions stemming from the violence in Israel in Palestine. The conflation of Jewish identity with the Israeli state has already led to attacks on synagogues and individuals. So, how can we confront this bigotry in an honest, informed manner? Amid genocidal violence, perpetrated by Israel, and abetted by the United States, and rising antisemitism and Islamophobia, good faith dialogues around these issues are essential. In search of such dialogue, I reached out to my friend Shane Burley for some insights about what to make of the current moment and where we can go from here. Shane is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It, No Pasaran: Antifascist Dispatches from a World in Crisis, and co-author of the forthcoming book, Safety through Solidarity: A Radical Guide to Fighting Antisemitism, with Ben Lorber.

Kelly Hayes: How is antisemitism manifesting itself in the current moment?

Shane Burley: The first thing to note is that despite Hamas' attack being particularly brutal and directed at Israeli Jews, calling this antisemitism is a problematic conflation of terms. No matter what you think about the Hamas attack, there is nothing about the attack that indicates that it is specifically antisemitic in character. The reason is that antisemitism is a particular ideology about Jews: conspiratorial, cabalistic, uniquely cosmically evil, and based on untrue misinterpretations of Jewishness, whether religious, ethnic, or cultural. To be clear, Hamas has shown a belief in antisemitic ideas: they have antisemitic claims in their founding charter, including suggesting Jews are responsible for global wars, communism, and control the world governments through the Rotary Club. But if we are talking about this attack specifically, the more obvious reason is the Occupation and brutal oppression directed at the Palestinians in Gaza. It is specifically a militant action of a resistance movement, which is just factual and says nothing about whether or not you think they are legitimate, ethical, or otherwise commendable. So calling their attack antisemitic is a misnomer since we would have to see specific evidence that the attack was motivated by antisemitism rather than political animus based on an existing conflict. It's possible that their decision to attack Israeli civilians was motivated by an antisemitic conspiracy about Jewish control, but, again, it remains to be seen.

One of the problems of antisemitism discourse is that it often works in reverse: if a Jew faces oppression or violence, then the force that led that oppression is considered by definition as antisemitism. But this misunderstands how antisemitism works, it is not just broad xenophobia or even cruel violence, it is specifically ideological. And if we want the term to mean anything, we need consistency and we need to use it accurately to describe the thoughts, ideologies, and motivations of actors. This, again, says nothing about whether or not what Hamas did should be celebrated, it is simply about understanding the terms we are working with.

Antisemitism is serious, persistent, and growing. But it has also been heavily weaponized by the pro-Israel Right, which is often not Jewish. Over the past 75 years, Israel has taken on an outsized role in Jewish communal politics and is often presented in this discourse as a "Jewish collectivity." The idea is that Jews faced religious oppression, then ethnic oppression, and now they face political repression in that their movement for national liberation and self-determination is held to standards not held by other groups and therefore must be motivated by antisemitism. Anti-Zionism can, in some cases, be motivated by antisemitism when they are motivated by conspiracy theories and myths about Jews, beliefs in unique Jewish evil, misrepresentations of Judaism, and other features of established, consensus antisemitism. But often times anti-Zionism is accused of being antisemitic simply when it is critical of Israel, which, in many people's formulation, is the primary vector of Jewish safety. So, we again get to the earlier problem, any supposed attack on Jewish safety is reflexively assumed to be antisemitism, and therefore we end up with the blanket conflation of Israel's critics with antisemitism. This has been used heavily to target Palestinian student groups, attack the left wing of the Labour Party in Britain, and is leveled against any public figure even mildly critical of Israel, such as Ilhan Omar or Linda Sarsour. This fact should not erase that antisemitic rhetoric does show up in the Palestinian solidarity movement, particularly in situations where activists have less nuanced understandings of the conflict or populist sentiments reign, but it is nowhere near endemic like the pro-Israel movement paints it as.

KH: There have been some antisemitic incidents that are seemingly tied to what’s happening in Gaza. How should we respond to those bigoted statements and actions during this time?

SB: We do see typically that antisemitic attacks do increase when there is conflict in Israel-Palestine. The reality is that not everyone sees this as a political conflict based in decolonization and liberation, some people do interpret it as part of the supposedly transhistorical history of Jewish perfidy. We should stand united in the fight against antisemitism and Islamophobia going forward, both hold us back from liberation and this is exactly the kind of division the Israeli state uses to drive their war machine. It's important to remain clear that Israel's actions are not in the name of, or in collaboration with, all diaspora Jews and to place the struggle for liberation in Palestine within the global justice movement that likewise sees liberation for all people, including Jews.

KH: I have seen some people call Netanyahu a fascist and Israel a fascist state, amid the violence that’s unfolding. Do you think those descriptors are accurate, in this case?

SB: The question of Israel being fascist is a complicated one, just as the question of any state being fascist is. Israel has a slightly larger far-right movement than most European countries, but that ignores Likud, which is much further to the right than most right-wing parties. They also have ethnic nationalism as a founding principle, so when the right pushes policies it has ethnic and social exclusion and nationalism right at the beginning. The Settlement movement and the far-right has grown really rapidly with the support of Likud, which now needs them for their ruling coalition, and the right will likely use this event to consolidate power around their own version of the one-state solution: annexation, apartheid, and population transfer. So I think if anyone has a fascist government, Israel could be roped in, but we also don't want to overshadow resistance movements or flatten the differences. Right now there is an attack on the independence of the judiciary, a further slide into authoritarianism, and there has basically been an uprising against it. There is also a place for opposition in Israel, but the conditions of apartheid make it largely toothless. Like any state, even colonial powers, there is a three-way fight taking place, but the far-right has conditions in their favor for growth. A settler colony grows more reactionary over time as their citizenry is unable to understand the context for the resistance of the displaced people, and that is what allows the far-right worldview to seem reasonable to them (not to mention religious messianism has also become the language used to discuss the increasingly dire economic and social conditions for Mizrahim and Orthodox Jews).

KH: You mentioned the role of Orthodox Jews and Mizrahim in Israeli politics, could you tell me a little more about this?

SB: While the historic Orthodox, particularly charedi, position was to be critical on Zionism, that has changed over the life of the state. Right now the Orthodox tend to be more politically and socially conservative, and a trend known as Religious Zionism, which sees the Israeli state building project in Eratz Yisrael (the biblically defined Land of Israel) as part of the redemptive process that ushers in Moshiach (Messiah), the rebuilding of the Temple, and restoration of Kingdom of Israel. This is what drives significant portions of the Settlement movement, who call the West Bank by its Biblical names of Judea and Samaria and who believe that this land was ceded to the Jewish people by hashem. So they make up a significant piece of the right-wing bloc and are pushing for judicial reforms right now to undermine the independence and viability of the Israeli court system, which often rules many of their far-right legislative proposals as unviable. These reforms were understood by most Israelis as an attack on what democracy the country has and inspired one of the largest protest movements in the country’s history.

Mizrahi Jews, which are Jews whose ancestry emerges from MENA countries (some using the phrase Arab Jews), have been significant parts of the right-wing coalition, partially through the Shas party or as Likud voters. In a recent conversation I had with my colleague Smadar Lavie, a Mizrahi scholar, she framed this as a type of “wages of whiteness”: because Mizrahim face significant racism and a lack of social mobility, support, or stability, this has drawn significant Mizrahi communities into a right-wing alliance in a way that may be familiar to the experiences of poor whites in the U.S. The antagonism felt between them and some of their non-Jewish Arab neighbors plays out in the right-wing Zionism of many Mizrahim, who often live in Settlements because it is less expensive and some of whom see Jewishness as an important identity marker that separates themselves from non-Jewish Palestinians. Mizrahim have not participated in these protests at the same rate as liberal Ashkenazim, and the right-wing “reforms” have been framed as being done in support of the Mizrahim, who have other reasons to distrust the court system.

I recommend reading the world of Smadar Lavie and Ella Shohat to understand more the political and social distinctions experienced by Mizrahim in Israel (I am far from an expert on that), and it is important to note that none of these identities are a uniform bloc. They all have significant differences, there is an Orthodox Jewish left, there are Orthodox anti-Zionists, there are Mizrahi leftists and anti-Zionists, and there is everyone in the middle. Israel, as a country that is composed of more than half people of color, has a political schema that is increasingly distinct from Western countries it is often juxtaposed with, so the communities that are assumed to make up the Israeli Right look significantly different than they do in the U.S.

KH: The wife of Joseph Czub, a 71-year-old man who stabbed 6-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume to death in his home, in Plainfield, Illinois on Saturday, claims that right-wing radio shows influenced her husband with talk of a supposed Day of Global Jihad. Can you speak to this violence and what we should be concerned about at this moment, given how radicalized and extreme right-wing culture in the United States has become? To me, it feels like the political energy of 9/11 being churned into an even more volatile political moment. When I think about the attacks on Arab Americans and Muslims, and the escalations in state violence and surveillance, and the persecution of movements that we saw after 9/11, I am really worried about what we are going to be up against in the United States right now. While our primary concern right now has to be stopping the genocide in Gaza, I am also really concerned about what's being cultivated here in the U.S., in the longterm.

SB: Right-wing talk radio is categorically a factory of violence. The entire model is to validate and accelerate latent anger and reactionary impulses in the listenership. The talk radio host picks up on the most intolerant trends and then allows them to flow into an angry explosion, which is what creates such a committed listenership: they say exactly what you were thinking, even though you didn’t know you were thinking it.

Talk radio has always had this history and has gone through many geographic and temporal phases. During the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s, talk radio hosts stoked anger against Tutsi’s by harnessing class rage and then redirecting it towards ethnically different neighbors (the divide of which were the result of the ethnic categories reinforced by Belgium colonialists, but thats’ a longer story). Radio broadcasts were a major part of the 1930s far-right, both in Nazi Germany, and in the U.S., where talk radio leaders like Father Charles Coughlin helped to push antisemitic scapegoating amongst a listenership who were looking for someone to project their rage on (and this was significant in building the Christian Front as a violent street movement).

Talk radio really hit its stride in the early 1990s with the shifts in the GOP typified by leaders like Newt Gingrich, who saw that resentment, ad hominem, and claims of betrayal would help to secure the long term hegemony of the Right. So when we get into the era of the Iraq War and then, later, Obama, we see a well oiled radio machine, which by that point had been extended into television with Fox News, is capable of harnessing latent discontent and giving it a language to express itself in.

Today, the entire MAGA movement has emerged from talk radio. This was how Trump gained his 2016 Presidential strategy, by having his staff listen to talk radio and create a set of rhetorical tactics and policy proposals directly from that sewer. Because the model is to drive outrage, it has the effect of using the language of violence through a series of coded dog whistles. Violence and insurrection are modes of bypassing the normal prohibitions on radical behavior: when you push someone to the level of violence they are more willing to push beyond the boundaries that held their movement back. Violent language is what lent the GOP its recent electoral successes. It also has the dual effect of triggering violent attacks from some part of its base and, simultaneously, allowing the entire right-wing media infrastructure to hide behind plausible deniability.

And this is exactly what happened in the vicious murder Wadea Al-Fayoume, whose killer believed he was justified because he thought he was part of a defensive movement against jihad. In this formulation, Arab-Americans are, first, de-Americanized, and then dehumanized, framed as part of a global asymmetrical war against everything right and good. Since the language of warfare pervades talk radio, the murderer begins to see himself as a legitimate combatant and every person racialized as Arab or assumed to be Muslim is the opponent. Part of the “Counter-Jihad” movement are going to use this moment as an opportunity to further demonize Muslim immigrants and frame Islam as an existential threat to the West.

This is, to a degree, something Israel does as well, which is why it further allowed for the conditions that generated this attack. As a settler colony, it establishes itself as a collection of “citizens” and, subsequently, “civilians,” but then disallows for Palestinians to establish the same categories. This is why you see Hamas framed as terrorists instead of soldiers, or the claims that basically all of Gaza’s civilians as latent combatants whose deaths may be justified. As I said before, this realization should not necessarily lend credibility to Hamas’ leadership or tactics, but it is important to acknowledge the disparity. Without this understanding, it is simply impossible to understand the context for the October 7th attack. If we extend that logic globally, then all Arab civilizations are often viewed as collaborators in this global war, one institutionalized by George W. Bush as the “War on Terror.” Talk radio then invites listeners to become new recruits, defining them as warriors against the non-civilian global Arab population. Since they are all seen as combatants, they categorically are denied the right of being civilians.

I likewise think that 9/11 is an apt comparison for a lot of reasons. It is an attack on civilians within a settler colony, it can be seen as a type of revenge for long-term violence done to the population the attackers claim to be representing, and it inspired an incredible shock-and-awe response that outpaced the attack severely and will have long-term effects across the entire MENA region. It also represents a possible failure in Israeli intelligence, but also a situation when the attack will be used to justify the attacks on Gaza that the Israeli far-right has always been gunning for. In the Settlements, Religious Zionists (or, I should specify, far-right Religious Zionists because there is an ostensibly liberal alternative in this theological worldview) are using this opportunity to increase the presence of arms, to attack the liberal sensibilities of other Jews who do not share their worldview, and to subsequently attack Palestinian villages (there have been numerous attacks by Settlers in the West Bank since this began). In a recent interview with a group of Settlers I listened to on NPR, one man interviewed suggested that Israel is a lion that has finally been awakened: “we need to become dangerous' ' he said.

Locally, a synagogue I am a member of hosted an event with almost every Jewish organization in the region where they all committed to “stand with Israel,” and where politicians spoke, particularly Oregon Representative Susan Susan Bonamici, about immediately securing more Iron Dome funding against a sea of applause. While I certainly understand people’s hurt, this jingoistic nationalism reminds me intensely of the weeks directly after 9/11. This is why another synagogue I attend refused to sign the statement or participate, not because they were necessarily anti-Zionist, but because this was all too familiar.

So this is a long-way of saying that this feels like the kind of 9/11-era fervor happening in real time, that this seems to be leading to racist attacks on Arab Americans, and that it will be used to justify endless wars. It is worthwhile to acknowledge the complexity of it, as well, in that there seems to be an increase in antisemitic attacks as well, which happens almost anytime the conflict in Israel-Palestine peaks. This will have a deleterious effect on the situation since these conditions can push Jewish institutions away from an ecumenical position and towards a more militaristic one. The best solution to this domestically is to try and build immediate bridges between Muslim and Jewish communities and between oppressed people from different communities into a shared strategy for safety. This is the long-term work that has to be done in general, and we should not let moments of significant trauma derail us from this because solidarity is the only viable solution to the conflict. That is what is going to be necessary to stop the Gaza war since we need a mass movement to pressure international actors to call for a ceasefire and, further down the line, a lasting binational solution for peace. So finding ways of building those bridges is not just a pollyanna claim of love and harmony, it is a tactical way to develop the alliances that will make us powerful enough to effect and change.