My fellow progressives are always asking me if anti-Zionism is antisemitic. Here’s what I tell them.

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

I’ve spent most of the last decade focused on grassroots organizing and capacity building inside the American progressive movement. I’ve that as a Jew who wears a kippah in public, as someone who, statistically speaking, shouldn’t exist. My grandfather is one of the 10% of Polish-born Jews to survive World War II.

What I am is central to who I am. So when I saw the statement from the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Sunrise Movement explaining its refusal to march in a voting rights rally with Jewish groups because they are “Zionists”, I understood immediately that it was deeply problematic. Not only did the decision have the potential impact of spreading anti-Jewish bigotry, but it also weakened our movement more broadly at a time when democracy is under assault in America.

I also understood right away that, for many people, the anti-Jewish nature of the statement wasn’t so obvious. When moments like this arise, I get texts and calls from progressive peers across the country who ask: “Is this antisemitic?”

To answer the question, I begin by explaining what it means to be a Jew. We’re a people, not simply a religious community. Contrary to what most think, antisemitism is not anti-Judaism in its modern form. It’s anti-Jew. It’s not about how Jews pray, but rather about who they are and what they are accused of doing.

Jews get attacked for supposedly controlling the world (governments, banks, media), for being disloyal to our home countries, for killing Jesus, for making up the Holocaust, for being greedy, for undermining the white race and subverting people of color. We’ve been blamed for plagues, famine, economic hardship and war. Whatever major problem a society has, Jews have been blamed for it.

Criticism of Israel or opposition to its policies isn’t necessarily antisemitic. But the Sunrise DC statement wasn’t about policy. By attacking “Zionist organizations” in a voting rights coalition, and saying that they can’t participate in in a coalition that includes them, Sunrise DC basically said it won’t work alongside Jewish organizations (or Jews) that believe the state of Israel has the right to exist.

To answer the question, I begin by explaining what it means to be a Jew.

For the average Jew, Zionism has become simply the idea that Israel has the right to exist, rather than an embrace of the policies of its government. The Zionist movement got its name in the late 19th century, but it really put a label on a 2,000-year-old yearning to return to the native land Jews were violently forced out of (in an act of colonization). That’s why when people attack Zionists, we hear “Jews.”

Why is it antisemitism? First, it singles out Jews when most people believe Israel has the right to exist. (In fact, 85% of the general public in America believes the statement “Israel does not have a right to exist” is antisemitic, according to a survey released this week.) Second, it seeks to deny Jewish people the right to self-determination by erasing our peoplehood and connection to the land. Third, it declares that a national movement for Jews is uniquely unacceptable, while at the same time advocating in support of another national movement.

Fourth, it divides Jews into good and bad. Only those who oppose their own national movement can stay. Only Jews who reject Zionism are allowed. Replace “Jew” with any other group and ask if that would be acceptable.

Even if you forswear coalitions with anyone, Jewish or not, who thinks Israel is legitimate, that still denies the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.. For thousands of years Jews tried that and failed to find permanent refuge — which, fairly or not, is part of the reason most Jews believe in the right to, and need for, national self-determination in some portion of a contested land.

Ultimately, only Jews get to define who and what we are and what antisemitism is. Too often in progressive spaces that right is denied to Jews. Instead, to justify their own positions, some rely on Jews whose voices, while relevant, are far from representative on the question of what constitutes antisemitism.

I believe in standing up for those who are attacked for the crime of being who they are as much as I believe in standing up for Jewish life. For me, this work is personal. I feel like I owe it to my grandfather. To Jews who were murdered and never had a chance to live. To my peers here who face systemic racism and bigotry. And yes, because I believe “Never Again” isn’t just a slogan, but a mission to fight for.

Oren Jacobson
Oren Jacobson

Oren Jacobson is the co-founder of Project Shema, which helps Jewish students, leaders, organizations and allies explore the difficult conversations surrounding Israel and antisemitism.


Content distributed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency news service.