Benjamin Netanyahu Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

John Rees on what anti-Zionism does and does not mean

There is an argument going around the left in response to Richard Burgon’s remarks about Zionism that runs like this: antisemitism and anti-Zionism are not the same thing. So far, so good. But then there is a “but”, and, as buts go, it’s a big one.

It runs like this: because so many Jews identify with the state of Israel, and can therefore be regarded as Zionists, it is the equivalent of antisemitism to use the term Zionism critically.

Perceptive readers will have noticed a problem with this argument. What is granted in its first iteration is withdrawn in the second. So the formal acknowledgement that antisemitism and anti-Zionism are not the same thing is in effect abolished.

A further excuse for this retreat is that there is a wide spectrum of belief among those who support the state of Israel and who might therefore be described as Zionists. There are liberals who oppose the Netanahyu government as well as the most gung-ho supporters of that government.

The problems with this jumble of thoughts are legion.

Firstly, it throws anti-Zionist Jews under the bus. Their views are no longer part of acceptable discourse under this logic. Now it’s true that the majority of Jews support the state of Israel and that only a minority of Jews describe themselves as anti-Zionist. But that is surely no reason why anyone, particularly anyone on the left, would want to deny their existence or proscribe the language in which they describe their political stance. There is in addition growing disquiet among a number of Zionist Jews about issues such as illegal settlements and the policies of the Israeli governemnt.

Secondly, there is a substantive difference in the conception of what the Israeli state represents at stake in this discussion. It has become a commonplace among those who have accepted the IHRA definition of antisemitism to argue that one can only criticise the Israeli state in the same terms that one would criticise any other state.

But the Israeli state is not like most other states. It was born by colonial settlers displacing the indigenous inhabitants of the land, and in so doing disrupting the age old and peaceful development of a society in which Jews and Arabs lived side-by-side.

Not only has Netanyahu recently declared that Israel is a racially exclusive Jewish state, but from Israel’s very origins it has been the case that a Jew from any part of the world, even with no previous connection with Palestine whatsoever, has had the right to become an Israeli citizen. Yet no Palestinian has the right to return to their own land.

This is why racial discrimination is written into the foundation of the state in the way in which it was written into the foundations of the South African state under apartheid, whatever other important differences exist between these two cases.

Consequently, those who support the current structure and/or continued expansion of the state of Israel are supporting a fundamentally, and in origin, racist endeavour.

Thirdly, there is another way in which Israel is unique. There are many states that are clients of the imperial powers, but none in quite the way of the Israeli state.

Israel is the biggest recipient of US military aid and the biggest recipient of civilian aid. Unlike other nations Israel does not have to spend US military aid on US weapons, although, uniquely it can purchase such weapons directly from US weapons manufacturers without being vetted by the US State Department.

Unlike other nations Israel does not have to buy US goods with the civilian aid money, nor is there any control over what it uses that money for. Israel can as well construct nuclear weapons as nurseries.

Every time Israel goes to war with its neighbours US aid increases: it rose by 450% after the 1967 war; by 700% after the 1970-71 war in Jordan; by 800% after the Israeli victory in the 1973 war.1

Supporting the state of Israel, whether from a liberal or conservative point of view, endorses a state with a unique relationship with imperialism.

Some liberal Zionists can of course be won to the Palestinian cause in a way in which hardline Zionists cannot. But they cannot be won, any more than that those liberal white opponents of South African apartheid could be won to the struggle for black liberation, without accepting that the current Israeli state must be dismantled root and branch. This means destroying the racist foundations of the state and ending the systemic discrimination against, in this case, the Palestinians. Indeed, the Palestine liberation movement from its earliest days proclaimed that a democratic, secular state in which Jews and Arabs enjoyed identical rights was what they were fighting for. This should still be the aspiration for all those who want equality and justice.

Pretending that the Israeli state is merely a social democratic enterprise with a few misguided policies both abuses history and the lived experience of the Palestinians, while simultaneously undermining the struggle of all anti-Zionists, including the struggle of anti-Zionist Jews.

US aid statistics from

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.