In an election year when relations between the United States and Israel are likely to be a contentious issue, especially given the divide between moderate and left-wing Democrats, the question of whether anti-Zionism is a modern-day form of anti-Semitism is not just academic but extremely relevant. As it happens, last week, just as controversy was brewing over Sen. Bernie Sanders’s decision to boycott the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference in Washington, D.C., a debate on anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism was held in New York City’s Upper East Side.
The New York panel was organized by Intelligence Squared U.S., an organization that sponsors live debates and other events on an astonishing variety of topics, and the resolution up for debate was, “Anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism.” Arguing for the motion were New York Times opinion columnist Bret Stephens and former Israeli parliament member Einat Wilf; arguing against it, Peter Beinart, editor-at-large at the left-wing site Jewish Currents, and writer and political analyst Yousef Munayyer, director of the U.S. campaign for Palestinian rights.
The Intelligence Squared debates have a strong tradition of civility and respect, and for the most part the debate stayed within those bounds. Yet emotions ran high, and the issues often got personal.
Beinart, who considers himself a Zionist but defends anti-Zionism as a legitimate viewpoint, made a passionate plea against branding people anti-Semites — including many Jews and including a man who stopped a murderous anti-Semitic attack in Muncie, New York, in December — because they oppose the idea of Israel as a Jewish state. He also pointed to white nationalists who are hateful toward American Jews but support Israel as a Jewish ethno-state.
Wilf retorted that however one might feel about theoretical anti-Zionism, real anti-Zionism consistently channels anti-Semitic tropes: again and again, after World War II, “where anti-Semitism was thoroughly and horribly discredited, anti-Zionism became the mask.” It happened in the Soviet Union, in Poland and in many countries in the Middle East, and it is, she suggested, in danger of happening in the United States.
To Wilf, Zionism is a liberation movement that enables Jews to feel safe and “stand tall”; the mainstreaming of anti-Zionism, she said, makes her feel the same dread as a Jew that the misogynistic dystopia of “The Handmaid’s Tale” makes her feel as a woman. Munayyer countered with just as personal a plea: “It’s because of Zionism that the state of Israel bars people like me from residing in my place of birth with my partner, a Palestinian from the West Bank.”
Both Wilf and Stephens defended a two-state solution, arguing that Palestinian autonomy and dignity do not require the dismantling of a Jewish state. Beinart countered that the two-state solution was currently a fantasy because of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies. In a way, both sides appealed to what moderator John Donvan called “the theory-reality dichotomy.”
The audience voted on the resolution before and after the debate; it was evenly divided both times, but those opposing the resolution gained by 2 percentage points more, making them the official winners. The narrowness of this victory illustrates the issue’s tangled complexity — and so do real-life events. At the AIPAC conference, where Vice President Mike Pence endorsed the view that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, some protesters held up signs about “the Jewish media” and chanted taunts about the Holocaust, illustrating how non-existent the line between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism can be. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s apparent election victory boosts hardline Israeli policies that even many Zionists find hard to reconcile with the dignity of Palestinians. This divide is not going away.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.