Semites, Anti-Semites, Zionists and Anti-Zionists

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Although I live in Israel, the ‘state of the Jewish people’, I have closely followed recent debate in France on anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. If any anti-Jewish expression in the world always worries me, I feel a certain disgust at the flood of hypocrisy and manipulation orchestrated by those who now want to criminalize anyone who criticizes Zionism.

Let’s start with the problem of definition. For a long time now, I have felt uneasy not only about the recently popular formula ‘Judeo-Christian civilization’, but also about the conventional use of the term ‘anti-Semitism’. We all know that the word was coined in the second half of the nineteenth century by Wilhelm Marr, a German national-populist who hated Jews. In the spirit of that time, users of the term basically assumed the existence of a hierarchy of races in which the European white man was at the top, while the Semitic race occupied a lower rank. One of the founders of this ‘science of race’ was the Frenchman Arthur Gobineau.

Nowadays, history is a little more serious. It recognizes Semitic languages (Aramaic, Hebrew and Arabic, widespread in the Near East), but not any Semitic race. Given that European Jews did not speak Hebrew in everyday life, this being used only for prayer (just as Christians used Latin), it is hard to consider them as Semites.

Should we remind ourselves that modern hatred towards Jews is above all a legacy of the Christian churches? As early as the fourth century, Christianity refused to consider Judaism a legitimate competing religion and created the famous myth of exile: Jews had been exiled from Palestine for participating in the murder of God’s son, and have to be humiliated to demonstrate their inferiority. It should be noted, however, that there never was any such exile of Jews from Palestine, and not even the least historical work on the subject can be found.

Personally, I belong to the traditional school of thought that refuses to see Jews as a race-people alien to Europe. As far back as the nineteenth century, Ernest Renan, after having freed himself from his racism, maintained that: ‘The Jew of Gallic times... was, most often, simply a Gaul professing the Israelite religion.’ Historian Marc Bloch pointed out that Jews were ‘a group of believers recruited in the past from across the Mediterranean, Turkic-Khazar and Slavic world’. Raymond Aron added: ‘So-called Jews are not biologically, for the most part, descendants of Semitic tribes.’ Judeophobia, however, has always persisted in seeing Jews not as followers of a significant religious belief, but as a foreign nation.

The slow decline of Christianity as a hegemonic religion in Europe was unfortunately not accompanied by a decline in the strong Judeophobic tradition. ‘Secular’ writers transformed ancestral hatred and fear into modern ‘rational’ ideologies. Prejudices about Jews and Judaism can be found not only in Shakespeare or Voltaire, but also in Hegel and Marx. The Gordian knot between Jews, Judaism and money seemed obvious to the learned elite. The fact that the vast majority of the millions of Jews in Eastern Europe suffered from hunger and lived in poverty had absolutely no effect on Charles Dickens, Feodor Dostoevsky, or a large portion of the European left. In modern France, Judeophobia flourished not only with Alphonse Toussenel, Maurice Barrès and Édouard Drumont, but also with Charles Fourier, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon – even, for a time, Jean Jaurès and Georges Sorel.

Judeophobia accompanied the advance of democracy as a regular component of the prejudices of the European masses. The Dreyfus affair was its ‘emblematic’ event, until far surpassed by the extermination of Jews during the Second World War. It was between these two historical events that Zionism was born, as an idea and a movement.

It should be recalled, however, that until the Second World War the vast majority of Jews and their secular descendants were anti-Zionist. It was not only Orthodox Judaism, strong and organized, that was outraged at the idea of precipitating redemption by emigrating to the Holy Land; the more modern religious currents, both Reform and Conservative, were also strongly opposed to Zionism. The Bund, a secular party supported by the majority of Yiddish-speaking socialists in the tsarist empire and then in independent Poland, saw Zionists as natural allies of Judeophobes. Nor did Communists of Jewish origin miss an opportunity to condemn Zionism as an accomplice to British colonialism.

After the extermination of European Jews, the survivors who had failed to find safe haven in North America or the USSR softened their hostile attitude to Zionism, while most countries of both the Western and Communist worlds recognized the state of Israel. The fact that the creation of this state took place in 1948 at the expense of the indigenous Arab population did not unduly bother them. The wave of decolonization was still in its infancy, and not a factor to be taken into account. Israel was then perceived as a refuge for Jews without shelter or home.

Despite Zionism having failed to save the Jews of Europe, despite the survivors preferring to emigrate to America, and despite Zionism being a colonial enterprise in the full sense of the term, a significant fact remains: the Zionist diagnosis of the danger to the lives of Jews in twentieth-century European civilization (in no way Judeo-Christian!) had proved correct. Theodore Herzl, pioneer of the Zionist idea, had understood the Judeophobes of his time better than the liberals and Marxists.

This certainly does not justify the Zionist definition according to which Jews form a racial people. No more does it justify the Zionists’ view that the Holy Land is a national home to which they have historical rights. The Zionists, however, have created a political fait accompli, and any attempt to erase it would result in further tragedy for the two resulting peoples: the Israelis and the Palestinians.

At the same time, we should remember that even if not all Zionists demand continued domination over the territories conquered in 1967, and many of them feel uncomfortable with the apartheid regime that Israel has been exercising there for 52 years, all those who see themselves as Zionists persist in seeing Israel, at least within its 1967 borders, as the state of the Jews of the whole world, rather than a republic for all Israelis, a quarter of whom are not classed as Jewish, 21 per cent being Arabs.

If a democracy is fundamentally a state aspiring to the well-being of all its citizens, all those whom it taxes and all children born there, then Israel, despite its political pluralism, is rather a true ethnocracy, as Poland, Hungary and other Eastern European states were before the Second World War.

The attempt by President Emmanuel Macron and his party today to criminalize anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism is a cynical and manipulative manoeuvre. If anti-Zionism were to become a criminal offence, perhaps Macron should retroactively indict the Bundist Marek Edelman, who was one of the leaders of the Warsaw ghetto and totally anti-Zionist. He could also invite to the trial those anti-Zionist Communists in France who, rather than emigrating to Palestine, chose armed resistance to Nazism, which led them to figure on the notorious ‘affiche rouge’.[1]

If he wants to be consistent in his retroactive condemnation of all critics of Zionism, President Macron will have to include my teacher Madeleine Rebérioux, who chaired the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme, my other teacher and friend, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, and also, of course, Eric Hobsbawm, Edouard Saïd, and many other distinguished figures, who have since passed away but whose writings are still authoritative.

If President Macron confines himself to a law against living anti-Zionists, his proposed law should at least apply to those Orthodox Jews in Paris and New York who reject Zionism, and to Naomi Klein, Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky and many other humanist universalists in France and Europe, who identify as Jews while at the same time proclaiming themselves anti-Zionists.

There are, of course, idiots who are both anti-Zionist and Judeophobic, just as there are many stupid pro-Zionists (also Judeophobic) who wish Jews would leave France and emigrate to Israel. Should they also be included in this wave of prosecution? Be careful, Monsieur President, not to let yourself be drawn into this vicious circle, just when your popularity is falling!

To conclude, I don’t think there is a rise in anti-Judaism in France. This has always existed, and I fear will persist well into the future. However, I have no doubt that one of the factors keeping it going, particularly in certain neighbourhoods where people with an immigrant background live, is precisely Israel’s policy against the Palestinians: both those living as second-class citizens within the ‘Jewish state’, and those who, for 52 years, have suffered brutal military occupation and colonization.

I have regularly protested against this tragic situation. I strongly support recognition of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, and I belief in a ‘de-Zionization’ of the state of Israel. Should I worry about being taken to court on my next visit to France?

Originally published by Médiapart, 25 February 2019. Translated by David Fernbach


[1] [The notorious ‘red poster’, showing Communist Resistance fighters of the Manouchian group who had been recently executed, was widely displayed on Paris walls by the German authorities in spring 1944. The majority of the ‘terrorists’ whose photos appeared on the poster were prominently characterized as Jewish.]