Blog post

Genocide and the weaponization of anti-Semitism

Although Jews have been at their forefront, demonstrations in support of a ceasefire and Palestinian liberation have been criticized as antisemitic by politicians and mainstream media in an effort to discredit the movement's demands. Here, Warren Montag explores this phenomenon.

Warren Montag24 May 2024

Genocide and the weaponization of anti-Semitism

When I refer to the “problem” that anti-Semitism poses for Zionism, whether in its current form or from the time of the first attempts to colonize Palestine, I am not speaking of the theoretical and practical manifestations of hatred and prejudice deeply rooted in European history (long before the very notion of “Semite” appeared on the scene) and to which Zionism was offered as the solution. Instead, I propose to discuss, however briefly, the concept of anti-Semitism itself, its meaning and especially its increasingly legal and political functions. We know – or think we know – what the term anti-Semitism means: the attribution of a stable set of characteristics from which a given historical moment may draw and assign to its Jews, both as a community and as individuals. It might even be possible to speak of multiple sets (religious, genetic and cultural) whose unity could be understood as a kind of Venn diagram containing both common and exclusive elements. Many of these attributes are malign, and even those that appear benign at a certain level of abstraction have historically formed the basis of anti-Jewish doctrines (e.g., the supposedly superior intelligence of the Jews which can be read as the cunning that allows them to dominate others). These are not simply beliefs: We know all too well the practical consequences that follow such ideas when they are institutionalized in church and/or state.

The current war in Gaza, however, has brought to light a use of the notion of anti-Semitism that is related to that described above, but as its reversal: the use of the charge of anti-Semitism, by a state which claims to be the state of all Jews, to discredit, punish or wage war on those it regards as enemies. Such a use, to be effective, requires an extension of the category of anti-Semitism to speech and action that may not have any clear connection to Jews or to the common accusations made against them. From the vantage point of the US in particular, where such an operation, already well underway, has proved at least partially successful, it is now possible, and indeed necessary, to pose the question of its strategic value in the current conjuncture.

Why would the Israeli state prioritize a campaign of this type when it is engaged in a war that, if allowed to continue by the “international community,” has no obvious end except the total destruction of Palestinian Gaza through a combination of genocidal violence against the civilian population and the expulsion of the survivors across the southern border into the Sinai desert? The answer to this question lies in Israel’s justified fear of the global mass movement against its war on Gaza, and above all, its fear of the power and determination of the movement in the US, a movement in which Jewish organizations play an important role. If this movement can continue to impact public opinion as it has thus far, Israel might face an arms embargo and other sanctions that would both seriously impact its ability to wage war and bring hardship to its population. To stop this movement has accordingly become a strategic imperative.

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We cannot, however, overlook another, perhaps more fundamental, question concerning the war: has Israel not punished the Palestinian people enough to make them understand the cost of any attack originating in Gaza? Has it not demonstrated both the ability and the willingness to make every man, woman and child in Gaza pay for the actions of their government? How much more death and destruction can Israel visit on the people of Gaza before its actions become self-destructive? It is not that there are not “cooler heads,” even among those who make up the Israeli war cabinet, nor is it the case that Netanyahu alone has the ability to continue the war to stay in office. It is not even the still unfulfilled desire for revenge on the part of a sizable majority of the Israeli population. The inability of the Israeli government to stop the war, even when the national interest calls for it and even when the more sober among the war cabinet exhibit some awareness of the folly of continuing it, tells us that this war and the frequency of Israel’s wars since its founding is, like its refusal to offer any viable settlement to Palestinians, deeply rooted in the dilemmas and contradictions of the settler-colonial Zionist project. The fact that instead of ending the war, Israel hopes to end the movement against it, particularly in the US, and in this way enable itself to pursue the war unhindered to an inconceivable end, must be explained if we hope to stop it. In particular, we must understand both the unshakeable commitment to war and the strategic value of anti-Semitism in its pursuit.

Despite the protests against Netanyahu, the divisions that once set Israeli society against itself have tended to fade into insignificance in the face of the war on Gaza (the primary exception being the still-unresolved question of the exemption of Haredi Jews from military service).  A large majority of Israeli Jews are opposed to a Palestinian state and believe that the establishment of a Palestinian state would either do nothing to stop terrorism (27.5%) or would lead to an increase in terrorism (44%). More than two thirds of those polled oppose allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza even if its delivery and distribution does not involve Hamas or UNRWA. Most strikingly, 94 percent of Israeli Jews think the Israeli military has used “adequate or too little force” in Gaza. Some 88 percent of all Jewish Israelis “think the number of Palestinians killed or wounded in Gaza is justified by the war.”

In fact, the near unanimity that now characterizes the response of the Jewish population of Israel to the central question of the war cannot be explained by the popular outrage at Hamas’ assault on Southern Israel on October 7 alone.  On the contrary, the very possibility of such near unanimity required the prior forging of an Israeli Jewish community, a task that, despite decades of progress towards this goal, remains in certain ways incomplete. The consolidation of the extremely diverse cultures that made up the Jewish world in 1948 into one unified, if not homogeneous, community, meant redefining these cultures and replacing the diverse languages peculiar to the different regions in which Jewish communities were found (whose diversity far exceeded the tripartite division of Jews into Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrachi) with a Hebrew reconstructed for modern usage and richly endowed with borrowings from European languages. This is not a trivial point: the European heritage that Israelis now claim not only separates them from the “Arabs” who surround them, it also serves to hierarchize the Jewish populations of Israel according to their proximity to European culture. Further, the European culture to which this hierarchy referred was decidedly that of Western and Central Europe, rather than the “Yiddishland” of Eastern Europe where the vast majority of the world’s Jewish population lived prior to WWII. The languages and cultures of the galut (exile or diaspora) were often described by figures as disparate as Theodore Herzl and David Ben Gurion in terms borrowed from French or German anti-Semitic tracts. Uri Avnery, a colorful and paradoxical figure who feared the “Judaization” of the secular Israeli (and not Jewish) nation by the Haredi (strictly religious) population, but who also was a close friend of Arafat and supported recognizing the Hamas government in 2006, described his surprise when as a ten-year old German refugee in Palestine, he learned that

Everything ‘exilic’ was beneath contempt: the Jewish shtetl, Jewish religion, Jewish prejudices and superstitions. We learned that “exilic” Jews were engaged in “air businesses” [from the Yiddish Luftgesheftn] – parasitical stock exchange deals that did not produce anything real, that Jews shunned physical work, that their social setup was a “reverse pyramid”, which we were to overturn by creating a healthy society of peasants and workers.

To put it in Hegelian terms, Zionism became the means by which the actually existing Jewish culture in its diversity and complexity was negated, that is, reduced to nothing, but “a nothing from which something could come” – a new culture and a new Jew, divested of everything that for Zionists recalled Jews’ weakness and parasitism, even their names, whether Arabic, Ladino or Yiddish. It was through this dialectical transformation understood as the result and not the original condition that the authentic community of Eretz Israel would be actualized. Both before and for some decades after the Nakba all the institutions of the Zionist state worked both to extirpate the remnants of the “Ghetto Jew” and to fabricate a new culture deemed appropriate to the new Jew to fill the void. The new culture, however, amounted to what Derrida has called an originary prosthesis: Zionist culture is new by virtue of its return to the glories of the Hebrew republic as instituted by Moses, resident in the land promised to the Jewish people  by God, the very covenant cited even by secular Zionist Israeli leaders today when asked about the validity of their claims to Palestine. It is worth noting that Netanyahu in his capacity as Prime Minister could declare his genocidal aims on camera (although in Hebrew, the language in which he most freely expresses his racism and the genocidal fantasies it generates), by reminding the IDF soldiers, then preparing to invade Gaza, of the express command of God relayed by Samuel to Saul concerning the Amalek, a nation that sought to prevent the return of the Jews to the promised land. Samuel tells Saul, newly anointed King of Israel, that he must hear the precise words of God’s express command (Sam 15: 2-3) to destroy Amalek (the nation), that is, every man, woman and child, and even their livestock, and they must do so without mercy and without leaving a single survivor.  In this case, as Netanyahu insists, to be merciful is disobedience to God.

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There is nothing new in such pronouncements; shortly after the 1973 war, the burgeoning settler movement began to reconcile secular and religious Zionism, and the violence of the militantly secular Irgun (1931-1948) and Lehi (a split from the Irgun in 1940, often referred to as the Stern Gang) prior to and during the Nakba was retroactively justified in Halachic terms, that is, by citing Jewish law. It was at this time that the Israeli Right (both religious and secular) turned to the relatively neglected discussion of war, as it is treated in the Torah and Talmud, as well as in the commentaries of Rashi (1040-1105), Maimonides (1138-1204), Nachmanides (1194-1270), and Bahya ben Asher (1255-1340). At issue was the question of what is prohibited and what is permitted in war, which in turn, led to a distinction between two fundamental types of war. The first is the optional war (milkhemet reshut) in which it is forbidden to kill women or children or destroy crops and which must be preceded by a peace proposal that is rejected by the opposing party before hostilities may begin. The other type of war, of particular relevance to the present war in Gaza, is the milkhemet mitzvah, the obligatory war commanded by God. Such wars may without the slightest exaggeration be regarded as wars of extermination, in which every man, women and child must be killed, their animals and crops destroyed and even the memory of their existence “blotted out.” This is not a state of exception where anything is permitted. On the contrary, the war of extermination is obligatory and failure to carry it out according to the letter of the commandment as it is written in the Torah will be punished by God (Deut. 20) . Commentators disagree as to whether, as in the case of optional war, it is required to first make a peace proposal prior to any engagement with the enemy.

But against what nations has a war of extermination been declared obligatory in Scripture?  The list is quite short: the seven Nations of Canaan that preceded the Hebrew people and prevented them from taking the land that God had promised them, and the Amalekites who lay in wait along the way to Canaan, preying on the weak and sick among those fleeing Egyptian bondage. From this, we can explain the resurgence of the question of war and the obligations and prohibitions imposed on the nation that heeds the call of the Lord we are commanded never to forget. From the moment the Zionist project took shape and imagined itself as a “return” to the original homeland of the Jewish people, which contrary to myth was not a land without people, but was populated with a people increasingly seen as a modern version of the Nations of Canaan or, worse, Amalek, the notion of the milkhemet mitzvah was reactivated. With each war, from 1982 to 2023, the internationally recognized limits imposed on the conduct of armies following the conclusion of WWII were, in observance of God’s command, gradually cast aside by the IDF in their attempts to rid the land of its original inhabitants.

The gradual fusion of the demand for the territory that the secular Zionists regarded as theirs by right and that the religious Zionists saw as the land promised to Abraham by God and whose recovery would herald the arrival of the Messianic era, heightened the ecstatic commitment to the extermination of the modern version of Amalek. The internationally agreed upon rules of war were superseded by the commandment never to forget what Amalek has done and the secular commandment never to forget the six million whose death could never be sufficiently avenged. The messianism flourishing in Israel today has little in common with the messianisms of the past; it is not born of desperate hope for deliverance like that conceived in the shadows of the great massacres that took place in seventeenth-century Ukraine and which reverberated throughout the Mediterranean world, reaching as far as the Sephardic communities of Amsterdam. On the contrary, it is a product of a global equilibrium of forces increasingly favorable to Israel and which has granted it a de facto exemption from international law, even as Israel continues to receive all the latest means of mass destruction from the US. The sense of indomitable power over a Palestinian population half-starved even before the current war, is expressed as the cataclysmic messianism that will only be realized with the extermination of the original inhabitants. The idea of redemption through sin or transgression that Gershom Scholem ascribed to Sabbatai Zevi and his followers in seventeenth-century Smyrna (Izmir) took the form of feasting on forbidden foods prepared in violation of the laws of Kashrut or in orgies carried out in defiance of the commandments, both positive and negative, concerning sexual relations. For present day Israel, in contrast, redemption is marked by the nullification of the laws of war by the law itself. Beyond a temporary state of exception, that is, a condition without restraints or limits of any kind, those who wage war against Amalek are commanded by God to kill every man, woman and child and further to blot out the very memory of Amalek, that is, every written trace of its existence. Menachem Kellner, in his essay “And Yet the Texts Remain,”  has noted the paradox at work here: the written commandment to blot out its memory is itself a demand to remember to blot out the name of Amalek, which is thus crossed out but not erased, as if Amalek the phenomenon, and not a particular people identified in Scripture, may reappear at any time and must be destroyed once again. Kellner notes that these discussions, conceived during the Crusades, and from within the persecutory state that emerged from the Iberian Reconquista, were soon relegated to the margins of Jewish legal thought where they would remain for centuries. It was the Zionist paramilitaries beginning in the 1930s that lifted them out of near oblivion, and the IDF that made them central to the endless attempts to simultaneously deny and justify the undeniable and unjustifiable mass murder and starvation they continue to visit upon the men, women and children of Gaza.

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In the Discourses (III, 30) Machiavelli declares that Moses was “forced to kill an infinite number of men” to take and hold the Promised Land against its enemies, internal and external. “Infinite” here is not merely hyperbole; it is Machiavelli’s observation that a political order founded on the violent eviction or elimination of those who preceded that order would necessarily face an unending sequence of wars in which no victory could ever be definitive. Interestingly, UN Special Rapporteur, Francesca Albanese, circulated a draft document “Anatomy of a Genocide,” dated March 25, 2024, on the situation in Gaza that might be read as an updated version of  Machiavelli’s postulate:

As settler-colonialism aims to acquire Indigenous land and resources, the mere existence of Indigenous peoples poses an existential threat to the settler society. Destruction and replacement of Indigenous people become therefore ‘unavoidable’ and take place through different methods depending on the perceived threat to the settler group. These include removal (forcible transfer, ethnic cleansing), movement restrictions (segregation, largescale carceralization), mass killings (murder, disease, starvation), assimilation (cultural erasure, child removal) and birth prevention. Settler-colonialism is a dynamic, structural process and a confluence of acts aimed at displacing and eliminating Indigenous groups, of which genocidal extermination/annihilation represents the peak.

The Gaza war of 2014 constituted one of the most important experiments in military/political strategy in the history of the Israeli state. The IDF killed an average of 45 civilians (ten of whom were children) per day for 50 days. Hospitals, schools, high rise apartment towers and UN shelters were targeted and their targeting justified by the Israeli government with arguments  contrary to international law that only threatened to further provoke the growing global outrage at the carnage. The results of this experiment were quite striking: despite the condemnations issued by many governments and UN bodies and despite the rise of a global movement in Solidarity with Palestine far larger than ever before, Israel faced no meaningful sanctions. Other results, however, proved deeply worrisome: the experiment had produced deep divisions among Jews in the Diaspora, with significant numbers critical of Israel’s actions and beginning to question the very notion of Zionism on a scale not seen since WWII. Groups like Jewish Voice for Peace saw an exponential increase in their memberships as they moved to anti-Zionist positions, while Trump’s election in 2016, to the chagrin of many liberal Zionists, showed that anti-Semitism could co-exist very comfortably with a politics of unconditional support for Israel. The 2014 War on Gaza cost Israel relatively little economically or militarily; successive Israeli governments, however, feared its effects on Jews in the diaspora, whose financial and political support Israel depended on. The growing disillusionment with the Zionist project was quite evident, especially among those under 35. Even more shocking to Israelis was the willingness of Jewish non-Zionist and anti-Zionist organizations to work with Palestinian groups and organize joint actions. As if this were not enough, the dynamic created by Jewish groups’ recognition of the justice of Palestinian demands and the acceptance of the fact that Israel was a settler-colonial society succeeded in attracting increasing numbers of students and young people whose origins were neither Jewish nor Muslim but who understood the world-historical significance of the struggle for Palestine.

While the Israeli government initially greeted the election of Trump in 2016 and the increasing power and legitimacy of the pro-Israel far right in Europe, with relief, hoping that authoritarian measures, together with extra-parliamentary Islamophobic mobilizations would put a stop to the growth of the Palestine solidarity movement, they were quickly disappointed. The strategy of the BDS movement was embraced by activists as a non-violent but potentially effective means of forcing Israel to recognize the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and to dismantle the apartheid system imposed on them. Because Israel is extremely vulnerable to any disruption of trade and relies heavily on imports of fuel, agricultural products and food in general, as well as basic raw materials, the prospect of a reduction of imports from the US or the EU, once considered improbable, had to be taken seriously and the development of an effective strategy to prevent such a development became urgent.

The obvious solution would have been to reach a compromise, genuinely viable and acceptable to both sides, with the chosen representatives of the Palestinian people. To agree to such a solution (as opposed to the unworkable proposals Israel had made in the past), however, would have compromised the entire Zionist project by allowing Palestinians their share of the land God had promised to the Jewish people alone, and provoking the ire of the growing settler movement. Instead, the prevailing strategy has involved slow motion ethnic cleansing by means of settler aggression (supported by the IDF) on the West Bank and the economic strangulation of Gaza, punctuated by brief but ever more destructive wars. But the Israelis have consistently underestimated the extent of Palestinian resistance and the refusal to surrender their right of return to the lands and homes stolen from them during the Nakba. With Palestinian resistance in Gaza and the West Bank, came increasingly bold and militant protest in Europe and North America, and the reinvigoration of BDS campaigns.

In response, the Israeli State has devoted significant resources to an examination of the wars in Lebanon and Gaza, paying very close attention to the international criticisms of these wars. They have carefully analyzed the precise areas of concern, and the discursive and rhetorical strategies implemented in the articulation of such concerns, even going so far as to identify and appropriate whenever possible certain key words and phrases (e.g., self- determination, colonialism, power, as in Black Power) that would allow Israel (recently ranked fourth in the world in military strength) to posture as an oppressed nation surrounded by powerful enemies.

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Such efforts were not been particularly successful on campuses and in social movements, where groups like the Zioness Movement (“Unabashedly Progressive, Unapologetically Zionist”) found themselves compelled to defend Israel’s increasingly brutal wars against the Palestinian people. Campaigns of persuasion composed of more or less obvious falsehoods packaged and sold as “The Truth About Israel” and liberally seasoned with Islamophobic conspiracy theories failed to prevent the growth of the Palestine solidarity movement. These approaches proved far more effective in enlisting politicians at every level of government, especially in combination with the support of such groups as the ADL and  AIPAC. What Israel and its US supporters could not accomplish through mobilizations on campuses or at the community level, could be done, they hoped, through other means and with new allies.

Just as secular Zionism and religious Zionism have tended increasingly to converge in Israel since the 1967 war, so in the US, Christian Zionism, with its millions of supporters and its fervent devotion to the actually existing state of Israel, began to play an important role in US policy towards Israel during the Obama administration. Since this movement sees the return of the Jews to the homeland given them by God as essential to the return of Jesus Christ to redeem humankind, its members fervently back Israel’s attempts to rid the land of Palestinians, including by armed settlers. They support the Israeli far right in their project of ethnic cleansing and embrace the identification of the Palestinian people with Amalek. Further, the Christian Zionist movement has committed significant funds to help Jews in the diaspora “return” (or “make Aliyah”) to Israel and to ensure they will have the resources to remain there permanently. Today, Christians United for Israel (CUFI) with its 10 million members constitutes the largest “pro-Israel” organization in the US. Recently, they have become active in opposing anti-Zionist and Palestine solidarity work on campuses and are prime movers behind legislation at the state and local levels that defines as anti-Semitic the charge that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza or carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Palestinians, and thereby effectively criminalizes the existing mass movement against the current Gaza war.

In November 2023, the online news outlet, (an online version of the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot), reported that “the Foreign Ministry along with the Diaspora Affairs Ministry will establish a task force” to combat the rising tide of anti-Semitic (i.e., anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian) activism on US campuses. The article outlines the proposed plan of action, but cautions that its implementation “should not have the signature of the State of Israel on it.” Students and faculty active in Palestine Solidarity work will be “named and shamed” to deprive them of future employment opportunities and “will pay a significant economic price for their conduct.” The plan also states that “Israel will hold discussions with elements from the U.S. Department of Justice to map out legal tools that can be used to deal with factors that pose a threat on campuses and prevent activity that endangers the security of Jewish and Israeli students.” Among these factors are the Students for Justice in Palestine and “Muslim student organizations that challenge Western Values.” In part, the article explains, this would involve “exposing the foreign funding received by U.S. universities from sources that encourage antisemitic and anti-Israeli activity.” Finally, “it has been decided to send influencers to campuses in the U.S. in coordination with pro-Israel/Jewish organizations in the area, and around them, to create a supportive march or demonstration on campus. The focus must be on influencers from the human rights, diversity, and gender identity realms. In addition, a continuous street sign campaign will be launched across campuses.

This brief news article is quite extraordinary in a number of respects. That the Israeli government decided to release the details of a plan for covert intervention in a US social movement, asserting twice that this intervention “should not have the signature of the State of Israel on it,”  might seem bizarre, were it not for the fact that this plan, with the exception of a few specifics, had already been implemented well before the current war. Even more remarkable is the absence of any reference to the obvious cause of the anti-Israel sentiment the article bemoans: the war, the genocidal violence and engineered starvation displayed for the world to see, that has sent close to a million people into the streets in the US alone and shut down university campuses across the country. From the perspective of the Israeli government, the problem is not the mass murder of children and non-combatants but the anti-Israel sentiment here labeled “anti-Semitism.”  Indeed, what other avenue is open to Israel, given its commitment to genocidal violence, than to silence the critics of the war and criminalize those who march against it? But success in this endeavor is highly unlikely. Palestine Solidarity is already too strong and its participants too many. And it will grow stronger with every child in Gaza who dies of starvation, with every bomb that destroys a hospital full of the sick and the wounded, with every family left exposed, without food, water or shelter. Governments have failed to act. It is now up to the movement to stop this war.

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