Shireen Abu Akleh and the eternal dilemma


Despite the ongoing carnage in Ukraine, Israel-Palestine remains one of the world’s most intractable problems. The horrendous killing of the Palestinian-American journalist and Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh in the West Bank on the 11th of May was a stark reminder. If any were needed.

Hardly a year after a gruesome war in Gaza, we just saw yet another Ramadan with deadly clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces near al-Aqsa. As if on cue, Hamas threatened to fire rockets into Israel in retaliation later on. If history is any guide, this will no doubt result in yet another brutal campaign of bombardment in Gaza.

All of this comes against the backdrop of Amnesty International’s bombshell report on the 1st of February this year, titled ‘Israel’s Apartheid against Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime against Humanity.’ For the first time, it accused the state of Israel of crimes of apartheid. While the detailed report makes clear that it believes that the parallels with apartheid-era South Africa are not exact, Israel’s foreign affairs minister Yair Lapid was quick to accuse the compilers of the report of anti-Semitic intentions.

This brings us to the eternal dilemma: is criticism of the state of Israel and its formation (often termed anti-Zionism) one and the same as anti-Semitism?

First things first: what is this ‘Zionism’ we seek to defend? If Zionism is the right of Jews to live peacefully in the land of their ancestors, i.e., Zion, free from prejudice and attacks from others, then one must very simply identify a Zionist, without mincing any words. But if Zionism entails that a Jew born in New York has the right to make Aliyah, but a Palestinian with land titles proving his pre-1948 ownership or territory in Haifa or Jericho can never return to her ancestral land, and if 97% of pre-1967 Israel does not allow Palestinian Arabs ownership of land but grants this right to Jews, such Zionism rests on dubious moral grounds indeed. If Zionism entails the continued expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank, with terrorists like Baruch Goldstein murdering Arabs and groups like Lahava openly calling for the slaughter of Arab citizens of Israel, Zionism becomes indistinguishable from exploitation and colonial brutality. Does Israel have the right to defend itself against indiscriminate Hamas rocket attacks on civilians? Absolutely, yes. But there is no excuse for the 14-year blockade of Gaza, severely restricting food and medical aid supplies and causing 49% unemployment. It is also not pro-Zionism in any meaningful moral sense to continue to whitewash the war crimes of the Israeli Defence Forces. One keeps hearing that the IDF is the most “humane” fighting force in the world, but what is so “humane” about literally bombing refugee camps and using live ammunition against unarmed civilians? In May of 2021, the IDF quite “humanely” destroyed the main COVID-19 testing laboratory in Gaza. Dozens upon dozens of Gazan babies were buried on Eid, and the third holiest site of Islam was fired upon, “humanely,” in a chilling echo of the 1967 attack on Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.

Ethical Zionism cannot condone the imprisonment of Israeli citizens who opt out of military service as conscientious objectors. Zionism, which holds that all men and women are created b’tselem elohim, cannot condone the subjecting of the entire populace of the West Bank to military checkpoints, arrests under false pretences, extrajudicial murder, and de facto martial law. Support for Zionism cannot include support for the horrendously racist Basic Law of July 2018, for example, which is- quite simply- constitutional apartheid.

Now to the matter at hand: there do unfortunately exist many, many Muslim and Arab groups and, yes, even secular leftist organisations, who use anti-Zionism as a cover for their anti-Semitism, and trade in conspiracy theories and blood libel, recycling age-old anti-Semitic tropes about Jews controlling the media and causing terrorist attacks and so on. There were people who, waving Palestinian flags and chanting “Death to Jews,” assaulted Jewish diners at a Los Angeles sushi restaurant. There were people who drove through London and gathered outside a German synagogue shouting the darkest of slogans at Jewish congregations, even yelling, “Rape their daughters!”  These weren’t mere anti-Zionists, but noxious anti-Semites. The same can be said of those who, at a protest in Brussels, chanted, “Jews, remember Khaybar. The army of Muhammad is returning.” The hashtag #HitlerWasRight has very little to do with the legal or moral status of the actions of the state of Israel. It is, quite simply, genocidally anti-Semitic.

And yes, Israel is held to much higher moral standards than, for example, Turkey, which equally brutally suppresses Kurdish aspirations for a nation-state, butchered Syrian Kurds in 2019, helps Azerbaijan besiege and murder Armenians in Artsakh (using among other things- funnily enough- Israeli drones). Or Saudi Arabia, which mercilessly bombards Yemeni schoolchildren and starves Yemen to the brink of humanitarian catastrophe just because of a few Houthi rockets (far fewer than the ones Hamas fired on Israel in May of 2021). There is no BDS against such countries, no campaigns of demonisation, nor attacks on their citizens abroad. This singular focus on Israel is, indeed, blatantly anti-Semitic.

But conversely, many ardent Zionists are themselves anti-Semites! Trump supporters shouted “Jews will not replace us” while simultaneously cheering on the granting to Israel of full unilateral rights to East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. In India, the far-right supports Israel out of a simple hatred of Muslims, not concern for Jews (many Hindutva organisations and their disciples openly admire Hitler and hold the Mein Kampf up as a visionary document, not least their founding ideologue MS Golwalkar). Notable anti-Semites like Orbán of Hungary are staunchly pro-Zionist. Many white nationalist far-right groups attack synagogues and desecrate Jewish graves, use anti-Semitic slurs, and praise Hitler, all while supporting Israel to the hilt. Must we claim that their anti-Semitism and racism are somehow magically kosher just because they happen to be Zionists? “Anti-Zionism is, ipso facto, anti-Semitism” does not hold up here. AT ALL.

There are also a lot of Holocaust survivors like Hajo Meyer and Jewish intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein and Ilan Pappé and Gideon Levy who happen to be committed anti-Zionists: are they anti-Semites, self-hating Jews, or a mixture of the two? In addition, Orthodox Jews who live in Israel are vehemently anti-Zionist for religious reasons – they think the State of Israel is a sinful creation because God should have created Zion and not Man. Are these extreme Jewish fanatics, who observe the Torah with fanatical intensity (including the espousal of some of the most misogynistic and homophobic elements of the Jewish faith, frowned upon in secular Jewish society) themselves anti-Semites?

There is also the problem on the right, of virulent racists using Zionism as a cover for their general hatred of Muslims. Many far-right commentators use Zionism as a cover for their apologia for colonial crimes and to portray brown people as terrorists-in-waiting. So, should we say ‘All Zionists are anti-Muslim bigots?’

At the end of the day, the only true path to peace is a one-state solution with equal rights for
Jews and Arabs, just like in post-apartheid South Africa or Northern Ireland under the Good Friday Agreement. No Jew born in Tel Aviv should ever have to fear being transported to Poland or New York; no Arab whose families have lived for several generations in the land we
now call Israel or Palestine should have to live their whole life in refugee camps or in exile or be subjected to second class citizenship their entire lives.

The great Israeli writer Amos Oz once described Israelis and Palestinians as traumatised children of the same abusive father: Europe. In Palestinians, the Israelis see reflections of European fascists: of Kristallnacht and the Holocaust. In Israelis, Palestinians see reflections of the most rapacious extremes of white European colonialism. Just as Israelis (and Jews around the world) have the right to honour the memory of the Holocaust and have a museum to the victims in Yad Vashem, Palestinian Arabs have the right to honor the memory of their families and relatives who perished and the 700,000 who were forcibly displaced during the Nakba. There should be a museum to them as well. The slogan ‘NEVER AGAIN’ must hold, for both Jews and Palestinian Arabs.

This might seem fanciful today. But as Seamus Heaney so eloquently put it, at the end of an equally bloody period of internecine warfare among Catholics and Protestants:

‘History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.”

Sahasranshu Dash
Sahasranshu Dash
Sahasranshu Dash is a research partner at the South Asia Institute of Research and Development, Kathmandu, Nepal