Why is the ADL Equating Palestinian Rights with White Nationalism?
I’m pretty sure that Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, won’t join one of our Friday Zoom calls. Which saddens me because I have so many questions (to be posed respectfully, I promise) about the speech he just gave equating Palestinian solidarity groups with white nationalists. Jonathan, if you’re out there, please come and explain!
Luckily, in Jonathan’s absence, we have a terrific guest this Friday. We’ll be joined at Noon ET by the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor, author of its excellent WorldView column. (As always, paid subscribers will get the Zoom link this Wednesday and the video the following week.) Ishaan is one of the relatively rare US foreign policy commentators who is as fluent in the politics of the Global South as the politics of Europe and North America. So I’ll ask him about the gaping North-South divide in perceptions of the Ukraine war. I’m really looking forward to this.
Back to Jonathan Greenblatt’s speech, which I’ll do my best to interpret in his absence. Its starting point is that anti-Zionism equals antisemitism. The language Greenblatt uses to make the point is revealing. “To those who still cling to the idea that antizionism is not antisemitism,” he thunders, “let me clarify this for you as clearly as I can – antizionism is antisemitism. I will repeat: antizionism is antisemitism.”
This isn’t the language of someone making an argument. It’s the language of someone delivering a catechism. More specifically, it’s the language of someone outraged that his audience hasn’t gotten the theology through their thick skulls. Let me say it again, only louder!
It’s not hard to understand Greenblatt’s frustration. Last week, the American Jewish Committee published a survey, which found that 22 percent of American Jewish millennials support “One bi-national state with a single government elected.” Another 15 percent favor one state “in which Palestinians have a unique civil status and are represented by Palestinian municipal leaders,” which is an extremely euphemistic way of describing one state that permanently denies Palestinian basic rights. It’s so euphemistic that some of those 15 percent likely thought that option also refers to equality between Palestinians and Jews. Those numbers are roughly consistent with a Jewish Electoral Institute poll last year, which found that twenty percent of American Jews favor one equal state and twenty-eight percent think Israel is practicing apartheid.
So somewhere between one-fifth and one-third of American Jews support legal equality between Jews and Palestinians in one state, which by Greenblatt’s definition makes them anti-Zionists. Which makes them antisemites. What’s particularly scary about that figure, if you’re someone like Greenblatt, is that these American Jews arrived at this position even though it’s not held by a single prominent American politician other than Rashida Tlaib, and it’s deemed antisemitic under the definition favored by America’s most powerful Jewish organizations and by the US government itself. Nonetheless, with every passing year, as it becomes more and more obvious that a viable, sovereign Palestinian state isn’t possible, the percent of American Jews supporting equality in one state is likely to grow. No wonder Greenblatt is anxious.
The best way to arrest that trend would be to try to keep the two-state solution alive by opposing Israeli settlement growth. (I think that ship has sailed but others might disagree.) But that would require confronting the Israeli government, which the ADL won’t do. What’s left is for Greenblatt to try to convince American Jews that they, or their children, should stop being antisemites. But that requires explaining why anti-Zionism and antisemitism are the same thing. And, unfortunately for Greenblatt, he doesn’t have a coherent explanation for why that’s the case. What he has is something closer to word salad.
“Antizionism as an ideology,” he begins, “is rooted in rage.” What does that even mean? The Satmar—the largest sect of Chassidic Jews in the world—are fervent anti-Zionists. Their anti-Zionism isn’t rooted in rage. It’s rooted in Masechet Ketubot (111a), a section of the Talmud that they interpret as instructing Jews not to restore Jewish sovereignty until messianic times. As for Palestinians and their supporters, Jewish and otherwise, is their anti-Zionism rooted in rage? Maybe. You could also say its rooted in indignation or ethics. The point is that political Zionism was the ideology of the armies that expelled roughly half of the Palestinian population of mandatory Palestine during Israel’s war of independence, and which currently holds most of the Palestinians under Israeli control as non-citizens without basic rights. If anti-Zionism is “rooted in rage,” so is opposition to any ideology that denies people equality and freedom. The people who opposed segregation in the American South, and apartheid in South Africa, and British colonialism in India, and Russian imperialism in Eastern Europe, were often enraged too. It didn’t make them bigots.
Greenblatt goes on to say that anti-Zionism is “predicated on one concept: the negation of another people…It requires a willful denial of even a superficial history of Judaism and the vast history of the Jewish people.” But saying that Palestinian equality negates Jewish peoplehood suggests that Jewish peoplehood requires Jewish supremacy. That’s not true. Jews are quite capable of maintaining our collective identity under political systems that give us the same rights as our non-Jewish neighbors. In fact, Greenblatt supports such a system in the United States. As for the notion that anti-Zionism denies the “history of Judaism and the vast history of the Jewish people,” Greenblatt seems to be suggesting that anti-Zionism requires rejecting the Jewish connection to what our texts call the land of Israel. But that’s not convincing either. For most of the last two thousand years, most Jewish religious authorities affirmed that connection while opposing a Jewish state. And it’s entirely possible to affirm the Jewish religious and historic connection to Israel-Palestine while also believing that Palestinians, who have their own religious and historic connections, deserve to be treated as equals. In 2018, several Palestinian members of the Knesset proposed legislation “to anchor in constitutional law the principle of equal citizenship while recognising the existence and rights of the two, Jewish and Arab, national groups living within the country.” That only denies the Jewish connection to Israel-Palestine if you believe a Jewish connection requires Jewish supremacy.
But all this, it turns out, is mere preamble. Greenblatt’s main argument isn’t just that anti-Zionists are antisemites. It’s that, as antisemites, anti-Zionists are the functional equivalent of white nationalists. Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), and the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR), he argues, are “the photo inverse of the Extreme Right that ADL long has tracked.” What’s so odd about this is that SJP, JVP, and CAIR all support legal equality irrespective of race, religion, or ethnicity, both in Israel-Palestine and the United States. That’s the opposite of white nationalists, who believe the US is a white Christian nation in which everyone else should be subordinate. Some white nationalists oppose political Zionism because they hate all expressions of Jewish power. Others endorse it because they like the idea that every country should be structured around one racial or ethnic group, which enjoys legal, political and cultural dominance. They’d like American Jews to go to Israel and for the US to be a kind of Israel for white Christians.
The point is that if you’re creating an ideological spectrum that runs from legal equality to legal supremacy, progressive anti-Zionists are on one end and white nationalists are on the other. What lies in between them is the ADL, which supports equality under the law in the United States but calls that same principle antisemitic in Israel-Palestine. If you want to understand why Greenblatt’s argument is so muddled, that’s the reason. He needs to argue that his own position—legal equality in the US, legal supremacy in Israel-Palestine—is coherent. And to do that he needs to argue that people who believe consistently in legal equality and people who believe consistently in legal supremacy are one and the same.
In his speech, Greenblatt says the ADL will use its “analytic capabilities” to expose anti-Zionist groups. If his speech offers any indication, they don’t have much to fear.
On Mehdi Hasan’s show on MSNBC, I talked about how the United States might apply the principles of self-determination and non-aggression it supports in Ukraine to Yemen and Israel-Palestine.
In Jewish Currents (subscribe!), I wrote about Congressman Tom Malinowski, who supported Palestinian rights as the longtime Washington director of Human Rights before changing his tune once he entered Congress.
Also in Jewish Currents, my colleague Mari Cohen wrote a fascinating profile of Deborah Lipstadt, the Biden administration’s antisemitism envoy, and how her understanding of antisemitism differs from that of other Jewish studies scholars.
Finally, I’m participating in a Zoom conversation this Thursday (Israeli Independence Day), sponsored the Jewish Agency, about Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Some may find it odd that they asked me, given that I support one equal state, not a Jewish state. Others might find it odd that I agreed. But I believe in talking to folks with different views, and especially to Jews with other views, since we are members of one people. In the Talmud (Masechet Yevamot 13b) the rabbis interpret the phrase “you should not cut yourselves” from Deuteronomy as suggesting that Jews should not cut themselves into warring factions. To me, that means arguing with people, not shunning them. I’m glad the Jewish Agency agrees.
See you at our Zoom call with Ishaan this Friday,