Why Jews Alone Should Not Define Antisemitism


Our Zoom call this week, for paid subscribers, will be at our regular time, Friday at Noon EDT.

Our guest will be Shay Hazkani, Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland and author of Dear Palestine: A Social History of the 1948 War. Hazkani’s highly acclaimed book uses letters by both Israeli and Arab soldiers, as well as other documents, to challenge longstanding myths about Israel’s war on independence. In particular, he questions the assumption, which is widespread in Israel and among diaspora Jews, that Israeli soldiers saw the war as one of survival and Arab soldiers and commanders saw it as a war of extermination.

Here’s a panel discussion about Hazkani’s book with various scholars. Here’s a hostile exchange (in Hebrew) between him and Yediot Ahronot's Ben-Dror Yemini (which starts with this article by Hazkani, which led Yemini to accuse Hazkani of charlatanism (in Hebrew)).

Here’s a podcast, in which Hazkani talks about the challenges of writing Dear Palestine in terms of access to sources and some of the legal struggles he faced (in Hebrew).

As usual, paid subscribers will get the link this Wednesday and the video the following week. They’ll also gain access to our library of past Zoom interviews with guests like Thomas Friedman, Ilhan Omar, Omar Barghouti, Maggie Haberman, Noam Chomsky, and Bret Stephens.


Sources Cited in this Video

The Biden Administration’s National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism.

Jews Get to Define Antisemitism” in Tablet Magazine.

Jews Get to Define Antisemitism” in the San Diego Tribune.

A letter by British rabbis arguing that by failing to adopt the IHRA definition, “The Labour party’s leadership has chosen to ignore those who understand antisemitism the best, the Jewish community.”

The 2021 Jewish Electoral Institute Survey, which shows that 25 percent of American Jews consider Israel an apartheid state.

Canadian political scientist Mira Sucharov’s study, which reveals that 69 percent of American Jews reject Zionism when it is defined as “the belief in privileging Jewish rights over non-Jewish rights in Israel.”

Things to Read

In Jewish Currents (subscribe!), Dylan Saba asks whether it’s really true that Iron Dome saves lives.

I talked last week on MSNBC about how the Republican Party talks tough on China yet sabotages American strength in Asia by threatening to default on America’s debts. 

Professor Nathaniel Berman on how Israeli leaders avoid complying with international law.

See you on Friday,



Hi. Our call this Friday is going to be with Shay Hazkani, who is a professor of Jewish history at the University of Maryland, and author of a critically acclaimed recent book called Dear Palestine: A Social History of the 1948 War, in which Professor Hazkani kind of has gotten a hold of this kind of treasure trove of documents and letters and other archive collections by Jewish and Arab and Palestinian soldiers, and uses these letters and other documents to kind of really question this kind of dominant narrative in Israeli and American Jewish circles that the 1948 war was perceived by the Arab side as a war of extermination against the Jews, and on the Jewish side by soldiers merely as a war of survival. So, this will be this Friday for paid subscribers at noon ET. And of course, paid subscribers also get access to all of our previous last couple of years’ of videos with people like Bret Stephens, Noam Chomsky, Thomas Friedman, Omar Barghouti, Ilhan Omar, a lot of interesting folks.

Some of you may have seen that the Biden administration last week issued a national strategy for combating antisemitism. There had been a lot of debate leading up to it about whether the Biden administration would endorse a definition of antisemitism that equates anti-Zionism—opposition to a Jewish state—with antisemitism. And the Biden administration kind of artfully weaved its way through this by kind of citing something called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, the IHRA, definition of antisemitism, which does indeed say that calling a Jewish state racist is antisemitic. But the Biden administration did not in its own words come out and equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism, which I think is good.

One of the things that the establishment Jewish organizations and the Israeli government said again and again in pushing the Biden administration to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism is they said, well, this is what Jews around the world believe. That’s not actually the case. There’s pretty good evidence in the United States at least that a significant minority of American Jews don’t see anti-Zionism as antisemitism, in fact are anti-Zionists themselves, and therefore would be considered antisemites under the IHRA definition. So, for instance, in a 2021 Jewish Electoral Institute poll, 20% of American Jews said they favored one equal non-Jewish state in Israel- Palestine. Twenty-five percent said they considered Israel an apartheid state. And the Canadian political scientist Mira Sucharov has shown that if you define Zionism as giving Jews rights in Israel that non-Jews don’t have, then almost 70% of American Jews say they’re not Zionist under that definition.

But what’s most interesting to me, actually, conceptually, is not the kind of empirical fact that there is not a Jewish consensus on the definition of antisemitism, or the equation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism, it’s the claim that Jews alone should be should have the right to determine what constitutes antisemitism. This has been a kind of really central argument by establishment American Jewish organizations and the Israeli government. The logic goes: every discriminated-against group should be empowered to determine for itself what the definition of discrimination against that group is, and other people should respect that definition. Now, as I’ve said, there actually is not a consensus among Jews about definitions of antisemitism. But I would go further and suggest that even if there were, even if there were a consensus among Jews about a certain definition of antisemitism, that the principles of liberalism would suggest that it is not in fact the right of any one identity group to have full power to determine a definition of bigotry against itself. And that one of the core principles of liberalism actually is that irrespective of your ethnic, religious, racial identity, in fact, that you have the right to have an opinion on broad questions of public policy, including what constitutes bigotry and what doesn’t.

And I think one way of illustrating the incoherence of this claim that every identity group should have sole power to determine what constitutes bigotry against their group is by turning the question of antisemitism and anti-Zionism on its head, right? Because even if there were a consensus among Jews around the world that anti-Zionism equals bigotry, one would still have to wrestle with the fact that there’s another group called Palestinians, right? The vast majority of Palestinians believe not that anti-Zionism is bigoted, but that Zionism is bigoted, right? So, if you say that members of discriminated-against groups have sole authority to define what constitutes bigotry against them, you are at a little bit of an impasse because the claim that Jews believe that anti-Zionism is bigotry runs smack up against the reality that Palestinians, the vast majority of them, believe that Zionism is bigotry, right?

And if you’re only principle is identity politics, that every group determines for itself, and for the larger society, what constitutes bigotry against them, you can’t reconcile those two competing claims, right, because these are two identity claims that run smack into one another, right? The one side saying that anti-Zionism is bigotry; the other side saying that Zionism is bigotry. And in fact, I think empirically you probably find that there’s a much closer to a real consensus among Palestinians that Zionism constitutes bigotry than there is among Jews that anti-Zionism constitutes bigotry. But even if there were a consensus among Jews, it still wouldn’t allow you to settle the issue.

And I think this to me goes to a kind of an irony of the way you find a lot of kind of Hasbara discourse trying to speak to Americans. You find that a lot of establishment American Jewish groups are trying to defend Israel in the language that they see as current on the American left. But the irony is that in so doing they often end up taking the worst aspects of the American left, right, the kind of identity politics discourse that actually really has a lot of problems with it, right? And here in this case, the claim that basically your identity should give you total control over defining the terms of debate, I just don’t think that’s true. I don’t think that women should be the only people who get to determine what constitutes sexism, or that LGBT people should be the only people who get to determine what constitutes homophobia. Obviously, those groups should have an important voice. But the principle of liberalism is that irrespective of one’s identity—race, religion, ethnicity—that people have the rational faculties to make arguments that should be considered on their merits in the public square, whether it has to do with whatever particular discriminated-against group one deals with.

And I think this principle is actually being denigrated by establishment American Jewish organizations because they feel like the way in which to get through this equation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism is to adopt this identity politics argument of the left. But that identity politics argument could just as easily be applied to Palestinians. And again, you would be at an impasse. The only way to arbitrate the question of the relationship between Zionism and anti-Zionism to bigotry is to not allow either Jews or Palestinians to have an exclusive claim over getting to determine the answer to that, but for all people to actually look at historical evidence, look at how Zionism actually functions on the ground, look at how anti-Zionism actually functions around the world, and then try to make reasoned arguments about when and if Zionism or anti-Zionism is or is not bigotry. And it’s precisely that move which is central to kind of open a liberal debate that you shut down when you say: no, only Jews have the right to determine definitions of antisemitism.

And it’s only because Palestinians are so erased in these conversations, right? So, for instance, in the Biden administration’s national strategy against antisemitism, they mention discrimination against other groups, and condemn it. They mention discrimination against Black Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs. But there’s no mention of discrimination against Palestinians. Palestinians again remain largely erased in this conversation. The idea that there could be bigotry against Palestinians are, again, remain largely erased in this conversation. The idea that there could be bigotry against Palestinians is erased. And it’s only because of that erasure, that you could make this claim that Jews alone get to determine when anti-Zionism is antisemitic if you essentially erase the identity claims of Palestinians. But my point again is that no identity claim should trump any other, and that what actually needs to happen is that people of any identity should be allowed to be part of a conversation in trying to make sense of these things. Again, our conversation will be this Friday with Shay Hazkani. I hope many of you will join us.

The Beinart Notebook
The Beinart Notebook
Peter Beinart