A Broken Language, a Crippled
Debate, and the Gift of Art

Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism As Synonyms

Dictionaries, encyclopedias, websites, glossaries, and other publications define anti-Semitism in confusing and contradictory ways. Some definitions are quite brief, others quite long. Some define the term by the mindset of the anti-Semite, others define it in terms of historical context — anti-Semitism in Spain, Russia, Germany, etc. — though none defines what the word means in a contemporary American context. A few provide the term’s etymology and examples of its usage. None of the definitions are adequate.

One dictionary in particular deserves attention because it formally conflates the terms anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, (hereafter referred to as Webster’s Third New International) defines anti-Semitism in its second and third senses as:

(2) opposition to Zionism
(3) sympathy for the opponents of Israel

(The dictionary’s first sense of the term is “hostility toward Jews as a religious or racial minority group, often accompanied by social, political or economic discrimination.”)

According to the second sense of the definition for anti-Semitism in Webster’s Third New International, anyone who criticizes Israel and its allies in any way, shape, or form, is anti-Semitic. According to the third sense, anyone who offers sympathy to a political antagonist of Israel, such as Palestine, is anti-Semitic.

Visit Palestine
Artists: Franz Kraus/original and David Tartakover/reprint (Israel)

If one accepts this definition of anti-Semitism, then organizations that actively promote race hatred against the Jewish community, such as the Ku Klux Klan, and groups that operate relief programs for Palestinian refugees, such as the Mennonites and the Quakers, are morally indistinguishable. According to Webster’s Third New International, anyone expressing political reservations about the emerging political alliance between domestic supporters of Zionism and the conservative Christian right (which many view as a daunting threat to the doctrine of the separation of church and state) would be guilty of anti-Semitism.

Webster’s Third New International definition is especially pernicious because it criminalizes feelings: it says that if anyone so much as thinks critical thoughts about Israel or Zionism or thinks positive thoughts about Israel’s opponents, they are guilty of anti-Semitism. This definition is a disservice, because it carelessly expands the power to level the charge of anti-Semitism to anyone who chooses to use this weapon, irrespective of context or appropriateness.

Webster’s Third New International has been challenged on this usage by Liberation Graphics. A spokesperson for the publication conceded that the definition is an error, calling it a “relic” and even going so far as to question whether it ever actually qualified as an accurate definition. Subsequent to that conversation, however, Webster’s published its 2002 edition in which the above definition appears unchanged.

The fact that the conflation has actually ensconced itself in a dictionary used by millions of Americans demonstrates that the confusion is deeply entrenched in our language. If the editors of America’s premiere dictionary do not understand the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, what likelihood is there that ordinary Americans will? Very little, especially since organized Zionism actively advocates convergence of the two terms. “[T]o be anti-Zionist is, by definition, to be anti-Semitic,” writes Kenneth S. Stern of the American Jewish Committee:

Zionism is nothing more than a belief that Israel has the right to exist as a homeland for Jews. It says nothing about the policies or programs of the state, merely that it has a right to exist. There are left-wing Zionists and right-wing Zionists-and many in between. Some Zionists are harsh critics of Israeli policies; others are supportive. But the term “Zionist” connotes nothing more than the right of Israel to exist; anti-Zionist means that Israel, regardless of its leaders, policies, or other aspects of how its society is run, has no right to exist.

To say that Jews alone don’t have a right to self-determination in a part of their historic homeland is clearly anti-Semitic, despite the effort to hide the bigotry behind a supposed political term.

Source: “Why Campus Anti-Israel Activity Flunks Bigotry 101” website of the American Jewish Congress, 2003.

Israel/40th Anniversary

Artist: Iris Dishon (Israel)

The claim that Zionism is nothing more than a belief means that anyone who does not share this belief is anti-Semitic; in other words, Zionism is a mandatory belief. It also negates the deep complexity of this concept with its oceanic history and context that we have only begun to describe in this essay.

But the most important implication of the above claim is that it attempts to establish Israel’s “right to exist” as the a priori concession one must make before entering a conversation about Palestine and Israel without triggering the charge of being anti-Semitic. If conceded to, the true cost of this obnoxious pre-condition is the negation of certain Constitutional rights, such as freedom of expression. Even more disturbing, it would establish a precedent for the diminishment of cherished aspects of the American national personality, such as the flinty, unflinching refusal to be silenced in the pursuit of an honorable goal or to surrender without a fight. Very few Americans have read the Constitution, however, all seem to intuit its real power: which is that it works because the people believe in it. Zionism does not trump the Constitution, irrespective of the preferences of the Israel advocacy movement in the U.S.

A clear divide is created by turning anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism into synonyms and by using a single criterion (acknowledging Israel’s right to exist) to determine when the terms apply. One either believes Israel has a right to exist, or one believes in the destruction of Israel. To enter the debate, one must choose a side. One must make a pledge of allegiance to Israel or be considered hostile to the Jewish people. This polarization of the debate is an act of political desperation, the effect of which — and possibly the intent of which — is to forestall an inclusive, transparent discussion of the U.S. role in the Middle East.

Based on the second and third senses of the term in Webster’s Third New International, and based on the American Jewish Congress endorsement of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism as synonyms, those who publicly criticize Israel or Zionism deserve to be socially ostracized and politically stigmatized just as if they were guilty of true racial hatred. This is the fault line of the language’s failure; it is the main reason that American debate on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is so shallow and unhealthy

Palestine: A Homeland Denied

Artist: Charles Davies (UK)

Next Section: Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism as Antonyms

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