Antisemitic Zionists Aren’t a Contradiction in Terms

Pundits express surprise when antisemitism and Zionism overlap, but the ideologies share much in common—and many adherents. By Peter Beinart.


Source > Jewish Currents

LAST NOVEMBER, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) awarded Donald Trump its highest honor, the Theodor Herzl Gold Medallion. Nine days later, the former president dined with two of America’s most prominent antisemites, rapper Kanye West and white nationalist provocateur Nick Fuentes. Noting the proximity of the two events, The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner asked ZOA president Morton Klein an uncomfortable question: Could Trump be among those “people who, for whatever reason, have sympathies with Israel but don’t like Jews?” Klein dismissed the proposition. “If you like Israel, which is the Jewish state filled with Jews, how can you hate Jews?” he replied. “It’s beyond my comprehension.”

The exchange illustrated the terms of mainstream American debate about the relationship between antisemitism and political Zionism, the belief in a Jewish state. For conservatives like Klein, the relationship is clear: Zionism and antisemitism are incompatible. The former precludes the latter. For liberals like Chotiner, by contrast, the relationship is obscure. “For whatever reason,” Trump loves Israel but derides American Jews. When faced with the coexistence of Zionism and antisemitism, liberals and centrists tend to describe the two beliefs as either unrelated or in tension. In October, an MSNBC commentator tried to reconcile Trump’s antisemitism and his Zionism by suggesting that he “didn’t necessarily understand his own policies” toward the Jewish state. A Politico essay in December described the Christian right’s support for Israel and distrust of American Jews as ideological “contradictions.”

But these positions are not contradictions at all. Trump’s fondness for Israel and antagonism toward American Jews stem from the same impulse: He admires countries that ensure ethnic, racial, or religious dominance. He likes Israel because its political system upholds Jewish supremacy; he resents American Jews because most of them oppose the white Christian supremacy he’s trying to fortify here. This synthesis isn’t unique to Trump. Since Zionism’s birth in Europe more than a century ago, it has attracted support from Christians who supported a Jewish state at least in part because they feared Jews would undermine the ethnic and religious purity of their own countries. That tradition remains alive in both Europe and the United States today, where research suggests that antagonism towards the Jews in one’s own nation correlates with support for Israel, which offers Jews a nation of their own. Most Zionists aren’t antisemites, of course. But neither are Zionism and antisemitism strange bedfellows. Often, they are different manifestations of the same preference: for nations built on homogeneity and hierarchy rather than diversity and equal citizenship. As such, they are frequent allies in the assault on liberal democracy sweeping much of the world.

THE AMERICAN MEDIA’S inattention to the links between Zionism and antisemitism stands in stark contrast to its preoccupation with the links between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Again and again, prominent commentators insist they are one and the same. Even analysts who acknowledge some theoretical difference between the two often describe them as close cousins. In a conversation last fall, Yehuda Kurtzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute wondered at what point “anti-Zionism crosses over into antisemitism.” Anti-Zionists may not all be antisemites, according to this logic, just as hard drinkers may not all be alcoholics. But they’re at high risk.

In the United States and Europe, however, the evidence suggests the opposite: Anti-Zionists appear less likely to hold antisemitic attitudes than Zionists. Anti-Zionism is strongest on the political left. According to a Pew Research Center survey from last summer, only 36% of liberal Democrats viewed Israel favorably, compared to 75% of conservative Republicans. Antisemitism, by contrast, is strongest on the political right. In 2020, two political scientists, Eitan Hersh from Tufts and Laura Royden from Harvard, asked 3,500 Americans three questions about American Jews: Are they “more loyal to Israel than to America?”; is it “appropriate for opponents of Israel’s policies and actions to boycott Jewish American owned businesses?”; and do “Jews in the United States have too much power?” The results were stark. “Overt antisemitic attitudes are rare on the left,” concluded Hersh and Royden, “but common on the right.” Since left-leaning Americans are more hostile to Israel, the two scholars even added a preamble to their questions telling respondents that American Jews generally support the Jewish state. In so doing, they tested whether progressive anti-Zionism shades easily into antisemitism. Their conclusion: It does not. “Even when primed with information that most U.S. Jews have favorable views toward Israel,” they noted, “respondents on the left rarely support statements such as that Jews have too much power or should be boycotted.”

Research in Europe suggests something similar: Hostility to Israel and hostility to Jews are often inversely correlated. In 2021, András Kovács, a sociologist and professor of Jewish Studies at the Central European University, and György Fischer, the former research director for Gallup in Hungary, published a study entitled, “Antisemitic Prejudices in Europe,” They measured antisemitism by asking respondents to either affirm or reject statements like “The Jews suffering was a punishment from God,” “Jews have too much influence in this country” and “It’s always better to be a little cautious with Jews.”

Kovács and Fischer did find one European population that expressed comparatively high levels of both anti-Zionism and antisemitism: Muslims. European Muslims were particularly likely to affirm antisemitic statements that linked Jews to Israel (for example, “When I think of Israel’s politics, I understand why some people hate Jews”). Among Europeans as a whole, however, it was Zionism—not anti-Zionism—that more often went hand-in-hand with antisemitism. Eastern European countries tended to be more pro-Israel and more anti-Jewish, Western European countries the reverse. Of the 16 nations surveyed, for instance, Poland was the most pro-Israel and the sixth most antisemitic. Romania was the third most pro-Israel and the fourth most antisemitic. By contrast, the country most hostile to Israel was Sweden, which registered the second lowest level of antisemitism. Third most hostile to Israel was Britain, the least antisemitic of all 16 nations surveyed.

When Kovács and Fischer searched for the factor that best predicted antisemitic attitudes, they found overwhelmingly that the answer was xenophobia. “These data,” they concluded, “indicate that antisemitism is largely a manifestation and consequence of resentment, distancing and rejection towards a generalised stranger.” As Kovács explained to me, the Europeans most hostile to Jews were also most hostile to Muslims, Roma, and LGBT people—other groups viewed as threatening the ethnic, religious, or cultural cohesion of their nations. And the Europeans most anxious about the ethnic, religious, and cultural cohesion of their nations tended to admire Israel, which jealously guards its own.

When Kovács and Fischer searched for the factor that best predicted antisemitic attitudes, they found overwhelmingly that the answer was xenophobia.

NONE OF THIS IS NEW. For more than a century, prominent European and American xenophobes have embraced Zionism because it offered Jews—who they didn’t want in their own countries—somewhere else to go.

Zionist leaders grasped this from the outset. In his 1882 manifesto Auto-Emancipation, often described as one of Zionism’s founding texts, the physician and Zionist activist Leon Pinsker explained that “the struggle of the Jews for national unity and independence” is “calculated to win the support of the people by whom we are now unwanted.” In 1895, Theodor Herzl confided in his diary that “the anti-Semites will become our most dependable friends.”

In the early 20th century, the most influential of those friends resided in Britain, which in 1917 committed itself to supporting “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Many of the British officials who championed Zionism felt sympathy for Jews given their history of persecution and saw it as their Christian duty to restore Jews to their ancestral land. Yet mixed in with this benevolence were large doses of antisemitism. British leaders, writes the historian James Renton in his book The Zionist Masquerade: The Birth of the Anglo-Zionist Alliance, 1914-1918, saw “Jews as a clannish and perpetually foreign people.” Top British officials believed that Jews wielded enormous clandestine political and financial power, and thus, if Britain endorsed Zionism, American and Russian Jews would convince their governments to support it in its wartime struggle against Germany.

This stereotype of Jews as alien and insular also made British politicians fearful of allowing too many of them into the UK. Arthur Balfour, the foreign secretary who signed his name to Britain’s pledge to support the Zionist cause, had supported the British Aliens Act as prime minister in 1905, which sharply restricted Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe. In 1919, Balfour penned an introduction to Zionist leader Nahum Sokolow’s book, The History of Zionism. In it, Balfour argued that returning Jews to Palestine would “mitigate the age-long miseries created for Western civilization by the presence in its midst of a body which it too long regarded as alien and even hostile, but which it was equally unable to expel or to absorb.” Leo Amery, who helped draft the Balfour Declaration as war cabinet secretary, added that since British antisemitism “is based partly on the fear of being swamped by hordes of undesirable aliens from Russia,” that fear “will be much diminished when the hordes in question have got another outlet.”

It was precisely this linkage between Zionism and nativism that led some prominent British Jews to oppose the Balfour Declaration. Three months before it was issued, Edwin Montagu, the only Jewish member of Britain’s wartime cabinet, sent his colleagues a memo declaring that endorsing Zionism would prove “anti-Semitic in result.” He warned that “when the Jew has a national home [in Palestine], surely it follows that the impetus to deprive us of the rights of British citizenship must be enormously increased.” Montagu could not have been reassured when, two months after the cabinet threw its weight behind a Jewish home in Palestine, it voted to deport thousands of Russian Jewish refugees unless they joined the British army.

For more than a century, prominent European and American xenophobes have embraced Zionism because it offered Jews—who they didn’t want in their own countries—somewhere else to go.

Zionism also attracted influential antisemitic friends in Poland. In the interwar years, observes the historian Timothy Snyder in his book Black Earth, the Polish political establishment saw the country’s Jews as “economically and politically undesirable.” Jewish statehood offered a solution. “Polish leaders and much of the Polish population were pro-Zionist,” Snyder explains, “because they wanted Jews to leave Poland.” To aid the Jewish struggle for Palestine, Polish military officers even trained fighters from the Zionist militia, the Irgun.

Anti-Jewish nativism also influenced prominent Zionists in the United States. Like British leaders during World War I, President Harry Truman’s Zionism was shaped by scripture. He even compared himself to Cyrus, the Persian King who according to the Hebrew Bible allowed Jews to return to the land of Israel in the 6th century BCE. But resistance to Jewish immigration to the US shaped Truman’s calculus as well. As the historian David Nasaw, author of The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War, explained to me, by the middle of 1946, Truman was determined to find a home for the roughly 250,000 Jews languishing in displaced persons camps in Germany. He saw facilitating their exit as a necessary precondition for recognizing an independent West Germany, which he considered a vital bulwark against Soviet expansion. But Truman could not allow these Jews into the United States. Congress—influenced by antisemitic fears that Europe’s Jews were prone to communism—would not allow it. And because the US would not open its doors, other countries kept theirs shut as well. The only solution, Truman concluded, was for the Jewish refugees to go to Palestine.

He was encouraged in this perception by Ohio Republican Robert Taft, one of the most influential Zionists—and nativists—in the Senate. Taft, a strong supporter of America’s decision to severely limit Eastern European immigration in 1924, was determined to maintain such restrictions during and after World War II. In 1939, he opposed a bill to let 20,000 European refugee children enter the US. In 1947, he opposed legislation to admit 400,000 European displaced persons, of whom roughly one-quarter would likely have been Jews. For Taft, one of Jewish statehood’s primary virtues was that it would relieve the pressure to allow such people into the United States. “We have adopted long ago an immigration policy of preventing the complete flooding of this country by people who have not the background or a knowledge of American institutions,” he explained. “Disposition of the Palestine question,” he added, “would take a large part of the edge off” this threat of Jewish immigration. Taft, the historian Brian Kennedy notes, “covered his anti-immigration policies in a cloak of Zionism.”

BALFOUR AND TAFT’S LEGACY remains alive today. Nativists in Europe and the US no longer fear Jewish immigration. But they still want white Christian nations. Frequently, that puts them at odds with the Jews in their midst, many of whom support multiculturalism, immigration, and equal citizenship for racial and religious minorities. And, just as frequently, it leads xenophobic Europeans and Americans to support Israel, which models the ethnonationalism they want at home.

“What attracts Eastern European populists to Israel today,” Bulgarian-born political scientist Ivan Krastev noted in 2019, is that “Israel is a democracy, but an ethnic democracy.” For many Jews, ethnic democracy in Eastern Europe—with its implication that white Christians are the true owners of the state—is uncomfortable. While some Eastern European Jews try to secure their place as privileged guests by allying with the right against Muslims, Roma, and LGBT people, Jews who resist ethnonationalism are often targeted by the very European politicians who lionize Israel. In 2017, when Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros opposed Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s effort to close Hungary’s doors to Muslim refugees, Orban’s government plastered his face across the country alongside the words, “Don’t let George Soros have the last laugh.” On many billboards, Orban’s supporters scrawled “Stinking Jew.” When Israel’s ambassador to Hungary objected to the ads, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forced him to retract the criticism because Orban is a staunch ally of Israel. Like Herzl predicted more than a century ago, Netanyahu has found that practitioners of antisemitism are among Zionism’s best friends.

Although ethnonationalists enjoy less power in Western than in Eastern Europe, their agenda—which twins nativism and Zionism—is similar. Beatrix von Storch, the deputy chair of Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), has said “Israel could be a role model for Germany,” because it “makes efforts to preserve its unique culture and traditions.” Israel does so, in part, by preventing non-Jews—including those Palestinians whose parents and grandparents it expelled, as well as asylum seekers from elsewhere—from entering the country. To ensure white Christian dominance in Germany, the AfD wants to do something similar: close the country’s doors to Muslims. In 2017, one AfD ad showed a white pregnant woman alongside the words, “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves.” Another showed a pig next to the words, “Islam? It does not fit in our cuisine.” The AfD claims to embrace German Jews. But it also demands that Germany stop apologizing for its antisemitic past. As former party leader Alexander Gauland has put it, “we have the right to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in two world wars.” And, like Orban’s party, the AfD rejects the idea that European countries should treat all religions equally. In 2020, one leading AfD parliamentarian called for toppling the “globalist EU” so “Europe will again be free, democratic, and Christian.”

This ethnonationalism is also strong on the American right. In 2019, according to the Pew Research Center, most Republicans said that if white people ceased being a majority it would weaken “American customs and values.” More than 60% of Republicans support declaring the US a Christian nation. And, as in Europe, the Americans trying to build a white Christian state see much to admire in the Jewish one. Like Orban and the AfD, American conservatives are particularly enamored of Israel’s immigration system. In 2018, when Israeli soldiers shot Palestinians marching towards the fence that surrounds the Gaza Strip, Ted Cruz declared, “there is a great deal we can learn on border security from Israel.” Later that year, Trump claimed, “If you really want to find out how effective a wall is, just ask Israel.” Tucker Carlson said the same thing.

But the right’s desire to make America more like Israel often collides with the fact that most American Jews want no such thing. Because Jews are among white Christian nationalism’s most prominent opponents, Trump-era conservatives often depict them as enemies. In the final ad of his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump filled the screen with images of three Jews—Soros, Janet Yellen, and Lloyd Blankfein—while the narrator warned of “global special interests” that “don’t have your good in mind.” In 2018, Rudy Giuliani retweeted a tweet calling Soros the Antichrist.

The subtext of Trump’s attacks, like Orban’s, is that Jews are admirable when building their own ethnostate but troublesome when disrupting white Christian ones. Neo-Nazis say this openly. The white nationalist leader Richard Spencer, who blames American Jews for the fact that “white people are being dispossessed from this country,” has called Israel “the most important and perhaps most revolutionary ethnostate, the one that I turn to for guidance.” Anders Breivik, who murdered 78 people in Norway in 2011, wrote in his manifesto that “Jews that support multiculturalism today are as much of a threat to Israel and Zionism (Israeli nationalism) as they are to us.”

The subtext of Trump’s attacks, like Orban’s, is that Jews are admirable when building their own ethnostate but troublesome when disrupting white Christian ones.

Spencer and Breivik are articulating the same logic that terrified Edwin Montagu more than a century ago: that because nations should be racially, ethnically, and religiously pure, Jews are natives in Israel but outsiders everywhere else. In his muddled way, Trump implies the same thing. His white nationalism inclines him to see many nonwhite, non-Christian Americans as foreign. He’s insisted that Barack Obama isn’t an American citizen; he’s claimed that Judge Gonzalo Curiel couldn’t fairly evaluate his legal case because “he’s a Mexican”; he’s told members of the Squad to “go back” to the countries “from which they came.” And on at least three occasions, Trump has told American Jews that Israel is “your country” or Netanyahu is “your prime minister.” The implication is that the nation to which American Jews truly belong is not the United States but Israel.

Since American Jews should be loyal to Israel, Trump reasons, they should also be loyal to him, Israel’s greatest champion. And he has repeatedly chastised American Jews for instead voting for Democrats. “No president has done more for Israel than I have. Somewhat surprisingly, however, our wonderful Evangelicals are far more appreciative of this than the people of the Jewish faith, especially those living in the US,” Trump declared last October, five weeks before he dined with West and Fuentes. “US Jews have to get their act together and appreciate what they have in Israel—before it is too late.” As with much of Trump’s rhetoric, the threat was vague. But the implication was that American Jews must embrace both Israel and Trump himself, which is to say, they must embrace ethnonationalism. If they don’t, American ethnonationalists may grow weary of them.

This is where Zionism and antisemitism meet: in the notion that countries belong to a particular racial, religious, or ethnic tribe and everyone else must know their place. In between Trump’s threat to American Jews and his dinner with antisemites, Israelis awarded 14 Knesset seats to a coalition that includes Itamar Ben-Gvir, the country’s newest political star. Ben-Gvir’s slogan, which could be Trump or Orban’s, was “Who are the masters of the house?” Their project of designating certain groups as overlords and others as underlings is incompatible with liberal democracy, which promises equal citizenship for all. In Israel-Palestine, the US, Europe, and beyond, this is the contest: between legal equality and legal supremacy. And in this global struggle, Zionists and antisemites frequently take the same side.

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