Anti-Zionism or anti-Semitism?

Jonathon Shapiro (Zapiro) and Milton Shain (Director: Jewish Studies, University of Cape Town)

Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust forum meeting

Institute for Democracy in South Africa, Cape Town, 18 November 2003




AnnMarie Wolpe: We apologise for holding this meeting during the month of Ramadan. We have begun at 6.30 to allow the Parliamentarians to arrive. One of the functions of the Trust is to promote intellectual debate in post democratic South Africa. We produce a pamphlet of these monthly meetings. Many thanks to Leslie Liddell.
My Rhumatologist suggested the title of this debate to me-would this be boring? In fact this process has made me examine my own notions of being Jewish. In 1986, in France, the graves in a Jewish Cemetery were desecrated- one of the skeletons had a pick buried in its heart. Five years later, a neo-fascist confessed to doing this. As recent similar attacks on Jewish institutions continue, I have no doubt that these events are congruent.

Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro) will open the discussion. He has studied Architecture and Fine Art at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He is published in newspapers and educational magazines and in fact is "the cartoonist for most newspapers." Milton Shain is Director of Jewish Studies at UCT and has written and edited many books on Jewish History. He has also received numerous awards both at Jerusalem and Yale Universities.


I'm not so much nervous as a little anxious in that I probably know less about the issues than most people here tonight. I would like to see myself, rather, as someone points out hypocrisy and cant. I am not a single-issue person, but someone who pulls the threads together.

Some Definitions

Anti-Semitism: From an average Jewish perspective, Anti-Semitism is understood to mean a virulent form of racism. On a personal note, my mother and family were forced to flee Germany in 1937.

Zionism: Zionism is a political programme and not part of our religion. The notion of "Ethnic cleansing' has correctly been criticised.

The Cartoons

This cartoon examines the notion of double standards in relation to U. S policy in the Middle East. It also illustrates, clearly, that Zionism is a political programme.

The Passover story, as seen through the eyes of Moses and Arafat. It illustrates the religious justification of a political programme.

Illustrates the parallels between present Israel and (the old) South Africa. It is important to resist racist ideology wherever we find it. This does not lessen my own hatred of Anti-Semitism.

This deals with some South African Jews' unquestioning support for Israel's political programme. You will see that the "dissidents" are led by Ronnie Kasrils- I would like to think that I am part of this "group of conscience".

In closing, I would like to hand out a cartoon that appeared in the "Weekly Mail" (put your nose here&and see what happens when you lose perspective). It was great to see people actually doing this. Criticism of an ethnocratic and discriminatory Israel is not Anti-Semitic.

This is probably the least funny presentation I've ever done! Thank you.

AnnMarie Wolpe: Thank you for such a stimulating and often controversial presentation. As they say: "Three Jews, four different opinions". Please welcome Professor Milton Shaim.


*Not to be quoted without the author's permission

No doubt some people may think Jonathan's cartoons trivialize Nazi behaviour - and some may think they are antisemitic. And that is exactly what we are here to have a conversation about.

When it comes to the question of antisemitism one needs to be very careful. It's a serious charge to make and has the potential for foreclosing debate. Some of you will remember how Barney Pityana called Denis Davis a racist in a TV discussion - an awful accusation in South Africa as indeed anywhere. But because its awful does not mean there are no racists. Similarly, the case for antisemitism. And the connection - if at all - between antisemitism and anti-Zionism is particularly complex.

It is complicated by the complex interplay between intent or motivation and effect. The effect of something may be different to the intent. And human motivation is not a simple matter. Think for a moment of how difficult it would be to prove that much 'white' liberal dinner party chat about affirmative action or poor economic delivery under the ANC is informed by deep-seated racism. How would you prove it? And yet, the victims of racism can often correctly smell a racist rat. I submit that some anti-Zionism would fall into that category. In other words in some cases anti-Zionism may well be what has been referred to as a hygienic form of antisemitism. But this need not be the case. And certainly, to be critical of Israeli actions is not necessarily antisemitic.

But how can we know if there is a connection between antisemitism and anti-Zionism? I think it important that in the first instance that we establish some broad working definitions. Wilhelm Marr coined the term antisemitism in the 1870s to replace Jew-hatred (Judenhetzen or Judenhas), which had become outmoded in the 19th C as secularism deemed religious hostility backward. Jews were 'Semites' and antisemitism meant hatred of Jews. Indeed I would define antisemitism for purposes of our discussion as unprovoked and irrational hostility towards Jews. Like all forms of prejudice, the individual is associated with perceived characteristics of the group.
Scholars have spilt much ink in analyzing the phenomenon - known as the 'longest hatred'. Some trace its origins to the ancient world, although in general the decisive period is usually identified during the parting of the ways between Christians and Jews ie. before the Middle Ages. Some scholars make a distinction between anti-Judaism and antisemitism. The Stanford medievalist, Gavin Langmuir, is particularly interesting on this question. He argues that anti-Judaism has a rational basis - Christians for example have rational disagreements with Judaism. Christians are not deluded in knowing that Jews rejected their Christology, including Jesus's divinity. It is a subject for rational debate.

But antisemitism - according to Langmuir - is irrational. It is based on delusional hatred. Langmuir dates the change to the 12thC when the blood libel fantasy began, followed by host desecration, accusations that Jews poisoned wells etc. These are the sorts of fantasies that were eventually modernized or secularized: one example is the notorious forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion - a perfect example of irrational and conspiratorial thinking in the twentieth century.

It seems to me that Langmuir's distinction is useful and helps us on the question of the relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. But I'll come back to that later. First I want to argue that ideas or words - or pictures - can have implications. In other words, words do harm. You only have to read Norman Cohn's Warrant for Genocide, which looks at the history and results of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Read by hundreds of thousands in Germany (and beyond), the book provided the idea that Jews were intent on destroying and controlling the world - a sort of latter day secularized version of the medieval anti-Christ. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion arguably prepared the way for the destruction of European Jewry.

To summarize then:
1. Fantasy is the key ingredient of antisemitism and
2. Ideas do harm.

Let me now say something about anti-Zionism - but again for clarification sake I suggest that I define what I mean by Zionism: put simply it is the idea of Jewish nationalism - born in the late 19thC - the idea that Jews were a people and not simply a religious group and that their best interests - in the light of failed emancipation manifest in burgeoning antisemitism, coupled with the birth of nation states - would be served by establishing a national home like other peoples. Zionist's understood their precarious position in Europe as a product of being an unacceptable "people" in the body politic of Europe's nation-states.

Eastern European and Russian Jews in the main drove the Zionist idea, although many of the movement's cultural entrepreneurs came from central Europe. In terms of our discussion it is important to note that in its infancy Zionism - or Jewish nationalism - was a minority movement. Those Jews enjoying the fruits of emancipation - begun about 100 years before the birth of Zionism - and mainly in Western Europe - those Jews were opposed to its premises. They saw themselves as Germans or Englishmen of the Mosaic persuasion.

Given the fact that Jews could and did take an anti-Zionist position from the start, I want to state my first premise: anti-Zionism cannot axiomatically be considered antisemitism. It is certainly a rational position and arguably remains so.

Of course it may be foolish to hold on to that position given what the twentieth century has taught Jews - and here I'm thinking not only of the Holocaust but of the pogroms in Russia in the late 19thC and 20thC's, the 150000 or so Jews murdered in the Ukraine in 1919, the calls for expulsion in interwar Poland, the "White Terror" in postwar Hungary, the numerus clausus in universities from Budapest to Harvard etc etc. In other words it may be necessary to periodize opposition to Zionism. In its infancy it may have been a reasonable position; but in the light of 20thC history it may be naïve.

But naivety is a political judgment. It does not necessarily mean one is antisemitic. Someone who in 1920 argued that Jews are simply a religious group and not a national group could conceivably be alive today and hold that position. I hope this is clear. Opposition to the idea of Jewish nationhood can be rational. Just as someone could maintain that Jews have misunderstood the meaning of their scriptures and that Jesus is the Messiah, so one could maintain that Jews are a religious group.

But the question becomes more complicated when we bear in mind the reality of the Jewish state - Israel - 55 years after its creation. In other words, if one maintains that "Jews are a religious group and not a national group", would the dismantling of the Jewish State be a form of antisemitism? Clearly that is an anti-Zionist position - but is it antisemtism?

This is not a simple question. There are those who argue that it is the case. They note that Jews were historically refused individual rights because they were an ethnic or so-called 'unassimilable' group. Jews therefore chose to establish their own ethnic state (as did other peoples in the 19thC and 20th C). Having told Jews that they could not be a part of the European body-politic in the past ie prior to the creation of Israel - it would be discriminatory to now refuse their right to a collective sense of identity expressed in the Jewish nation state.

Why, asks Michael Curtis, have the anti-Zionists had such difficulty with the Jewish claim to statehood, but no comparable problems with the claims of other groups? Robert Wistrich makes a similar argument: "Both antisemitism and anti-Zionism imply that the Jews have no claim to be a free, independent people like other peoples, to define themselves according to universally acceptable criteria of self-determination, to enjoy the fruits of individual or collective emancipation".

Now this may be a problematic view, although it seems to me that 55 years after the creation of Israel, it is also problematic to desire its dismantling on the grounds that you don't accept the self-definition of the people in question.

We can perhaps leave this complex issue for discussion. But for now I can say that I'm not absolutely convinced that it is a form of antisemitism by definition. And the issue is complicated by the fact that the Jewish State arose arguably at the expense of other inhabitants ie Palestine was not an empty land for a people without a land.

A more common argument that anti-Zionism is a form of antisemitism is built around the notion of double standards when it comes to Israel. In other words atrocities committed by nations other than Israel are largely ignored - certainly they don't grab the sort of attention Israel gets when it does something wrong. So, for example, the world's media hardly cared about the massacre of maybe 20000 Islamists at Hama in Syria in 1982 but Sabra and Shatilla became household words in the same year! This is a discriminatory standard. And discrimination against Jews is antisemitism (Krauthammer, Time, 26 February, 1990).

The double standard idea took its most recent form in the words of Harvard's President Lawrence Summers. He was speaking last year with regard to the call for disinvestment from Israel on account of her behaviour. He made it absolutely clear that criticism of the Israeli government is legitimate but that signaling out Israel alone as a violator of human rights in a world full of such violations is antisemitic in effect if not in intent.

Perhaps the most vivid setting for double standard is in the United Nations where Israel has been picked out more than any other country. Israel - according to the Canadian jurist and MP - "is the only state in the world today, and the Jews the only people, that is the object of a standing set of threats from governmental, religious and terrorist bodies seeking its destruction." In December 2001, the contracting parties to the Geneva Convention gathered in Geneva to accuse Israel of human rights violations and breaches of the Geneva Convention [born in the wake of the Holocaust with a view to protecting civilians]. This was the first time the contracting parties convened - this despite genocide in Cambodia, ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, genocide in Rwanda, killing fields in Sudan and Sierra Leone. The UN Commission on Human Rights in 2002 listed as a separate item a country specific indictment, namely human rights violations by Israel, while another item was reserved for human rights violations in the rest of the world. Forty percent of resolutions passed for human rights violations against Israel, while major human rights violators such as Iran, China had no resolutions passed against them.

One could give many other examples.

Everything I have said up to now may have areas of gray and could be debated. But this is surely not the case for much of the delusional and irrational language and rhetoric of much anti-Zionism. And here I remind you again of Langmuir's contention that the hallmark of antisemitism is fantasy.

I want to make it clear that by the term anti-Zionism I am not referring to simple enmity towards Zionism, which goes back to the late 19th C when Arabs objected to Zionist settlement in Palestine - then under Turkish rule. The Arab/Palestinian struggle has been a political conflict over real issues. Negative stereotyping of, and bitterness towards, the 'enemy' invariably characterizes such clashes. However, much of the rhetoric and actions against Israel has employed classical anti-Jewish motifs. A special hatred seems to go beyond the bounds of normal political conflict. Jews or Zionists have become, at least for some critics, diabolically evil. The Muslim world in particular has employed motifs and language long associated with modern antisemitism. This is especially the case among Islamists (extremists).

Bernard Lewis puts the case succinctly:
"When Arab spokesmen, not content with denouncing the misdeed of the Israelis, attribute these misdeeds to innate Jewish racial characteristics discernible throughout history; when furthermore, they accuse the Jewish people as a whole of practicing such monstrous crimes as ritual murder and of seeking through secret conspiracies to attain world domination; when they document these accusations with the standard fabrications of European anti-Semitic literature; when finally they devote great efforts and resources to disseminating these same fabrications all over the world - then no doubt remains that these Arabs who write and distribute these things are engaged in anti-Semitic activities, not different from those that disfigured the history of Christian Europe for many centuries".(Lewis, 242)

Arab anti-Zionist invective has thus in many cases taken on the characteristics of 'delusional' - in Langmuir's sense - Christian antisemitism at its height. Jews are characterized as germs or as malignant disease, and extensive comment from learned Islamic scholars has turned Jews into incurable pariahs, capable of the most evil and perverted deeds. It seems to me that this sort of comment can only be classified as antisemitic.

At this point I have raised the double standard argument and the delusional rhetoric argument. Both of these were recently captured in an interesting mind game introduced by Jonathan Sacks when he tried to grapple with the connection between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Let us assume, says Sacks, that someone has discovered a phenomenon called anti-Kiwism, a pathological hatred of New Zealanders. How would one convince someone that there is such a phenomenon? Criticism of New Zealand's government. No. The fact that between Feb 2001 and Feb 2002 there were 7732 terrorist attacks on New Zealand's citizens. No.

But suppose that at the UN Durban conference against racism, New Zealand, because of its treatment of Maoris, was alone among the nations of the world singled out and accused of apartheid, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and that those making such charges carried Der Sturmer like posters. Suppose that there are calls to murder all those with New Zealand loyalties, even though they were born elsewhere and live elsewhere. Suppose al-Jezeera TV wrote that the media of the US is in the hands of New Zealanders and that that it was surprised (and I quote) "that the Christian United States allows the brothers of apes and pigs to corrupt it. The New Zealanders are the most despicable people who walk the land and are the worms of the entire world."

Suppose that New Zealand was accused of inventing AIDS to decimate the population of Africa. Suppose that New Zealand was said to have attacked the WTC and the Pentagon on 9/11. Suppose Arab radio and TV in the past year had broadcast a thirty part series dedicated to proving the truth of The Protocols of the Elders of New Zealand. Suppose that Kuwaiti TV had shown a satire of the prime minister of New Zealand drinking the blood of Maori children or that the current Syrian Defense Minister had written a book to prove that this was true. Suppose that in country after country The Protocols of the Elders of New Zealand and Hitler's Mein Kampf were best sellers and that the claim was commonplace that New Zealand was a satanic force.

Then you might be reasonably convinced that there was such a thing as anti-Kiwism.

Well of course all these statements have been made in recent times about Israel. Saddam Hussein spoke of Zionism as a multitentacled "octopus", a "deadly cancer" or an "AIDS virus" that must be comprehensively wiped out. In 1982 a prominent Egyptian scholar, Dr Lutfi abd-al-'Adhim wrote:
"For Jews are Jews; they have not changed over thousands of years: they embody treachery, meanness, deceit and contempt for human values. They would devour the flesh of a human person and drink his blood for the sake of robbing his property" (Wistrich, p. 47).

It is repeatedly alleged in Egyptian and Jordanian news sources that Israel is distributing drug laced chewing gum and sweets intended to make women sexually corrupt and to kill children. Al-Ahram, the leading government sponsored daily in Egypt, expounded in a special series of article how Jews use the blood of gentiles to make matzos for Passover.

I could go on with many other examples - but you get the message. When we read of conspiracy theories we are into the irrational. There will still be those who would argue that this is the language of frustration. I would only answer by saying that such metaphors have implications as we saw between 1941 and 1945.

At the start I mentioned that it is very difficult to be certain of the intent or motivation behind hostility to Israel. For Arab victims of the Jewish state it is perhaps explicable, if not forgiveable. However, what about those observing the struggle from afar? How do we know if their criticism is driven by hatred of Jews. Perhaps there is an acid test when it comes to people in the West - and not the Arabs/Palestinians who feel the direct impact of Israeli actions:

  • Individuals who show no interest in Arabs, except in the conflict with Jews. So Sabra and Shatila are of far greater concern than Arabs slaughtered in Amman, at Hama, and in the many wars in Yemen, Lebanon, the Gulf and elsewhere.
  • Individuals obsessed only with Palestinian refugees and not bothering with other refugees in Europe, Asia, Africa.
  • Individuals harping on Jewish power and influence, which is usually exaggerated. In England one finds reference to the black community and the Jewish "lobby".
  • Individuals complaining of Jewish dual loyalty but ignore this when it comes to other ethnic groups such as Greeks.
  • Individuals only supporting the Palestinian liberation cause and no others.

Needless to say this is not proof but it should set the warning lights on.

To conclude then, I've given three arguments:

  • You cannot have it both ways: first Jews are defined as a distinct people and unacceptable; then their legitimate response is not accepted.
  • Double standards: Israel is the target way out of proportion to its relative misdeeds
  • The rhetoric and motifs of anti-Zionism ie the Jew and Jewish state is dehumanized; they are embedded in a world of fantasy.


Ben Turok: I did not find Milton Shain's speech very enlightening. I found some of his quotes very selective-why not quote Jean Paul Satre on the question of anti-semitism, for example. I would like to pay tribute to Jonathan Shapiro for having the courage to express his views. My main issue with Milton is that he conflates the 3 categories set out here tonight-namely, people, religion and territory. He has concentrated on Jewish European history at the expense of the broader picture. What of the Jews in the Diaspora? Some are religious, some not. I want to dissociate my self from to-days Israel. The oppressive violence and inhumanity of the present government will cause more anti-Semitism than anything else. This is a crime against humanity and should be stopped.

Milton Shain: This is not a discussion of Israeli policy. I restate my position that anti-Zionism is not axiomatically anti-Semitic.

Simon Jochim: The problem with Jonathan's cartoons is their imbalance. They are extremely one-sided. For example, I've never seen a cartoon of Arafat as a terrorist or scenes of Hamas' butchery.

Zapiro: I've thought about doing those types of scenes, but I wouldn't know where to begin. I think this is also an issue of double standards. During the apartheid years, my gut feeling as a white South African was that I never felt the need to reflect violence against whites in my cartoons. I despise suicide bombing, but that doesn't mean that I have to create an absolute balance.

Question: Have Jonathan or Ben Turok ever been to Israel? Zionism and Judaism are inseparable.

AnnMarie Wolpe: May I remind you of the title of tonight's talk. This is not a discussion of Israeli State.

Graham Macintosh (DA): I would like to input from my perspective as a Christian. Being critical of the state of Israel does not mean that you are anti-Semitic. I personally found the recently published Zapiro Christian cartoon (Jeremiah and the breaking of the pot), quite offensive. Yet, we need people like Jonathan- a prophet- someone sent to wake us up and question our paradigm. I would accuse Milton of double standards. In South Africa, twelve young boys die every year from botched circumcision rituals. Like us in South Africa, people expect higher standards from Jews in light of our histories.

Pallo Jordan (ANC): I am an Agnostic, but as I told the Israeli Ambassador the other day, "Pallo" means "Promised Land" in Xhosa (as for "Jordan")! We are all familiar with the legacy of the Jewish people, but I have problems with the way Milton Shain presents his argument. There are anti-Zionists who are anti-semitic, but Milton seems to be suggesting that anti-Zionism is equivalent to anti-Semitism. I think that this is a dodgy argument and it reminds me of similar claims made by some Afrikaners at the TRC. Anti-semites, however, might well make the same argument. For e.g. I was shocked by the racial views of a banker I met in Sweden in respect of Afrikaners. One wouldn't necessarily suspect someone of being anti-Afrikaner because he was anti-apartheid. The same argument applies to your views on Zionism. I think it is dangerous to define "Jewishness" as Zionism. Milton has presented the European experience of Jews. We should also look at the history and aspirations, of for example. Jews in Africa and Australia.

Question: It is disappointing not to see cartoons where you criticise anti-Semitism as such. Where are these cartoons?

Comment: There are consequences to what you say and write. I think that this is a classic case of double standards. Can you imagine the public outcry, if the recent attacks on Synagogues had been on Mosques instead? As a nation, we cannot trust anyone and we are therefore forced into a position of self-defence. The territorial problem, who had what, will never be solved.

Comment: Jonathan should be more responsible if he is feeding ideas into the public domain. We were given incorrect historical information at the beginning of the Intafada- Jonathan is not an expert on this. We all saw the results of race hatred in 1945-we should counter, not foster racism. I agree that European Judaism is not the model that we should be looking at. What are the experiences of Ethiopian Jews for example. You need to get your facts straight!

Comment: I have difficulty with the title of this discussion. I grew up in Europe where I understood Zionism to mean the establishment of a Jewish State. Today, the state exists. Let's get on with today's issues.


  • With reference to the charge that I've produced no cartoons that deal specifically with anti-Semitism. It is not always possible to have the right cartoon at hand without artificially constructing one.
  • I am very aware of stereotyping and grapple with my conscience all the time. I do, however, attempt to portray archetypes, but the difference is often in the eye of the beholder.
  • I accept criticism of the contentious "never again " cartoon. Perhaps I did lose my perspective, but I still stand by it.
  • With reference to Milton's argument on "double standards". Israel may have the distinction of having the highest number of UN resolutions against it, but it is also unique in having never implemented any one of them.
  • Do I know enough about my subject (see previous speaker)? By the nature of my job, I have to comment on everything and be a "jack-of-all-trades".

Milton Shain: I would like to say in support of Dr. Pallo Jordan, that he stood up at the Durban Conference on racism and spoke out against anti-Semitism. However, Dr Jordan has attributed things to me that I didn't say. I repeat that I am not equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. There are also plenty of current examples of double standards. The current US war against terror for example. With respect to the question, "isn't it time to move on"? Perhaps this is a question for another discussion.

AnnMarie Wolpe: Thank you all for your participation and in particular to our two guest speakers.