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On Why Anti-Zionism Is Not Anti-Semitic

To be precise, the term “anti- Zionism” refers to (a) criticism of the political movement that created a modern Jewish state on the historical land of Israel, and to (b)the subjugation of Palestinians by the Israeli state. By contrast, the term “anti-Semitism” means bigotry and racism directed at Jewish people, per se. In a recent speech, US President Joseph Biden treated the two terms as being virtually interchangeable. Big mistake.

In similar vein, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed that American universities have been taken over by “anti-Semitic mobs” that he likened to what had happened in German universities during the 1930s. For Benjamin Netanyahu, it is always 1938:

Netanyahu’s comments came against the backdrop of police deployments to break up pro-Palestinian protests at Columbia University and numerous other US campuses. In some universities, faculty members have been arrested, including the chair of the philosophy department and a professor of English and Indigenous studies at Emory University in Atlanta.

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Repeatedly, the political protests against the actions of the Israeli state in Gaza are being deliberately misrepresented as anti-Semitic and racist in origin, in order to censor free speech, and to silence legitimate criticism. As US senator Bernie Sanders said in his response to Netanyahu’s comments:

No, Mr Netanyahu, it is not antisemitic or pro-Hamas to point out that, in a little over six months, your extremist government has killed over 34,000 Palestinians and wounded more than 77,000, 70% of whom are women and children.

Unfortunately... in recent months, the legal protections available for criticising Israel (and for urging US universities to divest their sizeable investments within Israel) have been shrinking dramatically. In December, the US Congress passed the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act that placed a very broad definition of anti-Semitism at the centre of federal civil rights law.

The House voted 320 to 91 to codify a broad definition of anti-Semitism into federal civil rights law—one that some in higher education worry could have a chilling effect on free speech on campus. The vote was bipartisan, as was the opposition: 133 Democrats joined 187 Republicans to vote yes. Supportive lawmakers, concerned about the wave of campus protests and allegations of antisemitic incidents and chants, said the legislation was necessary to protect Jewish students.

The key element in all of this is a controversial “working definition” of anti-Semitism that has been promoted since 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). This is an inter-governmental body based in Stockholm that has 35 full member countries (including Australia) and also 8 “observer” countries, including New Zealand. The US legislation will now compel the US Department of Education to apply the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism when it is investigating alleged cases of discrimination against Jews on college campuses. The IHRA website containing its definition is here.

In Australia, the IHRA definition has been criticised by numerous academics and human rights lawyers as an infringement on academic freedom, free speech and the right to political protest.

The IHRA has faced global backlash among Palestinian and Arab scholars who argue its definition of anti-Semitism, which includes “targeting the state of Israel”, could be used to shut down legitimate criticism of Israel and stifle freedom of expression, citing the banning of events supporting Palestinian rights on campuses after the definition was adopted by universities in the UK.

Last year, Nick Reimer the president of the Sydney branch of the Tertiary Education Union described the adoption of the IHRA definition as an “outright attack on academic freedom”.

“[The IHRA] will prevent universities doing what they’re meant to do … critically analyse the contemporary world without concern for lobbies,” he said. “A powerful political lobby is trying to stifle the course of free debate in universities...A source...told Guardian Australia there had been no consultation with academics at Macquarie University before the definition was included into its Equity, Diversity and Inclusion policy over the summer of 2021...

Kenneth Stern, who self-identifies as a Zionist (and who was the lead drafter of the IHRA definition) has since spoken out here and more recently here in the New Yorker magazine against its misuse by right wing Jewish extremists. Among Stern’s concerns is that the IHRA definition could be weaponised to stifle legitimate protest, a process that he believes has the potential to backfire, and ultimately endanger Jewish faculty and students.

Stern has fewer concerns about a competing definition of anti-Semitism written in 2021, largely to remedy the concerns held about the sweeping ambit of the IHRA definition. The Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism makes significant distinctions that are lacking in the IHRA document. Some of its guidelines are truly striking in nature. In context, it condones the controversial “from the river to the sea” slogan. As Guideline 12 says:

“Criticizing or opposing Zionism as a form of nationalism, or arguing for a variety of constitutional arrangements for Jews and Palestinians in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. It is not anti-Semitic to support arrangements that accord full equality to all inhabitants “between the river and the sea,” whether in two states, a binational state, unitary democratic state, federal state, or in whatever form.”

Similarly, Guideline 14 says:

Boycott, divestment and sanctions are commonplace, non-violent forms of political protest against states. In the Israeli case they are not, in and of themselves, anti-Semitic.

In its preamble, the Jerusalem Declaration also states “Hostility to Israel could be an expression of anti-Semitic animus, or it could be a reaction to a human rights violation, or ... the emotion that a Palestinian person feels on account of their experience at the hands of the State.”

Reportedly, the Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism has been signed by three hundred and fifty scholars, including the historian Omer Bartov and Susannah Heschel, the chair of the Jewish Studies programme at the prestigious Dartmouth College in the US.

Footnote: Talking of Dartmouth, I realise it may seem absurd to be discussing these semantics in the light of the ongoing carnage in Rafah and northern Gaza, and the extremes of Police brutality evident on many US campuses. Yet, arguably, it is through inter-state alliances and shared legal tools that evil is often rationalised, and perpetuated.

The IHRA and New Zealand

In New Zealand, the status of the IHRA definition has yet to be tested in court. Yet if it ever is, the IHRA definition would presumably carry considerable legal weight, given that New Zealand joined the IHRA as an observer in June 24,2022. As of June 24, 2025, New Zealand will be obliged to pay 30,000 euros to the IHRA to maintain that status. Alternatively, New Zealand could always apply for full IHRA membership, under the tutelage of an existing full member, presumably, Australia. If that happens, it will be interesting for New Zealanders to be given lessons by Australians on how to promote better race relations.

To attain even our current “observer” status, New Zealand would have had to (among other things) submit an application letter signed by either our Minister of Foreign Affairs or our Minister of Education. New Zealand would have also agreed to abide by these conditions:

It will also complete a survey on the state of Holocaust education, remembrance, and research in the country, which will be submitted to the IHRA Permanent Office at least eight weeks before the Plenary meeting at which the interested government seeks admission as an Observer.

Evidently, we did all of the above. Much as some NZ politicians profess to oppose the use of the education curriculum for social engineering purposes, few people would oppose a commitment to ensuring that nothing like the Holocaust ever happens again. For balance though, many New Zealanders would also probably welcome official recognition of the Nakba, the catastrophic displacement (beginning in 1948) of the Palestinian people from their homeland. Such recognition could be accompanied by an official commitment to ensuring that the wrongs of the Nakba are rectified as a matter of urgency, via a just and equitable settlement.

Our tentative support at the UN for the cause of Palestinian statehood could be usefully backed up by an official remembrance day for the Nakba, one similar to our annual day of Holocaust remembrance, which New Zealand observed this year on Sunday, 28 January.

As mentioned, the legal status of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism in New Zealand – and within our universities in particular – is somewhat uncertain. In 2018, the Auckland University Students Association formally adopted the IHRA definition, but it is unclear whether student unions at any other NZ university have followed suit, let alone any NZ university administrations.

For its part, the Free Speech Union (FSU)loudly professes to be ever vigilant about any free speech threat to academic freedom, or to the right to lawful protest. With that in mind, one would assume the FSU would pro-actively oppose (or at least express concern about) the student union adoption of the IHRA definition at Auckland University, and/or the spread of its use to any other campus. After all, the FSU – and the ACT Party’s David Seymour – have made it very clear that feelings of being disturbed or threatened by the exercise of free speech and lawful protest do not qualify as valid grounds for limiting such expressions.

To my knowledge though, Seymour has never even been asked whether he supports the adoption and promotion of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, despite its proven potential – in the US and in Australia – to chill the expression of free speech.

Footnote: In violation of international law, Palestinians in Gaza are being collectively punished by the IDF for the actions of Hamas. That being the case, it is (arguably) a bit rich for Israelis to be complaining about being held collectively responsible for the atrocities being committed by their armed forces. (Both forms of collective responsibility should be opposed. But only one of them has resulted in the extensive bombing and displacement of entire residential neighbourhoods.)

Anti-Zionism, in History

No doubt, some criticisms of Israel’s existence (and its recent actions in Gaza) that are being voiced by say, neo-Nazis, are racist in origin or contain elements of racism. However, the attempts to paint all criticism of Israel’s extremist government with that same brush are unjust. Such attempts are also a denial of Jewish history. Down through the decades, many Jews have been prominent critics of Zionism’s ethno-nationalist political project.

As the Pulitzer Prize winning author Benjamin Moser wrote in the wake of last December’s Congressional vote to outlaw anti-Zionism:

When learning of this vote, many people familiar with Jewish history might have suppressed a sardonic laugh. Anti-Zionism, after all, was a creation of Jews, not their enemies. Before World War II, Zionism was the most divisive and heatedly debated issue in the Jewish world. Anti-Zionism had left-wing variants and right-wing variants — religious variants and secular variants — as well as variants in every country where Jews resided. For anyone who knows this history, it is astonishing that, as the [Congressional] resolution would have it, opposition to Zionism has been equated with opposition to Judaism — and not only to Judaism, but to hatred of Jews themselves. But this conflation has nothing to do with history. Instead, it is political, and its purpose has been to discredit Israel’s opponents as racists.

As Moser says of the previous Jewish critics of Zionism:

For them, an American Jew was a Jewish American, just as an Episcopalian American or a Catholic American was an American first of all. They were unwilling to subscribe to any idea suggesting that the Jews were a race, separate and, as the anti-Semites would have it, unassimilable. These people did not consider themselves to be in exile, as the Zionists would have it. They considered themselves to be at home. They feared that the insistence on ethnicity or race could open them to the old accusations of double loyalty, undermining attempts to achieve equality.

This concern, Moser says, became a consistent thread in the Jewish critique of Zionism, especially in the United States, but in Britain as well:

“This country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our Temple,” said Rabbi Gustavus Poznanski of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1841. A century later, during the Holocaust and World War II, Rabbi Samuel Schulman of Temple Emanu-El in New York stated that “the essence of Reform Judaism for me is the rejection of Jewish nationalism, not necessarily the eating of ham.”

Many Jews noted that talk of a “diaspora,” even of a “Jewish people,” resembled the calumnies of anti-Semites, which held that the Jews were an unassimilable foreign imperium in imperio. They noticed, as they could hardly have failed to notice, that many anti-Semites were fervently pro-Zionist: the better to get rid of the Jews. After the Balfour Declaration of 1917, promising a Jewish homeland to the tiny minority of Jews then living in Palestine, Edwin Montagu, the only Jew in the British Cabinet, observed: “The policy of His Majesty’s Government is anti-Semitic in result, and will prove a rallying ground for anti-Semites in every country in the world.”

Since then, as Moser says, the grounds for Jewish objections to the political project of Zionism have changed:

....After the foundation of the state of Israel, the debate took a different turn. The heart of the objection was among those horrified by what Israel had meant for the native population of Palestine. For these people, the lesson of anti-Semitism was a rejection of all forms of racism, and especially of the kinds of atrocities that had been visited upon the Jews. They were dismayed that another people, one that bore no responsibility for the Nazi crimes, would be forced to pay for them...

These competing views of Zionism and its impact on Palestinians are still being contested today within Israel and beyond it. Surely, that debate has to be encouraged, not suppressed. As mentioned above, Kenneth Stern, one of the prime authors of the IHRA definition, says that the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism “was not drafted and was never intended, as a tool to target or chill speech on a college campus”:

Stern was particularly concerned about a section of the definition that listed eleven contemporary examples of anti-Semitism, among them “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” and holding Israel to “double standards” that were not expected of other nations. As this language suggests, Stern believed that anti-Semitism could manifest as hostility to Israel and Zionism. But he also believed that enshrining such a definition into law would have dangerous consequences, exposing schools to civil-rights investigations simply for allowing lectures, protests, or programs that cast Israel in a negative light. In fact, some groups had already complained that courses critical of Zionism, and even films about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, amounted to discrimination, based on the IHRA definition.

Ultimately, the “double standards” clause could outlaw as anti-Semitism the public voicing of claims that Israel operates as an apartheid state and/or is committing genocide in Gaza – because those charges aren’t being levelled at other states. On the same specious grounds, any drawing of attention in public to the discriminatory measures contained in Israel’s 2018 nation-state law—which affirms that only Jews can exercise “self-determination” in Israel, and which describes the promotion of settlements as being a “national value”—might well be defined, under the same IHRA clause and reasoning, as acts of anti-Semitism.

The US headed down this road quite some time ago. US President Donald Trump’s executive order signed in 2019 had already enshrined the IHRA definition as the standard of enforcement for alleged anti-Semitic incidents under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Reportedly, since the October 7 Hamas attacks, 33 US states and many cities have adopted the IHRA definition. In 2016, the UK adopted the IHRA definition :

At the University of Bristol, a professor named Rebecca Ruth Gould was investigated because she’d written an article critical of Israel.... At another school, a Jewish survivor of the Budapest ghetto was forced to change the title of a talk that compared her experience to the treatment of Palestinians living under military occupation. Under the IHRA definition, “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” is deemed to be anti-Semitic.

Our Laws

If anti-Semitism truly is on the rise, the operations of New Zealand law need to be very clear that anti-Zionism as forcefully expressed in peaceful protest marches, is not an example of anti-Semitism in action. In the vast majority of cases, the positions being advanced will have been motivated by a legitimate sense of injustice, one that is reportedly shared by tens of thousands of Jewish people within Israel who abhor the actions of the Netanyahu government.

So far, the policing of pro-Palestinian protests in this country has not been setting an entirely happy precedent. Both the Police – and the courts – need to have a practical working definition at their fingertips as to what constitutes an expression of anti-Semitism, and what doesn’t. Given its track record, the sweeping nature of the IHRA definition makes it more trouble than it is worth.

By comparison, the 2021 Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism would seem to be a far better balance between the right of Jewish people to be protected from racist intimidation and the right to lawful protest against the actions of the Israeli state. The Jerusalem Declaration can be accessed here.

Obviously, if we are already engaged in teaching about the Holocaust in our schools, care needs to be taken that such lessons are not used as a vehicle for the skewing of allegiances in the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Trump’s Trade Tariffs

If he’s re-elected in November, Donald Trump has repeatedly promised to impose a 10% tariff on all imports to the US, and 60% tariffs on all imports from China. Buckle up then, for a new US-led trade war with China, our biggest trading partner. Currently, we export $NZ5.8 billion worth of products to the US.

Since many of those exports already attract US tariffs, we won’t have to pay the full amount of that $NZ580,000,000 tariff bill in one hit. Even so, I hope Finance Minister Nicola Willis has factored a sizeable Trump tariff risk into her costings for this month’s Budget.

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