If Jewsplaining were an Olympic event, Paul O’Brien would be a contender for the gold.
O’Brien, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, was the guest speaker at a March 9 luncheon hosted by the Woman’s National Democratic Club in Washington, D.C. His topic was Amnesty’s recent report labeling — or rather, libeling — Israel as an “apartheid” state. In the course of defending the report, O’Brien told his audience that Israel “shouldn’t exist as a Jewish state” and suggested that most American Jews share his view. When a questioner cited a recent poll showing that lopsided majorities of American Jews identify as pro-Israel and feel an emotional attachment to the Jewish state, O’Brien replied: “I actually don’t believe that to be true.” What his “gut” told him, he said, was that “Jewish people in this country” don’t think Israel needs to be a Jewish state — that it’s enough for it to be “a safe Jewish space” that Jews can “call home.”
It takes astonishing chutzpah — or remarkable tone-deafness — for a non-Jew born and raised in Ireland to declare that the Jews of America don’t really want Israel to be what it has been for 74 years: the reborn nation-state of the Jewish people.
O’Brien’s remarks were at times rambling and contradictory, and when they generated a backlash — condemnation came from sources as diverse as the New York Post editorial page and all 25 Jewish Democrats in the US House — he claimed that he had been quoted out of context. But there is no mistaking his bottom line: “We are opposed to the idea — and this, I think, is an existential part of the debate — that Israel should be preserved as a state for the Jewish people,” he told his audience.
This is anti-Zionism: the belief that it is illegitimate for Israel to be an avowedly Jewish state and that Israel’s explicitly Jewish identity must come to an end. And those who promote anti-Zionism are no less antisemitic than those who promote the claim that Jews were responsible for spreading COVID-19. Or the white supremacist vow that “Jews will not replace us.” Or Louis Farrakhan’s condemnation of Judaism as a “gutter religion.” Or the chants of “Jews to the gas!” that have erupted at European soccer matches.
No doubt O’Brien would disagree. He would protest that one can be anti-Zionist — opposed to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state — without being guilty of bigotry against Jews. In his remarks to the Woman’s National Democratic Club, he described antisemitism as “a real, live threat” and insisted that he and his organization “firmly oppose antisemitism.” Many anti-Zionists bristle at being charged with antisemitic bias, since their animus, they say, is not against Jewish people; it’s against a Jewish country, one in which Jewish ethnic, religious, and national identity is linked to statehood.
But that argument doesn’t withstand scrutiny.
If a group of activists asserted that the Republic of Ireland is an illegitimate country that should never have been created, would anyone believe their claim to not be anti-Irish? If they denied Ireland’s right to exist and condemned it for fast-tracking citizenship for foreigners with an Irish ancestor, would anyone have trouble recognizing their stance as bigotry against Irish people?
The only difference between those who claim that the Irish are not entitled to a state of their own and the anti-Zionists who say there should be no Jewish state is that the former don’t exist. No one denies that Ireland is the legitimate national state of the Irish people, just as no one denies that Poland is the national state of the Polish people and Japan is the national state of the Japanese people. It is only Jewish governance in a Jewish state that is singled out for obloquy. That is antisemitism.
Throughout history, hostility to Jews has, broadly speaking, taken three forms. One is religious antisemitism, which targets Jews for their faith. This is the antisemitism of the Crusades, in which Jews were forced to choose between baptism and death, and of the blood libel, in which Jews were accused of committing ritual murder as part of their religion.
Then there is the antisemitism that expresses itself physically, by seeking to exterminate as many Jews as possible. This was the antisemitism of Hitler and Nazi Germany — a genocidal campaign in which all Jews were targeted.
The third way in which antisemitism has manifested itself is as opposition not primarily to Jewish religion or Jewish life but to Jewish sovereignty — as hatred of a Jewish state in the Jewish homeland. In biblical times this was rampant, but during the long era of Jewish exile, when Jews had no state and no national political power, this type of anti-Jewish hostility became largely a dead letter.
That changed with the birth of modern Zionism and the movement to reestablish a Jewish homeland. In the 20th century, campaigns of national liberation and self-determination changed the map of the world, bringing scores of new countries into existence in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Of all those countries, only Israel has had to face a decades-long campaign of demonization and delegitimization. At bottom, anti-Zionism has very little to do with criticism of Israel’s policies or sympathy for Palestinian Arabs, both of which are perfectly in order. It has everything to do with denying to Jews a right that Slovaks, Chinese, Iranians, and Mexicans take for granted: a state of their own.
To anti-Zionists, Jewish sovereignty is as intolerable today as it was in 1948, when five Arab armies invaded the newborn state of Israel, vowing “a war of extermination and a momentous massacre.” That war wasn’t launched to achieve a two-state solution but to prevent one: The Arab world rejected the United Nations decision to partition Palestine into two countries, one Jewish and one Arab. What animates Israel’s enemies is not the desire to establish a 22nd Arab state but to disestablish the world’s lone Jewish state.
Anti-Zionism need not express itself in hateful or violent rhetoric to be antisemitic. It is antisemitic by definition. A relentless obsession with Israel’s sins, real and imagined; the denial that Jews are entitled to Jewish sovereignty — these are not mere expressions of opinion, they are expressions of bigotry against the Jewish people. O’Brien’s words are part of the rising tide of antisemitism in America and around the world. They deserved the condemnation they received, and then some.