Why Anti-Zionism Is Antisemitism

Dec 24, 2023 | History, Voices

The late Elie Wiesel recounted a stirring Hasidic legend to illustrate the insidious and ever-mutating scourge of antisemitism. The evocative story unfolds in a dimly lit inn late one night, where two revered Hasidic masters, Rebbe Elimelekh of Lizhensk, and his brother, Reb Zushya of Anipoli, are both immersed in their Torah studies, their faces illuminated by flickering candlelight as they delve into the sacred texts.

This tranquil scene is shattered when a group of drunken antisemites burst in. Their raucous laughter and uncouth conversation suddenly goes quiet as they spot the two rabbis studying quietly in the corner. Without warning, they unleash their fury on the hapless Reb Zushya, who is subjected to a vicious and relentless beating.

The attack is unexpected and brutal, but Reb Zushya endures it in stoic silence, until he eventually collapses unconscious on the floor, and the assailants momentarily go off to find another drink, their craving for violence temporarily satiated.

In these few fleeting moments of respite, Rebbe Elimelekh, moved by a profound sense of empathy and brotherly love, gently shifts his brother to where he had been sitting at the table and positions himself in Reb Zushya’s place on the floor, so that he will bear the burden of suffering on his brother’s behalf when the antisemites return.

But his act of self-sacrifice goes unnoticed by the returning drunkards. In their alcohol-fueled daze, they fail to recognize the switch, and once again direct their cruelty towards Reb Zushya — who is now seated at the table — thinking that he is the other rabbi, and inflicting yet further pain on the innocent sage.

Wiesel, with his unique brand of irony and insight, observes that this tale is emblematic of the broader narrative of Jewish history, serving as a potent metaphor for the relentless and often irrational nature of antisemitism. The story poignantly underscores the futility faced by Jews as they attempt to evade persecution, revealing how, despite efforts to change and adapt in order to protect themselves, they have historically been confronted with persistent hostility and violence in whatever guise they have chosen.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this story over the past few weeks, in particular because one of the most prominent aspirations behind the establishment of a Jewish state was to forge a sanctuary that could offer security and protection from persecution, not just in Israel but for Jews all over the world.

The idea was that a new reality — namely, a country Jews could call their own after 2000 years of dispersion — would precipitate a change in Jewish fortunes. A strong, independent Israel would place the Jewish people on an equal footing with other peoples, fostering a sense of global parity and, ideally, mitigating the scourge of antisemitism. “Never Again!” became the slogan associated with a strong and secure Israel firmly within the family of nations.

But, as it turned out, even though Reb Zushya moved from his spot on the floor to a seat at the table, he still got beaten up. Rather than this monumental change for Jews being the game-changer that neutralized antisemitism, Israel’s existence and actions have been leveraged by those who are drunk with antisemitism as the new justification for their prejudice, and for unleashing more violence against Jews — now called Zionists.

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And again, I don’t hear any calls for Russia to be undone as a country, or Syria, or Myanmar, or Zimbabwe, or Sudan — and the list goes on and on — even after tough images emerge from each of these countries, or countries of their foes, because of actions they have taken. Only Israel suffers the indignity of being called illegitimate. This means that the line between political critique and ugly bigotry has become dangerously blurred.

The argument that “Anti-Zionism is Not Antisemitism” is a cornerstone mantra of many anti-Israel groups, who insist that all criticism of Israeli policies and Zionist ideology is entirely separate from antisemitic sentiments.

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A remarkable Midrash on Parshat Vayigash reflects on the moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. This Midrash draws a profound lesson about judgment and rebuke from the dramatic Biblical scene, declaring “Woe to us from the day of judgment, woe to us from the day of rebuke,” after noting that when Joseph revealed his true identity, his brothers are struck with fear and were unable to respond. If such was the reaction to Joseph’s revelation, says the Midrash, how much more intense will be the ultimate Divine rebuke, when every individual is confronted with the truth of their actions?

The celebrated mussar giant, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Chasman, explores a puzzling question arising out of this Midrash: What exactly was the rebuke that Joseph gave his brothers? On the surface, Joseph appears to comfort and reassure his brothers, not rebuke them.

Rabbi Chasman explains that the very act of Joseph revealing himself and saying “I am Joseph” was itself a profound and terrifying rebuke. It forced the brothers to come face to face with the error of their ways over the past 22 years, from their initial irrational jealousy of Joseph, to the sale into slavery, to the pain they caused their father — and all because they had fallen into the trap of unjustified bias, which resulted in them embracing a false narrative and perpetuating self-serving lies. In that moment of Joseph’s revelation, their misjudgments and mistakes were laid bare, as they realized that their actions had not been driven by righteousness, but by hatred and prejudice.

In Rabbi Chasman’s reading, the Midrash reveals an eternal truth — that hatred hiding behind feigned righteous virtue will ultimately be exposed for what it is: hatred, pure and simple. Just as Joseph’s brothers were eventually forced to confront the reality of their own bigotry when Joseph told them who he was, so too, in the fullness of time, all Jew-hating bigots who claim to oppose Israel for humanitarian reasons will be confronted with the harsh truths of their warped beliefs and their immoral actions.

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