When I was a Jewish kid growing up in suburban Los Angeles, we thought being Jewish meant supporting Israel.
There really wasn’t a choice. If you identified as Jewish, as I and most of my friends did, the religious education we got, the youth groups we joined, and the summer camps where we played were all grounded in one thing. It wasn’t God — it was Zionism, the political project of settling Jewish people in Israel.
We never asked — and no one ever taught us in Sunday school — who had already been living on that land, long known as Palestine, when European Jews arrived around the end of the 19th century and started building settlements there.
My own break with Zionism came in my mid-20s, after reading the letters of Zionism’s founder, Theodor Herzl, imploring Cecil Rhodes, the leader of British land theft in Africa, to support his work in Palestine. Their projects were both “something colonial,” Herzl assured Rhodes.
Today, younger Jews are asking hard questions at earlier ages, and more of them have been actively critical of Israel in its assaults on Palestinians and Palestinian rights.
When the Trump White House says that criticizing or boycotting the state of Israel is anti-Semitic and issues an executive order that aims to shut down criticism of Israel on college campuses, many Jewish students aren’t buying it. One 20-year-old Jewish student and Hillel member at the University of North Carolina told The New York Times that she worried the executive order “falsely equates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism” and is targeted at eliminating criticism of Israel.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, claims that the executive order is intended to make sure that Jews are protected by the Civil Rights Act’s “prohibition against discrimination based on race, color, or national origin.”
He says that the executive order does not define Jews as a nationality, but he goes on to proclaim that “anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.” This formulation essentially labels Jews — along with Palestinians and all others — who don’t support Zionism as anti-Semitic.
Jews come in all races, colors and ethnicities. The Trump/Kushner view is an insidious way of claiming that Jews are all somehow linked to or accountable to Israel. That charge of “dual loyalty” is one of the oldest anti-Semitic canards around.
Of course, even as the Trump administration tries to silence criticism of Israel, real anti-Semitism is rising, especially during the Trump administration. We know what it looks like.
Anti-Semitism looks like the attack on a synagogue outside San Diego. It looks like Pittsburgh, where the alleged Tree of Life synagogue killer accused Jews of “bring[ing] invaders in that kill our people” by supporting resettlement of refugees. It looks like Klansmen and Nazis shouting “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, Virginia.
That virulent anti-Semitism doesn’t come from supporters of Palestinian rights. It comes from the violent white supremacists operating increasingly publicly and proudly across the United States. Those same anti-Semites are still reveling in the support of the president, who called them “very fine people” after Charlottesville.
Real anti-Semitism is also coming directly from the White House itself — from a president who tells Jewish Republicans that he doesn’t expect their support because he doesn’t need their money, who invites to a White House Hanukkah party a Christian pastor who says Jews who don’t convert to Christianity “are going to hell,” and who asserts that Jews will “have to vote for me, you have no choice” because Democrats are proposing tax hikes on millionaires and billionaires.
Trying to suppress criticism of Israel even as Israel’s government becomes ever more repressive of Palestinian rights won’t work, especially when the White House itself is surrounded by anti-Semitism. Jewish and other progressive student groups are already asserting their intention to fight against the denial of free speech.
Likewise, insisting that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism doesn’t make it true. A new generation of young Jews — and a whole bunch of us who aren’t so young anymore — know that’s wrong.
Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and serves on the national board of Jewish Voice for Peace. This column was originally published by the Los Angeles Times.