As those of us in Toronto watch the devastation occurring in Gaza, where Israel’s bombing campaign this month is estimated to have killed over 10,000 Palestinians, including over 6,000 children, and displaced 1.4 million residents, we are also witnessing Mayor Olivia Chow and other politicians condemning Palestinian activism here as antisemitic. As both a Jew and a long-time activist in the Palestinian liberation movement, I feel immense frustration at the conflation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism.
But with right-wing Jewish organizations like the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) hijacking antisemitism to stifle critique of Israel, I’m not surprised at this conflation. On October 16 and 17, CIJA hosted a conference in Ottawa titled, “Antisemitism: Face It, Fight It,” that focused almost entirely on supporting Israel, according to reports from those who attended. I applied to go to this conference, eager to engage with fellow Jews about the antisemitism I face here and how that leads me to support Palestine. My application to attend was declined and then, when me and a small group of my Jewish comrades protested the Palestinian genocide outside, we had the police called on us.
Is a rally supporting Palestinian human rights and calling on Israel to stop bombing Gaza antisemitic? At the same October 9 rally that my mayor, Olivia Chow, condemned, I was present with a shirt, sign, and necklace that made my Jewish presence unmistakable. I was overwhelmed by the number of hugs and thanks I received from the crowd. Only in these rallies, do people go out of their way to thank me for being Jewish and showing up. As the organizers always make sure to remark, these rallies and the attendees do not promote hate of Jews, but rather call for an end to Zionism.
What many of our media outlets and politicians fail to recognize is the difference between criticizing Israel, or anti-Zionism, and hatred towards the Jewish people, or antisemitism. Zionism is a political ideology calling for a homeland for the Jewish people, first popularized by Theodor Herzl in the late 1800s. While today Zionism is a cornerstone of North American Jewish identity, this is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of the Jewish people.
Criticizing the settler-colonial state of Israel has little to do with hatred for Jews. Israel as it currently exists is based on the forced displacement of Palestinians, beginning on a massive scale in 1948, and through the ongoing denial of basic rights for Palestinians. Indeed, critiquing this oppressive nation not only doesn’t harm me; but as someone who believes in collective liberation and human rights for all, anti-Zionism actually contributes to my safety. When we stand for autonomy and dignity for all, that includes the Jewish community. When we confront rhetoric and actions that dehumanize any group, we humanize all people.
The culture and history of my people does not begin or end with a country that formed in 1948. In fact, my grandparents are older than the state of Israel. Zionism is a political ideology, not a faith or religion. Israel is not a proxy for the entire Jewish people. It is an imperial, colonial project much like the one in our own country. Because I am opposed to settler-colonialism, on September 30 I wear an orange shirt and since October 7, when in response to Hamas’s attacks Israel launched an intense bombing campaign and siege of Gaza, I wave the Palestinian flag.
In Judaism we are taught about the concept of “tikkun olam,” or repairing the world. The Torah teaches us not to stand idly by as the blood of our neighbours is spilled and instead calls on us to pursue justice. I take these teachings to heart in my Jewish faith and I see them as antithetical to the actions of the Israeli government.
As the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, I know genocide when I see it. I also know antisemitism. I have experienced it. To water down antisemitism by attaching this label to all critiques of a settler-colonial nation like Israel disregards the real experiences myself and other Jewish people experience in almost every realm of our lives.
When protesters boycotted Cafe Landwer, an Israeli-owned business with strong ties to the Israeli military and locations in occupied Palestinian territory, they were practicing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, popularly known as “BDS.” This is a form of nonviolent resistance initiated in 2005 by civil society organizations in Palestine. BDS was inspired by the tactics’ success during South African apartheid, and it encourages individuals, institutions and governments to stop funding apartheid.
In contrast to these political protests, which many powerful people are smearing as antisemitic, incidents such as the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, or the death threats made by a Cornell student this fall, embody antisemitic hate. Antisemitism is when people draw swastikas on synagogues, or try to burn them or shoot bullet holes in them as we saw in November in Montréal. It is the difficulty I face trying to schedule time off for high holidays. It is the shame I felt growing up when classmates would call me cheap or say I have a big nose.
Antisemitism is also assuming that the Jewish community is a monolith and that all Jews share the same feelings about Israel.
Anna Lippman is a third-generation Ashkenzi Jewish settler on Turtle Island (North America). She is a PhD student in Sociology at York University. Anna’s research looks at identity, and how young people’s thoughts about themselves are influenced by the world around them. Anna organizes with several groups in Toronto including Showing Up for Racial Justice and Independent Jewish Voices.