A history lesson on Zionism

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The author responds to criticism of anti-Zionism as being anti-Semitic.

By Robert A. H. Cohen / Patheos / Nov 8, 2017


The crimes against the Palestinians should not have to match the Holocaust before we can express our horror or outrage.


Dear Professor Schama,

I’ve just read your letter to The Times this week about Zionism and antisemitism in the Labour Party, co-signed by your fellow historian Simon Sebag Montefiore and novelist Howard Jacobson. As you’re the senior academic, I’m addressing my concerns to you, although I’m slightly embarrassed at having to offer someone of your reputation a history lesson.

While I’m sympathetic to some of your points over the language and tone of the Israel/Palestine debate in some parts of the British left, overall your letter only adds to the lock down of freedom of speech on Israel by attempting to make criticism of Zionism toxic by association. That doesn’t feel like a good position for you to take as a public intellectual.

Your letter makes questioning either the theory or outcomes of Zionism politically, socially and morally unacceptable. In my view, that does little to help our understanding of Zionism, modern Jewish history, or traditional rabbinic Judaism. And, like others before you, you are muddying the meaning of antisemitism.

You say you are “troubled” and “alarmed” by how constructive criticism of Israel has “morphed” into something closer to antisemitism under the cloak of “so called anti-Zionism.” While I too would condemn anti-Zionist criticism that employs theories of Jewish conspiracies and control of the media (wrong and far too simplistic), you take things a step further by accusing anti-Zionists of making “false equations” of Zionism with “colonialism and imperialism” and “fictitious parallels with genocide and Nazism.”

I agree that making parallels between the treatment of Palestinians by Israel and the Nazi genocide of the Jews of Europe is bad history and bad judgement. And anyway, referencing Nazis is nearly always counter productive to the cause of Palestinian solidarity. It results in a row about antisemitism rather than a debate about Palestinian rights.

However, I only wish that the sensitivity around the use of Holocaust era language like “ghettos,” “concentration camps” and “racism” was matched by a concern about the very real historic and contemporary injustices committed against the Palestinian people. Saying Gaza is a “concentration camp” should not be as offensive as the health crisis facing 1.8 million Palestinians today because of the Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The crimes against the Palestinians should not have to match the Holocaust before we can express our horror or outrage. The fact that opposition to Israel is so muted from politicians around the world may account for why some people reach for inappropriate language in the hope of cutting through and being heard. It’s worth understanding this phenomenon in more detail before dismissing it as mere antisemitism.

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