In August some law student associations at Berkeley wrote a bylaw to the effect that Zionist speakers could not be invited to address their meetings. This generated a media storm; particularly after Kenneth Marcus, an American academic and former government official, argued that Berkeley had effectively created Jew-free zones.

There is much that could be said about some of the media coverage of the story. For me the most interesting response came from Olivia Whittels and Nir Maoz wrote an article for the Times of Israel. They had been extremely active in Jewish student life at Berkeley and were still deeply involved in it.

They argued that Zionists were flourishing at Berkeley and that much of the response of some Jewish groups and Marcus’s article had been counter-productive. They also mentioned that positive effects of talks given by an Arab-Israeli professor, Michael Karayanni, which were respectful of the notion of Jewish self-determination but critical of some Israeli policies. These led to Berkeley students rejecting frequent accusations that Israel is an apartheid state.

The Whittels and Maoz piece is interesting, partly because it represents something close to the Berkeley students’ own voice. But it is also notable because of what it said about the effects of Karayanni’s talks. There is a sharp contrast between the impact of Karayanni and one response to the Berkeley by-law. That was the parading of a truck with an image of Hitler making a Nazi salute and emblazoned with the caption “all those in favour of banning Jews raise their right hand!” This just provoked a backlash and condemnation from the local branch of the Anti-Defamation League, an anti-hate organisation.

The response to Karayanni might be thought to provide encouragement to those who believe that reason can defeat anti-Zionism. At least it raises hope in the possibility of stopping it from spilling over into more overt, traditional forms of anti-Semitism. However two things should be noted.

First, there can be little doubt that Karayanni’s criticisms of Israel led to him being perceived to be honest. Again there is an interesting contrast with the media reports on the visit of Tsipi Hotovely, the Israeli ambassador to Britain, to British universities. Even when she was making fair comments it was probably inevitable that she would be regarded as a propagandist.

Secondly one has to ask whether it was important that Karayanni was an Arab-Israeli. If so, the implication is that psychology is going to be as important in the battles over Israel as abstract truth. To put it another way, who makes the argument might be as important as the argument itself. Evidence for this can be found in a Times of Israel podcast In These Times presented by Rabbi Ammi Hirsch. It included an interview with Amanda Berman, an American-Jewish woman active in progressive circles. She described how she has been explaining to fellow activists concerned with women’s rights the link between Zionism and her progressive Jewish identity.

The quality of arguments over Israel will have to improve. This is evident from the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, which states that denial of the right to Jewish self-determination is anti-Semitic. It is also apparent in the importance attached to Israel by many diaspora Jews.

Attacks on Israel tend to take two forms: one relating to aspects of its establishment in 1948, the other relating to its current policies. Those relating to its foundation are the most easily dismissed, and with arguments which, surprisingly do not get made as often as they might, particularly by friends of Israel in mainstream media.

For example, the idea that establishing Israel was a colonial act could effectively be addressed by referring to the fact that many did not see it that way at the time. Even Nelson Mandela, the leader of the South African struggle against apartheid, at one time saw Jewish military underground groups organised against the British mandate as a model to follow.

There is also a rational response to the large-scale displacement of Palestinians in 1948. This would not have happened if Arab states had accepted Israel’s existence rather than launch an attack against it. It is also sadly common for the creation of states to lead to the large-scale displacement of others.

Argument’s over Israel’s current policies are much harder to tackle. Here honesty, such as that exhibited by Yossi Klein Halevi on his blog and Jake Wallis Simons in the Spectator is the best policy. For example, the fact that the governments of Sweden and Italy include hard right elements does not excuse others involved in running those countries. It is better to honestly point out, as Klein Halevi and Wallis Simons do, the grave risks to Israeli democracy posed by the likes of Itamar Ben-Gvir; a far right politician and Israel’s new national security minister. The argument they make is that success of the far right in Israel’s recent election is partly explained by continued Palestinian rejectionism. This is reinforced by the fact that there have reportedly been almost 5,000 acts of anti-Israeli violence so far this year including ock-hurlings to car-rammings, stabbings and shootings.

Of course all of the above will only have any impact on those who are not using anti-Zionism as a cloak to hide the more usual forms of anti-Semitism. There do seem to be people who without thinking equate Zionism with the extremist elements of Israeli society. Such people fail to understand that believing in the right to Jewish self-determination does not necessarily entail agreeing with everything that Israel does.

Nevertheless the realities of mass-communication media are what they are. This point was well illustrated by Jonathan Freedland, a writer and Guardian columnist, in his play Jews. In their own words. He showed that the amount of anti-Semitic abuse suffered by Margaret Hodge, a Labour MP, was not reduced because she had criticised Israerli policies.

Even if anti-Zionists do not set out to be anti-Semitic they can often end up unwittingly reinforcing anti-Semitic viws. As stated earlier, there are those for whom the worst of Israel’s activities is a cloak behind which to hide anti-Semitism of the worst sort. There are stories of empathic outreach towards fascists managing to deradicalise people in far right movements. However, such tales have a ‘snatching burning brands from the fire’ feel to them. Effective policing and law enforcement is going to continue to be a vital tool in the battle against anti-Semitism on the far right.

However, whatever is happening on the far right, anti-Semitism on the far left arising out of anti-Israel feeling is more dangerous because it dresses itself up in respectable clothes and can shape-shift. Of course diaspora Jews should not be forced to live in a state where they are constantly having to react or defend their identity in the face of Israeli policy. Perhaps the best way of getting out of such a reactive mode is for Jews to develop new, distinctive ideas about Zionism. Developing such ideas and finding ways to make them heard above the general media noise could well be a substantial step forward.


The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Radicalism of fools project.

Photo: "Israel National Flag" by kudumomo is licensed under CC BY 2.0