Congress’s Antisemitism Bill Is an Insult to Jewish History

On Wednesday, the US House of Representatives passed a bill to enshrine in law a definition of antisemitism that includes anti-Zionist messages. It’s an egregious attack on free speech — and one that gravely insults the memory of millions of anti-Zionist Jews.

Police arrest Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow demonstrators who staged a sit-in at the Cannon House Office Building to demand a cease-fire in Gaza on October 18, 2023, in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Over the past two weeks, student protests over the US-Israeli genocide of Palestinians in Gaza have been met with brutal police crackdowns. Meanwhile, the campus demonstrations have provoked hysteria among politicians and the media, who have smeared the protests as violent, antisemitic, and potentially even connected to international terror networks.

Last week, the McCarthyist meltdown reached absurd new heights when the House of Representatives passed a bill enshrining a legally binding definition of antisemitism that includes anti-Zionism. This past Wednesday, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved the Antisemitism Awareness Act, by a vote of 320 to 91. The bill urges the Department of Education to codify a definition of antisemitism that includes anti-Zionist criticism of Israel.

Despite the bill’s name, purporting to call “awareness” to antisemitism, its actual contents are an insult to Jewish history and historical memory, erasing decades of Jewish anti-Zionist politics. In fact, in a tragic and deeply twisted irony, the bill would desecrate the graves of millions of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, many of whom were anti-Zionists themselves.

Erasing Jewish Anti-Zionism

The Antisemitism Awareness Act directs the Department of Education to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism when “reviewing, investigating, or deciding whether there has been a violation of title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” The controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism includes among its examples of antisemitism “the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity,” “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” and “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”

In other words, the IHRA includes anti-Zionist political speech, the dominant Jewish stance on the idea of a Jewish nation-state before the Holocaust, in its definition of antisemitism. It would, for instance, define an article I wrote last spring — which outlines the similarities between the current politics of the Israeli state and my own family’s experiences in the Holocaust and the shtetl pogroms — as antisemitic.

If passed and adopted by the US Department of Education (DOE), the act would empower the DOE to strip schools of federal funding if they refuse to repress students engaged in anti-Zionist speech, ban organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), and bar teachers and professors from endorsing anti-Zionist messages. It would further give legal cover and encouragement to university administrations and local police departments already seeking to repress anti-Zionist demonstrations.

Despite the Israeli state’s insistence on the centrality of Israel and Zionism to Jewish identity and practice, Zionism is a nationalist political movement, and a rather recent one in Jewish history. In Ten Myths About Israel, Israeli-born historian Ilan Pappé shows that before the Holocaust, Zionism was a minoritarian political movement among European Jewry.

Most European Jews, Pappe explains, held one of three other political views, all of which were non- or anti-Zionist. In Western Europe, where Napoleon’s conquests emancipated Jews from de jure oppression, Jewish people were more assimilated into their own countries’ cultural practices and identity. For these Jews, many of whom were liberals, the goal was to be accepted within these national communities, not to break off and form a new and separate one — an idea not too different from those advocated by antisemites in their home countries.

In Eastern Europe, where Jews remained subjugated under Tsarist rule — confined to the shtetls, ghettoes, and the Pale of Settlement — Jewish politics took two primary forms: socialist internationalism on the one hand, and religious orthodoxy on the other. Both were vehemently opposed to Zionism.

Working-class Jews throughout Eastern Europe played an outsize role in the militant and powerful labor movement that eventually seized power in the October Revolution. The Jewish Bund was the largest Jewish trade union movement and Jewish political party in Europe, and it fought for Jewish liberation alongside the struggle for socialism and international solidarity with other workers and oppressed peoples. In addition to the Bund, Jewish workers and intellectuals were disproportionately represented in other socialist, Marxist, and revolutionary parties like the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, as well as in communist and socialist parties outside the Russian Empire.

Against Zionism, the Bund insisted “wherever we are, that’s our homeland.” It saw Zionism as abandoning the struggle against antisemitism, which could be defeated through working-class solidarity and struggle, and overturning the political and economic conditions that fueled antisemitism. Zionists, on the other hand, accepted the basic nationalistic and racialistic premises of our oppressors: that Jews could never be safe among non-Jews and instead needed to separate ourselves.

Last, the more theologically orthodox in Eastern Europe rejected Zionism for religious reasons. Israel, the biblical promised land, could only be brought about by the messiah, not humankind. Transforming the concept of Israel into a modern nation-state-building project — let alone one requiring war, colonization, and displacement of the current population — was largely seen as anathema to religious dictates. As Pappé recounts, a prominent Hasidic rabbi declared that “Zionism [asked] him to replace centuries of Jewish wisdom and law for a rag, soil and a song (i.e., a flag, a land, and an anthem).”

Imperial powers, especially Britain, soon began to adopt their own form of Christian Zionism, having identified a potentially powerful symbiotic relationship between Jewish Zionists and Christian and imperialist interests. A Britain-aligned Jewish colony in Palestine was seen at once as an incredible geopolitical asset for the British Empire and a solution to British and other European leaders’ “Jewish problem” (i.e., antisemitic animus), all the while potentially fulfilling Christian prophecies of a Jewish-controlled Jerusalem that would bring about Armageddon.

It’s no wonder Bundists decried Zionism as “escapism,” and Jewish liberals saw it as bolstering, not opposing, antisemitism.

Suppressing Jewish Speech

The Antisemitism Awareness Act, expected to soon be passed in the Senate and signed into law by President Joe Biden, attempts to erase this history, and thereby gravely insults centuries of Jewish theology and politics. Since its founding, the Zionist movement and Israel have engaged in a global campaign to equate the political movement of Zionism with Judaism, the religion and people. In doing so, they have cynically co-opted the horrific tragedy of the Holocaust to silence critics of Israel’s apartheid system and military occupation of Palestine.

Supporters of Israel demonize Jewish anti-Zionist activists around the world as self-hating Jews, exiles from our own community. Before student protesters launched the Gaza solidarity encampment at Columbia and were met with brutal police repression, the university had already banned the chapter of the Jewish Voice for Peace there.

Similarly, one of first three students to be expelled by a university for Palestine activism, an organizer at Vanderbilt, was the chair of the school’s JVP chapter and had lived in Israel for a year, where he first became an anti-Zionist after participating in anti-eviction activism in East Jerusalem. In Germany, perhaps the one country where anti-anti-Zionism crackdowns have been even more extreme than within Israel and the United States, many Jewish activists have been among those arrested and facing repression.

In fact, Jewish anti-Zionism not only has a rich history, but until the Holocaust was the dominant politics of international Judaism. While many survivors were convinced that their earlier ideas were naive, internalizing the fascist premise that Jews will never have a place in broader society, and many more were won over to Zionism in the years following the establishment of Israel, Zionism’s rise to dominance within institutional Judaism must be understood in the context of the extermination of millions of anti-Zionist and non-Zionist Jews in concentration camps.

Congress is currently seeking to pass a bill that would cast the views of millions of Jewish Holocaust victims as anti-Jewish and beyond the pale and would suppress those at schools throughout the country from freely discussing their ideas. In doing so, they are spitting on the graves of our ancestors.