The Indelible Stain: Jew-Washing, Antisemitism, and Zionophobia

[In the days just before the Messiah] a man’s enemies will be the members of his household …. —Sotah 49b (quoting Micah 7.6)

Among the many difficulties confronting Jews who are comfortable calling themselves Zionists is the phenomenon of Jew-washing.[1] Inspired by expressions such as “whitewashing” and “pinkwashing,” the idea is that if someone can count Jews among those endorsing his beliefs or behavior then his beliefs or behavior cannot be deemed antisemitic. Indeed if he can count Jews among his personal friends, if some of his “best friends” are Jews, then he cannot be deemed an antisemite. The problem for Zionists is clear: the fact that so many Jews are comfortable calling themselves anti-Zionists means that the underlying antisemitic nature of most forms of anti-Zionism is easily obscured.

The aim of this essay is to demonstrate what has sorely needed demonstrating for a long time: that Jew-washing simply doesn’t work. In fact it obviously doesn’t work, once you think about it even a little.

It’s commonly assumed that racism has a general nature: to be a racist is to display a certain negative attitude or behaviors toward all members of the targeted group. This assumption is reasonably grounded in the paradigmatic manifestations of racism throughout history. When medieval Christians hated Jews on the basis of religion, for example, they hated all Jews (we usually think), until they converted. When the Nazis hated Jews on the basis of race, they hated all Jews (we think) no matter what their creed, even those Jews who had converted and assimilated.

It makes sense: if you’re a Jew-hater, then you hate all Jews.

Except that it simply isn’t true.

Neither empirically, nor theoretically.

Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Nazi’s S.S., famously complained that the Nazis’ fatal efficiency was often compromised because everyone had his favorite “A-1 Jew.”[2] There were very dedicated Nazis, filled with Jew-hatred, who still found room in their hearts not to hate some particular Jew or another, for whatever the reason. Those exceptions didn’t mean they weren’t Jew-haters, of course. But sometimes other considerations overrode their general hatred.

So a bona fide Jew-hater is capable of not hating every single Jew.

But now, can a Jew-hater have quite a few A-1 Jews? Can someone find even the majority of Jews to be A-1 Jews, yet still be a Jew-hater? Or put in reverse, if someone does not hate most Jews, if someone perhaps even likes most Jews, does that mean that he isn’t a Jew-hater, an antisemite?

Suppose that someone is anti-Zionist in that hostile way that falls under the U.S. State Department’s definition of antisemitism, itself adopting Natan Sharanksy’s definition: anti-Zionism becomes antisemitism when it operates by means of any of the “3Ds,” namely when it Demonizes, applies Double Standards to, or Delegitimizes the State of Israel. It’s hardly any secret that Jews are among the many who display this sort of behavior, particularly those who identify as progressives or liberals. Many other individuals then invoke those Jews for Jew-washing purposes, to deny the charge of antisemitism by noting both that “some of their best friends are Jews” and that many prominent Jews share their anti-Zionism (Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, Tony Judt, etc).

But now notice that both these forms of exoneration rely on the assumption that being an antisemite requires hating all (or at least most) Jews. If antisemitism were actually consistent with not hating even most Jews, then an antisemite could still have plenty of Jewish friends. Moreover, the fact that a Jew (presumably) does not hate all (or most) other Jews wouldn’t exclude her counting as an antisemite either, and her adopting some belief wouldn’t exonerate the belief from being antisemitic.

It’s this assumption that racism is general in nature that is specifically overdue for retirement. It has actually been quietly on the decline for quite some time. In fact what Phyllis Chesler (among others) insightfully calls “the new antisemitism” reflects that decline.

For if there’s one thing we know about Jews, it’s that they are a divisive bunch. Not every Jew is the same “type” of Jew. In the typical Jew-washer’s metaphysics there are “good Jews” and “bad Jews,” the “righteous Jews” and the “Afrikaners Jews” (to use John Mearsheimer’s phrases), the A-1 Jews he is fine with and the other Jews he is not. And it doesn’t take much scratching beneath the surface before you discover that the Jew-washer quite seriously dislikes those other Jews—the Zionist Jews, of course—in a manner that typically manifests itself in that Sharansky 3-D antisemitic way.

But wait—the Jew-washer might object—it’s not because they are Jewish that I dislike them. The proof is that there are many other Jews, the good Jews, that I do like. It’s because they are Zionists that I don’t like them. It’s not them—it’s their ideas, their ideology, their behavior. It is anti-Zionism, not antisemitism. And of course it’s okay to object to, be hostile toward, an ideology!

But again: this response only works if antisemitism requires hating all Jews. If Jews come in many types—if there are many different ways in which individuals manifest their Jewishness—then it’s perfectly clear how an antisemite might not hate all Jews.

The crucial question for an antisemite isn’t whether he hates all Jews, in other words.

It’s whether the people he hates, he hates for their Jewishness.

Imagine the medieval Church rejecting the charge of antisemitism. We don’t hate all Jews, they might say, only those Jews with a certain ideology and behavior. When Jewish people change these—and convert to Catholicism—they are A-1 by us!

The flaw in this defense is obvious: the ideology and behavior the Church rejected was the very essence of those individuals’ Jewishness. They may not hate the individuals who are Jews (once they convert), but they hate Jewishness. They then absurdly claim not to hate Jews, because they don’t hate those people who are no longer Jewish by the relevant criteria.

But now Zionism, too, is intimately or essentially related to many Jews’ self-conception and identity. Not every Jew’s, obviously—many Jews even claim their anti-Zionism is a manifestation of their Jewishness. (We’ll come back to that shortly.) But there are many (perhaps many more) Jews for whom their Zionism, in any of its many forms, is an essential part of their Jewishness. To hate them for their Zionism just is to hate them for their (form of) Jewishness. You may have a lot of A-1 Jews among your friends, but that doesn’t exonerate you from hating the Jews you do hate for their Jewishness.

The treatment above is coarse, of course, and needs to be properly refined. As currently formulated, for example, it may turn many of the divisions within the Jewish people into antisemites against each other. If it counts as antisemitic to hate Zionist Jews for their Zionist Jewishness, after all, it would count as antisemitic to hate anti-Zionist Jews who ground their anti-Zionism in their form of Jewishness.[3] Similarly, when this treatment is generalized it may turn almost any objection to any group’s ideology or practices into a form of objectionable hatred or racism. To hate members of ISIS for their ideology might have to count as a form of Islamophobia, since presumably their form of Islam is essential to their ideology, and so on.

What’s needed to prevent these consequences is at least two things: (1) careful articulation of just when and where certain beliefs and practices become essential to individuals’ identities (thus yielding a distinction between ideologies toward which it is acceptable to be hostile v. people and their identities toward which it is generally not acceptable to be hostile), and (2) a close look at the specific contents of the beliefs and practices that compose people’s identities. 

Fortunately we can make a start on this at least with respect to Jew-washing.

Many Jewish anti-Zionists are what we might call JIGOs: Jews in Genes Only. Their commitment to Jewishness is skin-deep, pretty literally: it’s only biological, and does not include any particular Jewish ideological component and indeed often explicitly rejects such.[4] When a JIGO says, “As a Jew, I am an anti-Zionist,” she is saying little more than “As someone with a certain molecular or genetic structure …” Since one’s biology cannot exonerate one’s beliefs from being antisemitic, JIGOs cannot successfully serve for Jew-washing purposes.

More relevant are the many Jews whose anti-Zionism can be said to be based in something more than biological Jewishness. There are plenty of Jews who find the essence of Jewishness, their Jewishness, to be in Judaism’s important emphases on compassion, social justice, tikkun olam, universal ethics, and so on. When such a person, speaking “as a Jew,” displays even 3-D anti-Zionism, then there’s something to be said for the position. For if genuine Jewishness (they will argue) militates against Zionism, then anti-Zionism surely can’t be antisemitic.

Yes, we can now respond—but speaking as what kind of Jew?

What you will typically find in the Jewishness espoused by these Jews is the universal: the compassion, the justice, the ethics. Those are all wonderful things, and Judaism is all the more wonderful for emphasizing them. But what’s more important is what is left out from this list, namely everything particular: the unique people, the nation, with its unique history, religion, and ties to a specific land. What’s left out, in other words, is everything that distinguishes Jews from other people.

When such people say, “As a Jew, I am an anti-Zionist,” what they are really saying is something like, “As a human being who believes in compassion, justice, universal ethics, etc., I am an anti-Zionist.” Fair enough, and admirable enough, if that’s where their reasoning leads them. But such a person cannot do the work of a Jew-washer, because there is nothing specifically and distinctively Jewish about their position.

To Jew-wash with them, I think, would be roughly akin to the medieval Church saying, “We are not antisemites because many converted Jews share our negative views about (unconverted) Jews.” The flaw here, too, is clear. That someone who has rejected Jewishness (or otherwise distances himself from what is distinctively Jewish) adopts a doctrine cannot serve as a proof that the doctrine is not antisemitic. That is not an exoneration of antisemitism at all.

It is a non-sequitor.

Or worse, it is further evidence for the doctrine’s antisemitism.

To see this, let’s look more closely at the contents of the relevant beliefs. Imagine, for a moment, someone in the United States circa 1860 saying, “I don’t hate Black people. I just hate those Blacks who demand their freedom.” Perhaps at that time only a small subset of Blacks were able to stand up for their freedom. But to hate those Blacks just is to reject the basic dignity, the basic rights, of all Blacks. If that isn’t racism, even if directed only to a small subset of the relevant population, then what is?

So, too, some people only hate some Jews. Which Jews? Those Jews who stand up for the rights of Jews. Those Jews who believe that Jews have the same dignity and basic rights enjoyed by all other peoples. Those Jews who believe that Jews have the right of self-determination in that one little sliver of earth that is their ancient homeland.

Those Jews who reject their Jewish particularism for whatever good reasons they may have just are rejecting for Jews qua Jews the same basic dignity and rights that all other peoples enjoy.

And that just is antisemitism.

So the next time someone crosses that line, when their anti-Zionism becomes 3-D and by virtue of those criteria counts as antisemitic, call the speaker out on it. When she denies she is antisemitic because she herself is Jewish, or because many Jews share her position, ask her to specify just which type of Jew she is referring to. And when she answers, remind her: being antisemitic doesn’t require being against all Jews. It only requires being against people because of their Jewishness, and because their Jewishness is the kind that specifically stands up for the rights of Jews.

Since this type of antisemitism, this “new antisemitism,” is relatively recent, it is easily conflated with older forms of antisemitism. In fact that conflation is what allows Jew-washing to work in the first place: because the new antisemitism (aimed at particularist Jews) is distinct from the old antisemitism (aimed at all Jews), the Jew-washer can in fact justifiably deny her (old) antisemitism and deny she is “antisemitic.” She is (correctly) not a general antisemite, but she is (after all) a particularist antisemite, with her animosity directed specifically at Zionist Jews.

To minimize this conflation and thus to deflate that strategy more thoroughly, it might be better to refer to the new antisemitism as Zionophobia, a term from Judea Pearl that helps distinguish it from the old general antisemitism. A major point of this paper is that Zionophobia is just as pernicious as any other form of racism, even if it targets only a subset of Jews.

“I don’t hate Jews,” the Zionophobe says. “Just Zionists.”

Just, in other words, those Jews whose Jewishness entails standing up for the dignity and rights of Jews.[5]

So if your A-1 Jews are only those who don’t identify with the Jews, who don’t identify with a particularist Jewish history or religion, or who aren’t interested in standing up for the rights of Jews—then you, the Zionophobe, may be an antisemite after all.[6]


[1] … “On Jew-Washing and BDS,” by Yitzak Santis and Gerald M. Steinberg, The New York Jewish Week, July 23, 2012. []

[2] From Himmler’s speech before senior SS officers in Poznan, October 1943: “… the extermination of the Jewish race. It's one of those things it is easy to talk about, ‘the Jewish race is being exterminated,’ says one party member, ‘that's quite clear, it's in our program, elimination of the Jews, and we're doing it, exterminating them.’ And then they come, 80 million worthy Germans, and each one has his decent Jew. Of course the others are vermin, but this one is an A-1 Jew …”

[Trials of War Criminals Before the Nuernberg Military Tribunals - Washington, U.S Govt. Print.] Off., 1949-1953, Vol. XIII, p. 323, and Himmler, Reichsfuehrer-SS - P. Padfield, Henry Holt and Co, NY, 1990, p. 469.]

[3] This is not the place to debate what counts as “true” Judaism, so I will not assume that (say) Orthodox Judaism (in its many varieties) is true Judaism and more modern, more liberal forms of Judaism are not.

[4] Cf. Jewish anti-Zionist Tony Judt: “I reject the authority of the rabbis—all of them … I participate in no Jewish community life, nor do I practice Jewish rituals. I don’t make a point of socializing with Jews in particular … I am not a ‘lapsed’ Jew, having never conformed to the requirements in the first place. I don’t ‘love Israel’ (either in the modern sense or in the original generic meaning of loving the Jewish people) … But whenever anyone asks me whether or not I am Jewish, I unhesitatingly respond in the affirmative …” Judt goes on from here to affirm Jewish assimilation, i.e. disappearance. (Tony Judt, “Toni,” NYR Blog—The New York Review of Books (April 19, 2010))

[5] In case this isn’t clear, not all forms of anti-Zionism need count as antisemitism as far as this essay is concerned, nor does being a Zionist entail denying the rights of other peoples, including Palestinians. But the anti-Zionism that does count as antisemitism seems invariably to take the form of denying the same rights to Jews that it demands for Palestinians.

[6] Thanks to Gerald Steinberg, Yisrael Medad, and Phyllis Chesler for helpful comments on an earlier draft.