Rabbi Avi Weiss: Why antisemitism and anti-Zionism are so deeply intertwined

March 26, 2024

by Rabbi Avi Weiss for CNN

Approaching my 80th birthday, I realize that as a Jew, I’ve lived a honeymoon life. Born at the tail end of World War II, I grew up with antisemitism by and large under control, as even vicious Jew haters were reticent to attack Jews. To some extent, I believe, the world’s guilt over either its complicity or inactivity as 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust silenced the enemies of our people.

This doesn’t mean anti-Semitism was not a serious problem, especially in recent decades. There were vicious antisemites and horrific antisemitic incidents that had to be condemned. The likes of Louis Farrakhan and David Duke needed to be confronted head on. Events like the 1991 murder of Yankel Rosenbaum, a Hasidic Lubavitch scholar stabbed to death by a Jew-hating mob, brought fear into the hearts and souls of the Jewish community. Still, antisemitism was not endemic.

Eight decades after the Holocaust, however, the Shoah is in the rearview mirror. For much of the world, it is a footnote in history. Its memory no longer stymies antisemites, who were always hiding in the shadows and have now surfaced with fury.

The holiday of Purim, celebrated by Jews around the world this weekend, commemorates a story in the Bible’s Book of Esther when the whole of the Jewish community in ancient Persia was threatened with extinction by the King’s adviser Haman and his cohorts.

The story touches upon dimensions of antisemitism that were pungent back then, and have remained powerful and threatening across thousands of years. These forms of hatred of Jews past and present fall into three categories shaping the foundations of a nation: people, ideology and land. We have seen all of them in modern times.

During the Holocaust the goal of the Third Reich was the genocide of the Jewish people; that is, murdering Jews because they were Jews. It was the same agenda that motivated Haman two millennia ago.

During the Cold War, Soviet antisemitism came to the fore with a vengeance after the Second World War. It was based on loathing Jewish faith and ideology. Like Haman, the USSR’s leaders saw our Jewish culture and religious practices as alien to their state. Believing Judaism contrary to their Marxist view of the world, the Soviets didn’t allow Jews to live a Jewish life. Those who wished to emigrate were held as quasi-hostages behind the Iron Curtain.

Today, antisemitism is often expressed by denying that Jews have the right to be sovereign in their own land. Yet, without sovereignty, there can be no security. Jews will forever be vulnerable to the next Haman to come along. Throughout the millennia, as a stateless people, Jews were subject to persecution, discrimination and expulsion. This is a historical reality that anti-Zionists conveniently ignore when they say they are not against Jews, just against Jews having their own state.

They, and the world at large, also have no problem with having Muslim states, several of them explicitly defined as Islamic or Arab. However, the concept of one tiny Jewish state, the only Western-style democracy in the Middle East, is constantly rejected and attacked.

Statehood is built into Jewish consciousness. Israel is more than just a place where Jews can be free and safe. As Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of pre-state Israel said: Israel is not external to Judaism but inherently part of Jewish consciousness. To wit: Jews across the religious denominations pray for the return to Zion in their daily liturgy. And religious or not, the vast majority of Jews feel inextricably, soulfully bound to Israel and describe themselves as Zionists.

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