It has now been 27 days since the state of Israel began its latest bombing campaign against Gaza. The death toll stands, by most estimates, above 1,700. The vast majority of victims have been civilians, including children, students, and religious leaders. Israel has carried out its retaliatory campaign with the stated or implicit blessing of Western governments. It is not altogether surprising, then, that protests against Israel’s heavy-handed campaign have proliferated across major cities in Europe and North America in the past month.
At the outset of the attacks, I was studying in Paris with a Yale language program. Returning home from a group excursion on the Sunday, July 13th, I walked past a moderately sized demonstration at the Place de la Bastille, where I recognized Palestinian flags and several mildly declamatory posters about Israel. Being somewhat shamefully disconnected from news sources, I had some idea of the events at which the demonstration was directed, though not of their scale nor of the context of anti-Israel rhetoric in France itself.
Not wanting to get involved, I picked my way through the crowd and walked up Rue de la Roquette to my host family’s apartment. Within an hour, I was hearing sounds of shattering glass, breaking wood, and yelling out on the street. When I walked outside later that evening, there were many smashed bottles and broken pieces of furniture scattered on the road. Within a few blocks, there were cars with their windshields smashed in. For the rest of my time in Paris, there was a police van parked 24/7 outside a synagogue on Rue de la Roquette with several policemen armed with batons. I assumed, along with many in Paris, that the demonstration at the Bastille had turned violent, that anti-Semitic protestors had turned their anger against the Gaza bombings against the synagogue.
In fact, as I was to learn much later, those responsible for the damage on Rue de la Roquette were not protestors from the plaza, but a radical rightist Jewish group known as the Jewish Defense League. A video recorded by residents and posted on YouTube seems to show members of the JDF trashing the street and provoking the demonstrators, then retreating behind a line of police with riot shields when the Palestine supporters attempt a counter-attack.
This gross misunderstanding is unfortunately typical of the confusion and misinterpretation that has surrounded a series of demonstrations, protests, and riots in Paris since the bombing began. Subsequent large-scale protests at Châtelet (on the 19th), Republique (26th), and Bataille-de-Stalingrad (31st), among several other smaller-scale events, have been construed by different sources as both peaceful demonstrations for cessation of the bombings or vicious and violent anti-Semitic riots .
At Republique, for instance, more than 2,000 police were deployed. They used small-scale arrests and tear gas to break up the protest. French Interior Minister Manuel Valls claimed that “very serious risks of violence” were sufficient justification for the police action.
Beyond the over-reaction of the police to threats of violence, the statement by the Minister demonstrated a far more insidious misrepresentation that has run rampant in the rhetoric of both European governments and many news sources. “Violence, especially anti-Semitic violence, exists and we must look it in the face,” said Valls.
Here, let me take a moment to delineate the senses in which I use the words anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist, and anti-Israel. Anti-Semitism, for the purposes of this article, refers to the racist ideology of hostility or prejudice against the Jews as a race and/or as a culture. This ranges from the use of Jewish slurs in grade school to the broad campaigns of exclusion and violence which wracked Europe and Russia during the past two centuries. The salient detail in anti-Semitism is the target of its hatred: the Jewish people as a whole. I advance (with, I hope, little controversy) that anti-Semitism, like all forms of racism, is disgusting.
Anti-Zionism, by contrast, is opposition to the Zionist project – the belief that on the basis of religious and historical ties to the controversially-named land on the Eastern coast of the Mediterranean (henceforth “Israel and the disputed territories”), the Jewish people have a right or even a duty to resettle in this area. Anti-Zionism, as such, is not any more racist against Jews than opposition to the principle of Manifest Destiny would have been unpatriotic or anti-American in the 19th century. This analogy is, however, somewhat illustrative. For many Jews, especially those with more Orthodox beliefs, Zionism is inextricably linked to the Jewish identity. To oppose the Zionist project is to oppose their definition of Jewishness and thus, in their perspective, be “anti-Semitic.” Anti-Zionism is not the same as anti-Semitism, however, nor is it even mutually exclusive with a strong Jewish identity.
The final category of belief is far more ambiguous, but as the term is used so frequently in current discourse, we must have some sort of working understanding. By anti-Israel, many people mean anti-Zionist, in that they are opposed to the existence of a Jewish state in Israel and the disputed territories. This characterization, though, is unfair to the broad scope of Zionist belief, in the following way. A Jew (or Gentile, for that matter) can be Zionist, yet oppose every means by which the Zionists have attempted to reoccupy Israel and the disputed territories from Herzl through Netanyahu. Or they can long for the era of the Kibbutz Movement, approve of the declaration of the Jewish state in 1948, and yet oppose the settlements of the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars. “Anti-Israel,” though, is an inadequate term encompassing everything from anti-Zionism to distrust of the current government – a slippery grouping of beliefs to be sure.
Anti-Semitic violence has been on the rise in France (and had been even before the Gaza attacks began). Notable incidents have included a firebomb thrown at a synagogue in Aulnay-sous-Bois on July 11th and fires set to Jewish businesses in Sarcelles on the 21st. And no doubt there have been anti-Semitic elements present at the protests; this is regrettable though probably inevitable, as they are generally highly publicized affairs.
But the assertion that the protestors are simply anti-Semites hiding behind the pretext of the bombings is just flat-out wrong. Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism. And the irony of accusing those who stand against violence toward the million and more mostly Arab Palestinians through bombing, siege, starvation, and forced deportation of anti-Semitism is frankly sickening (if the irony is lost, see Brʾeišyt—Book of Genesis—chapter 10).
Anti-Semitism is a horrible ideology, and its persistence in Europe should be denounced. But the knee-jerk response of quashing any rhetoric that critiques Europe’s relationship with Zionism is counter-productive and undemocratic. France, in response to the events at the Bastille and elsewhere, placed a ban on any protests against Israeli action in Palestine. Not against Jews, but against specific actions of the government of a sovereign state. I will not pretend to understand the motivations of every one of the protestors at every one of the protests, but I strongly doubt that all were motivated by anti-Semitism. And tomake a blanket characterization against the actions of all protestors in this way is misguided.
The actions of France to quiet protests through public misinformation and police action are inimical to free speech and belie an unwillingness to critically address Israeli war crimes because of a misdirected historical “consciousness.” It’s long past time to lose these blinders.
This post, originally published on The Politic Blog on August 2, was updated on August 5 to clarify, but not alter, the author’s description of the scope of anti-Zionism.