There are many words that provoke strong responses in discourse around religion and politics, but few are so poorly understood as “Zionism” and “antisemitism.”
Like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, too often these words mean whatever the speaker decides they mean.
By presenting this brief and inadequate explanation, perhaps I can encourage future speakers and writers to be more precise in their discussions and thus avoid the offense and distraction that inaccurate deployment of these terms often provokes.
What people have to say is too important to be derailed by incorrect semantics.
First, it is important to remember that both terms emerged from political realities, but they are deeply grounded in the Jewish experience.
Both terms were coined in the 19th century, so referring to Zionism or antisemitism before then is inaccurate. However, though the words were new, what they describe is anything but new.
Faithful Jews pray a daily formal liturgy. We recite at least three times a day in worship, and after every meal, prayers that express the hope we will be “gathered in peace from the four corners of the earth and returned to our homeland.” Those prayers date back more than 1,500 years.
The word “homeland” has the technical and specific meaning of the Promised Land. Exiled and returned over the centuries, Jews never abandoned their claim to The Land as the homeland.
There has always been a Jewish presence in the Holy Land even in times of foreign conquest. The belief that the Jewish people have the right to be free in our own land is what became known as Zionism.
Theodor Herzl was a secular Jewish journalist in Austria. He covered the Dreyfus trial in France and, by most accounts, became persuaded that prejudice against Alfred Dreyfus, the highest-ranking Jew in the French military, was behind his conviction for treason he objectively did not commit.
Anti-Jewish sentiment was rife in Europe, both violently expressed and “politely” ensconced. Jews were not considered a faith community in the way Catholics or Lutherans were, but a people apart and even, by some, a separate race.
With the emergence of nation-states in Europe, Herzl became convinced that the only way for Jews to live a normalized life was to have a nation-state of their own.
His book, The Jewish State, built on previous expressions of the same notion as well as the religious legacy of yearning for a return to the homeland.
Herzl’s initial notion was entirely political, and he investigated multiple places to establish an autonomous Jewish state. But as his idea swept through the various strata of Jewish culture in Europe (and to some measure North America), focus shifted to the Jewish ancestral homeland exclusively.
Rapidly, this new movement called Zionism (after Mount Zion, often a euphemism for the Holy Land) splintered into factions that blended other aspects of the adherents’ beliefs and practices.
Socialists, Communists, faith denominations, labor activists – all Jews – coalesced around the establishment of the Jewish state.
There was also significant opposition, primarily from staunch assimilationists who wished to be absorbed into European culture and from orthodox Jews who believed only God could return Jews to their homeland.
Today, small remnants of those communities still exist, and they are often held up by opponents of modern Zionism as evidence of its inauthenticity.
For all its factionalism, comparable in many ways to the multiplicity of denominations in Christianity and Islam, the belief in the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their own land remains the essence of Zionism.
It is impossible to understand Zionism without understanding antisemitism.
“Antisemitism” was a word invented by German nationalist Wilhelm Marr in 1885 as the name of his political party. Marr claimed to be a supporter of Jews and their culture but believed them to be a degrading influence on the purity of the Aryan culture of Germany, Austria and other entities.
He campaigned to have them excluded from public and professional positions. It is in this context that Zionism developed.
There are some people who believe that “semitic” refers to all people of Middle Eastern origin. Semantically, they might make a case, but historically, they are simply wrong. “Antisemitism” is a euphemism for Jew-hatred, which existed for many centuries before.
Its popularity as a political movement in Europe, inspiring many nationalist groups including the Nazis, cannot be separated from the legacy of bigotry against Jews that was a shameful aspect of intolerance by the Roman Catholic Church, Protestant denominations and the neo-pagan legacies of feudal society.
Prejudice against Jews outside of cultures rooted in Europe also has a long history but not as extreme or violent. It remains inaccurate to call such expressions “antisemitism” before the term was coined, and perhaps even through the Second World War.
But today, as the term has long since migrated from a political slogan to a category of bigotry, that is a distinction without difference.
What is the difference between being a critic and a bigot when it comes to Zionism and Jews? More on that soon.
Author’s note: Links are intended as a starting point for the reader who wishes to learn more.
A Conservative rabbi, he is currently serving on Good Faith Media’s strategic advisory board. This article only represents Moline’s personal views and not those of any organizations with which he is affiliated.