Anti-Zionism is Antisemitism – or is it? An Intelligence Squared debate

A debate on 21 June pitted Melanie Phillips and former Knesset member Einat Wilf against Ilan Pappé and Mehdi Hasan.

We found the arguments against the proposition very strong, those in favour threadbare.

But why believe us? Listen for yourselves.

The Intelligence Squared advance blurb

Is there a country in the world that attracts so much criticism as Israel? Studies consistently show Israel to be one of the most disliked nations in the world (along with Iran and North Korea). But how much of this is to do with genuine concern about Israel’s actions, and how much is actually a cover for the age-old hatred of the Jews? Is what we are seeing here anti-Zionism – broadly understood as opposition to the existence of a Jewish state in the territory of Israel – or is it anti-Semitism?

Some people who have been accused of anti-Semitism argue that the accusation is deeply unjust: what enrages them is not the Jewish people per se, but the nature of Israel, the Jewish state. Israel, they say, is a country based on ethnic nationalism, designed to privilege the Jewish majority at the expense of the Palestinians. Israel’s critics claim that its creation in 1948 led to more than 700,000 Palestinians fleeing or being expelled from their land, and that today’s Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are still denied their basic rights. Israel’s immigration policy allows any Jew in the world to gain automatic citizenship, yet Palestinian migration to Israel is virtually impossible. The Israeli flag features the Star of David and its national anthem refers to the ‘Jewish soul’, but over 20 per cent of its citizens are Arabs. To be anti-Zionist isn’t to be anti-Semitic – it’s to take a legitimate moral stand against Israel’s discriminatory practices.

But others see anti-Zionism as a fig leaf for old-fashioned anti-Semitism. Yes, of course it’s possible to be a staunch critic of Zionism and not to be anti-Semitic, but mostly you find that the two go together. Despite being the only functioning liberal democracy in the region, Israel is fanatically singled out for criticism by its enemies. Anti-Zionists, it is said, often rehash ancient anti-Semitic tropes, using phrases like the ‘Israel lobby’ as a racist dog whistle to signify an all-powerful Jewish conspiracy. Attacks against Jews are on the rise across the world, with many of their perpetrators claiming they are responding to Israel’s policies, but in fact they are disguising their hatred of Jews in the garb of anti-Zionism – in France, anti-Semitic acts increased by 74% last year. And when anti-Zionists talk about Israel’s founding and its impact on the Palestinians, they conveniently omit the fact that in 1948 Israel was immediately attacked by its Arab neighbours who sought to wipe it off the map. It’s the only Jewish-majority country in the world, a homeland and haven for the Jews created in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Sure, you can criticise the policies of Israel’s government, but if you deny its right to exist you are inescapably an anti-Semite.

Who’s right and who’s wrong?

Listen to the debate here


Melanie Phillips

Pro-Israel journalist, broadcaster and author

Pro-Israel journalist, broadcaster and author. She has a weekly column in The Times, and also writes for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Chronicle and Jewish News Syndicate. She is a regular panellist on BBC Radio’s The Moral Maze, and is the author of Londonistan, The World Turned Upside Down, The Legacy and Guardian Angel.

Einat Wilf

Israeli politician

Israeli politician who was a Member of the Knesset for the Labor and Independence parties. She also served as a Foreign Policy Advisor to Shimon Peres, and was the Baye Foundation Adjunct Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a Senior Fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute.

Mehdi Hasan

Journalist and broadcaster

Journalist, broadcaster and prominent critic of Israel. He is the host of UpFront and Head To Head on Al Jazeera English, as well as a columnist for The Intercept and Contributing Editor for the New Statesman.

Ilan Pappé

Israeli historian and Anti-Zionist activist

Israeli historian, anti-Zionist activist, and professor at the University of Exeter. He is one of Israel’s ‘New Historians’, who have challenged traditional versions of Israeli history, including Israel’s role in the Palestinian exodus in 1948 and Arab willingness to discuss peace. He is the author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine and Ten Myths About Israel.

Carrie Gracie

BBC News Presenter and the BBC’s first China Editor

BBC News Presenter and the BBC’s first China Editor from 2014 until 2018. She resigned that post last year to protest unequal pay at the BBC and now works in the BBC newsroom.

Comments (4)

  • Andrwew Hornung says:

    How on earth can this be accessed?

    [JVL web – simply click on the image at the top of the post. It should take you there. Or click here.

  • Andrew Hornung says:

    How on earth can this be accessed?

    [JVL web – simply click on the image at the top of the post. It should take you there. Or click here.

  • Rachel Sagar says:

    The Arab attacks followed the statement of Independence by Ben Gurion that failed to acknowledge any borders to the Israeli state. They were followed by an illegal Israeli expansion in Palestine which continues to this day. Orthodox Jews are anti-Zionist – does this make them anti-Semitic? It’s funny how so many Jewish people in the Labour Party are anti-Zionist. They can’t ALL be ‘self-hating’. I know I’M not. I have no problem with the existence of Israel or its people – I had a wonderful time there when I was younger. I just don’t like the current regime and the treatment of Palestinian people, their homes and olive trees.

  • Gary Griffiths says:

    A very illuminating debate contrasting rational thoughts with what at times verged on hysterical outbursts. The voting reflected the contributions.

Comments are now closed.