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A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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Antisemites? Anti-Zionists? A more precise term for pro-Palestinian protesters who want Israel gone

On Reddit, I’ve mostly found interesting and well- informed conversations about October 7 and the Gaza war. Until one post ticked me off and I could not hold back

Like many Jews, the attack of Oct. 7 and the war on Gaza have left me shocked and heartbroken. The lack of compassion and support, combined with the intensity and one-sidedness of the reactions, took me by surprise. But what added to my distress was that in addition to the unbearable horrors ongoing in the Middle East, American campuses and their protesters have been mired in a deep and sticky semantic morass. Instead of productive discussions, we argue endlessly and vitriolically about the meanings of antisemitism and anti-Zionism. I needed a way out of that.

Reddit is an enormous and anonymous collection of discussion boards, called subreddits, on all possible and imaginable topics. People can join any subreddit if they abide by the group’s rules. Thanks to an efficient system of moderators, Reddit manages to avoid the worst abuse often found on anonymous boards. Reddit posters are usually helpful and sincere, and to my surprise, because I tend to eschew social media, I’ve found interesting and well informed conversations about Oct. 7 and the war in subreddits about Israel, Palestine, the war, Jews and Muslims. I did not post much myself; I joined these subs to listen and learn.

But a post ticked me off one day, and I could not hold back. Someone had started a discussion saying that none of the people murdered in the towns around Gaza’s border were civilians. They brought evidence from a Wikipedia page explaining that all these towns had been established as military outposts when the country was first created. Ergo, all the murdered victims belonged to the military. With some trepidation – because this was a subreddit described as a safe space where “pro-Zionism” is not allowed, and Reddit moderators enforce their rules very strictly – I decided that this couldn’t go unanswered. So, I wrote that regardless of the original purpose of the town, the people who lived there in 2023 were still civilians. On Reddit, people with unpopular opinions are downvoted and receive bad karma ratings. I immediately received dozens of downvotes, and my comment karma was rapidly sliding toward a negative score, but the moderators did not remove my comment, and a difficult discussion ensued.

“No, these were border towns built by a military, pre- planned to be a first line of defense,” a person answered. I retorted, “Maybe, but today, there is a difference between military and civilian people.” Another person chimed in, “Why does Hamas targeting civilians mean that Israel can bomb them to oblivion, but Israel targeting civilians is just an unfortunate reality of war that we should all ignore? I’ll answer for you because you won’t answer honestly: You don’t consider Palestinians real people.” I thought this went too far; I responded, “Seriously? Where did I say that Palestinians aren’t real people? My point was exactly the opposite: Killing civilians is wrong, period. That’s Palestinian civilians, too, of course.” I thought Redditors would finally give me some good karma, but no, even this comment was downvoted half a dozen times.

This discussion was upsetting, and seeing the notifications buzzing on my phone was starting to make me nervous.

That’s when another Redditor jumped in and said, “Israelis aren’t civilians. They’re colonizing settlers. When a land is being colonized, the colonizers & settlers are used as an inherent weapon of violence against the colonized. If Israelis didn’t wanna get killed, they shouldn’t be colonizing Palestine, simple as that. This take reads heavily like ‘I hate slavery but I just don’t think it’s right those Haitian slaves killed their slavers families & other employees.'”

From someone who ostensibly did not care about Palestinian lives, I had become someone who denied enslaved people’s right to fight for their freedom. My crime? Arguing that the Israelis who were murdered in their homes on October 7 were civilians. I felt I needed to set the record straight, or I would be banned from the subreddit, so I wrote back, “That’s not what I said or believed. But is what you’re saying that any person (including babies, children, elderly, etc.) who lives in Israel within the green line is a colonizer who deserves to be massacred?” They responded, “I’m not saying they deserve to be massacred, just that Israelis are not simply civilians. Every single Israeli exists on land violently stolen from Palestinians within the lifetime of the average grandma. Simply just existing as an Israeli makes you a weapon of violence against Palestinians bc you are living on land that was stolen from them & their parents/ grandparents, etc. If you don’t want your baby killed in the process of people liberating their own land from their oppressors, maybe don’t be one of their oppressors. My daughter is in 0 danger of being killed by Palestinian revolutionaries & it’s bc I actively choose not to colonize Palestine.”

I could feel hate and anger in those postings, which scared me, even though I had no idea whom I was dialoguing with. But I decided to continue trying. “But what if you happened to be born there and your entire family lived there?” I wrote, “Would you all be fair play to be murdered? Israel needs to end the war, leave the illegal settlements, end apartheid, and stop oppressing Palestinians. I’m not defending what they’re doing. But to mark them all as colonizers (including within the green line) who are fair play to be murdered just because of where they were born is a step too far.”

My persistence was in vain. They answered in bold letters, “They ARE all colonizers. So, to answer your question, yes. Nobody in Israel is unaware of what’s happening; every person in that illegal apartheid state is 100% aware of what their living there means. There are no legal settlements bc Israel itself is not legal. These are mostly Europeans that colonized Palestine in the modern age. They don’t just get to keep a little sliver for themselves. Palestine should be ruled by Palestinian ppl & if Israelis want to stay, they have to abide by Palestinian laws.”

I thought, okay, I get it and will stop, but this person who claims to want justice needs to hear that this is not the way. I wrote, “There’s no undo button on history. The way forward is a solution that guarantees safety, dignity, self- determination for all. That starts with Israel ending the war and oppression obviously. But to say Israeli Jews who have lived there for several generations need to go back to where they came from or accept that they can be murdered, it maybe sounds good to you, but it is neither peaceful nor just. You can’t repair historical injustice through creating more of it.”

In response to this, the Reddit poster decided to put my liberal, brainwashed mind in its place: “Here’s a tough one to digest for ppl raised under intense liberal propaganda,” they wrote, “Sometimes justice is not peaceful. Turning Palestine back into Palestine & putting it back under the rule of Palestinians is what is just. If people living in homes stolen from Palestinians, growing gardens out of soil watered with the blood of thousands of Palestinians, refuse to return the land to its rightful people, then their removal from the land is also just. What was it Malcolm X said; if you stab me in my back, pulling the knife out a few inches isn’t progress or justice. We can begin to discuss progress & justice when the knife has been fully removed.”

While my interlocutors were generously upvoted, I was downvoted over 60 times. I had racked up so much negative karma that I was starting to feel bad about myself, so I left the discussion and the subreddit. I returned to my hobby- focused subreddits on bread baking and Peloton instructors, and after posting nice messages there for three weeks, my karma was finally back to positive.

In addition to learning how to control my karma score, this conversation brought home how inadequate our terminology has become at capturing the essence of the current debates. Antisemitism is a term that emerged in the 19th century to refer to political and racial hatred of Jews. It reached its apogee under the Nazis, who believed Jews were a separate and evil human race that had to be exterminated. Since then, not only has racial science been debunked as pseudo-science, but Jews are far more likely to be described as a religious or ethnic group. Moreover, people who express antisemitic ideas often have Jewish friends. For example, pastor John Hagee, a popular televangelist who once said that God “sent Hitler to help Jews reach the promised land,” is a friend of the State of Israel and was invited to speak at the rally against antisemitism in Washington in November 2023. Students in the pro-Palestine tent protests at Columbia University sang slogans that glorified Hamas and the killing of Israelis, yet welcomed Jewish students for a Passover seder. Nazis never would have joined a march against antisemitism or welcomed Jews in their tent to celebrate a Jewish holiday. These contradictions highlight why the term antisemitism generates so much confusion.

How can a term that evokes the mass murder of all Jews without exception be used to label those who hate some Jews but not others?

For a long time, anti-Zionism was an umbrella term for anyone who criticized the State of Israel. This included supporters of a two-state solution or confederation who criticized the Israeli government, often very sharply.

Increasingly today, though, the term anti-Zionism has come to mean complete opposition to Zionism and, by extension,


the delegitimization of the idea of a Jewish state. This has left many Jews who criticize the Israeli government but support the existence of a Jewish state confused, and alienated from their former progressive allies. Still, since extreme anti-Zionists usually don’t elaborate on their position, and I sometimes wonder if this ambiguity is intentional, anti-Zionism has become as imprecise a word as antisemitism. Trying to figure out when anti-Zionism is antisemitism has become a hopeless task, given the lack of clarity surrounding both terms.

Instead of hanging on to labels that fail to capture the complexity of the current situation, it is time to adopt more descriptive and precise terminology. Based on this, I would call the ideas of my Reddit interlocutors eliminationism.

Eliminationists derive their worldview from post-colonial theory and see the State of Israel in this framework. It is a colonial state built on stolen land by European settlers. Since October 7, eliminationists have explained that the colonized have an inalienable right to resistance by any means necessary. Hamas’ violence and the kidnappings, while horrible, are understandable because their victims were not innocent civilians but guilty colonizers. Because Israel is a colonizer state and its land was stolen, the result of Palestinian resistance cannot be a two-state solution or any form of land-sharing; it can only be the return of all of “historic Palestine” to Palestinians. Eliminationists also understand racism and inequalities as the outcomes of the colonial and white supremacist structures persisting in our societies. Their life’s goal is to fight for justice and against all racism and inequality, and they always include


antisemitism among the racisms they fight.


To the extent that eliminationists call for the “removal” of the State of Israel, but not for harm against Jews as a racial or even ethnic group, they are not antisemitic. However, an ideology does not need to be antisemitic to be cruel and built on flawed intellectual foundations.

Eliminationism is static and a-historical in that it does not allow for the possibility that Israel’s faults today – and they are many – are the result of historical contingencies, bad decisions and a right-wing drift in local politics that can be reversed. To justify eliminationism as a solution for colonization, one has to ignore the specificities of Jewish history and Israel’s history. Zionism was the name given to a Jewish political movement that advocated for establishing a Jewish state in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Early Zionists saw Jewish nationalism as a response to antisemitism. Their goal was to create for themselves what they could not have in Europe: a state that accepted them as full-fledged members of society. The fact that Zionists adopted colonial European ideas to achieve that status is undeniable, but to narrate the story of the State of Israel as if it were simply the product of a European colonial empire is historically inaccurate.

There was no Jewish European empire. The Jews who moved to Ottoman and later British Palestine were refugees. They left Russia, Poland and later Germany (and other European countries) not to colonize Palestine on behalf of these countries, nor did they have their military, financial or political support. Poland, Russia, Germany, etc., did not think Jews were bona fide members of their nations and let


that be known to them in increasingly violent ways that ended in gas chambers. This context matters: Since Zionism emerged in Europe in the late 19th century, it borrowed from nationalism and colonialism, but neither comprehensively summarizes it.

If not a solution to colonization, can the elimination of Israel be imposed as a punishment for the war in Gaza? While the extreme violence of the war is evident, and a cease-fire is urgent, whether genocide is the appropriate term for Israel’s conduct is still under debate. But let us imagine, for the sake of argument, that the International Court of Justice ruled that it does constitute genocide (which the court has not done). Even then, dismantling the state seems to be a highly unusual remedy. Germany continued to exist after the Holocaust. In fact, not only was Germany not dismantled, but there were also two Germanies in Europe for 45 years!

Turkey still exists despite the Armenian genocide; Rwanda still exists; Cambodia still exists. International courts punish guilty individuals; sometimes peace agreements result in borders being shifted (I suspect that this will be the case in any Israeli-Palestinian agreement), but countries are not condemned to disappear.

Eliminationism is not only an unusual remedy but also a violent one. It will not be possible to dismantle the State of Israel without inflicting enormous violence on its citizens. While I know that the majority of protesters simply demand an end to the war, it is undeniable that eliminationists are a small but loud voice in the movement and that they are not encountering opposition from within. I realize that this may be difficult as long as Israel’s war on Gaza continues, but I


hope that once the war ends, cooler heads will prevail. Calling for violence upon violence will not bring peace.

Flora Cassen is an associate professor of Jewish, Islamic, and Middle Eastern studies and associate professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis


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