Criticism of Zionism is not anti-semitic, Facebook should make the distinction

Criticism of Zionism is not anti-semitic, Facebook should make the distinction
Comment: Facebook is considering classing anti-Zionism as a kind of hate speech. Doing so would be detrimental to Palestinians and Jews alike, writes Mitchell Plitnick.
6 min read
24 Feb, 2021
Facebook commonly defends its platform on the basis of free speech [Getty]
Facebook is facing a dilemma. The social media Goliath finds itself caught in a debate over the use of the political label "Zionist". Supporters of Israel are pressing Facebook to treat the term "Zionist" as a proxy for "Jew", and to therefore label harsh criticisms of Zionism - a political ideology that must surely be open to criticism in any free society - as anti-semitism, a hateful ideology that has no place in civil discourse.

Facebook commonly defends its platform on the basis of free speech in an attempt to avoid having to do the often complicated, controversial, and difficult work of monitoring their platform for hate speech. But in recent years, as the social media site has become a symbol of intrusive collection of private information and increasingly associated with the spread of false information and wild conspiracy theories, it has been forced to try to weed out intentionally misleading news and hate groups using its platform to organise themselves and spread their propaganda.

With that small shift, supporters of Israel saw an opportunity to advance their efforts to blur the distinction between anti-semitism and criticism of Israel.

Zionism is a political ideology. Any political ideology can be debated, even vilified. That is the nature of ideological and political debate. That discourse cannot and must not be conflated with hate speech, which is directed at a group of people based on ethnic, racial, national, gender, sexual or any other characteristic. To do so violates the very essence of free speech.

It is important to stress that any political ideology can be criticised and, yes, even attacked

In this instance it's even worse. Palestinians are violently oppressed and, especially in the West Bank and even more acutely in the Gaza Strip, have no way to affect the politics that dictate their lives. Many international and diplomatic fora are unavailable to them as a stateless people.

The United States has imposed penalties on Palestinians' use of arenas, like the ICC, that might try to intervene. If they cannot even argue against their occupiers and dispossessors, what is left?

As Rabbi Alissa Wise, deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace, wrote recently, "The Israeli government and its rightwing allies are using this moment to double down on their campaign to equate all forms of anti-Zionism - the moral, political or religiously based opposition to an ethnic Jewish nation-state in historic Palestine - with anti-semitism. This is not a sincere attempt to end anti-Jewish bigotry and violence. It is a breathtakingly cynical gambit to limit our ability to hold Israel accountable for its ongoing human rights abuses against Palestinians."

The use of the word "Zionist" to launder anti-semitism is a real issue. For decades, white nationalist conspiracy theories have talked about the "Zionist Occupied Government," or "ZOG," referring to Jewish control of the United States, or even the world. It is an outgrowth of centuries of anti-semitism and particularly of the continuing malign influence of the notorious Russian forgery, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, first published in 1903.

On the other hand, many people use the term "Zionist" precisely because if they, in their criticism of an Israeli action or policy, refer to "the Jews" they are attacked as anti-semites. One can understand this; the words imply criticism of Jews as Jews. It is therefore a logical response to use the term "Israelis" or "Zionists" instead.

For the most part, however, the disingenuous practice of using the term "Zionist" to cover for anti-semitism is not difficult to see through. Both opponents and adherents of white nationalist propagandists, for example, routinely understand precisely what is meant.

There are, undoubtedly, those who make common cause between the movement for Palestinian rights and anti-semitism. But where anti-semitism is characteristic and fundamental of the far right (including far-right supporters of Israel and its policies), it is vigorously opposed among Palestinians and their supporters, many of whom work with Jewish allies and work to eliminate what anti-semitism they find in their movement.

The effort underway today to collapse criticism of Israel, or even passionate opposition to Zionism, with anti-semitism is an attempt to portray support for Palestinian rights as an attack on Jews, and to paint it with the same brush as we do far-right anti-semitism.

Ironically, many of the voices hard at work to blur that all-important distinction are also 
whitewashing support for Israel from the very white or Christian nationalist forces associated with some of the worst anti-semitic tropes.

Where does that leave us? How do we approach an entity like Facebook, which has enormous influence that cannot be ignored, but is driven by its quest for profit and therefore is susceptible to pressure from well-funded and influential forces?

The idea that Zionism cannot be criticised without it being anti-semitic effectively shields Israel from critical inquiry

A coalition of progressive groups (full disclosure, my organisation, ReThinking Foreign Policy is a member) has come together behind a campaign they call "Facebook, We Need To Talk."

The coalition concludes 
its petition to Facebook by saying, "The current Israeli government, and some of its supporters, have demanded that Facebook add "Zionist" to its hate speech policy. This would shut down conversations about accountability for policies and actions that harm Palestinians. Facebook should refuse to cooperate with those who seek to build more walls to keep us apart. We call on Facebook to not add 'Zionist' as a protected category in its hate speech policy."

It is important to stress the fact that any political ideology can be criticised and, yes, even attacked. Zionism is not an exception. In 2019, Peter Beinart explained, "The problem is that, in many countries, Jewish leaders serve both as defenders of local Jewish interests and defenders of the Israeli government. And the Israeli government wants to define anti-Zionism as bigotry because doing so helps Israel kill the two-state solution with impunity."

In fact, it goes further than that. The idea that Zionism cannot be criticised without it being anti-semitic effectively shields Israel from critical inquiry into its actions that have dispossessed the Palestinian people, many living as refugees or as second-class citizens in Israel and around the region.

It also gives cover to current Israeli policies and actions in occupying the West Bank and besieging the Gaza Strip. No other country, whether engaged in such blatantly onerous acts or not, enjoys such protection. Indeed, it is anathema to any notion of democracy, freedom, justice, or fairness for a government to be so shielded from criticism and pressure to change its policies.

The controversy at Facebook over the word "Zionism" packs all of these concerns into it. As Rabbi Wise stated, "Facebook's hate speech policy prohibits attacks based on protected characteristics including race, nationality and sexual orientation. Political ideologies, like capitalism, socialism - or Zionism - are not protected. But if Facebook names 'Zionist' a proxy for 'Jew' or 'Israeli,' Zionism would become a de facto protected category, which would have far-reaching and dangerous ramifications for Palestinians and Jews."

As Rabbi Wise intimates, the question is much bigger than Facebook. But the social media platform carries so much weight in global public discourse that it cannot be ignored. 

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. He is the former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and former director of the US Office of B'Tselem.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.