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Scrolling through images of the white nationalists who overran the US Capitol last month, I was horrified, if not entirely surprised, to see so much flagrant Nazi paraphenelia. One man wore a sweatshirt reading “Camp Auschwitz”; another wore a T-shirt printed with the slogan 6MWE, which stands for “6 million wasn’t enough”, referring to the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. There’s no denying Trump’s presidency stoked a profound resurgence of antisemitism in this country. Even with a new administration in Washington, antisemitism remains a real and growing threat in America, and the world.
A broad coalition of progressive organizations, activists, and faith communities are working to dismantle antisemitism along with all other forms of racism and oppression. I was incredibly moved by the Muslim communities that lovingly guarded synagogues in a circle of protection and raised money to repair vandalized Jewish cemeteries. I’m heartened by those who do the work of rejecting racist politicians who rely on division and fear for their political power. Over and over, it’s been made clear: we are not alone in this struggle.
But not everyone claiming to work against antisemitism has Jewish safety at heart.
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 antisemitism. 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. And Facebook might take the bait.
In response to pressure from the Israeli government and its supporters, Facebook is currently reaching out to stakeholders to ask if criticizing Zionists falls within the rubric of hate speech per Facebook’s community standards. In particular, Facebook is weighing whether “Zionist” should be considered a proxy for “Jew” or “Israeli”.
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.
Under this policy, valid attempts to hold the state of Israel accountable through constitutionally protected political speech could be labeled as hate speech and removed from the platform. Palestinians would be prevented from using Facebook like everyone else – to talk about their daily experiences, histories and lives – because their realities are shaped by Zionist apartheid policy. This policy would censor Palestinian speech, discriminate against Palestinians as a class, and silence nuanced conversation about Zionism.
The discriminatory implications for Palestinians are more than reason enough to reject this policy. But there’s another important reason to denounce it. To conflate Zionism with all Jews – many of whom are anti-Zionists struggling alongside Palestinians for their freedom and equality – is itself a harmful assumption. It is premised on the antisemitic notion that Jews are uniform in our beliefs and political commitments. Even worse, it suggests that all Jews, in America and elsewhere around the world, are fundamentally loyal to a foreign government, and that the “real” home for all Jews is Israel – playing into the vile notion that we are unable to fully become part of the societies we inhabit, that we do not truly belong in our home countries and communities.
This troubling move by Facebook is part of a much larger trend. The tech giant’s definition of antisemitism takes cues from the working definition formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which conflates antisemitism with all forms of anti-Zionism, including boycott and divestment campaigns in support of Palestinian freedom and human rights. While Facebook claims that its current policy is narrower in scope than IHRA, its COO, Sheryl Sandberg, is on record with Adam Milstein – a leading proponent of IHRA and rightwing donor who is so extreme, even Aipac distanced itself from him – saying that IHRA has guided Facebook’s approach, and that their policy indeed goes “even further than the IHRA definition”.
Any definition of antisemitism that includes anti-Zionism would threaten scholarly inquiry, constitutionally protected political speech, and the ability of non-profits to support projects in and for Palestine, as many human rights defenders, free speech advocates, and academics have publicly stated. This danger isn’t theoretical – the IHRA definition has already been wielded in attempts to shut down educational events and cancel university classes. Legislators have attempted to codify it into law; a few have attempted to attach criminal penalties to the simple act of speaking out against Israeli apartheid. This definition is becoming a favorite among Christian Zionists, including the former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who believe that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land will hasten the second coming of Christ, at which point Jews must convert to Christianity or die. There’s hardly a more antisemitic idea than that, and it’s shared by at least 10 million Christian Zionists in the US.
It’s imperative that we dismantle antisemitism in all its manifestations, but conflating Zionism with the Jewish people only entrenches it. Facebook should not allow governments to blur the lines between hate speech and political speech, and it must prioritize revisiting existing policies that disproportionately censor Palestinians and other marginalized voices posting about their experiences of racism and state violence. We must all be able to talk about our lives and the issues that are most important to us, while never losing sight of the fact that Palestinians and Jews deserve safety wherever we are.
Rabbi Alissa Wise is deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace and a contributor to On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice