Anti-Semitism: the origins of the shift in vocabulary from “Jewish” to “Zionist”

In the context of intense polarization linked to events in the Gaza Strip and in Israel, public debate is seeing the resurgence of slogans or statements maintaining, voluntarily or not, the confusion between "anti-Zionism" and "anti-Semitism"

Anti-Semitism: the origins of the shift in vocabulary from “Jewish” to “Zionist”

In the context of intense polarization linked to events in the Gaza Strip and in Israel, public debate is seeing the resurgence of slogans or statements maintaining, voluntarily or not, the confusion between "anti-Zionism" and "anti-Semitism". Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, for example, accused, on October 8, part of the left-wing opposition of being “anti-Zionist,” adding that it is “also a way of masking anti-Semitism.” Yet the terms “Judaism” and “Zionism” are not interchangeable.

Racism on one side, doctrinal opposition on the other

To summarize broadly, anti-Semitism is, in the words of journalist and historian Dominique Vidal, “hatred of Jews, which is expressed in very diverse forms.” A form of racism therefore, towards a religion and not an ethnic group.

Anti-Zionism, on the other hand, is, again according to Dominique Vidal, “the criticism of a political thought, that of Theodor Herzl”, inventor of the concept at the end of the 19th century, which aims to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. It may then be a question of criticizing the policy pursued by the State of Israel and its territorial expansion, or of considering the very existence of the country or its borders as questionable or illegitimate.

Racism on one side, doctrinal opposition on the other, therefore. But the two terms tend more and more to be linked. In July 2017, Emmanuel Macron said: “We will not give in to anti-Zionism, because it is the reinvented form of anti-Semitism,” during the commemoration of the Vél d’Hiv’ roundup.

On the origin of the slide

The old French anti-Semitic current, of Christian origin – “the Jews killed Christ” – has existed since the Middle Ages and continued in 19th and 20th century France. The figure of the "stateless" Jew, a cynical financier and hell-bent on destroying peoples, found throughout the iconography of the early 20th century, was less visible after the Second World War and the Shoah, without completely disappearing from mentalities. .

In addition, adds Dominique Vidal, this current has “mixed with anti-Semitism which had cultural or religious origins linked to Islam”.

The Zionist movement is also linked to anti-Semitism at the end of the 19th century. Faced with persecution, the idea is to find a home for the Jewish people. It was theorized in 1897 by Theodor Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian journalist. He would later say that the Dreyfus affair motivated his commitment, since even in a state of law like France, where Jews are not discriminated against, "they do not manage to assimilate", and this is the source of his theory, explains Dominique Vidal. The movement resulted in the creation of a “Jewish national home,” Israel, in 1948.

Anti-Semitism, related to racism, is punishable by law. But anti-Zionism, as criticism of a political project, is not. Hence an increasingly widespread use of the term “anti-Zionism” to actually speak of anti-Semitism, or even “Zionist” for “Jew”.

The role of Dieudonné and Soral

In this semantic shift, there were “two driving people”, according to Mr. Vidal: Dieudonné and Alain Soral. Two personalities who come from the left and have moved to the far right: the first is very close to Jean-Marie Le Pen, the second was a member of the central committee of the National Front until 2009.

Both ended up being prosecuted for their anti-Semitic remarks, prohibited by law (like any call to hatred against a religious group or a minority). Alain Soral was sentenced to prison for invoking racial hatred. The promoters of this discourse have adapted: “They are not idiots, they have taken care to no longer use the word “Jew” but “Zionist” to complicate prosecutions,” adds Mr. Vidal.

This shift is illustrated by an intervention by Dieudonné on the Iranian channel Sahar in September 2011, in which he declared that “Zionism [had] killed Christ.” In this extract, the adaptation process is crude: the designation “Zionist” is put in place of that of “Jew”, to recall an old refrain of anti-Semitism, making the Jews – the “deicide people” – guilty of the death of Jesus. Let us remember that the Zionism invoked here dates back some nineteen centuries to the death of Jesus.

“Dieudonné and Alain Soral have promoted this discourse [maintaining the confusion between Zionism and Judaism] among the general public for around fifteen years,” adds lawyer Sacha Ghozlan, president of the Union of Jewish Students of France (UEJF). [he left this position in 2019, after this article was first published]. “So much so that when I intervene in classes as part of the Coexist program [created by the UEJF, SOS-Racisme and La Fabrique], the students fall into this confusion,” adds Mr. Ghozlan.

Does replacing “Jew” with “Zionist” protect against prosecution? No, he answers. “We have obtained convictions” for insults containing not the word “Jew” but “Zionist,” when “it is clear to the courts that one word is being used for another,” he says.

A “confusion” that persists

In March 2018, during the blockades at the University of Paris-I Panthéon-Sorbonne, the UEJF premises on the Tolbiac site were damaged. On the walls, we could read, among other things, “racist anti-Jewish Zionist premises,” recalls Mr. Ghozlan: “It was the Jewish student premises that was ransacked, not the student premises Israelis. »

Similarly, following the Hamas attacks of October 7, 2023 and the Israeli military response in Gaza, the Ministry of the Interior recorded more than 800 anti-Semitic acts as of October 30. The current president of the UEJF, Samuel Lejoyeux, deplores the quantity of anti-Semitic acts and specifies that even if "there are no very serious cases of violent aggression, all these tags and these insults contribute to the fear of the Jewish community.”

However, and this is what creates confusion, political anti-Zionism, that which relates strictly to the State of Israel, must not be threatened: "We must be able to continue to criticize the policy of State of Israel", tempers the Paris deputy Sylvain Maillard (Renaissance), former president of the study group on anti-Semitism of the National Assembly [since the first publication of this article, he has become its secretary].