‘My Jewish friends aren’t standing with Israel’: Phoebe Maltz Bovy on the convenient symbolism of the anti-Zionist Jew

Last week, a TikTok account made the rounds, featuring, as it does, an attractive young woman saying something many found, well, attractive.

Katie, or @sexualityscholar, may not know squat about the history of the founding of the state of Israel, but she has strong feelings and identifies as clever. She is also—this is key to the messaging—Jewish, so if she is convinced Israel’s always in the wrong, then antisemitism and anti-Zionism sit in two neat, non-overlapping piles.

I keep seeing the same argument unfold, a back-and-forth where someone will point to a mass pro-Palestinian protest in London (say) and ask how Jews possibly have a future in that country, and someone else will retort that actually, Jews are among the protesters. Which, look, I’m sure they are! There were Jews protesting Israeli military actions inside United States government buildings, as well as some highly visibly Jewish Orthodox sects with anti-Zionism stances, whose visual juxtaposition of Hasidic garb and Palestinian flags allows onlookers to say, Aha, nothing about being Jewish implies supporting Israel, look at these really Jewy ones right here!

For what it’s worth, I don’t think anti-Zionist Jews are not real Jews, whatever that would mean. Nor am I dividing Jews into categories of good and bad, because who cares, and because internal divisions are such that every Jew—goodness knows myself included—is some other Jew’s idea of bad. It seems a silly thing to call other Jews, and an irritating one to claim of oneself. (Remember that calling oneself a “bad Jew” is a way of earnestly objecting to exclusion from the Jewish community and of reassuring non-Jews—aka most of the planet—that you’re not like those other Jews.)

My anecdotal hunch is that anti-Zionist Jews tend to come from intensely pro-Israel backgrounds where they are the odd ones out, and that as such, they maybe lack exposure to what anti-Israel advocacy looks like outside of a Jewish context—that is, the extent to which non-Jews have been known to use ‘Zionist’ not as Likudnik but as a politically acceptable code for ‘Jew.’

But even if I think they may be missing something about the big picture, and arriving at political stands that are not in what I would see as their best interests, I tend to think they mean well, and that they’re not motivated by the hopes that they’ll be viewed as the ‘good’ Jews, aka the exceptions. I think, by and large, they see the devastation in Gaza and are outraged.

What I’m talking about is something that happens independently of their own motivations.

Explicitly anti-Zionist Jews get brought up all the time in non-Jewish settings, but are the exception to the rule. Jews who object not to specific things Israel does or has done, but to the very existence of a Jewish state where there is one, whatever its borders? This is like five people, albeit five people who post a lot. It’s clear enough that some of the Jews who are protesting Israel’s current actions in Gaza are, by some definitions, Zionists. (Are the ones protesting in Israel all opposed to their own country’s very existence?)

But boy do (some) people love anti-Zionist Jews, love to bring them up as definitive proof that nothing is antisemitic as long as it can be tangentially connected to the country.

What I keep returning to is how distressingly little it matters what Jews, of any political bent, think about, well, any of this.

Let us Jews argue amongst ourselves, as is our wont. Forces far bigger than our meagre numbers have already decided that Jew equals Zionist, and that it’s all legitimate protest. A Jewish restaurant in Toronto, Jewish university students in New York State, all sites of protest (‘protest’) these days. A British department store in Glasgow that had a Jewish co-founder in the 19th century? Sure why not treat it like the Israeli embassy? Why even insist—and here I am, insisting!—that this constitutes dictionary-definition-level antisemitism, when the antisemites going around insisting that nothing whatsoever meets the bar for antisemitism truly do not care.

Maybe somewhere, there’s a Jewish person who believes Marks & Spencer is a West Bank settlement. I bet, if there is such a person, they look totes adorbs explaining as much on TikTok.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on the website formerly known as Twitter. She also holds forth on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.