Zionists in… the room with you right now? Phoebe Maltz Bovy on a new wave of blacklists targeting creative professionals who stand with Israel

In 2011 or thereabouts, I was chatting with some people from various countries about, for some reason, the actress Natalie Portman. Someone said something positive about her (I think it was that she looks like Natalie Portman, not her only strength but not not among her finer qualities), and someone else, a British woman, marginalized on a couple different axes (but no, not Arab or Muslim) and definitively of the left, countered that Portman is “a Zionist.”

At the time, I was unnerved (I was a doctoral student researching French antisemitism, not a random American Jew without context for this) but also caught off-guard. Wasn’t Portman just… Israeli? Since when was a nationality an -ism?

What did “Zionist” mean in this woman’s mind, such that this was a counterpoint to her being an alluring individual?

Well, it’s 2024 now, and sniffing out Zionists is no longer some niche European hobby, but rather a delightful new way to channel the energies that sniffed out racists in 2020 and sexists in 2017 and transphobes I guess whenever the sexism or racism news cycles wane and allow for a side plot. It’s all about “Zionists” now. And not just where Eurovision’s concerned.

It’s very now to call out pro-Israel individuals who claim to support free speech and ask them why they don’t think the encampment protesters should have infinite carte blanche. But if you took from this that the pro-Palestinian side of things is all-in in favour of free expression, it is possible you’d be missing a bigger picture. One in which quite possibly no one who’s a committed activist is putting the right of people they disagree with to speak at the front-and-centre, which is, after all, a bit much to ask.

The lists have a way of being inadvertently hilarious, offering did you know about celebrities who are famously Jewish and Israeli. Did you know that Gal Gadot is not plastering Tel Aviv with “from the river to the sea” flyers? I for one am stunned.

But the big’un is the Zionist author spreadsheet. Someone going by amina, @moyurireads, on X, who has since (predictably) locked their account, decided to grace the social media platform with a crowdsourced collaborative document, “is your fav author a zionist?”

The whole thing was bait for commentary, and has already even been commented on by the publication that happens to be called Commentary. Who is all-lowercase amina? Who knows! Not someone currently in possession of any platform I am aware of. But documents like these take on lives of their own. Remember the “Shitty Media Men” list at the peak of #MeToo? Moira Donegan, its reluctantly revealed creator, proceeded to make a media career for herself. We may be hearing more from amina yet.

In any case, the document is… something else. It’s colour-coded, like Covid risk or perhaps in imitation of a beautiful rainbow. Red means stop. Blue means go. Anything in between means touched by the filth of Zionism to one degree or another.

Much of the “Zionism” unearthed by the intrepid amina and company involves people, Jews but not only, having sad feelings in the immediate “aftermath of oct 7.”

The main takeaway I had from the list is that the literary establishment, as curated by this doubtless scientific crowdsourced whatever-it-is, is almost impeccably pro-Palestinian. The chances are high that your fave is not a Zionist—something that more pro-Israel members of the literary world (see the recent Bonjour Chai with Erika Dreifus) will not find surprising.

Some people look at these lists are and conclude, not unreasonably, that this is about Jews. That “Zionists” is but a euphemism.

To which the list creators can be like, nope, and point to the five Jews on the side of Good, and to the rather more than five non-Jews who had a sad feeling on Oct. 8.

Where there is activism, there is internal drama. And so amina got pushback not just from the usual suspects (aka people, including yours truly, who don’t want Jews dead), but also from at least one person who had been fighting the good fight for Palestine, only to be one-upped by some keyboard warrior.

I suppose I’m less bothered about the abstract question of whether the people making avoid-a-Jew lists on the internet are raving antisemites (they are, and I have little new to add on this) and more stuck on what this means about the future of the culture.

Think, for a moment, about the role Jews have played in arts and entertainment. Not in a sinister sense but in a cultural-contributions one. (It is, after all, Jewish Heritage Month.) The beautiful hybrid creations of Jewish sensibilities and the mainstream cultures of (among others!) the English-speaking world. I guess that is now headed for the toilet. In the creeping death of the Enlightenment, I guess Seinfeld would have to be the first casualty.

For more original Jewish culture commentary from Phoebe Maltz Bovy subscribe to the free Bonjour Chai newsletter on Substack.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on X. She is also on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.