A woman holds a Palestinian flag during a demonstration.

The Problem with Equating Anti-Zionism with Antisemitism

Fatima Mousa Mohammed reminded her classmates of their social responsibility post-graduation during her City University of New York School of Law commencement speech last month. She encouraged them to use their degrees to “protect our communities,” “protect the organizers fighting endlessly, day in and out, with no accolades, no cameras, no votes, [and] no PhD grants,” and to “confront the systems of oppression that wreak violence on them.” She narrated her family’s experience as Yemeni American immigrants, encouraged CUNY to uphold its mission of promoting “law in the service of human need,” and called for the CUNY School of Law Class of 2023 to “fight against capitalism, racism, imperialism, and Zionism around the world” (CUNY/YouTube). 


Take action to support the #WeStandWithFatima campaign.

• Support Within Our LifetimePalestine Legal, and the Palestinian Youth Movement

In the following days, Mohammed’s words became famous nationwide—not for the clarity of her political and moral vision but because of an astonishing claim that she is a bigot. Per her critics, opposing Zionism and “Israeli settler colonialism” meant she hated Jewish people. She was denounced by the New York Post, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, and Senator Ted Cruz (NY Times). Republican House members introduced a bill that would defund schools that “authorize Anti-Semitic events” (The Intercept). The CUNY Board of Trustees called her remarks “hate speech.” The Nation, a progressive magazine, published an editorial claiming that Mohammed’s speech used “imagery straight out of 4chan—or The Protocols of Elders of Zion,” an infamous antisemitic forgery (The Nation). 

There has been a surge of antisemitic attacks against Jewish people in the United States. In May, a Massachusetts middle school teacher resigned after repeated antisemitic harassment by a sixth grader (The Berkshire Eagle). Last year, an Arizona professor was murdered by a former student who believed him to be Jewish (12 News). One quarter of Jewish people in the United States experienced an antisemitic incident in 2022 (AJC). Antisemitism—the hatred of or discrimination against Jewish people—is a rising danger in the modern U.S. that must be vigorously confronted. 

Fatima Mousa Mohammed was slandered as an antisemite because she criticized the state of Israel and Zionism, the political ideology in favor of Israel as an explicitly Jewish nation. But criticism of Israel is not the same as hating Jewish people, and anti-Zionism and antisemitism are not the same. Zionism is used to justify the disenfranchisement and oppression of non-Jewish people in the territory claimed by Israel, starting with the armed expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians during the Nakba in 1948 (Al Jazeera). On June 21, 2023, Israeli settlers “rampaged” through towns in the illegally-occupied West Bank (Reuters) as soldiers looked on. Instead of trying to calm tensions, Israel’s far-right National Security Minister told parliament, “We need a military operation, we need to flatten buildings, we need targeted killings” (Reuters). 

As the CUNY Law Jewish Law Students Association said in a statement:

Our condemnation of zionism is based on outrage at the way it has harmed and continues to harm Palestinians, not, as external zionist organizations would have people believe, on antisemitism. As long as zionism has existed, there have been Jewish people fighting against its racist and imperialist logic– to equate anti-zionism with antisemitism is to erase the history of Jewish anti-zionism, throughout the world and at CUNY Law (Within Our Lifetime). 

Some commentators suggest that any criticism of Israel is antisemitic because it’s the only Jewish state. Saudi Arabia is the only nation with the two holiest cities in Islam, but that doesn’t mean that criticizing the Saudi regime is inherently Islamophobic. Criticism of Saudi policies can certainly play into Islamophobic tropes, just like criticism of Israel can use antisemitic narratives. But silencing criticism of Israel by claiming that anti-Zionism and antisemitism are identical is unacceptable. 

According to Human Rights Watch: 

Across two governments, each in power for roughly half of 2021, Israeli authorities doubled down on policies to repress Palestinians and privilege Jewish Israelis. The government’s policy of maintaining the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), coupled with the particularly severe repression against Palestinians living in the OPT, amounts to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution (HRW).

The unacceptable conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism means ignoring these crimes against humanity. The Biden administration recently joined 31 U.S. states in adopting a definition of antisemitism that includes anti-Zionist critiques of Israel. It is the “culmination of lobbying efforts to instrumentalize and accelerate the use of false accusations in order to censor protected speech, to target any sort of viewpoint that is critical of Israel, and to chill one side of an important political debate by saying that anyone who supports Palestinian rights is antisemitic,” says Palestine Legal’s Lina Assi (The Intercept). Fighting these efforts and speaking out in support of those standing in solidarity with oppressed communities here and abroad is imperative. 


• A law graduate was attacked by national politicians and progressive journalists for criticizing Israel in her commencement speech. 

• Criticizing Israel is not the same as hatred of Jewish people. 

• We must fight antisemitism while also supporting Palestinian rights and free speech. 

2400 1600 Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

All stories by : Andrew Lee
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