Speaking before the World Jewish Congress in New York April 23, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated: "A modern form of anti-Semitism is the denial of the right of the State of Israel to exist. As secretary-general of the United Nations, I can say that the State of Israel needs to be treated as any other state, with exactly the same rules." He said this "does not mean I will always be in agreement with all the decisions made by any government position taken by any government that sits in Israel," but that he supports "the absolutely undeniable right of Israel to exist and to live in peace and security with its neighbors."
Guterres, speaking on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, also called the Holocaust "the most heinous crime in the history of mankind." His comments were of course enthusiastically reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Now, we acknowledge that there is lots of ugly, unhelpful rejectionist talk out there…. But Guterres' comments are deeply counterproductive. However much actual anti-Semites may hide behind anti-Zionism, it does not change the fact they remain distinct categories. There are many anti-Zionist or post-Zionist Jews who do not think Israel should "exist" as currently constituted, i.e. as a Jewish state. They are not anti-Semites, and they should not be written out of existence by the head of the United Nations.
And this is not merely a problem of the illegal occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza. As we've stated before: The unacknowledged fact is that Israel has been building apartheid both sides of the Green Line. Apartheid is inherent to the very architecture of the settlement infrastructure on the West Bank, complete with apartheid garbage dumps, while East Jerusalem now has apartheid parking lots. But within Israel, Jews are officially and institutionally favored over the Arabs who constitute some 20% of the population in terms of access to land, housing and employment.
The pending Negev development plan foresees apartheid housing developments, effected through forcible transfer of the local Bedouin population. Place names are being "Judaized" to erase the Arab past in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The demand that the Palestinian leadership officially recognize Israel as a "Jewish state" is mirrored in proposals by the ruling coalition to officially make Israel "Jewish first" and democratic second, and to change the Citizenship Law mandating fealty to a "Jewish state." The existing Citizenship Law already has apartheid elements where marriage rights are concerned, with new provisions being pushed for citizenship revocation of perceived disloyal elements. As with the original South African apartheid, there are criminal penalties for dissent against this system.
One can oppose all this without being an anti-Semite. Indeed, one must. And it means rejecting the idea of Israel as a "Jewish state," and supporting its transformation into a secular state wth equal rights for all its citizens—with no "first class" and "second class" citizenship. Or, eventually, a No State Solution: a decentralized Middle East federation of autonomous communities bound by principles of voluntary association.
And while Guterres also advocated establishment of a Palestinian state in his comments, he seems not have thought through the contradictions of his position. Israel is not playing by "exactly the same rules" as the rest of the world. It is defying the World Court and numerous UN resolutions. (And the fact that plenty of other regimes around the world, from the United States to Sudan, have similarly defied the UN and international justice does not let Israel off the hook.) This defiance is related to Israel's growing intransigence on allowing or recognizing a Palestinian state
There was similar confusion at the UN hearings on anti-Semitism two years ago. The air very badly needs to be cleared on this question. We recommend that Guterres spend some time reviewing the websites of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, the One Democratic State Group, Jewish Voice for Peace, and (of course) New Jewish Resistance.
And finally, Guterres' requisite reference to the Holocaust as "the most heinous crime in the history of mankind." Establishing a hierarchy of the heinous is beyond a waste of time—it is pathological. History provides no shortage of crimes that rival the Holocaust—from the extermination of indigenous peoples in the Americas and in Africa, to the Middle Passage to the Armenian genocide to the Holodomor to the Porajmos. Portraying the extermination of the European Jews as uniquely or surpassingly heinous only plays into the hands of the denialists and revisionists. It certainly does nothing to build solidarity between Jews and survivors and victims of other genocides.
And despite Israel's own official denialism, the Palestinian Nakba certainly ranks as heinous, even if it stopped short of the "genocidal threshold." And this is a particularly critical point as Israel shows signs again of approaching such as threshold.
It is very late in the day for the UN secretary-general to be perpetrating such political and intellectual errors. It is especially up to progressive Jews around the world to correct His Excellency Guterres.