Washington, DC – Palestinian rights advocates are denouncing a congressional resolution that equates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, calling it a “dangerous” measure that aims to curb free speech and distract from the war in Gaza.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed the measure on Tuesday in a 311-14 vote, with 92 Democratic members abstaining by voting “present”.
The symbolic resolution was framed as an effort to reject the “drastic rise of anti-Semitism in the United States and around the world”.
But it contained language saying that the House “clearly and firmly states that anti-Zionism is antisemitism”. It also condemned the slogan “From the River to the Sea”, which rights advocates understand to be an aspirational call for equality in historic Palestine.
Instead, the resolution described it as a “rallying cry for the eradication of the State of Israel and the Jewish people”. It also characterised demonstrators who gathered in Washington, DC, last month to demand a ceasefire as “rioters”. They “spewed hateful and vile language amplifying antisemitic themes”, the resolution alleges.
Husam Marajda, an organiser with the US Palestinian Community Network (USPCN), said the resolution is an effort to “cancel” Palestinian rights advocates by accusing them of bigotry and labelling their criticism of Israeli policies as hate speech.
“It’s super dangerous. It sets a really, really bad precedent. It’s aiming to criminalise our liberation struggle and our call for justice and peace and equality,” Marajda told Al Jazeera.
What is Zionism?
Zionism is a nationalist ideology that helped establish the state of Israel in 1948. It contends that the Jewish people have a right to self-determination in historic Palestine, which Zionists view as their ancestral homeland.
The rise of Zionism in the late 1800s was partly in response to anti-Semitism in Europe.
But many Palestinians reject Zionism as a driver of the settler colonialism that dispossessed them during the founding of Israel. Israel’s establishment coincided with the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were forcibly driven from their homes in what is known as the Nakba, the Arabic word for “catastrophe”.
While Palestinians view themselves as the native people of the land, Zionists say Jewish people have historic and biblical claims to what is today Israel.
Some hardline Zionists, including members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, argue that the present-day Palestinian territories — the West Bank and Gaza — also belong to Israel.
At a United Nations General Assembly speech in November, Netanyahu held up a map of Israel that showed the country stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, encompassing the West Bank, Gaza and Syria’s Golan Heights.
Some Palestinians also blame Zionism for Israeli abuses against them, which amount to apartheid, according to leading human rights groups like Amnesty International.
In the US, Palestinian rights supporters have long rejected conflations of Zionism with Judaism, noting that many Jewish Americans identify as anti-Zionist.
“Opposing the policies of the government of Israel and Netanyahu’s extremism is not antisemitic. Speaking up for human rights and a ceasefire to save lives should never be condemned,” Palestinian American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib said in a social media post on Tuesday, explaining her vote against the resolution.
Marajda stressed that Palestinians have a right to oppose Zionism, a position he said has nothing to do with prejudice.
“This resolution is saying that if you’re critical of this Israeli government, essentially you hate Jewish people,” he said. “I didn’t choose — the Palestinians didn’t choose — their occupiers.”
The resolution is one of several pro-Israel motions approved by Congress since October 7. Most US legislators have expressed unwavering support for Israel amid its offensive in Gaza, which has killed more than 16,000 Palestinians.
Yasmine Taeb, the legislative and political director at MPower Change, a Muslim American advocacy group, called the resolution “extremely dangerous”.
“It unequivocally equates any criticism of the Israeli government with anti-Semitism. Essentially it smears millions and millions of people demonstrating globally in support of a lasting ceasefire, including Jewish-American organisations,” Taeb told Al Jazeera.
The advocacy group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) was also quick to denounce the congressional measure.
“Falsely stating that anti-Zionism is antisemitism conflates all Jews with the Israeli state and endangers our communities. It fuels deadly violence and censorship campaigns against Palestinians,” JVP Action said in a social media post.
“We are proud anti-Zionists Jews. We refuse to pit communities against one another.”
All House Republicans but one — Congressman Thomas Massie — voted in favour of the resolution. But Democrats were split on the measure: 13 voted against it and 95 for it, on top of the 92 who abstained with a “present” vote.
Jerrold Nadler, a key Jewish House Democrat, had decried the resolution on Monday, noting that some Jewish communities oppose Zionism for religious reasons and should not be branded as anti-Semitic.
“While most anti-Zionism is indeed anti-Semitic, the authors, if they were at all familiar with Jewish history and culture, should know about Jewish anti-Zionism that was, and is, expressly not anti-Semitic,” he said.
Nadler accused Republicans of using support for Israel to advance “partisan wedging at the expense of the Jewish community”. Still, he did not vote against the resolution on Tuesday. He opted for “present”.
The vote highlighted the divisions among the Democrats over Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. While the party’s progressive wing has pressed for a ceasefire, President Joe Biden and the majority of congressional Democrats have avoided such calls.
But that could signal a disconnect from the party base. A Reuters/Ipsos poll in November indicated 62 percent of Democratic voters considered Israel’s response “excessive”. Two in three survey respondents backed a ceasefire.
Republicans, meanwhile, have led motions that critics say are designed to bring the Democratic schism to the fore. Last month, for instance, they moved to censure Congresswoman Tlaib, the only Palestinian in the House, over her comments on the Gaza war.
Conservatives have accused Democrats who vote against such measures of being anti-Israel, if not anti-Semitic.
That creates a political dilemma for Democratic lawmakers. If they support the bills, they risk upsetting large segments of their base, but if they oppose them, they open themselves to Republican attacks.
Taeb said the lawmakers who voted “present” did not want to go on the record as equating anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism, but at the same time, they wanted to be seen as countering anti-Semitism.
“It’s just politics,” she told Al Jazeera.
Tuesday’s resolution was co-sponsored by Congressman Max Miller, who has faced outrage in recent weeks for saying, “We’re going to turn [Palestine] into a parking lot.”
Taeb said the fact that lawmakers who have promoted anti-Palestinian hate are championing such resolutions shows that Tuesday’s measure is not about combating prejudice.
“The intent of these members is to smear and silence peace activists calling to end the massacre of Palestinian children and families.”