Prominent Voices Demonize Israel Regarding the Conflict

May 20, 2021

In response to the recent conflict in Israel and Gaza, as well as the tensions in Jerusalem that led up to the violence, there have been some prominent voices, including among NGOs and activists, who have engaged in problematic rhetoric about Israel.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always engendered strong passions and differences of opinion.  In a crisis, such differences are of course heightened.  And while exchanges of views - even harsh disagreements - are par for the course in civil debate,  rhetoric on Israel that goes beyond harsh criticism of its actions and policies to instead blame the entire entity of Israel and its guiding ideology of Zionism is not only biased but could have deeply dangerous and long-lasting repercussions.

While such expressions may not always cross the line into antisemitism, ​depending on the specifics, they enable an environment whereby ​hateful actions against Jews and supporters of Israel are accepted more freely, and where anti-Jewish tropes may be normalized.  We are already seeing too many examples of Jews and Jewish institutions being targeted in the guise of opposition to Israel.

Additionally, as the international community works to promote a ceasefire, and ultimately to create conditions whereby Israeli-Palestinian negotiations can resume, such problematic statements demonizing or delegitimizing the State of Israel, Zionism and Zionists may poison attitudes against the acceptance of a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian one.  

The following are some recent examples of rhetoric ADL has identified as crossing a line from legitimate criticism of Israel into delegitimization and demonization of the Jewish State or Zionism:

Demonizing Zionism

Like all other national self-determination movements, Zionism is the belief that Jews deserve a right to self-determination in the land where they have their historic roots. It does not preclude support for Palestinian statehood, Muslim-Jewish coexistence, or equal citizenship rights.  Many Jews of all political streams consider themselves to be Zionists and view a connection to Israel to be part of their Jewish identity.

However, one common form of objectionable rhetoric in response to the recent violence has been statements from critics of Israel who go so far as to demonize Zionism or its adherents, painting Israel or the Jewish people’s self-determination movement as uniquely and inherently evil.

Examples include:

  • Code Pink National Co-Director Ariel Gold tweeted that: “Israel is a war crime” as well as “Israel is a terror state.  Anyone who supports them is part of the problem.” 
  • Zahra Billoo, the Executive Director of CAIR’s San Francisco office, posted that “Zionism is not complicated, it thrives on state sanctioned violence and war crimes, and is inherently evil.” 
  • Mitchell Plitnick, co-author of a book entitled Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics, posted the following tweet, demonizing the State of Israel as a whole: “#Israel, a light unto the nations.  Sort of like the Eye of Sauron.”
  • The Palestinian advocacy organization Adalah Justice Project posted on Twitter that “the violence won’t stop until Zionism is destroyed.” 
  • The Muslim American advocacy group led by Linda Sarsour MPower Change posted that “Zionism and Islamophobia are inextricable from each other.”
  • Anti-Israel activist Max Blumenthal tweeted that “Israel's army is targeting civilians simply to satiate the bloodlust of its frustrated colonial population”
  • The grassroots U.S. Palestinian Community Network posted on Facebook that “Calling for the death of Arabs is the very nature of Israel, Zionists, and white supremacy.”

Accusing Israel of “Attacking al-Aqsa”

A major turning point in the recent escalation took place on Friday, May 7th when clashes between Palestinian rioters and Israeli police on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount / Noble Sanctuary led to hundreds of injuries, mostly on the Palestinian side.  Much of the subsequent outrage focused on videos during that confrontation showing Israeli forces firing stun grenades into the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, on the last Friday evening of Ramadan.

Regardless of where one apportions blame for that incident, such images are deeply distressing.  It is also understandable that many have criticized this controversial act by Israeli police.

Yet Israeli police stated that hundreds of rioters had been “throwing stones, various objects and firing fireworks at police forces near one of the Temple Mount gates” before Israeli forces entered compound, and that rioters had barricaded themselves in the al-Aqsa Mosque.  In spite of this, many of Israel’s critics did not engage with such information at all, instead simply presuming that the incident was a premeditated, malicious, and completely unprovoked attack targeting peaceful worshippers.

Examples include:

  • Progressive group called it “cruelty inflicted upon Palestinians” at the mosque, “us[ing] stun grenades, rubber-coated steel bullets, and tear gas on worshippers in one of the holiest Muslim sites during Ramadan.” 
  • Arwa Ibrahim of Al Jazeera English portrayed video footage as “Absolutely horrendous scenes from inside Al-Aqsa Mosque compound where Israeli forces attacked peaceful worshippers holding night prayers”. 
  • Australian journalist C. J. Werleman called it “Israel’s war on Palestinian worshippers at al Aqsa mosque.” 
  • Electronic Intifada co-founder Ali Abunimah characterized the incident as “unprovoked Israeli brutality against worshippers at al-Aqsa.” He also engaged in Holocaust minimization in relation to the recent crisis, tweeting “I’m going to go there: By the standards they consistently apply to Palestinians, Western media would call the Holocaust “German-Jewish clashes.”

Justifying Real Terrorism, Rejecting Israel’s Self-Defense

Another category of problematic rhetoric during the conflict has focused in particular on the issue of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza in response to rockets fired at Israeli population centers.  While many observers appropriately note Israel’s right to self-defense against terrorism, some have instead used language justifying the rockets fired by the U.S.-designated terrorist organizations Hamas and Palestinians Islamic Jihad targeting Israeli cities and towns, or seem to reject entirely any Israeli right to launch strikes against the terrorist operatives who are firing those missiles.

Examples include:

  • Australian journalist C. J. Werleman wrote in TRT World that “the seven most morally corruptible words in the lexicon of the US Government are “Israel has a right to self-defence’,” in an article arguing in binary terms that “it’s the Palestinians who have the right to self-defence in the context of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and it’s Israel that does not.”
  • Electric Intifada Associate Editor Nora Barrows-Friedman tweeted that “Palestinian armed resistance factions have the right and the justification to resist Israeli settler-colonial violence, by any means necessary.”
  • Electronic Intifada co-founder Ali Abunimah welcomed that terrorist rockets shut down Israel’s main airport as follows: “Apartheid regime forced to shut down its airport as Palestinian defense forces respond to its terror campaign.”
  • Anti-Israel photojournalist Dan Cohen characterized the objective of Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza as follows: “The strategic elimination of Gaza’s skyline, which began on the final night of the 2014 slaughter, is a direct attack on the professional class with a clear goal of making every last prisoner trapped inside destitute.”
  • Palestinian writer Mohammed el-Kurd tweeted about “the myth of Israeli ‘self-defense’”.  He also tweeted a post in Arabic that translates to “May God burn the colonialists!!!!!!!!”
  • Code Pink National Co-Director Ariel Gold tweeted “Israel's attack on Gaza is terrorism. Full stop,” and “Israel is targeting civilians. Full Stop.”
  • Code Pink cofounder Medea Benjamin tweeted ”You know why Hamas uses unguided rockets and Israel uses precision missiles? Because Hamas doesn’t have precision missiles.”
  • Lamis Deek, a reported co-founder of the Palestinian rights group al-Awda, tweeted that “Palestinian children are DAILY abducted and tortured by zionist forces and home invaders Right NOW zionist colonzing [sic] forces murdered a number of Palestinian children in Gaza Rallies and BDS wont deter zionist violence AT THIS MOMENT only Palestinian armed interventions will”.

Statements rejecting Israel’s statehood

Some rhetoric in response to the recent crisis has involved outright delegitimization of Israel as a state. 

Examples include:

  • As tensions were rising in Jerusalem on May 7th, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gave a speech calling for fighting Israel to bring about its destruction,n excerpts of which were then posted to his accounts on Twitter, including his assertion that “Israel isn’t a country; it’s a #TerroristCamp against Palestinians & other Muslim nations.”
  • Protesters outside of the State Department included a sign supporting the anti-Zionist Jewish sect Neturei Karta and proclaiming that “State of ‘Israel’ does not represent world Jewry”
  • Electronic Intifada co-founder Ali Abunimah posted tweets calling Israel “a criminal regime” and “enemy occupier,” as well as proclaiming that “A police car appears to be on fire in Lydda, a Palestinian city in “Israel,” the part of Palestine occupied by Zionist forces in 1948.”
  • The socialist magazine Jacobin published an article on its website stating in its title that “Israel Doesn’t Have a “Right to Exist”.”