When Criticism of Israel Becomes Anti-Semitism

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by: Jonathan Greenblatt | November 28, 2017

The Forward

At the Anti-Defamation League, we have spent more than 100 years fighting anti-Semitism, often referred to as the world’s oldest hatred. And we have labored to distinguish between a more modern phenomenon –- when criticism of Israel can be considered legitimate political conversation and when it crosses the line into insidious anti-Semitism.

We feel obligated to revisit the subject in light of a new book, “On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice,” published by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). It has been accompanied by a nationwide “tour” of JVP members who are trying to publicize it. After reading the “book,” we want to address one of its core claims: anti-Semitism can never be linked to criticism of Israel.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The Jewish people suffered serial tragedies over two thousand years of exile, a history that culminated in the genocidal catastrophe of the Holocaust. And yet today, we feel gratitude to have power in the form of the modern state of Israel. Indeed, for the first time in millennia, there is a sovereign and democratic Jewish state thriving in our ancestral homeland. It is a nation capable of defending its citizens, and when needed, the Jewish people.

As a result of this newfound status, Israel should be expected to exercise its power responsibly. By the same token, as a vibrant democracy and a member of the family of nations, Israel knows that it regularly will receive criticism about its policies whether originating from inside or outside the country. And, despite the lamentations of its many detractors, arguably no country on the planet is more hotly debated or more frequently criticized than the Jewish state.

We hear and read the criticisms in many arenas. It happens on college campuses, op-ed pages, talk radio, cable news, social media, and multilateral forums. Indeed, our organization and many other Jewish groups have been known to criticize particular policies of various Israeli governments over the decades, sometimes drawing the ire of some Israeli elected officials and our compatriots in the US.

Thus, we know firsthand that it is absurd to suggest that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism.

On the other side of the coin, however, it is equally absurd to suggest that criticism of Israel can never qualify as anti-Semitism. And alarm bells go off when we hear this baseless claim, because it belies the facts that we see every day.

To start, it is necessary to understand that anti-Semitism, historically, takes many forms. There is the openly racist anti-Semitism that often originates on the extreme right among those who perceive Jews as inherently evil and subhuman. There is religious anti-Semitism that focuses on claims that Jews are responsible for forsaking prophets or for “killing Christ.” And then there is conspiratorial anti-Semitism that singles out Jews for perceived offenses such as controlling global financial markets or otherwise bearing a unique responsibility for all evil in the world.

Groups like JVP attempt to deny there is any anti-Semitism connected to critiques of Israel. They do so by describing anti-Semitism only in racial terms. And so the argument goes, “We are not racists – we don’t hate Jews – therefore we can’t be anti-Semitic.”

This is nonsense. You can dress it up as political theory, but when an ideology is obsessed with denying one group of people the rights that are offered to all others around the world, that is intolerance, plain and simple.

More specifically, when only the Jewish people are denied the right to self-determination in their historic land; when a complex Middle East conflict is evaluated only through the lens of a “blame Israel” approach; when often all the problems of the region and even the world are attributed to the Jewish state; these assertions are case studies of anti-Semitism, even if the perpetrators attempt to wrap their intolerance in the guise of fighting systemic racism or seeking social justice.

To be certain, there is nothing wrong with criticizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and demanding more from the government. As a proud Zionist, I believe that Israel can and should strive for peace and it should work to ensure justice and fairness prevails for all of its own citizens. But it is quite another thing when the very existence of the Jewish state is called an act of racism, especially considering it is among the most racially diverse and ethnically pluralistic societies in the region.

But in all honesty, JVP’s claims are nothing new. It can clothe its baseless claims in faux-progressivism and try to tap widespread discontent with our current political climate. But in reality we have seen this type of “political anti-Semitism” in the recent past.

In 1975, it reared its head when, led by the Soviet Union, the United Nations passed the infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution. This lie about the Jewish state was clearly anti-Semitic in its underlying concept and in its implementation. It purported that Zionism, the ideology of the Jewish people’s return to their historic home, was evil. It took decades to right this wrong.

In 2001, it reemerged in Durban, South Africa at the U.N. World Conference Against Racism where a conference intended to address serious human rights issues was hijacked by anti-Israel forces. At a meeting that could have focused on congenital human rights violators such as Iran, Iraq, North Korea and many others, somehow Israel was the only country singled out despite its vibrant democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights.

Those who claim to stand in opposition to all forms of bigotry but still demean and question the legitimacy of the Jewish homeland should own up to their own prejudices. Such clarity would be a welcome departure from the dress-up that so often hides anti-Semitism in our current environment.

At the ADL, we have no time for such games. We will not tolerate anti-Semitism dressed up as a foreign policy critique even when it comes from people – Jewish or not – who claim to be our allies. Instead, we will continue to advocate against anti-Semitism in all forms and we will fight to achieve the hate-free world that our children deserve.