Anti-Zionism and antisemitism

When is Criticism of Israel Antisemitism?

By Vic Rosenthal (2007)

We often hear things like this: “It’s impossible to criticize Israel without being accused of antisemitism”. Of course this is not true, and those who say it often blur the real distinction between criticism of policy, denial of legitimacy, and demonization.

Let’s distinguish between the following:

1) Criticism of Israel: the belief that some policies of the Jewish state are wrong or even reprehensible. For example, the statements that Israel is deliberately dragging its feet on elimination of ‘illegal outposts’, or that the reduction of fuel deliveries to Gaza constitutes ‘collective punishment’. Criticism may be unfriendly, but it is obviously not antisemitic. Indeed, even many Zionists are quite critical of Israeli policies.

2) Anti-Zionism: the belief that the Jewish state is illegitimate, and should not have been created (it is colonialist, the land really belongs to the Arabs, etc.). Belligerent Arab states and Palestinians are anti-Zionist; while this position is clearly wrong and unjustifiable from my point of view, by itself it isn’t antisemitic. However, it often is accompanied by…

3) Extreme anti-Zionism (Israel hatred): the belief that the Jewish state is not only illegitimate, but also the embodiment of evil. This point of view, I will argue is antisemitic.

People who take position 3) display certain related attitudes: for one, they see Israel’s alleged crimes as far more horrible than even worse evils committed by other nations. For example, Russia systematically bombed residential areas in Grozny with fuel-air explosives, killing hundreds in the most horrible way possible. This is rarely discussed, but any accidental civilian death caused by Israel defending herself (often, even if it didn’t actually happen) seems to provoke a UN resolution. West bank checkpoints and the security fence are called ‘genocide’ by Israel-haters who don’t mention actual genocides in Africa. Even the United States, hated as it is in some quarters for alleged imperialist crimes, is often attacked just because of its support for Israel.

A related phenomenon is that Israel is bashed in every possible context: the UN and non-governmental organizations, sports, academics, even when Israel is prepared to send help after natural disasters such as the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Another feature of the Israel hater is the propensity to believe anything negative about Israel, no matter how outlandish, on little or no evidence. The belief that the Mossad was responsible for 9/11 is a good example. The persistence of myths like the Jenin ‘Massacre’ or the killing of Mohammed Dura long after it’s been proven that Israel was not guilty is another. Palestinians often exaggerate their real losses, stage-manage incidents, and simply make things up. The Israel-hater always believes these stories; and when their falsehood is demonstrated it has little or no effect.

Yet another pathological attitude is a blindness about issues that would normally be of great importance when they interfere with Israel-hating. The position of women in Jewish Israel is as good as anywhere in the world; Israel has had a female PM and now has a woman as Foreign Minister (and numerous members of the Knesset). On the other hand, Muslim and Arab countries have a terrible record of oppressing women; honor killings, genital mutilation, denial of basic rights, etc. are common. A recent Pacifica Radio program about “the Palestinian Women’s Movement”, however, was all about Israeli checkpoints and other ‘crimes’. Not a word about ‘honor’ killings, common in the Palestinian Authority areas!

Finally, Israel’s motives are always imagined to be the worst possible, even when such explanations are totally irrational. In this view, checkpoints are established not to prevent terrorist attacks, but to “destroy the spirit of the Palestinian people”. The security barrier was built to “steal Palestinian land”, not to prevent terrorist infiltrations. Civilian casualties in Lebanon are not accidental, but deliberate acts of genocide. Israel built nuclear weapons not as a last-ditch deterrent, but in order to fulfill its genocidal plans.

There are three characteristics that go along with type 3 Israel-hatred: First, Israel is special. It is not like any other country. Second, the Israel-hater knows in advance (i.e., prejudges = is prejudiced) that Israel is wrong or evil, without needing to check the evidence. And third, the reaction is always highly emotional, far out of proportion to reality.

Well, how is Israel ‘special’? There are many other countries accused of colonialism and worse. The US, Australia, and others can be reasonably accused of having exterminated indigenous inhabitants. Other nations have historical backgrounds that can be considered less ‘legitimate’ — most of today’s Middle Eastern nations were created by imperialist fiat. There are many examples of disputed territories in the world, and many peoples that claim to be oppressed. None of these characteristics is sufficient to trigger the hatred response. But Israel is the only Jewish state.

Centuries of antisemitic expression in the West gave birth to the ‘meme’ of antisemitism. It found fertile ground in the culture of the extreme Right, and more recently on the Left and in the Muslim world, which quickly found the traditional antisemitic themes of blood libel, conspiracy, and corruption congenial.

Today this meme has mutated and the characteristics that it has always attributed to Jews – the alleged conspirators behind all that is wrong in the world – have been applied to their collective incarnation, the State of Israel. Indeed, what other explanation can there be for the irrational and exceptional nature of the hatred for Israel other than that it derives from hatred of the Jewish people? Golda Meir expressed this quite well when she said “Israel is the Jew among nations.”

Anthony Julius (listen to an interview on KQED) recently said that an expression doesn’t ‘cross the line’ and become antisemitic so much as it becomes infected with antisemitic tropes. Some of the these are the Jewish Conspiracy theme (as in Mearsheimer and Walt’s sinister Lobby) or present day versions of the blood libel (why do the Palestinians keep saying, against all logic and truth, that the IDF deliberately targets children?). The presence of such themes is an indication that anti-Israel discourse is becoming antisemitic.

But it is not only a one-way connection. Just as antisemitism can be a causal explanation for extreme anti-Zionism, the constant expression of Israel-hatred produces classical antisemitic thought as well. After all, what can explain the perceived uniquely evil deeds perpetrated by a state comprised mainly of Jews if not the evil bent of those selfsame Jews?

During the war against Hezbollah, there was an increase in antisemitic acts around the world. One of them was a shooting at a Jewish Community Center in Seattle. There was no connection to Israel; the (Muslim) perpetrator just felt the need to express his outrage at events in Lebanon by killing Jews. I believe that this was directly related to the outpouring of extreme Israel-hatred in much of the media, which antisemites correctly understand as encouragement.

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