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How to tell when criticism of Israel is actually anti-Semitism

Calling out human rights violations shouldn’t stray into bias against Jews.

(Chloe Cushman for The Washington Post)

As the United States opened its new embassy in Jerusalem on Monday, tens of thousands of Gazans gathered at their territory’s boundary fence to protest the loss of Palestinian homes and villages when Israel was founded 70 years ago. Most were unarmed, but some protesters lobbed flaming tires or Molotov cocktails at the Israeli side. Israeli soldiers opened fire, killing more than 60 Palestinians and wounding thousands.  Pro-Palestinian voices often described the Israeli response with words such as “murder” and “massacre.”

The reaction fit into a long rhetorical battle in which harsh criticism of Israel’s actions leads to accusations of bias against Jews. The right-wing Israeli news outlet Arutz Sheva, for instance, accused the United Nations agency that administers aid to Palestinians of encouraging anti-Semitism, citing a Fox News video that showed Gazan children chanting about the right to return to former Palestinian lands. Pro-Israel institutions have tried to blunt what they see as hate speech: South Carolina just passed a law formally defining anti-Semitism to include “applying double standards to Israel” and requiring public universities to consider the definition when hearing charges of bias. More than 20 states have banned public contracts with companies that boycott of Israel. Meanwhile, fierce arguments have broken out over whether critics of Israel within Britain’s Labour Party are ignoring anti-Semitism.

Yes, anti-Semitism is alive and well, and increasingly it masquerades as criticism of Israel. But as the executive director of T’ruah, a Jewish organization dedicated to protecting human rights here, in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories, I know it’s possible to criticize Israel without veering into anti-Semitism. I do it every day.

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People who pay special attention to Israeli policy are not necessarily anti-Semites: Human rights activists and organizations almost always choose a focus for their efforts. (One may reasonably work to end the genocide of the Rohingya community in Burma, for instance, without simultaneously addressing Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of his people in Syria.) Israel attracts additional scrutiny because it is a top recipient of U.S. foreign aid and the only Western nation currently carrying out a military occupation of another people. Its territory is sacred to three major world religions. The existence of a strong U.S.-based lobby dedicated to promoting the policies of the Israeli government unsurprisingly generates a counterresponse. And Palestinians have built a national movement over the past five decades, unlike more recently displaced people. These trends shape a legitimate political dynamic.

But I also see plenty of criticism that crosses the line. Jews increasingly feel unwelcome on the left unless they abandon their commitments to Israel. A University of Virginia student told me that some progressive campus groups responded to the neo-Nazi incursions there (anti-Semitism on the right is often easier to spot) by dismissing Jewish students as “Zionist baby killers.” At rallies on college campuses, speakers regularly list “Zionists” in the same category as white supremacists and Nazis. Progressive leaders circulate lists of acceptable Jewish organizations, including only those that do not address Israel or that define themselves as Palestinian solidarity groups. If the left continues to ignore this trend, most of the Jewish community will be pushed out of progressive spaces.

Despite what some pro-Israel organizations would have us believe, not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. Like all countries, Israel has a duty to uphold international human rights laws and to protect the rights of those living under its control. One may protest the use of live fire on unarmed protesters, the closure of the Gaza border and the subsequent humanitarian crisis, the military occupation of the Palestinian territories, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attacks on democracy and incitement against human rights leaders without invoking anti-Semitic tropes. Such policies would be wrong in any country, whether carried out by Jews or other people.

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Although I do not believe that Israel is purposely carrying out a massacre in Gaza or attempting an ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, such accusations are not, on their face, anti-Semitic. One may even boycott Israel without stepping into anti-Semitism if it’s clear that the tactic aims to pressure Israel to change its policies, just as many Americans recently boycotted North Carolina over now-overturned laws discriminating against transgender people. (I personally do not support boycotting Israel, partly because so much of the movement is rife with anti-Semitic undertones.)

So how can you tell the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism? Here are five useful markers.

Seeing Jews as insidious influencers behind the scenes of world events 

On the left and the right, anti-Semitism often manifests in a nefarious belief in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy that wields outsize power. On the right, it’s “globalists” and “elites” who manipulate events. On the left, it’s “Zionists.” The terms may differ, but the fundamental conspiracy theory is the same. For example, after news broke that a private investigative firm made up of former Mossad officers had been digging up dirt on Obama administration officials who helped broker the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran, Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi tweeted, “Every dirty treacherous ugly and pernicious act happening in the world just wait for a few days and the ugly name of ‘Israel’ will [pop up].” This language parallels the last ad of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, which flashed pictures of George Soros, Lloyd Blankfein and Janet Yellen while warning of a “global power structure” that had damaged the U.S. economy. In another case, when professor Steven Salaita was denied a tenured position at the University of Illinois after a series of anti-Israel tweets, he wrote: “Support for Israel . . . exists in sites of authority, often an omnipresent but invisible accoutrement to swivel chairs, mineral water, and mahogany tables.”  

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Also in this category is the theory, popular on the left, that Israeli trainers are to blame for racism and violence against people of color by U.S. police. (Durham, N.C., for instance, recently barred its police department from partnering with the Israeli police or military for training, citing this notion.) This includes insinuations that American Jewish organizations that help send U.S. police officers to Israel for counterterrorism training should be held responsible for the shootings of unarmed people of color. American police have used violence against marginalized people since long before Israel existed. White people have never needed Jews to teach them how to brutalize people of color on American soil. There are reasonable questions to ask about the content of training programs in Israel, but the suggestion — absent supporting evidence — that Jews bear guilt for U.S. police killings merely updates the old anti-Semitic trope that falsely accused Jews of managing the global slave trade .

Using the word "Zionist" as code for "Jew" or "Israeli" 

“Zionism” denotes a movement, forged in the late 19th century and evolving ever since, for the existence of a modern Jewish state in the land of Israel. A Zionist, as I define myself, supports one or more of the many variations on this vision, which differ wildly in their political, religious and cultural emphases.

Critics of Israel sometimes use “Zionist” to assert a global power structure without specifically calling out Jews as its masterminds. After Salaita, the Illinois professor, also lost a position at the American University of Beirut, he wrote, “I was shocked that Zionist pressure could succeed in the Arab World.” The Nation of Islam’s Final Call newspaper asserts that “Zionist pressure ” will not stop Louis Farrakhan from continuing his anti-Semitic pronouncements, which have included calling Jews the “synagogue of Satan.”

The “Zionist” label attempts to reduce a state full of living, breathing humans to a simplistic political notion. It’s common for Palestinians and their supporters to refer to “Zionist occupation forces” instead of the “Israeli army,” or to the “Zionist entity” instead of “Israel.” At a demonstration I walked by this past week, protesters held signs mourning 70 years of “Israel,” in quotes.

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One may disagree with the decision of the United Nations to recognize Israel decades ago, wish that the state had never come to be or aspire to the establishment of a binational state in its place without necessarily stepping into anti-Semitism. But refusing to call Israel or Israelis by their internationally accepted names denies the very existence of the state and its people’s identities. These coy linguistic tricks are as unacceptable as the right-wing penchant for denying the existence of Palestinians and Palestinian identity.

Denying Jewish history

As a means of rejecting the legitimacy of Israel, some stoop to asserting that Jews have no national history there — that they are, in other words, nothing more than European colonizers. For instance, the website Middle East Monitor referred recently to the “alleged Temple” in ancient Jerusalem (the ruins are still there). Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, likewise, resurrected the old canard that today’s Jews descend from Khazar converts in a  recent and much-criticized speech.

The Jewish connection to Israel goes back millennia. After their expulsion by the Romans in 70 A.D., Jews continued to pray for a return to the land and to observe four fast days each year to mourn the exile. Zionism’s revolution came not in creating a new connection between Jews and the land of Israel, but in suggesting that a return to the land could be achieved through modern political means, rather than by waiting for the messiah. 

Some critics also reduce Judaism to religion, in the mold of Western Christianity, rather than acknowledging our more complex sense of ourselves as a people with a history and an ancestral land, as well as religious and cultural practices. This includes dismissing Zionism as “white supremacy,” as the Chicago Dyke March did last year when its organizers argued that Zionism had no place in an anti-racist movement and that it “represents an ideology that uses legacies of Jewish struggle to justify violence.” Statements like these ignore the fact that, unlike most white people here and elsewhere, Jews have been subject to racially based discrimination — and that more than half of Israeli Jews are not Ashkenazi, meaning their families did not come from Europe. 

Finally, disregard for Jewish history may take the form of using Nazi imagery to depict Israel or its army. This tactic cynically manipulates the greatest modern trauma of Jewish history to attack us, while minimizing the genocide of 6 million Jews. Israel may be violating its human rights obligations, but is not carrying out a Nazi-style extermination operation.

Dismissing the humanity of Israelis

In a conversation about terrorist attacks by Palestinians, one young activist told me, “I can’t judge how other people carry out their liberation movements.” Such lack of concern for Israeli lives is evident in failures to condemn rocket attacks against civilians, in the rejection of the term “terrorist” for anyone who acts against Israelis and in statements blaming Israelis for their own deaths. A movement motivated by concern for human rights requires caring about the dignity, well-being, concerns and self-determination of all people.

This means opposing the military occupation of the Palestinians, with its attending violence, as well as rejecting terrorism or rocket fire against Israelis. Human Rights Watch, which right-leaning groups often accuse of being anti-Israel, has modeled such an approach by regularly condemning Hamas for launching rockets at Israeli civilians. This approach also means standing with Israeli human rights leaders, who increasingly find themselves the targets of dangerous incitement by the country’s political leaders.

Assuming that the Israeli government speaks for all Jews

Rabbis who speak at rallies on domestic issues (the Trump travel ban, police killings, etc.) regularly tell me that audience members shout at them, “What about Palestine?” An explicit disavowal of a connection to Israel shouldn’t be a prerequisite for Jewish involvement in broader social justice issues, as has become the norm on college campuses and in many progressive spaces. 

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Imagine assuming that all Americans support President Trump’s policies, or asking Americans to expressly disown their own country before engaging in any international human rights campaigns. Reasonable people may disagree about Israeli policy, about nationalism or about whether the solution to the conflict should involve one state or two. But Jews who care about Israel — many of whom revile Netanyahu and his politics — should not be excluded from progressive spaces based on their answers to such questions. 

Jews, along with other groups, must fight for human rights, in the United States and abroad. This work means insisting that Israel, like other countries, live up to its human rights commitments. The case can be made without bigotry and hate speech.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described South Carolina’s new law. It applies to public universities, not public schools. And it does not deem all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism. Though some opponents say it could encompass virtually all such criticism, the law is based on the State Department’s definition.

Twitter: @RabbiJillJacobs

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