The epithet of anti-Semitism is being hurled fairly loosely these days whether it be Trump’s characterization of Congresswomen Omar and Tlaib’s policies or the State Department’s expansive definition of anti-Semitism as criticism of Israel or comparison of Israel to Nazi Germany (a comparison that has been made by a number of Israeli thinkers), or the local and national efforts to label the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement of Israel inherently anti-Semitic.
So how can we calmly and thoughtfully think about this swirling controversy? Most people recognize classic anti-Semitism, the Christianity’s Jews-killed-Christ, Shakespeare’s Shylock, Nazi-graffiti-scrawled-on-a- synagogue types. Most people, (except those in the growing white supremacist, neo-Nazi movements), agree that these acts and beliefs are horrific and dangerous to a democratic society that aspires to tolerance and respect for minorities, whether it be the 7 million Jews, 3 ½ million Muslims, or 11 million Mexican immigrants among us, for starters.
I would like to explore the recent phenomenon, which is fracturing the American Jewish community, of equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, and the easily recognized and intrinsically linked relationship between a growing hatred of Jews and the public explosion of white supremacy in our country.
In the first half of the 20th century, the work of the Zionist movement to establish an exclusive Jewish state (in Uganda? Australia? Palestine?) was highly controversial, and only became a reality through a confluence of factors including the Christian Zionism of colonial British leaders, the appalling consequences of the Nazi Holocaust, and the UN’s attempts to address the desperate needs of postwar European Jewish refugees who were not welcomed in other countries. The underlying racism that allowed European Jewish trauma, aspirations, and history to be privileged at the expense of the indigenous population in Palestine was rarely acknowledged, or else justified in the name of Jewish survival. At the same time, the understanding that people who had lived in Historic Palestine for centuries, and their neighboring Arab brothers and sisters, would not peacefully relinquish land they felt was theirs, was defined as Jew-hatred rather than opposition to what is now understood to be settler colonialism. Zionism was sold as a redemptive Jewish liberation movement building a new and just society for a battered people in their ancestral lands. Palestinians were rendered invisible.
In 1974 the Anti-Defamation League (once a progressive group focused on exposing bigotry and intolerance towards Jews) defined the “new anti-Semitism” as criticism of Israel. Eight years later, after Israel’s disastrous invasion of Lebanon and the massacres in Sabra and Shatila, the Israeli government and a variety of think tanks and PR groups turned their attention to improving Israel’s image in the world (but not, I might add, its conduct on the ground). In 1984 the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) issued a college guide exposing what they saw as a dangerous anti-Israel campaign on campuses which was grounded in the idea that Israel was always the victim and criticism of Israeli policies, inherently anti-Semitic.
This McCarthyism crept into Jewish institutions and the epithet of anti-Semite was used freely to silence and demonize critical voices. Israel created Ministries of Public Diplomacy, Diaspora Affairs, and Strategic Affairs that work with “front groups” in the US, and a host of generously funded Jewish Federations and groups like the Israel Action network, Hillel, StandWithUs, Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in American (CAMERA), Canary Mission, AMCHA Initiative, Israel Project, Israel on Campus, Israellycool, ACT.IL-Online community for Israel, etc., sprang into action. Today they provide “alternative” and cherrypicked “historical facts,” slick propaganda YouTube’s, websites, and apps, compile dossiers to blacklist and smear activists as anti-Semites and terrorists, threaten universities and public events, and work hard to keep Congress in line.
I review this history to show that attitudes do not happen by accident, and today they are magnified by the explosive power of social media which promotes a host of misinformation and conspiracy theories and encourages people to live in their own private echo chambers. Viewpoints are shaped by propaganda and belief systems- religious Jews yearn for the Messiah and some 60 million Christian Zionists await the Rapture. Both require that Jews “return” to Zion, albeit for very opposite reasons. Fears are easily framed and manipulated. There is rising anti-Semitism fueled by a deranged president and the growth of a bigoted white nationalist alt-right that hates Jews, women, black and brown people, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQI; anyone not part of their vision of an Aryan nation of armed, white, heterosexual men. Thus we see the bizarre phenomenon of neo-Nazis disparaging Jews while expressing admiration for the State of Israel, a good place to sequester these undesirables and at the same time, an admirable example of a powerful, well-armed state, grounded in ethnic purity, eager to do battle with Muslims in general and Iranians in particular.
Obviously, Jews are a diverse group of people; undivided support for the policies of Israel are seen largely in older generations and mainstream institutions. Jewish youth are much less attached to the country and its mythology, hence the frantic public relations activities on US colleges and Birthright Programs. Jews from Eastern Europe have a very different experience than Jews of color who often experience double discrimination. Israel is a contradictory place. It claims to be a democracy while passing a Nation State Law that officially legalizes Jewish privilege. It receives $3.8 billion in military aid per year from the the US and extensive political cover, exports massive amounts of military surveillance and technology to repressive regimes, while having magnificent orchestras, brilliant writers, scientific institutions, world class medical facilities, and historic religious centers. At the same time, the country is guilty of major violations of human rights and international law, the ruthless incarceration of Palestinian children, and a brutal 50+ year occupation. I fully support the right of oppressed people to resist their oppression and I am appalled by sporadic Palestinian violent resistance and its consequences for Israelis. I am even more appalled, however, by the indiscriminate and disproportionate violence of Israeli forces and settlers that have made life unlivable every day for almost five million people under their control. Not only do we taxpayers make this all possible, but it is our democratic right to call out injustice when and where we see it.
Denunciations of anti-Semitism must be credibly nested within opposition to white nationalism and the racism and Islamophobia that are its lifeblood. If we do not distinguish between valid critiques of the policies of the Israeli state and anti-Semitism, we are allowing rightwing forces to weaponize anti-Semitism, suppressing freedom of speech and open debate, and making the term, anti-Semitism, ultimately meaningless at a time when it is critical to identify and oppose it.
My mother used to walk by a sign at a park in Brooklyn, NY, that read: NO JEWS OR DOGS ALLOWED. That was anti-Semitism. My call for an end to the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the siege of Gaza, and the racist policies of the Israeli government towards its Palestinian citizens, is not. The hysteria this discussion provokes is a mark of Jewish fragility not strength.