June 19, 2024
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Criticizing Israel: When Does Condemnation of Israel Become Anti-Semitic?

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent declaration that the “global discriminatory” boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and “practices that facilitate it, such as discriminatory labeling and the publication of databases of companies that operate in Israel or Israeli-controlled areas” would be treated as anti-Semitic, is extremely significant. The statement formally recognized the pernicious nature of this movement whose sole purpose is to destroy the Jewish state.

The communiqué raises the question not only about BDS. At what point does condemnation of Israel cross the boundary into anti-Semitism?

Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS)

Omar Barghouti, founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), which initiated BDS, and a graduate of Tel Aviv University, claims that “Israel and its lobby groups often invoke the smear of anti-Semitism, despite the unequivocal, consistent position of the movement against all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism. This unfounded allegation is intended to intimidate into silence those who criticize Israel and to conflate such criticism with anti-Jewish racism.”

After hearing Barghouti speak at UCLA, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, the longtime executive director of UCLA Hillel and a renowned left-wing activist, said, “BDS is poison and Omar Barghouti is a classic anti-Semite.” He found “no articulated aspiration for peace, only a negative desire to destroy the very foundation of the State of Israel. This is just recycled Palestinian rhetoric about the pursuit of justice in the mouth of a sophisticated, smart, Israeli-educated and wily ideologue. ‘Justice’ is merely a political code word for no compromise. And everyone knows that any peaceful outcome is contingent on mutual compromise.”

Seidler-Feller considered Barghouti’s denial of Jewish peoplehood particularly egregious. Usurping the right of Jews to define who they are, he said, “is an aggressive act of denying Jews the fundamental right of self-definition. It constitutes a delegitimization of my being and of my identity as a Jew.”

Definition of Anti-Semitism

Tel Aviv University’s Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism delineates several criteria to distinguish between reasonable condemnation of Israel and anti-Semitic assaults. The line is crossed when the character traits, expressions and descriptions ascribed to Israel use anti-Semitic stereotypes; when Israelis and Jews are portrayed as “a cosmic evil,” are held accountable for global calamities and are compared to the Nazis; when Israeli and Jewish supporters of Israel are targeted and attacked and “are treated in a disproportionate manner in relationship to the issue at hand and in comparison to the actions of other nations”; when Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state is “delegitimized”; and when the Holocaust is denied or distorted and made a political “weapon, allegedly misused by the Jews to extort financial support and to make political capital.”

A similar definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), can be found at https://www.holocaustremembrance.com/world-remembers-holocaust.

Historian Robert Wistrich explained that “anti-Zionists who insist on comparing Zionism and the Jews with Hitler and the Third Reich appear to be de facto anti-Semites. This is because Nazism has become the defining metaphor of absolute evil. So when Zionists are ‘Nazis’ and when the Israeli prime minister is really Hitler, then it becomes a moral obligation to wage war against Israel…. In practice, this has become the most potent form of contemporary anti-Semitism.”

Criticism of Israel also becomes anti-Semitic when Jews, Judaism and Israel are characterized as the treacherous enemy of Islam and when public calls are made for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people everywhere. These declarations are found in Hamas and PLO covenants and in some Islamic legal rulings (fatawin) that declare that it is a religious obligation to destroy Israel and the Jews.

Not All Criticism Is Anti-Semitic

“Not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, but not all criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic,” asserted New Times journalist Edward Rothstein. “When standards of justice are applied in profoundly distorted fashion, when those distortions put the literal survival of a society at stake and when murders are taking place and explicitly encouraged, declarations are being made that may even fit university standards for ‘hate speech’.”

To be sure, one can criticize Israel’s policies and decisions and not be anti-Semitic, noted sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset. Democratic states should not consider themselves immune to rebuke, and Israel is a liberal democratic state. In ancient Israel, the biblical prophets devised the art of self-criticism.

When Is the Line Crossed?

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. had no hesitation about labeling an ant-Zionist remark anti-Semitic. When he spoke to African American students at Harvard University, a student made a remark against Zionists. King snapped at him and said, “Don’t talk like that! When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking about anti-Semitism.”

Leftist literary scholar Hans Mayer wrote, “Whoever attacks Zionism, but by no means wishes to say anything against the Jews, is fooling himself and others. The State of Israel is a Jewish state. Whoever wants to destroy it, openly or through policies that can affect nothing else but such destruction, is practicing the Jew hatred of yesterday and time immemorial.”

Though it is beneath one’s dignity in decorous Western society to acknowledge that you hate Jews, Josef Joffe, editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, claims that one can openly avow hatred of an Israeli prime minister or any other Israeli official with impunity. “Lashing out at an Israeli leader does not risk the raised eyebrows that demonizing his people, let alone Jews as such, would do in a post-racist age.”

The irony in such a statement is the current worldwide imperative to deem everything in racial jargon, meaning that we are clearly not in a “post-racist age.” Israel is constantly the focus of outrage in the media, while other countries who repress their minority populations or engage in widespread human rights violations are rarely condemned or become front-page news.

Denunciation of Palestinian Arab terrorists is fleetingly mentioned, then justified considering Israel’s alleged “occupation” and tyranny. This “obsessive need for moral denigration,” Joffe says, indicates that “Israel has assumed a special place in contemporary demonology.” Facts do not determine judgment; facts are selected based on prejudices.

Sometimes anti-Zionists assert that they harbor no ill will towards Jews, but “only” against the Jewish state. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a well known critic of Israel, noted that “criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction—out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East—is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest.”

Per Ahlmark, former deputy prime minister of Sweden, compares this approach to someone who says they are “only” against the existence of Great Britain, but are not anti-British. If someone told him they love Swedes, but Sweden should be eliminated, he would not believe them because “you cannot love or respect a people and hate their state.” Yet this does not preclude individuals from imagining they can separate the two feelings about Israel.

Daniel Taub, former Israeli ambassador to Great Britain, frequently heard, “I’m a friend of Israel and I support its right to exist.” He wondered, “Can you imagine anyone saying that in relation to any other country? I support Australia’s right to exist or Guatemala’s right to exist—as though that somehow makes me a friend of Guatemala. In relation to what other country does a discussion or policy descend into a question mark over the very existence of that state?”

A Final Note

In view of the enduring threats to Israel, Irwin Cotler, a former Canadian minister of justice, commented that what “is most disturbing is the silence, the indifference and sometimes even the indulgence, in the face of such genocidal anti-Semitism.”


Dr. Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

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