Peace with Realism

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Anti-Zionism or Anti-Semitism?

A Case Study

by Carlos

December 2003/July 2004


  1. Is Criticizing Israel Taboo?
  2. "Raising Our Voices"
  3. Terrorism: Whose Responsibility?
  4. An Anti-Semitic Statement
  5. Israel's Right to Exist Questioned
  6. Links to Hate
  7. Conclusion: Criticism, Condemnation, and Dialogue
  8. Notes

Note: Since this was written, the Sanders have continued their anti-Israel activity. After attending the 216th Presbyterian General Assembly (summer 2004) they reported enthusiastically in a letter on the Presbyterian Church (USA) web site: "As a church, we will use a strategy successful against apartheid and begin a targeted divestment of companies invested in Israel, pressuring for an end to the occupation." What strategy will they use to pressure for an end to Palestinian terrorism?

Is Criticizing Israel Taboo?

As international criticism of Israel increases, the controversy over the relationship between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism is becoming more intense. Many of Israel's opponents are extremely sensitive to the charge of anti-Semitism. They insist that finding fault with Israel or its policies or even questioning the legitimacy of Israel's existence does not make them anti-Semites. Sometimes people tell me they are not anti-Semites when I have not accused them of anything of the sort! There must be a message in this defensiveness.

It should go without saying that criticizing Israel is as appropriate as criticizing any other country. Israel deserves no special exemption from critical examination. The act of criticizing does not by itself make one an anti-Semite. Many supporters of Israel, as well as many Israelis themselves, express strong criticisms of Israeli policies. Israel is a democracy, so nothing less should be expected. In fact, no country receives more criticism from its own people than Israel - not even the United States, where Cabinet members do not openly castigate the President, where members of Congress do not normally call for the dissolution of the state (as do some Arab Knesset members), and where self-appointed and unelected individuals do not normally conduct negotiations with representatives of the nation's enemies.

Ironically, the charge of anti-Semitism is now being used not so much to stifle criticism of Israel but to silence Israel's defenders. I read several newspapers every day, and I cannot recently recall anyone charging a critic of Israel with anti-Semitism unless that criticism actually was blatantly one-sided or based on a clear and demonstrable distortion of the facts. What I do read about and hear quite often are critics of Israel complaining that every time they open their mouths somebody is calling them an anti-Semite.

It cannot reasonably be denied that there is an element of anti-Semitism in much criticism of Israel. But we need some way of judging when this element is present. It certainly will not do to say that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic just because some Jews might find it offensive. However, it is equally unfair to deprive Israel's supporters of the right to criticize their critics, by insisting that whenever a Jew charges anti-Semitism the charge must be false simply because a Jew is making it. That is what much of the uproar about the anti-Semitism accusation amounts to. It is an attempt to delegitimize the whole idea of anti-Semitism, as if to say: some Jews somewhere sometime might have thrown the anti-Semitism accusation unfairly; therefore it should never be taken seriously anymore.

Of course I am as likely as anyone to be told that I am exercising my own personal preferences in deciding when criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. Anyone is free to say to me, "Who cares how many papers you read? You are calling what that guy said anti-Semitic simply because you find hearing it unpleasant." I would never call a statement anti-Semitic simply because I didn't like it. The charge of anti-Semitism is very serious and loses its meaning when applied frivolously. I would therefore like to propose the following very specific criteria for determining when criticism of Israel may be considered anti-Semitic. I believe these criteria are sufficiently reasonable and objective to enable us to evaluate the legitimacy of such criticism, and I also offer my reasons for proposing them:

  1. Criticism of Israel may be considered anti-Semitic when it holds Israel to a standard by which no other nation is judged. Applying double standards to Israel is very common, and it is also not rational. It is fair to criticize Israel as severely as other nations when Israel does things that warrant criticism as severe as that given to other nations. But severe condemnation of Israel that passes over or even excuses worse behavior by Israel's enemies makes no sense. It puts Israel into a class by itself in which the rules of judgment are different from the rules applied to other people. We must ask what distinguishing characteristic Israel might have that makes some people judge it by a unique set of rules. The obvious answer is that unlike every other nation in the world, Israel is a Jewish state.

  2. Criticism of Israel is also anti-Semitic when it uses classic anti-Semitic themes, such as references to ghettos, pogroms, or Nazism. This kind of criticism tries not only to delegitimize Israel but to demonize it and to erase the impact of centuries of persecution of Jews by comparing the behavior of Jews to the behavior of history's worst Jew-haters. Anyone even remotely familiar with history must admit that whatever excesses Israel may be guilty of do not begin to approach the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Comparing Israel with the Nazis has no basis in reality, and so must mask some kind of hidden agenda. The specific use of Nazi language in attacking Israel is clearly intended to offend Jewish sensibilities. Ironically, there is in fact a true resurgence of Nazism in the Arab world today.

  3. Finally, criticism of Israel may be considered anti-Semitic when it attacks Israel's very right to exist. No other country is so frequently judged by the standard: "I don't like your policies, therefore your country should disappear," or, more accurately, "I don't like your existence." Criticizing Israel's policies is legitimate and often necessary. But attacking Israel's existence is quite another matter. Dismantling Israel in favor of a single comprehensive Palestinian state (for example, the Hamas charter) or even a "binational" state would put six million Jews at the mercy of an overwhelming and extremely hostile Middle Eastern Arab majority that can be counted on to target them with particular vengeance. Those who advocate such a position would deny only the Jewish people a right to self-determination and put millions of Jewish lives in great peril.

These three criteria should suffice to determine whether much criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. They leave plenty of room for criticism of Israel that, right or wrong, is not anti-Semitic. Debates of Israeli policies could be quite healthy when devoid of the prejudices against Israel's existence or legitimacy that often accompany them - and also when coupled with equally rigorous debates about the policies and practices of the Palestinians and the Arab states.

Some criticism of Israel is indeed healthy, constructive, and even deserved. It is not the existence of criticism but the type of criticism one often hears that is so disturbing. Some of the most extreme cases draw directly from classical sources of anti-Semitism, such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Blood Libel (the charge that Jews murder gentile children and use their blood to bake food for their holidays). These old forms of hatred have become very common once again, both inside and outside the Arab world. Since these themes originated in Christian anti-Semitism, Jewish-Christian relations have been affected. The Jewish Community has a right to expect that Christians today will take responsibility for the errors of the past and openly discourage the propagation of these anti-Semitic inventions. Some Christians indeed have been very supportive of Israel, at a time when Israel badly needs non-Jewish friends. Unfortunately, however, other Christian groups and denominations have persisted in judging Israel by an egregious double standard. Some even continue to present the old anti-Jewish myths, or if they do not explicitly do so themselves, they befriend and support others who do.

And so today Jewish-Christian relations are tinged with ambivalence. The Christian Right has generally supported Israel - and liberal Christians have castigated them for it. This controversy is beyond our present scope, but is a fascinating and complex topic. In the sections to follow I would like to consider just one example of anti-Israel criticism from members of one denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), that has been particularly hard on Israel. I choose it for a number of reasons:

First, I believe there is a crisis in Jewish-Christian relations today that needs to be healed.

Second, since this is far from the worst vilification of Israel that may be found, it provides a good illustration of how subtle and thin the line is between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, even in the work of reputable people who seem devoted to helping others.

Third, I am particularly familiar with this example because it came to my attention through the publicity of a church with which I have had much contact, interaction, and dialogue.

But most important of all, I choose this example because it is very typical of the type of criticism thrown at Israel today, especially from the political left. By discussing it in detail we will have occasion to consider many of the charges Israel's critics are making, how they often make them, and what is behind them. Exposing the inaccuracies and distortions in this one specific case will be a key to exposing many others.

Blatantly anti-Semitic condemnations of Israel are easy to spot and to dismiss. Anti-Semitism under the guise of legitimate criticism of Israel is more subtle and insidious and therefore more dangerous. It deserves more attention.


Israeli-Palestinian Conflict:
Peace with Realism