Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic

Is it fair to call someone that does not support American funding of Israel anti-Semite?


WASHINGTON, June 19, 2015 – Anti-Semitism, the hatred of Judaism and Jews, has a long and sordid history in many parts of the world. In many countries, Jews were confined to ghettoes and prohibited from working in many trades and professions. Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 and suffered under the Inquisition.

There were pogroms in Russia, and in the 20th century we witnessed the Holocaust, the mass murder of six million Jews by the Nazis.  We have seen the evil which anti-Semitism has inflicted upon the world.

It is, therefore, very troubling to see many people now in the process of redefining anti-Semitism to mean criticism of Israel. Judaism is a religion of universal values. Men and women of every race and nationality can be found within its ranks. They are citizens of most of the countries of the world, with millions of Americans professing Judaism as their religion, just as other Americans are Catholic, Protestant or Muslim.

Israel, on the other hand, is a sovereign state.

Israel, like other states, has its critics. Its occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem is considered illegal under international law. This is  the position of the U.S. government under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Many have expressed dismay about Israeli violations of human rights. For example, some are concerned about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and specifically about the limited rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories.

A movement has grown, BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions), which calls for a selective boycott of Israel and divestment from companies doing business in the occupied territories. Its advocates refer to it as a nonviolent effort to show opposition to the occupation, similar to the sanctions movement against South Africa to show opposition to apartheid. Hatred of Judaism and Jews, which is what constitutes anti-Semitism, appears to be absent from these boycott efforts.

Indeed, some of the most prominent leaders of this movement are themselves Jewish, arguing that they are promoting the highest Jewish values, that all men and women, of whatever race of nation, are created in God’s image and should be treated equally.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the BDS movement “anti-Semitic.”  He has even compared it with Nazi Germany. He made the comparison to Nazi Germany at a June 15 meeting in Jerusalem with Poland’s Foreign Minister Grzegerz Schetyna.

Speaking of the defamation of Jews in Poland during the Nazi occupation of the country during World War II, he declared, “What was done to the Jewish people then is being done to the Jewish state now.” When one considers that Israel has the largest and most powerful army in the region, supplied by the U.S., and has a nuclear arsenal, the comparison with the helpless Jews of Poland during the Nazi era seems less than persuasive.

In June, Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson called a meeting to raise money to fight the BDS movement. Adelson and others, such as billionaire Haim Saban, pledged tens of millions of dollars to the fight.  Adelson called the BDS effort and its supporters “anti-Semitic.” Adelson’s own views are clear. He once said that, while he served in the U.S. Army, he wishes it was the Israeli army instead. He has said that “the Palestinian people” do not exist and expressed his own indifference to whether Israel was a genuine democracy. “Democracy,” he pointed out, is not mentioned in the Bible.

Yair Lapid, the former Israeli finance minister, speaking at a Jerusalem Post conference in New York, said that the BDS campaign is a puppet of Hamas and described BDS leaders as “outright anti-Semites” and likened them to the “Palestinian mufti who collaborated with the Nazis.” In a speech to the Park Avenue Synagogue, Lapid said, “BDS is not about policies, or about the settlements, or about the peace process, this is classic anti-Semitism in a modern disguise…”

Rabbi Alissa Wise of Jewish Voice For Peace, which supports the BDS movement, responds:  “There is nothing anti-Semitic about criticizing Israel and there is nothing anti-Semitic in the BDS call by Palestinian Civil Society. It is a conditional call that will end when conditions of oppression end; that targets state policies, not the Jewish people. It is based on standards of universal human rights and international law that are specifically not reliant upon ethnicity or religion.”

In Rabbi Wise’s view, “For those of us who are Jewish in the movement, we strongly feel the obligation…to speak out when false charges of anti-Semitism are used to tar the movement…As a rabbi, I take my role seriously as a moral leader, as we are taught by the Babylonian Talmud: ‘Whoever has the ability to denounce (the sins of) their family members, but fails to denounce them, is held accountable for (the sins of) their family members; if (one has the influence over) the residents of his city (but fails to denounce their sins), he is held accountable for (the sins of) the residents of his city; if (he has influence) over the entire world (but fails to denounce their sins) he is held accountable for (the sins of) the entire world.’ (Shabbos 54a).

“We will be held accountable if we stay silent about the land theft, home demolitions, restrictions on movement, economic strangling and other human rights abuses that are daily realities of life under occupation for Palestinians.”

Many in Israel share the concern about calling critics of Israeli policies anti-Semitic rather than responding to their concerns about  particular Israeli policies.  Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (June 6, 2015), Gideon Levy notes, “It’s only to be expected when facing a worldwide campaign aimed at implementing justice and international law: the stage of denial, of repression and clinging to the false, nearly magical belief that if Israel will just explain its position better and invest the appropriate resources, everything will be fine.

“In other words, Israel continues to think that the world is dumb and Israel is smart. You can blame the Palestinians for  everything and obscure the simple fact that this brutal occupation is Israeli. You can tell the world that it all belongs to us because the Bible says so and believe that anyone will take you seriously. You can be sure that the memory of the Holocaust will serve us forever, and justify any injustice. Of course, it won’t work indefinitely…Justice triumphs in the end, even if belatedly. And justice says that Israel cannot continue to tyrannize another people forever, even if Haim Saban himself lends his support.”

Israel’s current government has rejected the creation of Palestinian state in the occupied territories. Prime Minister Netanyahu, in his re-election campaign, made this clear. Speaking recently at the Herzliya Conference, Israel’s premier security forum, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely declared, “I negate the idea of a two-state solution.”

As a result, there is no longer a peace process, only the building of new settlements in the occupied territories and calls from members of Netanyahu’s cabinet for annexation. Netanyahu, Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban may think it is “anti-Semitic” to point this out and to oppose this position, but few others share this view.

The use of the “anti-Semitic” label has a long history. Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., an American who abandoned his U.S. citizenship and emigrated to Israel, referred to the president of the American Studies Association, which voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions as “anti-Semitic.”

ASA president Curtis Marez declared in response, “Americans have a particular responsibility to answer the call for boycott because the U.S. is the largest supplier of military aid to the State of israel.”

Any evidence of bigotry on the part of professor Marez is non-existent.  Secretary of State John Kerry came under withering attack in Israel for pursuing the peace process. It was not only implied  that he was “anti-Semitic,” but a group of Orthodox rabbis suggested that he would suffer divine retribution.

Professor Judith Butler of the University of California, an outspoken Jewish critic of Israeli policy, declared, “If one can’t voice an objection to violence done by Israel without attracting a charge of anti-Semitism, then that charge works to circumscribe the publicly acceptable domain of speech, and immunize Israeli violence against criticism. One is threatened with the label ‘anti-Semite’ in the same way one is threatened with being called a ‘traitor’ if one opposes the most recent U.S. war (on Iraq).

“Such threats aim to define the limits of the public sphere by setting limits on the speakable. The world of public discourse would then be one from which critical perspectives would be excluded and the public would come to understand itself as one that does not speak out in the face of obvious and legitimate violence.”

Whether one agrees with the BDS movement or not, the charge that it is “anti-Semitic” is simply an effort to silence criticism. Only by redefining “anti-Semitism” to mean criticism of Israel can such a charge be sustained. Israel’s policies in the occupied territories should be debated on their merits, and defenders of the occupation should not hide behind false charges of “anti-Semitism.” Like the boy who cried wolf, in the event that real bigotry were to appear, the trivialization of the term “anti-Semitism” would make such bigotry much more difficult to combat.


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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.