May 1 2005

Confusing Israel Criticism and Anti-Semitism

While some examples of increasing anti-Semitism go little noted, considerable attention has been paid to dubious accusations that seem to equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

Before Harvard President Laurence Summers drew fire for suggesting that women were inherently inferior at math and science (see Extra!,5-6/2005), he stirred things up by proclaiming that a new form of anti-Semitism was menacing academia (New York Times, 9/21/02). “Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent,” said Summers, referring to a campaign to have Harvard disinvest in Israel to protest the occupation of Palestinian lands.

Publisher Mortimer Zuckerman (U.S. News & World Report, 11/3/03), author Phyllis Chesler (The New Anti-Semitism) and law professor Alan Dershowitz (The Case for Israel) have also argued for this expanded definition of anti-Semitism. “The harsh but undeniable truth is this: What some like to call anti-Zionism is, in reality, anti-Semitism — always, everywhere, and for all time,” wrote ADL director Abe Foxman in his 2002 book Never Again?. “Therefore, anti-Zionism is not a politically legitimate point of view but rather an expression of bigotry and hatred.”

The idea that being opposed to Zionism — the movement for a Jewish state — is inherently anti-Jewish is a dubious one. From its inception in the 1890s, many leading Jewish thinkers have opposed Zionism on the modernist grounds that secular states are preferable to religious ones, integration is preferable to separatism, and displacing one people to create a homeland for another is unjust (The Nation, 2/2/04). Many if not most critics of Israel, however, are not opposed to Zionism as such, but have specific criticisms of the actions of the Israeli government.

Veteran Mideast correspondent Robert Fisk (Independent, 10/21/02) sees the delegitimization of such critics as a form of censorship: “The all-purpose slander of ‘anti-Semitism’ is now used with ever-increasing promiscuity against anyone — people who condemn the wickedness of Palestinian suicide bombings every bit as much as they do the cruelty of Israel’s repeated killing of children — in an attempt to shut them up.”

It is certainly true that some critics of Israel seem to be motivated by anti-Semitism; Pat Buchanan, for example, shows a concern for Palestinians that he rarely if ever displays for other oppressed Third World peoples. But other Jew-bashers are given a free pass because of the false equation of anti-Semitism with opposition to Israel.

For example, when then — Rep. Bob Dornan (R-Calif.), a strong supporter of Israel, called Soviet journalist Vladimir Posner a “disloyal, betraying little Jew” in 1986, pro-Israel congressmember Steven Solarz (D.-N.Y.) rushed to his defense, saying that the ethnic slur “should not be allowed to overshadow Bob’s long history of support and involvement with Israel.”

The Anti-Defamation League also backed Dornan, with spokesperson David Brodie saying that his attack on Posner was merely “unartful, unfortunate [and] inelegant” (AP, 2/28/86). Brodie added that the group he represented was regarded as “the last word on anti-Semitism. As far as ADL is concerned, this case is closed.”

Another downside of expanding the definition of anti-Semitism was pointed out by Uri Avnery (Tikkun, 11-12/02), an Israeli Jew who is a forceful critic of his country’s government:

They are branding large communities with this mark, and many good people who feel no hatred toward the Jews but who detest persecution of the Palestinians are now being called anti-Semites. Thus, the sting is taken out of this word, giving it something approaching respectability.