How to Criticize Israel Without Being Antisemitic, Part 1


Israeli flagMaking political assessments can be a Daedalean task in itself, but it is never more fraught than when it involves a globally persecuted ethnic minority. And as the world’s only Jewish state, functioning co-extensively as an embattled sanctuary from antisemitism and an indispensable victory in the (still inchoate) global push for indigenous rights, Israel finds itself in a precarious (if not entirely unprecedented) position. These considerations ought to remain foregrounded in any discussion relating to Israel or Israeli policies, although many of Israel’s detractors still haven’t gotten the memo.

By now, we’re all familiar with the left’s constant lamentations on how it is supposedly “impossible to criticize Israel without being accused of antisemitism”, but aside from a few notable exceptions (Natan Sharansky’s “3D test” remains a personal favorite), there has been an appalling deficiency of efforts to establish clear boundaries on what types of criticism are off limits. Conceptually speaking, antisemitism entails any belief or action that challenges our standing as equals in the global community. It is not, as many would have it, reducible to barefaced expressions of conscious, overt antipathy towards our entire people (although yes, this too is antisemitic). Therefore, it makes no sense to try and bracket antisemitism off from Israel/Palestine discourse. Antisemitism is structural, and if the left’s alleged commitment to the liberation of *all* peoples is to be taken seriously, confronting and weeding out practices which uphold these structures is a necessity, even if it means forfeiting cherished beliefs.

1. Recognize Israel’s right to exist

Whatever your feelings are about the events leading up to 1948 (more on that later), the Jewish people’s right to self-determine is sacrosanct. Respecting us as equals requires accepting that we are entitled to the same rights as everybody else, and this includes national self-determination (especially when it is already a recognized fact of international law). In advocating for the fall of the Jewish state, you are demanding that we revert to a subordinate state of affairs wherein our lives and our safety are once again permanently entrusted to non-Jewish majorities. We’ve already tried that once, and it ended in calamity for our people. We’re not trying it again, and there’s no reason why we should be expected to.

It’s just not good enough to claim that you “only hate Israel/Zionists, not Jews”, because most of us are Zionist and most of us care about Israel, and for good reason. We are not going to give up our legally granted freedom and live the rest of our lives at the sufferance of our so-called “betters”. If you find yourself unable to accept this (whatever your reasons are), you do not get to call yourself an anti-racist. It’s as simple as that.

2. No tokenization

In a sociological context, tokenization refers to the practice of selectively invoking minority voices whose views *just so happen* to align with or uphold the privileges and prejudices of the dominant majority, and using them to ward off accusations of bigotry. This discursive tool owes much of its popularity to the fact that it offers privileged speakers a convenient escape from having to critically examine cherished beliefs while simultaneously maintaining their prized self-image as “anti-racists”. For Jews, this typically manifests itself in the form of “not ALL Jews are Zionist” or “how could I possibly be antisemitic when there are Jews like Mearsheimer and Walt who agree with me?”, or even “this Jewish guy Ilan Pappe says Israel is a settler colonial apartheid state. If a Jewish guy said it, then it MUST be true”. Aside from its primary function as a crowbar to beat off opposing viewpoints, tokenization’s most glaring flaw is that it relies on an untenable (and historically groundless) conviction that Jews, by virtue of their Jewishness, cannot possibly be antisemitic or harbor antisemitic beliefs.

Recall the following quotes…..

“What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.…. Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man – and turns them into commodities…. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange…. The chimerical nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the merchant, of the man of money in general.”

Karl Marx

“I have no room in my heart for Jewish suffering. Why do you pester me with Jewish troubles? I feel closer to the wretched victims of the rubber plantations of Putumayo or the Negroes in Africa… I have no separate corner in my heart for the ghetto.”

Rosa Luxemburg

“Who afflicts the Jews is doing the will of God, and who seeks their benefit will incur damnation.

Johannes Pfefferkorn

“What for a long period of my life has been the source of my greatest shame, my most bitter grief and misfortune—to be born a Jewess—I would not at any price now wish to miss.”

Rahel Levin-Varnhagen

“The question of whether there was a mass homicide with gas or ‘just’ a mass death toll due to total abuse in horrendous conditions is no doubt a crucial historical question. The fact that such a major historical chapter less than seven decades ago is scholarly [sic] inaccessible undermines the entire historical endeavour.”

Gilad Atzmon

One would hope that we’d have little trouble understanding the racism latent in these quotes. What they demonstrate rather effectively is that Jews, contrary to popular opinion, are in no way immune to the antisemitic currents in our culture. In fact, they may even have a heightened susceptibility to it. Consider this quote from Shmuley Boteach….

“It’s impossible for world Jewry to bear the brunt of so much hatred, and to constantly be on the defensive about Israel, without some of that bile and poison seeping in. The constant attacks start playing with your head. Maybe there is something wrong with us Jews, you start to think. With Christianity saying for 2,000 years that Jesus is loving while the God of the Old Testament is vengeful, maybe Judaism is too rigid. Maybe in Israel we’re overdoing it. With the Palestinians saying they’re humiliated by checkpoints, perhaps Israel is purposely trying to degrade them as opposed to instituting security measures to stop buses filled with children from being blown up. And maybe, just maybe, we Jews who live outside of Israel are simply giving Israel too much mindless support. I remember twice visiting Dakar, Senegal, one of the poorest countries on earth, and being struck by the advertisements all over the city for skin-bleaching agents. But maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Gorie island in the city is where millions of African slaves departed through “the gate of no return” to a life of chains in the Americas and Caribbean. When you’re brutalized with that kind of hatred just for the color of your skin you don’t always see beauty when you peer in the mirror.”

When faced with an allegation of antisemitism, do not rely on your “Jewish friends” to bail you out. The existence of dissident voices in our community does not in any way absolve you of your duty to hear out and consider ALL Jewish voices, especially those who find the views of the tiny, but vocal anti-Zionist minority not just wrongheaded, but dangerous. It simply will not do to brush their concerns aside, no matter how convenient it may be.

3. Get your facts straight

Self-explanatory. It should go without saying that a person ought to be reasonably well-informed on a topic (this includes gathering all relevant perspectives and doing the requisite fact checking) before opening their mouths about it. This in no way guarantees that you will have a perfect batting average, of course. Nobody gets it right 100 percent of time. Rather, what’s really important is being able to admit when you are WRONG about something. For example, if you are shown proof that Israel was not, in fact, “built on a campaign of ethnic cleansing”, and you repeat this trope anyway while offering no substantial counter-evidence, you are fair game for criticism. No excuses.

4. Religious/cultural differences are NOT an excuse

We are not obligated to tolerate, let alone respect, bigoted beliefs simply because they are a part of your cultural patrimony. You are entitled to your own views, of course; but when they are predicated on antisemitic domination (e.g. the belief that Jews killed Jesus, that Jews are liars/cheaters, or that Jews are inferior “non-believers” and must always exist, if they must at all, as second class citizens), YOU are the problem, not us. You will either have to make the necessary amendments to your culture and belief system, or accept the consequences.

If your culture does not accept Jews as equal human beings, then your culture is racist. Period.

5. Do not call Ashkenazi Jews (or ANY Jews for that matter) “Khazars” or “European converts”

The Khazar theory made its first documented appearance in Arthur Koestler’s “The Thirteenth Tribe”, published in 1971. A Zionist of Hungarian-Jewish descent, Koestler believed that establishing a non-Israelite origin for Ashkenazi Jews would prove antisemitism groundless and ultimately consign it to the trash bin of history. Unsurprisingly, he was wrong. His theories did nothing to ameliorate antisemitism. Instead, they inadvertently gave it new life. Even today, with reams of historical scholarship and genetic studies disproving Koestler’s claims at our disposal, this theory is still popular among antisemites hellbent on tearing the Jewish state down. The logic behind its continued vitality is obvious; if Ashkenazi Jews (aka the bulk of pre-1948 Zionist Jewry) are really Khazars and not descendants of the indigenous Israelites, then Zionism has no basis and the Jews have no right to be in the Middle East in the first place.

Another closely related (and perhaps slightly more popular) theory is that modern Jews are “European converts”. Although it differs slightly from the Khazar narrative, it ends up reaching the same conclusion by default: Jews (or Ashkenazi/”Zionist” Jews, at least) are unwelcome guests/colonial invaders in the Middle East, not a historically displaced indigenous minority with valid land claims. This enables Israel’s detractors to dismiss Zionism as little more than a “romanticized Biblical claim” that is, consequently, ridiculous and absurd.

Both of these theories (along with any theory which posits that our indigenous origins in the Levant/ancient Israel are a “Zionist myth”) are antisemitic because, in addition to being untrue, they are hateful, revisionist attacks on our history and self-identity that are, in most cases, aimed squarely at undermining our national and civil rights.

6. Do not call Jews/Israelis “privileged whites”

This is antisemitic for two reasons. One, if Middle Easterners are (usually) considered non-white, and Jews are considered “white”, the obvious conclusion is that Jews are not “really” from the Middle East (see number 5).

Two, it inaccurately depicts the Jewish condition in Western society as one that is entirely (or mostly) bereft of racism, marginalization, and exclusion. In light of recent events, this notion is quite laughable. Racism is still very much a part of our reality, even if it manifests itself in relatively unique ways. Furthermore, this belief also interlocks with traditional racist ideas about Jews: that we are powerful, privileged, oppressive, all-controlling, world dominating figures.

7. No “Zionist/Israel Lobby” conspiracy theories

This is basically an updated version of the Protocols myth. You really don’t need me to explain why this is antisemitic nonsense.

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