How to Criticize Israel Without Being Antisemitic, Part 2

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Israeli flagBefore going any further, I would strongly advise all of you to read the first part of this series, since they were both designed to be taken as a whole.

Whereas part 1 fixated on broader anti-Jewish attitudes and assumptions, the focus here will be on specific criticisms leveled at Israel. The negative feedback I received on part 1 (and most of it was positive, to be sure) lamented that I was making it harder to criticize the Jewish state. This, I can only submit, is the entire point. Antisemitism is an ancient prejudice, so there’s plenty of unpacking that needs to be done before we can honestly say that we have reached an equilibrium. And insofar as attitudes towards Jews and Jewish institutions are informed by centuries of antisemitic cultural programming (particularly in European, Christian, and Islamic cultures), it only makes sense to try and circumscribe what arguments one can validly make against Israel, if only as a set of checks and balances against the reinscription of antisemitic heirarchies.

1. Gentilesplaining

Nothing sends me into an apoplectic rage faster than listening to some anti-Zionist, non-Jew lecture me on what it means to be Jewish, or what antisemitism “really” is, or how most Jewish claims of antisemitism are “just a dirty Zionist smear tactic used to silence legitimate criticism of Israel”. We have the right to name our own reality, and insofar as you are a member of the dominant group (be it white people, Arabs, Muslims, Christians, etc), it is not your place to define our experiences for us. You also do not get to mold and adjust the parameters of antisemitism to your liking. This does not mean blindly assenting to Jewish voices. It means listening and thinking. An allegation of antisemitism does not fail just because it implicates you.

To invoke Christine Littleton, equal treatment begins “with the very radical act of taking [us] seriously, believing that what we say about ourselves and our experience is important and valid, even when (or perhaps especially when) it has little or no relationship to what has been or is being said about us.”

And yes, there are also gentilesplainers on the pro-Israel end of the spectrum, and I am no fan of them either. However, they are not the ones challenging my rights as a Jew, so needless to say, my hostility to anti-Zionist gentilesplainers greatly exceeds my hostility to pro-Israel ones, and I feel I am perfectly justified in taking that stance.

2. Israel has the right to self-defense

This does not mean that the IDF is immune from criticism, of course; rather, it means that Israel’s right to protect itself from the predations of its neighbors, or any other entity that wishes its destruction, needs to be accepted as baseline. When you ignore (or worse, legitimize) the incessant rocket attacks on Israeli cities, the terror tunnels from Gaza, the stabbing of Israeli civilians, etc, and only speak out when Israel has the nerve to respond to these transgressions and put an end to them, you are sending a very clear message to Israelis: “your lives don’t matter”. Jewish blood is cheaper than gentile blood, and Israelis ought to sit on their hands and let fusillades of Qassam rockets fall on their cities. And, with all due respect, that is bogus. It should go without saying that any stance that necessarily fails to recognize the Jewish people’s right to self-defense is prima facie antisemitic.

By all means, criticize the IDF’s tactics, their negligence, and the actions of individual IDF soldiers; just do not demand (explicitly or implicitly) that we lay down our arms and wait for death.

3. Antisemitism means anti-Jewish

For illustrative purposes, a few things need to be said about the term “antisemitism”.

It was first coined in the 19th century by Wilhelm Marr as a more sophisticated substitute for “Judenhass” (Jew-hate), which increasingly came to be seen as primitive and vulgar against a post-Enlightenment European backdrop (does this remind you of anything?). Hatred of Jews continued to smolder, but as the cultural milieu changed, so did antisemitism. And since Jews were the only Semitic people living in Europe at the time, and this new antisemitism was a race based hatred (in contrast to antisemitism’s progenitor, “Judenhass”, which was more focused on religion and culture), Marr did not foresee any semantic problems arising in the future. But in recent decades, there has been an uproar over the fact that “antisemite” refers exclusively to Jews (and, for many antisemites, that it refers to Jews at all) and not to all Semitic peoples, including Arabs. This controversy is nothing new, of course. There have been similar debates revolving around terms like Asian-American and African-American in that they only represent specific subgroups, and not their entire respective continents.

But the real reason this bone of contention is problematic is because it is often used as a red herring to derail conversations about antisemitism, especially when it is paired with a belief that “well, most modern Jews aren’t really Semites anyway, just converts/impostors from Europe” (see number 5, part 1). When someone raises antisemitism as an issue, you know EXACTLY what they mean. Don’t waste everybody’s time with semantic games.

4. Apartheid/Jim Crow analogy

This is in no way meant to suggest that Israel is devoid of racism and discrimination. Far from it. Nevertheless, it is still head and shoulders above most (if not all) of its neighbors (Palestinians included), and an absolute far cry from the Jim Crow laws of the United States, let alone the former apartheid regime of South Africa.

Putting this analogy to rest requires elaborating on key differences between Israel and Jim Crow/South Africa. To begin, apartheid was a system wherein every aspect of an individual’s life was determined by race. Everything from restaurants to neighborhoods to post offices to benches to drinking fountains and bathrooms were strictly segregated, with indigenous black Africans always getting the least and the worst. The Jim Crow laws, although not exactly the same, were similar in that black people (and to a lesser extent, other non-white groups, ourselves included) had fewer rights and experienced strict segregation. In addition, South Africa was a colony of the British and Dutch, built on exploitation of black labor and rich natural resources for the benefit of their respective motherlands.

Israel, by contrast, has equal rights enshrined in its constitution. There are still issues of discrimination, of course (what country doesn’t?); but there is none of the segregation and brutality that characterized the white minority regime of South Africa. Jews, Arabs, Druze, Ethiopians, Filipinos, Russians, Romani, etc all mingle together freely. The aforementioned groups all serve as government officials (even when they’re rabidly antisemitic….*cough* Haneen Zoabi), professors, police officers, judges, doctors, you name it. None of this would have been possible if Israel was an apartheid regime. Furthermore, Israel is not a European colony, but a liberated indigenous state. We were foreigners in diaspora, but not here. Israel is our one true motherland.

5. Nazi analogy/accusations of genocide

This one really shouldn’t need explaining, but this belief is so frighteningly common that I (unfortunately) don’t have the option of ignoring it.

Comparing a regime that hunted non-Europeans (particularly Jews) like animals, butchered 1/3 of our entire population, and whose only regret is that they weren’t able to kill more of us, to a country with a flourishing, 2 million strong Arab population that is able to serve in the highest echelons of our society is nothing short of horrific. There is no excuse for it, AT ALL. Especially if you are someone who would never a countenance a comparison between, say…..the Black Panthers and the KKK, stay the hell away from this analogy.

6. Comparing Palestinians to Native Americans

As previously mentioned, Israel is not a colonial state. Jews are an aboriginal people of the Middle East, centuries of displacement notwithstanding. It never forced Hebrew/Jewish culture on its neighbors. It never committed genocide; in fact, the Palestinian population grew to 10x its original number since the Zionist repatriation project began. There was never a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Arab population of Israel/Palestine (see the in-depth accounts of Benny Morris, for example).

An indigenous people only loses their status after completely assimilating into a different culture and abandoning their previous identity. The Jewish people are still Jews, regardless of where we lived. We are still indigenous.

7. Don’t call Palestinians “the REAL Hebrews/Israelites”

This is antisemitic for reasons outlined in part 1, number 5. It is an example of identity theft which also has very noticeable echoes of replacement theology. In other words, the “old” Jews (i.e. us) are obsolete and no longer relevant. This new group (originally Christians, then Muslims, and now Palestinians) are the legitimate inheritors of the Jewish mantle. Whereas the Christian church once fashioned itself as the “true Israel”, today’s antisemites now champion Palestinians as the “true Israelites”.

Don’t do it.

8. Don’t say “Muslims/Palestinians are the new Jews”

This one is closely related to number 7, in that it is yet another example of modernized replacement theology.

At any rate, Muslims number at least 1 billion, we number 14 million (at best). Muslims have almost 50 nation-states, many of them rich with oil and other natural resources; we only have one (and even that one tiny state still hasn’t been accepted by vast swathes of the global community). Muslims qua Muslims (and ditto for Palestinians) have never faced centuries of statelessness, exile, persecution, pogroms, genocides, apartheid-like laws, subjugation, and slavery. Hatred and distrust for Palestinians, or Muslims writ large, is not enshrined in two of the world’s most popular religions. This is not to say that they do not suffer, of course. But in an objective sense, it simply does not measure up to the Jewish experience, historically or presently. Today’s Jews are the same as yesterday’s Jews: us.

9. Support for any movement that doesn’t recognize Israel

BDS, founded by Omar “I will never recognize a Jewish state in Palestine” Barghouti, falls under this category. If that’s not enough proof, take a closer look at BDS’s demands. What do you think would happen to Israel if all of those demands were met? “A Palestine to a Palestine”, to quote our friend Barghouti.

10. Crucifixion imagery and blood libels

For centuries, Jews were massacred in the belief that they (and not Pontius Pilate) killed Jesus. And as the Romans hijacked Christianity and disseminated it throughout Europe, they did so in the knowledge that it would be perilous to implicate themselves in the death of the messiah, so they switched the protagonists around and blamed the (already hated) Jews for his crucifixion (it should also be noted that crucifixion is a specifically ROMAN execution method; Jewish executions consisted primarily of stoning, and the “crime” for which Jesus was executed was no crime at all, in Jewish law). Christian tradition stresses the pacifistic, innocent, and virtuous nature of Jesus, and it is precisely this view that magnifies the horror of the Jews’ allegedly urging the Romans to crucify him. Contemporary anti-Israel critiques often draw on the Jewish crucifixion myth: the Palestinians, being portrayed as innocent and blameless, are ruthlessly persecuted by the irredeemably evil Zionist Jews.

The blood libel also traces its origins to Christian Europe, particularly Britain. It is the belief that Jews murder gentiles (originally white, and now Palestinian) to extract their blood in baking matzah, or for some other insidious Jewish ritual. Likewise, this paradigm is also very common among anti-Israel activists; be it accusations of organ harvesting, posters depicting Netanyahu or Sharon drinking Palestinian blood, and even accusations of poisoning Palestinian water which echo the worst medieval anti-Jewish fanaticism.

Needless to say, there are better ways to criticize Israel’s faults without hearkening back to ancient libels.

11. Marginalizing antisemitism

Do not tell us that antisemitism is “dead”. Do not tell us that Jews have “made it” and are no longer oppressed. Do not tell us that antisemitism is a “minor” issue that barely even warrants our attention. And most importantly, do NOT tell us that antisemitic acts are a “justified response to oppression”. NOTHING justifies bigotry. Ever.

Not only is antisemitism still alive, it is at its worst levels since the end of WWII. 1 in 4 adults harbor antisemitic beliefs. Jews are, per capita, one of the most attacked minorities in the United States (that’s without even mentioning Europe). That’s not “minor”.

Ultimately, this ties back into number 1: you are not Jewish. And until you’ve lived your life in our shoes (or in my case, sandals), you don’t get to decide whether or not our experiences are valid.

12. Dehumanizing language

Israelis are human beings, warts and all. We are not a monolith, we are not an “entity”, we are not a cabal hellbent on world domination, and we are not the children of Lucifer who were sent to Earth to carry out “his work”. We are just like everybody else. We are people: with feelings, with opinions, with pain, and most importantly, with rights.

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