Is Criticizing Israel Anti-Semitic?

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Says It Is

Israel, protesters
Protesters at The White House, February 15, 2017. Photo credit: Susan Melkisethian / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is promoting a three-year plan to help secure Jewish communities and bolster awareness of anti-Semitism. This effort includes a controversial redefinition of anti-Semitism, which touches on one of the most polarizing issues in the Middle East and the West: Israel’s political, military and diplomatic actions toward the Palestinians and the occupied territories.

As part of its three-year plan, OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) published what it called a “practical guide” to “Understanding Anti-Semitic Hate Crimes and Addressing the Security Needs of Jewish Communities.”

This report provided recommendations to governments, law enforcement officials, civil servants, activists, teachers, religious representatives, Jewish community representatives, and MPs on how to recognize and address anti-Semitic hate crimes.

The report relies on a controversial definition of anti-Semitism, which includes criticism of Israel as an indicator of anti-Semitic behavior. Critics contend that an Israel-centered definition blurs the focus on a serious human rights matter, and in this sense dilutes a form of racist and religious bigotry by extending it to moral and political policy positions that can be properly debated in public forums.

Anti-Semitism

Photo credit: ODIHR (PDF)

Stretching the Definition

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“Whereas classical anti-Semitism is aimed at the Jewish people or the Jewish religion, ‘new anti-Semitism’ is aimed at the Jewish state,” said Nathan Sharansky in 2004. Sharansky is founder of the Global Forum on Antisemitism, an organization seeking to push forward a new understanding of anti-Semitism, which sees hostility toward the state of Israel as hostility to the Jewish people as a whole.

The European Union Monitoring Committee (EUMC) was the first institution to officially adopt this interpretation — criticism of Israel — for their “Working Definition of Antisemitism” (WDA).

It says, for example, that an indicator of anti-Semitism is the “denial of Jewish rights of self-determination.” This formulation could include denouncing Israeli military actions to extend the occupied territories — actions which both Amnesty International and the UN have labeled war crimes.

Following strong criticism from many individuals and groups — including European Jews for a Just Peace (EJJP) and Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JfJfP) and David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism — EUMC’s successor, the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), dropped the working definition of anti-Semitism in 2013, and never replaced it with an alternative one.

Yet the contested definition was adopted word for word in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), and by the US State Department in 2017 (in line with the Global Antisemitism Review Act). The UK, Romania, and Austria also refer to the working definition of anti-Semitism, along with many other institutions and monitoring bodies, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the World Jewish Congress.

Gaza, family

Family in Gaza Photo credit: Begemot / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This position endorses Israel’s political strategy, which some critics charge capitalizes on the misleading overlap of anti-Zionism (opposition to a political ideology) and anti-Semitism (a form of racial bigotry).

“Israeli nationalism is based on Jewish religious affiliation as a constitutive element of the state of Israel. It is not the exclusive element, but it is the predominant one since the shift of the power relations to the right of the political spectrum,” Massimiliano Trentin, an expert on the history of the Middle East and North Africa at the University of Bologna, told WhoWhatWhy. Still, he adds, “it is useful to distinguish between antisemitic acts, and critics and opposition to a sovereign state, [such] as the state of Israel.”

When asked how people can have a clear overview of anti-Semitic hate crimes given the contested nature of its definition, Kevin E. Grisham, assistant director of research at the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism in California, told WhoWhatWhy that “definitions vary [and] how they are recorded varies.”

In this sense, the annexes of OSCE’s practical guide are revealing. Targets of anti-Semitic crime may be Jewish or not, and can be considered victims of anti-Semitism when they are simply related to Israel (which officially is a Jewish — not Judaic, as in religious — democracy).

The OSCE document holds that “it is important to recall that anti-Semitic statements or slogans may wrongfully be presented as merely critical of Israel or anti-Zionist.”

Under this rubric, for a crime to be considered anti-Semitic it suffices that there be the “perception” of it. Or an expert “might also be able to identify a bias motivation that was not evident to the victim.” For example, an indicator that would be incriminating is if the perpetrator makes reference to “Khaibar,” by this “evok[ing] the story of the Jews of Khaibar, who were massacred in the Arabian Peninsula 1400 years ago.”

“Definitional inflation, like any inflation, cheapens the currency. The more things get to count as antisemitic, the less awful antisemitism is going to sound.”

One of the bias indicators of anti-Semitism, the OSCE guide notes, is evidence (drawings, graffiti or some such) showing that the perpetrators thought that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians legitimizes the attacks. In this case, they are liable to be investigated for anti-Semitism.

In other words, any speech or act against a person or property — which is, directly or not, related to Israel, Jewish history or the Holocaust — may be defined as an anti-Semitic hate crime. The space for interpretation is wide.

“There is an irreconcilable difference of opinion about how language about Israel can be judged to be antisemitic,” says a spokesperson from Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JfJfP), who asked not to be named.

“There is often a knee-jerk reaction to criticism of Israel that deems it antisemitic from the outset…This means that organizations that measure antisemitism using criticism of Israel will assess antisemitic threats very different to those that do not.”

Recent accusations against the UK Labour party illustrate those radical divergences. The political activist Jackie Walker has been charged with anti-Semitism for arguing on Facebook that there should be no hierarchies in genocides (recalling slaughter in African countries during colonization).

The Equation Israel = Jewish Is Misleading

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Emanuela Trevisan, Hebraist professor at the Ca’Foscari University of Venice, believes that educating people about Judaism and Jewishness should be one of the key strategies to counter “the equation Israeli=Jew.”

The understanding of a “new anti-Semitism,” she said, overlooks the fact that the Jewish population is not a monolithic entity, but is enormously diverse in terms of ethnicity, geographical origin, language, religious practice, and, obviously, political opinions.

Benjamin Nentanyahu

Prime Minister Benjamin Nentanyahu talks to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer during an interview, May 24, 2011. Photo credit: IsraelinUSA / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

“I am absolutely against the Netanyahu government,” professor Trevisan told WhoWhatWhy. “That does not mean I am an anti-Semite. They are very different matters. It is important to underline this difference, the Israelis are Israeli and the Jewish are Jewish.” Trevisan adds how the overlap of Zionism and Judaism “is part of Israel’s policy, but it is counterproductive, it is a dangerous confusion.”

Numerous public figures, professionals and academics turned the argument around in an open letter to The Guardian last December. They wrote that “it is antisemitic to associate Jews with the actions of the Israeli state,” arguing that the definition promulgated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (endorsed by OSCE) “will strengthen not weaken antisemitism.”

Back in 2002, Michael Neumann, philosophy professor at Trent University, wrote, “Inflating the meaning of ‘antisemitism’ to include anything politically damaging to Israel is a double-edged sword … Definitional inflation, like any inflation, cheapens the currency. The more things get to count as antisemitic, the less awful antisemitism is going to sound.

By the same token, Jews for Justice for Palestine told WhoWhatWhy, “It is precisely because we take antisemitism seriously, that we are so concerned when we see antisemitism allegations used as a weapon to defend policies of expansion, occupation and abuse of human rights by Israel.”

This, according to JfJfP, can lead to two potential dangers: “it devalues its meaning and desensitizes people, making it much more difficult to tackle real instances of antisemitic language or conduct.” Such confusion also threatens to close the debate on Israel/Palestine, “as people who disagree with Israel’s behavior retreat into silence for fear of being on the receiving end of an antisemitism accusation.”


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from graffiti 1 (thierry ehrmann / Flickr – CC BY 2.0) and graffiti 2 (Neil Ward / Flickr – CC BY 2.0).

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34 responses to “Is Criticizing Israel Anti-Semitic?”

  1. Wesley Stubbs Sandel says:

    Opposing Israeli racism, terrorism, colonialism, mass murder, ethnic cleansing and apartheid is no more antisemitism than opposing apartheid in South Africa was anti-Christian and opposing segregation in America was anti-White.

  2. Joe Ceonnia says:

    My family is half Jewish, but I’m concerned, because most of the world is unaware that Judaism is not the same as the Zionist Political Agenda, Run from Israel’s Political Majority Base, and that these are very different ideologies, there are politics and there is religion, this should be different, and “Jews for Justice for Palestine” is just one of these differences. There are different Jews all over the world that don’t agree with the tactics of the handling of Palestine and the peoples’ land there. This is a very touchy subject. But I am one that doesn’t agree with the political tactics of bulldozing homes leaving these people homeless, there must be a better way. One solution, to buy the land at an above price value for these lands, Jews around the world I believe would contribute monies in order to make this a more humane way for much needed land. I think & believe this would endear Israel to the world, because the way these land grabs are happening, I believe it is hurting the reputation of all Jews around this great wide world. No matter what, we should be looking for positive results only. Please if you’re Jewish,, hear and evaluate other ideas. Being somewhat, what the German people did to the Jewish community in Nazi Germany in the 1930s was despicable, so let our people not make the same mistake, the world is watching. This I believe hurts all Jewish Peoples around the world. We must find a better way at peace, I keep thinking of how the Jews were treated back then, and how incensed I felt and feel to this very day. Peace is our only salvation. The way Jews are viewed around the world is very important to all Jewish peoples, we want peace. But we don’t want aggression against the Jewish Communities around the world either. As I mentioned at the start, this is a very touchy & difficult subject.

  3. Jonn Mero says:

    Considering the constant Israeli desecration of the memory of Jewish Holocaust victims by behaving much like the Final Solution mob, Israel’s conscious abuse of anti-Semitism makes all Jews vulnerable for hate and distrust. And until Jews clearly distance themselves from Israeli politics, and go after those who underpin Israel’s Lebensraum policy, it is very hard to sympathise with Jews.

    • robert e litman says:

      You should only have had to live with and through the final solution mob. My parents did, and I’ve lost aunts, uncles and grandparents to the final solution mob. You have no idea what you are talking about, and, like most anti-semites, you use Jewish persecution genocide and tragedy to again, stick it to the Jews. We know what you are doing, we are wise to it, you are not fooling anyone.

    • gustave courbet says:

      While I don’t agree with Mero’s framing of the issue (lumping “the Jews” into a cohesive block to be sympathized with or repudiated), the above article does make needed and valid points concerning the rhetoric around Israeli policy.

      Painting people of conscience as bigots because they oppose political actions of a state undercuts the credibility of Israel and those that use such broad-brush tactics. The irony is that both anti-Semites and those that use the descriptor as an all-purpose slur are guilty of sloppy thinking and generalization to the point of absurdity.

    • Comments editor says:

      Sir,
      ‘Maybe, as a start you should get in touch with your own anti-semitism.’
      Please refrain from personal attacks such as the one you have just made against Mr.Courbet.

      Comments Editor.

    • gustave courbet says:

      So we’re dispensing advice are we? Perhaps making sweeping character judgements based on faulty inference from a specific and narrow discussion is, dare I say it, a bad idea.

      If you’d like to expand the discussion into an explication of western history and its various bizarre and irrational belief systems, an open-ended question is likely better to elicit such than your personal attack lead-in.

      A further note on style: wait until the end of your response to insult someone, as it makes it far more likely that they’ll slog through your ponderous sermonizing. Cheers.

    • james warren says:

      Labeling and name-calling prevent adult collaborative problem-solving and respectful communication.

  4. Jerry Mael says:

    Question authority

  5. Dave4321 says:

    It’s antisemitism when you hold Israel to a different standard from any other country. No one talks about the occupation of Tibet, northern cyprus or western sahara for example. No one cares how Palestinians are treated outside the West bank and Gaza. No one complains about how the Lebanese treat Palestinians, forcing them to stay in camps that make Gaza look like Disney world, having actual apartheid laws, not giving citizenship to 3rd generation born in Lebanon. No one complained when Assad starved 200 Palestinians to death. I could go on and on. So if you reserve all or a vast majority of your criticism for the Jewish state alone, you are anti-Semitic.

    • Jonn Mero says:

      According to you.
      Israel and USA are the world’s worst terrorist states if you take a look at their behaviour towards their ‘enemies’. And of course, they label all who fight against their terror for terrorists, and treat them accordingly.

    • Dave4321 says:

      Right because Israel killed hundreds of thousands of people like Syria.

    • Larry Payne says:

      The war in Syria is totally different from Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine and extended bombing campaigns in Gaza. Syria’s government is fighting an insurrection planned and funded by the U.S. and other NATO countries. Those who are killed in Syria are paid for with U.S. taxpayer dollars. General Wesley Clark exposed the Neocon Plan in a speech in 2007. He explained that a “Foreign Policy Coup” took place right after 9/11, in which a group of hard-nosed Neocons took control of U.S. foreign policy and vowed to overthrow the governments of 7 countries in the Middle East in 5 years. They’re behind schedule since only three governments have been overthrown so far. Russia has made Syria’s overthrow much more difficult than the neocon’s expected. Now China has decided to be Syria’s ally as well. The Neocons are asking for WWIII if they keep pushing for Assad’s ouster.

    • james warren says:

      War is the terrorism of the rich and terrorism is the war of the poor.
      Terrorism is fundamentally political, not religious.

    • gustave courbet says:

      I doubt many people who criticize Israel would disagree with you. Oppression is oppression. I think many might consider the Israeli issue of particular concern because the US is such a close economic and military ally, meaning that Americans share some of the complicity with Israeli policies (as they do with those of Saudi Arabia for similar reasons).

    • Dave4321 says:

      BS. Total absolute BS. We have more trade with China than any other country. Where is the boycott all goods made in China because of the occupation of Tibet movement? I thought so.

    • james warren says:

      So because the U.S. does not boycott Chinese trade means that America does not work in partnership with China and the Saudis?

    • Dave4321 says:

      The point is that people who Call for a boycott of Israel don’t call for a boycott of anyone else. People who claim to care about Palestinians only care about them when Israel is involved. Assad starves 200 Palestinians to death, “pro Palestinians” don’t make a peep.

    • gustave courbet says:

      I’m all for it Dave. China’s oppression of its own people is orders of magnitude greater than that of Israel’s toward Palestine, if only because of the numbers involved.

      If you’re trying to elicit an admission of hypocrisy, you have it: I pay taxes to a warfare state, drive a car, and by things wrapped in plastic made by the super poor. I’d prefer not to though, and I’d hope this was the general goal of the world.

      That said, the “China sucks too” argument does not absolve Israel, Saudi Arabia, or anyone else of moral culpability for crimes against humanity.

    • Dave4321 says:

      But let’s face it, that’s easy for a single anonymous person to say on the internet, but in reality, there is not a single major boycott movement other than against Israel.

    • gustave courbet says:

      Yep, and Israel deserves to be repudiated for their brutal policies. Again, I agree that more attention should be paid to OTHER countries violating human rights, but that’s hardly a compelling reason to STOP a movement to curtail such abuses in Israel.

    • Dave4321 says:

      You are changing the subject. No one is saying Israel should not be criticized if it does something wrong. But when half a million people have been slaughtered next door in Syria, when millions have been killed in Africa, the fact that Israel, ALONE, subject to boycotts is antisemitism. When the UN human rights council censures Israel more than the rest of the entire world combined, that is antisemitism.

    • gustave courbet says:

      No, I’m not Dave. If you’d like my support in your belief that there are most certainly anti-Semitic elements within the protest movement against Israel, you have it. There are, and that is a serious issue for all those who have LEGITIMATE reasons for decrying Israeli policies. If you further would like my agreement that as far as existential human problems go, there are larger tragedies occurring than those in Gaza and the West Bank, you have that as well.

      BUT, again, these problems DO NOT negate the problems Israel’s draconian and racist elements are causing themselves. I agree that there are many issues NOT being discussed that are of extreme importance, and it’s frustrating when a media narrative steers the conversation a different direction, but I’ve also seen Israeli apologists attempting to white-wash their ugly policies. I hope a larger dialogue on human rights in places like Sudan, China, or Saudi Arabia breaks out, but I’ll not ignore the limited discussion going on already on policies that people might be able to change.

    • Dave4321 says:

      Again that is not my point at all. I am not saying protesting Israel is a problem. I am saying ONLY protesting Israel is a problem.

    • gustave courbet says:

      Then we agree, as I stated. Right now the US is complicit in a massive slaughter and humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen in partnership with a brutal regressive theocracy, with little critical coverage.

    • S. Childs says:

      Why are Palestinians in all of these other countries and not in their homeland? You know the answer……………….

    • Dave4321 says:

      Because Arab governments broadcast that they need to temporarily leave so they could kill all the Jews.

    • james warren says:

      To indicate all Arabs are evil and bent on killing Jews is just as ignorantly silly as indicating all Jews are good.

    • james warren says:

      Yeah. When I was young we moved from Texas to Wyoming and then to Utah and finally to Colorado.

  6. robert e litman says:

    Judaism revolves around life as it would be practiced in the State of Israel. Critics of current Israeli government policies can be so without being anti-semitic — however, anyone (including the current Palestinian leadership) who tries to delegitimize the Jewish claim to being indigenous to the Fertile Crescent (Palestine) is. That includes fringe Jewish elements like JFJFP who do not represent the majority of Jews who feel a connection, based on their religion, cultural heritage — really Jewish civilization — to the land of Israel. Re-imagining what once was only an ethnic groups’ historical, religious connection in modern terms (ie Israel as a as a state for Jews with its own language, culture, calendar, holidays, historical and yes, religous and cultural connection and free of persecution and assimilation in the diaspora) is what Zionism is all about. Non-Jews and “Uncle Tom” Jews should not define me, as a Jew, as someone necessarily disconnected from Israel, and absolutely unable to assert myself as a member of a country where I am the majority, in a land where my ancestors came from — if you do, that is anti-semitic.

    • Larry Payne says:

      If you’re an Ashkenazi like most of those who invaded Palestine, it’s very likely that you have no ancestry in Palestine.

  7. newty says:

    Don’t believe anything these 0 credibility dogs utter. “Actions speak louder than words”.