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A prayer shawl stained in blood at an Istanbul synagogue, November 2003. (Moshe Milner/Laam)
24.07.2019

Israel and the Politicization of Antisemitism

It is hard to think of a group that has faced as many accusations as the Jewish people have, and therefore it is hard to think of possible critique of Israel that will not appear to reference an accusation Jews have faced before. And yet, maybe not every critique is antisemitic?

In recent years, antisemitism has once again become a topic of discussion in the political arena of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Three phenomena are particularly notable: a rise in violent expressions of antisemitism by the far-right in the West; a rise in the expression of antisemitic views among Muslim communities in the West; and accusations of the Left in the West of antisemitism.

While the antisemitism on the Right is perceived as the resurgence of traditional antisemitism, Muslim antisemitism is seen as an export to the West of the antisemitism common in Muslim countries. The antisemitism on the Left, on the other hand, is seen as a manifestation of “new antisemitism” linked to the solidarity of the Left with victims of the West and demonization of Israel – the tip of the spear of imperialism and Western neo-colonialism, in their view. The antisemitism of the far-right and Muslims is often straight forward, in that it clearly targets Jews. On the other hand, the antisemitism of the Left manifests, supposedly, in extreme criticism of Israel and by utilizing classic antisemitic imagery and stereotypes when lambasting the State of Israel, Zionism or Zionists.

One of the problems when discussing the “new antisemitism” is that Jews have been accused in the past of so many different things, making it possible to link every claim made against the State of Israel and bodies related to it to accusations leveled against Jews in the past. In fact, it can be argued that one of the prominent aspects of antisemitism, which distinguishes it from hostility toward and prevalent stereotypes of other groups is the wide array of accusations and negative portrayals of Jews. The Jewish people have been accused of spreading communism and socialism, but also of inventing capitalism; of being greedy and ignoring basic moral rules when it comes to dealing with non-Jews, but also of promoting egalitarian, universalistic and anti-nationalist ideologies; of being dirt poor and humiliated, but also of desiring to take over the world.

One explanation for this diverse set of accusations is that “the Jew” has played a central component in the historical identity of the West, so that the stereotypes attributed to them are grounded not only in the perception of Jews by Christians, but also in the way they used the category of “Jewishness” to understand their own world, and to criticize the processes, bodies and individuals who represented what they detested. As a result, it is hard to think of a group that has been accused of as many different, contradictory and far-fetched charges as the Jewish people have and for such a long duration. Hence, it is hard to think of possible critique of Israel that will not appear to reference an accusation Jews have faced before.

For example, when U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar tweeted that the reason American representatives support Israel is money, this claim was immediately perceived as antisemitic, since the mere linkage of money to the pro-Israel lobby is reminiscent of accusations of Jews as puppet-masters, swaying politics through their wealth. The fact that money is indeed an important reason for support of Israel has become, in effect, marginal in the entire discussion. This pattern repeated itself when Omar spoke about the loyalty to Israel the same pro-Israel lobby group demands of congresspeople. This claim was seen as referencing the accusation leveled against Jews of having a dual loyalty – to the State of Israel, and to the “state within a state” that Jewish people form in their countries of residence. The comment of Labor Leader in Britain, Jeremy Corbyn, that Zionists do not understand British irony, was also seen as a dog-whistle for the age-old accusation that Jews are “foreign” in whatever place they live, no matter how many generations have passed since their arrival. Many other examples are available.

Antisemitism produced horrors unprecedented in human history, so one would expect that every charge of antisemitism would be made carefully, since politicization of this accusation cheapens the memory of antisemitism’s uncountable Jewish victims. Instead, the politicization of antisemitism in recent years has reached absurd proportions. Thus, for example, some repeatedly make the claim that the mere demand that Israel become a country of all its citizens, meaning voiding the Jewish identity of the State, is an antisemitic demand. The fact that this claim turns the vast majority of Palestinians in particular and Arabs in general into anti-Semites has not prevented respected scholars of the Holocaust from making it. The conclusion arising from this claim – that extreme racism should thus be attributed to the Right in Israel, which not only opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state but also effectively blocks it from emerging – does not deter supporters of Israel from making similar arguments.

In the same vein, there is a common claim that the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel is antisemitic because it calls for BDS of Israel and not other countries accused of much graver crimes. It would have been possible to accuse the supporters of BDS against the Apartheid regime in South Africa of a similar racism, since much greater horrors were happening at the time. Indeed, those who defended the Apartheid regime at the time made a similar claim, and pointed out the supposed hypocrisy of focusing on that regime.

Here too, comparing Israeli actions toward the Palestinians is instructive – if BDS against the State of Israel is racism, how do we call the much more severe and repressive set of sanctions and limitation placed by Israel on Gaza and the West Bank? The perception that all comparison between Israeli actions and those of the Nazis – ridiculous as they may be – is an expression of antisemitism and “demonization” of Israel, is also deeply problematic. What racism should we ascribe to people such as Ben Gurion and Begin who often compared Palestinians in particular and Arabs in general to Nazis? Yeshayau Leibowitz, too, spoke about “Judeo-Nazis.” Keeping these individuals in mind allows us to see how this charge of antisemitism is problematic.

Undoubtedly, the politicization of antisemitism has proven itself as an effective tool in deflecting criticism of Israel and besmirching its critics, and the temptation to keep using it is great. However, beyond how problematic it is from a moral standpoint, continuing to use this charge may lead to disregarding real antisemitism, particularly among the younger generation in the Western Left, which is losing its patience with this politicization.

 

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