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Is being a critic of Israeli state policies the same as being an anti-Semite?
Recently a battle has begun over the way the U.S. State Department defines the term “anti-Semitic.” As the Los Angeles Times notes, the current State Department version, “defines more general ethnic and religious hatred against Jews but also declares that it is anti-Semitic to demonize Israel, deny Israel’s right to exist, liken Israeli policy to that of the Nazis and blame Israel for all inter-religious tensions.” The Times goes on to note that
57 rabbis from California and 104 University of California faculty members called on UC administrators to adopt that State Department definition when dealing with protests and potential discipline for anti-Semitic statements. They said they did not aim to silence free speech, but they contend that too often protests against Israel have turned into inciting anti-Jewish attitudes. In a letter to UC President Janet Napolitano and the UC regents, the rabbis urged that campus leaders “be trained in using the State Department definition to identify anti-Semitic behavior and to address it with the same promptness and vigor as they do other forms of racial, ethnic and gender bigotry and discrimination.”
Careful readers will note the extreme slipperiness of the assertion that the petitioners do not “aim to silence free speech, but …” They seem to address the issue of how this definition of anti-Semitism might be used to suppress free speech, but then they plow ahead undeterred, as if the denial of academic freedom and free speech was an unfortunate but inevitable price to pay.
Before we sign on to this bargain, it’s necessary to get back to the basic issue: Is being a critic of Israeli state policies actually the same as being an anti-Semite? If every time one voices a criticism of Israel one is acting as an anti-Semite, and if making an anti-Semitic statement is prohibited by the State Department, then ardent supporters of Israeli state policies have won a huge victory — they have essentially made Israel immune from criticism, and made anyone even thinking about raising a serious concern about Israel think twice about just how (or even if) to voice that point of view. But that victory is based on false reasoning, if not a lie.
Being an anti-Semite means denigrating, persecuting and victimizing a people solely because of the fact they are Jewish. Being a critic of Israel’s policies means criticizing a set of actions undertaken by a government. This seems self-evident, but those who wish to make the equation between anti-Semite and critic of Israeli state policies care less for accuracy and more about silencing and punishing critics with any means available, legitimate or not.
We all should seriously think about why we are, and should be, especially firm in our condemnation of anti-Semitism. At the same time we should, out of respect for the term itself, not abuse its meaning and significance for political or ideological gain. We condemn anti-Semitism not only because bigotry is wrong; we condemn it because of the terrible effects anti-Semitism has had historically, and continues to have today. Anti-Semitism must be challenged swiftly and decisively by each and every one of us.
However, some Israel advocacy groups are making it more difficult to combat actual instances of anti-Semitism by using the label in a broad and reckless fashion simply to smear critics of Israeli state policies. They also make it impossible to defend the human rights of Palestinians, which is what many of them aim to do. We are de facto then put in the position of acquiescing to the status quo; we are de facto made into tacit supporters of Israel, out of fear of being tarred with the anti-Semite brush. In sum, for those who are critical of, or at least dubious about, Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and others, we are forced to be silent, we are forced to go against our better selves, out of fear of being called a horrible thing, something we detest. Another way of putting this: We are forced to be dishonest, we become hypocrites by omission.
Now our own inner silencing mechanisms are being aided and abetted by the state, and by certain pro-Israel organizations. Legislation in several states and at the national level has accepted and exploited the equation of criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism, targeting in particular the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Such bills use precisely the same tactics and even words of Benjamin Netanyahu. In a 2014 speech before AIPAC, Netanyahu criticized BDS no fewer than 18 times: “Attempts to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, the most threatened democracy on Earth, are simply the latest chapter in the long and dark history of anti-Semitism. Those who wear the BDS label should be treated exactly as we treat any anti-Semite or bigot. They should be exposed and condemned.”
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