More on Antisemitism/Anti-Zionism Debate

Steven Richard Sheffey writes a weekly e-newsletter, “Chicagoland Pro-Israel Political Update” — which he describes as “Calling balls and strikes for the pro-Israel community since 2006.” His June 13, 2021 edition is headlined “But is it Antisemitic?”  An avowed Zionist, Sheffey quotes the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, but not as a polemical counter to the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) “working definition.” This is most of that week’s content

In their letter urging all Americans to stand against antisemitism, tech leaders chose these examples: “A violent mob macing and punching a man in New York wearing a yarmulke. Shattered synagogue windows and attacks on Jewish community centers. A group of people throwing bottles and yelling ‘die dirty Jew’ at a dinner in LA.”

They didn’t mention opposition to Zionism, accusing Israel of engaging in apartheid, or holding Israel to a double standard. The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism defines antisemitism as “discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).” It provides illustrations of antisemitism generally, antisemitism regarding Israel, and what is not antisemitism regarding Israel, concluding that “in general, the line between antisemitic and non-antisemitic speech is different from the line between unreasonable and reasonable speech.” 

We sometimes forget these distinctions and mistake harsh, unfair or offensive comments about Israel for antisemitism. It is vital that we call out antisemitism from all sources in all forms. Doing that effectively means avoiding false accusations of antisemitism. It also means distinguishing between fighting antisemitism and advocating for Israel. We don’t need to make the “case for Israel” to fight antisemitism, nor should we. If the conduct called out by the tech leaders was motivated by animus toward Israel, it doesn’t matter if Israel was right or wrong. The attacks were antisemitic either way. Conversely, while we should be conscious of antisemitism when we advocate for Israel, we should do our best to defend Israel on the merits rather than shut down the debate by leveling false charges of antisemitism.

I am a Zionist. If someone excludes me from an event or harasses me because I am Jewish or because I am a Zionist or because I support Israel, that’s antisemitic. But if someone opposes Zionism, that person is (in my view) wrong, but not necessarily antisemitic. Imagine if you are a Palestinian whose family was displaced (or worse) in Israel’s War of Independence. Are you antisemitic if you view the creation of Israel as a catastrophe? For your family, and perhaps for your people, it was a catastrophe, and your opposition to Zionism is based not on rejection of Jewish right to self-determination or hatred of Jews, but on opposition to a movement that thwarted your national aspirations and led to your family or your people losing their homes. That’s not antisemitism, and neither is opposition to Zionism based on identification with Palestinians. It can be–it depends on how it is expressed–but not necessarily.

One does not have to agree with everything in Joshua Shanes‘s fascinating reflection on Zionism to at least agree that we should distinguish political action against the State of Israel from attacks on Jewish individuals because they support Israel and that we should “denounce those who would ascribe to Israel clear antisemitic mythology, such as conspiracies of control over global media, other countries leadership, the world economy, etc.”

Accusing Israel of apartheid is not necessarily antisemitic. Three Israeli prime ministers have used the term “apartheid” to describe their concerns about the occupation: Ehud OlmertYitzhak Rabin, and Ehud Barak, who wrote in his memoir that as long as the occupation is an interim arrangement with the ultimate goal of a political resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians, treating Jewish settlers differently from Palestinians in the West Bank, legally and politically, is defensible. “But under a one-state vision, it will become harder and harder to rebut comparisons made with the old South Africa.”

Last week, two former Israeli ambassadors to South Africa wrote that Israel’s actions in the occupied territories constitute apartheid (they did not say that Israel was an apartheid state), in part because they believe that “the occupation is not temporary, and there is not the political will in the Israeli government to bring about its end.”

We can disagree with them, but it’s hard to call them antisemitic. Israel is not an apartheid state because in Israel, Jews and Arabs have substantially equal rights. But that’s not true in the West Bank, and the longer the occupation continues, the stronger the analogy becomes. For those of us who bristle when Israel is accused of apartheid, the answer is not to accuse the accusers of antisemitism, but to reaffirm our support for a two-state solution and to prove–or help ensure–that the occupation remains temporary.

A two-state solution will prevent Israel from becoming an apartheid state, but a two-state solution requires two partners. Israel cannot do it alone because this is a struggle between two nations claiming the same land, not one racial minority fighting for equal rights within a country whose government can unilaterally create needed change.

Nuance is a lost art, whether 280 characters on Twitter or 1,000 words in a newsletter. To be clear: Even where opposition to Zionism is not rooted in antisemitism, must defend Zionism and be proud to be Zionists. While analogies to apartheid might, in some instances, be intellectually defensible, it is a loaded term that means different things to different people and needlessly inflames the debate. Israel is not an apartheid state. My point is that we should discuss these questions on the merits rather than improperly conflate criticism of the State of Israel with antisemitism. Doing so will help us better defend Israel and better fight antisemitism.

Not everyone agrees with me. That’s fine. We don’t have to smother our disagreements in the name of unity. The better approach is to disagree respectfully and not doubt each other’s sincerity or good intentions. TTN