Criticizing Israel and anti-Semitism Are Different Things

May 30 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Anti-Semitism is considered to be hatred toward Jews individually and as a group that can be attributed to the Jewish religion and/or ethnicity.” U.S. Department of State, Report on Global Anti-Semitism, January 5, 2005.

Charges of anti-Semitism abound in today’s overheated political landscape. Discussing Israel can be a hazardous undertaking; even agreeing on a definition of anti-Semitism is a battle that can bring about charges of anti-Semitism. Above is the U.S. State Department’s working definition.  The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) says simply that “Anti-Semitism is prejudice and/or discrimination against Jews.” It goes on to observe:

Anti-Semitism can be based on hatred against Jews because of their religious beliefs, their group membership (ethnicity) and sometimes on the erroneous belief that Jews are a race. Jews are, in fact, of all different races.

Both these definitions would seem not to include criticism of the Israeli state and/or its policies.

Yet more and more this sort of criticism draws accusations of anti-Semitism. As Sholto Byrnes observes in the New Statesman, “[I]f you dare to criticise its government or almost any of its actions, the insinuations of anti-Semitism are instant.” In particular, Republicans and conservative Christians employ the term to deflect any criticism of Israel and its policies toward its Islamic neighbors and Israel’s Palestinian minority.

The battle lines were clearly defined by the Siege of Gaza, in which over 1400 were killed and 5300 wounded in a 23-day siege through January 18, 2009. Liberals and progressives found the hard way that even accusing Israel of war crimes equated somehow with anti-Semitism. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Saying, “an Israeli soldier murdered a Palestinian” does not equate with, “I hate Jews,” or even with “I hate Israel.” But that is the interpretation given even a moderate level criticism of Israeli government actions (or inaction). Nor does saying an Israeli soldier murdered a Palestinian preclude a Palestinian having likewise murdered an Israeli. War crimes take place during war, on all sides. No side is free of them. It’s unreasonable to say you can accuse a Palestinian but not an Israeli because we like Israel (for whatever reason) but not Palestinians.  Certainly signs that say “stop the holocaust in Gaza” such as were seen during the Siege of Gaza are absurd but are such signs anti-Semitic, or merely a sign of ignorance, like comparing Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto?

Conservative Christians react violently to any criticism of the Jewish state, primarily due to the Holy Land’s importance to Christian end-time scenarios. Concern for Judaism as a religion is lacking, as this Christian end-time scenario calls for the Jews to become Christians or be destroyed along with Pagans and Muslims and everyone else. But despite the essential hypocrisy of this position, “Israel Right or Wrong” has become a rallying cry for conservative Christians. The rising tide of fundamentalism in the United States has only exacerbated matters.

What is essential to understand is that criticism of Israel does not equate to criticism of the Jewish religion or Jewish ethnicity. As the State Department report cited above goes on to explain,

An important issue is the distinction between legitimate criticism of policies and practices of the State of Israel, and commentary that assumes an anti-Semitic character. The demonization of Israel, or vilification of Israeli leaders, sometimes through comparisons with Nazi leaders, and through the use of Nazi symbols to caricature them, indicates an anti-Semitic bias rather than a valid criticism of policy concerning a controversial issue.

Obviously, if American citizens are free to criticize their own government they are free to criticize other governments, including that of Israel. It would be ridiculous to privilege Israel above all other nations simply because it is the Jewish state. American citizens are not Israeli citizens after all and are under no obligation to feel any sort of special kinship with the state of Israel, let alone join in with chants of “Israel Right or Wrong!”

But then we see American politicians like Joe Lieberman utter some truly ridiculous things that undermine the idea that Israel is not America:

“Let’s cut the family fighting, the family feud,” Lieberman said. “It’s unnecessary; it’s destructive of our shared national interest. It’s time to lower voices, to get over the family feud between the U.S. and Israel. It just doesn’t serve anybody’s interests but our enemies.”

How is anything that takes place between Israel and the United States a “family feud”? It’s almost as if there are no borders between the two countries. We may have shared national interests but we have shared national interests with Germany too, and with Great Britain, even with Islamic nations like Turkey and Pakistan. If we argue with them is that also “family fighting”?

There is no denying that the United States has close ties with the state of Israel. But friendship does not preclude criticism, and Joe Lieberman needs to understand that. So, perhaps, does the anti-Defamation League. Remember what we said above about criticism of Israel not equating with anti-Semitism? The ADL seems conflicted on that score, even though most Jews do not actually live in Israel – in fact, according to a 2010 report, more Jews live in the U.S. than in Israel! Yet in discussion their mission they say:

Supports the Jewish State by advocating for Israel and explaining political and security issues and the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian/Israel-Arab conflict with U.S. policymakers, the media and the public through programs, publications and contact with officials.

Unsurprisingly then, this is how the ADL reacted to President Obama’s condemnation of Israel for its announcement of new Jewish housing in east Jerusalem in 2010, according to FOX News:

Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he was “shocked and stunned at the administration’s tone and public dressing down of Israel on the issue of future building in Jerusalem.”

“We cannot remember an instance when such harsh language was directed at a friend and ally of the United States,” Foxman said.

Given population figures, shouldn’t the ADL be taking the side of the U.S. over Israel, since more Jews live here than there?

And since President Obama did not criticize Jewish ethnicity or religion, it is difficult to understand why the ADL should become involved in what is purely a political matter between two states. Indeed, in criticizing American policy, is not the ADL itself guilty, by its own logic, of anti-Americanism? Does the ADL hate America? That would be an absurd position as is claiming criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism. Yet conservatives do claim – have claimed since the Bush administration – that criticism of American policy is anti-American, even anti-Christian, given George W. Bush’s divine right to rule.

But we are sliding into absurdity here, and the expectation of conservative Christians that everyone without exception should share their feelings of kinship on religious grounds is unreasonable. Not every American is a Christian or a Jew. We are not Israeli citizens. For the rest of us, atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, Pagans like me, Israel is just another foreign state, like every other foreign state, and therefore to be judged on its merits like any other foreign state. Yes, they are an ally, but the United States has many allies. I can criticize any of them if I wish too.

Conservative Christians make much of a claim to something called “Judeo-Christian” and expect the rest of us to be awed by some ultra-sacred association between Judaism and Christianity, an association that is sadly lacking in fact and in history. As a term Judeo-Christian is not only misleading, it is inaccurate. At the least, as Mark S. Smith points out, the “so-called ‘Judeo Christian tradition’” is “itself a Christian ideological construct of sorts.”[1] Judeo-Christian, as a term, is necessitated by a Christian reliance upon Jewish scripture; it is meant to show continuity between the two bodies of texts that does not in fact exist.

Christianity has not through most of its 2000 year history seen Israel as a companion religion, but as a replaced religion, a superseded religion. Even through two Jewish wars Pagan Rome did not outlaw the Jewish religion. Unlike those Pagan Romans, the Christians did attack the Jewish religion and continued to attack it for most of 2000 years. This very attitude of superseding is in fact anti-Semitic, and it is a very still held by most Christians whether they realize it or not, when they refer to the “Old” Testament and the “New” Testament. The New Testament replaces the Old Testament after all, just as Paul told his Gentile converts that they were the “new” Chosen People, the “new” Israel.

The entire New Testament is anti-Semitic in tone, but the Gospels themselves are also full of anti-Semitism. John is the worst in this regard. In John, Jesus does not appear to be Jewish at all. He talks of “the Jews” to his disciples (13.33) as if he is not one of them, and to the High Priest (18.20), Pilate (18.36). When he is speaking directly to other Jews he speaks of “your” Father (6.49) as in “your father Abraham” (8.56) as well as “your” Law *8.17; 10.34; cf. 15.25) which he reinterprets, including saying that circumcision is meaningless compared to his work (7.22-24) and the Sabbath, which Jesus has destroyed (!) in John 5.18.

Christian anti-Semitism was not about a shared truth, but about imposing a new truth upon an old. That is what it is still about, as continuing Christian belief in Jesus’ return testifies. For Jews, as for Pagans, there is no “good news” in the New Testament.

In formulating American foreign policy, nothing contained in the Bible or in any other book of sacred scripture should matter or be consulted. American foreign policy must not be guided by the needs or requirement of any particular religion, and the American people must remain free to criticize their own or any other government, including Israel, without being subjected to unreasonable accusations of anti-Semitism. In the end, equating criticism of Israel is as unreasonable as waving signs about the holocaust in Gaza, and left and right alike need to step back and take a deep breath. To have a constructive dialog, we have to do more than simply accuse each other of hate.

[1] Mark S. Smith, “Ugaritic Studies and Israelite Religion: A Retrospective View,” Near Eastern Archaeology 65 (2002), 19.






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