Anti-Semitism: A guide for the perplexed

A parade float at the Aalst Carnaval in Belgium featuring caricatures of Orthodox Jews, with mice on their shoulders, atop money bags, March 3, 2019. (Courtesy of FJO, via JTA)
A parade float at the Aalst Carnaval in Belgium featuring caricatures of Orthodox Jews, with mice on their shoulders, atop money bags, March 3, 2019. (Courtesy of FJO, via JTA)

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, the newly elected representative for Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, recently has caused considerable controversy by her apparent inability to tell the difference between legitimate criticism of the State of Israel and voicing traditional anti-Semitic tropes against Israel and its supporters.  In 2012, she tweeted that Israel had “hypnotized” the world.  Last month, she attributed pro-Israel sentiment to the financial clout of the pro-Israel lobby (“It’s all about the Benjamins, baby”). Then last week, speaking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Omar stated “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

Many, such as Senator Bernie Sanders, have come to her defense, arguing that criticism of Israel should not be equated with anti-Semitism. Others, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have suggested that Rep. Omar, a refugee from Somali, doesn’t realize that what she is saying is anti-Semitic (“I think she has a different experience in the use of words, doesn’t understand that some of them are fraught with meaning”).

To simplify matters for Rep. Omar and her ilk, I have prepared the following lists to distinguish legitimate criticism of Israel from classic anti-Semitic stereotypes.  It’s not rocket science.

A.  Things you can say about Israel:

1.  Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is in violation of international law.

2.  Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal and an obstacle to peace.

3.  Israel is not seriously pursuing a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

4.  Israel violates human rights in its treatment of Palestinians.

5.  Israel discriminates against its Arab citizens.

6.  Israel is a racist, apartheid state.

7.  Israel engages in genocide against the Palestinians.

8.  The 1948 partition plan was unfair to the Palestinians.

9.  Israel was responsible for the Six Day war.

10. Israel’s response to terrorism is disproportional.

Of course, none of the above is true, but they are factual statements that can be tested against the historical record and are legitimate subjects of debate.

The following, however, are not legitimate subjects of debate.  They are traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes dating back millennia without any basis in fact or history.  They have historically been used as excuses for the persecution, demonization, and murder of Jews.  They are beyond the pale.  If Congresswoman Omar doesn’t know this, it is time for someone to school her.   

B.  Things you cannot say about Israel or its supporters (without being accused of anti-Semitism):

1.  Israel and/or it supporters control the government, the media, and the financial institutions with its wealth.

2.  Israel’s supporters are guilty of “dual loyalty,” apparently pledging loyalty to their own country and but also pledging allegiance to a foreign country.  

3.  Accusations of ritual murder and blood libel.

4.  Accusations of Christ-killing.

5.  Accusations of impurity.

6.  Accusations of well-poisoning.

7.  Accusations of usury and profiteering.

8.  Holocaust denial.

9.  Accusations of organ-harvesting.

10.  Accusations of plotting conspiracies.

See for a history of each of these anti-Semitic canards.

Interestingly enough, none of the things Congresswoman Omar said fell into the category of legitimate criticism of Israeli policy.  She did not contend, for example, that Israel is in violation of international law or discriminates against its Palestinian population.  Instead, her comments were comprised solely of traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes, accusing Israel of controlling the government with its money and charging Israel’s American Jewish supporters with the classic anti-Semitic trope of dual loyalty.  

Excusing the use of such canards on the grounds that the user is ignorant of their historic malevolence is unacceptable.  No one would defend the utterance of traditionally racist rhetoric such as the appalling suggestion that African-Americans are “lazy and shiftless” or the use of blackface as entertainment on the ground that the person utilizing such vile tropes was ignorant of their historic significance.  The same standard should be applied when analyzing anti-Semitic stereotypes.  

In a related vein, applying a double-standard to Israel and its supporters — one not applied to any of the other 195 countries (including over 50 Muslim countries and 22 Arab countries) in the world — but applied solely and exclusively to the one Jewish country in the word, is undoubtedly anti-Semitic.  As Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has stated:

“Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction – – out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East – – is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest.”  New York Times, October 16, 2002.

Accordingly, as long as she applies the same standard to other countries, Congresswoman Omar is totally free to opine that “Israel’s occupation of the West Bank violates international law.” Congresswoman Omar is also completely free to say that “Israel’s supporters control Congress with their Benjamins.”  However, should she do so, she should understand that she is getting into bed with historical anti-Semites, and should expect some rightful censure.  It’s not really that hard to understand.  

About the Author
Steve Frank is retired after a 30-year career as an appellate lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. His writings on Israel, the law and architecture have appeared in numerous publications including the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, the Jerusalem Post, the Jewish News Syndicate and Moment magazine.
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