Defining Ourselves – The Real Intersection of Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism

I have often come under attack by the pro-Israel lobby because of my support for BDS, (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions)…However I will say this, in a functioning theocracy it is almost inevitable that the symbol of the religion becomes confused with the symbol of the state, in this case the State of Israel, a state that operates Apartheid both within its own borders and also in the territories it has occupied and colonized since 1967. Like it or not, the Star of David represents Israel and its policies and is legitimately subject to any and all forms of non violent protest. To peacefully protest against Israel’s racist domestic and foreign policies is NOT ANTI-SEMITIC.”  –Roger Waters   

“I am a bold, outspoken BDS-supporting Palestinian Muslim American woman and the opposition’s worst nightmare. They have tried every tactic at their disposal to undermine me, discredit me, vilify me but my roots are too deep and my work is too clear.”

“…Being critical about what anti-Semitism really means, because often times it is used by the right-wing against Palestinians and those who are pro-Palestinian to make the over-generalization that because we are pro-Palestine, because we are pro Justice, that must mean we are anti-Semitic.” –Linda Sarsour

“Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”

“It’s all about the Benjamins baby.”

“I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is O.K. for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country”

I can’t ever speak of Islamophobia and fight for Muslims if I am not willing to fight against anti-Semitism.” Rep. Ilhan Omar

The shrill accusation heard again and again that any criticism of Israel is deemed and described as anti-Semitic by her partisans is, simply stated, a cover for malign, hateful speech. Representative Ilhan Omar, social justice champion Linda Sarsour, musician Roger Waters and their allies have all set up this pathetic straw man argument. Israel is neither perfect nor close to it, and has never been immune from criticism. Israeli media itself is at least as critical of Israeli policies as anyone in Omar’s or Sarsour’s coterie. Invoking the misuse of the term is intended to desensitize its actual presence in the discourse. In the current parlance, these anti-Semites have engaged in “gaslighting”.

Let’s unpack the real anti-Semitism expressed here – by these outspoken personalities, and by too many in the anti-Israel movement.

Former Prisoner of Zion, author, MK, and Deputy Prime Minister of Israel Natan Sharansky, author of several inspiring books, wrote of the famous “3 D’s test” in the Jewish Political Studies Review (2004). This test serves to distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israeli policy and actions vs. the illegitimate anti-Semitic criticism that often overwhelms the discussion. He posits that Demonization of Israel, Delegitimization of Israel, and Double Standards levied on Israel are manifestations of anti-Semitism, and they are all too common among its critics.

  • Delegitimization denies the Jewish People the right to sovereignty and self-determination in their ancestral aboriginal homeland.
  • Demonization characterizes Israel and its supporters as controlling government, media, or academia, among other more graphic manifestations.
  • Double Standards hold Israel up to expectations of policy, practice, and exercise of legitimate rights to self-defense that no other country is held to, even when the purported offenses in question – be they occupation, disproportionate force, human rights violations and other accusations – pale in scope and severity by comparison to the activities of dozens of countries that face no BDS, no assault at the UN, no demonstrations and none of the ire that is reserved for Israel.

By Sharansky’s standard, Waters, Omar and Sarsour meet the definition, as does Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and its allies on university campuses. 

More recently, in May of 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, representing governmental, legal, and academic leadership across democratic societies, came to consensus on a definition of anti-Semitism. Among the examples that form part of the definition, are the following:

  • Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
  • Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
  • Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
  • Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
  • Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
  • Holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of the state of Israel.

By the standard now accepted by the international community of democratic nations, including the United States and Canada, Those who boycott Jewish and Israeli clubs on campus, those who support BDS, and those who traffic in Der Sturmer type imagery about Israel meet the definition.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement presents itself as an inheritor of the movement against Apartheid in South Africa. In reality, its antecedents are much older. In the preface to his groundbreaking book The Destruction of the European Jews, historian Raoul Hilberg presents a side by side comparison of sanctions prohibiting trade with Jews, academic pursuit with Jews, and socio-cultural interaction with Jews, as instituted over 1500 years by authorities across Europe (some of which were replicated in the Islamic world), and as instituted by Nazi Germany from 1933 forward. Many of these sanctions are akin if not identical to BDS.

The post war period saw the establishment of the Arab League Boycott office (ad-hoc in December 1945, and officially in 1951) in a context all its own – with no ties to nor influence from any anti-Apartheid movement. That boycott exerted its full power and embargoed oil to much of the world in 1973-74, again, pursuing not anti-Apartheid goals but rather geopolitical objectives during and following the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The office still operates to this day. Those who now support it, among them some US Congresspeople, have also clearly accused American Jews of dual loyalty, and ascribed support for Israel to greed, (“It’s all about the Benjamins”) among the oldest of anti-Semitic tropes.

In both its historical and modern manifestations, the BDS movement has roots in anti-Semitism and has had as its objective the subjugation or elimination of Jews and Jewish sovereignty.

One of the most disturbing elements of anti-Zionist rhetoric, and indeed of the positions exemplified by media personalities like Mark Lamont Hill, or by the editors at Al Jazeera outlet AJ+, is their denial of agency to the Palestinian people. Palestinians could choose to demonstrate at a safe distance, or they could choose to attack the Gaza border fence; they could choose to support a peace-seeking government, or to elect one dedicated to continuing destructive war on a more powerful adversary; they could advocate for a two state solution, or, as most recent surveys and interviews demonstrate, insist on a Palestinian state min al-nahr ila al-bahr, from the river to the sea. It is a disservice to their aspirations to describe them as unable to make choices, and it absolves them entirely, as the world community has done for generations, of contemplating the consequences of both their actions and inaction.

At the end of the day, the narrative championed by many of those most adversarial towards the assertion of Jewish identity through Zionism miss the most fundamental point. As Yossi Klein Halevi put it in his recent book, Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor, the Jews have always first and foremost defined themselves as a people, who identify themselves with their ancestral, aboriginal homeland. Jews share a common religious practice, but at its core, in its earliest written iterations over 3000 years old, Jewish identity has always been defined as a people sovereign in its ancestral land or yearning to return to it.

To simply use the word Jew is to recognize implicitly the connection of the Jewish individual to Judea, the homeland from which the word is derived.

Of course, one can be justifiably critical of any given policy of the Israeli government, of a particular action or statement. No democratic government should be immune to criticism – not to the ballot, nor to standards of conduct commensurate with its particular circumstances, as eloquently described by the late Charles Krauthammer in his foundational essay Judging Israel (1990). But too much of the discourse from Hill to Sarsour, from Waters to Omar and their many allies, is premised on a rejection of the right of the Jewish people to assert their self determination in their ancestral land.

Given the origins of both Islam and Christianity in the monotheism introduced through the religious texts and practices of the Jews, one can understand their insistence on arrogating the right to define Jewish identity for us, and of doing so in exclusively religious terms. One brought up or educated in such a context wouldn’t have the knowledge of Jewish texts and history to come to any other conclusion. Moreover, Jews who have not had the opportunity to encounter this unbroken chain of identity, or who have rejected it, will have come to the same conclusion.

That arrogance must end. No external source has the right to define Jewish identity for us, and those who insist on doing so have had a century and more to come to terms with the reality of our self-identification and self determination in our homeland. Those Jews who on a personal level choose to highlight one element of their identity and reject another certainly have a right to practice faith and imagine self as they wish. Their personal autonomy does not and will never give them the right to erase the heritage, legacy and irrefutable history of the sovereign Jewish people. We won’t be redefined, we won’t be gaslit, and we won’t be silent.

About the Author
Ari Rosenblum is the CEO of Hasbara Fellowships, the leading Israel advocacy organization for university students in North America. Ari has written, lectured and educated on Israel advocacy, anti-Semitism, and Jewish thought for over 20 years. He lives in New York.
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