Avi Hoffman

How to Criticize Israel Without Being an Antisemite

(Anti-Israel protestors at Columbia University. Photo: Avi Hoffman)
(Anti-Israel protestors at Columbia University. Photo: Avi Hoffman)

On Shabbat of the 3rd of Iyar 5784 (May 11, 2024), I gave the following derashah at Congregation Ohr Torah in West Orange, NJ. After I finished, one congregant told me that it seemed as though I had seen a big, red sign warning about a minefield and decided to walk right through it anyway. Several congregants asked me to share this derashah publicly, and I am doing so here with some minor stylistic edits. I must also note that I am indebted to Dr. Henry Abramson, who made a very informative video on this question and on which I based several of my ideas. 

Kedoshim is a fascinating parshah. With 51 mitzvos packed into just 68 pasukim, it’s one of the densest parshios in the Torah.

I would love to talk about some of those mitzvos, about revering parents, paying workers on time, not embarrassing people, loving all Jews, loving the ger, eating healthily, and honoring the rabbis. But I can’t.

I would love to discuss the mitzvah to keep honest weights and measures and the article I found this week about the second weight archaeologists discovered in Israel just a few years ago (which was three times as heavy as its markings indicated). But I can’t.

I would love to talk about our parshah’s opening of קדושים תהיו – to be holy (Vayikra 19:2) – and Ramban’s essential comment there on living an ethical life even beyond the 613 mitzvos. But I can’t.

I would love to talk about our scathing and awe-inspiring haftarah, which we haven’t read since 1997 and won’t read again until 2041. But I can’t.

I would love to talk about the capture, trial, and execution of Adolf Eichmann – a Nazi war criminal and the only person Israel ever executed in its 76-year history – who was captured on this date in Argentina 64 years ago. But I can’t.

Instead, I have to address what’s most pressing on my mind: the international protests against Israel and the IDF, and a question that a non-Jewish friend asked me just over a week ago.

In my previous derashah, I discussed the campus protests throughout the West, specifically those at Columbia. I gave a brief history of the Jewish value of education and Jewish students in non-Jewish universities. I explained that we seem to be emerging from a historically exceptional bubble of tolerance toward Jews in university, and how our equal treatment in institutions of higher learning has always been the exception, not the rule.

I also spoke about how the unsafe and hostile environment that we have seen recently is highly inappropriate and constitutes, in my opinion, a form of hate speech.

After Shabbos, I shared it with a few friends and posted it on Facebook along with videos of Columbia students chanting pro-Hamas slogans, threatening violence, and intimidating Jewish students. I didn’t expect anyone to read it – it was a bit long for a Facebook post – but I got a very thoughtful response from a non-Jewish friend.

He acknowledged that what was happening was antisemitic and horrible, and asked if there was a way to criticize Israel’s policies without allowing antisemites to dominate the conversation. You might know people asking you the same question, and I’ve been thinking about this for the past two weeks. I would like to suggest a framework for thinking about this thorny issue.

First, I believe it manifestly true that not all criticism of Israel is antisemitic. If it were, then almost every Jew living in Israel would be an antisemite. Similarly, I believe that when politicians like Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden criticize Israel, though it might be misguided, wrongheaded, and mistaken, it is not antisemitic. It comes from a place of friendship, not enmity.

Let me be very clear – this is not the same as saying that just because you are Jewish, your criticism of Israel can’t be antisemitic. We have ALWAYS had a wicked son at our seder. In every generation, there have been Jews who have done great damage to their own people, willful or otherwise, and this moment is no different. But the question should be asked, and answered – where does legitimate criticism of Israel end and ugly, evil antisemitism begin?

To answer this question, I would like to post six guiding principles, or guard rails, that can help differentiate legitimate criticism from antisemitism.

  1. Inability to empathize with Israel’s suffering

There is an undeniable avalanche of suffering in Gaza right now. As of my latest check, there is only one operational hospital left – which has to serve over 2 million people. I can’t imagine what that must mean for the range of medical concerns, from issues as simple as a chipped tooth or broken bone to more complex conditions like diabetes, allergy attacks, birthing complications, and cancer. Most of Gaza’s citizens have been medically relapsed to the 16th century, in one of the poorest, densest places on earth which also happens to be a war zone.

The tragedy is magnified many times over because it doesn’t need to be like this. Israel has extended an olive branch many times and Palestinian leadership has repeatedly failed its people. Nevertheless, their suffering is immense, horrifying, and undeniable.

Without denying or diminishing that in the slightest, Israelis have also suffered a lot as well. The terror attack of October 7th, rightly labeled as Israel’s 9/11, remains one of the greatest active hostage emergencies in the world. The hostage crisis is so all-consuming that we still haven’t properly mourned those we have lost on that Simchat Torah, or those who were killed since.

The suffering is real on both sides and those who can’t see that might have more nefarious intentions behind their activism.

2. Borrowing tropes from historical antisemitism

One of the most horrifying things I saw emerge from this war, especially in certain pockets of social media (which I recommend you try to stay away from), is the resurgence of the blood libel – the idea that Jewish people are bloodthirsty and either eat the blood of children or use it in some twisted Jewish ritual. Likewise, images of Jews with big noses, as money-hungry predators, and as globalist conspirators trying to take over the world have circulated widely and popularly. Some of them are images straight out of Nazi propaganda, and ironically Israel has also been accused of being a Nazi fascist state. These are bare-faced antisemitic slurs and should be recognized as such.

3.  Association with Hamas, terrorism, and violent resistance

This doesn’t require much explication. Chants of “from the river to the sea,” “globalize the Intifada,” and “resistance by all means necessary” are open calls for violence and should never be tolerated.

4. Lack of understanding of Jewish history and why it is essential for there to be a Jewish state

Israel was created for a reason, and it is vital to keep that in mind. Centuries of persecution long preceding the Holocaust have all shown in the clearest possible terms that we require a sovereign state for our own safety. Pogroms, blood libels, book burnings, forced conversions, expulsions, host desecration and well-poisoning charges, mass murders, censorships, deportations, and the list goes on. There needs to be a clear understanding of why the State of Israel is so unique and so important, and why calls for it being dismantled is an antisemitic non-starter.

5. Selective outrage

If criticism of Israel is to be balanced and fair, it can’t be isolated as the only concern worthy of emotional and political attention. According to Genocide Watch, there are currently genocide emergencies happening in Darfur, Sudan, Nigeria, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, North Korea, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, China, Gaza, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are also genocide warnings in Armenia, India, Pakistan, Iran, Yemen, and Lebanon. If ALL of the focus and outrage is directed against the Jewish State, one can rightly question where that outrage is coming from.

6. Lack of recognition that this conflict is complicated and that slogans often distort and misrepresent complex and nuanced histories.

In the Middle East, no conflict is straightforward or simple. There are elaborate narratives on both sides and people who believe that their sound bite is the only solution to this inter-generational conflict often do more harm than good. Removing chanted slogans from protests will also allow for more positive and constructive dialogues which will be essential for achieving peace in the region.

If these guard rails are implemented and these guidelines followed, then I believe that one can criticize Israel without being an antisemite.

Unfortunately, however, the loudest critics of Israel seem to have an inability to empathize with Israel’s suffering, use tropes from historical antisemitism, don’t disassociate from Hamas and threats of violence, have minimal understanding of Jewish history, are selectively outraged against the Jewish State, and reduce themselves to simplistic and naïve slogans and sound bites.

In conclusion, therefore, what I would tell my friend is that although it is POSSIBLE to be a public critic of Israel in 2024 without being an antisemite, I am highly skeptical that it is PRACTICAL.

I hope and pray, however, that public criticism of Israel without the taint of antisemitism becomes practical soon because public criticism is essential for the health of any democracy, especially a democracy like Israel.

About the Author
Avi Hoffman is the Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Ohr Torah and the OU-JLIC Executive Fellow at Columbia University. He is completing a Masters in Medieval Jewish History at Revel and a certificate in Mental Health Counseling at Ferkauf. Avi is an Eagle Scout and has been a Scout leader for his entire adult life, most recently serving as a Jewish Chaplain at the National Scout Jamboree. He has also been practicing, performing, and creating magic for over 15 years.
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