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Is denying Israel’s right to exist anti-Semitic?

Who better to weigh in on anti-Semitism than American Jews? We asked 'em, from all walks of life and belief
Illustrative: Students protest at an anti-Israel demonstration at the University of California, Irvine. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images/JTA)
Illustrative: Students protest at an anti-Israel demonstration at the University of California, Irvine. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images/JTA)

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign student government has adopted a resolution chastising Chancellor Robert Jones for “wrongfully categorizing anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism.” The resolution, introduced by supporters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), rests on startling factual inaccuracies and is an insult to American Jews.

Let’s start with the basics: Zionism is the international movement that reestablished a Jewish nation-state in the historic Jewish homeland — Israel. To be a Zionist today is no more or less than to support the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. Anti-Zionism, then, means opposing the continued existence of the one and only Jewish-majority state in the world, whereas, it should be noted, no other nation today has its very right to exist questioned or challenged. Anti-Semitism is a hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.

In deciding what is and what is not a prejudice, a relevant place to start would be to ask what the targeted ethnic group thinks. Thanks to my organization, American Jewish Committee (AJC), we now have an answer with the first-ever comprehensive survey of American Jews’ views on anti-Semitism. Its findings are particularly relevant here.

The just-released AJC survey found that 84 percent of American Jews said the statement “Israel has no right to exist” is anti-Semitic. The belief was held regardless of the respondent’s age, party affiliation, and type of religious observance. 85% of Democrats, 87% of Republicans, and 82% of Independents agreed that denying Israel’s right to exist is anti-Semitic.

For those who believe that anti-Zionism is the wave of the future, young Jews beg to differ. 78% of those aged 18 – 29 and 82% of those aged 30 – 49 condemn anti-Zionism as anti-Semitic. Non-Orthodox Jews feel strongly on this point, with 79% of those who identify as secular Jews and 90% of Conservative or Reform Jews sharing this sentiment.

Moreover, most Jews familiar with the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement, an anti-Israel pressure campaign, regard it as anti-Semitic. Of respondents who said they were familiar with the movement, only 14% said it is not anti-Semitic. Over a third characterized the movement as “mostly anti-Semitic,” while 47% said it is not “mostly anti-Semitic,” but has anti-Semitic supporters. Young people were the most likely to say the BDS movement either is mostly anti-Semitic or has anti-Semitic supporters, with 88% of those familiar with the movement expressing those views.

Israel is a country that, like others, is subject to scrutiny and legitimate criticism. And American Jews are not the sole arbitrators of what is and what is not anti-Semitic.

But aren’t our views at least worthy of consideration? SJP at University of Illinois has made clear that they are not interested in what mainstream American Jews think about anti-Semitism.

Chancellor Jones got it exactly right when he labeled as anti-Semitic a recent anti-Zionist presentation to Housing student workers. He has matched his words with actions by reviewing the current program and implementing sorely-needed anti-Semitism awareness training.

There is a reasonable discussion to be had about the line between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. This student government resolution is not advancing that discussion. Those who pushed for its passage are apparently motivated to attack and delegitimize Israel at all costs, regardless of the feelings of American Jews (and, moreover, a majority of all Americans). They are entitled to their views about Israel, no matter how vile or noxious they might be. What they cannot do, however, is sanctimoniously preach to Jews about what is and is not anti-Semitism.

About the Author
Daniel Elbaum is the American Jewish Committee’s Chief Advocacy Officer.
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