Israel’s Drive to Redefine Anti-Semitism is Dangerous

In responding last week to the online hospitality company AirBnB’s decision to delist about 200 rental properties located, Israel’s Minister of Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan called the move not merely regrettable or mistaken but ‘the modern form of anti-Semitic practice.”

Erdan’s words and his call on American governors to take action against the company for its decision is but the latest example of the willingness of right-wing Israeli and American Jews to label any gesture of opposition to its West Bank policies as anti-Semitic.

At a time when nativist, neo-fascist political parties are gaining ground in Europe and when US Jews are facing real physical threat from far-right groups and individuals, flinging baseless charges of anti-Semitism for political purposes demeans the real threats that Jews in this country and around the world actually face.

These threats were actualized tragically in the massacre of 11 worshippers by a gunman shouting “all Jews must die” in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27. However, this was far from an isolated incident. The FBI reported this month that anti-Semitic hate crimes in the United States rose by 37 percent in 2017, continuing a trend that has accelerated since Trump took office.

Israel sees the Airbnb decision as part of the Boycotts, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regularly denounces as anti-Semitic. This entire approach is problematic on several levels.  First, the number of true anti-Semites in the BDS Movement is limited; most of its supporters are critics of the state of Israel’s policies. It is vital to maintain the distinction between anti-Semitism and criticism of state of the Jewish people’s policies.

Second, Airbnb’s decision cannot – by any stretch of the imagination – be defined as boycotting Israel. The company has 20,000 listings inside the pre-1967 borders of Israel, the vast majority posted by Israeli Jews.

Netanyahu’s allies in the US Congress have been quick to follow his lead by promoting two controversial bills to extend US diplomatic and legal protection to the settlements. The so-called “Israel Anti-Boycott Act” would expand federal anti-boycott laws to cover mere support for settlement boycotts, while the “Combating BDS Act” would authorize and encourage states to pass laws like those Erdan is asking state governors to apply against Airbnb.

A coalition of organizations, including Jewish and pro-Israel groups, opposes these bills on the grounds that they treat Israel and the territories as one and the same, infringe on First Amendment rights and hurt, rather than help, efforts to counter the BDS movement.

The very idea of BDS is now seen as so threatening by the Israeli government that its parliament enacted a law in 2017 banning any supporters of the movement from entering the country. Since then, several prominent peace activists have been denied entry while others have been stopped at the border and questioned by the Shin Bet security service about their political views and connections.

The anti-BDS hysteria reached an absurd peak when actress Natalie Portman, earlier this year, decided not to travel to Israel to accept a prize. Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz said Portman’s decision not to attend the ceremony because she did not want to participate alongside Netanyahu “bordered on anti-Semitism.”

While Erdan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are quick to label any signs of opposition to the settlements as anti-Semitism, they are quick to absolve President Trump and his administration of any responsibility for the growth of anti-Semitism in the United States.

Following the Tree of Life massacre, Netanyahu expressed appreciation for Trump “unequivocally condemning this heinous crime and for pledging to fight those who seek to destroy the Jewish people.” Last year, however, the Prime Minister was notably silent when Trump praised some of the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched through the streets of Charlottesville, VA under the banner of the swastika as “fine people.”

American Jews, however, have clear views of the nature of the threat they face and who is to blame. A poll, conducted by GBA Strategies on Election Night earlier this month and commissioned by J Street, showed that in the aftermath of the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, 72 percent of American Jewish voters state that President Trump’s comments and policies were either “very” or “somewhat” responsible for inspiring the attack.

This week, leaders of five American Jewish organizations wrote to Erdan objecting to his language and actions. “To accuse Airbnb of anti-Semitism trivializes and distracts from fighting the rising tide of anti-Semitism, which is driven in the United States by the legitimization of white nationalism,” said the letter, signed by J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami; Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah; Jim Klutznick, Board Chair, Americans for Peace Now; Paul Scham, President, Partners for Progressive Israel and Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund.

By grossly misapplying the very serious charge of anti-Semitism to what is ultimately a minor commercial decision, and by providing cover for those who have stoked the flames of right-wing extremism, senior Israeli officials are dangerously undermining the fight against the very real threat of deadly anti-Semitism in the United States and around the world.


About the Author
Alan Elsner, a former Reuters journalist and author, is Vice President for Communications at J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group. He is the author of four books including two novels. Elsner is a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen who lives in Rockville Maryland. His posts at Reuters included Jerusalem correspondent, Chief Nordic Correspondent, State Dept. correspondent, chief U.S. political correspondent and U.S. national correspondent.