Anti-Israel rhetoric and discriminatory initiatives are not really about Israel at all. They are certainly not about the Palestinians. They are not about justice or peace. They are in fact about American Jews and our place in American society.
In recent months, we have seen a large increase in bigoted, discriminatory, and slanderous statements about Israel’s alleged misdeeds. The anti-Israel campaign hijacks unsuspecting organizations – a city council in Raleigh, North Carolina; a teachers’ union in Seattle, the student government at Yale – to use as political shields for their campaign of hate. The campaign pretends to target Israeli crimes – some real, some exaggerated, some completely fictional – but it has no effect on Israeli policies and actions. The Israeli government really doesn’t care and likely hasn’t even noticed that Swarthmore College students called to boycott Sabra hummus (made in Virginia), a call the college president rejected.
Nor does the anti-Israel campaign help Palestinians. It was silent when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, and Lebanon. It has nothing to say about the Egyptian blockade of Gaza or the murder of a dissident by the Palestinian Authority security forces. Anti-Israel activists didn’t protest Assad’s forces gassing Palestinians in Syria, or Hamas using Gaza civilians as human shields for rocket attacks on Israel.
They remain mum regarding apartheid in Lebanon, which denies citizenship and civil rights to Palestinians, and don’t critique the UN agency that rejects resettlement of Palestinian refugees and condemns them to eternal dispossession. They didn’t care that the Palestinian Authority rejected COVID-19 vaccines from Israel. (The vaccines were sent to South Korea instead.) And they are oblivious to the harm their campaign against Israeli companies causes Palestinians, as when a Soda Stream factory relocated in response to the boycotters’ pressure, laying off hundreds of workers from the West Bank. (The pressure continued anyway.)
So if the campaign doesn’t hurt Israel and doesn’t help Palestinian, what is its point? The point is to condemn Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. (Grumbles about “ethno-nationalism” fall flat when applied only to Israel and not to other nation-states like, say, Norway and Japan.) Affinity and connection to the land and the people of Israel are core to Jewish religious tradition, ethnic identity, and cultural heritage. The right of self-determination and political independence is granted to indigenous peoples everywhere, challenged only with regards to the Jewish people. So an attack on Israel is, in fact, an attack on Jews everywhere. Singling out the Jewish state and the Jewish people is an expression of prejudice; prejudice against Jews is so ancient and so prevalent that it has its own word, “antisemitism,” or Jew-hatred.
Scapegoating Jews is nothing new. Jews have been blamed for everything from the Crucifixion to COVID-19, from stealing organs to perpetrating the September 11 attacks. We have been accused of ritually killing Christian children – the original “blood libel” – and for targeting Palestinian children in Gaza, its contemporary version. Blaming Israel for police misconduct in American cities is just another example of this age-old disease.
Most of the people whose organizations are used to attack Israel – student governments, labor unions, cultural programs, etc. – are not antisemitic. They are well-meaning liberals, concerned about justice and civil rights. Intentions matter, but actions must also be judged based on their outcomes. Larry Summers, former president of Harvard and President Clinton’s chief economic advisor said it well: Efforts to single out Israel are “antisemitic in their effect, if not in their intent.”
Indeed, the effect is clear. Anti-Israel sentiment prompted a 2006 murder at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. More recently, synagogues are being vandalized and Jews harassed, beaten, and stabbed in our streets following the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza. When calls to “Free Palestine” join chants to “Kill Jews,” it is not political commentary or “criticism of Israel”; it’s genocidal incitement. Words matter. Vilification of Israel gives cover and rise to vilification of Jews, rekindling the ancient hate. Just as President Trump’s hateful “criticism of the elections process” was a dog whistle that led to the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, anti-Israel “criticism” is the dog whistle that emboldens antisemitic violence.
The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks called antisemitism “a virus that keeps mutating.” He wrote, “In the Middle Ages, Jews were hated because of their religion. In the 19th and 20th centuries, they were hated because of their race. Today they are hated because of their nation-state, Israel. Anti-Zionism is the new antisemitism.”
Like other diseases, the virus of antisemitism poisons its host – the labor union or student government or city council invaded by bigotry and co-opted to repeat and spread the hateful message. And when enough hosts succumb to an infectious and virulent agent, a pandemic can ensue. The anti-Israel campaign is not about Israel or about Palestinians. It is about American Jews and, ultimately, about American society and the world in which we live.
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Nevet Basker is the founder and executive director of Broader View, an online resource center about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Any later updates and additions to this article can be found here. I welcome your feedback.