Andrew Pessin

The Indelible Stain of Antisemitism: The Failure of ‘Jew-Washing,’ Part 4

See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

We continue our survey of the many different “types” of Jews that anti-Israelists might invoke for Jew-washing purposes. So far we have examined, and critiqued, the use of Jews in Genes Only (JIGOs), ultra-orthodox Jewish anti-Israelists, and two categories of what we might call “ultra-non-orthodox Jewish anti-Israelists”: “John Lennon Jews” (allegedly endorsing cosmopolitanism and liberalism) and prima facie “Jewish” groups such as Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP)

In the final part we turn, now, to “Social Justice Jews.”

To successfully serve a Jew-washer, I have argued, one must at least heed the first part of Hillel’s dictum: one must be at least to some degree “for the Jews.” But of course being “for the Jews” does not necessarily mean being “against the Palestinians.”[1] To successfully serve a Jew-washer one must find a way of being both “for the Jews” and “for the Palestinians.” One must, in other words, heed both major parts of Hillel’s dictum, which reads more completely as follows:

Hillel says, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” (Pirke Avot, 1:14)

And the best way to do this (again) would be if one could find reasons to be “for the Palestinians” that derive from one’s Jewishness, from being “for the Jews.”

In fact there are many “Social Justice Jews” (my phrase) who find the essence of Jewishness, their Jewishness, to be in Judaism’s emphases on compassion, tikkun olam (repairing the world), universal ethics, and so on.[2] These are the sorts of values from which perhaps JVP begins, before it goes too far (in my opinion) toward preserving or pursuing these values only for the Palestinians. These are also the sorts of values from which cosmopolitanism and liberalism might be drawn as well. When such a person, speaking “as a Jew,” displays hostility against Israel motivated out of universal ethical concern (say) for the welfare and rights of Palestinians, then there is something to be said for his position. Again, if genuine Jewishness (he will argue) militates against Israel or Israeli policies, then anti-Israelism cannot be antisemitic.

True—but we must tread cautiously here.

The Jew-washer (now) seeks Jews who are as much “for the Jews” as “for the Palestinians.” But while the 3-D test is imprecise, it does strike me that those whose actions persistently violate it—and thus count as antisemitic—are rarely acting equally or fairly toward both parties to the conflict. Those who truly view the conflict through the lens of “for the Jews,” for example, cannot but express greater sympathy for and understanding of Israeli actions in general than is reflected in the 3-D hostility typically seen across campuses. This leaves room for plenty of criticism of this or that policy or behavior, including the “occupation.” But generally speaking, it seems to me, the type of Jew who really is as much for the Jews as for the Palestinians will not display the 3-D hostility that is the focus of this essay.

But suppose that that general claim is either false, or at least admits of important exceptions. Suppose some genuine “Social Justice Jew,” speaking or acting “as a Jew,” really is persistently hostile to Israel in that 3-D way. It is his Social Justice Jewishness that motivates his anti-Israelism, he might say, and so it cannot be deemed antisemitic.

Yes, we can now respond—but speaking as what kind of Jew, exactly?

What is typically found in the Jewishness espoused by these Jews is the universal: the compassion, the justice, the ethics. Those are all wonderful things, and Judaism is all the more wonderful for emphasizing them. Such Jews may eagerly point to the ethical concerns laid out (for example) in the Hebrew Bible portion called Kedoshim (Lev. 19-20), which commands us not to steal or lie, not to cheat, to use fair weights and measures, to pay our workers on time, to be generous to the poor, not to stand by when our fellow’s blood is shed, to love our fellow as ourselves, to pursue justice … It is in the Hebrew Bible, after all, and it is easy enough to see how one might draw a line from these teachings toward sympathy for the Palestinian cause.[3]

Nevertheless, what is equally important is what is left out from this impressive list, namely everything particular: the unique people, the nation, with its unique history, religion, and three-millenia-long ties to a specific land. And indeed this very same portion of the Bible that endorses universal ethical principles also explicitly embeds them in a host of commandments particular for Jews: to offer various sacrifices, to avoid mixing fibers, to keep kosher, to observe the Sabbath, etc. After going through nearly all of these, it culminates by noting, “You shall observe all my decrees and all my ordinances and perform them; then the land to which I bring you to dwell will not disgorge you … I will give [the land] to you to inherit it, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Lev 20:22-24).[4]

Even that segment about “love your fellow like yourself” is part of a sentence that reads more completely, “You shall not bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your fellow as yourself” (Lev 19:18).

The point is not that one should bear grudges against others not of one’s people. It is that Jewishness, if grounded in its original sources (such as the Bible), involves a complex relationship between the universal and the particular. The universal is there, it is important and essential, but so is the particular. Those who cherry pick, who emphasize only the universal, are indeed finding something that might count as authentically Jewish. But what is left out when they do this, when what they learn from Jewishness is only the universal, is everything that distinguishes Jews from other people.

When such a person says, “As a Jew, I am anti-Israel,” what he is really saying, then, is something like, “As a human being who believes in compassion, justice, universal ethics, etc., I am anti-Israel.” Fair enough, and admirable enough, if that is where his reasoning happens to lead him. But such a person cannot do the work a non-Jewish Jew-washer needs, because despite tracing the values he treasures to Judaism, there is nothing specifically and distinctively Jewish about his position. His Jewishness in fact is irrelevant, as in the cases seen above. Although perhaps obscured by what may be his sincere commitment to his form of Judaism, a form that for the overall sake of this essay we shall grant is legitimate, the deeper truth remains that such a person, for whom the universal trumps the particular in this way, has disaffiliated to a significant degree from Jewishness, and from the Jewish collective.[5]

To Jew-wash with such individuals, I think, would again be akin to medieval Church officials saying, “We are not antisemites because many converted Jews share our negative views about (unconverted) Jews.” The flaw here, too, is clear. That a doctrine is adopted by those who have rejected particularist Jewishness—or otherwise distance themselves from what is distinctively and particularly Jewish, including the Jewish collective—cannot serve as a proof that the doctrine is not antisemitic.

That is not an exoneration of antisemitism at all.

In fact it may even be evidence for the doctrine’s antisemitism.

To see this, let us look more closely at the contents of the relevant beliefs. Imagine, for a moment, someone in the United States circa 1860 saying, “I don’t hate Black people. I just hate those Blacks who demand their freedom.” Perhaps at that time only a small number of Black individuals were able to stand up for their freedom in any meaningful way. But to hate those Blacks simply is to reject the basic dignity, the basic rights, of all Blacks. That this would count as racism, even if directed only to a small subset of the relevant population, seems difficult to deny.

So, too, some people only hate some Jews. Which Jews? Those Jews who stand up for the rights of Jews. Those Jews who believe that Jews have the same dignity and basic rights enjoyed by all other peoples. Those Jews who believe that Jews have the right of self-determination in that one little sliver of earth that is their ancient homeland.

Those Jews who diminish or reject their Jewish particularism for whatever good reasons they may have just are rejecting for Jews qua Jews the same basic dignity and rights that all other peoples enjoy.

And that is antisemitism.


This paper is not exhaustive, because it cannot be. There are too many “types” of Jews, and it is not possible to survey them all. We have focused on a few key types, with particular emphasis on matters as they manifest themselves on European and North American campuses and elsewhere, but even there the essay is not exhaustive. More importantly I have not discussed the use, by Jew-washers, of left-wing Jewish Israelis, which is worthy of closer study.[6] I believe the same kinds of considerations presented above would apply there as well, but I shall not defend that here.

Still, I hope to have made it clearer how, in general, the practice of Jew-washing simply does not work: if someone crosses that line, if his anti-Israelism becomes 3-D and by virtue of those criteria counts as antisemitic, then the sheer fact that he may be Jewish, or that many Jews share his position, will not exonerate him from the charge of antisemitism. For the key point is that qualifying as antisemitic does not require being against all Jews. It only requires being against certain individuals because of their Jewishness, and because their Jewishness is the kind that specifically stands up for the rights of Jews.

Since this type of antisemitism, this “new antisemitism,” is relatively recent, it is easily conflated with older forms of antisemitism. In fact that conflation (we saw) is what allows Jew-washing to work in the first place: because the new antisemitism (aimed only at particularist Jews, or the Jewish collective) is distinct from the old antisemitism (aimed at most or all individual religious or ethnic Jews), Jew-washers can justifiably deny their (old) antisemitism and thus deny being “antisemitic.” Nevertheless they are particularist antisemites, with their animosity directed specifically at (say) Zionist Jews.

To minimize this conflation and thus to deflate that strategy more thoroughly, it might be better to coin a new term for the new antisemitism. Judea Pearl has suggested to this end the term “Zionophobia.” A major point of the current paper, then, is that Zionophobia is just as objectionable as any other form of bias or racism, even if it targets only a subset of Jews.

“I don’t hate Jews,” the Zionophobe says. “Just Zionists.”[7]

Just, in other words, those Jews whose Jewishness entails standing up for the dignity and rights of Jews, and of the Jewish collective.[8]

So if a person’s “A-1 Jews” are only those who do not identify with the Jews, who do not identify or affiliate with a particularist Jewish history or religion, or who are not interested in standing up for the rights of Jews—then that person, the Zionophobe, may be an antisemite after all.[9]


[1] On some zero-sum readings it would, for example if being “for the Palestinians” entails demanding a Palestinian Arab state encompassing all the land that Israel currently occupies while being “for the Jews” entails preserving at least the current State of Israel (or vice versa, mutatis mutandis).

[2] For one recent example, see “Journeying to Hebron to Take Jewish Stand Against Israeli Occupation.” Similarly, consider Judith Butler’s 2012 response to widespread objections to the city of Frankfurt’s awarding her its Adorno prize for contributions to philosophy, where she emphasizes the “diasporic” values of Judaism in support of social justice, tikkun olam, etc.

[3] The “universal ethics” approach just as readily supports the Zionist cause of course, but I shall grant the point for the moment.

[4] Interestingly the passage is framed in terms of expelling the previous inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites. So the very same Biblical text that endorses universal ethics also endorses Jewish priority to the land. For the record, I am not arguing for contemporary Jewish sovereignty over the land on the basis of the Bible; I am merely pointing out the problem of selectively invoking the Bible, or Jewish tradition in general, in order to support anti-Israel activism.

[5] There is clearly more to say about “Social Justice Jews,” and it is difficult to generalize because they exist in so many different forms and degrees. But what I am trying to suggest (in short) is that individuals who are truly as much “for the Jews” as they are “for the Palestinians,” even if they derive their support for the Palestinians from their Jewishness (as just described), are unlikely to be “anti-Israel” in the 3-D way in question in this essay.

[6] Edward Alexander’s “Israelis Against Themselves: The Intellectual Origins of Oslo and Intifada II” is must reading here (in Jews Against Themselves, ch. 12).

[7] Note that the student at McGill University in Canada who came under fire for tweeting, “punch a zionist today,” subsequently clarified that he was not antisemitic because he was targeting only Zionists, not Jews.

[8] It is worth stating explicitly in case it is not clear: this essay does not presume that being a Zionist entails denying the rights of other peoples, including Palestinians. The target of this essay is those forms of anti-Israelism that, in fitting the 3-D description, essentially deny the same rights to Jews that it demands for Palestinians.

[9] Thanks to Gerald Steinberg, Yisrael Medad, Phyllis Chesler, Ziva Dahl, Miriam Elman, Petra Marquardt-Bigman, Ze’ev Maghen, and Elihu Stone for helpful comments on an earlier draft. Thanks also to Clemens Heni for a number of useful references. This essay is a revised and much expanded version of an essay that appeared earlier here.

About the Author
Andrew Pessin is a philosophy professor, Campus Bureau Editor at The Algemeiner, co-editor of "Anti-Zionism on Campus," and author most recently of the novel, "Nevergreen," an academic satire examining campus cancel culture and the ideological excesses that generate it. For more information, visit