We must pick our battles when decrying pop culture antisemitism

Plenty of public figures have pronounced opinions about political conflicts, with the Israel-Hamas war being no exception. In the months following the October 7 attacks, swathes of celebrities have denounced the Israeli offensive in Gaza, with many including a call for hostage release. Used to common criticism of the Palestinian plight, some Jews feel that, at their core, these calls are for a unilateral ceasefire. That said, twisting the statements of some celebrities to frame them as antisemitic when they might not be risks censorship of words that don’t even espouse any anti-Jewish or anti-Israel sentiment.

This tendency to decry general protest of the war could come off as crying wolf and playing into the virulent anti-Zionist argument that any criticism of Israel’s policies or actions are always denounced as antisemitism. Indeed, at the 2024 Oscar ceremony, director and screenwriter Jonathan Glazer gave an award speech for his Holocaust film “Zone of Interest” about how he “refutes [his] Jewishness” being leveraged to justify the violence enacted in the Gaza Strip. While from a logical standpoint, the current war has nothing to do with the Holocaust, October 7 has awoken trauma in Israeli society not evoked since the Shoah. That said, Glazer spoke to the occupation itself – in this case meaning Gaza and the West Bank – and did not specify the Jewish state, as Israel proper is indeed a legitimate state. If he had referred to the entire land from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River as Palestine that ought to be under complete Arab control with no room for a two-state solution, that would have been a different story.

However, a reference to the military occupation or opposition toward its Rafah operation do not challenge Israel’s legitimacy nor its right to existence or self-defense. The fact that “refuting Jewishness” was taken out of context by omitting the rest of the sentence shows a deliberate convolution to portray Glazer as rejecting his own Jewishness, as if he despises Jews. Such a farce makes it look as though Jewish people find antisemitism in everything, even statements by fellow Jews who haven’t actually said anything negative about Jews or even Israel’s existence.

To turn from a Jewish figure to an Arab-American Muslim celebrity, comedian Ramy Youssef was shouted off SNL with a petition to oust him alongside several other hosts for his speech asking that the violence in Gaza end. His emotional speech pleaded to “free Palestine and free the hostages.” As a writer collaborating with a Palestinian producer on his television series “Ramy”, he arguably took a risk acknowledging the hostages in his speech. His co-producer and co-star Hiam Abbass, despite a life-long Israeli citizenship, remains vocal about her grievances with Israel. The two worked together on a heavy episode exploring the military occupation in the West Bank filmed at the time of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh’s death by IDF gunfire.

Despite the turmoil, Ramy says he always enjoys his visits to Israel and the West Bank – even while, at times, the situation is immoral by nature – and even refutes his (in the series) Palestinian uncle’s claim that Israel is also Palestine. He is vocal about loving his Jewish friends, including Israelis with whom he worked on “Ramy” in Israel. Jewish people calling for this man’s firing merely for showing sympathy for fellow Arabs is not unlike anti-Zionists protesting Jews who advocate for hostage rescue missions or further sanctions on Iran to hinder weapons sales to terror proxies like Hamas.

By portraying opposition to an international recognized military occupation and a plea for the safety and freedom of people living under that occupation as anti-Jewish sentiment, this outcry trivializes actual disregard for Israeli and Jewish security. What Jewish protestors against antisemitism and our allies should be calling out are the calls for a unilateral ceasefire by Israel, regardless of hostage release. When it reaches the point that fragments of sentences must be cut out or ignored to point fingers, the meaning and impact of the disregard for Jewish lives both in Israel and the diaspora start to look like a fabrication.

Instead, especially in the case of arguable like Ramy against a backdrop of antisemitism often masquerading as anti-Zionism across elite institutions in the West, we should acknowledge and appreciate empathy where it exists.

About the Author
Sarah Katz is an author, screenwriter, and security professional with a bachelor degree in Middle East Studies from UC Berkeley and a master degree in counterterrorism. Her work has appeared in the Jewish Journal and Middle East Forum as well as Cyber Defense Magazine, Cyber Security, Dark Reading, Geopolitical Monitor, Infosecurity Magazine, ISACA Journal, 365 tomorrows, AHF Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review and Thriller Magazine. Her book "Back to the Tribe: Intersectionality through a Global Jewish Lens" discusses the dangers of stealth antisemitism masquerading as anti-Zionism on the Western left.
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