What is and is not acceptable criticism of Israel

Chances are that if you’ve ever been involved in Israel advocacy, you’ve heard the allegation that “Zionists/Jews label any and all criticism of Israel as antisemitic” at least once. As a rule of thumb, I tend not to take such complaints seriously, instead dismissing them as cheap invocations of the “race card” card. That is because, overall, whenever a Jewish person expresses concerns about antisemitism, there’s usually a good reason for it. Just because you don’t see any antisemitism in your statements, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Of course, it should go without saying that one can criticize Israeli state policies without stumbling into defamation, delegitimization, dehumanization, drawing on classic racist memes, or challenging Jewish equality on the global stage. This article is concerned with articulating those boundaries and clarifying them for a broader audience, particularly those who are relatively unacquainted with how antisemitism works. I’ll start by listing some examples of criticisms that are within acceptable bounds of political discourse. This list is by no means comprehensive. It is there just to give people a general idea of what kinds of criticisms are okay.

* Israel’s reckless expansion beyond the green line is a strategic and moral error, imperilling its status as a Jewish and democratic state

* Arbitrary arrests of children in Judea and Samaria/West Bank need to stop

* The IDF needs to do whatever it can to avoid unnecessary civilian deaths

* The return of the Jews to their ancestral homeland, while a perfectly legitimate aspiration, was flawed in its execution

* Price tag attacks, kidnappings, etc, are a crime

* Israel must address the concerns of the Ethiopian Jewish community

Now I will move onto antisemitic criticisms of Israel. You’ll notice that this list is much longer, primarily because these “criticisms” are far more common than the ones you’ll find above. I will put the criticisms in bold and the explanations for why they are antisemitic in plain text, next to each one.

* The Jewish state is the root cause of all of the Middle East’s problems. You know that old chestnut “the Jews are responsible for everything that’s wrong in the world”? This is basically the same thing.

* The Jews should have set up a state in Germany/Poland/Argentina/the United States/Siberia instead a.k.a. “Jews need to get the hell out of Palestine and go home to Germany, Poland, Russia, etc”, per the late Helen Thomas. First of all, after centuries of telling us to ‘go back to Palestine’, it is fairly obnoxious to tell us that we need to leave again less than a century after we took your advice. Furthermore, if we *had* established a state anywhere outside of Eretz Yisra’el, then we really would have been settler colonists as our connection to Europe/the United States/Russia/etc is diasporic, not indigenous. Secondarily, Europe would never have allowed the building of a Jewish state in their midst. They preferred sending us back to the Middle East, rather than integrating us. Lastly, how could we establish a state there after enduring almost two millennia of European racism? Do you really think we would trust the surrounding indigenous populations not to murder us again? Europe is not our “home” and it is not our “native land” – Israel is. It’s really that simple.

* The Jews have been away from the Middle East for too long, so their indigenous status is null and void. They are white Europeans now. Where is this statute of limitations that says an indigenous people loses their right to go home, or to even identify with their ancestral lands, if they are displaced for too long? Do the Cherokee, for example, no longer have the right to return to Tennessee because the Trail of Tears happened centuries ago? Are white settlers in Tennessee now indigenous because “they lived there for centuries”? No other dispossessed native people would accept this argument, so why should we?

* Ashkenazi Jews are not really descended from the ancient Israelites, they are Europeans who converted to Judaism. Not only is this theory demonstrably false, it is a blatantly obvious attempt to delegitimize Israel’s existence by portraying the Jewish returnees as “foreign colonial occupiers whose only connection to the land is religious”.

* The Zionist lobby is hyper-powerful and controls the US government/the UN/the entire world. A conspiracy theory ripped straight out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and updated for the 21st century.

* Israel is a settler colonial state built on land theft and colonization of the land’s true indigenous people: the Palestinians Jews are indigenous to Israel. Centuries spent in exile does not change that, and an indigenous people cannot colonize its own ancestral lands. Second, the Jews did not “steal” anything. They purchased unused lands from absentee Arab landowners, cultivated them, defended themselves against numerous pogroms, and survived an attempted genocidal war in 1948. The refugee crisis is more complex: some were indeed expelled in isolated incidents, whereas others were ordered to flee by the invading Arab armies, who promised them they could return when all of the Jews were dead, so they could loot and despoil leftover Jewish property. The Jordanians had removed all Jews from Judea and Samaria/West Bank by the end of the war. Had the Jews lost, the same would have happened in green line Israel as well.

* Jews/Israelis are treating Palestinians the same way their oppressors treated them – the Jews have learned nothing. Blood libel + comparing Jews to their oppressors = self-explanatory. Also, what were we supposed to have “learned”? Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen were not universities. If there is anything we’ve “learned”, it’s that the next time someone says they want to kill us, we’d better have an army, tanks, nukes, borders, and powerful allies at our disposal.

* Israel is a white supremacist state, and Zionism is white supremacism. See above. Comparing Jews to their oppressors = no. Moreover, we are an indigenous people of the Middle East. We are not white.

* Israel is the new South Africa, the new Jim Crow, etc. A well-worn anti-Zionist libel aimed at encouraging global boycott against the Jewish state in the hopes of dismantling it. That’s without even getting into the inherent ridiculousness of this comparison. In Israel, Jews and non-Jews live together, go to school together, eat in the same restaurants, use the same post offices, and serve in all of the same positions, big or small. Under Jim Crow and South African apartheid, whites and blacks couldn’t even drink from the same fountains or use the same park benches.

* Jesus, Mary, Moses, King David, etc were Palestinians. This is antisemitic because modern Jews are excluded from the contemporary definition of “Palestinian”. In other words, this is essentially another attempt to disconnect us from our heritage.

* There was never a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Again, this is false, revisionist history.

* Israelis harvest Palestinian organs. Blood libel.

* Accusations of antisemitism are a smear tactic aimed at silencing criticism of Israel. This more or less insinuates that Jews are opportunistic, untrustworthy, and thus unreliable narrators of their own experiences and can be ignored as such.

* Jews exploit their historic suffering for political gain. See above.

Again, this list is not comprehensive. It is a compilation of the most common antisemitic criticisms of Israel being bandied about. I’m sure there are some that I’ve missed, so I’ll you to fill in any blanks. Either way, so long as you abide by these principles, you should be okay.

About the Author
Half-Irish/half-Jewish American activist, musician, and writer.