Those of us advocating for the human rights and sovereignty of the Palestinian people, and decrying the illegal and brutal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, face a growing challenge: the escalating attempt by Israel, and Israel’s supporters in the United States, to label virtually any and all criticism of Israeli actions or policies as “anti-Semitic”. For example, Bret Stephens’ piece on the front page of the Sunday, February 10thNew York Times Week in Review section, entitled “The Progressive Assault on Israel,” and “Antisemitism: Here and Now, by Deborah Lipstadt, recently reviewed in the New York TimesBook Review.
In recent years, the pro-Israeli lobby in America has been frenetic in its actions, both legal and political, against university professors, pro-Palestinian student activists, politicians and others who dare to call Israel out on its many, many violations of international law, including its war crimes. As noted in the annual report of Palestine Legal, an organization of which I am a member, there were 289 separate incidents of suppression of U.S.-based Palestinian advocacy in 2018, 76% targeting students and professors on 68 separate campuses. And yet, once subjected to review by the relevant authorities, virtually all of these 289 attempts to silence a student group or professor for alleged anti-Semitic speech or actions were found not to be “anti-Semitic”.
Already, 26 states have passed anti-Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (“BDS”) laws, claiming calls for the BDS of Israel are, per se, “anti-Semitic”. The United States Senate has passed such a law, as well. And now the Trump Administration has appointed Elan S. Carr, “Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism”. Carr, a former U.S. Prosecutor, some of whose family members are Holocaust survivors, equates all hostility to the state of Israel with anti-Semitism.
The pro-Israeli lobby is rapidly losing its propaganda campaign aimed at silencing those who dare to criticize the bad behavior of the Israel government.
No one should be surprised by the escalating attempts to discredit criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. Today, Israel is seen by much of the rest of the world as a pariah state. The pro-Israeli lobby is rapidly losing its propaganda campaign aimed at silencing those who dare to criticize the bad behavior of the Israel government. Even in these Unites States, among those identifying as “liberal Democratic voters,” fully 40% now support the Palestine cause. And that is more than double the percentage since 2001!
Before going further, let me state that I am well-aware of the frightening rise of true anti-Semitism, both in America and around the world. Racist, nationalist and anti-Semitic governments at home and abroad are giving license to anti-Semitic groups and individuals to once again openly blame Jews for the world’s ills. As a consequence, the incidents of physical attacks on Jews and their places of worship are occurring in higher numbers than we’ve seen in many, many years. And, yes, surely some criticism of Israel is leveled with little regard for its accuracy or fairness, and some may honestly be labeled “anti-Semitic”. All of this, in turn, makes it that much harder for us in the pro-Palestinian movement to advance the cause of the Palestinian people, because it makes it easier for pro-Israel hard-liners to unfairly paint all criticism of Israel with the same anti-Semitic brush.
The history of the Jewish people is also often used against today’s critics of Israel. The Holocaust was real. It was a horrific tragedy with virtually no equal in modern world history. But it is patently unfair to use the fact of long-standing anti-Semitism and historic barbarity against the Jewish people to deny the humanity of any other people, including the Palestinian people. Indeed, large numbers of Jews, including those who lost family members in the Holocaust, are in the leadership of the pro-Palestinian movement today precisely because they do remember their own past; and because they do not want others to experience anything even remotely resembling that past. And so they fight today for the rights, and the lives, of the Palestinian people.
Ironically, and sadly, a consequence of Israel’s supporters today labeling virtually every criticism of Israel “anti-Semitic, is that it serves to weaken the fight against actual anti-Semitic speech and behavior; provides ammunition and cover for those who seek to deny the Holocaust and/or deny the real anti-Semitism existent in today’s world.
Here are just a few examples of the strong criticisms of Israel that Israel and its supporters today label as inherently anti-Semitic. One is the claim that: “Israel is an apartheid state”. This was true when South Africa’s Bishop Tutu said it, and it’s even truer today, with Israeli law now going further on behalf of making non-Jewish residents of Israel second-class citizens; going further in denying them various fundamental rights and privileges afforded the Jewish citizens of Israel. (See, The Guardian, September 28, 2002; and, The Jerusalem Post, March 10, 2014)
Or, another example: “Israel has committed war crimes”. This is also a fact. Think Gaza and think of the various international agencies that have found Israel to have committed war crimes during its numerous assaults on Gaza. And just a day or so before this piece was being written, on February 8th, Palestinians conducted their “46th Friday of the Great March of Return and Breaking Siege”, and did so peacefully and at considerable distance from the border with Israel. Nevertheless, Israeli Defense Forces, without provocation or excuse, opened fire on the large protest march; a march filled with family members of all ages. As a consequence, Israeli soldiers killed 2 Palestinian children and, in total, wounded 90 civilians, 32 of who were children! And one could cite numerous examples of similar atrocities committed by Israel over the decades of their illegal occupation of Palestine. (See, National Lawyers Guild report of February 10, 2015.)
Another statement, or position of the pro-Palestinian movement deemed “anti-Semitic”, is that: “The “Palestinians should have the right of return”: To want justice for the Palestinian people who were displaced by the creation of the State of Israel, and who continue to be displaced by more and more Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, is not anti-Semitic. It is no more “anti-Semitic” than it is “anti-European” to support justice for our own indigenous people. And it is no more a cry to destroy Israel than the cry for justice for America’s indigenous people is a cry for the destruction of America.
Or, another supposedly “anti-Semitic” statement by pro-Palestinian supporters: “The Palestinian people have the right to resist, with force if necessary, the continuing Israeli occupation”: Under international law all peoples finding themselves under illegal foreign occupation have the right to be free of occupation; as well as the right to use force to free themselves. (See, United Nations Resolution, 3/12/82.)
And then there is a series of statements or charges against Israel that supporters of Israel consider especially “anti-Semitic”, including these: “Israel engages in collective punishment in the occupied territories”; and, “Israel is locking up Palestinians, including Palestinian children, often indefinitely and without due process”; and, “Israel is illegally confiscating Palestinian land and destroying Palestinian homes and shops”; and, “Israel arbitrarily murders Palestinians, including Palestinian children”; and, “Israel is destroying Palestinian records such as birth and marriage records, as well as Palestinian cultural artifacts”.
The reason why the above statements really incense Israel’s supporters is, of course, because they concern Israeli practices in the occupied territories that are reminiscent of practices employed against the Jewish people under Nazi occupation. Now, obviously, what the Palestinians are suffering under Israeli occupation, while terrible, is not as grave as what the Jews suffered during the Holocaust at the hands of the German Nazi administration. However, it is precisely because of what the Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis that we would hope a nation with a majority Jewish population would never employ even similar methods against the Palestinian people in occupied Palestine. But Israel does do so, and it is neither unfair, nor “anti-Semitic” to point this out.
In this regard, consider, as well, what has just happened to newly elected Congress member Ilhan Omar (D-MN). Her latest alleged sin was calling out the role of Jewish money and the influence of the pro-Israeli lobby in American politics, thereby reprieving what is widely accepted to be an old anti-Semitic trope. But in truth, AIPAC and other supporters of Israel do provide the pro-Israeli cause with money. And they have every right to do so. So, too, we all have the right to call out the role of Christian money in the anti-abortion movement; or to call out the role of Mormon money to defeat same-sex marriage in California; or to call out the money spent by Muslims and by Islamic organizations to stop anti-Muslim laws and Executive Orders. They, like AIPAC, have the right to spend their money in this way. And, of course, the money spent by Christian and Mormon and Muslim groups to back their causes is regularly noted; noted without those who do so being labeled “anti-Christian, anti-Mormon or anti-Muslim” bigots!
Let me address another argument used by those claiming the examples of anti-Israel statements and charges that I’ve cited in this article must be anti-Semitic. Israeli supporters often claim that those of us who sharply criticize Israel must surely be anti-Semitic because we don’t always criticize other nations who do the same or worse. First, most critics of Israel do criticize other nations for engaging in the same or similar behavior. But, in any event, such an argument is silly. Under such irrational reasoning, if I criticize Saudi Arabia for its misogyny but don’t also mention the same problem in Egypt or, for that matter, in America, then I must be a “hater of the Saudi people”. And, when I criticize Egypt for its extrajudicial murders but don’t call out the Philippine Government when it does the same, then I must be “anti-Egyptian”. Under what rule of speech or logic am I required to name other places on earth doing bad things when I decide, at a pro-Palestinian march and rally, to criticize only one of the places, Israel, for doing those bad things, or risk being labeled “anti-Semitic”?
Central to the problem, of course, of those crying “anti-Semitism” every time Israel is harshly criticized, is that they are unable to differentiate between the government of Israel and the people of Israel, most of who are Jews. Let me assure them that I, and everyone I know in the pro-Palestinian movement, who criticize the actions and policies of Israel, are not criticizing the Jews of Israel, or for that matter the Muslims, or the Christians in Israel; we are only criticizing the Israeli government. When I criticize the Philippine government, as I do, for its epidemic of extra-judicial murders, I am not criticizing the people of the Philippines; I am only criticizing the Philippine government. When I spent ten years of my life in the movement to end the U.S. war in Vietnam, and on virtually a daily basis criticized in very sharp terms the U.S. government’s war in Vietnam, I was not defaming the American people or the then largely Christian population of America; just the U.S. Government.
(Interesting Note: When, in 1971, I met in Hanoi with Pham Van Dong, then the premier of North Vietnam, and asked him how it was that I could walk the streets of Hanoi unaccompanied, and have the Vietnamese people treat me, an American, so well, he said, “because we educate our people to the fact that it is not the American people who hate and wage war on us, it is the government of their country that wages war on us”. That is, he and his people understood that criticism, or even hatred of another government’s actions, should not extend to the people of the nation whose actions they hate. And, so, I could walk freely around Hanoi, even as the bombs fell, and not once encounter so much as an angry stare from the thousands of North Vietnamese people I passed on the streets. Quite the contrary…I was warmly received.)
In the eyes of pro-Israeli supporters, and all too many U.S. elected officials, it is beyond question that calling for the boycott, divestment and sanctioning of Israel is anti-Semitic. After all, it is supposedly calling for nothing less than the destruction of Israel. Nonsense! The call for BDS against Israel is no more a call for Israel’s destruction than the call for BDS against South Africa was a call for South Africa’s destruction. Rather, BDS is simply a call aimed at pressuring the targeted government to stop doing certain things it is doing and to start doing things it is not doing. Other examples are calls for BDS against Iran, or Myanmar, or Iraq, or…well, you name it.
Then there is also the claim of the so-called “self-hating Jew.” For all too many supporters of Israel, that’s any Jewish person who engages in strong criticism of Israel. What a pitiful argument to make! What a thoughtless, illogical and mean-spirited charge to throw at your Jewish sisters and brothers who just happen to view the conflict between Israel and Palestine differently than you. Jews in great numbers are part of the pro-Palestinian movement, and I’ve never met one of them who hates the fact that they are Jewish. They are proud of their Jewish heritage. They are proud of Judaism’s long commitment to justice for all peoples; and merely seek to convince others to join them in demanding an end to the unjust, horrible abuses in Palestine, committed, as it happens, by the Israeli government.
As this dishonest attempt to silence criticism of Israel grows in intensity; an attempt to shame and discredit those of us who decry many of the actions and policies of the Israeli government, and support the cause of freedom and nationhood for the Palestinian people, what is our best defense against this politically powerful and well-coordinated smear campaign? Quite simply it is to refuse to be intimidated. Refuse to desist in our criticisms, small and large, of Israel. Refuse to abandon our demand that our government stop funding Israel’s war machine. Refuse to support politicians in either party who turn a blind eye to Israel’s abuses. Refuse to stop marching and demanding justice and freedom for the Palestinian people. Our integrity demands we do no less.
More importantly, the terrible plight of the Palestinian people, subjugated and abused by the Israeli Government for so many decades now, demands we do no less!
Executive Director Emeritus, National Lawyers Guild, L.A.