Israel’s cry of anti-Semitism blocks a critical dialogue

Israeli soldier and settler boy (Photo: Kawther Salam/Gush Shalom)

Continued insistence on the part of the Israeli government and its advocates that critics of its policies are “anti-Semitic” is a dangerous and damaging position to hold. Continued insistence on this equation of anti-Israeli government sentiments and anti-Semitism creates a hostile atmosphere and prevents a critical dialogue on Middle East issues from a human rights perspective.

Israel is running short on legal and political justifications for its refusal to accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, its policies of illegal settlements, legally-mandated torture, targeted assassinations and reprisals against innocent families and civilian communities of suspected terrorists, and others. The rejection of Israel to testify for the International Court of Justice in The Hague, asked by the UN Secretary-General and United Nations General Assembly to advise, not judge, on the legal consequences of the Wall is the latest evidence of Israel’s policy to place itself above the reach of international law. To criticisms of these policies, Israeli government representatives and many of its advocates respond, with Pavlovian regularity, that one must therefore be anti-Semitic or, in the case of Jews, that one is “self-hating”. The government’s obvious intention is to block any critical discussion on its policies whatsoever.

It cannot be doubted that a marked increase in anti-Semitism is taking place and is a very disturbing phenomenon – in Europe notably – keeping pace with growing Islamophobia and xenophobic sentiment in general. Deeply concerned about this issue and responding to numerous complaints of anti-Semitism in Europe, the EU-funded European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) recently commissioned a research study on the issue. Unfortunately, the report produced was poorly researched, including many of the same, reflexive arguments that criticisms of Israel amount to anti-Semitism. Consequently, EUMC, in our view rightly, took the decision not to release it in its name, though it did make the report available on its website, on the basis that the report relied on only a very narrow set of data (4 weeks) and that such a report could have seriously undermined the credibility of the organisation. They have, however, commissioned a new report on anti-Semitism in Europe, to be released early next year.

A recent interview with one of the researchers of the yearly study “Racism Monitor in The Netherlands” concluded, in our view wrongly, that evidence of an increasing anti-Semitism in Holland was illustrated by use of the slogan “Sharon, child murderer”. This was expressed during a demonstration in The Netherlands against the policies of Israel towards the Palestinian people. Such criticisms of Sharon are nothing new. An inquiry of the Israeli government by the Kahane commission in the 1980’s determined that Sharon was co-responsible for the massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatila, where many children were killed. Consequently, Sharon had to step down as (then) minister of defence.

The above-mentioned examples, and more, show that there is a need to critically look into the criteria for defining anti-Semitism. In our view, people who voice criticism of Israel’s policies are not as such anti-Semitic. However, when the criticism is aired out of hatred because Israel is a Jewish state one can potentially speak of anti-Semitism.

Much of the rising anti-Semitism we are witnessing in Europe today is undeniably fuelled by both the new conflict in Iraq and the interminable conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Both Iraq and Israel have a long track record of not complying with resolutions of the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly. However, the responses by the Security Council to these violations have been starkly different. Iraq was confronted with a boycott and, in the end, an invasion of US and UK military forces. Israel, on the other hand, continues to be fully supported by the US.

It cannot be denied that anti-Semitism is a growing threat that needs to be urgently addressed. But, the same counts for the – arguably much more pervasive – wave of anti-Islamic sentiment in the world. Recent laws in France that ban young Muslim women wearing headscarves in school, racist depictions of Muslims in the media, violent treatment and torture of suspects in Afghanistan and unprecedented measures in the United States against middle-eastern immigrants are all terrible examples of this. Indeed, both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are both forms of hatred that need to be addressed.

Quite often, the argument of pro-Israel voices, asking why Israel is getting so much more attention than other, violent regimes in the world is heard. Why should the plight of Palestinians receive so much attention and the oppression of others, for example the massacre of pygmies in the Democratic Republic of Congo, receive merely scant attention? We should not be blind to oppression that exists in the many corners of our troubled world, but surely this cannot justify ignoring Israeli oppression? An opinion poll in the European Union found that the occupation of Palestine by Israel was seen as the most threatening conflict in the world today. It must also be remembered that South Africa’s Apartheid regime raised similar arguments in the 1980’s to those offered by Israel today, a fact acknowledged by the South African delegation itself in its submission to the International Court of Justice on the legal consequences of the Wall.

Insistence that any criticism against the Israeli government is de facto anti-Semitic only serves to increase Israel’s international isolation. It prevents opportunities for a peace process that ordinary people can participate in. It is imperative that all peace-loving individuals, both Jews and others, be free to express their revulsion at the violence of the Israeli government’s policies and their desire for a (participatory) peace process without fear of being labelled as “anti-Semitic”. They should be able to express their despair at the government’s futile attempts to provide security to either Palestinian or Israeli people.

Further, as peace activists, whatever our religious or secular affiliation, we should encourage – not discourage – criticism of both the Israeli government and its criminal policies, though we should clearly not turn a blind eye either to anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic manifestations. For example, the Anti-Defamation League, based in the USA, with its reputation of challenging ethnic hatred, should give just as equal attention to the rise of Islamophobia as it does to monitoring anti-Semitism rather than joining the unhelpful and dangerous position that criticisms of Israel are de facto anti-Semitic.

Fortunately, there are some who are willing to speak out. The Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard expressed his concerns in a BBC documentary on the killing of a British journalist and a British monitor by Israeli soldiers on Palestinian territory. He noted that a culture of hiding the truth is unfolding in Israel, a culture where the message to soldiers is that it “is not a big deal to kill a Palestinian”. He warned that the traditional response of the Israeli officials to criticism of the policies of Sharon’s government, namely tarring the other with the label of “anti-Semitism” smothers debate and – we would add – prospects for peace.

The authors are both human rights advocates, based in The Netherlands.

Related Links

  • Anti-Semitism at the World Social Forum?, Cecilie Surasky (19 February 2004)
  • Israel’s apologists and the Martin Luther King Jr. hoax, Fadi Kiblawi & Will Youmans (19 January 2004)
  • The new anti-Semitism?, Jonathan Cook (3 June 2003)
  • Panel: Is criticism of Israel anti-Semitism?, Professor Peter Novick, Ali Abunimah, Rabbi Emeritus Arnold Wolf, and Emily L. Hauser (16 December 2002)