Israel’s increasing reliance on the “anti-Semitism” defense

Natan Sharansky

A year ago, on 22 January 2004, Israel’s Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, Natan Sharansky, announced that the Israeli Government had designated January 27 as a “National Day to Combat Anti-Semitism”.

“Anti-Semitism threatens the Jewish people, the very existence of the State of Israel, and in fact the entire world,” said Sharansky. “We must raise awareness in Israel, strengthen the solidarity between Israel and world Jewry, and increase Israeli citizens’ sense of responsibility regarding events in the Diaspora.”

The January 27 date was selected as it falls on the same day as the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. As part of Israel’s commemoration of the second National Day to Combat Anti-Semitism today, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon delivered a speech in the Knesset.

As one would expect, most of the first half of Sharon’s 841-word speech was dedicated to remembering the failure of the allied forces during World War II to prevent the annihilation of Europe’s Jews, recounting events such as the ineffectual Bermuda Conference of April 1943 and the tragic refusal of the US and Cuba to provide asylum to 1,000 Jews aboard the Saint Louis, resulting in most of the passengers ending back in the death camps from which they were desperately fleeing.

“ ‘Do not put your trust in men in power,’ said the poet of the Psalms,” Sharon stated, “The State of Israel has learned this lesson… We know that we can trust no one but ourselves.”

And then came the linkage. “This phenomenon of Jews defending themselves and fighting back is anathema to the new anti-Semites,” Sharon continued. “Legitimate steps of self-defense which Israel takes in its war against Palestinian terrorist [sic] — actions which any sovereign state is obligated to undertake to ensure the security of its citizens — are presented by those who hate Israel as aggressive, ‘Nazi-like’ steps.”

Since its launch in February 2001, EI has reported on several major public relations initiatives by the State of Israel. The same month, Israel hired two New York-based public relations firms — Howard J. Rubenstein Associates and Morris, Carrick & Guma — to assist with Israel’s international image problems (“Waging the PR war in America” by Melissa Radler, Jerusalem Post, 9 March 2001).

It was no coincidence that, despite a completely different foundational basis and grossly-disproportionate funding levels for initiatives on both sides of the conflict, similar developments were taking place at the same time in the Israeli and Palestinian information spheres.

At the time, the Intifada was into its fifth month and it was clear to both sides, from the resurge of interest in this perennial international news story, that there was a desperate need to have a clear message and strategy for articulating it.

Just as the first Intifada (1987-1992) saw the creation of many non-governmental organisations on the ground in Palestine — to monitor the human rights situation, to establish medical and other support services, and to publish research on various Palestinian development indicators — the second Intifada (2000-present) has seen a similar explosion in cyberspace. It was to be expected that the conflict would spread to increasingly affordable information technologies.

In April 2003, EI published a leaked document prepared for pro-Israel activists by another public relations firm, The Luntz Research Companies, who produced the document in cooperation with The Israel Project. The media training manual counseled pro-Israel advocates to curry favour with the general public of Israel’s American sponsor by repeatedly invoking the name of Saddam Hussein, and to stress that Israel “was always behind American efforts to rid the world of this ruthless dictator and liberate their people.” Additional advice included increased focus on Yasser Arafat who “looks the part” of a “terrorist” and avoiding early criticism of Mahmoud Abbas, then recently-appointed as Palestinian Prime Minister by Arafat.

Parallel to these efforts, a somewhat loosely-organised public relations effort was being launched on another front by a variety of pro-Israeli journalists, academics, and think tanks.

Daniel Pipes’ “Campus Watch” website was launched in September 2002, to “monitor and gather information on professors who fan the flames of disinformation, incitement and ignorance,” as a blatant vehicle for embarking on a MEMRI-style, lurid and unrepresentative quote-gathering research project with the aim of demonizing and marginalizing US academics with alternative views on the Middle East which challenge the conventional US and Israeli wisdoms about the region.

Unlike the Luntz document, the focus of these parallel efforts were not as much message-related — ie. concerned with identifying communication problems and forming a coherent and effective media message — as they were messenger-related, focused on a strategy commonly referred to, here in the U.S., as “playing the race card.”

With Daniel Pipes at the helm, who is associated with an impressive catalog of documented racist public statements including the description of entire Muslim populations as “barbarians” and “potential killers” (National Review Online, 22 October 2001), it was no surprise that Campus Watch headed for the same lowest common denominator, declaring in its website introduction that:

“Middle East studies in the United States has become the preserve of Middle Eastern Arabs, who have brought their views with them. Membership in the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the main scholarly association, is now 50 percent of Middle Eastern origin.”

Other parts of the introduction were similarly disturbing given that no one in this United States of Immigrants, bar the indigenous native population, possesses a solely ethnic American identity:

“Though American citizens, many of these scholars actively disassociate themselves from the United States, sometimes even in public,” on the mere grounds that some of them have mentioned that they have other identities (particularly Palestinian) in addition to being American.

As EI commented at the time, for Campus Watch, “the fact that Arabs or people of Arab descent should be allowed to study themselves, rather than be studied primarily by people who view them as ‘a major source of problems for the United States’, ‘barbarians’, and even ‘potential killers’ is a shocking outrage. It is unlikely that any organization seeking respectability would deploy such shameless race-baiting against any other group.”

Of course, one of the reoccurring themes in Campus Watch’s output is the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

On the flip side of the same race card, anyone critical of Israel’s foreign policies towards the Palestinians is in danger of having their principled political stance represented as another form of Jew-hating. This is reminiscent of the bad old days of the 1980s, when even simple humanitarian observations about the plight of the Palestinians — if they actually made it onto the letters page of a newspaper — would result in a flood of letters attacking the writer as “anti-Semitic”, with little or zero reference to the merits of their argument.

Over the last several years these hysterical echoes, primarily intended to muddy discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by silencing one side of it, have increasingly been heard.

Anti-Semitism, as it was represented in the unabridged version of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary in 2001, included one definition as, “opposition to Zionism: sympathy with opponents of the state of Israel.” After being challenged, Webster’s public response claimed the definition was based on “a small group of citations clustered in the years 1947-1952” in which anti-Semitism was linked to opposition to Israel or Zionism, arguing that the definition was a “relic” rather than any editorial commentary on current events.

Was this true? Was the timing of this definition merely a coincidence? Was the researcher for this segment deliberately trying to turn up obscure references to impact the contemporary definition? Or were the several layers of editors that read the definition so inured by the increasing linkage between the two in common usage, that they let it go? We may never know the full story, but it seems unlikely to have been accidental, with at least some level of intent at some part of the process, perhaps combined with carelessness.

The title of the concluding chapter in Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel (2003), “Israel — the Jew among Nations”, is another example. Israel, a country with reportedly one of the most powerful armies in the world, which it does not hesitate to employ against Palestinians to facilitate the colonization of more Palestinian land, is not a human rights abuser, but rather a victim of our irrational hatred. It is not Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians that is the issue. It is us, the rest of the world. We are so blind, according to the dark logic of this repertoire, that we cannot see that our concern for the fate of the Palestinians is merely a faux finish on our inner Nazi.

This deliberate campaign of obfuscation through conflation of definitions is currently reverberating at international levels. In a recent analysis of the World Jewish Congress campaign for the adoption of a General Assembly resolution condemning anti-Semitism, published by EI on 25 January 2005, former UN official Laura Reanda concluded:

“…the concern about anti-Semitism as a form of religious and ethnic intolerance (which could be combated by using existing international mechanisms), has transmogrified into an all-out campaign by conservative Jewish organizations to reject any criticism of the Israeli government and ultimately even to change the fundamental principles that still govern the international approach to the Israel/Palestine conflict.”

Increasingly, we see Israel moving away from a Luntz-type strategy into outright intimidation through character assassination. The further Israel moves away from defending its position and the more it relies on the strategy of demonizing the holders of contrary positions as ‘Jew-haters’ wearing liberal wool, the clearer it will be to all that the point is to ensure that the real issues are not addressed.

Israeli PM Ariel Sharon gives his address at the Knesset, 26 January 2005.

It is not even as if this strategy is that well thought out, and examples of carelessness in the “criticism of Israel equals anti-Semitism” repertoire are not hard to find in the current knee-jerk environment.

In the Knesset today, as Sharon concluded his listing of historical examples of active state persecution of Jews and of passive state indifference in its face, he invoked the name of the great civil rights crusader, Martin Luther King:

Many of the manifestations of anti-Semitism in the past years are no longer aimed only at Jews as individuals. Rather, they are aimed at the embodiment of all Jews: the State of Israel, the Jewish state. As early as 1967, in “A Letter to an Anti-Zionist Friend,” Dr. Martin Luther King wrote that anti-Zionism is no less than disguised anti-Semitism.

I quote: “The times have made it unpopular, in the West, to proclaim openly a hatred of the Jews. This being the case, the anti-Semite must constantly seek new forms and forums for his poison. He does not hate the Jews, he is just “anti-Zionist”! My friend, when people criticize Zionism, they mean Jews — make no mistake about it.”

Sadly for Israel and Sharon, whose speech writers are going to feel pretty foolish when they realize their error, no such letter from Martin Luther King exists. An year ago, on 20 January 2003, Jewish antiracism activist and writer Tim Wise, published an article on Znet, “Fraud fit for a King: Israel, Zionism, and the misuse of MLK,” explaining the fraud by recounting his hunt for the original source and discovering the so-called “A Letter to an Anti-Zionist Friend” never existed.

Wise wrote:

In truth, King appears never to have made any public comment about Zionism per se; and the only known statement he ever made on the topic, made privately to a handful of people, is a far cry from what he is purported to have said in the so-called “Letter to an Anti-Zionist friend.” In 1968, according to Seymour Martin Lipset, King was in Boston and attended a dinner in Cambridge along with Lipset himself and a number of black students. After the dinner, a young man apparently made a fairly harsh remark attacking Zionists as people, to which King responded: “Don’t talk like that. When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking Anti-Semitism.” Assuming this quote to be genuine, it is still far from the ideological endorsement of Zionism as theory or practice that was evidenced in the phony letter.

It is easy to see from its text why the letter attracted so much attention from the pro-Israel lobby, with King’s glowing descriptions of Israel’s colonization of Palestine:

“Why is this? You know that Zionism is nothing less than the dream and ideal of the Jewish people returning to live in their own land. The Jewish people, the Scriptures tell us, once enjoyed a flourishing Commonwealth in the Holy Land. From this they were expelled by the Roman tyrant, the same Romans who cruelly murdered Our Lord. Driven from their homeland, their nation in ashes, forced to wander the globe, the Jewish people time and again suffered the lash of whichever tyrant happened to rule over them… And what is anti-Zionist? It is the denial to the Jewish people of a fundamental right that we justly claim for the people of Africa and freely accord all other nations of the Globe. It is discrimination against Jews, my friend, because they are Jews. In short, it is antisemitism.”

The hoax discovery and different context of the remarks did nothing to slow down either Israel or her friends. Two days later, Israeli media monitoring organization CAMERA admitted the letter that Sharon cited today was a hoax, but claimed that “the basic message of the letter was indeed, without question, spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr. in a 1968 appearance at Harvard, where he said: ‘When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You are talking anti-Semitism.’ [from ‘The Socialism of Fools: The Left, the Jews and Israel’ by Seymour Martin Lipset; in Encounter magazine, December 1969, p. 24.]”

Numerous other references to the quote can be found on the websites of pro-Israeli organizations and in print. As late as November 2003, Commentary magazine published the same bogus quote, in “On Hating the Jews” by… none other than Natan Sharansky, the architect of today’s National Day to Combat Anti-Semitism in honor of which Sharon made his speech. One wonders if Sharon’s speechwriter in this instance might be a familiar face?

Sharansky has been busy burning both ends of the demonization candle. According to today’s Ha’aretz, Sharanzky recently commissioned a study which concluded that the Palestinian Authority was, quote, “conducting systematic Nazi propaganda against Jews,” and announced yesterday that he would be presenting the results to foreign ambassadors today.

The Ha’aretz report by Amiram Barkat noted that, “The researchers admit that no direct proof of a directed policy was found, and that the theory that they developed was based on ‘circumstantial evidence’ through analyzing Palestinian publications with clear anti-Semitic themes” and that “most of the [example video] material shown was from 1999-2003, while only a few were taken from the past year, and only two were from the past two months.” At the press conference, Sharansky warned that Palestinian schools were training “tens of thousands of future terrorists,” raising yet again the utterly debunked Israeli claims about the content of Palestinian textbooks.

It is apparently not sufficient any more to deny the existence of the Palestinians as did Golda Meir, or compare them to “cockroaches” as did Raphael Eitan, or order their limbs to be smashed if they threw stones at the foreign occupiers as did Yitzhak Rabin. Today, we are asked to view the trampled Palestinians, desperately clinging to the rubble of their homes from Jenin to Rafah, as “Nazis”. Israel’s descent from blinding denial into incomprehensible madness is apparently almost complete.

These endless red herrings are more than a distraction, they are directly responsible for the destruction of human life. With no change in the primary root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian land — and despite the increasingly desperate situation on the ground that has claimed 3,565 Palestinian and 1,041 Israeli lives and left 28,441 Palestinians and 7,032 Israelis injured[1], Israel’s highest leaders and its “friends” around the world continue to intimidate people from participating in a free international debate about the facts on the ground that would clarify the obvious first steps needed to reduce the violence — primarily in obviousness would be the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian land.

Only this step — not Abbas, not any mythical “window of opportunity”, and certainly not the Gaza redeployment — will effect a dramatic and meaningful change in the status quo.

The result of Israel making every effort to ignore this fact is that we are treading a dark, confusing path that can only get darker and more confusing as long as the real issues in this conflict continue to be deliberately blurred. The importance of ensuring that our journey takes the shortest possible route towards genuine peace is self-evident — every further distraction or deviation from this goal will be marked along the road not by milestones, but by gravestones.

Despite this horrible truth, the increasing intransigence of current Israeli discourse suggests that not only “anti-Semitism”, but “self-evident” is being redefined.

Nigel Parry is a cofounder of the Electronic Intifada.

Palestine Red Crescent Society, 29 Sept 2000-23 Jan 2005; IDF, 29 Sept 2000-16 Jan 2005. 

Related Links

  • PM Sharon’s Knesset Speech Marking the Struggle Against Anti-Semitism (26 January 2005)
  • Fraud fit for a King: Israel, Zionism, and the misuse of MLK, Time Wise, Znet (20 January 2003)
  • Israel’s apologists and the Martin Luther King Jr. hoax, Fadi Kiblawi & Will Youmans (19 January 2004)
  • BY TOPIC: The New Anti-Semitism