Opinion | Is Our Fear of Antisemitism Poisoning Our Discussion of Israel?

By | Feb 22, 2023
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Over the past 2,500 years, antisemitism has been one of the world’s most resilient scourges, erupting spasmodically but never going away, and spanning much of the globe. This virus has mutated into a mélange of tribal turf wars, religious jealousy, economic envy and pure, abstract, intellectual hatred, attracting adherents who may never have met a Jew in their lives. And it is again on the rise, although the degree is subject to dispute.

If indeed antisemitism is spreading like an infectious toxin, though, how Jewish communities seek to treat it can also cause damage to those communities’ health.

In Durham, North Carolina, for example, the Judea Reform synagogue was roiled recently when the city’s popular former mayor, Steve Schewel, a member of the congregation, was invited to participate in a panel entitled, “How do we talk to our school-aged kids about antisemitism?”

Days before, Schewel, the rabbi and the entire congregation had been attacked in a venomous open letter from a fellow member who accused Schewel of “normalizing” antisemitism, which she said he “helped unleash here.” Her complaint was that, while mayor in 2017, Schewel had effectively aided a campaign by two national groups, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, to ban the city from participating in a “militarized” police training program in Israel with the Israel Defense Forces. No such program was ever planned or contemplated, but the campaign led the city council to consider a resolution banning the city from participating in any such program in the future—a move that generated intense anger in the local Jewish community. When it became clear that the resolution would pass, Schewel tried to engineer last-minute wording that would satisfy both sides but failed. The resulting council vote was a symbolic solution in search of a nonexistent problem that nonetheless tore the area’s Jewish community apart. The groups that had initiated the campaign claimed Durham’s action as a national and international victory.

A few days after the letter attacked Schewel, I received an email from an old college friend in a different part of the United States reporting angst in his congregation over when criticism of Israel is legitimate and when it constitutes antisemitism. The question had gained urgency after the election of Benjamin Netanyahu and the formation of a government including right-wing nationalists. “There is a lot of background noise in my Jewish community about all of this,” he wrote. The subject was so potentially contentious that the synagogue conducted a congregational forum on Zoom that was confined to statements only—no debate permitted. “Some folks are upset; including those in the ‘anti-Zionism equals antisemitism’ camp. And some are just confused and pained,” he wrote to me. The controversial issues “are potentially disruptive and threaten to fracture the community.”

It’s long been the case that in some American congregations and Jewish organizations, any departure from unquestioned support for Israeli government policy, either within Israel proper or in the occupied territories, is considered an act of disloyalty, or even heresy—especially if it is voiced in public. But not all criticism directed at the State of Israel, including that voiced by Palestinians and leftist Jews, always and automatically equals antisemitism. Rather, some critics of Israeli government policy are being unfairly accused of antisemitism—often for partisan reasons.

Of course, all antisemitism is repugnant. Many incidents of antisemitic violence are concrete and real, from the much-covered attacks on synagogues in Poway, Pittsburgh and Colleyville to multiple assaults on visibly Orthodox Jews in New York and New Jersey. In January, there was a failed Molotov cocktail attack on a synagogue in Bloomfield, New Jersey. The alleged perpetrators of such outright attacks include white nationalists, Islamist extremists, Palestinian militants and other deranged individuals. 

But beyond this, the scope and character of what is happening gets murky. As a journalist who regularly reports on antisemitism for Jewish and secular publications, I believe three elements are at play in this grayer area.

First, there is the antisemitism that has always been part of American life, especially in the period stretching from the mass migration of European Jews in the late-19th and early-20th centuries to Father Coughlin’s vitriolic radio broadcasts in the 1930s. A low point of this period, the 1913 trial and subsequent lynching of Jewish factory manager Leo Frank in Georgia on unfounded suspicion that he had murdered a young girl, still stirs passions. A revival of Parade,  a Tony-award-winning, 1998 musical that retells the tragic story, featuring a sympathetic portrayal of Frank, is slated to open on Broadway in March—but neo-Nazis still peddle the debunked charges against Frank, both in lurid language on the web and in organized protest

Second is the way that, in recent years, this persistent antisemitism has been unleashed from social constraint. Trumpism, for instance, has too often allowed white nationalists and other extremists to feel free to express antisemitism in public and, anonymously, on social media. The result is an apparent spread of views long considered unacceptable. 

A study published by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in January found that 85 percent of Americans think at least one anti-Jewish trope—such as “Jews have too much power in the business world” or “Jews don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind”—is “somewhat true.” This is up from the 61 percent who gave the same response in 2019. “Antisemitism in its classical fascist form is emerging again in American society,” the ADL report concluded.

Some of this erosion of norms may stem from ignorance of history. As the memory of the Holocaust fades among younger activists, politicians stumble into classic antisemitic tropes (such as references to the Rothschilds or “the Benjamins”), only to backtrack and apologize. (In some cases, apologies aren’t enough; U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who made the remark about “the Benjamins,” was recently stripped of her position on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.)

Third, there has been a dramatic rise in anecdotal reports of anti-Zionism, such as statements by activist leftist or Palestinian groups that Israel should not exist. In the view of many Jews, denying Israel’s right to exist is not only anti-Zionist but obviously antisemitic, since it “demonizes” the Jewish state.

But this category gets tricky. Some anti-Israel stances are unrelated to antisemitism, and the distinction is crucial. Merely disagreeing with any Israeli government actions—land seizures; mistreatment of prisoners; disproportionate, retaliatory bombings of civilians in Gaza—might be labeled by some as anti-Zionism, but it is not necessarily antisemitic. If we define all such criticism of Israel on human rights grounds as antisemitic, then we’re also calling much of Israel’s politically diverse Jewish population antisemitic, which makes no sense. 

There have been some notable cases, of course, where anti-Zionist rhetoric has spilled over into antisemitism. It’s no surprise when this happens among Arab immigrant groups, especially Palestinians: The classic, fraudulent, antisemitic text The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a familiar sight at bookstores throughout the Arab world. The same slippage can occur in extreme left circles. In 2022, anti-Israel student groups at the UC Berkeley law school pledged not to invite “speakers that have expressed and continued to hold views…in support of Zionism, the apartheid state of Israel, and the occupation of Palestine.” The resolution also supported the controversial BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement that targets Israel. The policy, erroneously dubbed a demand for “Jew-free zones” (wording that never appeared, except in a notorious, photoshopped illustration) by pro-Israel groups, caused a tremendous outcry. 

Views like these are good reasons for alarm. Unfortunately, some American Jewish leaders and organizations have cynically campaigned to conflate all anti-Zionism and leftist criticism of the Israeli occupation policy with antisemitism—hijacking the growing movement against domestic antisemitism for their own purposes. 

Rather than distinguishing different types of threats to Jews in North America, too many pro-Israel partisans simply characterize each incident as an attack on Jews, lumping together incidents of varying types, some more serious than others. Every time celebrities such as Ye (Kanye West) or Kyrie Irving make or amplify an inflammatory, antisemitic statement; every time an anti-Zionist or antisemitic remark is made on a campus, a speaker is shouted down, a pro-Palestinian professor says something stupid in class, or a Jewish student says he or she feels uncomfortable or unsafe—someone is ready to add it to the roster of antisemitic attacks on Jews. 

By tacitly equating verbal assaults and hostile social media postings with violent physical attacks, such partisans can claim, speciously, that both the left and the right are equally culpable in the rise of American antisemitism. Criticizing the left’s support of Ilhan Omar and “the Squad,” Jewish News Syndicate editor Jonathan Tobin wrote in JNS last year that Democrats “need to recognize that the ideologies underpinning the Black Lives Matter movement have given a permission slip not merely to theoretical anti-Semitic attitudes, but to real-life anti-Semitic violence…They must cut ties with them, just as they demand that conservatives have nothing to do with right-wing extremists.” (As Forward columnist Rob Eshman has pointed out, social scientists in Europe and England have developed a much more sophisticated way of measuring antisemitism, adding context and weighing possible countervailing factors such as the response by governmental authorities or civil society.)

In a speech last February, commenting on a spike in antisemitic incidents that coincided with a flareup of violence between Israel and Hamas, ADL CEO and National Director Jonathan Greenblatt connected antisemitic incidents with anti-Zionism, and anti-Zionism, in turn, with the “vicious” rhetoric of left-wing groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine or Jewish Voice for Peace (including calls on social media to “globalize the Intifada”). 

But those events also took place against a broader backdrop of polls and reports that show support for Israel among young Jews in the United States is eroding—most recently in a report from the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli military think tank. Other surveys continue to show that younger American Jewish voters put a much higher priority on reproductive and LGBTQ rights than on support for Israel. Support for Israel is likewise decreasing among young evangelical Americans and younger adults of all faiths. The reason is not, as some Israel supporters would have it, mass hypnosis by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, The New York Times or by those they perceive as self-hating Jews—that is, Jewish leftists at Jewish Voice for Peace or even at moderate, center-left groups like J Street. Rather, growing numbers are troubled by Israeli government policy and actions in Gaza and the occupied territories.

For many American Jews, Netanyahu’s election and the advent of a cabinet with religious extremists is accelerating the trend toward a more critical view of Israel. The current political crisis in Israel over proposed judicial reforms does not help matters, nor do Israeli ministers’ inclinations to delegitimize conversions by Conservative and Reform rabbis and take provocative walks on the Temple Mount. 

This decline of American Jewish support for Israel has been partially obscured by illusory victories at the top of the political structure and media, such as state laws and executive orders in places like North Carolina, Maryland and Texas barring states from any actions complying with the BDS movement, or the growing acceptance of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) problematic definition of antisemitism, which includes as one possible manifestation of antisemitism the calling into question of Israel’s legitimacy as a state. I say illusory because winning these high-profile battles does nothing to affect the larger war for broad public support. 

This flattening of discussion at the top has been mirrored at the community level. As Jews, we have no pope, and we generally no longer put Jews whose views we disagree with in herem, separating them from our community, as was done with Spinoza in the 17th century. But within congregations and community organizations, rational discussion of the idea that anti-Zionism, including that voiced by leftist Jews, may not necessarily equal antisemitism tends to be immediately squelched or shouted down. Many in the pro-Israel camp consider this a victory, but this too is illusory. Enforcement of the party line only makes it appear there is unanimity on this fallacious point. 

The rhetorical move that conflates criticism of Israel with antisemitism has the effect of placing criticism of Israeli government policy outside the bounds of acceptable opinion—a sort of reverse litmus test that sometimes approaches a witch hunt. In one recent example that drew heated debate, Douglas Elmendorf, dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, blocked a plan by school officials to offer Kenneth Roth, the long-serving former executive director of Human Rights Watch, a senior fellowship at the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. The Nation and others reported that the reason was that Roth and Human Rights Watch had criticized Israeli government policy to a degree that amounted to anti-Israel bias. (In a 2021 report, Human Rights Watch concluded that Israel’s policies toward Palestinians in the occupied territories met the legal definition of apartheid.)

The ADL’s Greenblatt sharply criticized The Nation in a Times of Israel blog post for its coverage of the Roth controversy, calling it “a textbook case of classic antisemitism.” He charged the magazine with what he called “a history of virulent opposition to Israel, publishing inflammatory rhetoric and prominent critics of the Jewish state,” thus “providing fodder for the antisemitic notion that Jews have too much power in the U.S.”

A few weeks later, Elmendorf reversed the decision, describing it in an email as “an error.” This occurred after “a letter was signed by more than 1,000 Harvard students, faculty and alumni criticizing what it called ‘a shameful decision to blacklist Kenneth Roth,’” according to The New York Times. Roth told The Times that although the outcome in his case had been favorable, “the problem of people penalized for criticizing Israel is not limited to me, and most scholars and students have no comparable capacity to mobilize public attention.”

Recently, as criticism of the Netanyahu government generally has sharpened and even been voiced by members of the Biden administration, there are signs that within the Jewish community the push to equate such criticism with antisemitism is losing its consensus status. On February 1, JTA reported that a group of 169 prominent American Jewish leaders associated with mainstream organizations had sent a letter to the new Congress, voicing concern that the Netanyahu government was endorsing policies antithetical to the overwhelmingly progressive views of the American Jewish community—and also asking members not to conflate criticism of the new Israeli government with antisemitism. The signatories included former heads of AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Federations of North America. More recently, the Jewish Federations of North America sent a letter to Netanyahu and Yair Lapid taking issue with the new government’s plan to give itself the power to override rulings by Israel’s Supreme Court.

This plea for clarity hasn’t made it downstream yet to congregations like the one my friend described, but maybe such a message from mainstream leadership will make civil discourse at the grassroots level possible. In these challenging times, when Israel’s extremist government is threatening the very basis of its democracy, it is essential for the Jewish community worldwide to be able to openly discuss Israel’s politics and the future of the relationship between Israel and the diaspora—without being silenced, or silencing one another, with accusations of antisemitism. Simplistic slogans and binary labels have no place in our conversation.

Journalist and author Mark I. Pinsky has chronicled antisemitism in the United States for the past dozen years. He was a civilian volunteer with the IDF in Sinai in 1967 and has been a regular contributor to Moment since being recruited by cofounder Leonard Fein in 1975.

Top Image: coolloud (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

One thought on “Opinion | Is Our Fear of Antisemitism Poisoning Our Discussion of Israel?

  1. Peter Klopfer says:

    Your article does honor to the ideal of rational thought!

    A personal note may be of interest: in the early 1970s one of my colleagues was an Israeli biologist and a member of a leftist Kibbutz in Kabri. He had become a close family friend and “uncle” to nmy daughters, who corresponded in age to his children. When he left us to return to Israel, he urged us to come for a visit, even offering me generous support in return for lectures at the University of Tel Aviv.

    I had no particular interest in a lecture tour abroad, but I had committed to fieldwork in Madagascar, where the lemurs which I study are found. In those days, the best route from NC to Antananarivo was via Nairobi, and a stopover in Tel Aviv easily managed. So, taking along my most adventurous daughters, aged 10, I made a brief stop in Israel and left daughter Lisa with my friend, Amiram Scholnik. The plan was to retrieve her 10 weeks later, when I was scheduled to return to the UK for scientific meetings. Lisa, meanwhile, would be introduced to life in a kibbutz , quite a challenge for a child who knew next to nothing about Judaism and spoke no language other than English

    On my return to Israel, Lisa begged to be allowed to remain in Kabri while I went to England. I was dumbfounded as the UK, where I had studied, had always attracted my kids as Disneyland did others. I decided to defer my further travel and spend some time with Lisa at Kabri

    I’ll not detail my experience there other than to say that had it not been for a wife and two daughters in NC, I would have happily stayed there indefinitely. I could not imagine a more fulfilling social structure than the kibbutz

    I returned to Israel several times subsequently, teaching at the Weissman Institute, and the University of Tel Aviv and Hebrew University. I made many friends there and even became acquainted with members of my own family who had settled in English Palestine and then became Israelis. The larger group were sabras, another was a Franciscan monk, known as the Bishop of the Negev (I come from very mixed ancestry). Today , I would not for a moment consider a return, no matter my many family and friends and happy memories of the times spent in Israel. If that makes me an antisemite, I will not dispute the title: no country that supports apartheid is one I can abide

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