The progressive campaign against Israel is indeed rife with antisemitism
I’m Jewish and I’ve spent a good deal of time, effort and money opposing Israeli actions. I’ve marched with Palestinians; written an anti-occupation op-ed for Ha’aretz and received a blizzard of hate mail; been put on a list of Jewish traitors; contributed annually to Jewish peace groups and alienated family members. I think Israel is engaged in a deadly and illegal campaign against a subjugated population. And I can’t stand Netanyahu.
But after more than a half century of dealing with this conflict, I just have to say it: Yes, I think much of the left criticism of Israel is riddled with unacknowledged antisemitism. How do I know this? Because of historical and personal experience, I feel it. And so do most Jews.
And I say this at a time when the left seems wholly supportive of American Jews in every other aspect — unless they support Israel. It seems like a paradox but antisemitism is neither consistent nor always apparent. In the case of Israel, the question is not whether any particular action or statement aimed at Israel — say, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement — is antisemitic. Rather, it’s the entire gestalt of making Israel into the worst human rights violator on the planet. And if it’s not, why is it being singled out in this way?
Lately, it seems that half of my Facebook posts on foreign affairs are fulminations — sometimes unfounded — about Israel. Israel has become a poison to add to the brew when you need to vilify a political enemy. For instance, during a union organizing campaign at Starbucks, I had activists tell me that proof of the coffee seller’s malignancy was that it had “opened stores in the West Bank.” Starbucks had done no such thing; in fact, for financial reasons, it had closed its few stores in Tel Aviv years earlier. But the mere mention of Israel was enough to taint Starbucks not just as a recalcitrant employer, but as the imagined perpetrator of political and moral crimes, just as Jews have too often been.
Israel is such an exemplar of state evil that its name is often an epithet. I’ve recently become a fan of Canada’s all-time most popular sitcom, Corner Gas. It’s set in a fictional Saskatchewan Podunk called Dog River. There, the inhabitants so despise their neighbors in the town of Wullerton that whenever any Dog Riverite says the word Wullerton, they must immediately spit on the floor. And so it is with Israel. In a world awash in human rights violations, this fixation is both suspiciously selective and at the same time broadly accusatory. Worse, as a young friend said, “The problem with criticism of Israel is that it’s all so gleeful.”
Antisemitism isn’t solely the province of dedicated Jew haters. Like any racism, it’s in all of us — and it’s deceptive. In addition, it’s possible to both like or admire Jews and channel antisemitism. Those contradictory feelings are part of our global DNA. Hatred of Jews — latent or expressed — has been an indelible part of Christian culture for 1500 years. It’s usually so pervasive and subtle that unless it announces itself, we’re blind to it. It falls into the category of implicit bias. Or, it can emerge using a plausible cover — such as Israel.
Yet when I raise this issue, I’m quickly and often angrily assured that antisemitism has nothing to do with it. Sorry, but non-Jews don’t get to determine what is, or isn’t, antisemitism. I mean, do you routinely tell people of color that what they perceive as racism really isn’t? Moreover, the fact that a critique of Israel may be accurate doesn’t automatically scrub this attitude of antisemitism. For instance, it’s quite true that undocumented immigrants have committed homicides; but if that’s all you talk about when you talk about immigrants, and if you generalize from those few killers to all migrants, that’s racism.
It is also racist to suggest that Jews have a special responsibility to denounce Israel’s crimes. I’m reminded of an incident from 1968, after the assassination of Dr. King, when then-Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew told all African Americans that they must repudiate some incendiary statements by Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. Agnew said, “I publicly repudiate, condemn, and reject all white racists. I call upon you to publicly repudiate, condemn and reject all black racists.”
Not surprisingly, African Americans didn’t take the bait. Not because every Black person agreed with Carmichael, but because Agnew grossly distorted the concept of racism and his audience wasn’t going to be part of it. And that’s why I resist declaring that I’m not like those bad Jews who support Israel. While some Jews on the left have no problem denouncing Israel at every opportunity, many of my Jewish colleagues with long progressive histories are deeply disquieted by a left fundamentalism demonizing Israel.
Yes, keep putting pressure on Israel, but at the same time acknowledge the antisemitism lurking in such actions — and in all of us — and make it part of the struggle. Admitting to harboring antisemitism doesn’t make you a bad person although denying it is myopic. I mean how many of us would claim to be entirely free of racism of any kind?
Maybe in the end, we’ll have to accept that criticism of Israel must include antisemitism — although I’m not ready to concede that. But I don’t want to be gaslighted and told that what I’m seeing an feeling isn’t so.
I know most people try to be sensitive to this issue but more than sensitivity is required. In the end you have to do some work and to search your own heart… and just maybe listen to what Jews say. But if you choose not to do that, at least don’t try to tell me what antisemitism is or isn’t. That’s for me to decide.