This is what anti-semitism looks like

I’ve noticed that, when the topic of Israel and Palestine comes up in liberal and radical circles, discussions often have a tendency to dissolve into arguments over which criticisms of Israel are valid and which are anti-semitic. It’s a tough debate, for several reasons: Many Jews are understandably paranoid about anti-semitism, and get the wrong vibes for the right reasons; Palestinians and allies are passionate about working towards basic human rights, and employ equally passionate rhetoric that sometimes feeds into anti-semitic stereotypes; and hawkish Israeli and Jewish organizations, along with anti-semitic groups, gum up the works by either calling foul on legitimate criticism or using Israel to disguise their hatred of Jews.

And we’re all paying the price for the confusion. Many Jews, including myself, are often afraid to “out” themselves in activist circles; one radical in the documentary Young, Jewish and Left talks about how she felt her entire Jewish identity had to revolve around hating Israel, while another ruminates on the fact that, when her group made a banner saying “JEWISH YOUTH FOR COMMUNITY ACTION,” no one ever wanted to hold it. Jews are assaulted at rallies and in their communities. And Palestinians find themselves unable to describe their situation without raising hackles – or even worse, are dismissed as hysterical anti-semites before they’ve even said a word.

So I thought it might be useful to start a discussion about what separates valid criticism from anti-semitism. To be clear: I’m by no means the final authority on what’s okay and not okay to say. In fact, I’ve fucked up plenty of times myself. Also, if a Palestinian living in intolerable conditions says something anti-semitic, my priority isn’t to cluck my tongue at them; it’s just when I see allies echoing anti-semitic rhetoric that I get really nervous. I’ve compiled a list of problematic statements I’ve found in various blog posts and comment threads, but I’d like readers to approach it as the beginning of a larger discourse rather than a decree.

For a more in-depth look at these issues, see The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere: Making Resistance to Antisemitism Part of All Our Movements (AKA That Pamphlet the Girl Detective Quotes in Every Other Blog Post).

Zionists are murderers; Zionism is a threat to peace in the Middle East; the Zionist agenda must be stopped.
At first glance, this seems like a completely valid argument. After all, the militant settlers expelling West Bank Palestinians from their homes are indeed Zionists, and Israel’s refusal to grant Gazans even basic human rights like food and water is only fostering resentment and violence. The problem, though, is that the term “Zionist” has been co-opted by Neo-Nazis and other anti-semitic organizations to serve as a dogwhistle for “Jew.” For example, when David Duke decided to organize a conference entitled “Zionism As the Biggest Threat to Modern Civilization,” he wasn’t all that concerned with Gazans’ wellbeing. When I hear someone casually say that Zionists are racist pigs, I really have no way of knowing if they mean Ehud Olmert – or me.

Furthermore, it’s possible to be both a Zionist – in that one believes, in the abstract, in Jews’ right to and need for autonomous territory – and a fierce advocate for Palestinian rights. When you’re criticizing Zionists, you have to be clear about which Zionists you’re talking about, and once you’ve clarified your terms, you may find that directing your criticism at militant settlers or the Kadima party is more useful anyway. Which isn’t to say that we can’t criticize Zionism as a philosophy. But criticism of Israeli policy is every bit as effective, and much less likely to feed into anti-semitic rhetoric.

Israelis are just like the Nazis!
The main reason this comparison is unproductive is that Godwin’s Law doesn’t allow for much in-depth analysis. A description of the specific crimes that the Israeli government is committing should be more than enough to constitute a call to action; anyone who’s not swayed by the facts on the ground probably isn’t worth trying to sway. And, like condemnations of “the Zionists,” comparisons of Israelis to Nazis also come directly from anti-semitic propaganda.

“Israel” is illegitimate, and doesn’t even really exist.
Lots of important work has been done on questioning the legitimacy of borders – What purpose do borders serve? Why are they enforced? Whom do they benefit? – and we need to confront the fact that Israel was established, like many other countries, largely through ethnic cleansing. In fact, ethnic cleansing is still going on in various forms. Many claim that Israeli Jews’ security would be threatened if Israelis ceased to outnumber Palestinians; however, while it’s certainly a problem that needs to be addressed, it comes as no consolation to a Palestinian refugee denied the right to return to their home.

Nevertheless, saying that Israel – along with its citizens and culture – doesn’t exist often either comes from or feeds into the idea that Jews are a people outside of history who don’t deserve a permanent home. When I see a middle-class American putting the word Israel in scare quotes, it’s very difficult to figure out if it’s because they support Palestinians’ right to the land, or because they shudder at the thought of Jews putting down roots.

Furthermore, it echoes the anti-Palestine assertion that Palestine doesn’t really exist (often supported by laughable arguments like, “It was called Judea before the Romans changed the name, so ‘Palestinians’ have no right to be there!”). The energy we spend arguing about the criteria a country must meet to be “real” could be spent combating the injustices that are occurring right now.

Jewish lobbyists have a lot of sway over the American government; the Jewish community is influencing foreign policy.

Jews are not a hive mind. As I said in a recent rant here, most American Jews vote Left, and Jewish social justice activists abound. There’s no monolithic “Jewish Community;” Jewish communities form in a wide variety of races, classes, ethnic groups, political leanings, and religious viewpoints. Judaism is a religious with four main branches and countless flavors, and Jewishness refers to a large group of loosely connected ethnicities and cultures. Organizations like AIPAC or JADL are often introduced as evidence that Jews occupy a powerful position in our government – but notice that these organizations are virtually never criticized in tandem with the many other lobbying groups present in Washington, from pharmaceuticals to church groups to car manufacturers to oil companies. The implication is always that Jewish groups have a greater influence, or a special kind of influence over American politics.

The fact is, this idea that Jews are secretly running the show is very old. Hundreds of years before the publication The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Jews, often employed by local governments for unsavory jobs such as tax collecting, were routinely scapegoated during times of social hardship.

Of course, the assertion that Jews have “influence” is almost flattering when compared to its twisted cousin:

Israel is controlling the U.S. government; the whole reason we’re in Iraq is because of Israel.
It’s true that both Israel and Iraq are in the Middle East. However, the U.S. invaded and occupied Iraq for economic reasons, not because of some convoluted plan to strengthen Israel. When we begin to think that the most powerful nation on Earth is devoting its entire foreign policy to the whims of one other nation, then we’ve lost sight of what we’re actually fighting for.

I love Jews, but I hate Israel.
The problem with the “I love [minority]” logic should be obvious – it collapses a sprawling and diverse people into one positive stereotype, and positive stereotypes can just just as harmful as negative ones (as anyone who’s ever had to deal with “women’s intuition” or “black people’s natural rhythm” can attest). Also, what exactly does hate accomplish? How does hate legitimize your activism in a way that a desire to make lives better doesn’t? When coupled, the two assertions begin to sound like the “I love you, but…” construction – empty praise that attempts to excuse an intentionally offensive statement.

Helping Palestinians is more important than offending the Jews.
When I hear someone say this, I can’t help but wonder which Jews they mean. As I said above, Judaism and Jewishness consist of vast patchworks of distinct communities within both Israel and the Diaspora. Saying that you doesn’t care about offending anti-Palestine hawks is very different from saying that you doesn’t care about offending the protester marching beside you.

Furthermore, when you paint Jews as oversensitive and easily offended, you ignore the fact that real Jews are being targeted for real harassment and attacks. Here’s why you should care about not offending Jews: because I, a Jew, care about not offending you. Avoiding offense isn’t about walking on eggshells to make sure you’re PC; it’s about keeping your movement inclusive by recognizing that all groups are worthy of safety and respect.

And helping Palestinians and avoiding anti-semitism aren’t at odds with each other. It’s very easy to do both.

Hopefully you noticed a pattern emerging from all these statements: the broader and more vague criticism gets, the more it begins to resemble anti-semitic hate speech. So stick to the facts. The Israeli government is currently imprisoning 1.5 million people and denying them proper access to food, water, energy, and medical care. It’s building an illegal wall on other people’s homes and expanding illegal settlements at the expense of innocent civilians. It’s breaking up families by denying refugees their right of return. And it’s threatening the safety of Diaspora Jews, Israeli Jews, and Palestinians everywhere by propagating an ignorant and offensive Palestinian-equals-terrorist mindset. The more clearly we articulate the problem, the stronger our movement will become.

(Cross-posted at Feministe)

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5 Responses

  1. Just wanted to stop by and let you know that I’ve been lurking for a while and have found your posts incredibly thought provoking and insightful. Thanks!

  2. Even though this is GD’s post, I’m glad that you got something from me as well, and hope you stick around!

  3. I like the breakdown. and thanks for the reference to Young, Jewish, and Left . I’ve been trying to understand anti-zionism. It is quite common for anti-occupation (or Palestine solidarity activists) to see the problems in Israel/Palestine as originating with zionism as ideology. I’m not sure that’s the way to go, and believe that your suggestions make sense. Talk about the specific policies or actors rather than the blanket zionism. Right of return, settlements, checkpoints, assassination, etc. But are there zionists that support right to return? Or could there be?

  4. Konnie, thanks for stopping by! As for the question of whether Zionism inherently clashes with Palestinians’ right to return, I admit that it’s more complicated than I indicated in the post – and something that I don’t have enough expertise to really get into.

  5. […] I and others have said before, the term Zionist is often used as a codeword for Jew, so that people […]

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