How to Criticize Israel without being Anti-Semitic: The Unofficial Guide

Henry St. John


The news media have once again been ablaze with reports of Israel’s military attack on Gaza. The historic Israeli-Palestinian conflict has, consequently, returned as a subject of discussion at cafés, salons, and dinner tables.

The discussion, however, is not an easy one to have—unless, of course, you are foursquare behind Israel. Criticism of Israel very quickly lands the critic into trouble; accusations of anti-Semitism are fired back as if from an Uzi. What is more, these accusations can sometimes come accompanied by raised voices, red faces, bared teeth, waved fists, and even rude expletives. Sometimes, not even Jews can avoid them. So it is understandable that non-Jews desiring to avoid drama think it best to keep mum.

Noticing the problem, and apparently in the interest of free and open debate, a concerned Jewish blogger has recently made waves posting a 19-point guide on how to criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic. The Tumblr blog post has, at the time of writing, attracted 8485 notes. And the BBC deemed it so useful that they even reported it on their news website.

As TOO was created for purposes of free and open debate, including Jews and Israel, it seems pertinent that we examine the 19 points. Perhaps we will find in them the Philosopher’s Stone in our efforts to discuss important matters involving Jews without being accused of ignorance and moral turpitude. The points are meant to be considered in no particular order.

1. Don’t use the terms “bloodthirsty,” “lust for Palestinian blood,” or similar. Historically, Jews have been massacred in the belief that we use the blood of non-Jews (particularly of children) in our religious rituals. This belief still persists in large portions of the Arab world (largely because White Europeans deliberately spread the belief among Arabs) and even in parts of the Western world. Murderous, inhumane, cruel, vicious—fine. But blood…just don’t go there. Depicting Israel/Israelis/Israeli leaders eating children is also a no-no, for the same reason.

While one can understand the desire to avoid rehashings of the ancient blood libel, this seems a little paranoid in the case of “bloodthirsty”.

I do wonder what would happen if we were to start prohibiting certain terms from being used in the presence of people of European ancestry, on the basis that they summon libelous associations.

2. Don’t use crucifixion imagery. Another huge, driving motivation behind anti-Semitism historically has been the belief that the Jews, rather than the Romans, crucified Jesus. As in #1, this belief still persists. There are plenty of other ways to depict suffering that don’t call back to ancient libels.

It does seem a bit irrelevant to use crucifixion imagery when discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have not seen much of it, although this may be because my interests lie elsewhere.

All the same, the blogger seems a little dishonest when he says that it was the Romans, not the Jews, who crucified Jesus. Technically, this is correct. But the Jews did contrive to have Jesus crucified. Who was it who brought Jesus to Pilates? Not the Romans, but the Jewish elders, who then asked him to judge and condemn him. Finding him not guilty, Pilates left it to the crowd to choose. And who persuaded the crowd in to choose Jesus to be crucified and Barabbas to be freed? Not the Romans, but the Jewish elders again. This is not a libel, then; just an incorrect use of imagery.

3. Don’t demand that Jews publicly repudiate the actions of settlers and extremists. People who make this demand are assuming that Jews are terrible people or undeserving of being heard out unless they “prove” themselves acceptable by non-Jews’ standards. (It’s not okay to demand Palestinians publicly repudiate the actions of Hamas in order to be accepted/trusted, either.)

Now, I have seen such a demand being made by anti-Semites in an effort to put a Jewish opponent on the defensive, only to make a show of highlighting Jewish hypocrisy. The anti-Semite wins either way: if the Jew doesn’t yield, he’s a monster; if he does, he’s a hypocrite, because presumably his actions are not in accord with that public repudiation. Therefore, it can be described as an anti-Semitic trope. Jews know this and would likely not yield to the demand anyway, suspecting the non-Jew of anti-Jewish animus.

Yet, trope or not, the demand is not illegitimate if the non-Jewish party in the conversation, acting in good faith, wishes to challenge a Jew defending the actions of Jews in Israel. What is more, similar demands are made daily outside this context, sometimes legitimately sometimes illegitimately, without much controversy. For example, it is routinely demanded of Whites in Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand publicly to repudiate racism, even though the majority of them are not racists and are, often, vehemently anti-racist. Perhaps the blogger has a point and we should ask for this to stop, because it does seem to tarnish a whole race with the misdeeds of a miscreant few.

4. Don’t say “the Jews” when you mean Israel. I think this should be pretty clear. The people in power in Israel are Jews, but not all Jews are Israelis (let alone Israeli leaders).

There is a very good point here: we must always differentiate between the political leaders and the populace they allegedly represent.

Our experience in the West shows all too well that the political class is often—almost always?—at odds with what Rousseau called the “general will”, and in key areas even actively work against the interests of their voters. It makes no difference that they were elected by a majority of those who voted (which is not all voters), because, in reality, (a) there is no real choice, since the mainstream political parties offer only variant interpretations of the same ideology, and (b) most voters are politically ignorant.

Now, I don’t know to what extent that is the case in Israel. Surely, we cannot assume that the will of the political class there necessarily reflects the will of Jews in Israel—I am sure Jews in Israel are often frustrated with their politicians. At the same time, it bears pointing out that while the people in power in Israel are indeed Jews, Israel is a state founded by Jews for Jews, and we cannot, therefore, say “Israel” without meaning “Jews”.

It is, however, true that not all Jews are Israelis, in the sense that not all Diasporan Jews hold Israeli citizenship (some do). Yet, into this equation must be included the extent to which Diaspora Jews support Israel and the extent to which they identify with it.  A recent example was Chuck Hagel’s mention of the “Jewish Lobby” instead of the Israel Lobby whose opinions need not reflect the opinions of most American Jews (e.g., on the Iraq war where the Israel Lobby and the organized Jewish community strongly supported the war but most American Jews did not). Nevertheless, Israel was founded specifically as a state for Jews; it is considered the homeland of Jews. And while we should be careful to keep in mind that not all Jews support the policies of the Israeli government (some consider them too soft), there may be some justification behind the impression many have that Jews generally support Israel, even if they don’t necessarily agree with the current administration. See the next item.

5. Don’t say “Zionists” when you mean Israel. Zionism is no more a dirty word than feminism. It is simply the belief that the Jews should have a country in part of their ancestral homeland where they can take refuge from the anti-Semitism and persecution they face everywhere else. It does not mean a belief that Jews have a right to grab land from others, a belief that Jews are superior to non-Jews, or any other such tripe, any more than feminism means hating men. Unless you believe that Israel should entirely cease to exist, you are yourself Zionist. Furthermore, using “Zionists” in place of “Israelis” is inaccurate and harmful. The word “Zionists” includes Diasporan Jews as well (most of whom support a two-state solution and pretty much none of whom have any influence on Israel’s policies) and is used to justify anti-Semitic attacks outside Israel (i.e., they brought it on themselves by being Zionists). And many of the Jews IN Israel who are most violent against Palestinians are actually anti-Zionist—they believe that the modern state of Israel is an offense against God because it isn’t governed by halakha (traditional Jewish religious law). Be careful with the labels you use.

Another good point. If you hate Jews, say so. Say, “I hate Jews, because . . .” Don’t hide behind euphemisms. Don’t pretend you hate Zionism, but love Jews. Do you really think you’re fooling anyone? Everybody knows what you’re doing. We know it. The Jews know it. And you know it. Using “Zionism” is your way of pretending that you are free from hate; that you are, in fact, just a concerned citizen demanding truth and justice; and that you are successfully wriggling past the anti-Semite label. You may argue this kind of subterfuge is necessary because the consequences of openly disliking Jews are so dire. The thing is, because no one buys it, this makes you worse than a plain-vanilla anti-Semite, since it suggests you are one who doesn’t even have the courage of his convictions—too cowardly to put up.

Having said that, the explanation of Zionism provided by the blogger in this item seems to conflict with guideline #4 above, as the latter confirms there is merit to the view that Israel and Jews are to be closely identified, contrary to the guideline’s prescription. There is also a conflict with guideline #11, dealt with further down.

Also, it does strike me as sophistry to say that “many of the Jews in Israel who are most violent against Palestinians are anti-Zionist” simply on the basis of their belief in religious law. Do they not also subscribe to “the belief that the Jews should have a country in part of their ancestral homeland where they can take refuge from the anti-Semitism and persecution they face everywhere else”?

6. Don’t call Jews you agree with “the good Jews.” Imposing your values on another group is not okay. Tokenizing is not okay. Appointing yourself the judge of what other groups can or should believe is not okay.

7. Don’t use your Jewish friends or Jews who agree with you as shields. (AKA, “I can’t be anti-Semitic, I have Jewish friends!” or “Well, Jew X agrees with me, so you’re wrong.”) Again, this behavior is tokenizing and essentially amounts to you as a non-Jew appointing yourself arbiter over what Jews can/should feel or believe. You don’t get to do that.

Woah there cowboy! Isn’t this precisely what many Diasporan Jewish activists have done in their campaigns against racism (of which anti-Semitism is a form) throughout the West? Not the tokenizing, although the usage of gentile frontmen in certain Jewish intellectual movements could be described as a form of tokenizing, but the self-appointment as an arbiter of what Whites can / should feel or believe. The Frankfurt School, a Jewish-run organization, even had a whole institute dedicated to the task. Quite right, another group—whatever its ethnicity—shouldn’t get to do that!

8. Don’t claim that Jews are ethnically European. Jews come in many colors—white is only one. Besides, the fact that many of us have some genetic mixing with the peoples who tried to force us to assimilate (be they German, Indian, Ethiopian, Italian…) doesn’t change the fact that all our common ancestral roots go back to Israel.

Interestingly, this is unlikely to be met with disagreement by anti-Semites—at least American ones. A key contention of theirs is that Jews are emphatically not White. And certainly not all the genetic influx from Europe was the result of forced assimilation. Indeed, probably very little was. Recent population genetic  evidence suggests the original Ashkenazi population began with Jewish males mating with European females. If so, Ashkenazi Jews have a strong genetic overlap with Europeans while nevertheless not identifying with the culture and ethnic interests of Europeans.

9. Don’t claim that Jews “aren’t the TRUE/REAL Jews.” Enough said.

This is a rather arcane point, but there are anti-Semites who think present-day Jews are a corruption—robots or slaves of the Lord of Darkness, doing his bidding. A common form of this can be found among those who claim Ashkenazi Jews are not the real Jews because they in fact derive from the Khazars, a Turkic people. This notion finds little contemporary support but is useful for those who attempt to combat Jewish interests by denying any biological link between contemporary Jews and Israel.

10. Don’t claim that Jews have no real historical connection to Israel/the Temple Mount. Archaeology and the historical record both establish that this is false.

As far as anti-Semitic tactics goes, this one seems very poorly thought out and disingenuous—yet another example of self-deception, like the one highlighted in my response to guideline #5. No point getting into a historical / archaeological debate (but see previous answer), because we must also consider right by conquest, and if we go down that route, and say that conquest confers no rights, then we must begin to consider Mexico’s territorial claims in the American South West, and question the right of Europeans to reside in North America. Can’t have it both ways.

11. Don’t accuse Diasporan Jews of dual loyalties or treason. This is another charge that historically has been used to justify persecution and murder of Jews. Having a connection to our ancestral homeland is natural. Having a connection to our co-religionists who live there is natural. It is no more treasonous for a Jew to consider the well-being of Israel when casting a vote than for a Muslim to consider the well-being of Islamic countries when voting. (Tangent: fuck drone strikes. End tangent.)

This is truly baffling. I can’t see how anybody could be so disingenuous as to pretend no conflict of interest could ever arise between the interests of America as a whole and the interests of American Jews when the American government’s support for Israel has cost Americans vast sums of money, led to terrorism in American soil, and cost thousands of American lives. It seems obvious that American interests and Israeli interests diverge, yet the blogger seems to believe that that the actions of the Israel Lobby and the organized Jewish community are motivated first and foremost by loyalty to American interests. Well, that may be so, but only in the form of pretense.

12. Don’t claim that the Jews control the media/banks/country that isn’t Israel. Yet another historical anti-Semitic claim is that Jews as a group intend to control the world and try to achieve this aim through shadowy, sinister channels. There are many prominent Jews in the media and in the banking industry, yes, but they aren’t engaged in any kind of organized conspiracy to take over those industries, they simply work in those industries. The phrase “the Jews control” should never be heard in a debate/discussion of Israel.

There are several problems here. Firstly, a fallacy: control does not mean conspiracy. The conflation does occur in anti-Semitic literature, particularly that which, following the Protocols of Zion, blames all of the world’s ills on a secret conspiracy by a cabal of sinister Jews. Frankly, I think only delusional anti-Semites indulge in such fantasies—the idea of being in the know is the means by which they deal with their impotence. Nevertheless, as Michael Kinsley and Benjamin Ginsberg noted, Jews predominate on Wall St., so it should be fair game to think about what the implications of this are.

Secondly, there is yet another example of extreme disingenuousness. Jews, for a variety of reasons, including their history, anti-Semitism, and their culture, are highly cohesive and ethnocentric compared to Anglo-American Whites. By this I mean that they recognize each other, they network with each other, they promote each other, and they often think in terms of what is good for the Jews. This makes perfect sense and is not at all sinister, but to say that Jews simply work in media, and that, perceiving themselves as a distinct group with common interests, particularly in a society where (in their minds) the risk of anti-Semitism is ever-present, they never or even seldom use their position, knowledge, and skills to advance Jewish interests in some way flies in the face of evidence. Hollywood has film archives going back decades that abound with a consistent pattern of positive portrayals of Jews and a very strong promotion of messages that promote a vision of society that is beneficial to Jews. Similarly, the news media shows a consistent pattern of support for Israel. This is not merely coincidental, nor a reflection of WASP dominance—although gentiles have cheerfully replicated this pattern. Moreover, a number of prominent individuals from the industry—Marlon Brando, William Cash, Oliver Stone, Rick Sanchez, Mel Gibson, and more recently Gary Oldman—have come out every few years to state the obvious.

There is some merit to rejecting phrases like “the Jews control”, as they tend to oversimplify and yes, it is an anti-Semitic trope, which renders an otherwise intelligent discussion of Jews immediately suspect. But the fact that there are many prominent Jews in the media is an important and legitimate topic for discussion, particularly in relation to Israel and in attempting to understand the Hollywood culture of the left.

13. Don’t depict the Magen David (Star of David) as an equivalent to the Nazi swastika. The Magen David represents all Jews—not just Israelis, not just people who are violent against Palestinians, ALL JEWS. When you do this, you are painting all Jews as violent, genocidal racists. DON’T.

I’ve seen this in placards and graffiti, and yes, it is an unfair oversimplification. But then, all protest iconography is an unfair oversimplification. The purpose is to draw attention to an issue and produce a concentrated emotional response aimed at instigating policy changes. The people who criticize the policies of the Israeli government by means of this iconic short-hand mean to draw attention to similarities that exist between those policies and some of those carried out in National Socialist Germany. It is a little difficult to avoid the Star of David, given that it features prominently in the Israeli flag (as once did the Swastika in Germany, though it did not represent all Germans even if it was meant to); that Israel is a Jewish state, founded by Jews for the Jews; and that, as guidelines 5 and 11 point out, is to be identified closely with all Jews. This is why some desire Jews to publicly repudiate the aggressive policies of Israel against the Palestinians, so that they, as Jews, may be separated from the Israeli leadership and those who support it.

14. Don’t use the Holocaust/Nazism/Hitler as a rhetorical prop. The Jews who were murdered didn’t set foot in what was then Palestine, let alone take part in Israeli politics or policies. It is wrong and appropriative to try to use their deaths to score political points. Genocide, racism, occupation, murder, extermination—go ahead and use those terms, but leave the Holocaust out of it.

I think my reply to guideline #13 deals with most of this, but I can’t move on without highlighting the apparent contradiction in the following sentences: “When you [depict the Magen David as equivalent to the Nazi Swastika], you are painting all Jews as violent, genocidal racists”, from guideline 13; and “Genocide, racism, occupation, murder, extermination—go ahead and use those terms”, from guideline 14. Didn’t the blogger object to all Jews being painted as violent genocidal racists, and in the next breath authorize us to paint the Jewish state as racist and exterminatory? The Holocaust, I am afraid, does come into it too, because it is the most iconic justification for a Jewish state, as suggested in guideline #5.

15. In visual depictions (i.e., political cartoons and such), don’t depict Israel/Israelis as Jewish stereotypes. Don’t show them in Chassidic, black-hat garb. Don’t show them with exaggerated noses or frizzled red hair or payus (earlocks). Don’t show them with horns or depict them as the Devil. Don’t show them cackling over/hoarding money. Don’t show them drinking blood or eating children (see #1). Don’t show them raping non-Jewish women. The Nazis didn’t invent the tropes they used in their propaganda—all of these have been anti-Semitic tropes going back centuries. (The red hair trope, for instance, goes back to early depictions of Judas Iscariot as a redhead, and the horns trope stems from the belief that Jews are the Devil’s children, sent to destroy the world as best we can for our “father.”)

Political cartoons rely on stereotypes, and they are quite merciless: in a free democracy, anyone—particularly anyone with power—is fair game. Since when are political cartoons flattering? Here’s a cartoon from Benjamin Netanyahu’s Twitter feed that has a stereotype of a Muslim woman with a baby protecting Hamas military targets, described by Mondoweiss as “racist and Islamophobic.”

 

There is certainly a measure of malice, but also a measure of truth, the source of which is the target’s own behaviour. This is not to say, however, that Jews should necessarily be portrayed as they were in Der Stürmer; this is merely to say that at least some stereotypes are unavoidable, because political cartoons are a means to distil complex issues into a single, instantly digestible image. This image of a Der Sturmer caricature blowing up Gaza by remote control was particularly offensive to Australian Jews.

While one can recognize why certain tropes make Jews nervous, I do wonder what stereotypes the blogger would be willing to authorize for use in political cartoons about Israel.

16. Don’t use the phrase “the chosen people” to deride or as proof of Jewish racism. When Jews say we are the chosen people, we don’t mean that we are biologically superior to others or that God loves us more than other groups. Judaism in fact teaches that everyone is capable of being a righteous, Godly person, that Jews have obligations to be ethical and decent to “the stranger in our midst,” and that non-Jews don’t get sent to some kind of damnation for believing in another faith. When we say we’re the chosen people, we mean that, according to our faith, God gave us extra responsibilities and codes of behavior that other groups aren’t burdened with, in the form of the Torah. That’s all it means.

I would welcome further clarification on this point.In fact, extreme statements of Jewish superiority are entirely mainstream within the Jewish community, with the late Sephardic leader Rabbi Ovadia Josef famously saying that “the goyim are born only to serve us.” Further, If “when Jews say [they] are the chosen people, [they] don’t mean that we are biologically superior to others or that God loves [them] more than other groups”, then why did God give Jews “extra responsibilities and codes of behavior that other groups aren’t burdened with”? Surely, it was not because Jews were deemed inferior and in need of stricter controls. Additional responsibilities are typically conferred upon individuals who have proven capable of assuming them: for example, when a person is promoted or ennobled, the new position or title comes not only with privileges, but also added responsibilities; that person, in other words, has been chosen because they have been deemed superior to the rest.

This is becoming very confusing.

17. Don’t claim that anti-Semitism is eradicated or negligible. It isn’t. In fact, according to international watchdog groups, it’s sharply on the rise. (Which sadly isn’t surprising—anti-Semitism historically surges during economic downturns, thanks to the belief that Jews control the banks.) This sort of statement is extremely dismissive and accuses us of lying about our own experiences.

Well, firstly, anti-Semitism certainly exists and it’s certainly ugly, but it has also become very unacceptable in our society. For example, anti-Semitism in America declined dramatically after World War II, but this has never been reflected in Jewish self-perceptions of America. As Elliott Abrams has stated, the American Jewish community “clings to what is at bottom a dark vision of America, as a land permeated with anti-Semitism and always on the verge of anti-Semitic outbursts” (p. 86). At this time,  a single anti-Semitic remark by a public figure, for example, can lead to fulminating loss of employment, instant desertion by friends and even family, and a ruthless campaign of demonization in the media.

In fact, such is the sensitivity towards anti-Semitism, that anti-Semitism is not even required to produce these results. There is a friendly evolutionary psychologist in America who could tell you a thing or two about this. One of these “watchdog groups” spent years seeking to get his tenure revoked, on the basis that he wrote a book describing 20th century Jewish intellectual movements.

Secondly, the so-called “watchdog groups” are not reliable sources. The SPLC, for example, practice yellow journalism, and make it their business to the present anyone who criticizes Jews in the worst light possible, even if it means resorting to distortions and fabrications. These groups also have an interest in keeping the threat of anti-Semitism alive in the public mind: they are funded in large part by Jewish donors and they can’t risk the money drying up. (Which is why some spell their name $PLC.) So, of course, they will always say anti-Semitism is on the rise. I’d like to know if they have ever said it is on a decline.

In fact, apparently even Israel needs anti-Semitism, in order to encourage Jews to immigrate. Such cynicism leads to scepticism.

18. Don’t say that since Palestinians are Semites, Jews/Israelis are anti-Semitic, too. You do not get to redefine the oppressions of others, nor do you get to police how they refer to that oppression. This also often ties into #8. Don’t do it. Anti-Semitism has exclusively meant anti-Jewish bigotry for a good century plus now. Coin your own word for anti-Palestinian oppression, or just call it what it is: racism mixed with Islamophobia.

I’ve also encountered this “Jews are anti-Semites” in the anti-Semitic literature and yes, it does seem yet another silly tactic by people who hate Jews to make themselves appear mere concerned citizens who want justice. It’s an empty rhetorical point, for sure. As I said, if you hate Jews, say so—it’s not as if you can’t think of at least a thousand reasons. Do us all a favour and don’t pretend you’re a human rights activist.

19. Don’t blow off Jews telling you that what you’re saying is anti-Semitic with some variant of the statement at the top of this post. [“OMG, Jews think any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic!”] Not all anti-Israel speech is anti-Semitic (a lot of it is valid, much-deserved criticism), but some certainly is. Actually give the accusation your consideration and hear the accuser out. If they fail to convince you, that’s fine. But at least hear them out (without talking over them) before you decide that.

In spite of all my comments above, it’s certainly a relief to know that anti-Israeli speech is possible without it making one an anti-Semite. Provided we abide by the above guidelines, and work out the kinks, we are in the clear, then, and all the more since we have been even given permission by a person with the correct ethnicity and therefore authorized to speak on the matter.

The only problem here is that the way this blogger sees the conversation going is not very realistic. To be accused of anti-Semitism today is very serious; it has dire consequences, socially, professionally, and financially. It cannot be taken lightly. Most gentiles panic when this happens. Some, clearly thinking that attack is the best defense, get angry, or feign righteous anger. It would take a very financially independent person with an preternaturally stoic and calm disposition to do as the blogger recommends. The fact that he had to write such a copious guide proves how difficult this can be.

The irony is that, in his effort to be helpful to well-meaning gentiles with views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the blogger’s guidelines have left them with an almost impossible task. It seems a very tricky rhetorical labyrinth to navigate, and, with so many trip wires to consider, one has to wonder whether, intentionally or unintentionally, the end result is a further stifling of the debate. Because another way of seeing it, which admittedly doesn’t qualify as well-meaning, is that the idea is less to be helpful to gentiles than it is to be helpful to Jews. A very reasonable supposition, though one that could be classed as anti-Semitic too.

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