How to tell when criticism of Israel is actually anti-Semitism

Source: The Washington Post

By Jill Jacobs

As the United States opened its new embassy in Jerusalem on Monday, tens of thousands of Gazans gathered at their territory’s boundary fence to protest the loss of Palestinian homes and villages when Israel was founded 70 years ago. Most were unarmed, but some protesters lobbed flaming tires or Molotov cocktails at the Israeli side. Israeli soldiers opened fire, killing more than 60 Palestinians and wounding thousands.  Pro-Palestinian voices often described the Israeli response with words such as “murder” and “massacre.”


The reaction fit into a long rhetorical battle in which harsh criticism of Israel’s actions leads to accusations of bias against Jews. The right-wing Israeli news outlet Arutz Sheva, for instance, accused the United Nations agency that administers aid to Palestinians of encouraging anti-Semitism, citing a Fox News video that showed Gazan children chanting about the right to return to former Palestinian lands. Pro-Israel institutions have tried to blunt what they see as hate speech: South Carolina just passed a law deeming any criticism of Israel in public schools or universities to be anti-Semitic. More than 20 states have banned public contracts with companies that boycott of Israel. Meanwhile, fierce arguments have broken out over whether critics of Israel within Britain’s Labour Party are ignoring anti-Semitism.

Yes, anti-Semitism is alive and well, and increasingly it masquerades as criticism of Israel. But as the executive director of T’ruah, a Jewish organization dedicated to protecting human rights here, in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories, I know it’s possible to criticize Israel without veering into anti-Semitism. I do it every day.

People who pay special attention to Israeli policy are not necessarily anti-Semites: Human rights activists and organizations almost always choose a focus for their efforts. (One may reasonably work to end the genocide of the Rohingya community in Burma, for instance, without simultaneously addressing Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of his people in Syria.) Israel attracts additional scrutiny because it is a top recipient of U.S. foreign aid and the only Western nation currently carrying out a military occupation of another people. Its territory is sacred to three major world religions. The existence of a strong U.S.-based lobby dedicated to promoting the policies of the Israeli government unsurprisingly generates a counterresponse. And Palestinians have built a national movement over the past five decades, unlike more recently displaced people. These trends shape a legitimate political dynamic.

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