Few dispute the assertion that we live in a period of growing anti-Semitism. The most contentious issue surrounding that growth is the question of whether criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. The answer to this heated debate is surprisingly simple. Yes, anti-Israel criticism can be anti-Semitic.
Yet if the larger answer is clear, the real debate should be about the specific details of any particular criticism. Supporters and critics of Israel, Jews and non-Jews—we all must be brutally honest with ourselves about the facts surrounding anti-Israel criticism and answer the same set of questions in evaluating that criticism.
The first test of honesty is our ability to acknowledge that anti-Semitism is not a simple phenomenon. Anti-Semitism is not the same from place to place. In some countries it has almost nothing to do with Israel. In other countries anti-Semitic incidents and attitudes are largely related to attitudes toward Israel. In still other states there are multiple forms of anti-Semitism—some divorced from any discussion of the Middle East conflict and others totally wrapped up with a narrative about Israel. If we are to have any chance of combatting anti-Semitism we are compelled to be precise in our analysis.
We almost must be very clear that criticism of Israel is NOT inherently anti-Semitic. Israel should be held to the same standard as other nations. Someone who charges that all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic is only spouting nonsense. More importantly, they are also undermining attempts to counter incidents of real anti-Semitism.
At the same time we must cast a skeptical eye on those who protest that their anti-Israel rhetoric can never be conflated with Jew hatred. We must question the truthfulness of Israel critics who complain that accusations of anti-Semitism are always just an attempt to silence free speech. Criticism of specific Israeli policy toward Palestinians is not the same as declaring that “what the Israelis are doing to Palestinians is exactly what Nazis did to the Jews.”
Fortunately, Western democracies in recent years have developed some common-sense approaches to this problem. The U.S. State Department in 2010 issued a fact sheet titled “Defining Anti-Semitism.” That document provides examples where anti-Semitism can manifest itself with regard to the state of Israel. These include demonizing Israel, delegitimizing Israel, and treating Israel with double standards. This policy also makes it clear that in using these standards to evaluate criticism of Israel, context is essential and that criticism similar to criticism leveled against other countries can’t be regarded as anti-Semitic. In May 2016 the 31 countries of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) unanimously adopted a very similar working definition of anti-Semitism. Since that time an increasing number of our European allies and European institutions have formally have adopted the IHRA definition.
Even with all this guidance those of us engaged in the fight against anti-Semitism, as well as those who debate the Israeli-Palestinian issue, must exercise good judgment and ask themselves some further questions when deciding when criticism of Israel crosses a line.
When a college activist calls for adoption of boycotts and sanctions targeting Israel we need to listen to their rhetoric before we judge. For example, do they just call for sanctions, or do they say that of all nations only Israel does not have a right to exist? Do they claim that Israel is a Nazi-like state intent on carrying out genocide of Palestinians, or do they merely support the creation of a Palestinian state next to the state of Israel? For the activist who claims the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement does not delegitimize the Jewish state or treat Israel with a double standard, they should ask themselves why the founders of the BDS movement, like Omar Barghouti, are clear that their aim is not a real two-state solution but the dismantling of the Jewish state.
Criticism of Israel is sometimes anti-Semitic. Yet language and context are critical. If we are too quick to make charges of anti-Semitism we weaken the fight against real forms of anti-Judaism. If we don’t call out individuals who merely substitute “Israel” for “Jew” in classic anti-Semitic tropes we tie our hands in the fight against one of the major forms of evil in the world today.