Although anti-Semitism is an increasingly complex phenomenon, simply speaking, anti-Semitism can be defined as hostility to or discrimination against Jews. Given the fact that Israel is a Jewish state, is criticism of Israel or its government’s policies synonymous with anti-Semitism? No. Yet can this criticism be anti-Semitic or lead to anti-Semitism? Absolutely.
How, then, ought criticisms of Israel be raised so that one avoids charges of anti-Semitism? I have three suggestions.
To begin with, movements or organizations critical of the Israeli government still need to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement have valid concerns for social justice, human rights, and Palestinian rights. They are protesting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and demanding an end to illegal settlement activity. On their own, these are worthy endeavors. Yet an insurmountable stumbling block is the movement’s foundation. BDS, which was founded in 2005, demands the “rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their [pre-1948] homes and properties.” The movement’s leadership, however, has stated the above demand more directly: the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state. According to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism, “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” can be a contemporary example of anti-Semitism.
Second, BDS supporters and anti-Israel groups need to work on removing the racism and hatred within their movements if they want to be taken seriously. Although these anti-Israel groups campaign on platforms of tolerance and antiracism, in recent years their words and actions have devolved into anti-Semitism and impinged on the freedoms and safety of Jewish communities. In London, Jews were punched in the face for what was happening in Israel. In Malmö, Sweden, anti-Israel demonstrations took on anti-Semitic tones when protestors shouted, “Slaughter the Jews!” In Wuppertal, Germany, anti-Israel protestors threw Molotov cocktails at the main synagogue. When a synagogue—a Jewish house of worship—is firebombed in response to the policies of Israel—a nation-state—that is anti-Semitism. When mezuzahs are ripped off the doorframes of Jewish dorms and mock eviction notices sent to Jewish students, we witness a visceral hate far from the peace anti-Israel supporters claim to be promoting. Unless anti-Israel groups change the ways in which their supporters protest, they will face (often accurate) charges of anti-Semitism.
Finally, these groups need to work with Jews, Israelis, and others who support the existence of Israel, who also want to end the occupation. Anti-normalization—which bans the “participation in any project, initiative or activity, in Palestine or internationally, that aims to bring together Palestinians (and/or Arabs) and Israelis (people or institutions)”—is one of the biggest barriers to peace. It can also be a form of anti-Semitism because it renders collaboration impossible except on Palestinian terms, disallowing Jews of any agency. Many Jews and Israeli progressives want an end to the occupation. They are fighting against Israel’s discrimination against its Arab citizen minority. They are also openly critical of Israeli government policies. Yet BDS and other anti-Israel groups won’t work with them. These groups frequently lack the ability to listen and dialogue with others who think differently. They also lack understanding and empathy as to why Jews are so strongly connected to Israel. Judaism as a religion is integrally tied to the land, to the city of Jerusalem, and other holy sites; Jews have lived continuously in the region for thousands of years; and—coming out of two millennia of persecution in Europe culminating in the Holocaust—many Jews see Israel as the one place where they can live free from fear and persecution. Thus, the majority of Jews are understandably going to be somewhere within the pro-Israel camp. However, because of this, they are often excluded from working with most “pro-Palestinian” groups, which often define a “good Jew” as being “anti-Israel.” Here we also find a major hole in the movement’s touted intersectionality. BDS is ironically hurting the best place in the Middle East for women to live freely, for LGBTI rights, and for religious and ethnic minority rights. Israel is far from perfect, but it is much more progressive than its neighbors.
In the end, why should avoiding charges of anti-Semitism matter to BDS and anti-Israel supporters (especially if they argue that the charge is used to delegitimize their movement and the Palestinian struggle)? The accusation carries a moral weight connected with the genocide of the Jewish people, and anti-Semitism will continue to be taken seriously by mainstream society, government leaders, and civil society organizations. If BDS and anti-Israel groups want their voices to be heard by respectable world leaders and decision-makers, their events not to be banned as “incitement to hatred,” and their movement viewed as the “inclusive, anti-racist human rights movement” they claim to be (which values “freedom, justice and equality” for all—including Jews), then they need to take charges of anti-Semitism more seriously. Until then, these groups have some major changes to make.