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Between Antisemitism and anti-Zionism: The Intellectual's Dilemma

The fight against antisemitism used to be above politics. Now, however, any criticism of Israel can lead to one being marked with the scarlet letter 'A'

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Demonstrators protest the extension of Jerusalem’s light rail line into the Gilo neighborhood, over the Green Line, this past December.  Ohad Zwigenberg
Demonstrators protest the extension of Jerusalem’s light rail line into the Gilo neighborhood, over the Green Line, this past December. Ohad ZwigenbergCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

How do you win against your opponent in the ideological arena? Simple: take a reviled symbol and associate it with them. For example, characterize the left as a bunch of traitors or losers, and remind the public of Chamberlain. Politics is replete with distorted perceptions, symbols and images, and manipulating these images is a decisive part of ideological warfare. Mixing and confusing symbols has long been a tactic of propagandists of all persuasions.

The struggle against antisemitism used to be above the fray of crass politics, but during the last two decades, it has become politicized and subject to the same manipulations suffered by the ideological arena. In Israel, it has been harnessed by the government as part of a vast campaign intended to whitewash its policies. The whitewashing has given rise to blacklists of Israeli NGOs, academics, artists, journalists and ordinary citizens who have dissented with Israel’s ongoing occupation of the territories and dispossession of Palestinians of their basic human rights.

Dissent is not silenced through formal censorship, but with the assistance of the scarlet letter “A.” Critiques of Israeli policies are easily dubbed as “anti-Zionist,” and anti-Zionism is in turn viewed as a subcategory of antisemitism. Ergo, a critique of Israel is antisemitic. Through this syllogism, a critique of Israeli politics (an opinion) is transmuted into an essence and an identity (that of the antisemite), from which no politician or public figure can ever hope to recover.

Few causes are more just than the struggle against antisemitism. Few causes should be less controversial. Antisemitism should be at the forefront of all struggles against racism, because it is one of the oldest forms of group hatred and certainly one of its most destructive one (an estimated two-thirds of all European Jews were murdered during World War II). But this cause has become the subject of controversies that now muddle its meaning.

Many critics of Israeli policies are Israelis and Jews themselves. It follows that a non-negligible part of the new category of antisemites is now Jewish, rendering the very notion of antisemitism at best meaningless and at worst tragically farcical. The absurdity of this situation is compounded by the invention of the pompous term “New Antisemitism,” which is supposed to cover this new garden variety of presumed antisemites.

One recent victim of this trend is the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, which characterized the regime of separation between the Jewish and the Palestinian populations in the occupied territories as constituting apartheid. Whether that choice of language is judicious or not should have been the subject of a discussion conducted on the basis of careful analysis of maps, laws, geopolitics and political regimes. Instead, use of the word “apartheid” was immediately cast by so-called Israel supporters as antisemitic because, in its criticism of Israel, it summoned up a long tradition of demonization of the Jews (by this logic, any and all criticism of Israel will always be illegitimate and reminiscent of demonization). Following this line of thought, the right-wing organization NGO Monitor, a self-appointed watchdog out to foil Israel detractors, observes that use of the word “apartheid,” “in the context of a political conflict also cheapens the immense suffering of the real victims of Apartheid South Africa.” This is an ironic comment given that this is exactly the concern of those who fight the politicization of antisemitism: avoiding cheapening the memory of the victims of antisemitism by drawing a straight line between critiques of Israeli policies and hard-core, dyed-in-wool, bona-fide antisemites.

However simplistic and one-sided many of these Israel critiques are, many (though not all) are not antisemitic, at least not in the sense that has been given to this word by the history of European Jewry. (The Israel critics do not essentialize Jews as a group; they do not call for the destruction of Jews by other ethnic or racial groups; nor do they call for Jews to leave Europe). The only question that remains open for discussion is whether thinking that Jews do not need a national home is or is not antisemitic. I do not believe the response to that question depends on the context in which it is formulated (this position is held by many ultra-Orthodox, or Diasporic intellectuals such as Georges Steiner, who declared he was “anti-Zionist”).

Many critics of Israel are mostly guilty of taking a priori the side of the weak and the dispossessed, the Palestinians: in refusing to see Israelis as victims, dismissing Israeli citizenship laws as racist, ignoring the real dangers that mar the existence of the Jewish state, and in holding Israel accountable to moral norms not used for other, equally violent countries. However dubious, ill-informed or controversial such opinions may be, they profoundly differ from antisemitism, which attributes a demonic nature and influence to the Jews as a whole or to Israel, and wants to rid the world of them. In fact, dyed in-the-wool antisemitic positions are more likely to be held by right-wingers of the ilk of Donald Trump’s supporters, who have been enthusiastically endorsed by right-wing Jewish organizations, whether in the U.S. or in Israel. I have yet to see right-wing organizations issue a scarlet letter to Trumpists.

The struggle for justice – against antisemitism, sexism, racism – begins with a struggle for the right words.Credit: Moti Milrod

To complicate matters, some critiques of Israel are indeed antisemitic. Faced with a complex and mined field, what is the Jewish intellectual to do? The alternative has been set up for him or her in an impossible way: either join the ranks of those who fight for a democratic Israel and run the risk of being dubbed an antisemite; or make the struggle against antisemitism the primary object of moral concern, at the expense of ignoring a historical injustice committed by Israelis against the Palestinians.

The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA), which I helped draft and I signed, is a recent attempt to make both struggles compatible. By drawing clear distinctions between a legitimate debate of opinion on Israeli policies and the essentialization of Jews as unpatriotic, evil or in control of the world, it aims to make the struggle against antisemitism regain its focus and moral clarity. The JDA thus aims to correct the confusion generated by the widely used “working definition” proposed in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, and the political instrumentalization of that definition. This definition served as the blueprint for the German Bundestag resolution in 2019 that defined the BDS movement as antisemitic; it influenced many U.S. states, which now have undertaken not to work with businesses that themselves support the same BDS movement; it shaped the actions and opinions of the high commissioner on antisemitism in Germany, who regularly castigates as antisemitic Jews who call on Israel to uphold democratic values.

One can disagree with BDS and yet support the right of its proponents to have their opinion. Freedom of expression was designed to allow a variety of opinions – whether they are ultimately right or wrong – to compete with each other.

In casting dissenters and critics of Israel as antisemites, the Israeli political right has created an unprecedented line of fracture within the Jewish people, one that privileges the political interests of the State of Israel over its solidarity with liberal Jews; and it favors the aims of Israel internal policy to the detriment of the struggle against antisemitism. This strategy has had startling and unintended effects: It lessens the commitment of Jews to their ethnicity and religion, and instead makes them increasingly define themselves in terms of their politics. The weaponization of antisemitism will likely accentuate an already deep divide in the Jewish people, between those who fight antisemitism in the name of international norms of justice and those who will make the struggle against antisemitism ancillary to Israeli politics of expansion.

To be sure, this deep division within the Jewish people reflects a broader crisis of the political and intellectual arena at large. The debate of opinion is increasingly replaced by what I would call a logic of purity and contamination. By casting BDS supporters or even anti-BDS critics (like me) as antisemites, supporters of Israeli policies prevent, by definition, any debate with the other side, since antisemitism is an immoral essence. This in turn invites a response in kind: Supporters of Israel become proto-fascists, another evil essence.

In the logic of purity and contamination, once the opponent’s evil essence is named (be it “fascist”/”supremacist” or “antisemite”), it renders that opponent illegitimate; what was once an opinion (“I believe in the right of Jews to have a Jewish state” or “Israeli citizenship is racist”) becomes a dogma – that is, a set of beliefs to which members of a group must adhere if they want to remain members of the group; these beliefs in turn define the purity of the group. Polluting that purity invites excommunication. A dissenter becomes an antisemite, which automatically disqualifies from membership in the group. The threat she poses to the purity of the dogma demands her expulsion from the core doctrinal group.

The case of the new Jewish debate around antisemitism is exemplary of the increasing difficulties faced by thinkers in the intellectual arena. Intellectuals must often struggle to understand the moral contradictions of complex realities: In this case, the State of Israel conducts an unacceptable policy of domination in the territories, while antisemitism is on the rise everywhere. In the face of such conflicted reality, intellectuals should do what they are best at: opt for the universalist position and struggle simultaneously against both the relentless domination of Palestinians, and against antisemitism; work very hard at making the distinctions that politicians want to blur and confuse; refrain from transforming an opponent’s opinions into a form of blasphemy; maintain the rules of civil debate rather than engage in ostracism. Only in this way can we oppose the semantic and moral dilution of the concept of “antisemitism.” The task of intellectuals is to remind us of the importance of language in the struggle for morality.

The struggle for justice – against antisemitism, sexism, racism – begins with a struggle for the right words.

Eva Illouz holds the Rose Isaac Chair in sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Institute.

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