Anti-Zionism Is the New anti-Semitism Says Netanyahu in Vienna Conference

The prime minister sent a video address to the conference after canceling his participation. Dozens of prominent Israelis: 'It is nonsensical and inappropriate to identify anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism'

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, Israel, June 11, 2018.
Chaim Tzach / GPO

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that "vicious efforts to demonize the Jewish state and deny the Jewish people the right to self determination" are a "new form of anti-Semitism."

In a video address to an international conference in Vienna focused on combatting anti-Semitism, Netanyahu said anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are one.

An open letter from 35 prominent Israelis, including Jewish-history scholars and Israel Prize laureates, was published a day before the conference in the Austrian media saying, "It is nonsensical and inappropriate to identify anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism."

The conference, which Netanyahu did not attend due to the political crisis in Israel, brought together representatives from EU member countries and Israel, as well as American and European Jewish organizations. 

The signatories to the letter against the conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism objected to the conference's official declaration, which alleged "identifying" anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and called for a distinction between legitimate criticism of Israel, "harsh as it may be," and anti-Semitism.

"This fight against anti-Semitism should not be instrumentalized to suppress legitimate criticism of Israel’s occupation and severe violations of Palestinian human rights," the letter read.

In the address, the prime minister called Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency until the end of the year and hosted the meeting, a friend: "Sebastian, you are a true friend of Israel. A true friend of the Jewish people."

Kurz's conservative People's Party rules in a coalition alongside the far-right Freedom Party, which Israel boycotts.

The increased focus on combating anti-Semitism and commemorating the Holocaust is part of an effort by the Austrian government to lift Israel’s boycott of the Freedom Party, which is known for its anti-Semitic and Nazi roots.

>> The Austrian embrace: How Kurz's far-right government Is wooing Israel to end boycott of Freedom Party | Analysis

Netanyahu also reminded the audience that Israel, together with seven European countries, including Austria, adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, or IHRA, definition of anti-Semitism and "urged all countrites to adopt this definition."

The IHRA definition - which was adopted in 2016 by Germany, the United Kingdom and five others in the European Union - includes the phrase: “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.”

The IHRA definition was central to a controversy involving allegations of anti-Semitism against U.K Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn when the party refused to adopt the IHRA definition, opting instead for a diluted version. It has since adopted the full IHRA wording. 

On Thursday, Netanyahu cancelled his trip to the Vienna conference, as top ministers called for early elections following the resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. 

The last time an Israeli prime minister visited Austria was over 21 years ago, when Netanyahu visited the country in his previous tenure as premier. Before that, only Golda Meir and Presidents Moshe Katzav and Shimon Peres had gone to Austria on official visits.

The head of the European Jewish Congress, Moshe Kantor, warned at Wednesday's "Europe Beyond Anti-Semitism and Anti-Semitism - Securing Jewish Life in Europe" conference in Vienna that "Jewish communities in Europe are increasingly concerned about their security and pessimistic about their future."

He and others called on governments, public and private institutions to implement policies against anti-Semitism presented at the conference.

Kurz said the measures include providing better safety for Jewish communities, reinforcing legislation and improving education against anti-Semitism.

The Associated Press contributed to this report