Not Every Israel Critic Is an Israel Hater

Israel’s critics run the gamut from Jew-haters to people who have the country’s best interests in mind. Lumping all together as anti-Semites is a big mistake.

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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Iranian students set fire to an Israeli flag (November 19, 2013) outside the Fordo Uranium Conversion Facility in Qom.
Not every expression of opposition to Israel's policies is driven by hatred of Jews, though anti-Zionism has widely become a politically correct mask for anti-Semitism.Credit: AFP
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

Israel seems to find itself a new Public Enemy No. 1 almost every week. This week it’s Ken Livingstone, a long-time fixture of the British Labour Party. Last week it was Naz Shah, an up-and-coming Labor politician. Just before Passover it was the Swedish Housing Minister Mehmet Kaplan, and before him the spot was held by Simone Zimmerman, Bernie Sanders’ Jewish outreach coordinator, for a few hours. Sanders himself was an enemy of the week not long before that for inflating Gaza casualty figures.

The list goes on and on, encompassing everything and everyone from organizations like J Street, the BDS movement and the UN Human Rights Council to the president of the United States and obscure Oberlin freshman comp instructors.

What should we make of this? Israel and Jews generally have always had enemies, but nowadays they seem to be popping up all over the place, and not just on the fringes of the political spectrum. Moreover, the kind of things said about Israel has strayed from justifiable criticism about the occupation and Israel’s attitude about making peace with the Palestinians deep into the black realms of anti-Semitism.

Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism aren't necessarily the same thing, but it can be very hard to separate the two. It’s on par with saying “I like the French people but I hate French culture, language and food.” So what do you like about the French? There’s not much left.

Zionism and Judaism aren’t identical but they are too closely linked to say you loathe Zionism while casually dismissing the anti-Semitic implications. Anti-Zionism has become a politically correct mask disguising the wearer’s retrograde attitudes about Jews.

Labour MP Naz Shah as photographed on her Facebook page.Credit: Facebook

Thus Malia Bouattia, the newly elected president of Britain’s National Union of Students, could co-write in a 2011 blog, “The University of Birmingham is something of a Zionist outpost in British Higher Education. It also has the largest JSoc in the country,” referring to the local Jewish students organization. The post does little to hide the authors’ view that Zionists and Jews are one and the same without using the A-S word. In another post from 2014, Bouatti wrote about “Zionist-led media outlets” oppressing the “global south.” No anti-Semitic canard about a secret cabal of Jews controlling the media: it’s been cleaned up and prettified by using the world “Zionist.”

That anti-Semitism has become a part of the wider critique of Israel is unfortunate, not just because any form of ethnic, racial, religious or other hatred should be unacceptable but because it gives too many Israelis and their allies an excuse to ignore any and all criticism of Israel. Anything anyone says about against Israel or its policies belongs to the same amorphous mass of Jew haters and so there’s no need for further discussion about what they’re saying. If the European Union insists that products from West Bank settlements be labeled as such, it puts them in the same boat with Iran and Hezbollah.

Tribal enemy

In truth, anti-Semitism isn’t what drives all of Israel’s critics.

Not a few of them, mainly from the Arab and Muslim world, hate Israel because they see it as the tribal enemy that took their land and violated Islamic patrimony. Their grievances may be gussied up as a fight for justice or human rights, but that’s not really what it about, since there is little of either in the Middle East outside of Israel, which doesn't seem to particularly bother them.

Other critics of the European and American hard left, like the now notorious Ken Livingstone, derive their dislike of Israel from guilt over Europe’s colonial legacy. They look at the Jewish state as another imperial outpost, like the Raj, Rhodesia and South Africa in their day, a historical injustice from another century that has to be rectified by restoring indigenous rule.

That doesn’t make Livingstone an anti-Semite any more than it makes him a hater of white people because he wanted to see the end of apartheid South Africa. But it can leave that impression. When he stated that Hitler initially supported the idea of a Jewish state, thus linking Nazism with Zionism, Livingstone was simply expressing an idea inserted deep into his ideologically clear but historically fuzzy mind, namely that the two movements are different manifestations of the same European racism.

Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone leaves his home in London, Britain April 29, 2016. Credit: Peter Nicholls, Reuters

Regarding the tribalists and hard-leftists, there is really nothing Israel can do. The former will accept nothing less than the end of Israel. The latter might be susceptible to a history lesson, but ideology and guilt raise high obstacles to any such process.

Jews can at least take succor in the fact that in the left’s worldview, they have been promoted full members of the white race from a long history as an oppressed minority. The downside is that the Jews and Israel now share the weight of Europe’s racist history and Israel is the whipping boy for that.

But tribalists and hard-leftists aren’t the whole story; they’re a small (albeit noisy) part of it. The preponderance of Israel’s critics, including good and loyal members of the Diaspora Jewish community, are not anti-Zionists, much less anti-Semites or self-hating Jews. They are genuinely motivated by what they believe to be Israel’s best interest. They don’t like what they see happening in the West Bank, not because they want to dismember Israel piece by piece by starting there but because they don’t accept the two-class society of settlers and Palestinians. They can’t understand a short war like Protective Edge that took 1,000 civilian lives or a Jewish state that doesn’t recognize the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism they practice.

You could reasonably argue that these Israel critics misinterpret our reality: Rather than seeing Israel as a small, beleaguered country in a dangerous part of the world, they think our problems with the Palestinians are no different than, say, white America’s problems with minorities. Or you could say with some justification they have been misled by intense media coverage that has magnified Israel’s wrongs all out of proportion. Either way, that would make them no less mistaken than Israel’s friends who write off the critics as anti-Semites one and all.

Israel is risking disaster by ignoring them. We’re a small country that relies on the goodwill of the Diaspora, friendly governments in Washington and Brussels, a media that doesn’t designate us as a festering sore like Syria or Pakistan, and a business community that sees Israel as a Western democracy, not a rogue state. By erecting walls to defend us against anti-Semitism even when it doesn’t exist and rejecting any and all criticism, we risk alienating the friends we desperately need.

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