Israel Doesn’t Cause Anti-Semitism. Anti-Semites Do

How Tony Klug fell into the ethical abyss: Since when does hating Israel's policies excuse hating all Israelis – or all Jews?

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An anti-Semitic grafitti scrawled on a wall in central Kiev, Ukraine.
An anti-Semitic grafitti scrawled on a wall in central Kiev, Ukraine.Credit: AP

Just like short skirts don’t cause rape, Islam doesn’t cause terrorism, and dark skin doesn’t cause prejudice, Israel’s policies don’t cause anti-Semitism. Do you know what causes anti-Semitism? Anti-Semites.

With all due respect to fellow UK intellectual Tony Klug, I read his op-ed (If Israel's Occupation Doesn't End, Anti-Semitism Worldwide Will Rise to Sinister Heights) attributing the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians since 1967 to a rise in global anti-Semitism with outrage. 

And yes, that’s also what the occupation - which is morally and politically wrong, deprives Palestinians of human and political rights, and should be brought to just and peaceful end quickly - should provoke in all of us: outrage, protest, censure, intervention, outcry. There is certainly space for criticism, expressing concern, and outright condemnation of some of the strategies of the State of Israel without delegitimizing its sovereignty or crossing the line into anti-Semitism.

But there is a vast different between hating Israeli state policy (and recognizing that 50 years on, settlements and the occupation are seemingly indivisible from it) and hating Israelis - and all Jews. A chasm between causation and correlation when it comes to bigotry. And an ethical abyss, especially between motivation and justification for anti-Semitism. We hate many countries for what they do, but only with Israel and Jews is it somehow acceptable to hate a religion, ethnicity, and people for who they are.

As the wildly illiberal social media reaction my recent op-ed (If You Can't Say Israeli Settlers Are Civilians Too, You're Propping Up Apologists for Terror) betrayed, for many, the word “settler” is just a substitute for what it isn’t polite to write in public: Israeli or Jew (and probably a proxy for the pronoun they might prefer - “you".)  When you buy into a logic that believes murdering settlers cleanses the sin of settler-colonialism, it only makes sense that you might also blame the victim too. 

By this line of thinking, settling in the land (within or beyond the Green Line), Israelis - but not just Israelis, who have profound internal differences of opinion, but all Jews worldwide, who are apparently seen as uncritical supporters - are "asking for it," active agents in hastening their own hatred and authorizing their own annihilation.

Unfortunately, anti-Semites don’t need the activities of the State of Israel or the pursuit of Jewish power to hate and wish to kill Jews. They just do. They hate Jews as aggressors, they hate Jews as intermediaries, and they especially hate Jews as victims. (Jews, as is clear, really can’t win with anti-Semites.)

Short skirts don’t cause rape. Islam doesn’t cause terrorism. And Israel doesn’t cause anti-Semitism: A man wipes away an anti-Semitic message on a New York subway car, February 4, 2017.Credit: Gregory Locke/Facebook

In this one aspects, I agree with Klug: Israelis and Jews face an impossible cycle of contention from anti-Semites. If they deploy Jewish power, they are accused of evoking the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the international Jewish conspiracy, and if they don’t, there are those who would like to consign them to the gas chamber - damned if they do, damned if they don’t. 

I stress that Jews as individuals and as a collective are responsible for their own behavior. In no way do I condone expressions of Jewish power that preclude and prohibit the rights of others.

But to anti-Semites, it isn’t really the attitudes or activities of Jews that are unacceptable. It’s their very being. It’s a lot easier and more palatable to explain that the occupation (a policy that justifiably attracts international objections) causes and justifies a project of overt bigotry and obliteration, than the oldest and most pernicious hatred of loathing Jews more and differently than any other religion, ethnicity, or people.

In fact, Israelis aren’t the only country with a morally and politically controversial occupation that threatens their democracy and deprives other peoples of one of their own.

So does China with Tibet, Morocco in the Western Sahara, Turkey and Greece (and if we are to expand our horizons, America and Canada in the land of First Nations and the saga of every other settler-colonial state etc.). But for Klug only one occupying state, Israel, triggers by its own actions a hatred of an entire collectively associated people wherever they are. Anti-Semitism is, in his trope, the fault of the Jews.

Unsafe even after death: The damaged plaque in memory of Ilan Halimi, a 23 year old French Jew kidnapped, tortured and killed by an anti-Semitic gang in a suburb of Paris in January 2006. Credit: AFP

Israel, like every liberal-democracy, has its failings. Israel has many reasons it should and must end the occupation, make peace with the Palestinians, and heal rifts with the wider Arab and Muslim world. But doing so out of a belief it will placate anti-Semites is not one of them. 

As much as anti-Semites mine the occupation, wars, racism, and many of Israel’s other foreign and domestic problems for ammunition, the two-state solution might empower anti-Semites by rendering Israeli security more fragile and vulnerable. Both ways, anti-Semites will always find a will and a way. Israel can and must take risks for peace, but kumbaya in the Middle East will never appease anti-Semites.

Klug writes that Israeli policy is normalizing anti-Semitism. But what is being normalized is the idea that anti-Semitism can be justified, and that it is “normal” to blame the victim as part of a wider ‘guilty’ collective.

Jewish thought recalls that the Temple was destroyed out of baseless hatred amongst the Jewish people. Klug’s arguments suggest a kind of callousness and fragmentation of Jewish solidarity that echoes this. But they do more: excusing prejudice is a crude inversion of the liberal values he professes to uphold and that protect all of us.

Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn is University Research Lecturer and Sidney Brichto Fellow in Israel Studies at the University of Oxford. She is the author of City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement Since 1967 (Harvard University Press). Twitter: @SaraHirschhorn1