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Calling Criticism of Israel “Anti-Semitic” Trivializes the Fight against Real Bigotry

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
August 2015

Anti-Semitism, the hatred of Judaism and Jews, has a long and sordid history  
in many parts of the world. There were pogroms and inquisitions and in the  
20th century we witnessed the Holocaust. We have seen the evil which anti-  
Semitism has inflicted upon the world.  
It is, therefore, troubling to see many people now in the process of  
redefining anti-Semitism to mean criticism of Israel. In a letter published  
in The Washington Post (June 16, 2015), American Council for Judaism  
publications editor Allan C. Brownfeld makes this point:  
“In the June 13 news article, ‘In Israel concerns rising over boycott  
movement,’ Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referred to the  
movement to boycott Israel or disinvest from those doing business in the  
occupied territories as ‘anti-Semitic.’ Similarly, Las Vegas casino mogul  
Sheldon Adelson, who recently presided over a meeting that raised more than  
$20 million to fight this movement, referred to it as ‘anti-Semitic.’  
Whether one agrees with this movement or not, and many Jews are leading  
participants, the fact is that it is in no way ‘anti-Semitic.’”  
The letter continues: ‘Judaism is a religion of universal values. Israel is  
a sovereign state. It has violated international law by occupying the West  
Bank and East Jerusalem. The boycott movement is a nonviolent effort to show  
opposition to this occupation, similar, its advocates argue, to the  
sanctions movement against South Africa to show opposition to apartheid.  
Hatred of Judaism and Jews, which is what constitutes anti-Semitism, appears  
to be absent from these boycott efforts.  
“Only by redefining ‘anti-Semitism’ to mean criticism of Israel can such a  
charge be sustained. Israel’s policies in the occupied territories should be  
debated on their merits, and defenders of the occupation should not hide  
behind false charges of ‘anti-Semitism.’”  
Rabbi Alissa Wise of the Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports the BDS  
(boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement, states: “There’s nothing anti-  
Semitic about criticizing Israel and there is nothing anti-Semitic in the  
BDS call by Palestinian Civil Society. It is a conditional call that will  
end when conditions of oppression end; that targets state policies, not the  
Jewish people. It is based on standards of universal human rights and  
international law that are specifically not reliant upon ethnicity or  
religion. … For those of us who are Jewish in the movement, we strongly feel  
the obligation to speak out when false charges of anti-Semitism are used to  
tar the movement … As a rabbi, I take my role seriously as a moral leader …  
We will be held accountable if we stay silent about the land theft, home  
demolitions, restrictions on movement, economic strangling and other human  
rights abuses that are daily realities of life under occupation for  
Many in Israel share the concern about calling critics of Israeli policies  
anti-Semitic rather than responding to their concerns about particular  
policies. Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (June 6, 2015), Gideon  
Levy notes, “It’s only to be expected when facing a worldwide campaign aimed  
at implementing justice and international law: the stage of denial, of  
repression and clinging to the false, nearly magical belief that if Israel  
will just explain its position better and invest the appropriate resources,  
everything will be fine.”  
Levy argues that, “In other words, Israel continues to think that the world  
is dumb and Israel is smart. You can blame the Palestinians for everything  
and obscure the simple fact that this brutal occupation is Israeli. You can  
tell the world that it all belongs to us because the Bible says so and  
believe that anyone will take you seriously. You can be sure that the memory  
of the Holocaust will serve us forever, and justify any injustice. Of  
course, it won’t work indefinitely … Justice triumphs in the end, even if  
belatedly. And justice says that Israel cannot continue to tyrannize another  
people forever …”  
Prof. Judith Butler of the University of California, an outspoken Jewish  
critic of Israeli policy, states: “If one can’t voice an objection to  
violence done by Israel without attracting a charge of anti-Semitism, then  
that charge works to circumscribe the publicly acceptable domain of speech,  
and immunizes Israeli violence against criticism. One is threatened with the  
label ‘anti-Semite’ in the same way one is threatened with being called a  
‘traitor’ if one opposes the most recent U.S. war (on Iraq). Such threats  
aim to define the limits of the public sphere by setting limits on the  
speakable. The world of public discourse would then be one from which  
critical perspectives would be excluded and the public would come to  
understand itself as one that does not speak out in the face of obvious and  
legitimate violence.”  
Like the boy who cried wolf, in the event that real bigotry were to appear,  
the trivialization of the term “anti-Semitism” would make such bigotry much  
more difficult to combat. •

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.