Saturday, 24 May 2014

Confronted With Criticism, Israel’s Response Is Always the Same: “Anti-Semitism”

By Allan C. Brownfeld

Criticism of Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and its denial of equal citizenship to non-Jews, along with the peace initiative by Secretary of State John Kerry, the growth of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and the Presbyterian Church’s study guide “Zionism Unsettled” (see facing page), all have received the same response from Israel and many of its American friends: charges of “anti-Semitism.”
This, of course, is nothing new. “Anti-Semitism,” traditionally having meant hostility to Jews and Judaism—despite the fact that Arabs themselves are Semites—was long ago recast by the organized Jewish community to mean criticism of Israel. When that criticism comes from Jews, as it increasingly does, such critics are dismissed as “self-hating Jews.”
This tactic not only trivializes genuine anti-Semitism, which all people of good will vigorously oppose, but it clearly doesn’t work—since criticism of Israel and its ever-expanding occupation is growing.
Consider some recent examples of this tactic. On Feb. 17, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, speaking to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem, called the BDS movement “anti-Semitic.”
He declared: “There is a new campaign against us. Having failed to dislodge us with weapons, with armies, with terrorists, with rockets, with missiles, they now think that they will dislodge us with boycotts.…and I think the most eerie thing, the most disgraceful thing, is to have people on the soil of Europe talking about the boycott of Jews. I think that’s an outrage.…In the past anti-Semites boycotted Jewish businesses and today they call for the boycott of the Jewish state.”
Netanyahu, who repeatedly confuses “Jews” and “Israelis”—and who is not content to speak for his own citizens but, with no mandate to do so, speaks on behalf of “the Jewish people,” the majority of whom are citizens of other countries—repeatedly evokes the horror of Nazi Germany. He told the American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem: “It’s time to delegitimize the delegitimizers. And it’s time that we fight back. I know all of you participate in this.”

Knesset member Motl Yogev said that Kerry’s efforts had “an undertone of anti-Semitism.”

While American Jewish leaders may be prepared to take their marching orders from Netanyahu, however, many in Israel who oppose the occupation and the mistreatment of Palestinians are not. In fact, many Israelis who object to the occupation have long boycotted products from West Bank settlements. The leader of the Israeli party Meretz said she practices a boycott of settlement products and supports an EU policy to not invest over the Green Line. “I haven’t bought products from the settlements for years,” said Zehava Gal-On.
“For many years, nobody succeeded in convincing the Israeli public that the occupation had a price,” she noted, “and I think that the occupation—which is a moral issue also—has a financial price that the state is paying. The country’s leaders need to understand that it has a price.”
According to New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, however, the BDS movement harbors “anti-Semitism” because it would deny “the core of the Zionist idea that Jews have a national home.” And Times reporter Jodi Rudoren wrote a piece quoting right-wing Israelis saying BDS is immoral and anti-Semitic and reminiscent of Nazi tactics. The reaction of New York Times readers was overwhelmingly critical of attaching the “anti-Semitic” label to the BDS movement, which includes many Jews and Israelis in its ranks.
Writing in Politico last Dec. 20, Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., an American who abandoned his U.S. citizenship and emigrated to Israel, refers to the president of the American Studies Association, an academic body which voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions, as “anti-Semitic.” ASA president Prof. Curtis Marez declared in response to criticism that “Americans have a particular responsibility to answer the call for boycott because the U.S. is the largest supplier of military aid to the state of Israel.” Any evidence of bigotry on the part of Professor Marez appears to be non-existent.
Secretary of State John Kerry has come under withering attack in Israel for pursuing the peace process. Some Orthodox rabbis have suggested that he would suffer divine retribution for his efforts to achieve a two-state solution. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was quoted in Yediot Ahronot on Jan. 14 as saying that Kerry’s diplomatic efforts stemmed from an “incomprehensible obsession” and a “messianic feeling,” adding that Kerry should “take his Nobel Prize and leave us alone.” He described the U.S. security plan that retired U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen put together as “not worth the paper it was written on.”

Obsessed With Economics?

In the Feb. 7-13 edition of the International Jerusalem Post,columnist Caroline Glick made it clear that, in her view, Kerry is simply “anti-Semitic.” According to Glick, “Kerry is obsessed with Israel’s economic success...The anti-Semitic undertones of Kerry’s constant chatter about Jews and money are obvious. But beyond their inherent bigotry, Kerry’s statements legitimize the radical Left’s economic war against the Jewish state.”
At the same time, Moti Yogev, a Knesset member in the governing coalition, said that Kerry’s efforts at achieving a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians had “an undertone of anti-Semitism.”
Writing in Yediot Ahronot on Feb. 15, Cameron Kerry, a brother of the secretary of state and until last year general counsel to the U.S. Department of Commerce, declared that charges of “anti-Semitism” against his brother “would be ridiculous if they were not so vile.” Cameron Kerry, a convert to Judaism, recalled relatives who died in the Holocaust. The Kerrys’ paternal grandparents were Jewish.
The reaction to the Presbyterian study guide, “Zionism Unsettled,” issued in January by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), was vitriolic. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) claimed the study guide “may be the most anti-Semitic document to come out of a mainline church in recent memory.” J Street, which promotes itself as a more moderate pro-Israel lobbying group than AIPAC, was almost as harsh. It said that the church document promotes “polarization” and “intolerance.” Saying it was “deeply offended,” J Street asserted that “one has to question the...motives in publishing this ‘resource.’”
In fact, the church document, which examines the role of Zionism and Christian Zionism in shaping attitudes and events in Palestine and the region, devotes extensive space to a discussion—and harsh criticism—of anti-Semitism within Christianity and its influence in the rise of Nazism. It rejects racism and religious bigotry in all its forms. And it has many strong Jewish supporters. Rabbi Brant Rosen, author of Wrestling in the Daylight: A Rabbi’s Path to Palestinian Solidarity (available from the AET Bookstore), notes that, “As a Jew, I’m especially appreciative that while [Zionism Unsettled] is strongly critical of Zionism, it doesn’t flinch from extensive Christian self-criticism.”
Discussing the Presbyterian study guide, the respected Israeli political scientist Neve Gordon said, “I welcome the effort to emphasize a conception of Judaism and Christianity that espouses universalistic ethics—whereby all humans are imago dei—and to use it to expose injustices carried out in my homeland.”
Perhaps the organized Jewish community is so exercised by this Presbyterian study guide because it asks a question they cannot—or will not—answer: “Given the liberal values shared by many American Jews and the long, proud tradition of Jewish participation in the struggle for human rights worldwide, why has there been so little outrage expressed at Israel’s human rights abuses of Palestinians in the decades since Israel’s founding?”
One need not agree with the BDS movement, Secretary Kerry’s peace plan or the Presbyterian study to recognize that false charges of “anti-Semitism” are simply a way to silence and intimidate criticism. Ironically, as such false charges proliferate, so does the growth of racism and intolerance in Israel, where non-Orthodox Jews have no right to perform weddings, funerals or conversions. Recently, Knesset member David Rotem declared that Reform Judaism “is not Jewish.”
Jewish and other critics of Zionism have shown that false charges of “anti-Semitism” will hardly stop the growing debate. As Prof. Judith Butler of the University of California, Berkeley, an outspoken Jewish critic, wrote in the Aug. 21, 2003 issue of the London Review of Books: “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 to immunize 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 perspective would be excluded, and the public would come to understand itself as one that does not speak out in the face of obvious and illegitimate violence.”
Efforts to intimidate free speech with false charges of “anti-Semitism” have grown since Dr. Butler wrote those words. But this tactic of intimidation has clearly failed. Real problems must be addressed with real discussion and debate. Only those who have something to lose by open debate would use the tactics we have seen deployed by Israel and its most fervent American supporters.  

Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor ofIssues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.
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