Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Lara Friedman

Last Thursday, a webinar was organized by the Foundation for Middle East Peace with Lara Friedman, the President of the Foundation, Peter Beinart, editor of Dissent, and Liz Jackson, a founding staff attorney for Palestine Legal and Cooperating Counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights. The purpose of the webinar was supposedly to analyze, but really to attempt to debunk any effort to connect anti-Zionism to antisemitism. Unfortunately, the other extreme makes the opposite mistake, identifying anti-Zionism with antisemitism. This includes Jared Kushner who, in a New York Times op-ed, wrote that the presidential order officially recognizing the IHRA definition (see below) stated that, “anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”

The discussion in the webinar has not as yet been posted on the Foundation’s website. Fortunately, Friedman and Beinart had written on the subject at earlier dates so there is a written record of their views. Therefore, I have restricted my analysis to their arguments on the topic beginning with Friedman in this blog.

On 19 August 2020, Lara Friedman published an essay in Jewish Currents (edited by Peter Beinart) entitled, “Israel-Advocacy Groups Urge Facebook to Label Criticism of Israel as Hate Speech.” One could imagine an opposition article being written: “Anti-Israel Advocacy Groups Urge Facebook (and other social media) to Label Defenders of Israel as Advocates of Repression of Free Speech.” Neither took place. The pro-Israeli groups urged those social media organizations to adopt a definition of some types of anti-Zionist rhetoric as antisemitic. The anti-Israel groups claimed that the one effort to pressure social media to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism was an effort to repress free speech, more particularly, free speech that targeted Israel for criticism.

Ten days earlier, 130 advocacy and Jewish groups had pressed Facebook to crackdown on antisemitic content and called on the company to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism. Although Lara labeled it the official definition of antisemitism, it was, in fact, a working definition. The IHRA Chair at the May 2016 session when it was adopted argued for its adoption to enable action in order to find a “legally binding working definition.”

The working definition adopted reads as follows: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” The definition does not explicitly mention anti-Zionism, but the opposition to its adoption has come from strong critics of the policies of the State of Israel and their fear that the definition has been and will continue to be used to suppress criticism of Israel.

One cannot enter into this debate without encountering huge disparities. For example, in the Jewish briefs to Facebook, one cannot find anywhere where anyone or any group argues for labeling criticism of Israel as hate speech. In fact, the briefs go out of their way to differentiate criticism of Israel and its policies from criticism of Israel and Zionism that they characterize as hate speech. That does not mean that Lara Friedman is wrong. It may be that the intent of getting the definition adopted is nefarious; that it is intended to be used to suppress criticism of Israel, or, at the very least, inhibit such criticism. But that is clearly not what the pro-IHRA definition says.

Lara in her written piece seems less bothered by the definition than the examples offered to illustrate the definition, particularly those with respect to criticisms of Israel. The definition came with seven of the eleven examples applicable to Israel:

  • Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust
  • Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations
  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavour
  • Applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation
  • Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g. claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis
  • Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis
  • Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel.

Lara Friedman argued that at least #s 3 & 4 “can be interpreted to define much criticism of Israel.” But can it? And if it can, should that type of criticism not be branded as antisemitic? One can argue that Jews should not adopt a policy of self-determination – Jews should not endorse Zionism and would be better off pursuing integration in other states. Such a position would clearly not be antisemitic. What makes the example above antisemitic is the “denial of the right to self-determination.”

One might claim that Tibetans should not insist on self-determination but that would not be arguing they have no right to make such a claim. One could make the same argument about the Kurds – and many other national groups. But in the debates over self-determination for nations, only authoritarians deny the group the right to make such a claim. Instead, they are more customarily denied the right to be independent not the right to make a claim for self-determination. Critics generally argue that the claim for independence runs contrary to history, to the geo-politics of the region, is not justified, is ill-advised, has little chance of success, etc. None of these is equivalent to denying the right to make the claim.

Certainly many, if not most, criticisms of Israel and its policies are not antisemitic. Lara, however, claims that denying the Jewish people the right to claim self-determination, characterizing the claim as a racist one or applying double standards can be interpreted to define much criticism of Israel, Israeli policies, or Zionism as antisemitism. It may. But that merely begs the question. Are they antisemitic assertions or not? Further, the vast majority of criticisms with which I am familiar do not deny Jews the right to self-determination, or characterize Jews as racists if they are Zionists who believe in Jewish self-determination, or apply a double standard in judging Israeli actions compared to those of other states. There are many more of the latter than the first two but, in most cases, I find little evidence of antisemitism even if there is considerable evidence of hypocrisy.

There is a huge discrepancy between Lara’s empirical claim and my experience, but her knowledge may be much greater than mine. However, she offers little evidence in support of her position. What she does offer, does not seem to provide the required support. In any case, it is a huge stretch to suggest that the application of such standards constitutes “efforts “to officially exclude criticism of Israel from the bounds of acceptable discourse.” This is not simply hyperbole. This is gross distortion and runs directly contrary to the briefs presented. Again, it may be the case that this is a false front by Jewish organizations with precisely that intent, but given the claims made to deny it, the onus is on the critics to reveal the duplicity behind the proposed definition.

What evidence is offered along such lines?

  • The whole effort was spearheaded by pro-Israel attack dog
  • is funded by hardline pro-Israel philanthropists, Adam and Gila Milstein
  • is best known for labeling critics of Israel, including some Jews, as anti-Semites
  • The list of signatories to the letter to Facebook is a who’s who of right-wing groups
  • The effort is backed by the Israeli government
  • Kenneth Stern, the lead drafter of the original draft that became the IHRA definition, said it was never intended to be used as a formalized, enforceable definition of antisemitism.

The last claim is unassailable. However, as I read the brief and the claims, the reference is always to a working definition rather than a legal defining term. Further, one would expect the Israeli government to back the effort, whether one agrees with it or not. Because the Israeli government backs it does not make it ipso facto bad. The Israeli government promoted the Israel-UAE accord, and, as vociferously as I disagree with many if not most Israeli government policies, the Israeli government promotion of the deal does not detract from its merit.

I would assume right-wingers would back the effort to get Facebook to change its policies. But so might, and so did, a wide swath of others, including non-Jews. In Canada, the effort to adopt the definition by the Canadian government, which was successful, was supported across the political spectrum. Lara has the strong propensity to assert guilt, not as a result of events, but as guilt by association.

In efforts to use the definition in policy debates in government and on campuses, are those efforts attempts “to suppress free speech”? If those efforts are made to deny people the right to express their ideas rather than as differences over what engagement or actions should be permitted or denied, they might be depicted as efforts to deny a right of free speech. However, the debate is over whether the position of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign is antisemitic. Characterizing the battles over controversies involving BDS campaigns as a denial of free speech begs the question; it serves as a method of mischaracterizing such efforts in advance rather than as a disagreement over policy.

Facebook evidently adapted parts of the definition to deny certain uses of their platform. Lara seemed to be more concerned with efforts to brand BDS as antisemitic by enshrining the definition in law and applying it to social media. Including a definition in law as a guide – which is done with many definitions – does not enshrine it as formal and legal. It is just that, a guide. Legal definitions are generally short and reference cases and other sources of legal authority to clarify their meaning. A guide definition is generally somewhat longer and looser; cases are offered as illustrative rather than as formal case reference points to sharpen the legal definition.

Lara wrote, “The sole posting cited in Zachor’s letter [Zachor Legal Institute described as a hardline Israel advocacy group] to Facebook…mentions confronting the racist ideology of Zionism.” Lara claims that all examples cited in Zachor’s letters relate to criticisms of Israel. I could not reconcile how only one case cited became all criticisms of Israel. I went back to the actual Zachor letters to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to check.

Zachor does argue that adoption and implementation of the IHRA definition of antisemitism is “as legitimate an anti-discrimination measure as the use of similar laws and regulations that prohibit other forms of discrimination, including LGBTQ and gender discrimination.” Zachor claims that the definition allows one to distinguish legitimate criticisms of Israel that are protected free speech and expressions that cross the line into “unprotected anti-Semitic hate speech.”

The real issue is whether adoption of the definition conflates antisemitism and criticism of Israel. If it did, that would be clearly inappropriate and should be disregarded. Even challenging the legitimacy of the IHRA definition as an indicator of antisemitism would be wrong. However, no examples are cited along these lines, just the claim. Further, the article asserts that, “the demand that social media adopt and enforce the full (my italics) IHRA definition represents a cynical strategy to co-opt progressive concerns about antisemitism to promote a hardline reactionary political agenda.” Then why would moderates adopt it? Are they just dupes of right-wing ideologists?

Why does Lara not even attempt to clarify which parts of the definition she considers antisemitic versus the full definition? Even if hard line right wingers misused the definition to generally decry criticism of Israel, misuse does not mean the definition itself is wrong or unhelpful. But Lara suggests that the problem is that Progressive groups (the NAACP, the National Hispanic Media Coalition) have been coopted by Jewish organizations like the ADL, the Anti-Defamation League, to support adopting the definition.

Moment’s Anti-Semitism Monitor in the same month Lara’s article appeared identified over 100 left-wing groups in the U.S., including the American Friends Service Committee, Democratic Socialists of America, Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Movement for Black Lives, calling for a boycott of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Why boycott the organization and its programs that have a long reputation for defending civil rights and opposing bigotry? Because the U.S. and Israel are colonialist powers. Because Israel is an ethnonationalist state carrying out a form of genocide against Palestinians. Because the ADL purportedly enabled Israelis to teach U.S. police forces violent tactics that result in the murders of African Americans. Because ADL allegedly blindly supports Israel’s right-wing government’s policies. The critique even suggests that the ADL enables President Trump white supremacist policies. The problem is that these assertions read like political agitprop and not as the conclusions of an empirical examination. They appear to be akin to the very illustrative cases identified by the IHRA definition of an anti-Zionist diatribe that reads like an antisemitic screed.

Assume for a minute that the efforts to adopt the definition are, in fact, being used to try to suppress criticism of Israel. (I wish Lara had illustrated that charge.) Even that would not make the adoption of the definition wrong. It would only show a misuse. The real issue, which is not grappled with, is whether the definition, if used properly and accurately, does suppress criticism of Israel. That argument is not even made let alone the evidence for it critically examined.

It may be the case that there is misuse. It may be the case that even the “proper” use of the definition leads to repression of free speech criticisms of Israel. But the arguments made are so illogical and so lacking in evidence, that one is pushed into supporting the adoption of the definition without a full exploration of its merits and shortcomings.

Does Peter Beinart offer a better critique?


One comment on “Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Lara Friedman

  1. I have just listened to Lara Friedman on Al Jazeera tv differentiating Judiasm and Zionism. I have always been active against racist behaviour of any kind. However I have been uncomfortable when criticising Isreal from its extremes against Palestinians and Israeli militarism in the occupied zones and opposition arguments that I am anti Jewish. I am not and found Laras comments refreshing and reassuring. I agree that those who support Zionism in the Middle East have weaponised Zionism to the extent that if u are a critique of Isreal u are are anti Jewish.

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