Part IV: Revising the Iran Deal

In 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump quit the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was clinched between Iran and world powers, and returned unilateral sanctions that had been lifted as per the accord. Since the JCPOA was cancelled, we have learned and confirmed the following:

  1. The sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on financial institutions were more effective than expected.
  2. In response to the 2 July 2020 cyber attack on the Natanz facility, Iran began constructing a new, larger, more modern and secure production hall in the heart of a nearby mountain to build advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges.
  3. The Marivan site at Abadeh, Iran’s outdoor high explosive test site for nuclear weapons, and smaller, better camouflaged ones, remain intact.
  4. Iran is closer in time to conducting a cold test, one of the last tests performed prior to building nuclear weapons.
  5. After much pressure, IAEA inspectors visited Marivan and another site, but for some reason they have not yet issued a verification and monitoring report.
  6. Satellite imagery of Marivan appears to show excavation at one of the bunkers at the outdoor site soon after the IAEA visit.
  7. The IAEA inspections at Turquz Abad were deemed unsatisfactory in light of Iranian obfuscation; the Iranian claims were deemed “not technically credible” as undeclared activities and enriched uranium were identified there.
  8. Construction beyond that needed to convert Fordo into a “nuclear, physics and technology center” has been photographed, contrary to the 2015 deal.
  9. Identification has been made of  increased enrichment and purification of plutonium from spent fuel.
  10. Iran’s overall stockpile of enriched uranium is now 2,442.9 kg, twelve times the amount allowed under JCPOA.
  11.  Although Iran has been transferring the more advanced centrifuges to the underground Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) and Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) at Natanz, it still adheres to the JCPOA limit of 5,060 first-generation centrifuges (IR-1s) actually in use, but it has installed a number of advanced centrifuges ready for use that would increase productivity by 50%.
  12.  Though still manufacturing heavy water necessary for plutonium production, Iran is not pursuing an effort to construct a heavy water research reactor.
  13.  According to the IAEA,

a) Iran’s response to queries has been unsatisfactory

b) Iran’s responses have not been technically credible

c) Iran continues to conduct enrichment activities that do not accord with the enrichment plan to which Iran agreed

d) Iran continues to import design information and centrifuge components from Pakistan not in line with its agreements.

  1. Just before the re-election of two Georgian senators and the congressional confirmation of Biden’s election, 3 January will be the anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination when a reprisal attack on the U.S. is expected.
  2. Israel’s advanced Dolphin II submarine transited the Suez Canal headed towards the Persian Gulf with cruise missiles.

Just recently During the US presidential campaign, Biden assailed Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA as a setback for US non-proliferation efforts. He called for a return to the Iran nuclear deal if Iran is in compliance with its terms. It is not. Yet Biden has also said that, “the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations” and lift the sanctions on Iran that Trump imposed. Subsequent agreements to “tighten and lengthen Iran’s nuclear constraints, as well as address the missile program” would then be negotiated. But with what leverage?

Biden does not come with empty pockets. Luis Fleischman of the London Center for Policy Research and co-founder of the think-tank, the Palm Beach Center for Democracy and Policy Research, is a Latin American specialist, but one who has worked on national security and Middle East issues. He was the main player behind getting Florida to become the first state to apply sanctions on Iran. He offered the following list of levers:

  • The threat of resuming and even increasing sanctions
  • Absence of an alternative political party in the U.S. that would treat Iran better
  • American hardliners are more than a match for Iran’s
  • Biden’s outreach to the Republicans
  • Trump’s alienation of the security establishment
  • Activating the opening for Saudi Arabia to seek to become a nuclear power
  • The rapprochement not only between Israel and the Gulf states, but, to a lesser degree, with Turkey as well
  • The weakness and vulnerability of Iranian hardliners, signaled by their resort to explaining Fakhrizadeh’s assassination by a remotely controlled robot
  • The tensions within Iran and the likelihood that Israeli agents have infiltrated deep into the Iranian state
  • The absence of a strong response to Fakhrizadeh’s assassination as a signal that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s bite is not nearly as strong as its bark
  • Iranians anxious that Iran rejoin the world, probably Biden’s strongest card
  • Or perhaps it is American military might and satellite spy capabilities; after all, before Christmas, American nuclear-powered guided missile submarine USS Georgia transited the Strait of Hormuz and entered the Persian Gulf carrying 154 conventionally armed Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles.

It appears that while Joe Biden is intent on returning to the JCPOA restricting Iran’s nuclear program, Iran is proceeding full speed ahead to getting closer to the ability to build nuclear weapons. Its new breakout time to develop a nuclear weapon is now estimated to be 3.5 months and not the year estimated when the agreement was signed. It would then take another year to manufacture a few bombs. Iran insists that the U.S. first re-enter without preconditions.

Iran’s verry popular Foreign Minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, has demanded that the United States revoke the executive orders which imposed the sanctions first and then, “Iran will carry out its obligations too.” The problem is made more difficult because Rouhani has less than six months left in his term. In 2013, he was elected on a platform of forging a nuclear deal, getting sanctions lifted and even opening the country up to the West. Trump buried that idea. And the Conservatives in the June election want Rouhani’s head on a stake.

Just getting back to the table and resurrecting the deal will require very subtle diplomacy. But that will be nothing compared to getting a new revised agreement. It would have to:

  1. Roll back Iranian initiatives beyond that to which it agreed in the JCPOA
  2. Provide guarantees that the US could not withdraw from the agreement or impose sanctions unilaterally and without penalty
  3. Satisfy its European allies, Russia and China that the US would continue to be bound by the agreement for more than four years
  4. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has called on the new US administration to return to the 2015 nuclear deal as soon as possible

“We hope that the new US administration will return to the JCPOA and resume compliance as soon as possible and unconditionally, lift all relevant sanctions, take concrete actions to fulfill its duties, and advance the process of political settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue and safeguard regional peace and stability.”

  • The remarks came in reaction to comments by Jake Sullivan, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for national security adviser, who said that the incoming administration wants to put Iran “back into the box” by rejoining the nuclear deal and forcing them to comply with the terms of the agreement, which would lay the groundwork for a “follow-on negotiation” on broader issues.
  • At the same time, Iran is demanding $100 billion for losses suffered as a result of the sanctions
  • Find measures of additionality to include missile design and subject construction to inspection since Iran now has an elaborate tunnel network for producing long-range missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

Yet there does not seem to be a strategy in place for dealing with domestic opposition to a deal within Iran; Lotfollah Forouzandeh, a member of the conservative Society of Devotees of the Islamic Revolution, said that, “The people are extremely pessimistic about the United States and are very angry at them because they have lost two national heroes, the hero of resistance — commander [Qasem] Soleimani — and the other a defense and nuclear hero — [Mohsen] Fakhrizadeh.” Further, he cited a poll: 80% of Iranians are opposed to talks with the United States.

Yet the additionality requirement is critical to both Israel and the U.S. Israel has repeatedly attacked Iran’s missile factories and missile shipments in Syria. On the day before Christmas, Israel attacked Iranian missile factories in Syria, killing six. The U.S. is more concerned with Iran’s intercontinental missile capabilities. Given the findings and the analysis, it is highly doubtful that Biden could simply build on the existing JCPOA. On the one hand, given its own Red Lines, there is mounting pressure for America to act. On the other hand, there is the imperative to pre-empt Israeli action; its fuse for action is getting shorter. At the same time, the room for maneuvering economically, diplomatically and militarily is narrowing week by week. There is also no possibility of Iran retracting its hostility to Israel as a condition of a renegotiated agreement.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif has insisted that Iran will never officially recognize Israel. But neither is it intent on throwing the “kikes” into the sea or initiating a military attack. Iran’s policy, however illusory, is to insist on a popular referendum run by the UN and including all Palestinians both in the land and in the diaspora, to resolve the conflict.

All this must be understood in the context in which Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, continues to pour cold water on the prospects of negotiations since he claims that talks “got us nowhere.” His words are very discouraging. “They [Americans] interfere in regional affairs. They tell us not to intervene. And while Britain and France have nuclear missiles, they tell us not to have missiles. What does it have to do with you? You should first correct yourselves.” When the EU now raises the issue of missiles, Iran throws it back into their face and claims that the EU is in no position to make any claim since it could not even stop American withdrawal. The demand is “incomprehensible.” However, Khamenei is purportedly quite ill.

Most of the obstacles appear virtually insurmountable to a renegotiated deal. Perhaps that is why Biden agreed to re-enter without conditions and lift the relevant sanctions. Rouhani had insisted that re-entry must be without preconditions. His Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif insisted that the Biden administration need only revoke “three executive orders” that imposed sanctions on Iran; there is no need for “preconditions or negotiations.” The U.S. will likely advance its own position under its own conditions after it rejoins:

  1. After coordination with Israel
  2. After coordination with America’s allies in the Gulf
  3. After coordination with Macron in France and Johnson in Britain who have expressed their own qualms about the existing deal.

Do not count on too much pressure coming from the UAE or Bahrain; the latter, after all, is a Shiite state. Both condemned the assassination of Iran’s lead nuclear scientist. Further, the Gulf states want to avoid a military escalation in the region and are fearful of a repeat of the drone and cruise missile strike on Saudi oil facilities in September in 2019. Finally, Dubai is mainly interested in expansion of its business interests and Iran offers many prospects.

There is another widely acknowledged Iranian internal complicating factor – the huge divide between the so-called moderates and the hardliners. There are even two security services, the Intelligence Ministry (IM) under the direction of the President, and the Intelligence Agency (IA) of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). IA had taken charge of protecting Iranian nuclear scientists. Yet the Revolutionary Guard attacked the Rouhani government for failing to protect Fakhrizadeh (F). In response, IM accused IA of not heeding its warnings. Given that deep divide as a parallel to the one in America, one for diplomacy and one ardently opposed, the complications on the Iranian side multiply.

In the battle over Fakhrizadeh’s legacy, the Moderates display photographs of F “receiving state honors from Rouhani for helping to secure the 2015 nuclear deal.” Hardliners insist F was on their side; they rebroadcast his words: “America can’t be compromised with.” Arguments over Fakhrizadeh are wielded like cudgels by conservatives and reformists alike. “The outcome of these debates could have profound implications for the Biden administration which hopes to renew nuclear negotiations after four years of President Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Tehran.” (Kareem Fahim and Miriam Berger The Washington Post, 3 December 2020)

The core question will be whether America will also carry a big stick and retain a serious threat to back up demands with the threat of the use of military force as well as economic sanctions. On the one hand, this seems unlikely given the trajectory of American withdrawal of military forces from the Middle East. The 1,500-2,000 troops in Syria have mostly been withdrawn and the U.S. is almost totally dependent on a reliance on proxies. However, an effective trip wire remains since the Pentagon assured the president that just over a thousand troops have been withdrawn. However, he was not told that the original totals in Syria were actually much higher since non-fighting personnel and contractors were not counted. Those remaining are certainly more than the 200-400 most Americans believe still remain.

Further, Iran’s adventurism in Syria and Iraq, as well as support for Hezbollah, is not likely to be on the table for real discussion even if the topic is on the agenda. This will be very unacceptable to Israel, the Saudis and Jewish groups in the diaspora. Even Canada’s B’nai Brith has opined that, “The government of Iran is the greatest state-sponsor of terror in the world today. They are a threat to all of us, all around the world. The IRGC is, in effect, the terror division of the government. They must be listed as a terrorist group in Canada without further delay.” B’nai Brith Canada called on members of the public to contact their local Members of Parliament and demand that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) be immediately listed as a terrorist group in its entirety.

Two general items will not be renegotiable. JCPOA delayed Iran’s ability to produce nuclear bombs by 8-15 years as the best of a bad set of options. This period now seems very much shorter than it ever did when JCPOA was signed. But any extension of that period will have to wait and cannot be changed at this time. Secondly, whatever measures are put in place, the development of Iran’s store of knowledge will not be affected. The nuclear threat can be delayed. The long range and precision delivery of missiles might be able to be limited. But research and development are specifically excluded from the agreement so there will be no dint in Iran’s intellectual capital vis a vis a nuclear capability. On the other hand, Israel’s Mossad in 2018 thoroughly penetrated Iran’s nuclear intellectual library.

If a deal is made, it will take Iran almost half a year to get back into compliance while the effect of lifting sanctions will be almost immediate. What will be the effect on Biden’s promise to re-introduce bipartisanship back into American foreign policy? Further, Biden may consult Israel and Saudi Arabia, but what will be their response? Would Dennis Ross’ idea of a staged deal work – Biden offering Iran access to its foreign currency reserves and then lifting sanctions in stages as Iran in tandem moves back to the status quo ante, reducing its enhanced-enriched uranium, cutting down on the total kilos enriched, and dismantling high speed centrifuges in tandem with the American move after which the US would formally rejoin?

Biden will need every source of grace possible to pull this off.


Part III: The Collapse of the Iran Deal

The assassination of a leader of its Revolutionary Guard, Qasem Soleimani, and murder of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, known as “the father of the Iranian bomb” and Amad project, took place presumably at the hands of Israel. After the killing of Fakhrizadeh, 251 lawmakers in Iran’s hardline-dominated 290-seat Iranian legislative chamber advanced a bill to end UN inspections of its nuclear facilities. Further, the legislation required the government to boost its uranium enrichment if European signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal did not provide relief from oil and banking sanctions. Tehran would give two months for the European signatories of the 2015 nuclear agreement to work to ease sanctions on Iran’s oil and financial sectors imposed when the US abandoned the deal in 2018. The parliament also voted to end inspections to ensure uranium was not enriched beyond 3.67%. Site inspections would also be halted.

J Street and others suspect that the timing of the assassination was an attempt by the Netanyahu/Trump collaboration to deliberately encumber the Biden administration, for Fakhrizadeh had always been available as a target. Why at this time? According to the Biden disruption thesis, the killing was designed to throw a roadblock in the way of any rapprochement with Iran. On the other hand, Iran is not interested in escalating its strained relations with the U.S. prior to Biden taking office. It is unlikely to respond to the assassination by killing an American, though Iran might seek revenge by targeting a specific Israeli official. For the same reason, Iran is unlikely to unleash its proxies. However, the incident will make it more difficult for Iran to offer substantive compromises once Biden is in office, particularly if they sweaken the hand of the hardliners in Iran.

However, Michael Koplow, the policy director for Israel Policy Forum, has argued that the Biden disruption thesis is “highly implausible. For starters, surveillance of a person under tight Iranian government protection whom the regime had taken great pains to shield from outsiders, planning the operation to kill him, recruiting the people necessary to carry out the plan, and then successfully executing it, is not something that happens on a whim, a primary impetus for Trump foreign policy. For this to be primarily about hampering Biden would mean that it was all done in a matter of a couple of weeks, which is functionally impossible. 

“Second, making this all about the JCPOA ignores a long history of Israeli and joint American-Israeli operations to disrupt Iran’s nuclear ambitions, from killing nuclear scientists to the Stuxnet virus to the explosions earlier this year in July at Parchin and Natanz,” the latter building seriously damaged, and undoubtedly extending to other incidents that we know nothing about. Satellite images of the area around the Natanz nuclear site, taken by the US-based Earth-observation company Planet, suggest that following the destruction of the main Nantanz building, Tehran moved its centrifuge assembling operation inside a nearby mountain. Jeffrey Lewis, of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, identified two tunnel entrances with two roads connecting these tunnels to the old building; the new building was at least as large as the old one. After all, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, had publicly vowed that the new building replacing Natanz would be sheltered in the “heart of the mountains” to protect it from possible attacks.

The thesis that the timing of the assassination was intended to undermine Biden’s Iranian policy before he is even inaugurated “ignores cooperation between the U.S. and Israel on this front during the Obama administration and before the JCPOA was negotiated. It ignores the basic fact that Israel has done everything it can short of a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It is certainly possible that killing Fakhrizadeh will make it more difficult for Biden to re-enter the JCPOA and negotiate a follow-on agreement, as he has said he is determined to do, and it is also possible that turning up the heat on Tehran to an even hotter temperature will make it easier for him to execute his plan. Whatever the eventual outcome, positing this latest move as being first and foremost about Biden’s JCPOA ambitions ignores a long string of facts. It is noteworthy that of all the people publicly arguing as such, Biden and his circle of advisers are not among this group.”

President Hassan Rouhani promised not to implement the new law passed by the Iranian legislature since it was “damaging to diplomacy”. Mohammadreza Kalantari, Professor of International Relations at London’s Royal Holloway University, stated the issue well. “Despite what the hard-liners in Iran are saying, doing and threatening in the last few days, the public opinion vis-à-vis Soleimani is much different from that of Fakhrizadeh…Iran’s position after the assassination [elevating Fakhrizadeh’s importance] is a tactic and bargaining chip for the upcoming negotiations with Biden. Hence, while Iran retaliated [for] Soleimani’s assassination, as it did in January, it won’t take a harsher stand this time.”

But what will happen over the next three weeks? Trump deployed several B-5H Stratofortress heavy bombers via Israel “to deter aggression and reassure its US partners and allies.” After all, Iran used the release of $100 billion in frozen Iranian assets when its entered the JCPOA, not to improve the domestic economic pressures on its citizens as expected, but to expand its military thrust into Syria as well as Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. Further, since the Trump withdrawal, Iran has increased its stockpile of fissionable material by a factor of twelve and enriched some of its uranium of the fissile isotope U-235 beyond the JCPOA limit of 3.67 to 4.5%. Now the Iranian legislature has authorized increasing it much further to 20%, a level capable of fueling a nuclear bomb.

How will the Biden administration respond? I have seen two very opposite headlines.

  1. Biden has said he would only rejoin the agreement if Iran was in “strict compliance with the nuclear deal.”
  2. Biden says he will re-enter Iran deal without new conditions, then negotiate a new agreement.

Only one of them can be true. According to Biden’s interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman published on 2 December, only the second one is. The Biden administration is planning simply to re-enter the deal and then to engage in an effort in obtaining a reform package that will entail better and longer term inspection provisions, no longer exclude restrictions on Iranian missile development and end Iran’s extension of its military mischief within Arab states. On the last item, Americans do not and should not expect any progress on this strategic rather than existential threat. That rejection would not reinstate the nuclear sanctions. Sanctions would be lifted but would be held as a sword of Damocles over Iran if there was no progress on the renegotiations. This would comply with Iran’s insistence that negotiations be resumed “without conditions” and that the sanctions imposed by Trump be lifted.

This stricture was not just set down by Khamenei. President Hassan Rouhani indicated that there is room for future discussions with the Biden administration, but only on condition that it returns to the pre-Trump situation and policy. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s on 18 November tweeted that Washington had to lift the sanctions that the Trump administration imposed after withdrawing from the JCPOA in 2018. “If the US then seeks to re-join the JCPOA, we’re ready to negotiate terms for it to regain its ‘JCPOA Participant’ status.” Majlis speaker Muhammad Baqer Qalibaf—a Rouhani political rival and potential presidential candidate—reiterated Khamenei’s words, and indicated that there was virtually no prospect of resuming negotiations until the US lifted its sanctions.

On the American side, re-entry is technically easy even if it met a political maelstrom. If does not require Senate approval. After all, the JCPOA deal was never confirmed by the Senate in the first place, though it was endorsed by the House by a simple majority. Further, Trump withdrew from the deal without any legislative vote whatsoever but a vote that required a two-thirds majority to reject the deal. However, the decision to return to diplomacy and re-engagement now faces even more obstacles than the ones faced when JCPOA was concluded. Given the significant increase in distrust of America because its withdrawal took place even though Iran was, at least in appearance, following the terms of the deal, Iran is more wary.  

There are a set of other interrelated problems to a return even to the status quo ante, let alone an expanded deal to include conventional weapons and revolutionary tactics on the ground beyond even the terms that Iran has already set down. The first is domestic, the difficulty in getting Senate majority support in the U.S. even in the unlikely event that the Democrats win both Georgian Senate seats up for grabs. Second, it will be very difficult to corral the Europeans, let alone the Russians and the Chinese, in such an effort at renegotiation even after re-entry by the U.S. after the enormous harm resulting from Trump’s unilateral action. Thus, the United Nations Security Council rejected a US-led draft resolution to extend the weapons embargo under JCPOA. In response, Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, threatened unilaterally to do “everything within our diplomatic toolset to ensure that the arms embargo doesn’t expire” on October 18.

Further, without Biden administration action, Israel may be provoked to launch its own unilateral targeted attack against Iran backed by Saudi Arabia. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s former security adviser and author of a memoir, Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, set out a general critique of the Obama doctrine, arguing that it was based on wishful thinking rather than realism, on naivety and hope rather than caution and genuine fear, on the self-delusion of what he called a decades-old pattern of “strategic narcissism.”

Whether that critique is justified or not, it makes clear that, unlike the unusual interlude of the Trump-Netanyahu partnership, America’s national interest in Iran is different than Israel’s. For Israel, Iran is an existential threat. For the U.S., Iran is a strategic threat both in terms of limiting nuclear proliferation and preventing Iran from becoming a regional power in the Middle East. The latter, for Israel, is instrumental to its survival. American interests and threat perception make it a matter of power politics.

The general strategic critique has been complemented and reinforced by a number of empirical details revealed about the Iran nuclear program since JCPOA was signed. I strongly supported the deal, as did most of the Israeli intelligence apparatus, as better than no deal at all, for it significantly delayed the prospect of a nuclear war in the Middle East and could possibly strengthen the so-called moderates within Iran. It also bought time.

Finally, even if the U.S. re-enters the deal, the U.S. will insist on Iran returning to full compliance, re-opening the issue of limits on Iranian missile capability and discussing Iranian adventurism in Iraq and Syria. Other countries have side issues to negotiate as well. For example, Canada has severely criticized the Iranian inquiry into the downing of Ukrainian International Flight PS752 that claimed 176 lives, including many citizens or permanent residents of Canada.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards admitted that they accidentally shot down the plane shortly after takeoff; given the very high tensions with the United States, they had mistaken it for a missile. Former minister of public safety Ralph Goodale, who represents victims’ families, insisted that “many of the key details of this horrific event” remain unknown.” Given the other issues of grave concern, the death of 176 civilians may seem to be a minor side note. But Iran’s failure to provide full cooperation into the enquiry and in its compensation for the victims certainly does not earn Iran friends.

Part II: Israel and America versus Iran

Iranian policy, not the relationship with the Palestinians, will be the most sensitive and the most important foreign policy area in the relations of the United States to Israel, though the issue will rank below domestic issues – the distribution of vaccines to counter COVID-19, economic recovery, countering racism and the deep political divide in America. However, there is a consensus that Iran and its nuclear developments are the prime foreign policy challenge. Further, Iran per se may even be the most important foreign policy issue on the Biden agenda given the critical importance of both Israel and the Middle East to American national interests.

It is certainly the most important foreign policy issue for both Israel and the Gulf States. Though denied by Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, on 22 November, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel recently met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in secret in Neom, just across from Sharm El Sheikh in the south-east corner of the Sinai. Mossad Director Yossi Cohen and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also attended. Both states are committed to denying Iran or pro-Iranian groups a foothold in Syria. As Netanyahu said, “We continue to oppose attempts by Iran and pro-Iranian armed groups to establish a military base in Syria. We will not compromise on this issue, just as we will not compromise with our enemies’ attempts to build precision missiles in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere.”

Washington has supported Israel’s air campaign against the Iranian presence in Syria which, according to American diplomats, have inflicted “devastating losses” on Iran’s conventional military capability and its supply lines to Syria, thereby severely limiting Iran’s regional military expansion.  

Both Israel and Saudi Arabia offer each other additional military might that can be deployed against their mutual enemies. Israel gains geographic proximity to Iran. Saudi Arabia now has a regional nuclear power at its back when confronting an enemy, Iran is very close to becoming a nuclear power. The Saudis also gain additional access to Israel’s formidable intelligence capabilities. Finally, both states reinforce one another and provide additional access routes in dealing with the US, a country critical to the security of both states.

Four issues were discussed at the Neom meeting: 1) Israeli participation in the planned futuristic mega-city of Neom, 33x the size of New York City (for which the Saudi government has already committed an initial $500 billion towards it development; Edelman, no relation, has the contract for public relations); Neom is to be built based on smart city technologies and, as well, to act as a tourist destination since it will be exempt from the strictures of Muslim law; 2) normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia; 3) most importantly, the mutual interest in restraining both the Iranian nuclear program and the spread of Iranian forces and military equipment into Syria as well as Lebanon, and 4) the potential re-entry of the United States into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) from which Donald Trump withdrew in November 2018 not long after he became president in 2017.

Locating the meeting in Neom was itself symbolic, not only because of its location just south of Eilat and the southern border of Jordan and because Neom will have a bridge across the Gulf of Aqaba to Egypt, not only because of the emphasis on high tech and tourism, but because of the biblical role of Neom – called Midian in the Tanach. For in addition to being planned as an energy sustainable city, it is being constructed to recall the historical and cultural heritage of both Jews and Arabs.

MBS (Mohammed bin Salman) has already declared that Israel has a right to exist in its historic land and that Israel has become a key partner in resisting Iranian expansion into Arab states, but also that Neom is a link between the Arab and the Jewish culture historically. Mount Sinai/Horeb, as some claim, may have actually been located on the Saudi side of the Gulf of Aqaba since that is where there was a very high active volcano in the biblical period – Jabal al-Lawz. (Exodus 19:16-19) Further, Moses learned from Jethro, his father-in-law, a Midian priest, how to set up the rule of law for the ancient Hebrews using trial judges. It was Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter and Moses’ wife, who circumcised their son.

Iran as the central focus of American, Saudi and Israeli foreign policy is made certain because of the practices and policies of Khamenei’s Iran. First and foremost, the main goals of the regime are to ensure its survival as a theologically-based state which represses women and resists cultural modernity, and, secondly, the preservation of its revolutionary thrust (Trotsky’s permanent revolution) in which both Israel as the cancer on the body politic of the Middle East and America as the Great Satan, are both kept at bay.

The battle between Iran and the West is not just a fight between states or even between two ideologies. It is more than that. It is truly a clash of civilizations. According to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, on 23 November 2020 at a meeting of the Supreme Council of Economic Co-ordination, Western civilization is “savage” and “dark”. Netanyahu reciprocates the sentiment. “We are faced with an evil empire, it’s called Iran.” “Iran is all of our enemy — Israel’s, the Arab world’s, and civilization’s.” Iran not only seeks regional dominance, it seeks civilizational predominance.

How? According to Netanyahu, by seeking the extinction of Israel which is the immediate first step in eventually confronting satanic America. But according to the Iranians, by the policy of “neither war nor peace,” by, on the one hand, resisting engagement if and when it leads to Iranian cultural and religious transformation, and, on the other hand, avoiding open conflict that might lead to the regime being crushed. Hence, the strong resistance to human rights protections, Western democratic practices and, especially, American cinematic and musical culture. Hence, the determination to erase the Israeli presence, which Iran identifies as the forward thrust of American imperialism into the Middle East.

How does Iran avoid war while pursuing its extreme anti-Israel existential threat and expanding its power in the Middle East? Engage with America, even put its nuclear program in deep freeze as long as its revolutionary expansion can continue on the ground, an effort greatly enhanced by Obama lifting sanctions, particularly with respect to both fossil fuels and banking. This entails broadening the gaps between Washington and both Jerusalem and Riyadh.

Whatever one thinks of Trump, and I trust not much, the Iranian thrust in this direction was set back severely when the Americans withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), increased sanctions against Iran and grew closer to both Israel and Saudi Arabia. Even at the very end of the Trump regime, Elliott Abrams, a top US envoy to Iran, upped the leverage game and announced that new sanctions would be imposed relating to “arms, weapons of mass destruction and human rights.” Trump was intent on using the various sanctions and pressures on Iran to undermine President-elect Joe Biden’s objective of re-engaging Iran on its nuclear program.

The most serious American intervention has been the sanctions by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) against sixteen Iranian banks, in addition to an Iranian-owned and an Iranian military-affiliated bank, for supporting terrorism. (Note, most of these sanctions would continue because they were imposed in response to human rights abuses not for breaches in the nuclear deal.) Those sanctions apply to:

  1. All property and interests in property of designated targets that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons
  2. Financial institutions and other persons that engage in certain transactions or activities with the sanctioned entities after a 45-day wind-down period; secondary sanctions or enforcement action may follow
  3. Sanctions do not target individual Iranian citizens nor humanitarian transactions.

At the end of November, two years after Trump withdrew from the agreement, Iran launched a complaint with the International Court of Justice against the US sanctions for being imposed on its medical and health care sectors that Iran claims has crippled its efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and obtain the support systems and medical supplies it needs. This took place at a time when Iran’s Deputy Health Minister Reza Malekzadeh resigned after accusing his boss, Saeed Namaki, of gross mismanagement. Thus, although Iran’s death rate is the eighth highest per capita in the world (over 45,000 have died to date), it is not clear the degree to which internal mismanagement versus external sanctions affected the terrible record in handling the disease. After all, it is generally agreed that Donald Trump’s mismanagement and irresponsibility were the almost exclusive causes of America’s horrific record, so there is no need to include an external actor in the blame game.

Trump’s Executive Order 13902 authorized the imposition of sanctions if Iran continues its support of an expanded nuclear program, missile development, terrorism, terrorist proxy networks and malign regional influence. It will be difficult for Biden to cancel this EO without running into a storm of criticism for aiding and abetting Iranian military adventurism and expanding its nuclear program. At the same time, given the American record from the pandemic, there is unlikely to be much sympathy for Iran’s claims about humanitarian sanctions since the US claims that these were strictly restricted to the major banks and a limited list of designated actors.

Subsequently, Trump sold 50 F-35s and 18 Reaper drones to the UAE while, at the same time, it compensated Israel to ensure it could preserve its military edge. Why would Iran reduce its conventional capabilities when Israel and the Gulf States are increasing their strategic strength? Recently, Alon Ushpiz, director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, and Omar Ghobash, the UAE’s assistant minister for culture and public diplomacy, stressed the mutual interests of both countries in limiting Iran’s ambitions in the Middle East.

Iran, though it has avoided a massive air attack on its nuclear facilities by either America or Israel or both, has been attacked by Israel, as in the (Israeli?) assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and the cyber-attack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment and high-speed centrifuge production plant at Nantanz.

The explosions at Nantanz, 300 km south of Tehran, had already disrupted Iran’s assembly of advanced IR-2m centrifuges. With the US initiating the withdrawal from JCPOA and imposition of greater sanctions unilaterally, Iran was able to expand its oil sales to China, which helped Iran circumvent sanctions. Currently, Huawei’s finance chief, Meng Wanzhou, has been held in house arrest by the Canadian government in response to an American extradition request so that she can be tried for Huawei’s assistance to Iran in getting around the American sanctions regime. (Evidently, negotiations are currently underway for her to plead guilty for some of the charges and go free for time served in house arrest.)

Iran would need the assistance of Europe to ease the international banking and trade restrictions. Thus, although Iran suffered greatly from increased American sanctions, it was also enabled to both pursue its nuclear program and expand its trade. At the same time, following the assassination of Iran’s leading nuclear scientist, General Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, on 27 November (note, Iran did not charge the U.S. with responsibility for the attack), on 1 December the Iranian parliament approved a bill suspending UN inspections of its nuclear facilities and boosted its uranium enrichment to 20% if the 2015 Iran deal partners do not provide relief from oil and banking sanctions by the end of January 2021, giving Joe Biden almost no time to re-enter the agreement. Hence, President Hassan Rouhani opposed the bill for undermining Iranian diplomatic efforts to get the U.S. to restore the pre-May 2018 status of the nuclear deal with no preconditions. At the same time, Iran has taken advantage of every pause in its nuclear program to advance it whenever the nuclear deal falters.

One side effect of the Israel-Iran nuclear imbroglio has been to push Turkey and Israel closer together, initiated by Turkey’s head of intelligence, Hakan Fidan., and following the normalization of Israel with the Gulf states. The move was also propelled by Turkey’s military overstretch and its precarious economy. Ending a two-year drought, Erdogan appointed a supporter, Ufuk Ulutas, as ambassador to Israel. He studied Hebrew and Middle Eastern politics at Hebrew University. After all, in spite of Erdogan’s support for Hamas and the PA, Erdogan would like to divide Israel and Greece and Israel offers a re-entry point to the U.S. with the Biden election and Trump’s romance with authoritarian leaders at an end. The two countries also have a number of common interests – constructing a gas pipeline to Europe via Turkey, sorting out their respective positions in the Caucasus, especially Azerbaijan (Israel supplied Baku with Heron surveillance and Harop kamikaze drones, cluster munitions, rockets, Barak-8 air defense systems, LORA high-precision long-range ballistic missiles, and command and control systems), intelligence sharing, stability in Syria and limiting both Iran’s influence there as well as its nuclear program.

We are at the beginning of a dramatic realignment of politics in the Middle East. This involves far more countries and far more issues than the Iranian nuclear deal. On the other hand, the Iranian nuclear deal is at the centre of that realignment.

Part I: A Geo-Political Frame for Iran

Europe, the U.S., Israel/Palestine and the Gulf States

This blog is truly a synthesis of much reading and of two excellent webinars I listened to just before Christmas. One featured Anders Persson, a political scientist from Linnaeus University in Sweden who is an expert on the relationship of the EU to the Middle East. (He just published The EU and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict 1971-2013: In Pursuit of a Just Peace.). The other, Hussein Ibish, is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

Though a more thorough analysis would include Turkey and Russia and even China, I could not reproduce the diagram of the geo-political frame that I want to discuss which connected the following by arrows:


                   EU                                                                             Israel


                   U.S.                                                                      Gulf States

I will primarily focus on the EU and weave the others in from that angle. The EU, which excludes Norway, is an economic giant with a GDP as large as that of the U.S., fifty times larger than Israel’s and 1000 times the size of Palestine’s. However, it is a political and military pygmy and a lightweight when it comes to diplomacy. The EU designates itself and is recognized as a “normative power” which relies primarily on “soft power” largely hinged on a reference to human rights and international law, a celebration of diversity and women’s rights, with a focus more on preventing rather than ending conflict. It diffuses those norms by example, through contagion, education, procedural diffusion and direct transfer via conditional clauses in its agreements with various countries.

Though power is the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes, ‘soft power’ is the ability to reach this effect through mutual cooperation rather than forceful coercion primarily because of the attractiveness of a nation’s political and economic model. Its diplomatic infrastructure is employed to peacefully cooperate with rival nations in order to build or maintain national interests and universal values.

Except for this relatively narrow concern, the EU has largely been out of the picture when it comes to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Further, both polities have diverted more from these norms, the Palestinians much more than the Israelis, but Palestine was never designated as the only real democracy in the Middle East. Neither were Egypt and Jordan and, to the degree their regimes were democratic, that democracy declined in the aftermath of the peace agreements they signed with Israel. Peace does not ensure rights and the progress of democracy. In the case of Israel, there has also been an increasing democratic deficit with the occupation following the Six Day War.

A small part of the explanation is the failure of the EU to use its leverage. But perhaps a more important part is that the EU is no longer as strong an exemplar itself as it used to be. Member countries, led by Viktor Orban of Hungary and President Andrzej Duda of Poland, seem to deviate from those norms with impunity. Domestically, there has also been a rise in the Right domestically in various European states. Finally, there are external inhibitions. The EU does not want to be complicit in the horrors of further state implosions as witnessed in Libya, Syria and Yemen. After all, the EU was a strong supporter of Arab Spring and of the resumption of elections in Palestine which led to the Hamas takeover and the resulting most authoritarian polity in the world. With one exception, Tunisia, the Arab Spring came to nothing, even less than nothing, though some observers claim a recent revival of those ideals in some Middle Eastern states.

The EU does have its historical role defined, beginning in 1973 with its declaration legitimizing Palestinian rights and recognizing Palestinians as a people with a need to have a homeland and to exercise their right of self-determination. In 1999, the EU recognized Palestine as a state in the Berlin Declaration. It has continually poured considerable aid money into Palestine, supporting the Palestinian Authority’s (PA’s) development, most recently through the 2007 Palestinian Reform and Development Plan (PROP). In 2013, the EU passed a directive that excluded Israeli settlements in the West Bank from any European-Israeli agreements. Thus, the EU has been a consistent supporter of the two-state solution and has defined settlements, not as merely inappropriate or even illegitimate as President Obama had done, but as illegal according to international law. This is a position with which all countries, but the U.S. and Israel, have adopted. But it is not a position which has helped move the conflict closer to resolution.

However, the EU banned contact between its member states and Hamas in 2007 when it took over Gaza and in 2013 classified Hamas as a terrorist organization, thus removing any leverage it might have had over Gaza and the efforts to reunite it with the West Bank. On the other hand, the EU has been a mainstay of the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, but the EU has been unable to prevent Iran’s moves away from the provisions after the U.S. withdrew from the accords. Last week, EU foreign ministers agreed not to set preconditions on a revival of the Iran nuclear deal in the conviction that Iran will return to compliance when the US under Joe Biden lifts its sanctions and rejoins the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany and the EU as signatories to the agreement.

Setting fresh conditions would thus await the US rejoining the agreement. This is the position Biden himself had taken and signalled to the EU with which he intends to restore their previous cooperative practices. This was a sign that under the new American administration in 2021, the EU and American positions would be more congruent in contrast to the wild ride during the unpredictable Trump presidency. The Biden administration is sure to embrace the Abraham Accords and the formal reconciliation of both the UAE and Bahrain with Israel as well as the lady-in-waiting self-defined role of Saudi Arabia. However, though the EU applauded the agreements, it was not solidly behind them as it also sympathized with the Palestinian sense of betrayal and its bitterness at the loss of leverage over Israel.

One paradox is revealing. In spite of the ambivalence of the EU, BDS has almost no presence in Europe. It is most active in America, Israel’s strongest supporter under both Republicans and Democrats, though none went nearly as far as Donald Trump in supporting Israel. Similarly, though the debate over IHRA, the definition of antisemitism, has caught fire in Britain, the definition is widely accepted in the rest of Europe without significant further debate – another paradox confounding the ability of the EU to forge a coherent and effective policy towards the peace process.

The internal incongruence in the EU mindset is the biggest crippler preventing the EU from becoming a more important facilitator for peace in the Middle East. And the resort to lawfare only alienates Israel from permitting the EU to play a bigger role. One has the impression that Israel would welcome Putin more than the EU, especially since Putin has recently offered to play a more active part in mediation. Yet it was the EU that was behind the new definition of antisemitism that the supporters of Palestine so deeply resent, both because of its potential and actual weaponization and because they refuse to face the fact that a new form of antisemitism may be at the core of those who have defined Zionism and Israel as an apartheid racist colonizing regime.

This past year, Blue and White MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh, the daughter of Irwin Cotler, a former Minister of Justice in Canada, was the keynote speaker at the Israel Allies Foundation (IAF) and European Christian Political Movement (ECPM) online conference titled “Peace for Peace: The Implications of the Abraham Accords” which was a continuity and expansion of the annual EU conference on EU policy related to Israel.  The EU formally greeted the Accords as an exciting diplomatic opening to enhance collaboration and peace in the Middle East with the EU offering to play the role of a conciliator and facilitator. But, as MEP Russen, Chair of the EU Parliamentary Israel Allies Caucus, noted, this would entail the EU adopting a more even-handed approach to Israel that was much less critical of the Jewish state.

As MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh stated in her keynote address and in many other fora, “The Abraham Accords signify a potential paradigm shift taking place, as seen in the monumental pivot away from the three no’s of the 1967 Khartoum conference and towards the 3 yeses – yes to recognition, yes to negotiation, and yes to peace.” This is the new mantra, one that endorses the end run around the Palestinians while giving them an opportunity to climb aboard or be left with another hundred years of struggle.

Putting it in a broader geo-political context, Israeli CEO Brigadier General (Res) Amir Aviv noted that, “A new Israeli-Sunni coalition is emerging in the Middle East, amidst the growing existential threats and the projected change in the US Policy in the Middle East. This coalition’s objective is to encourage the superpowers to align with it and oppose the Iranian-Shiite coalition from one side, and the Turkish-Sunni extreme coalition from the other.” 

At the same time, foreign policy issues between America and the EU that pre-dated Trump will continue with the Joe Biden administration:

  • The domestic discord within the U.S. over the Paris Climate Accord that culminated in Trump’s withdrawal
  • The debates over the Iran nuclear deal that culminated in Trump’s withdrawal
  • The fights between the disproportionate contributions of the U.S. to NATO
  • American criticism of EU cooperation with China on technology and infrastructure cooperation.

These were all exacerbated by Trump’s unilateral moves and its oscillating policies.

In the meanwhile, the U.S. and Israel have forged the strongest political, military, economic and diplomatic alliance in the world, one that predated Trump and will persist after him, though without the explosive moves out of the coffin in which the peace-keeping process and the two-state solution had been kept awaiting burial. The problem, as everyone recognizes, is the extreme asymmetry between Israel and Palestine. The former is the strongest military and economic power in the region and the best institutionalized democracy as well, even though there has been slippage in recent years.

On the other hand, Palestine, economically, politically and militarily, is an ant compared to the elephant, Israel. It has also been diplomatically weak. Abbas has been frozen and unable to take the risks required of a statesman. The Palestinians failed to foresee Israel’s diplomatic breakthrough in the Gulf and then, when it happened, its response was not a result of rational calculation but of bitterness, rage and a sense of deep betrayal. However, in spite of all these weaknesses, Palestine remains an albatross around the neck of Israel. The Palestinians dedicated to “steadfastness” are not going anywhere. As the COVID-19 virus demonstrated, very tiny things can cause enormous disruption.

However, the Palestinians, so absorbed with their own sense of loss and disillusion with their leadership, failed to take into consideration the national interests of the Gulf states, particularly in confronting the expansion of Iran militarily and diplomatically. This was of a piece with past major errors, as when the Palestinians sided with Saddam Hussein in the attempted seizure of Kuwait. The diplomatic end run did undermine the entire Palestinian strategy, but, in the end, could possibly strengthen it if Palestinians cease outsourcing the resolution of their problems to other states and international bodies. They have to develop their own strategy and tactics that do not rely on international actors who can only play a role in shaming Israel but none in substantively advancing the Palestinian cause. For that to take place, Palestine will have to make public the concessions it has already made in talks with Israel, such as the compromises on the right of refugee return that I personally witnessed.

How can they? Would the leadership not risk being flayed alive for compromising and betraying the Palestinian cause? Especially if there is no comprehensive agreement! Each day that passes may strengthen their moral position but weaken their economic and security position as Palestine becomes more and more dependent on Israel, its sworn enemy. Admittedly, the concessions the Palestinians have advanced thus far in the recognition of Israel have not been met by Israel that has thus far only recognized Palestinians as negotiating, administrative and, in part, security partners.

Abbas has since backed off the strident opposition to the Abraham Accords and has agreed to peace negotiations resuming without preconditions. This may appear promising, but I am doubtful. Like very many Palestinians, I do not believe he has the leadership qualities to take strong and perhaps highly risky initiatives in the effort to advance the cause of peace. But he is 85 and soon will be replaced. Then, who knows, especially since Netanyahu is also probably near the end of his tether, something we will have after a better idea of after the March Israeli elections. If only Palestinian leaders could, to their own advantage, use their dependence on Israel collecting their tariffs, the main source of revenues for the government, and assisting in the security of the PA to prevent Hamas from taking over in the West Bank.

Hope is a poor substitute for strategy and policy. The pillars above may offer a stronger foundation for a peace agreement.

In the next decade, we will witness the last chance for a born-again two-state solution. As each year passes the prospective size of an independent Palestinian state shrinks. If the Palestinians are to succeed, they must forge allies within Israel. Initially, Biden will be too preoccupied with other matters, including Iran, to be of much help. Ironically, I suspect that a peace agreement will be based on a modification of the Kushner plan without all the concessions for Israeli islets in the midst of Palestinian territory, but with the main Israeli population centres in Area C traded to Israel for land elsewhere.

It is really not that difficult to envision how the pieces will fit together. It is very difficult to forge the means to accomplish resolving the puzzle of two peoples each insisting justifiably on self-determination, but on the same land with a need to divide that land in recognition not only of rights but also of realities. But not only rights and realities. Responsibility and sensibility are required as well. The only other choice is a festering cancer that will be to the detriment of both peoples.

To Follow:

Part II: Israel and America versus Iran

Part III: The Collapse of the Iran Deal

Part IV: Revising the Iran Deal

BDS Revisited

I received a number of responses to my antisemitic series of blogs. Thank you for your contributions. One reply supplied an interesting take on BDS that I had not considered heretofore. It follows for your enlightenment.

Hi Howard.  This may surprise you but I have no objection at all to the proponents of BDS on Israel.  In effect I would like to see those people really go out and boycott, divest from and sanction Israel in a realistic manner.  That is, those BDS proponents, most of whom live outside Israel, should do without any product or service from Israel.  That means of course, they must all give up their cell phones and computers, eliminate much of the software they use on the internet, and avoid many medical products.  The reason of course is that there are a whole host of products and services that we take for granted that all came from Israel.  If you are going to be true to your cause, then, be true to your cause and be honest with yourself.

The best example of this occurred two years ago when the Israeli government blew a great chance to expose one of the leading American BDS advocates.  Rashaida Tlaib, the congresswoman from Michigan, wanted to go to Israel to visit her grandmother who lives in the occupied territories.  The Israeli government first refused her a visa but then allowed Tlaib to come but with many restrictions placed on her.  She declined this invitation.  The mistake was that the Israelis should have welcomed her with open arms.  Why?  Because Tlaib’s website was built using web software technology from Wix, a leading Israeli hi-tech company.  Wix should have invited her to their offices (in a beautiful location right near the old port area of Tel Aviv) and treated her as a valued customer.  This would go a long way to exposing the hypocrisy of what the BDS movement is all about.  It is one thing to boycott Jaffa oranges (try to find them these days in the supermarket anyway).  But now the high standard of living we have and enjoy depends on much of what Israel is able to develop and produce.

In a related instance, I remember reading a list from a BDS group identifying local Israeli companies (including big ones such as Tadiran, Bezek, Delek, Rami Levi) that people should avoid and boycott their products and services.  The reason was that they have operations in the Palestinian territories.  Well that was a good idea but it would have prevented local Palestinians themselves from buying or using many products and services that they require for day to day living.  The moral of this story for BDS proponents is to beware of what you wish for as you may get your wish and suffer the consequences.

Howard Mednick

One Root of a Trope of Antisemitism – Jews Control the World

Cows in the Land of Egypt: Genesis Vayigash 44:18 – 47:27

Was Joseph a tzaddick, a righteous and upright man and a light unto the nations? Or was he a great administrator, but also a wily and power-hungry individual, perhaps even a diabolical figure who turned Egyptian independent farmers into serfs obligated to give a fixed percentage of their gross income to a centralized government under the thumb of Pharaoh?

This week’s portion ends as follows:

כ  וַיִּקֶן יוֹסֵף אֶת-כָּל-אַדְמַת מִצְרַיִם, לְפַרְעֹה, כִּי-מָכְרוּ מִצְרַיִם אִישׁ שָׂדֵהוּ, כִּי-חָזַק עֲלֵהֶם הָרָעָב; וַתְּהִי הָאָרֶץ, לְפַרְעֹה.20 So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh; for the Egyptians sold every man his field, because the famine was sore upon them; and the land became Pharaoh’s.
כא  וְאֶת-הָעָם–הֶעֱבִיר אֹתוֹ, לֶעָרִים:  מִקְצֵה גְבוּל-מִצְרַיִם, וְעַד-קָצֵהוּ.21 And as for the people, he removed them city by city, from one end of the border of Egypt even to the other end thereof.
כב  רַק אַדְמַת הַכֹּהֲנִים, לֹא קָנָה:  כִּי חֹק לַכֹּהֲנִים מֵאֵת פַּרְעֹה, וְאָכְלוּ אֶת-חֻקָּם אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָהֶם פַּרְעֹה–עַל-כֵּן, לֹא מָכְרוּ אֶת-אַדְמָתָם.22 Only the land of the priests bought he not, for the priests had a portion from Pharaoh, and did eat their portion which Pharaoh gave them; wherefore they sold not their land.
כג  וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל-הָעָם, הֵן קָנִיתִי אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם וְאֶת-אַדְמַתְכֶם לְפַרְעֹה; הֵא-לָכֶם זֶרַע, וּזְרַעְתֶּם אֶת-הָאֲדָמָה.23 Then Joseph said unto the people: ‘Behold, I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh. Lo, here is seed for you, and ye shall sow the land.
כד  וְהָיָה, בַּתְּבוּאֹת, וּנְתַתֶּם חֲמִישִׁית, לְפַרְעֹה; וְאַרְבַּע הַיָּדֹת יִהְיֶה לָכֶם לְזֶרַע הַשָּׂדֶה וּלְאָכְלְכֶם, וְלַאֲשֶׁר בְּבָתֵּיכֶם–וְלֶאֱכֹל לְטַפְּכֶם.24 And it shall come to pass at the ingatherings, that ye shall give a fifth unto Pharaoh, and four parts shall be your own, for seed of the field, and for your food, and for them of your households, and for food for your little ones.’

Note the following:

  • During the famine years, using the grain in storage, it was Joseph who bought the land of the peasants for the king.
  • It was Joseph who forcefully displaced the population.
  • Pharaoh continued to give the priests their portions during the famine and did not take their land.
  • After turning peasants into serfs and bondsmen, Joseph sold them the seed they needed.
  • One-fifth of the gross income from growing grain went to Pharaoh; four parts were left for sustenance, and none for independent sales.  

In the meanwhile, the children and offspring of the tribes of Israel were granted land reputedly with the richest soil in Egypt, Goshen, east of the Bubastic branch of the Nile River, where they lived in a ghetto for “the shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptian.” (46:34) They could grow grain themselves on which they did not pay taxes or tribute; they could raise cattle. They became fruitful and multiplied.

כז  וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, בְּאֶרֶץ גֹּשֶׁן; וַיֵּאָחֲזוּ בָהּ, וַיִּפְרוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ מְאֹד.27 And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen; and they got them possessions therein, and were fruitful, and multiplied exceedingly.

Joseph does not appear to be a tzaddic. He is certainly a superb administrator, decentralizing the management, storage and distribution of the country’s grain while accumulating wealth and power at the centre. He was a clever politician in making sure that he did not threaten the position of an alternative power centre, that of the priests. While serving the centre of that power, he managed to ensure the wealth of his own people. Let me link this in relationship to two other puzzles that arose in last week’s Torah study. The first is the part of Pharaoh’s dream that Joseph did not interpret. Pharaoh dreams of thin cows eating fat cows.

א  וַיְהִי, מִקֵּץ שְׁנָתַיִם יָמִים; וּפַרְעֹה חֹלֵם, וְהִנֵּה עֹמֵד עַל-הַיְאֹר.1 And it came to pass at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh dreamed: and, behold, he stood by the river.
ב  וְהִנֵּה מִן-הַיְאֹר, עֹלֹת שֶׁבַע פָּרוֹת, יְפוֹת מַרְאֶה, וּבְרִיאֹת בָּשָׂר; וַתִּרְעֶינָה, בָּאָחוּ.2 And, behold, there came up out of the river seven kine, well-favoured and fat-fleshed; and they fed in the reed-grass.
ג  וְהִנֵּה שֶׁבַע פָּרוֹת אֲחֵרוֹת, עֹלוֹת אַחֲרֵיהֶן מִן-הַיְאֹר, רָעוֹת מַרְאֶה, וְדַקּוֹת בָּשָׂר; וַתַּעֲמֹדְנָה אֵצֶל הַפָּרוֹת, עַל-שְׂפַת הַיְאֹר.3 And, behold, seven other kine came up after them out of the river, ill favoured and lean-fleshed; and stood by the other kine upon the brink of the river.
ד  וַתֹּאכַלְנָה הַפָּרוֹת, רָעוֹת הַמַּרְאֶה וְדַקֹּת הַבָּשָׂר, אֵת שֶׁבַע הַפָּרוֹת, יְפֹת הַמַּרְאֶה וְהַבְּרִיאֹת; וַיִּיקַץ, פַּרְעֹה.4 And the ill-favoured and lean-fleshed kine did eat up the seven well-favoured and fat kine. So Pharaoh awoke.

Is this not puzzling? Cows are herbivores. They do not eat animals. Egyptians were agricultural farmers and did not generally practice animal husbandry. Egypt was not known for its cattle raising but for growing grain on the farms that straddled the Nile River. Egypt was the granary of the Middle East. Thus, though the other dream of seven thin sheaves consuming seven fat sheaves makes sense in terms of famine following years of plenty, meat cannot be stored for years. Further, Egyptians considered shepherds who did so as an “abomination.”

Who are the thin cows that eat the fat cows in Pharaoh’s dream? Who were the scrawny, ill-formed and emaciated thin cows who ate the sturdy and well-formed ones? Further, and very significantly, after eating the fat cows, the thin cows remained as thin as ever so “one could not tell that they had consumed them.” What they did remained hidden.

A second puzzle. When Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream for him and went even further and, unasked and presumptively, proffered advice on how Pharaoh should handle the problem his dream anticipated, Pharaoh not only appointed Joseph as his vizier, effectively his Prime Minister or Viceroy, he also gave him a new name. Normally, to signify great change in an individual and a role he will play in history, an individual obtains a new name. Abram became Abraham. Jacob became Israel. But Pharaoh renames Joseph and substitutes an Egyptian name for his Hebrew one. And Pharaoh called Joseph Zaphnathpaaneah. (41:45) Pharaoh followed that act by marrying Joseph off to Asenath, the daughter of a high priest.

Zaphnathpaaneah means “food for the living” and also, “God speaks and He lives.” In one meaning, Joseph is given credit for being the provider of food for the Egyptians. In the other, Joseph’s God, the God of the Hebrews, is credited with speaking to Joseph so that he could interpret the dream. This was also a proof-text that the Hebrew God, an invisible God, spoke and lived and was very powerful. Yet Joseph effectively and in all cultural practices became an Egyptian. He shaved. He dressed like an Egyptian. He spoke Egyptian. (Moses would go in the reverse direction.)

Joseph rises from a dreamy but very self-assured and even haughty Hebrew teenaged shepherd to be transformed into an all-powerful Egyptian with a signet ring and wealth and a person who could shave, curl his hair and preen in front of a mirror. He had come a very long way, far beyond his father’s favourite dressed in his multi-coloured coat; he had become the Pharaoh’s favourite wearing the robes of the royal court.

Further, though he had forgotten about his family for more than seven years, he eventually brought his only family in an exercise in nepotism and resettled these Hebrew shepherds as farmers. His oldest son, born of the daughter of an Egyptian priest, is given an Egyptian name that means he will be a reminder to Joseph that he has left his past behind. He has not left his God behind, but certainly his past. Further, he had exercised his power to save his extended family so that they too took up their lives as Egyptian farmers rather than shepherds. But the thin would consume the fat ones. Ephraim was the fat one, the sign of munificence and wealth. The land and culture of abundance and wealth consumed the lives and culture of these shepherds.

This is the exact opposite of God’s promise to make them prosperous in their own land. Further, it took place at the expense of the Egyptian farmers. They went from freeholders of their own land to serfs. The Pharaoh via Joseph expropriated their land. Further, they were forcefully displaced and then settled on new land that they farmed giving 20% of their gross income to the Pharaoh. That appeared more generous than taking 50% of the profits, but was it? Over the years, 20% of gross would exceed 50% of profits and did not allow for much cheating.

Then there are the literary clues. Look at the last verse of Pharaoh’s dream:

 וַתֹּאכַלְנָה הַפָּרוֹת, רָעוֹת הַמַּרְאֶה וְדַקֹּת הַבָּשָׂר, אֵת שֶׁבַע הַפָּרוֹת, יְפֹת הַמַּרְאֶה וְהַבְּרִיאֹת; וַיִּיקַץ, פַּרְעֹה.

The Tanach often plays with words with similar spelling and pronunciations even when they have different roots. That is the case withפָּרוֹת  (cows) and with פַּרְעֹה (pharaoh)  Is there an implication that Pharaoh is the fat cow, that the Egyptians as a collectivity are the fat cows? פרה as a verb also has two meanings as in פּוֹרֶה, to be fruitful and multiply, suggesting the fat cows again. However, when they are in Egypt, the Hebrews, who are an abomination anyway to the Egyptians because they practice animal husbandry, first as shepherds and then as settled farmers, were promised that they would be prolific. But the longer they stayed in Egypt, the more penurious they became as they too in almost poetic justice were reduced to actual slaves and not just serfs.

Pharaoh also is a stand in for the means of retribution. Joseph cut his hair and shaved before he first went to see Pharaoh to interpret his dream. Cutting your hair, letting your hair down, has always been associated with dissipation as in the story of the golden calf or the tale of Sampson. The word, lifrot, is also used in reference to the hardening of the heart of Pharaoh. The dream certainly terrified Pharaoh. And the most frightening image was of the thin cows eating the fat cows but remaining thin.

Jacob did not understand or interpret that part of the two dreams. For in that dream, the Hebrews are the thin cows. The Egyptians are the fat cows. The Hebrews are viewed as responsible for eating up and living off the fat of the Egyptian land. But they never get fat themselves and subsequently they move from a well-off protectorate people of the Pharaoh to slaves. That way, their role and responsibility for the transformation of Egypt remains hidden. They consume the fat cows but remain skinny. It is this dream that is the most prophetic for it will not just be about the next fourteen years but about the next four hundred. It is also this dream that adumbrates the main trope of antisemitism.

Recall that the Israelites will only be redeemed when they live in the holy land, when they live in the Land of Israel. The Hebrews, as in Jacob’s dream of the ladder, both ascended in Egypt and then descended. God had advised. Do not be afraid of descending just because you will eventually also fall. For, God promises, I will always be with you. Even as Joseph becomes an assimilationist, God is with him in his ascent and does not abandon the Israelites on their descent.

Contemporary Antisemitic Controversies

It is one thing to come to an understanding of the conflict over the definition and use of antisemitism in an intellectual debate – with serious political consequences on the ground. It is quite another to comprehend and explicate a very specific case of use and misuse of the term to better grasp the issue. I also suggested that those who used racism to mean any example of structural and systemic inequality may also misuse the term “racism.” However, those who promoted that use were not as sensitive to how that term could be misused. Thus, though only glancing attention was paid to the use and misuse of racism, those who defined antisemitism using the IHRA definition appeared more sensitive to its potential misuse and mischaracterization of legitimate criticism of Israel as antisemitic. At the same time, both terms – antisemitism and racism – continue to be used to demonize one’s enemies rather than to represent accurately discriminatory and degrading events.

Fortunately – or more precisely, unfortunately – we have a concrete opportunity in Georgia for a case study. Early voting has begun in the runoff election for Georgia’s two Senate seats. The results have national significance for they will determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the legislature’s upper house. There are two battles. In one, a Jewish candidate, Jon Ossoff, a Democrat, is facing off against incumbent Senator David Perdue. In the other contest, Republican Kelly Loeffler is pitted against the Democrat Raphael Warnock, a Black senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, a position once held by Martin Luther King Jr. The vote is scheduled for 5 January 2021. I will concentrate primarily on the latter struggle.

Racism, antisemitism and BDS have figured prominently in the election runoff. Warnock has been a prominent leader in the anti-racism fight in Atlanta. He presided over the funeral of the prominent civil rights fighter, John Lewis, in July. He also officiated at 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks’ funeral after he was fatally killed by Atlanta police in June.

Loeffler has not only attacked Warnock for his radicalism. If elected, he would “add yet another voice to the anti-Israel cadre in Congress,” she charged. Perdue has written that, “fighting anti-Semitism in all forms and at all levels” has been his priority. He also claimed that the BDS movement “has served as a catalyst to the rising frequency of attacks against Jews.”

Jon Ossoff, an investigative journalist, has called out the Republicans for their racist and antisemitic attacks. “A US senator who uses ancient anti-Semitic imagery to inflame hatred against his Jewish opponent must be crushed by Jewish voters on Election Day.” Ossoff was referring to an attack ad by Perdue in which he enlarged Ossoff’s nose. The ad was subsequently deleted as a “mistake.” but was unaccompanied by an apology.

Warnock has been accused of:

  • Being a “radical”
  • Criticizing police officers; top Georgia law enforcement officials claim that Warnock (and Ossoff) will push to defund police and hinder officers’ ability to serve.
  • Comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa in a sermon
  • Comparing the Palestinian war on Israel’s existence to the Black Lives Matter movement
  • Denouncing the move of the American embassy to Jerusalem
  • Insisting that Jesus was a Palestinian rather than a Jew
  • Defended Hamas Gazan protesters on its border with Israel as comparable to U.S. civil rights demonstrators
  • Accused IDF soldiers of committing indiscriminate murder.

Georgia Black pastors along with other faith leaders both from Georgia and from other states, not only came to the defence of Warnock, but accused Loeffler of attacking Georgia’s Black Christian churches. In an open letter with over 100 signatures, they condemned Senator Kelly Loeffler’s campaign attacks on Warnock as full of “naked hypocrisy’ and “blatant contradictions” while Loeffler replied that she did “not have a racist bone in my body.” Loeffler responded to the Black pastors by accusing them of supporting “choice,” thus negating the possibility of their being true Baptists.

To complicate matters further, two prominent Orthodox rabbis, Rabbi Ilan Feldman from Atlanta’s Congregation Beth Jacob and Rabbi Avigdor Slatus from Congregation B’nai Brith Jacob in Savannah, criticized Warnock for his attacks on Israel when, in a 2018 sermon, he accused the Israeli military of shooting down “unarmed Palestinian sisters and brothers like birds of prey.” In his defence, Warnock said, “I don’t care who does it, it is wrong. It is wrong to shoot down God’s children like they don’t matter at all. And it’s no more anti-Semitic for me to say that than it is anti-white for me to say that black lives matter. Palestinian lives matter.” He had signed the letter that also compared the IDF military presence in the West Bank to the “military occupation of Namibia by apartheid South Africa.” The comments, Feldman added, provided “a safe haven for those that do have antisemitic views.”

Warnock repeatedly:

  • insists he is a supporter of Israel
  • supports a two-state solution and that “‘Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is incontestable”
  • “I am deeply concerned about continued settlement expansion — I believe it is a threat to the prospect of a two-state solution”
  • criticizes Israel, but did not “blast” the relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; the criticism came after the embassy move ceremony; Warnock did refer to that week as a tough one
  • rejects BDS for characterizing Israel as an apartheid state
  • in a Sunday 29 March 2015 church sermon, he did warn against Israel possibly becoming an apartheid state, but never called Israel an apartheid state
  • supported Palestinian peaceful demonstration and deplored focusing on some violence to characterize the entire Palestinian protest in Gaza as is done with Black demonstrations in the U.S.
  • referred to Palestinian sisters and brothers and supported their struggle for their human dignity and right to self-determination.

200 rabbis, including more than a dozen from Georgia, signed a letter in support of Warnock. Rabbi Josh Lesser, of Atlanta’s Congregation Bet Haverim, who has known Warnock for more than 15 years, insisted that Warnock was neither antisemitic nor anti-Israel. But had he made the allusions for which he was charged? And did they constitute being anti-Israel and antisemitic?

At the same time, his opponent, Senator Loeffler, had posed for a photo with Chester Doles, a white supremacist member of the Klu Klux Klan and the neo-Nazi National Alliance. Also, she is not only wealthy, but made a lot of money trading stock while in the Senate when she was briefed on COVID-19. After that briefing, she sold $20 million in stock in the weeks building up to the public announcements about the coronavirus pandemic. Loeffler has also refused to answer many questions headed her way that directly asked whether she supported President Trump’s claims that the presidential election had been a fraud.

So how does one adjudicate such back-and-forth name-calling?

First, Warnock is not ant-Israel let alone antisemitic. He is a supporter of Israel but also a critic who is opposed to creeping annexation. He supports Palestinian self-determination. He is critical of Israeli military forces for using disproportionate force to stop the Gaza protesters. He does clearly see a link between Black protesters and Palestinian ones, but also opposes calling Israel an apartheid state and is a critic of BDS. Though critical of the growth of West Bank settlements, he does not advocate boycotting them. His criticisms of Israel are sometimes harsh and even go beyond the criticism of the use of excessive force in stopping the Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza. After all, Israel does engage in night raids, does use force to restrict Palestinian movement, does detain Palestinians without trial. But whether just or unjust in such criticism, that criticism is not equivalent to antisemitism.

It is not just me saying that. The drafters of the definition, more particularly Ken Stern, said that.  The dilemma is that anyone who defends both Israel’s right to self-determination and the Palestinian right to self-determination, but is also critical of what are deemed to be excesses on either side, have to fight off identification with the critics of Israel and Zionism who would deny Jews the right to national self-determination. It is easier for those who insist that anti-Zionism in any form is antisemitism to sweep strong critics of Israeli behaviour as demonstrating antisemitism when, in many and if not most cases, the critics of Israel may not be antisemitic at all.

On the other hand, those who support delegitimizing Israel, those who deny the right of Jews, not as a concrete possibility in the 1920s, but as an abstract principle, currently are guilty of the new antisemitism. At the same time, although Loeffler did take a photo with a white supremacist, it is easy for anyone to get photographed with a politician. It does not mean that Loeffler endorses their views or even knew they had such views. Loeffler has, in fact, condemned white supremacy. “We condemn in the most vociferous terms everything that he [Chester Doles] stands for.”

In 2019, Doles, deeply tied to the far-right militia movement, started American Patriots USA supporting President Donald Trump. Unless you support or associate with what a supporter stands for, the best you can do is renounce the views of that supporter. That Doles is an anti-Semite does not make Loeffler an anti-Semite. In each case, there was an abuse of antisemitism as a term to hurl an epithet at one candidate or the other. Unfortunately, this is part of the rhetorical fight and of wordfare in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The problem then is why Senator Loeffler, in Deborah Lipstadt’s words, “has made common cause with people directly associated with QAnon, a right-wing conspiracy group that peddles — overtly and covertly — conspiracy theories and antisemitism? Loeffler has accepted and welcomed the endorsement of congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene who is directly associated with QAnon, an explicitly antisemitic and racist organization that claims that there is “a plan afoot to destroy white Christian culture by flooding countries in Europe and North America with black and brown people.” However, these people lack the talent, the funds and the organizational prowess to advance this white genocide. Therefore, the white supremacists contend that, “these people” are not talented enough to pull off this cultural genocide on their own. “The true culprits are those financing and directing the genocide from behind the curtain: the Jews.”

Lipstadt, who is a widely recognized and applauded expert on antisemitism and teaches at Emory University in Atlanta Georgia, wrote a piece in Tuesday’s The Forward entitled, “For those who want to fight antisemitism, the choice in Georgia is clear.” As she wrote, “Jews have found themselves in, or to express it more accurately, have been thrust into, the center of the runoff campaign between Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler and her Democratic challenger, Reverend Raphael Warnock.” Though he had certainly accused the IDF of shooting unarmed Palestinians “like birds of prey” when they stormed the fence in Gaza, which he had personally observed, he not only stood for all the positions that I stated above, but attended AIPAC meetings and even supported the $3.8 billion dollar aid package without conditions for Israel as provided for in the Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. and Israel.

Warnock never supported Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s antisemitic remarks in Chicago, but did endorse Wright’s comments on the government’s failure to protect Black Americans. Though Loeffler is also a very unlikely antisemite, she has knowingly coddled antisemites. The guards outside the synagogues in Atlanta are there to protect Jewish religious institutions against white supremacists not left-wing extreme critics of Israel who may also be antisemitic in its latest expression.

To answer Deborah Lipstadt’s question, if I could vote, I, like Deborah Lipstadt, would know who to vote for in the Georgia Senate race.

Is the Denial of the Right to Self-Determinism of the Jews Antisemitic?

The denial of the Jewish right to self-determination is the corollary of the insistence that the majority of the population in Palestine should have been able to determine its own destiny in the 1920s. The affirmation of one position is simply the converse of the other and is a political position, not an antisemitic one. At that time, the denial of the Jewish right of self-determination was not a general denial but, rather, a specific denial of a right, an insistence that it could and should not take place on what Palestinians claimed to be their current homeland. These are political fights, not issues of bigotry.

What we observe in the support for or the fight against BDS is rhetorical warfare, wordfare, the use of insulting labels to characterize the other – antisemitic in labeling BDS and apartheid and racist in labeling Israel. There would seem to be less justification for the latter than the former, though the use of epithets does little to advance dialogue.

Denying financial support for BDS may simply be the use of state power to support an ally. If the United States denied the use of state funds or tax-deductible funding to a pro-fascist organization in the 1930s, this would have been an expression of political policy and preference and not a denial of human rights or undercutting an organization demanding human rights. Instead, the conflation of human rights with the BDS program is the distortion. For even if BDS is not in large measure an antisemitic movement, it is a political movement and strategy where most of the issues have very little to do with human rights, but the Palestinians, given their increasingly weakened position over the years, have chosen to wage the political battle on human rights grounds as a strategy for gaining sympathy and supporters.

Denying support for a movement is not denying its right to exist or to profess its beliefs and convictions. It is a political act of a polity expressing where its sentiments and loyalties are located. However, labelling BDS as antisemitic or anti-Israel, or labeling Israel as a colonial settler apartheid state, are epithets to get others to join your side rather than genuine efforts to confront racism and bigotry rather than encouraging a real dialogue.

The defenders of BDS and severe critics of Israel argue that virtually all the major attacks against Jewish targets originate from the right – a conclusion with which experts on antisemitism by and large agree. After all, in just one morning’s news this past week, I read of the following:

  • 2 men sprayed a swastika and graffiti tags on a Brooklyn synagogue
  • 2 Jewish Wisconsin judges were denounced for rejecting a Trump lawsuit; Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Jill Karofsky was described and caricatured as “hooked-nosed” and her colleague Rebecca Dallet was threatened; the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi publication, called the two “an elite Jew sitting next to another Jew determining the course of our government.”
  • A North Shore Long Island Jewish day school was hacked and its name on its website changed to: North Shore Hebrew Death Camp with images of swastikas and slogans inserted like, “About the Kike Race”

But that still avoids the issue of whether leftist criticism of Israel is infused with antisemitism. Without leaping ahead to the issue of the right of Jewish self-determinism, certainly on the three webinars with leading leftists that I watched on antisemitism, not only was the question of characterizing Jewish self-determination completely ignored, so was leftist antisemitism let alone a self-examination of whether their own positions reeked of or, at the very least, advanced antisemitism.

Admittedly, to be a leftist is to stand against power and its misuse, to stand for rights and justice and equality. But when the powerful always include Israel but never include China – which persecutes the Uyghers – or Russia which occupies a space a great distance from justice, one begins to wonder. Could the attacks on the “powerful” also be a code for an attack against Jews? Why, for example, did I not hear from one scholarly expert on antisemitism or the Holocaust in all three of the leftist seminars on antisemitism? Why were all the participants very strong critics of Israel when the subject being discussed was antisemitism?

In their views, antisemitism is virtually always associated with the Right, with Charlottesville (“Jews will not replace us.”), with the attack on the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue. The majority of religiously motivated attacks in America are against Jews (54.4%) In contrast, attacks against Muslims constituted only 24.5%. Those recorded are almost always from the Right. Therefore, is it not justified that Leftists accused of antisemitism or of harbouring anti-Semites among their ranks would and should be defensive? The vast majority of the remarks in the webinars were not about antisemitism, but about the use of antisemitism to attack the defenders of the Palestinians and the severe critics of Israel. The subject of discussion was a defense of the position that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism. And it may not be. But other than offering examples where the equation is clearly wrong, unless there is a clear and thorough discussion of antisemitism itself, it will be hard to prove that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism just as their right-wing opponents assert mistakenly that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.

Why, for example, can Zionists not defend lesbianism? Why is it ok, why is it defensible, that Jews who believe in Zionism are not allowed to parade in the Chicago Dyke March? Why could those with Palestinian flags march but not Jews with a banner featuring s Star of David that was not even an Israeli flag? The litmus test of a true leftist now seems to be whether you not only oppose Israeli government policies and practices, not only oppose Zionism, not only oppose the right of Jews to self-determination, but oppose any association with the ideas and symbols of Zionism, ignoring that these beliefs and symbols were Jewish centuries before Zionism.  That alone suggests that many expressions of anti-Zionism and the right of the Jews to self-determination are antisemitic attacks. What makes you a kosher leftist for these self-righteous protectors of the cause – very often Jewish ones – is that their bona fides are tested by their support for a Palestinian state and their opposition to a Jewish one.

However, it goes further. Zionism and Israel are connected not only to the suppression of Palestinians, but to the racist attacks by American police on members of the Black community. Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) ran a Deadly Exchange campaign, and produced a video in support, alleging that Israeli soldiers, police and border guards participated in training exercises with U.S. police, border guards and FBI. The video alleged that the use of weapons, methods of interrogation and discriminatory treatment of minorities exacerbated the way American police treated Blacks. American Jewish institutions were complicit in promoting repression.

If it looks like a duck, feels like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. The video was revised to try to make it look like a chicken. But it still looks and sounds like a duck. A spokesperson of JVP charged Israel with militarization of the American police. Zionism fuels “police brutality, racism, Islamophobia, and a desire for a total absence of accountability here in the U.S.” Jews are at the heart of state power and its misuse.

For these Leftist racists, “Zionism is a form of racism” and some white supremacists claim simply to be Zionist white nationalists. As Richard Spencer said, “You could say that I’M a white Zionist.” Thus, the circle is complete. Zionism is racism and promotes suppression of Blacks in the U.S. as well as Palestinians in the West Bank and even serves as a prototype for Right-wing antisemitism as White Zionism. But JVP even gets white antisemitism wrong. For it is at heart antisemitic even more than it is racist. That is why the chants were: “Jews will not replace us.” For them, “Jews are a different, unassimilable, enemy race that must be exposed, defeated, and ultimately eliminated.” This was the position of the Nazis who targeted the Jews for extermination. But for JVP, Zionists are at heart Nazis. This is antisemitism pure and simple and covered by the IHRA definition. It is not a misuse of that definition.

For a more moderate argument that antisemitism is being used to attack defenders of Palestinian rights, read Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs in the U.S. In an op-ed, he criticized the Antidefamation League (ADL) criticisms of BDS for weaponizing “antisemitism to marginalize those who criticize Israel” even though ADL should be praised for its leadership on civil rights and defence against Islamophobia of the Trump administration. As a result of the op-ed, Al-Marayati was disinvited from a panel discussion of antisemitism organized by The Forward, ostensibly because the panel was about domestic antisemitism and not Israel. But the misuse of the definition of antisemitism to squelch critics of Israel is a domestic issue.

That is how the parties on each side withdraw into their own silos – critics of the use of antisemitism to attack supporters of Palestinians and critics of the use of the abuse of rights and the promotion of racism to characterize Zionism and Israel do not appear on the same panel. In the end, dialogue is squelched. Thus, when an exhibit on racism was held in a Holocaust museum in Orlando, it was attacked by some mainstream Jews, not because of the content of the exhibit, but for locating it in a Holocaust Museum. “That trivializes and distorts the Holocaust and its six million Jewish victims. And it grotesquely implies that American police are Nazis.” The juxtaposition of America’s mistreatment of Blacks with the Holocaust was “insensitive” to Jews. But is this not what a Holocaust Museum is about – not only memorializing the victims but also teaching “Never Again” in all its tranches from prejudice to racism and to the extreme, genocide? What is worse, the critics of the exhibit were not just critics; the comments were vile and full of hate.

It is certainly possible that Jews in their upward mobility may have benefited from American racism. It may also be true that Jews were leaders in the fight against that racism. The former does not make Jews racists and the latter does not exonerate Jews from the obligation to inquire into the degree Jews were complicit in the perpetuation of racism against Blacks. But even if the latter is shown to be historically valid, it does not turn Jews into racists. It does not turn Zionists into racists. It does not justify characterizing Israel as a racist apartheid state.

But what if racism is not only about prejudice, but about power, about structural oppression? Then systematically disadvantaging another group is an expression of racism. When racism is about power and not just prejudice, when it is about disadvantaging one group in systemic ways, then from some angles, Israel may be a racist state. On the other hand, since this approach hides more that it illuminates, it may point to the inadequacy of not only insisting that racism is endemic and structural, but it may really question the obverse – the claim that any form of built-in disadvantaging of one group by another is racism. Then racism may be a term that is misused as well as antisemitism.

The reality is the realm of wordfare, the realm of employing definitions and terminology not for enlightenment but to attack an opponent. When social science is used to facilitate verbal warfare instead of mutual understanding, then the use and misuse of terminology has to be examined. The IHRA definition recognized this. The authors stated unequivocally that the definition should NOT be used to stomp out criticism of Israel or even to lend a chill to such criticism. Criticism is legitimate. Characterizing the other as racist or guilty of apartheid for purposes of delegitimizing and demonizing when the differences far outnumber any overlaps merely exacerbates the rhetorical fight rather than enhancing mutual understanding.

This is not just an American problem. The virus is worldwide and in recent years there was an epidemic in Britain, particularly in the Labour Party. This is not my judgement, but the conclusions of a self-critical study of the party itself by the party. Thus, a party with a long history of fighting racism itself became infected. Racism and antisemitism are very virulent viruses. Jews and Jewish organizations and Israel must be on guard against outbreaks of racism and especially in its endemic forms, especially in the midst of a political battle. At the same time, the defenders of Palestinian political claims and rights must be on guard to ensure that their defense does not slip into antisemitism.

That is why it is well to be reminded that at heart the battle between the Jews and the Arab Palestinians in what was the former Mandate of Palestine is a fight over the self-determination of each of those peoples and over the territory on which that self-determination should be exercised. That is a political battle. It is neither antisemitic nor racist. Using the terminology to blacken the reputation of the other without substantiation but simply as a vehicle of demonization, will simply ensure that the political battle is perpetuated rather than a solution reached that will be inherently unsatisfactory to both parties – at the time of the partition resolution in 1947 more for the Jews and, more recently, increasingly for the Palestinians as annexation continues to creep along.

BDS and Defining Antisemitism

Mike Pompeo announced that he had directed the Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism to “identify organizations that engage in, or otherwise support” the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. He labelled BDS as a “cancer” and insisted that it was “a manifestation of anti-Semitism.” He went even further. Just being anti-Zionist made you antisemitic “[A]nti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”

“When Pompeo talks about Zionism, he is not referring to Theodor Herzl or to the UN’s 1947 Palestine partition plan. He is not talking about what Zionism could have been or should have been. He is talking about Israel in 2020. He is referring to the political model of “Greater Israel”: perpetual Israeli rule over the occupied West Bank, continuous Jewish-Israeli colonisation, and limited or no political rights for Palestinians…With the demise of the Oslo peace process, the occupation has become a permanent feature in Israel’s political model. The contours of this model can be seen in Israel’s 2018 “Nation State Law”: national self-determination rights for Jews only, ongoing Jewish settlement, downgraded status for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and no citizenship for Palestinian residents in the occupied West Bank. Opposing this model— according to Israeli government and now, to its allies—is tantamount to antisemitism. This is the latest, and most extreme version of the “New Antisemitism” philosophy: the idea that opposition to Israel is today the primary mode of antisemitism, because the Jewish State is the sovereign embodiment of the Jewish people, “the Jew among nations.” If Israeli rule over the West Bank is now integral to Israel’s political model, opposing it is, by definition, antisemitic. Israel’s ethno-national Jewish character has to be defended, even if it means discrimination, exclusion and oppression of Palestinians.”

Defenders of BDS argue that it is not:

  • Antisemitic
  • Anti-Zionist, except when Zionism advocates against a Palestinian state

For BDS supporters, the organization is an expression of freedom in defence of human rights. Therefore, the State Department’s attack on the BDS movement violates freedom of expression and endangers human rights protection. On 19 November 2020, the United States Department of State formally designated the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as antisemitic and determined to identify and defund organizations supporting BDS.

“The IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) working definition of antisemitism — and its examples — is on its way to being adopted and used across the globe to restrict free speech. From the State Department to English Premier League soccer teams, from universities to social media platforms, concerted campaigns to label criticism of Israeli policies and challenges to Zionism as antisemitism — and to impose formal/legal consequences — continue to gain momentum. In state legislatures and Congress in the United States, across Europe and in Latin America, the IHRA working definition of antisemitism and its examples is being used to quash criticism of Israel, to delegitimize advocates for Palestinian rights, and to undermine civil society organizations — including human rights and humanitarian groups — for their work with or support for Palestinians. This politicization and weaponization of the fight against antisemitism has grave implications, not just for Israel-Palestine activism but for free speech and civil society writ large, as well as for the battle against real and rising antisemitism around the world.”

Do critics of BDS conflate criticisms of Israel with antisemitism?

Is BDS simply a form of non-violent advocacy and an example of free expression that must be protected or do its activities delegitimize Israel?

Should advocates of boycotts be allowed, even supported, in expressing their views freely without harassment, threats of prosecution or criminalization, or other measures that violate the right to freedom of expression?

Should the US administration desist from following the Israeli government’s policies with respect to BDS?

Does Israel use false and politically motivated accusations of antisemitism to harm peaceful activists, including human rights defenders, and shield from accountability those responsible for illegal actions that harm people in Israel, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and in America?

Is the US hypocritical and deceitful in that Trump gave succor to neo-Nazis, white supremacists and others who advocate violence and discrimination as well as a disregard for international law while opposing BDS?

Does the U.S. support for Israeli policies on BDS result in institutionalized discrimination and systematic human rights violations against millions of Palestinians?

Do such actions harm the Jewish people by equating Israel with Judaism?

Do such actions harm the Jewish people by equating criticism of Israeli government policies and practices in the arena of human and Palestinian rights to antisemitism?

Does such an anti-BDS policy undermine the work of NGOs across the world which advocate the protection of the rights of religious and other minorities?

The controversy over BDS has highlighted divisions within the Democratic Party between liberals and progressives, especially the designation of BDS as antisemitic. That designation follows the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition which has been adopted by the US State Department and many other political jurisdictions around the world. It has already affected the Senate campaign in Georgia as Republicans have attacked Reverend Raphael Warnock, one of the two Democratic Senate candidates, for comparing Israeli policies in the West Bank to apartheid.

In response, Warnock reiterated his support for Israel’s right to exist as well as for a two-state solution, affirmed his opposition to BDS and reaffirmed that BDS has “anti-Semitic underpinnings.” This is consistent with Biden’s campaign platform which condemned BDS but did not equate its position with antisemitism; there is a difference between an organization’s stance having antisemitic underpinnings and its current policies as being antisemitic. Neither Warnock nor Biden supported efforts to criminalize free speech and expression. Neither equates criticism of Israel per se with antisemitism.

Note that Biden’s and Warnock’s positions are inconsistent with the preferences of the majority of their own party members. In a January 2020 poll by Shibley Telhami, a Brookings fellow, 48% of Democrats, who knew at least “a little” about BDS, supported the movement; only 15% opposed it. These results were consistent with a 2019 Data for Progress poll in which 53% of Democratic voters characterized BDS as a legitimate tactic, 12% disagreed, and 35% were not sure. 

Is BDS underpinned by an antisemitic position? If you take the original Arab League position against Zionism, it certainly was. In 1945, the Arab League agreed on a boycott of Jewish goods and services in Mandatory Palestine. The rationale – supporting the Jewish economy could lead to the anathema of an independent Jewish state. “Products of Palestinian Jews are to be considered undesirable in Arab countries. They should be prohibited and refused as long as their production in Palestine might lead to the realization of Zionist political aims.”

In 2001, the Arab League initiated the UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban South Africa. After five days, Israel and the US withdrew, primarily because of the overt antisemitic nature of the conference in which, “Copies of the anti-Semitic work, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, were sold on the grounds… fliers depicting Hitler with the question, ‘What if I had won?’ circulated as well. The answer, ‘There would be NO Israel and NO Palestinian bloodshed.’” The Conference was opposed to the aim of Zionism, creating an independent Jewish state in Palestine. Israel was henceforth to be referred to as a settler colonialist apartheid state.

In April 2002 in Britain, a petition circulated to boycott academic collaboration with Israeli institutions; academic stars such as Richard Dawkins, signed. This boycott of Israeli academic institutions was picked up in October 2003 in the West Bank and resulted in the formation of the Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) in April 2004. It did not seem to matter that a significant but still small percentage of faculty and much larger percentage of students in Israeli universities were Palestinians and the percentages have been growing.

The BDS boycott was organized in 2005 as a “Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality” with the intention of “effectively challenging international support for Israeli apartheid and settler-colonialism.” But if “apartheid” is defined as a “policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race,” Israel cannot be accurately characterized as an apartheid state. As of 2012, according to the Israeli Council for Higher Education, Palestinians constituted 11% of bachelor’s degree students, 7% of master’s students, and 3% of PhD students. However, in 2012, a mere 2.7% of the faculty were Palestinian. The percentage of Palestinians in administration was even lower.

The number of Arab students in Israeli universities from 2011 to 2018 grew by 78.5% according to 2018 research by Israel’s Council for Higher Education (CHE); Arab students accounted for 16.1% of undergraduate students in Israeli universities. In graduate programs, the percentage of Arab students almost doubled to 13%. In both teacher and medical training, the percentage of Palestinians in Israeli universities is equal to the percentage of Palestinians in the general population – 21%. Further, these percentages do not accurately represent the number of Israeli Palestinians studying in post-secondary universities and in colleges because there are currently significant numbers of Israeli Palestinians, 8,000, studying in West Bank universities – 66% of them in Jenin where they make up 55% of the student body.

In sum, BDS is a political movement that uses human rights to label Israel as a colonialist settler apartheid state, a position put forth by the Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi that I reviewed in my previous long series of blogs. Does the BDS ostensible program emerge from its anti-Zionist underpinnings? On the surface, this does not seem to be the case. The BDS program pressures Israel to meet what it describes as Israel’s obligations under international law, a reference to the demand that Israel withdraw from the occupied territories, removal of the separation barrier in the West Bank, and full equality for Palestinian Israelis, referred to as Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel – they are not called Israeli Palestinians or Palestinian Israelis. The program also advocates “respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties.” 

Is the issue of withdrawal from the occupied or the disputed territories in the West Bank an anti-apartheid measure or simply a political position of BDS and others? Is the insistence of the Palestinian refugee right to return an anti-apartheid stance or a political one? When Israelis represent such a return as a demographic threat, is that not racist? At heart, it is more about the demographic war between the two groups for determining what goes on in the area. This has been the case since Jews, both Zionist and non-Zionist, began returning to what would become Israel.

The status of the territories captured in the 1967 Six Day War is a matter of political dispute, not racism. So is the issue of refugee return. Interpreting the UN Resolution as defining return as a right contradicts its original wording. However, there is no doubt that, over the years, the resolution has come to mean a right, particularly for the Palestinians. At the same time, there has been no other case where refugees who fled or were forced to flee were supported in their return as a matter of right. On the other hand, the equality of Palestinian citizens in Israel is certainly a matter of rights, but some identifiers which unequivocally favour Jews – the flag, the national anthem, the holidays – are not matters of rights but of heritage in any state. However, in a number of other areas, Palestinian citizens of Israel are treated as second class citizens.  

Is the platform of BDS antisemitic? Of the thirteen guidelines provided in the application of the IRHA definition, two would possibly seem to be generally applicable:

  • Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.

With notable exceptions, by and large advocates of BDS do not justify harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion, do not make mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews, or identify a world Jewish conspiracy controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions. The Hamas and ISIS component of the BDS movement is small. The BDS advocates do NOT accuse all Jews of having responsibility for what Netanyahu does. They are not Holocaust deniers. Nor in reading them have I ever found one accusing the Jews in Western democracies of holding dual loyalties, though they come close when they charge Jewish legislators and government bureaucrats who are Jewish of favouring Israeli policies. But I do that. So do many Jewish advocacy agents, not as an accusation but as a depiction. BDS does not use symbols and images by and large associated with classical antisemitism in characterising the Zionists. Nor do they usually characterize pro-Israeli politicians or citizens of being like Nazis. Nor, finally, do they hold Jews as a collectivity to be responsible for what the State of Israel does.

Labelling Israel as an apartheid state, however, is not only a horrific misrepresentation; it is certainly applying a double standard of behaviour not demanded of any other state. In that sense, the BDS movement is antisemitic. Further, in characterizing the existence of a State of Israel as a racist endeavor and in denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, BDS is antisemitic. Thus, although the underpinnings of BDS may certainly be antisemitic and the philosophical aspect of its program may be as well, BDS would not seem to be otherwise an antisemitic movement.

Defining Antisemitism – Part I The IHRA Definition

Amnesty International USA issued the following statement:

The US “targeting of groups advocating…peaceful means, such as boycotts, to end human rights violations against Palestinians, as antisemitic, violates freedom of expression and is a gift to those who seek to silence, harass, intimidate and oppress those standing up for human rights around the world [consistent with] a US government determined to undermine the universality of human rights and the global fight against racism and discrimination, including antisemitism.”


Is the definition of antisemitism currently being officially endorsed around the world being used to repress the rights of Palestinians to free speech and serving to deny human rights? Kenneth Stern—director of The Bard Center for Study of Hate and an expert on antisemitism who drafted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition—said Biden could stake out a moderate position on BDS and criticism of Israeli policies. “One of the themes Biden has been striking is that people with different points of views have to communicate across divides…It’s possible for him to strike that theme on this issue: that he opposes antisemitism and BDS, but silencing is beyond what we do in a democracy.” 

As background, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), a consortium of 34 mostly Western countries, was asked to provide a definition of antisemitism that would allow the collection of data on incidents in Europe to be relatively consistent. The 2016 definition was proposed, not as a legally binding standard, but as a guide. In itself, it is uncontroversial. though some have noted that it would have been preferable to tie the definition into general human rights and anti-racism efforts rather than as a sui generis document.

In the spirit of the Stockholm Declaration that states: “With humanity still scarred by …antisemitism and xenophobia the international community shares a solemn responsibility to fight those evils,” the IHRA, the only intergovernmental organization mandated to focus solely on Holocaust-related issues, through its Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial, built an international consensus around a non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism which was subsequently adopted by the Plenary on 26 May 2016.

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” 

As an illustration, the IHRA went on to clarify: “Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, the document was clear, criticism of Israel, similar to that leveled against any other country, cannot be regarded as antisemitic. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for ‘why things go wrong.’ It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.”

In spite of this unequivocal statement, Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV), that opposes racism and promotes justice and peace for all in Israel-Palestine, distributed a very short piece entitled, “The Palestine solidarity movement is facing an unprecedented threat.” Its headline read, “Fight antismitism and white supremacy Not Palestinian solidarity #NO IHRA.” What was the unprecedented threat? “The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism (IHRA-WDA) “is designed to silence criticism of Israel and of Zionism by equating this criticism with antisemitism.” But the definition explicitly states it is not to be used to equate criticism of Israel with antisemitism. A simple reading would reveal that. But to take it a step further and argue that it was designed for this purpose is even worse than just misinterpreting the text.

Unless, of course, they showed that the claim was fraudulent. They don’t. Whatever they may say about its use or misuse and even abuse, there is no evidence that the intent of the definition is to suppress criticism. They makme a third claim. In addition to suppression being a use of the definition, in addition to that use being intentionality built into the definition, they claim that, “the real fight against antisemitism must [my italics] be joined to the struggle for equality and human rights. “must!” Not preferably. Further, you can only fight against antisemitism if you are also fighting against the suppression of Palestinians. No defence of each of these mis-steps in logic are offered.

On 26 July 2019, the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism, Pablo Rodriguez, announced the intention of the Canadian government to adopt the definition. On 11 December 2019, Conservative MPP Will Bouma tabled a private member’s bill which called on the Ontario government to be guided by the IHRA definition “when it interprets acts, regulations and policies” in order to “protect Ontarians from discrimination and hate amounting to anti-Semitism.” It passed on division second reading on 27 February 2020 and was referred to the Standing Committee on Justice policy on 22 October. On 26 October, Ontario premier Doug Ford adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism by an Order in Council.

As Nathalie Des Rosiers wrote in a far more nuanced argument, “There was already a definition used by the Anti Racist Directorate. The central issue was appealing to Jewish voters by replacing the current definition with IHRA…the difference in wording in not referring to the examples in the Order in Council can be said to be legally significant…In my view, you cannot presume some parts of the IHRA definition (the examples) but not the ‘non-legally binding’ wording. Making it legally binding (i.e. it is adopted and recognized by the Government of Ontario) would justify paying attention to the words used, and to the words not used.”

There is a general consensus that the definition in itself, other than being relatively vague, is uncontentious. The problem arose with two and for some, three of the examples of the eleven offered to illustrate its applicability. On the one hand, the illustrations were not the definition. On the other hand, it is the illustrations that give the definition substance and provide relevance. Of the eleven offered, two aroused significant controversy.

  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
  • Applying double standards by requiring of it [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

For some, a third case illustration was also problematic and easily used to foster antisemitism:

  • Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.

The use of the definition as well as the illustrations, particularly the first two above, have been controversial. Most Jewish organizations in Canada have supported the adoption of IHRA as a guide. Some Jewish organizations, particularly in the U.S., are opposed. JStreet and Americans for Peace Now as well as other Jewish NGOs even more critical of Israel and Zionism (e.g. JVP) have railed against the adoption of the definition. Further, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International as well as other human rights organizations and NGOs supporting the Palestinian quest for self-determination have strenuously objected to the adoption of the definition, primarily in fear of it being weaponized to suppress free speech and criticism of Israel. At the very least, it is argued, the definition has a chill effect on expressions of free speech.

Ojibway in Canada are denied the right of self-determination. So are Kurds in Syria and Turkey. Sometimes that denial is unequivocally racist. In the Israeli case, the original denial of the Jewish right to self-determination was articulated in defence of the Arab right to self-determination in Palestine in opposition to Zionism, for the insistence on both rights, and not simply practical matters, was at the core of the conflict. However, did this early criticism of Zionism amount to antisemitic racism on one side or anti-Palestinian denial of self-determination on the other hand? Part of the issue was intent and context. Was the argument in service to a political claim or was it being used to vilify the other? Was the definition being used as an educational tool or an ideological weapon?

It seems clear that the two illustrations above are not in themselves antisemitic. A Jew brought up in the justice tradition of Judaism usually does demand higher standards of behaviour from Israel than any other state. For Israel is to be a light unto the nations. But that is not the real reference, for the illustration is more concerned with Israel’s mistreatment of its minorities more than any other state. This goes beyond insisting that we defend all causes equally, that we cannot defend elephants unless we also defend giraffes. The issue becomes finding whether there is a pattern in applying the norms of just war theory or in dealing with refugees such that the application of norms is unique to Israel and not otherwise universally applicable.

JSpace in Canada, in contrast to JStreet in the United States, supported the adoption and application of the definition on the grounds that:

  • It was the expression of a general consensus in the organized Jewish community;
  • The wording was clear that the definition could not and should not be used to suppress criticism of Israeli government policy and the definition was not to be used for such purposes;
  • The origins of the definition followed the Canadian general guiding principle that those oppressed should be the ones who articulate how to represent that oppression.

One dilemma – when does one group’s self-definition of their oppression represent racist calumny of another group identified as the oppressors? If Israel is described as a colonial apartheid state, is this an expression of antisemitism. I will take this question up in my next blog dealing with BDS and the Antisemitic IHRA definition. One proposed measure to permit a judgement is whether its use promoted dialogue or, alternatively, whether the definition is used to vilify another. Is it used to advance speech, or squelch hate speech or as itself an expression of hate speech?

The issue of a double standard raises such questions as who decides? When Israel is singled out as an occupying power is that because it is the only one still around? How do you weigh competing claims for victimhood? If I am an advocate for a unitary state wherein all citizens are respected as having individual rights, or if I advocate a confederation of two nations, is either of these positions a denial of the Jewish right to self-determination? Further, does asking these questions in themselves chill open discussion lest one be labeled as a colonialist oppressor on the one hand or an antisemite on the other hand? However, is an insistence on non-vilification and non-demonization even helpful if being branded as a racist, colonialist, apartheid oppressor does suggest that the speaker is antisemitic and opposed to the rights of the Jewish people? That is, then it is not the intent but the substance that defines antisemitism.

There is a different issue – not the intent and context of the use of the definition versus its substantive meaning, but the effects of its use. Does it promote mission creep? That is, though its use initially may be confined to identifying antisemites in various guises, the definition is readily adaptable to those who want to shut down criticisms of Israel or, at the least, criticisms of Zionism? Further, would it not have been better to promote solidarity in human rights defence by explicitly drawing the link between antisemitism and other forms of racism? Would it not have been better to enunciate principles where the failure to observe them constitutes antisemitism?

My own position is that there is no traveling back. This is the definition that has already gained wide acceptance. One is forced to tackle the core issue of whether the denial of self-determination of the Jewish people or the opposition to Zionism constitutes antisemitism and in what contexts and with what limits? The polarization is real. The substantive disagreement is very deep. If that is left unpacked, then we are not likely to clarify whether and when the definition of antisemitism is used as a racist method of suppressing free speech.

As Nathalie Des Rossiers wrote, “The question will be whether the use of the definition will remain dormant, or will it be used? Will Jewish organizations use it to demand, as B’nai Brith has suggested, that “all schools, universities, police services use it.” Nathalie opined, “its wording is already a little dated: its disconnection from other forms of racism makes it less powerful and convincing.  It was created in a context of education and research, why use it in others, and more importantly, why do Jewish organizations want to promote it if it requires so much explanation, unpacking, and presents the possibility of significant setbacks?   

[1] I spell the subject as a single, unhyphenated word because I think it is singular. More commonly, it is hyphenated as anti-Semite.