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.


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