Part VI: Antisemitism and Criticism of Israel

Yesterday I dealt with the conceptual differences among the current three competing definitions of antisemitism, the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance), the JDA (Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism) definitions, and the Nexus Declaration. I want to focus on the core debate that unites all three definitions but also divides them when it comes to criticisms of Zionism and Israel. All three definitions agree that certain forms of criticism of Israel are antisemitic, differing primarily on which kind of criticisms fall under the category of legitimacy.

This seems appropriate since this past Saturday was the centennial of the antisemitic (?) riots and fighting between Jews and Arabs that began in the Jaffa neighbourhood of Manshiva. A fight between two Jewish groups, the Jewish Community Party determined to celebrate May Day with a march from Jaffa to Tel Aviv and the rival socialist Ahdut HaAvoda ended with an attack of Arabs on Jews in that urban area that soon spread across Palestine resulting in the death of 48 Arabs, 47 Jews while 146 Jews and 73 Arabs were wounded. The Jaffa riots, Me’oraot Tarpa between 1 and 7 May 1921 became an attack by Arabs on Jews after a fistfight broke out between the two Jewish groups and rumours spread through Arab neighbourhoods that Jews were attacking Arabs. Arabs had spread the word (untrue as it turned out but continued to be believed until today) that Jewish marchers shot Arab passers-by.

“Arab men bearing clubs, knives, swords, and some pistols broke into Jewish buildings and murdered their inhabitants, while women followed to loot. They attacked Jewish pedestrians and destroyed Jewish homes and stores. They beat and killed Jews in their homes, including children, and in some cases split open the victims’ skulls.”

The attackers included Arab police. One of the victims was Yosef Haim Brenner, a giant and pioneer of Hebrew literature who had just issued a statement claiming that the Jews had offered an outstretched hand to Arabs and were spurned. High Commissioner Herbert Samuel called for military reinforcements from Egypt and General Allenby sent two destroyers. Samuel in the process made two ill-fated decisions, first to suspend (and then limit) Jewish immigration and, second, to appoint Haj Amin al-Husseini, a known rabid anti-Semite, as Mufti of Jerusalem.

The Haycraft Commission of Inquiry (Sir Thomas Haycraft was the Supreme Court Justice in Palestine) concluded that, “the fundamental cause of the violence and the subsequent acts of violence was a feeling among the Arabs of discontent with, and hostility to, the Jews, due to political and economic causes, and connected with Jewish immigration.” (my italics) Note, not antisemitism, but economics and politics were the causes of the hostility towards Jews. But Jews qua Jews were targeted. Arabs in Palestine wanted to stop Jews from migrating to Palestine. During the riots, two boatloads of 300 Jewish migrants were turned away from landing.

The Haycraft Commission characterized the Arab attack on the Jews as “racial strife.” The Arab majority were found to be the aggressors who inflicted most of the Jewish casualties. The Arab casualties were overwhelmingly the result of the use of British military and police forces to stop the rioting. A preponderance of anti-Jewish rhetoric and anti-Jewish feeling morphed into anti-Jewish violence. Today, there is a general consensus that widespread antisemitism led to widespread violence against Jews.

A century later, the battle rages and continues on the campuses of North American universities. As Kenneth S. Stern, one of the main authors of the IHRA definition of antisemitism, tells the tale in his book, The Conflict Over the Conflict: How the Israel-Palestine Campus Debate is Eviscerating Campus Freedom, pro-Palestinian groups label Israeli policies as racist and its practices of institutionalizing apartheid, a charge seconded by a very recent report by Human Rights Watch. Pro-Israeli groups counter, calling Palestinians terrorists and antisemitic, and its Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as rooted in the denial of the Jewish right to self-determination. From both sides, terms of opprobrium are used to try to censor the other side. Antisemitism becomes one such term used as an insult rather than a legitimate descriptor.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations denounced the use of the term apartheid coming from the other side as an epithet rather than a legitimate descriptor. “We strongly reject the disgraceful report released today by Human Rights Watch (HRW) that attempts to demonize, delegitimize, and apply double standards to the State of Israel. Authored by Omar Shakir, a longtime operative of the blatantly antisemitic and anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, this libelous document resorts to baseless apartheid accusations against Israel, among other lies and distortions.”

In this context, antisemitism and apartheid may be used as expressions of hatred primarily to vilify the other side and even incite violence. Barbara Landau of J Street expressed deep dismay at “the vitriolic response of some Jewish communal and pro-Israel organizations to the new report by Human Rights Watch titled A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution.” Defamation and delegitimation rather than depiction are the goals. J Street proclaims that such efforts are counter-productive, even harmful, to Israel and the goal of ensuring a safe and secure homeland for the Jewish people.

At the same time, Honest Reporting Canada in The Hill Times claimed that, “No Mainstream Jewish Organization, Politician, or Community Advocate Would Suggest Criticism of Israel Constitutes Antisemitism.” But demonization of the Jewish state is characterized as antisemitic and even members of Congress, such as Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, accused the HRW report of demonizing the Jewish state and hence guilty of antisemitism. The defenders of Israel depict these attacks as merely another in a series of double standards applied to Israel fueled by an unceasing demonization which seeks to remove legitimacy from Israel’s very right to exist as a Jewish state.

Yet the HRW report never attacks Israel’s right to exist or even to exist as a Jewish state but, instead, focuses on Israel’s purported policies and practices against international law standards, describing apartheid as the continuing effort and intention of one group to dominate another leading to the systemic oppression of that other group carried out by means of inhumane actions. It is one thing to criticize the report as inaccurate or even distorted. It is another to declare that it is engaged in a program of demonization. The defence is to declare that, in such contexts, antisemitism is used to defame, unfairly malign and delegitimize defenders of Palestinian rights.

Which side is doing the defamation in the use of words like antisemitic and practicing apartheid? Criticism is not delegitimized, only certain kinds. In the debate, alternative definitions to the IHRA definition, such as the JDA one, are efforts to remove or severely limit the effort to characterize certain forms of criticism of Israel as antisemitic. Critics of this revisionism accuse the supporters as an effort to accept demonization, delegitimization and double standards in evaluating Israel.  

The result are the campus wars, such as the one within the student government at the City University of New York. A proposal to adopt the IHRA definition was met by an alternative co-sponsored by the CUNY Law School Students for Justice in Palestine and CUNY Law Jewish Students Association which vilified IHRA and proposed a stripped-down condemnation of antisemitism based only on ‘white supremacism’ and excluding any critical stance against Israel as antisemitic. Both proposals were voted down, a result seen as a victory for the critics of the IHRA definition. In contrast, student governments at Notre Dame and the University of Manitoba adopted the IHRA resolution. At other universities, students who expressed support for Israel were denied the right to hold office or to use student facilities for pro-Israeli student clubs. Some even went so far as to identify such supporters as on a par or even in partnership with white supremacists.

It is clear that antisemitism is widely used as a term of abuse to vilify an Other, a use not sanctioned by any of the three definitions, but clearly in common use on both sides. This does not mean that antisemitism is not characterized by cognitive and emotional identifiable elements as well as characteristic targets, but merely that the use of antisemitism as an epithet should be recognized in any definition. When it is not, then moralism rather than linguistic analysis is being used to classify and characterize terminology.

Jews, not gentiles, have often been at the centre of the effort to, on the one hand, legitimize or delegitimize certain definitions of antisemitism or, on the other hand, to weaponize or disarm antisemitism as part of a larger conflict. It is not that these critics of weaponization accuse the other side of attempting to stifle all criticisms of Israel but only of the oppression of and violence against Palestinians. Those defenders of Palestinian rights are generally considered to have crossed a line and ventured into antisemitism when they even deny the right of the Jewish people to self-determination.

My major concern is that a definition should capture all common uses of a term, including uses you might not like. Further, in offering the definition, a systematic conceptual approach should be the starting point which identifies all the aspects that must be covered by the definition – the target, the cognitive and affective dimensions. The content of these categories should be determined by common use and not by moral or political positions. Further, the effort to produce a univocal meaning is inherently prone to self-destruction for it will fail to recognize the principle of family resemblance in the use of terms whereby some uses of the term may have little and perhaps no overlap with another at the opposite end of a spectrum of meanings.

Definitional assignments should not be the responsibility of advocates but students of language. Otherwise, the advocacy determines the definition, not usage. Then the definition merely becomes another dimension of the advocacy and an expression of a different political preference. This is especially true when terms are mutating to include new meanings. The classical meanings may be backed by a consensus, more or less, but as one moves towards the margins and new uses and inclusions, it is easy for advocacy and ideology to override the science of language use.

If the definition is comprehensive, it will include the way political opponents use the same term in different ways with different boundary conditions. This is far better when the term is used for pedagogical purposes and to gather data, for the definition will then identify the various uses, nuances and differences. It will also defang defining by showing how ascribing fangs to certain and limited meanings are reflections of political positions rather than descriptive analysis.

Tomorrow, I want to unpack the IHRC definition to reveal the political position embedded in that definition in relation to the HRW Report on Israeli apartheid. Next week I will examine two eminent defenders of the JDA definition with the same goal. I will then move on to provide more precise guidelines for more objective searches for a definition of antisemitism.

It is often said that if you want to fight the scourge of antisemitism, you must properly define it. But when propriety is in contention, then the result may be, and, in this case, has been, the scourge of a fight over meaning rather than an educational policy approach to deal with antisemitism itself.


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