Antisemitism, criticism of Israel and Palestinian justice
Joint statement by AJDS and APAN (Australia Palestine Advocacy Network). June 2020.
Those who are critical of Israeli government policies and actions towards the Palestinians are increasingly accused of being antisemitic – a powerful allegation that oftentimes is used in an attempt to shut down legitimate political discourse. The increased accusations of antisemitism towards supporters of justice for Palestinians amounts to the weaponisation of antisemitism to silence criticism of Israeli government actions and obscures the meaning and reality of antisemitism.
Antisemitism is – broadly speaking – animosity, prejudice, or discrimination against Jewish people, history, religion and culture. Antisemitism is a complex form of oppression with deep historical roots, often with brutal expressions, and has evolved to adapt to various historical and cultural contexts. It works with and alongside other forms of racism, xenophobia and colonisation. As with other oppressions it employs dehumanisation, exploitation, marginalisation and violence. Racism and discrimination can often be invisible to those from outside that group, and therefore effort must be made to see and then actively challenge such forms of oppression.
Indeed, perhaps counterintuitively, people who voice Zionist views – particularly non-Jewish people – can do so from an antisemitic perspective which holds that Jews do not belong outside Israel. This is particularly common amongst Christian Zionists. Additionally, the most common and pernicious forms of antisemitism in the world globally come from the right-wing, rather than from people challenging the actions of the Israeli government.
Labelling calls for an end to military occupation, settler colonisation, blockade, annexation, imprisonment of children, and Palestinian self-determination as “antisemitic” is often undertaken in order to silence debate and avoid an honest discussion about the most violent forms of antisemitism in the world today. It serves as an attempt to delegitimise critiques of Israeli government policies by attributing an antisemitic motivation.
Zionism was a Jewish response to increasing European antisemitism in the 19th and 20th centuries at a time dominated by rising nationalism across Europe that found no place for the Jews. Zionism is a political movement understood by many as a movement of national liberation and self-determination, however in its implementation it has caused the loss of liberation and self-determination to another people – the Palestinians. We cannot dismiss the impact that the creation of Israel had and continues to have on the Palestinian people‘s legitimate struggle for justice and an end to their dispossession. However, opposition to the Israeli government must never use antisemitic ideas, such as attributing its injustices to Jewish identity, or demanding that all Jewish people answer for its conduct.
The IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of antisemitism explicitly includes criticism of the policies of the State of Israel with antisemitism and has been effectively deployed in Australia. While we recognise the very important work of this organisation, we reject this simplified conflation of antisemitism with criticism of Israel. Indeed, there are many Jewish institutions and groups, both inside Israel and globally, who are committed to tackling antisemitism and are highly critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, historically and today.
Calls to end the oppression, occupation, violence and discriminatory policies and actions of the Israeli Government are not inherently antisemitic. Nor can a call to boycott Israel until it terminates those policies, be so conflated, when it targets only those policies and actions, and not the Jewish People – as does the 2005 Palestinian Civil Society Call for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions.
While we strongly advocate for the self-determination of Palestinians alongside the legitimate rights of all citizens of Israel, we acknowledge the ways that racism intersects, and we reject and condemn antisemitism and all forms of oppression. We encourage the growth of mutual trust and respect which might lead to a harmoniously shared future.
Antisemitism Frequently Asked Questions
Antisemitism is animosity to, prejudice, or discrimination against Jewish people. Antisemitism is complex and has deep historical roots which has taken on various forms in different historical and cultural contexts. Like other oppressions it employs dehumanisation, exploitation, marginalisation and violence.
The transmission of European ideas about race and national identity across the globe greatly impacted on Jews across the Middle East and elsewhere. However, the experience of antisemitism has varied for Jewish communities across the globe. While there has often been an emphasis on European and Russian histories of antisemitism towards Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of European descent) in conversations around antisemitism, this can invisibilise and alienate the experience and history of Mizrahi (Jews from Arab and Muslim countries) and Sephardi Jews (Jews from Spanish descent), as well as Jews of colour, whose experience of racism is across multiple, sometimes seemingly contradictory axes.
These days challenging antisemitism often leads us to competing understandings of what antisemitism is and whether anti-Zionism should be incorporated into these definitions. If we want to effectively address antisemitism, it’s important that we understand it and its particularities and contexts.
- Characterising Jews as a collective, lacking in distinct and differing motives.
- Conspiracies about Jews exercising mechanistic and hidden control over the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.
- Condemning Jews as responsible for the execution and suffering of Jesus Christ.
- Claims that Jews have secret rituals or practices that involve harm to non-Jews, and myths of Jewish people being bloodthirsty for their supposed enemies, especially children.
- Denying or minimising the Holocaust.
- Myths of Jewish people being inherently devious, violent, greedy and disproportionately wealthy or powerful.
- Racial caricatures of features commonly viewed as Jewish to imply ugliness or evilness
- The ideas that Jews do not belong in Australia, or have a permanent allegiance to another country (whether Israel or another), or that they should ‘go back to Israel’.
- Attributing responsibility for the actions or policies of a Jewish individual or Jewish entity, to Jews as a collective.
- Attributing responsibility for the State of Israel on Jews.
No. The word ‘Semitic’ is a branch of Afro-Asiatic languages and it does not refer to any group of people. ‘Antisemitism’ as a phrase developed during the height of European racial “science” in the late 1800s when journalist Wilhelm Marr wanted to modernise the phrase ‘judenhass’ (Jew-hatred) with something that sounded rational and sanctioned by science. It was therefore developed as a term to obscure or sanitise prejudice against Jews, and has been used this way since. The importance of this distinction is vital, as any attempt to take away or obscure language used to describe oppression can erase or distract from its existence.
Those fighting for justice for Palestine can be targets for false allegations of antisemitism, or what has come to be known as “new antisemitism.” This is an interpretation of antisemitism which argues that opposition to Zionism and criticisms against the State of Israel is antisemitic. Unfortunately, the result of some Zionist institutions overstating the presence of antisemitism in Palestinian solidarity movements not only minimises antisemitism, but has resulted in an almost knee jerk reaction to refute any accusations of antisemitism as baseless.
Denying the existence of antisemitism in Palestinian justice movements is simply untrue. The movement is fertile ground for antisemitic feelings, tropes and expressions, and should be challenged when it arises. Conflating or imbuing antisemitism doesn’t serve anyone’s fight for justice.
One of the particularities of specifically European antisemitism (antisemitism originating and located in European context, and predominantly targeting Ashkenazi Jews) is the trope of Jewish power, which is a theme palatable to both the left and the right. This antisemitism constructs Jews as wealthy and powerful, and hence outside of the simplified left paradigm where subjects are poor and powerless and as such can be misunderstood and understated.
Another antisemitic trope existing in the left is of the Jewish violent coloniser. This stereotype relies on the idea that Jews are intrinsically violent and imperialist, and are responsible as a people for the violence of the state of Israel, when in actuality the support of the Zionist project is driven by nationalism and colonialism, not anything fundamentally Jewish. Responding to visibly Jewish groups or Jewish social media content with comments about Palestine, without further context, is platforming this notion that Jews are violent colonisers and responsible for Zionism and Israel. It also demands us to prove we are “good Jews” in relation to our politics, perhaps in the same way that no matter how many times Muslims condemn terrorism, they are still consistently required to do so.
Yes. It would be far more accurate to talk about a pro-Israel lobby. In countries such as Australia and the US there are strong lobby groups that organise to influence government policy in ways that are seen as favourable to the Israeli government. However, these lobby groups are like any other political or special interest group who organises to lobby for certain ideas in democratic politics. Crucially, however, these groups don’t represent all Jews, although some may purport to do so. This is a political, not an ethnic lobby that can be countered politically not racially. The term Jewish lobby has also been strongly associated with antisemitic stereotypes and conspiracy theories about Jewish people dominating world politics or global wealth.
Zionism is a political movement understood by many as a movement of Jewish national liberation and self-determination. There have been various interpretations of Zionism and Zionist movements through time, for example spiritual or cultural Zionism. Today Zionism is often understood as the version in which it has embodied- the establishment of a Jewish Nation-State on the land called Palestine at the time of creation, which necessitates by definition a Jewish majority.
The earliest roots of Zionism can be traced to Christian protestants. The Christian Zionist belief being that the return of Jews to Israel is in accordance with biblical prophecy which precipitates the second coming of Jesus. In the 19th century, with a new wave of antisemitism, Zionism started to be more popularly adopted by Jews in Western Europe. It is important to remember that Zionism was a contested idea among Jews themselves, and there was much debate as to the best response to the persecution they were experiencing. During this time Zionism also grew in popularity amongst some European elite as a means of responding to Russian persecution of Jews without opening their countries doors to the undesired Jews, and concurrently cementing European colonial ties in the then Ottoman controlled region.
Modern Zionists were influenced by colonialist and ethno-nationalist ideals that were popular at the time, and eventually Zionist thinking lead to the concept of a Jewish national state in Palestine. Notable Jewish state proposals were considered, including an area of Uganda, Kimberley region of Western Australia and the Soviet Birobidzhan, but the Jewish historical and spiritual connection to the biblical “Land of Israel” lent weight to the creation of the State of Israel in Palestine. The events of the Holocaust which resulted in the systematic extermination of six million Jews and created a massive refugee problem after the genocide provided significant impetus to the Zionist movement.
For one thing, antisemitism has contributed significantly to the perceived need for a Zionist project and the state of Israel. The violence of antisemitism, and especially the Holocaust, has generated support for particular models of Jewish self-determination and the desire for safety in the form of a Nation-State.
In no minor way, misunderstandings of what antisemitism is have resulted from the conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism. Of course, defining anti-Zionism is a moving target, sometimes referring to those who reject Zionism, and other times to anyone, including Jewish Zionists, who are critical of the State of Israel. As the only Jewish State, or as it has been referred to; the ‘Jew among nations,’ a line of thinking has developed whereby anyone who is against Israel is against all Jews, but anyone who is for Israel is for all Jews. But following this logic we find ourselves in a tragic paradox where antisemitism by those who support Israel is annulled, as can be seen for example in Netanyahu’s courting the European antisemitic far right. One should seriously question any definition of antisemitism which creates a class of ‘self-hating’ Jews.
Jewish people, Zionists and Israelis are not interchangeable terms, and we should be careful not to confuse the terms. Inferring that all Jews are Zionists is a gross mischaracterisation of Jews and Zionists by anyone, including the Israel government.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance adopted the following definition of Antisemitism in 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.
This basic definition of antisemitism is accompanied by 11 contemporary examples, some of which specifically refer to the criticism of Israel. While the statement clearly states that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic,” it does open the door to the conflation of these issues. One of the main drafters of the definition and its examples, Kenneth S. Stern, has cautioned against the free speech implications of its use as a legal tool.
In July 2018 a coalition of Jewish organisations issued a statement criticising the working definition. Now signed by 41 organisations from over 16 countries, the statement asserts that the IHRA definition is “worded in such a way as to be easily adopted or considered by western governments to intentionally equate legitimate criticisms of Israel and advocacy for Palestinian rights with antisemitism, as a means to suppress the former.
The Israeli government and Zionist institutions around the world have actively and financially supported using antisemitism to delegitimise any criticism of Israel. For example, during the last federal election campaign, comments by Labor’s candidate for Curtin that were supportive of a Palestinian state and strongly criticised Israeli government policy including settlements in the occupied territories were labelled as antisemitic. This led to her withdrawal from candidacy.
In the U.S, following a surge in allegations of antisemitism and subsequent legal proceedings against students and staff who had made comments critical of Israeli policy, Maria LaHood, deputy legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights stressed that: “False accusations of anti-Semitism are being employed as a strategy to pressure campus authorities to suppress speech that is critical of Israel.”
Criticisms of Israel and Zionism are not inherently or inevitably antisemitic but they may assimilate and animate unnecessary antisemitic ideas and tropes.
Targeting or exceptionalising Israel may indeed come from deeply held antisemitic views. It may also be motivated by a number of different sentiments. It is natural that people are drawn to particular issues for various reasons, which could be as simple as having a Palestinian friend or family member. Some people may get passionate about Israel/Palestine after traveling to the region. As Jews we are deeply concerned with the actions by a State which purports to represent all Jews, and we acknowledge the rights granted to us by this State to return or visit whenever we like while Palestinians are barred from returning to their own lands.
What’s more, Israel likes to exceptionalise itself, by declaring itself to be the only democracy in the Middle East, or having the most ethical army in the world. Holding Israel accountable to these claims is not antisemitic, nor is protesting policies and actions by Israel and successive Israeli governments which are exceptional, such as the blockade and siege of Gaza.
Using Nazi imagery to describe the oppression of Palestinians does not fit the facts – as the dynamics of the oppression is very different and does not help to explain the types of discrimination and suffering that actually are happening.
The misuse of Jewish symbols such as the Star of David alongside the swastika symbol of the Third Reich is an insult to Jewish identity. These kinds of comparisons are often used in intentionally provocative ways, which is not only highly insensitive to the pain and trauma held by Jewish communities, but actively cruel.
Comparing the BDS calls for boycott of Israel to German discrimination against Jews also doesn’t fit the facts. BDS is a social movement, not a government. It does not have the power to implement discriminatory policies against Israeli citizens as did the German government. Like the boycott movement against apartheid South Africa, BDS seeks to pressure governments, corporations and individuals to engage in various activities such as boycotts, divestments and sanctions in order to pressure the Israeli government to accede to key demands that represent the human rights of Palestinians.
BDS was called for by a broad spectrum of Palestinian groups and civil associations as a non-violent tactic of resistance. It is clear in all public statements that BDS should not target Jews, but rather Israeli institutions.
The saying “from the river to the sea Palestine will be free” is frequently chanted at Palestinian solidarity rallies. Some Jewish individuals and representatives have characterised this slogan as antisemitic alongside claims that during ‘48 this slogan was used by Palestinians and Arabs synonymously with alleged calls to throw Jews into the sea and rid Israel/Palestine from all Jews.
In fact, the slogan “from the river to the sea Palestine will be free” was first used during the 1930s Palestinian uprising against the British rule in Palestine. Since then it has remained an anti-colonial chant.
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