The Israeli Occupation and the Rise of Antisemitism – Is There a Connection?

By Tony Klug

This paper was delivered at the Pears International Conference on Zionism and Antisemitism, Birkbeck, University of London, 25 May 2017. Also available to be listened to online here.

In this talk, I pose the question of whether there is a connection between the Israeli occupation and the rise of antisemitism. Or to put it another way, if Zionism was, at least partly, conceived as a way of normalizing relations between Jews and all other peoples, is the state it spawned and the policies that state has been pursuing normalizing antisemitism instead?

It’s a sensitive and multilayered question but what I want to focus on and share with you is what I have learned over my five decades of close engagement with Israelis and Palestinians. There is no question in my mind that over this period there has been a marked rise in anti-Jewish sentiment, particularly in the Arab and Muslim worlds and, furthermore, that this is primarily a product of the ongoing conflict, in particular the unceasing Israeli occupation. But this is only one side of the equation.

The other side is the corresponding phenomenon of mounting anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment in the Jewish world. In turn, the conflict’s toxins have spilled over into other areas of the globe and, in some cases, have fanned latent prejudices against Jews, Muslims and Arabs, reawakening old stereotypes of cunning, manipulation and secret power on the one hand, and marauding hordes threatening western or Christian civilization on the other. The parallel rise in these phenomena is not a coincidence. Each of them feeds off and nourishes the others. So they need to be viewed not in isolation but alongside each other.

There are, to be sure, some voices within the Jewish world that deny any link between Israeli policies and anti-Jewish sentiment. Rather, current enmity towards both Jews and Israel, notably from within the Arab and Muslim worlds, is explained as a phase in “Jew-hatred” stretching back centuries. The columnist Melanie Phillips promotes such a theme in her controversial book Londonistan, where she writes: “the fight against Israel is not fundamentally about land. It is about hatred of the Jews” who, she says, are viewed by Islam as “a cosmic evil”.1 From this, it follows that the way Israel conducts itself is at most a minor factor in the hostility directed towards it.

But the evidence does not bear this out. Quite the contrary. During the “Oslo years” in the 1990s, which temporarily stirred hopes for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, the political culture was, for a time, transformed. Jewish-Arab dialogue groups and other

co-operative projects blossomed. I was myself co-chair of the UK-based Council for Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue, whose monthly meetings were invariably packed to capacity. New friendships across the divide were struck and Israel’s stock in the Arab world, and indeed globally, shot up. According to leading Jewish research institutions at the time, “a general lessening of antisemitic pressure was recorded”.2

The potential for a change in the atmosphere had been foreshadowed nearly two decades earlier following President Sadat’s extraordinary visit to Israel in 1977. At the so-called peace conference held in Egypt a few weeks later, the international press corps, including myself, was told by the head of the press office that Egyptian spiritual leaders were being urged to downplay those portions of the Koran that spoke ill of the Jews and to stress instead those parts that called on Muslims to make friends with the Jews. The broader political mood is all-important.

I shared a taxi into the centre of Cairo with the venerable Israeli journalist and old friend, David Landau who, defying my advice, immediately declared himself to the Egyptian cab driver as Israeli. To my astonishment, this led to a most agreeable half-hour conversation, culminating in the manifestly destitute driver refusing to take a penny in fare from his “Israeli cousin”. Sadly, David died two years ago.

Later that week, with not much happening, I spent a day riding in the desert with a local peasant horseman who literally jumped with joy at the prospect of reaching peace with Israel. He had lost brothers in the past wars and taken in all their children. I encountered similar attitudes among the villagers we met during our various café stops. Not a word, by the way, about the Jewish cosmic evil.

A year or two down the line, I joined an Israeli delegation at a ceremony in Cairo marking the re-opening of an old synagogue in the city. Almost everywhere in Egypt I went during that period, the message to Israelis was the same: “withdraw from our territory and let the Palestinians have a state, and there will be no more animosity between us”. In the meantime, Israeli embassies stopped circulating literature depicting President Sadat as a Nazi sympathizer.

The contemporary claim of endemic “Jew-hatred” through the ages in the Islamic world is, moreover, repudiated by the testimony of no less an authority than the veteran historian Bernard Lewis, a Middle Eastern scholar of impeccable pro-Israel credentials. He has distinguished three kinds of Muslim/Arab hostility to Jews: opposition to Zionism; what he termed “normal” prejudice; and, thirdly, “that special and peculiar hatred of Jews, which has its origins in the role assigned to Jews in certain Christian writings and beliefs…”.3

Using the term “antisemitism” to refer to the third kind of hostility only, he remarked: “In this specialized sense, antisemitism did not exist in the traditional Islamic world”. Although he held that Jews “were never free from discrimination”, they were, he said, “only occasionally subject to persecution”. Indeed, at different times in history, Jews fleeing European Christian persecution were often welcomed in Muslim lands and given refuge there.

Professor Lewis identified Jewish resettlement in Palestine along with the creation of Israel and subsequent Israeli-Arab wars as precipitating a more recent “European-style antisemitism in the Islamic world”. “The real change”, he said, “began after the Sinai War of 1956 and was accelerated after the … war of 1967”.

What distinguished that war from previous battles was that it concluded with Israeli military rule over occupied territories that contained over a million Palestinian Arab inhabitants, a number that has more than quadrupled since then. In a pamphlet authored in the mid-1970s by a more youthful incarnation of myself, I contemplated the likely effect on future attitudes towards Jews in the hypothetical event of a prolonged Israeli occupation over the Palestinian people, suggesting there would be “ever more frequent and more intensive acts of resistance … by a population yearning for independence … and feeling encroached upon by a spreading pattern of Jewish colonization” – although at that time this amounted to fewer than 5,000 settlers, compared with more than a hundred times that number today.

This would leave Israel, I continued, with “little choice but to retaliate in an increasingly oppressive fashion — just to keep order … the moral appeal of Israel’s case will consequently suffer … and this will further erode her level of international support, although probably not amongst organized opinion within the Jewish diaspora. This sharpening polarization [I concluded] is bound to contribute to an upsurge in overt antisemitism, of which there are already ominous indications.”4

To me, as an earnest young researcher with no axes to grind, these prognostications were self-evident, and unfortunately played out over the following decades pretty much as projected. However, at the time, I doubted they would ever be put to the test, as I did not expect the Israeli occupation to continue beyond a few more years. Nor, by the way, did most Israelis.

Nonetheless, I was sharply wrapped over the knuckles by an assortment of outraged Israeli readers who, among other criticisms, pointed out that latent anti-Jewish feeling had always resided in some segments of international civil society — lamentably true — and that its manifestations had nothing to do with the way Israel behaves — demonstrably false.  

I don’t expect to be around to shamelessly quote myself again in another forty years but, as passions continue to rise, it is surely as plain as can be that if Israel does not end the occupation soon, and if organized Jewish opinion in other countries appears openly to back it, there will almost certainly be a further spike in anti-Jewish sentiment, potentially unleashing more sinister impulses. To anticipate or explain is not to justify, but it is hardly rocket science to see what lies ahead under these circumstances.

I want to suggest to you that historical Palestinian animosity towards Israel had little to do with it being a Jewish state as such. Had it been, say, a Hindu or a Buddhist state, the Palestinians would have been no less embittered about being exiled and dispossessed and, in subsequent years, seeing their would-be mini state subjected to acts of annexation, expropriation and colonization.

Any animosity aroused by such an imaginary scenario might have been falsely experienced on the receiving end as stemming from deep-seated anti-Hinduism or anti-Buddhism, just as Israelis often attribute the actual animosity towards them as deriving from deep-seated anti-Jewish prejudice.

The analogy, however, can be taken only so far. For what distinguishes the Jewish case from hostility, real or perceived, towards most — possibly all — other population sets, is that waiting in the wings ready to pounce is the all-embracing, centuries-old, dogma of classical antisemitism, purporting to explain all Jewish behaviour. To my knowledge, there is no equivalent anti-Hindu or anti-Buddhist dogma.

Like other closed ideologies, authentic antisemitism is immune to evidence or, inversely, is capable of absorbing all evidence, however contradictory, to back up its underlying contentions. The actual behaviour of its prey is inconsequential. Imported into the Muslim and Arab worlds where once it was alien, the antisemitic “explanation”, with its demonic conception of the Jew, is now increasingly embraced by disaffected populations with mind-sets primed to be receptive to a simple, “it’s-all-the-Jews-fault”, answer to many problems.

Thus, anti-Jewish sentiment, kindled by the actual deeds of the self-proclaimed Jewish state may, where the ground is fertile, metastasize into full-blooded antisemitism. But they are not the same thing. Objectively, the distinction is all-important. This said, anti-Jewish sentiment may be experienced, subjectively, as antisemitism, and be no less demoralizing or hurtful, especially for Jewish students on campus and other unsuspecting young people who often don’t know what has hit them and have certainly not been served well by the blinkered perspectives of those who pose as their mentors. My heart goes out to them.

I don’t wish to be a harbinger of doom, but it gets worse. If Jews around the world fail to apprehend the connections drawn attention to here and continue to identify uncritically with policies almost universally regarded as unjust and oppressive — policies that would never be condoned by the custodians of Jewish values if enacted by any other country – then we will continue to rely on spurious explanations for the rise in anti-Jewish feeling, even if there is some truth in them.

In our bafflement, we will also continue to unfairly charge genuine supporters of universal human rights with being covert antisemites because their commitment to human rights principles does not stop at the Palestinian doorstep. An acquaintance quizzically remarked to me recently “I thought an antisemite was someone who hated Jews, not someone who Jews hated.”

What all this points to is that Israel’s endless military occupation of the land and lives of another people is not just seriously endangering Israel itself – to say nothing about deepening the despair of the Palestinians — but it is also making the situation of Jews around the world increasingly precarious. As if that’s not troubling enough, the contemporary tendency to cry antisemitism when it’s really something else, carries with it the parallel but opposite peril of failing to perceive brazen antisemitism when it stares us in the face.

For years, the ardently pro-Zionist but ultimately – at the risk of over-generalizing — deeply antisemitic fundamentalist evangelical Christian right in the US has been serenaded by some pro-Israel groups and by the Israeli government. The Jerusalem Post invited the openly Islamophobic Sebastian Gorka, a security aide to President Trump, to address its annual conference in New York only this month, despite having been exposed by the Jewish newspaper The Forward as a member of a virulently antisemitic Hungarian group with Nazi ties.5

This was not without precedent. In 2009, two right-wing Hungarian politicians who had repeatedly vilified their country’s Jews, participated in the annual Global Forum to Combat Antisemitism in Jerusalem, sponsored by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. You couldn’t make it up! Meanwhile, certain Zionist circles in Britain had courted two far-right members of the European Parliament, from Poland and Latvia, who had also been accused of having had neo-Nazi links. There was a time when Jews and official Jewish bodies wouldn’t touch such people with a bargepole. However, their records as “friends of the Jews” have been defended partly on the ground that their political parties could be relied on to take Israel’s side at the European Parliament.

In a similar vein, Nick Griffin – when he was leader of the neo-fascist British National Party — disavowed his antisemitic past by arguing on BBC television that his party “stood full square behind Israel’s right to deal with Hamas terrorists”.6 In all these cases, professed support for Israel or Israeli actions was employed to relieve the charge of antisemitism, even by an avid antisemite with a record of Holocaust denial.

In essence, it now seems that it is the stance taken towards the Israeli state and the policies of its government of the day, that is becoming, bit by bit, the standard by which antisemitism is measured and assessed, steadily replacing the former gold standard of enmity toward the Jews qua Jews. Traditional antisemites are no longer – necessarily – antisemites. They may even be regarded as philosemites. Their place is being taken by people – including a growing number of Jews themselves — who have no quarrel with Jews qua Jews but have a strong objection to the policies of the political leadership in Israel, particularly with regard to its practices in occupied Palestinian territory. They are, in this worldview, fast becoming the “new antisemites” or, as the case may be, “self-hating Jews”.

In sum, the charge of antisemitism against Palestinians, and others who champion their cause, is often made too flippantly, lumping together real antisemites with the real victims of oppressive Israeli policies, while tending to give a free pass to ostensibly “pro-Israel” antisemites.

On the other hand, many Arabs, Muslims and their supporters too easily dismiss the accusation of antisemitism as just a device for defending indefensible Israeli policies. While this is sometimes true, the accusation is sometimes true too — just consider the extremely crude, albeit largely imported, antisemitism of the unamended Hamas charter. However, it should also be noted that some leading Palestinian figures have not only acknowledged the infiltration of antisemitism into Arab society but have been outspoken in their rejection of it.7

None of this is to say that anti-Zionism or
hostility to Israel in the wider world is not sometimes used as a cover for antisemitism or, in some cases, that it does not spring from similar impulses, whether on the part of the far right or the far left or elements in between. Nor is it to say that the propensity — carelessly or maliciously — of some anti-Zionist jargon to propagate many of the familiar, sinister antisemitic notions – such as ubiquitous Jewish power, Jewish money, Jewish control of media and governments, Jewish vengeance or even child murderers – is not of major concern.

While there are indeed some deeply worrying questions, they do not warrant the levels of hysteria witnessed in recent months on the part of some commentators and media — arguably fuelled by ulterior motives in some cases — which serve only to confound the issues, debase the coinage and often foment the very anti-Jewish feeling they claim to be combating.

If they truly wish to take the heat out of the disturbing rise in antisemitism, their energies would be better directed towards agitating for a swift end to the Israeli military occupation, without further pretext, and a fair settlement of the conflict with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world while the opportunity still presents itself. In this day and age, this is the single most important key to advancing the yearning to normalize relations between Jews and other peoples.

Tony Klug has written extensively about Israeli-Palestinian issues for some 45 years and has long-maintained a close affinity with both peoples. He is a special advisor on the Middle East to the Oxford Research Group and serves as a consultant to the Palestine Strategy Group and the Israel Strategic Forum. His doctoral thesis was on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank between the wars of 1967 and 1973, during when he called for a Palestinian state alongside Israel. For many years he was a senior official at Amnesty International, where he headed the International Development programme.


  1. ‘Londonistan: How Britain is Creating a Terror State Within’, Melanie Phillips, Gibson Square, 2006. Quoted and reviewed y Jackie Ashley, The Guardian G2, 16/6/06, pp.6-9.
  2. ‘Antisemitism World Report 1996’, The Institute for Jewish Policy Research and the American Jewish Committee, p.xvii.
  3. ‘Antisemitism in the Arab and IslamicWorld’, Bernard Lewis, Proceedings of the Eighth International Seminar of the Study Circle on World Jewry, 29-31 December 1985, published by the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, Hebrew University, 1988.
  4. ‘Middle East Impasse: the only way out’, Tony Klug, fabian research series 330, January 1977, p.14
  7. For an insightful Palestinian examination of the roots and effects of antisemitism, see ‘The minutiae of racism’, Azmi Bishara: Bernard Lewis (footnote 4) refers to a (non-referenced) book published in 1970 by the PLO Research Centre in Beirut in which the writer “protested against the use of such tainted materials, which ‘are regarded with contempt by the civilized world,’ and which dishonour and discredit the Arab cause.”



This article has been published in the AJDS magazine Just Voices, Issue 14, Nov. 2017: Antisemitism.