In order to determine the presence of anti-Semitism in discourse and actions concerning Israel, we need to make our way through the lies and logical fallacies surrounding this issue.
by André Callus
Image: Pro-Palestine demonstration in Valletta / December 2017. Picture by Raisa Galea.
Critics of Israel are often on the receiving end of harsh accusations of anti-Semitism, especially when they campaign to raise awareness about Israeli actions aimed at grabbing Palestinian land and denounce attacks leaving civilians killed and wounded.
What are we to make of these accusations? Do they reveal a real, widespread, case of anti-Semitism among those levelling criticism at the State of Israel? Or should the problem of anti-Semitism be dismissed altogether as a cynical ploy to silence such criticism?
It is crucial to point out from the outset that the problem of anti-Semitism cannot be dismissed. The prejudice against or hatred of Jews has deep roots and has had extreme consequences, with the murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, never to be forgotten. However, to determine the presence of anti-Semitism in discourse and actions concerning Israel, we need to make our way through the lies and logical fallacies surrounding this issue.
Fallacy 1: ‘Anti-Zionism Is a Form of Anti-Semitism’
French President Emmanuel Macron recently declared that anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism, going on to state that France will adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. Among the examples accompanying this definition—most of them outlining cases which are undoubtedly anti-Semitic—one finds that “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” is anti-Semitic.
This is a point worth discussing since many accusations of anti-Semitism employ this line of thought, namely: criticising the State of Israel, or stating that the ideology underpinning it (Zionism) breeds anti-Semitism, means to directly or indirectly erode the legitimacy of the only self-proclaimed Jewish state. For example, most accusations of anti-Semitism levelled against the British Labour Party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn revolve around this notion.
In order to assess this claim it is first imperative to provide a historical perspective to Zionism and the Jewish State of Israel.
The Zionist political ideology started developing in Europe in the late 1800s, heavily influenced by two dominant ideologies of the time: nationalism and imperialism. Zionists promoted the creation of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine through the colonisation of land they considered inhabited mostly by ‘inferior’ non-Europeans. Initially, Zionism was embraced by a very small minority of European Jews since most of them considered themselves part of the countries where they were born and which their ancestors inhabited for centuries.
Not many Jews appreciated the idea of moving to some far-away foreign land. Moreover, the small Jewish communities in Palestine had no nationalistic aspirations for the creation of a Jewish state. Zionism was, in fact, an alien concept to Jews who lived in Arab countries or elsewhere outside Europe.
The Zionist political ideology started developing in Europe in the late 1800s, heavily influenced by two dominant ideologies of the time: nationalism and imperialism.
For European Jews, the overall rejection of Zionism changed as a result of the unprecedented level of persecution suffered in the first half of the 20th century, when many Jews in Europe came to accept the idea of establishing a national homeland that could serve as a refuge from genocidal anti-Semitism.
The Zionist project was at first enabled by the British colonisation of Palestine, with the British administration allowing Zionist organisations to establish Jewish settlements in Palestine and set up Zionist armed militias such as the Haganah, Irgun and Stern. When the British decided to abruptly terminate their ‘mandate’ in Palestine, Zionists faced a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in their plan to create a Jewish state.
After nearly three decades of Zionist-sponsored Jewish migration to Palestine, the Jewish population was nowhere near constituting a majority in the region. In 1948—the year the State of Israel was created—Jews only accounted for 35% of the population of Palestine. However, the United Nations partition plan allocated 55% of the then Palestinian territory to a Jewish state, despite the demographic situation. Besides, even the part earmarked for this state had no decisive Jewish majority, since the Palestinian and Jewish populations there were roughly equal in number.
As Zionist colonisation aided by the British had not been enough to secure the Jewish majority required for a Jewish state, the Zionists embarked on a systematic ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population in the days preceding and following the proclamation of the State of Israel, in what became known to the Palestinians as the Nakba, the catastrophe.
Implementing a plan that had been drawn up in minute detail, Zionist militias went around Palestine, killing, instilling fear in and expelling Palestinians from their cities and villages. This resulted in entire Palestinian villages being wiped out and Israel gaining control over 78% of historic Palestine. Over 750,000 Palestinians were expelled to Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and other parts of Palestine. These people and their descendants continue to live as refugees until this day.
However, Israel’s obsession with reducing the number of Palestinians and increasing its territory—the policy of ‘maximum land, minimum Arabs’—did not end with the Nakba. It is an obsession inherent to the Zionist project, perfectly aware that ongoing violence against and dispossession of Palestinians is required in order to maintain a Jewish majority and expand the territory of the Israeli state.
So, does making reference to these murderous events breed anti-Semitism by delegitimising an entity, the State of Israel, which identifies as Jewish? A very important distinction must be drawn between the Zionist ideology of the Israeli state, and Jews.
Whilst the Zionist ideology and the consequent establishment of the State of Israel are based on Jewish ethnic identity, these are not one and the same. In fact, plenty of Jews do not identify as Zionist, since Zionism is not an ethnicity but a political ideology. Thus, there is nothing anti-Semitic in questioning the foundations of the Israeli state and its ongoing practices. In other words, the Jewish ethnicity of Zionists and the Israeli state is nearly irrelevant in this case, since they are being criticised for their geopolitical views and actions, and not their identification as Jewish.
There is nothing anti-Semitic in questioning the foundations of the Israeli state and its ongoing practices.
Conversely, asserting that criticism of Israel is an attack on Jews verges on the anti-Semitic since it logically implies that Jews are to be held collectively responsible for Israel and its actions.
Fallacy 2: ‘Israel is Used as a Synonym for Jew’
Some individuals and groups, primarily but not exclusively from the far-right, use ‘Zionist’, ‘Israel’ and ‘Jew’ as synonymous terms. For example, the far-right Hungarian Jobbik Party declared itself anti-Zionist, and in March 2019, the Italian fascist group Forza Nova organised a protest against Israel. Referring to Zionism and Israel in this context serves to attack Jews by portraying the actions of Israel as representative of a Jewish identity. The reverse also happens when individuals angered by the injustices perpetrated by Zionist ideology and the brutality of the Israeli state blame Jews as an ethnic group, or use the term Jew to mean Israel.
This is clearly a form of anti-Semitism. It is wrong and should be unreservedly rejected.
However, the fact that a few anti-Semitic individuals and groups use the term Zionism or Israel as a synonym for Jews does not invalidate the criticism of those who make a clear distinction between the two. Criticism of Zionism and Israel is objectively not anti-Semitic when such criticism, however damning, is genuinely directed at the ideology and the state.
Fallacy 3: ‘Singling-out Israel’
Detractors of activism in solidarity with Palestine often argue that Israel is being singled out for its actions, thus implying that the real intention behind criticism of Israel is to demonise Jews. This argument generally recognises flaws in Israel’s conduct, but emphasises that these flaws receive disproportionate attention due to Israel’s Jewish character, and that activists are silent with regard to human rights abuses in other countries.
This argument rings hollow.
First, how can we measure violence and colonialism? If we acknowledge the full extent of Israeli actions and their devastating impact on Palestinians, then no level of attention to these ongoing acts of colonialism can be considered disproportionate.
Second, it is simply untrue that activists are silent when it comes to human rights abuses elsewhere. People who express their solidarity with Palestinians are often vocal about other injustices too. In fact, left-wing activism in solidarity with Palestine traces its roots to the broader movement of solidarity with people struggling against colonialism.
Inevitably, people’s awareness and sensitivities are influenced by their own personal experiences and the socio-political context they live in. It is practically impossible to be active about every single injustice going on around the globe. And from the perspective of activists in Western countries, injustice in Palestine hits particularly close to home due to the strong economic, military and political support Western governments provide to the Israeli state as well as their historical role in its establishment.
Fallacy 4: ‘Anti-Semitic Tropes’
Apologists for Israel’s colonisation of Palestine sometimes argue that a certain discourse about Israel, such as disapproval of its ability to shape media narratives and to deploy powerful lobby groups, uses anti-Semitic tropes which depict Jews as evil global conspirators with hidden economic and political powers.
For instance, US Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar was recently accused of drawing on anti-Semitic tropes when she called out the US Congress for being subservient to Israeli lobby groups which wield strong financial and political power. However, Ilhan Omar at no point mentioned Jews, and there is nothing to suggest that she was using the word Israel as a synonym for Jew.
Attempts to accuse all critics of Israel of resorting to anti-Semitic tropes deliberately obfuscate the distinction between ‘Israel’ and ‘Jews’, thus making these two terms appear interchangeable.
Pointing out the very real power of a state—Israel—has absolutely nothing to do with anti-Semitic tropes attributing secret powers to a group defined in religious or ethnic terms—Jews. Attempts to accuse all critics of Israel of resorting to anti-Semitic tropes deliberately obfuscate the distinction between ‘Israel’ and ‘Jews’, thus making these two terms appear interchangeable, and it also fails to see that there are critics of Israel who themselves identify as Jewish. As discussed above, this is both factually incorrect and also anti-Semitic, since it implicitly attributes collective responsibility of Jews for the actions of the Israeli state.
Fallacy 5: ‘BDS targets Jews and Innocent Israelis’
A focal point in the debate over anti-Semitism versus criticism of Israel is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. Inspired by the South African anti-Apartheid movement, the BDS commenced in 2005 in response to a call by Palestinian civil society to exert non-violent pressure on Israel by:
- withdrawing support for Israel, Israeli and international companies and institutions that are involved in the violation of Palestinian human rights;
- urging entities to withdraw investments from all Israeli companies and from international companies involved in violating Palestinian rights;
- pressuring governments to fulfil their legal obligation to hold Israel to account by ending military trade, free-trade agreements and expelling Israel from international forums.
The BDS campaign has targeted several commercial, academic, sporting and cultural entities and events, both within and outside Israel. For example, it is currently promoting a boycott of the Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv on the grounds that Israel is “…shamelessly using Eurovision as part of its official Brand Israel strategy, which presents “Israel’s prettier face” to whitewash and distract attention from its war crimes against Palestinians.”
There have been attempts in a number of different countries to legally outlaw the BDS campaign on the basis of anti-Semitism, or to use anti-discrimination law against BDS activists. The charge of anti-Semitism against the BDS movement has two main elements.
One element is closely related to the “singling-out Israel” type of argument, in which the BDS campaign is viewed as anti-Semitic since it is directed against Israel and not against other countries that commit equally grave or worse human rights abuses. What this argument fails to consider is that boycott campaigns are not initiated solely on the basis of the gravity of a situation.
Boycotts are not simply a moral stance but also a strategic tool, employed in those circumstances where they can make an impact. As Nelson Mandela had stated, “…boycott is in no way a matter of principle but a tactical weapon whose application should, like all other political weapons of the struggle, be related to the concrete conditions prevailing at the given time.”
Boycotts are not simply a moral stance but also a strategic tool, employed in those circumstances where they can make an impact.
Waging a boycott campaign against a state would be pointless if such a campaign has no chance of succeeding, or if it does not enjoy popular support from the oppressed group. Thus, the absence of a similar boycott campaign against other states perpetrating human right abuses does not prove a biased attitude towards Israel, but only means that the conditions for a boycott of other perpetrators might not be in place.
On the other hand, we can deduce that the necessary conditions for exerting pressure on Israel via a boycott is in place, since the BDS is undeniably having an impact—so much so that there are several legal and political attempts to crush it—and it also enjoys widespread support from Palestinians.
The other element in the “BDS is anti-Semitic” argument concerns the fact that the BDS movement targets the Israeli state as a whole, and it is therefore bound to affect all citizens of Israel. However, the BDS is no different in this from other boycott movements that are widely recognised as legitimate and that have contributed to making a difference, such as the boycott in place until 1990 against the Apartheid regime in South Africa.
Like South Africa under white rule, Israel is an Apartheid state where the people are segregated on the basis of their ethnicity.
Palestinians are denied access to water, subjected to regular arbitrary arrest and detention, have their freedom of movement severely restricted, suffer frequent home demolitions and are encircled by a massive Separation Wall. In the meantime, Israel continues to expand its illegal settlements in the West Bank. Armed settlers harass Palestinians daily through practices such as burning their centuries-old olive trees and randomly shooting on Palestinian villages. Gaza has been completely besieged by Israel for the last 12 years and has become an open-air prison, completely destroyed through successive military aggression.
It must be acknowledged that responsibility for this Apartheid set up and the settler-colonialist praxis falls squarely on the Israeli state as a whole, including its social, political, military, cultural and economic dimensions. Still, Israeli citizens are not targeted indiscriminately and the BDS movement explicitly states that it “…does not boycott or campaign against any individual or group simply because they are Israeli.”
There may be instances where boycotting the State of Israel and its accomplices could impact all Israeli citizens. If, for example, an international artist refuses to perform in Israel, all its citizens are being potentially affected by this action. However, such actions are still meant to target the Israeli state and not individuals who just happen to be Israeli.
Everyone espousing principles of justice and equality must be committed to resisting anti-Semitism, just as all other forms of racism. Logic demands, however, that we also oppose the institutional and inherent racism of the Israeli state. This entails criticising the Israeli state for its specific acts of violence as well as for being, from its inception, a colonial state with a well-defined project of ethnic cleansing.
Whoever tries to blur the lines between anti-Semitism and criticism of the State of Israel inevitably ends up justifying racism, be it Israeli state racism or racism against Jews. False accusations of anti-Semitism, like the ones discussed in this article, are malicious attempts at derailing the debate on Israel/Palestine. They are intended to silence critics of Israel and to justify Israeli settler-colonialism. They also end up confusing the true meaning of anti-Semitism, making it harder for the general public to identify and counter real anti-Semitic incidents.
The antidote to this fallacy is to ensure that we are always guided by principles of justice and equality, standing firm in our commitment to solidarity with all groups facing oppression, whoever and wherever they are.
André Callus became involved in social justice activism at the of age of 17 when he joined Maltese left-wing organisation Moviment Graffitti. He has been involved in the organisation of campaigns addressing issues of racism, workers’ rights and environmental protection, among others. During his three-month experience with the International Solidarity Movement in the West Bank, in Palestine, he participated in a number of non-violent direct actions against Israeli occupation.