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Antisemitism defined: Why opposing the Jewish people's right to self-determination is antisemitic

17 March 2024



2024-03-17 0054

The seventh example of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Definition of Antisemitism states that “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is an example of antisemitism.

As the IHRA definition of antisemitism states, criticism of Israel is not in and of itself antisemitic. But much of contemporary anti-Zionism, or the delegitimization of Israel and its supporters, draws on and perpetuates antisemitic tropes.

Why “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor”

It often demonizes Israel and treats the Jewish people like no other group

Denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination often leads to demonization of Israel and dubs it a unique evil. Detractors of Israel often attempt to magnify any mistake Israel makes, ignores context of Israeli actions and compares the belief in a Jewish homeland to the world’s worst bigotries, including Nazism. This isn’t only an attempt to compare contemporary Israeli policy to Nazi Germany, but also to minimize the Holocaust, and use the Jewish suffering during the Holocaust as a cudgel against the Jewish people.

The late Professor Robert S. Wistrich, former head of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, explained, “if Zionists are 'Nazis' and if [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon] really is Hitler, then it becomes a moral obligation to wage war against Israel.”  Such comparisons are gross trivializations of the evils of the actual Nazis during the Shoah and thus incorrect.

Any alleged wrongdoings on Israel’s part cannot be compared to Nazi crimes during the Holocaust. The Israeli–Palestinian conflict is a complex geopolitical one, whereas the Holocaust was the attempt to systematically annihilate Jewry. Despite Israeli operations in Gaza due to Hamas and other terrorist groups firing rocket fire into Israel the Palestinian population has grown by all metrics, and is projected to continue doing so. Worldwide Jewish demographics on the other hand are yet to recover and reach the population size they had prior to the Holocaust, an illustration of not only the horrors of the Holocaust, but also an explanation to why such comparisons between the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Holocaust are not only preposterous, but diminish the pain of those who have suffered during the conflict.

Comparing Israeli policy towards Palestinians with Nazi policy regarding Jews is an example of Holocaust inversion, where reality is inverted (the Israelis are cast as the "new" Nazis and the Palestinians as the "new" Jews), and an inversion of morality (the Holocaust is presented as a moral lesson for, or even a moral indictment of, "the Jews").   Holocaust Inversion acts as a force against identifying the changing nature of contemporary antisemitism and creating a cohesive coalition against it.

The motivations of those who engage in Holocaust inversion are manyfold. Some seek to achieve the moral delegitimization of Israel through demonization. Some use it as a means with which to cover up for Nazi crimes during the Holocaust and expunge guilt by arguing that they were and are a common phenomenon and are now being perpetrated by many Israelis and Jews themselves.  Other detractors of the Jewish State’s existence criticize the policies of the Israeli government, by assigning blame to “Zionists,” intending to use the word to demonize Jews and other supporters of Israel, and tacitly not recognize the State of Israel. Similar to those who propagate classical antisemitism, they use euphemism, such as globalists and Marxists, to denigrate Jews in order to attempt to give themselves plausible deniability. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King explained so succinctly, "When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You're talking antisemitism.”

Furthermore, individuals also use age-old antisemitic conspiracy myths to demonize Israel including invoking dual loyalty, allegations that Jews and Israel control economies and politicians, and that Jews and Israel are the world’s suffering, including the coronavirus pandemic. Professor Wistrich, posited, “the calls to dismantle the Jewish state, whether they come from Muslims, the Left, or the radical Right, increasingly rely on an antisemitic stereotypization of classic themes, such as the manipulative 'Jewish lobby,' the Jewish 'world conspiracy,' and Jewish/Israeli "warmongers.”

Other individuals, while not invoking antisemitic conspiracy myths exclude those who believe in Jewish self-determination from political movements, even ones having little or nothing to do with Israel and the Middle East. They do so claiming that Zionists are comparable to racists. By extension they exclude the vast majority of Jews, as the overwhelming majority support the creation of a nation state for the Jewish people.  This is only a natural next step of the decision by too many to compare Zionist to Nazis.

It denies that Jews have a right to security

The Jewish people have a right to defend themselves, just like any other people, especially in light of their history of persecution. Israel ensures that Jews have control over their future and remain safe, despite of the tremendous uncertainties in the world. The Holocaust was only the latest genocide Jews faced. To say that Jews don’t have the right to defend themselves is antisemitic within itself.

No other group of people with a country is told that  their country doesn’t have a right to exist. Perhaps one could argue that the creation of a Jewish State in the British Mandate of Palestine would not be a good idea prior to the Partition Plan and the creation of the State of Israel. but once you are advocating for the destruction of Israel, it houses a majority of the Jewish people around the world, and the end of it will inevitably mean harm to Jewish citizens, it is antisemitic.

It often denies that Jews are indigenous to the land of Israel

Given that Jews are indigenous people to the land of Israel, and indigenous people have the right to self-determination on their ancestral homeland, denying an indigenous right is inherently discriminatory to that group of people. In this case of Israel and the Jews, it would be antisemitic. Detractors often deny the history of the Jewish people and their connection to the land of Israel, rejecting the importance of the land of Israel to religious and secular Jews throughout history and the aspirations to return to their ancient homeland.

Human rights lawyer David Matas wrote, “One form of antisemitism denies access of Jews to goods and services because they are Jewish. Another form of antisemitism denies the right of the Jewish people to exist as a people because they are Jewish.”

This isn’t only a blatant double standard as many countries are nation states, including France, Egypt, Germany, and Japan, but implies that the State of Israel is an imperialist, colonialist state, “born in sin.” This doesn’t only minimize Jewish history as Zionism is about a people’s return to their ancient homeland after years of exile and persecution, but also tokenizes Jews by dividing them into,  ‘Good Jews’ (the small percentage who are anti-Zionist) and ‘Bad Jews’ (the vast majority who believe in the Jewish right to self-determination and Israel’s right to exist). This effectively marginalizes Jews and turns them into pariahs, by forcing them to publicly disavow the State of Israel or be cast as racists and have a target on their back simply for their identification with their peoplehood.

Those who don’t believe that the Jewish people have a right to self-determination often defend themselves from accusations of antisemitism by arguing that those who support Israel (Jews) are silencing criticism of Israel by calling them antisemitic. Such claims are at best conspiratorial and at worst antisemitic, as it plays on conspiracy myths of Jewish power. Embedded in this claim, is that Jews aren’t actually concerned about antisemitism and their security, but rather are advancing their political agenda, or are simply mistaken to what constitutes antisemitism, an argument that many would likely not make for any other minority group.

Dina Porat, head of the Institute for Study of Antisemitism and Racism at Tel-Aviv University, argues “antisemitism is involved when the belief is articulated that of all the peoples on the globe (including the Palestinians), only the Jews should not have the right to self-determination in a land of their own.” This point is particularly interesting as there are several other land disputes across the globe, but there are few people arguing that any countries involved in other land disputes should cease to exist.

What isn’t antisemitism:

It isn’t antisemitic to criticize specific Israeli policies. As previously mentioned, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism states that criticism of Israel is not in and of itself antisemitic, but rather “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, the Biden administration’s State Department’s special envoy to combat and monitor antisemitism, notes that the best example of that is found at “cafes in Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem,” but delegitimizing Israel and denying that Israel does not have a right to exist is itself antisemitic.

Rather it is essential for those criticizing Israeli policy to do so without perpetrating antisemitic conspiracy myths, demonizing the Jewish people, and questioning Israel’s right to exist in peace. Doing so, isn’t only crucial to minimizing antisemitism, but having important discussions about Israeli policy.

The Jewish people’s connection to the land of Israel:

The roots of the Jewish connection to the land of Israel is over 3,000-years long and, include a 1,000 years of a rich and thriving civilization. Despite being exiled to Babylonia, Jews eventually returned seventy years later. This return was a precursor to the ideals and ambitions of the modern-day Zionist movement. Jewish civilization in ancient Israel existed for approximately 400 years until Jews were exiled again by the Romans. This exile would last approximately 2,000 years.

Despite the exile, Israel has remained the center of Jewish practice with biblical Jewish festivals based on the agricultural seasons in the Land of Israel. The foundation of Jewish practice, such as the Mishnah - the bases of Jewish law - was compiled in Israel. The longing of returning to the land is a key component of cultural and national identity with Jews praying three times to return to the land, saying grace after meals, among other actions. Modern Zionism formally took root in the late 19th century, as Jews throughout the world faced growing antisemitism. In a watershed moment, French army captain Alfred Dreyfus was wrongfully sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly selling military secrets to the Germans. His trial and the subsequent events, which were felt throughout Europe and had a lasting impact on French politics, are often referred to as the “Dreyfus Affair.”

While the Jewish people have always lived in the land of Israel, by the First Zionist Congress in 1897, Jews had already been returning to the then-Ottoman-ruled territory to escape resurgences of antisemitism in Europe and to fulfill the dream of returning to their ancient homeland.

Understanding Antisemitism:

Antisemitism is a complex, multifaceted hatred. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism is considered the gold standard in understanding antisemitism and has been used by governments and institutions to identify and monitor the phenomenon.

An internationally accepted definition is also useful in assisting authorities to determine whether an incident is antisemitic or not.

The IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism states:

“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.”

The definition includes a list of eleven reference examples, including, most relevantly:

  • Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

  • Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.

  • Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.

But beyond the definition, antisemitism is a shapeshifting hatred that has taken many forms throughout history. As Bret Stephens of the New York Times, said “Long before Jews were hated for supposedly racial reasons, we were hated for religious reasons. And long after many people stopped hating Jews for racial reasons, they hated us for other reasons. On the nationalist far right, Jews are often hated for being too international. On the internationalists far left, Jews are often hated for being too national.”

In short, hatred of the Jewish people is shape-shifting phenomenon, which has often blended into politics in order to be an acceptable form of bigotry.

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