Is Anti-Semitism losing its meaning (and are we to blame)

As turbulence mounts regarding Cornel West’s speaking at UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies on May 3rd and 4th, a lot is being written about the ex-Princeton professor, now at the Union Theological Seminary. 

Much is being made of his support of the BDS campaign against Israel, and certain statements he’s made are being quoted.  According to the editorial published by David Lehrer and Joe Hicks Professional Cornel West is quoted as saying, “the Israeli occupation of my Palestinian brothers and sisters is a crime against humanity. They are killing hundreds daily (sic) — but where are the voices?” 

While one might argue the merits of the first half of the quote – and many do in and out of the Jewish community – the second half is patently false. 

Also in the “Jewish Journal,” in an open letter to West, Judah Pearl had this to say:  “It so happened, and you know it as well as we do, that the term BDS has become our most reliable litmus test. In other words, we have come to equate promoters of BDS ideology with those who seek the destruction of Israel, hence the demise of the Jewish people.”

Again, one can argue whether BDS has become the most reliable litmus test, but the second half of the quote is just as patently false as West’s.  And therein lies the problem. 

Just as Israel is not killing hundreds of Palestinians daily, all people who back BDS as a form of protest (misguidedly in my opinion for many reasons, not the least of which is that this was a tactic used against an apartheid state, which Israel is not), people who have reached a frustration point with 50 years of occupation and disproportionate body counts during various wars – regardless of the logic put forward to justify those circumstances –do not seek the destruction of Israel and demise of the Jewish people worldwide.  These people cannot be equated with the kind of anti-Semitism behind the unreasonable suspicion or hatred of Jews, belief in “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” or that Jews have horns and tails and kill Christian babies to use their blood to make matzoh. 

The conundrum of the moment for Jews is whether or not to accept the premise that criticism of Israeli policy and practice amounts to anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism and that disagreement with Israel even means anti-Zionism or in effect means anti-Semitism.  This is a connection that the Israeli and Jewish Right strive fervently to make and now dominates the discussion:  To be against Israel, to criticize its practices regarding the Palestinians or its Arab citizens, to the manner in which it prosecutes wars with Hamas, amounts to anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.  They are one in the same.  Now Judah Pearl, who heretofore I’ve had nothing but the utmost respect for, is upping the ante to include the worldwide elimination of Jewry. 

By creating and continually advocating for this equation, this premise eliminates any room for discussion, and essentially makes the following argument:  Any critic of Israeli policy and practice does not believe that the State of Israel should exist (anti-Zionism) and therefore believes that Jews are a hateful race deserving of unreasoned approbation (anti-Semitism).  And remember, anti-Semitism at its most extreme says it matters not where in the world Jews live – their religion is illegitimate and subversive, even criminal, and they should be stamped out for the good of greater society. 

And this goes for Jews as well as for goyim. A Jew can no longer criticize Israeli policy without being boxed and gift-wrapped as a card-carrying self-hating Jew, and the Jewish Right is saying it’s comfortable with jettisoning all the Jews who don’t agree with them.  And of course many are – beginning with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

While it is undeniably true that Israel is often singled out for criticism while other countries get a pass on flagrant violations of human rights, it is also true that Israel is the only Western (and yes, it is Western), developed country that is currently occupying another people.  This occupation is approaching half a century.  It is fatuous to believe that this fact is not at this time a significant motivating factor of criticism characterized as anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.  Additionally, it is given a periodic booster shot by internal policies like home demolition and the prosecution of wars in which questionable tactics make the news (the latest being the arrest of 3 soldiers for looting Palestinian homes), followed by innumerable investigations. 

According to the LA Times, Israel’s military advocate general, Maj. Gen. Dan Efroni is investigation more than 100 cases regarding incidents in this past summer’s Gaza war, including at least 19 of which have been referred for criminal investigation.  Many have been dismissed.  But the yardstick here is not that Israel investigates and Arab (or Muslim) states don’t.  If we equated ourselves with Arabs then Pew wouldn’t be reporting a recent survey that showed a third of Israeli Jews don’t believe Israeli Arabs should have the vote. 

A country that is seen internationally as essentially Western, as having a white, educated elite, that has a democratic (albeit chaotic) political process is not going to get a lot of slack in public opinion. Its behavior cannot be ignored as that of a two-bit dictatorship, theocratic oligarchy, or failed, third-world country.  It doesn’t matter if things are less free in Zimbabwe and Iran, or more brutal in Syria.  Israel is judged as we would judge Europe or North America.  9-11, which killed more people in an hour than have been terror victims in Israel for decades, was not an excuse to round up everyone with a Muslim surname and subject innocent people to rendition and torture.  And everyone who held that opinion was not an Enemy of the State, deserving of or threatened with revocation of citizenship, immediate deportation, or worse. 

The idea put forward by Martin Peretz, editor in chief of The New Republic, in a 2003 dispatch from Paris, that the intellectual French Left is, “drawn to the empty idea of Palestine simply because they despise Jews.  C’est ca.  Nothing else can explain it, and nothing does,” has been picked up as a universal mantra on the Jewish Right. It was a morally bankrupt position then, and much more dangerously so today. 

Today, there is no difference between Trevor Noah and Hamas.  Today there is no difference between BDS and the “Final Solution.”  Someone in a passing car yells at Elon Gold and his family that he hopes the same thing happens to them that Israel is doing to the Palestinians, and this has nothing to do with Israeli policy and practice – only with anti-Semitism – despite the fact that reference to Israeli policy and practice is part of, and implicit in, what he yells.  He’s angry, and he’s intemperate, but he’s not calling for the worldwide destruction of Jews. 

Unless we as Jews (all of us) find a temperate way to talk about the problems that plague us without the extreme labeling that shuts off discussion; unless we are able to honestly confront the fact that what goes on in Israel, does not stay in Israel, but instead affects us and influences non-Jews worldwide, regardless of political sympathies, then we are headed down a destructive path largely of our own making, but blaming our enemies – real and imagined – with every step we take. 

Mitch Paradise is a writer and producer living in Los Angeles.