Understanding and Misunderstanding Anti-Semitism and Israel

November 12, 2020
People participate in a Jewish solidarity march across the Brooklyn Bridge on January 5, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images)

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According to an exit poll conducted by J Street, 78% of American Jews voted for Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate, while 21% voted for Donald Trump, the Republican candidate. No surprise there — Jews have historically voted Democrat.

Now, consider the findings of another survey, released by the American Jewish Committee on October 26, the second anniversary of the killings at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. As part of its State of Antisemitism report, AJC had some surprising data about how American Jews feel about political parties. According to the AJC survey, 37% of American Jews think the Democratic Party holds some anti-Semitic views, while 69% believe the Republican Party holds such views.

I’m not surprised that the perception of anti-Semitism within the Republican Party is so high, given the growing alliances between some Republicans and white nationalists in recent years. Witness, for instance, the recent election of Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia and Lauren Boebert in Colorado to Congress, both of whom are candidates who support QAnon, the far-right group purveying anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

But what are the reasons that over a third of American Jews believe there is anti-Semitism in the Democratic Party? I believe it is indicative of a common misconception about the nature of anti-Semitism, especially as it relates to Israel, that leads some to believe that the anti-Semitism on both sides of the political spectrum is equally dangerous and that that each type should be treated equally.

Look at the Jewish Journal, for instance. An informal tabulation of the Journal’s coverage of anti-Semitism shows that since 2017, there were 144 stories about left-wing anti-Semitism and 176 about right-wing anti-Semitism. Or consider the New York Times writer, Bret Stephens who, in a column commemorating the slaughter of Jews by a white supremacist in Pittsburgh, devoted more than twice as much space to anti-Semitism on the left than the right.

To be clear, there is anti-Semitism on both ends of the political spectrum. But they are different in kind and in quantity.

There is anti-Semitism on both ends of the political spectrum. But they are different in kind and in quantity.

Anti-Semitic remarks from the right appear in different forms. When white supremacists attack Zionism, they condemn “Zionist control of the U.S. government and the American financial system and, as the ADL puts it, the way that “American Jews are manipulating U.S. immigration policy in order to undermine the U.S.’s white majority.” And President Trump, for instance, was accused of invoking the anti-Semitic trope of “dual loyalty” in his 2020 Rosh Hashana call with American Jewish leaders when he said, “We really appreciate you… We love your country also.” Evangelical pastor John Hagee demonstrates another example of right-wing anti-Semitism in his attitude toward Israel; he once said that Hitler and the Nazis were sent by God to chase Jews back to the land of Israel.

As for anti-Semitism on the left, many of us remember how the Soviet Union drew upon classic Russian anti-Semitism (as expressed in “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”) as a way of cozying up to Arab nations. Anti-Semitism also finds its way into contemporary progressive movements, such as the British Labour Party when Jeremy Corbyn was its leader. We also see anti-Semitic tropes in statements by leaders such as Zahra Billoo, who was booted off the board of the Women’s March after she defended Hamas for firing rockets into Israel. Or the anti-Semitic meme that Rodney Muhammad, president of the Philadelphia NAACP, shared on Facebook (Mohammad was forced out a month after).

But there are times when it’s tempting to think that criticism of Israel on the left is anti-Semitic, but it really isn’t. Even when criticism and condemnation of Israel are harsh, it tends to be based on politics, not religion. And it’s essential to respond to it that way.

Let’s take the example of how double standards relate to anti-Semitism. The “Working Definition” of anti-Semitism, adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA), states that it is anti-Semitic to apply “double standards by requiring of Israel a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

But is it necessarily anti-Semitic when held to a different standard and treated differently than others?

Clearly, there are numerous reasons for focusing more on Israel than other countries. Some people focus on Israel’s human rights record because of the level of aid Israel receives from the United States. Others may pay more attention to Israel because the Palestinians are more effective at PR than the Uighurs oppressed by the Chinese.

In both these cases, the focus on Israel is political. It is not automatically indicative of anti-Semitism or a biased double standard.

What would make a double standard about Israel anti-Semitic? When Israel is treated differently because it is a Jewish state, that’s anti-Semitism. For example, it would be anti-Semitic to say that Israel doesn’t have the right to exist because Jews don’t have the right to self-determination — but other people do.

Writing in the National Post, Stephens repeats another misconception about anti-Semitism. “Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism,” he says.

I am a proud Zionist. But I know people who oppose Zionism, and they are far from being anti-Semites. Their opposition does not necessarily reflect a specific anti-Jewish stance, they are not advocating the end of Israel, and their positions do not necessarily lead to anti-Semitic behavior. For example, some people oppose Zionism because, on principle, they are against ethnonationalism, including Zionism and Palestinian nationalism.

I know others, mostly Palestinians, whose personal or national experience was adversely affected by Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel. The Palestinian Knesset Member Jamal Zahalka, for example, once introduced a bill to turn Israel from a Jewish state into a “state for all its citizens.” Does that make him an anti-Semite? I don’t think so. Neither was Saeb Erakat, the Palestinian peace negotiator who passed away from COVID-19 on November 10. He once asked me: “Why should I be a Zionist? Israel took my family’s land. But does that mean I oppose the existence of the state of Israel? Of course not!”

And let’s not forget Jewish anti-Zionists, who hold ethical and religious convictions that oppose a Jewish state (a Jewish state shall only come about after the Messiah arrives, or that statism is not compatible with Judaism).

None of these motivations or attitudes towards Israel or Zionism necessarily constitute anti-Semitic behavior. What turns opposition to Zionism into anti-Semitism is the use of anti-Semitic tropes, accusations, or threats. What also makes anti-Zionism anti-Semitic is the negation of the right of Jews to identify themselves as Jews and thereby fulfill their rights to self-determination in Israel.

Why is it important to distinguish between right-wing and left-wing anti-Semitism? What does this have to do with our daily realities, like tensions on college campuses? How does it help us respond to a friend or colleague whose condemnation of Israel feels anti-Semitic to us?

These distinctions are important because the more we understand the sources of anti-Semitism, the better we’ll understand how to combat anti-Semitism in each of its forms. Ultimately, that’s our shared goal: to defeat anti-Semitism wherever we find it. I hope to explore strategies for doing that in future columns.

Jonathan Jacoby is the Nexus Task Force Director at the Knight Program of the USC Annenberg School, exploring issues related to anti-Semitism and Israel.

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