A thought on anti-Semitism vs. criticism of Israel

Yesterday on Twitter, Alex was musing about the fact that while we tend to take their word for it when minorities believe something to be racist, we do not extend the same courtesy to accusations that criticism of Israel is necessarily anti-Semitic. To be sure, some criticism of Israel is motivated by anti-Semitism — but that tends to come from fringe elements that few would take seriously.

Leaving that out of account, I think the key reason that criticism of Israel shouldn’t be viewed as necessarily anti-Semitic is that in Israel, the Jews are the powerful ones. They’re not a poor oppressed group that’s being scapegoated — they are in charge of the biggest military power in the Middle East, which has the virtually unconditional backing of the biggest military power in the history of humanity.

Racism is not symmetrical — it’s not “just as racist” for an African American to distrust white people, for instance. Racism is a tool used against a disadvantaged group in order to justify their oppression by the dominant group. Obviously this doesn’t tell the whole story, but this is a necessary starting point if we want to keep the real political stakes of racism in view, rather than letting it devolve into the analytically useless question of “personal prejudices” that are “just as bad” no matter who’s harboring them against whom.

7 thoughts on “A thought on anti-Semitism vs. criticism of Israel

  1. Oh, geez, I hope I’m not turning into the lurker who only comments when my pet issue comes up (and to prevent that, I hereby commit to comment on at least five non-Israel posts in the next month!)

    I agree that criticism of Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitic, and that the distinction between legitimate political critique and ethnic/religious slurs should be preserved, and that racism is not symmetrical and the difference in power dynamics between groups inside Israel and outside of it is a very, very important element in discourse about the conflict that we need to pay more attention to, but there is a position, in between “legitimate political critique that is in no way anti-Semitic” and “criticism of Israel motivated by anti-Semitism”, and that is “legitimate political critique which draws on anti-Semitic rhetoric in order to make its point”. This is where I find conversations (especially in the religion sector) tend to break down a bit–an issue I’ve written a lot about, in both academic publications and my own blog, including this piece from last summer.

  2. To be fair, I was literally musing on an interesting philosophical and rhetorical asymmetry and I agree with your points here.

    However, I’d add their is a further theo-political complexity here. Though I’d agree that one can criticise the modern state of Israel while remaining entirely anti-semitic, I am not sure how clean this is seen to be from the opposite end. Partly because the state of Israel is caught up in a very complex theo-political assemblage related to the identity of Jewish people, linked to the idea of Israel that goes back to The Torah. So when criticising the modern state of Israel, from the some pro-Israeli Jewish people’s point of view you are criticising something far “bigger”, the idea of Israel which is part of being Jewish, especially when this assemblage is encouraged by some Jewish religious leaders. So this makes the structure of claims about anti-semitism complicated.

    Of course, this too might be a weird musing or stating the obvious.

  3. At the same time, there are many Jewish critiques of Israeli state violence. Even many Zionists, such as Hannah Arendt, Martin Buber, and Albert Einstein argued that while Palestine should be a site for the Jewish homeland, the explicitly argued against Palestine becoming the site of a Jewish State. In fact, Arendt might point to the fact that nation-states are inherently racist because they create refugees. In this case, one can think about the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people or even what is currently happening, where there is protest by Israelis that African refugees should leave the nation. Or take Primo Levi who publicly declared during the Israel-Lebanon war in the 80s, that Israel’s actions were unethical. I think he said something to the extent that, one could not use the holocaust to justify everything and that everyone is somebody’s jew and that the Palestinians have become the Jewish people of the Israelis.

    What I am trying to get at is that you’re correct in arguing that criticism of Israel is not necessarily racism because there have been and currently are many Jews (for example, Daniel Boyarin and Judith Butler) who do speak out against Israeli state violence. They do so precisely because their reading of Judaism obligates them to do so.

  4. I think that in classical anti-semitism jews are often considered to be powerful, not disadvantaged. German jews were far from a poor minority group, and so were American jews in anti-semitism`s heydays. Much of anti-semitism`s appeal comes from resentment against some imagined privileged position. Maybe I`m wrong;, but I have always considered anti-semitism to function differently than ordinary racism, for example being focused more on imaginary objects like a international bankers conspiracy, or the supposed huge influence of the jewish state over American politics, which you also only know through the media, and which doesnt interfere into your personal life at all. Instead of actual people.

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