COMMENTARY

Anti-Semitism and Israel: Right-wing Zionists play a deadly word game

An expanded definition of "anti-Semitism" is primarily meant to silence Jewish critics of Israel. It won't work

By Doug Neiss
Published January 24, 2021 12:00PM (EST)
Israeli flag (Getty Images)
Israeli flag (Getty Images)

Democrats and Republicans once competed over who was tougher on communism. Now they compete over who is more pro-Israel. Encouraged by this — not to say spoiled — Israel and its hardline supporters keep upping the ante. The new Democratic administration faces the challenge of trumping a white nationalist Republican administration that was the most pro-Israel yet. 

In addition to his other benefactions to Israel — moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, brokering peace agreements between Israel and other countries — Donald Trump signed an executive order in December 2019 adopting a new definition of anti-Semitism that covers certain criticisms of Israel. Trump intended the definition to serve as a guide in adjudicating civil rights complaints on U.S. campuses, which have been centers for Palestinian rights activism. The idea, in other words, was to help silence the Palestinian cause on campus. 

This is consistent with Israel's goal of extinguishing all Palestinian hope for the same freedom in their native land that Israeli Jews enjoy. Israel continues to seize Palestinian land, demolish Palestinian homes, build settlements for Israeli Jews in the occupied West Bank, and deal cruelly with protesters — indifferent to law and morality, but sensitive to the charge of racism. Even Arabs who are Israeli citizens don't have equal rights with Israeli Jews. 

Israel never wanted to share its Holy Land. Before the UN partition plan for Palestine took effect in 1948, Zionists forcibly expelled as many Palestinians as they could — upwards of 700,000 — from the future Jewish state and its border regions. In the 1950s, when the plight of Palestinians languishing in refugee camps was an issue, Israel apologists would ask pointedly why neighboring Arab states didn't just take them in and relieve their suffering — and thereby relieve Israel of responsibility. Since seizing the West Bank, Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights in its preemptive 1967 war, Israel has striven to make life as difficult as possible for the Palestinians in those territories — especially in Gaza where, instead of the Palestinian Authority that does its bidding in the West Bank, Israel has Hamas to deal with.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has wasted no time in urging Joe Biden's administration, even before its inauguration, to uphold Trump's order deploying the expanded definition of anti-Semitism, thereby upholding the Democratic Party's standing as at least as good a friend of Israel. For years, Israel and its watchdogs have relied on the Holocaust to insulate the state from criticism, but criticism has come anyway. Perhaps a new definition of anti-Semitism that includes many anti-Israel attitudes and opinions will bring better results. With this, Israel has escalated its demand from recognition of its right to exist to recognition of its right to do exactly as it pleases, free from criticism and even nonviolent resistance. 

The "Working Definition of Antisemitism," adopted in 2016 by its developer, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and since then adopted or endorsed by 28 countries — all in Europe except for the U.S., Canada and Argentina — as well as other political bodies, has generated considerable controversy. The definition by itself is unproblematic, which only raises the question of why it was thought necessary. Anti-Semitism is, after all, an age-old phenomenon, and by now its features, Holocaust denial included, are pretty well known. The definition reads: 

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred of Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish and non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

Seven of the 11 illustrative examples listed are likewise unobjectionable, but the other four are troubling. They all relate to Israel and raise the question of whether promulgating a new definition of anti-Semitism is a valid undertaking if the purpose is to shield Israel from criticism as no other nation is shielded. 

Making Israel prominent in a definition of anti-Semitism also raises the question of the relationship between the Jewish state and the Jewish people. Clearly, they are not identical, whatever impression Zionists may want to give. For one thing, a good deal of the criticism of Israel and its policies the definition seeks to proscribe comes from diaspora Jews, on and off campus. Israel's watchdogs can call these Jews self-hating and exclude them in their own minds from the Jewish people, but they still feel a need to muzzle them and other critics. In effect, the IHRA definition privileges hardline Jewish Zionists over other Jews.  

The Jewish state and the Jewish people

What's wrong with the four examples can be summed up in a single sentence: Israel is not exceptional, any more than is its special friend, the United States. We must root out the idea of exceptionalism in both cases. No more playing world sheriff and deputy, which is our "special relationship," unless some version of Armageddon is what we really want. Here, example by example, are my specific objections as a non-Zionist Jewish American.

"Denying the Jewish people their right of self-determination — e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor" is one example of anti-Semitism, according to the IHRA definition. Israel is a colonizing endeavor whereby people arriving from elsewhere subjugated and largely displaced the native population. Such an endeavor is commonly considered racist because the newcomers justify their takeover on the basis of assumed superiority, such as a higher degree of civilization or a higher morality. It was the Zionist settlers, not the backward Palestinian natives, who made the desert bloom — in the official story, that is. 

In addition, Israel claims a God-given title to the land of Palestine, so the position of Palestinians is even worse than that of Native Americans when European settlers were colonizing here. 

Zionist treatment of Palestinians reflects Zionism's origins. Although the Dreyfus affair and the Kishinev Pogrom were formative events in its history, Zionism issued from the same womb that produced pan-Germanism and other late 19th-century ethnocentric and xenophobic movements. Do we have to ignore this racist background?

The right of Israelis to self-determination has entailed denying the same right to Palestinians, who can either submit to Israeli control — which will remain even if they get some pale imitation of a state — or leave the country and join tens of thousands of their fellows in exile. 

Another example of anti-Semitism involving Israel is "[a]pplying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation." In other words, Israel cannot be criticized for doing what any other nation that calls itself democratic has gotten away with doing. This sets a very low bar for behavior and leaves little room for criticism. 

All nations apply double standards to their enemies, and military superiority makes this practice especially dangerous in the cases of Israel and the U.S. We set ourselves up as moral arbiters for the world, and nations perceived as hostile are, of course, undemocratic by definition. Friendly nations are presumptively democratic or, if that description strains credibility — as in the blatant and gruesome case of Saudi Arabia, for example — are at least our allies in the fight against evil.

Israel, the evangelicals and the Nazis

"Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel and Israelis" is also deemed anti-Semitic. This example casts too wide a net. Israel itself is not that picky about its friends. Its evangelical Christian allies definitely believe that the Jews had Jesus crucified and that God will cause two-thirds of us to perish in order to convince the rest to accept Jesus as the messiah and be saved. One leading Christian Zionist is Pastor John Hagee, founder and chairman of Christians United for Israel, who adheres to the old line that Jews brought persecution on themselves by denying Christ, adding for good measure that both the Antichrist and Hitler were half-Jewish. The Christian right is a big supporter of Israel — for its own End Times ends. 

Neither Christian nor Jewish Zionists believe that Jews have a right to exist unconnected to the reborn Jewish state. For Jewish Zionists, Israel offers the Jewish people a chance for spiritual regeneration; for evangelical Christians, it offers Jews a literal last chance of eternal salvation. 

Pressuring countries to endorse the IHRA Working Definition is outrageous from a Jewish perspective as well as a humanitarian one. Given that Israel and its champions have embraced support from white nationalists and Christians who still believe Jews must accept Jesus to be saved — without even mentioning Israel's questionable international associations — what standing does Israel have as an arbiter of anti-Semitism or Jewishness? Setting itself up as one takes real chutzpah. 

Israel places its interests above those of the Jewish people, from whom it demands an uncritical support that Jewish Americans properly refuse even to their own country. Speaking of double standards, Jewish members of Congress have set a bad example. They feel free to criticize the U.S. for infringing on the rights of minorities or for failing to prevent other countries from interfering in our internal affairs, but remain eerily silent about Israel's scourging of Palestinians and its meddling in U.S. politics. 

Finally, drawing any "comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis" is verboten. "Contemporary Israeli policy" refers to the right-wing Likud government of Benjamin Netanyahu. This example will probably seem unobjectionable to most people, but that is precisely the problem. Viewing the Nazi regime as an aberration in Western history, an example of incomparable evil, is already standard practice when America's "mistakes," or Israel's, are concerned. This view is not only factually wrong but an unearned gift to all nations looking to downgrade their crimes. The U.S. has had to resort to this ploy frequently to preserve its claim of being exceptional. 

Because Jews were the principal victims of Hitler's regime — although not the only ones — Israel seeks, in our name, exemption from any and all criticism that likens Israeli actions or policies to those of the Nazis, regardless of any actual similarities. The implication here is that the crimes of the Nazis are necessarily beyond anything Israel or any other nation could be capable of. Is Germany comfortable representing the all-time absolute pinnacle of Evil?  

This is like saying there can only ever be one genocide, the Holocaust, and that no other mass murder inflicted by one group of people on another can claim that distinction. Yet if the Holocaust has had value as a cautionary example, it is because it has helped sensitize the world to genocide and ethnic cleansing. Critics of Israeli policies, Jewish and non-Jewish, are indebted to Zionists for that. 

In essence, Israel claims a right to persecute the Palestinian people free from any censure or criticism, based on the historical identity of Jews as a persecuted people, whose persecution culminated in the enormous historical crime of the Holocaust. Jews are the eternal victims, the Persecuted, and no other people can claim a share in the title, especially not in terms of a claim made against the Jewish state itself. To put it simply, Israel denies the meaning of the Holocaust, in the name of the Holocaust. 

For its part, the U.S. is hardly one to talk about the illegitimacy of comparisons to the Nazis. We have regularly compared foreign leaders to Hitler when we want to rouse the public against them. It's true that Donald Trump's political opponents did the same to him — but then, he invited it.

Anti-Semitism and the Zionists

Anti-Semitism is no joke, despite Zionist word games with the charge. So intractable is it that there are people who believe Hitler was part of our master plan for world domination. It is easier to believe the Holocaust never happened, of course, if one believes Jews are all-powerful, however few in number. Some still believe, as did Hitler, that we were responsible for both world wars (not to mention the American Civil War and 19th-century European wars). And why was the Jewish death toll in the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks not much higher, given Jewish dominance in international finance? We had advance warning! Perhaps Israel even helped the George W. Bush administration carry out the attacks. And guess who really killed JFK, according to unimpeachable internet sources?

Inconvenient facts do not, of course, deter anti-Semites. Did you not know that all big capitalists and financiers are Jews? It seems that those who were born Gentile lost their souls to a Jewish virus they contracted along the way, perhaps from contact with money, which grew into an obsession. Ezra Pound, no less, believed this. Friedrich Nietzsche, whom many intellectuals consider an exemplary anti-anti-Semite (and indeed described himself as such), believed in a Jewish instinct for decadence so powerful it has turned the Western world upside down. 

The English writer and Holocaust denier David Irving has suggested that the reason Jews have been hated down through the centuries — anti-Semitism being universal and eternal, as Zionists themselves admit! — is simply that we are hateful. Except for us, life on earth would be paradise. Anti-Semitism is a unique prejudice in that it holds a tiny proportion of the world's population responsible for all the evils of the world. But it goes beyond that: Anti-Semites do not consider Jews part of the human race at all, but a deadly alien element.  

Political differences among Jews, sharp as they are, are of course immaterial to anti-Semites, who believe all Jews are in league to rule the world. A right-wing description of the Democratic Party as made up of "billionaires and Bolsheviks" is thinly disguised classic anti-Semitism. The "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," first exposed as a fabrication nearly 100 years ago, not long after it began to be widely circulated, remains to this day the urtext of anti-Semitic political theory. All anti-Semites are bad for the Jews, including those who support Israel. The Jewish Zionists who embrace their support put Israel's interest above that of the Jewish people, seeing them conveniently as one.

Or they privilege Israeli Jews over diaspora Jews. Andrew Breitbart's Wikipedia biography quotes the late founder of the notorious right-wing site Breitbart News as saying, "I'm glad I've become a journalist because I'd like to fight on behalf of the Israeli people. The Israeli people, I adore and I love." 

Who made up Breitbart's beloved community? Not the full Jewish people, and not even all Israeli Jews. Those who work with Palestinians to fight the state's anti-Palestinian policies, who try to block the demolition of Palestinian homes, who document Israeli crimes against Palestinians — those, I would guess, were excluded. Right-wing Jewish Americans like Breitbart are quite at home in the anti-Semitic and racist milieu of the American far right in this country because it is closel akin to the ruling right-wing faction in Israel. It was this homogeneous right-wing Israeli community that Breitbart claimed to love and adore.  

Ethan Bronner, who spent 12 years in Israel as Jerusalem bureau chief for, separately, Reuters, the Boston Globe and the New York Times, cites the support of Christian evangelicals as one factor in the positive transformation of Israel — which he now sees as a confident, prosperous nation — since his first visit there as a boy in 1965. In a recent article for the New York Review of Books, Bronner explains that Israel needs Jewish Americans less today — we have become unreliable supporters — now that "Christian evangelicals are fiercely attached to it and committed to protecting it politically." Like the U.S., Israel lays claim to superior virtue in its conduct yet has always been aggressively undiscriminating in the company it keeps. Its recent Trump-brokered peace agreements continue that tradition.  

Bronner claims that the occupation of Palestinian territories "gnaws at [Israel's] moral and democratic fiber," but he is whistling in the dark and giving false comfort. Israel, he writes "calls itself Jewish and democratic, but it can't hold onto the West Bank [and Gaza and the Golan Heights and all of Jerusalem] and still be both." But in whose eyes? Israel is quite content to be Jewish and undemocratic, and racist to boot, while touting itself as moral and democratic for propaganda purposes. Just as Bronner sees nothing problematic in evangelical support for Israel, so Jewish Israelis, by and large, suffer no pangs of conscience about the current state of the Jewish state.

Those who cry anti-Semitism to discredit critics of Israeli policies bring the charge itself into disrepute. Do Israeli hardliners even care? Zionism's relationship to anti-Semitism has never been one of unqualified opposition. Zionism is premised on persecution and the fear it arouses, and its leaders have always been mindful that anti-Semitism is useful to their cause. To put it crudely, anti-Semitism is good for business. Zionists directly encourage it through their alliances with Christian evangelicals and white nationalists. 

Recall how Jewish-American Zionists swallowed Trump's calling them "brutal killers" in the real estate business and "not very nice people" at the Israeli-American Council's annual meeting in December 2019. A president who has glowingly cited his "good German genes" was a hero to Zionists as the most pro-Israel chief executive in our history. 

Zionists seize upon and magnify any real or perceived anti-Semitism on the left — the recent case of former British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn comes to mind — when right-wing anti-Semitism is much more prevalent and dangerous. Thanks to the work of the Anti-Defamation League, Zionists are as aware of this fact as anyone, but they have powerful allies on the right, which is also anti-Muslim, and only critics like Corbyn on the left. (Sadly, the ADL does not apply the same standards to Israeli politics, but lines up with most other Jewish organizations as an unquestioning supporter.) 

Can people who make calculated use of the charge to manipulate other people's fears, genuinely feel threatened by anti-Semitism, or wholly antipathetic to it? To take their arguments seriously is to accept their opposition to anti-Semitism at face value, when it's apparent they are ready to turn a blind eye to it for political reasons. 

Fear of anti-Semitism has never deterred diaspora Jews from courting disfavor by championing unpopular causes, including the once-unpopular cause of a Jewish state. We didn't get a reputation for radicalism by bowing and scraping before the Gentile majority. Israel's champions demand, however, that Jewish political activism must never run counter to Israel's perceived interests, and ideally must serve them. 

Israel may represent a final solution to the problem of Jewish radicalism and activism. The Jewish state, like any other, is a jealous god. Only uncritical supporters of Israel are considered real, 100 percent Jews. To put this another way, it makes perfect sense that the Jewish state, which was not available for the job until 1948, would be a better instrument for keeping Jews everywhere in line politically than a non-Jewish one. The U.S. seems to understand and value this service.  

One-hundred-odd years ago, Vienna's anti-Semitic Mayor, Karl Lueger, said to those who criticized him for consorting with Jews, "I decide who is or is not a Jew." Today, those who believe Israel is above criticism decide who is or is not an anti-Semite, or a self-hating Jew, based likewise on political considerations — primarily meaning fealty to the current right-wing regime in the Jewish state. Champion and watchdog for Israel or self-hating Jew: Those are the choices Zionists offer to Jews who speak out about the Jewish state. By claiming to speak for all real Jews, however, they compel critics to do just that.


Doug Neiss

Doug Neiss is a retired business writer and editor.

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