The Scent of Anti-Semitism

Cigarette stall, Annaba. Algeria, 2010.

Six years ago, I met with Kenneth Stern, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s program on anti-Semitism. Stern was one of the main figures in the creation of the framework which was called “the new anti-Semitism,” a paradigm which has since blurred the line between anti-Jewish hate and legitimate criticism of Israel. Much of our conversation centered on what constituted “legitimate criticism.”

I had expected Stern to be quite reactionary. However, he was much more thoughtful than I expected. Stern agreed that charges of anti-Semitism had been abused. He was prepared to admit that even charges against Israel that he deemed extreme or incorrect should be refuted, but that they did not constitute anti-Semitism. Yet on one point, we vehemently disagreed with each another. I said that, while I was myself a supporter of Jewish national rights, anti-Zionism is not the same as anti-Semitism. He disagreed, saying that to deny Jews, among all peoples, the right to national existence is anti-Semitic.

We debated for some time. My point was that for many anti-Zionists, Zionism is synonymous with Israeli policies, the dispossession of the Palestinians, and colonial occupation. I said I counted numerous anti-Zionists among my friends and colleagues. None of them would deny Jewish national rights. However, they could not support the expression of those rights if they necessitated the crimes of Israel’s birth, and subsequent occupation of Palestinian territories. I agreed that I had met some people who masked their anti-Semitism by calling it anti-Zionism. (One or two had allowed their opposition to Israel to color their view of all Jews.) However, in over a dozen years of working on the issue, they proved to be the exception, not the rule.

Nonetheless, neither of us convinced the other. What struck me most about Stern was his inability to conceive of a multicultural Israeli state, in which Jews and Arabs were fully equal citizens. It seemed to me then, and still does now, that Stern’s inability to think in terms other than those established by political Zionism is one of the main reasons that Israel has not been able to achieve peace and security.

I was reminded of this encounter this week by two incidents that illuminate this question for me in very different ways. One was the mistaken public posting of an anti-Semitic video by a leader of the Free Gaza Movement (FGM.) The other was the reaction of major Jewish groups, especially the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) to a letter from Christian leaders that Israel be required to abide by US law in its use of the $3 billion dollars worth of annual aid it receives.

Greta Berlin, one of the co-founders of the Free Gaza Movement, and an American activist for Palestinian rights for over four decades, mistakenly posted a link to an anti-Semitic video publicly. She subsequently apologized. I have never met or directly interacted with her, but I am familiar enough with her work and writings that I believe she did not intend in any way to support the message of the hateful video. I believe it was an honest, albeit very harmful, mistake.

Of greater concern to me was the response of her Free Gaza Movement. In their statements, they supported Berlin, and disavowed the video. But the response was quite tepid, especially considering the vile bigotry in the video. The FGM’s response was rather cold on this point. I wasn’t the only one who noticed.

Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP,) which is dedicated, among other things, to exposing cynical and phony uses of the issue of anti-Semitism to cover for Israel’s crimes, was also disappointed with the FGM’s response, and disassociated themselves “…from sponsorship of Berlin’s current book tour in the U.S. or future endorsements of Free Gaza Movement actions.” Outspoken critic of Israeli policies, Naomi Klein resigned from the FGM’s advisory board. And such prominent anti-Zionist figures such as Ali Abunimah, founder of the Electronic Intifada, and Huwaida Arraf and Adam Shapiro, two of the co-founders of the International Solidarity Movement, as well as several other former board members of the FGM, publicly blasted its response to this episode.

Do I think this means, as many supporters of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians allege, that the FGM is simply a vehicle for anti-Jewish hate? Absolutely not. But I do think that it reflects a jaded attitude toward anti-Semitism. Some of that comes from the cynical use of accusations of anti-Semitism; some of it comes from the level at which anti-Semitism is pursued in the 21st century, despite the fact that, for the most part, Jews around the world live free from discrimination. What bigotry or violence some of us do face pales before the oppression of so many millions of people of color, women, and poor people, on every continent. And, yes, some of it comes from the comparatively small element within the Palestine Solidarity Movement that does have antipathy toward Jews, which believes in conspiracy theories akin to the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, and which finds expression in both right wing and left wing fanaticism.

But whatever the source, it’s not acceptable. As a Jew who has been the victim of physical violence on more than one occasion because I am a Jew – something relatively few American Jews of my generation or later can say, I’m happy to point out – I am sensitive to this point. As someone who has been involved for many years with the Israel-Palestine conflict, though, I am at least as aware of how historical Jewish suffering has been used to allow massive persecution of Palestinians. Compared to any other period in Jewish history, the current state of anti-Semitism is infinitesimal. However, it’s not that long ago that Jews were imprisoned in Soviet gulags en masse. Nor, historically speaking, is the 67 years since the end of the Holocaust a very long time. Far from it, in fact.

Operation Cast Lead protest. Stockholm, January 2009.

Complacency about anti-Semitism would be foolish. As a Jew I won’t stand for it. But neither will I stand silent while historical Jewish suffering, and the fear of anti-Semitism, is cynically used to cover crimes of colonial occupation, and racist discrimination within Israel. Or, as in the case of Iran, to lead the entire world into a needless war. This where the issue of Christian groups demanding that the US ensure Israel uses its military aid legally comes in.

In a letter to Congress, a joint communique by several of America’s biggest Protestant denominations stated: “As Christian leaders in the United States, it is our moral responsibility to question the continuation of unconditional U.S. financial assistance to the government of Israel. Realizing a just and lasting peace will require this accountability, as continued U.S. military assistance to Israel — offered without conditions or accountability — will only serve to sustain the status quo and Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories…We request, therefore, that Congress hold Israel accountable to these standards by making the disbursement of U.S. military assistance to Israel contingent on the Israeli government’s compliance with applicable U.S. laws and policies.” The letter was signed by leaders of the Lutheran, Methodist, and United Church of Christ churches, and the National Council of Churches.

The response from Jewish leaders was predictably hysterical.  “We reject the call to reevaluate foreign aid to Israel …U.S. aid to Israel is not ‘unconditional,’ as the letter claims,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow of the JCPA. “Foreign aid reflects the shared values of America and Israel, furthers our goals for peace and is vital to advance the security of both peoples…We eagerly await the day when these church leaders step away from their troubling fixation on hurting Israel and adopt an approach to peacemaking that fosters reconciliation rather than conflict.”

This stops just short of an explicit accusation of anti-Semitism, settling on just calling these church leaders anti-Israel. The church leaders did not call for a “re-evaluation” of aid to Israel. They merely asked that aid to Israel be subject to the same supervision that all other foreign aid is. Gutow is also certainly aware that he is not telling the truth, when he says aid to Israel is not unconditional. Once upon a time, there were prohibitions on using US weapons, which are bought with that aid, in the Occupied Territories. However,  this is routinely violated on a 24-hour a day, 7-day a week basis. There is no monitoring of it. It was also once the case that the US prohibited Israel from spending any of these funds in the Occupied Territories or on the settlements. That, as well, is continuously violated, and no one monitors it. When the issue is raised by Americans, it is simply ignored in Washington.

The hysteria is understandable, since these Israeli practices, indeed, the use of American aid in any way to perpetuate what even Israel’s Supreme Court has termed a “belligerent occupation” that has lasted for over 45 years, is a clear violation of America’s Arms Export Control Act.

Abraham Foxman, head of the ADL, pulled his organization out of a national interfaith dialogue conference in response, and called on other Jewish groups to follow suit. “It is outrageous that mere days after the Iranian president repeated his call for Israel’s elimination, these American Protestant leaders would launch a biased attack against the Jewish state by calling on Congress to investigate Israel’s use of foreign aid,” Foxman said. “In its clear bias against Israel, it is striking that their letter fails to also call for an investigation of Palestinian use of U.S. foreign aid, thus once again placing the blame entirely on Israel.”

How does one respond to such lies? First, there has been no renewed call for Israel’s destruction from Iran. Next, there is no call for a congressional investigation; it is merely a request that aid to Israel be treated in accordance with US law, like all other US aid is. That doesn’t just include aid to the Palestinian Authority. That aid is subject to constant attack, and far greater scrutiny than most. Indeed, it is only because Israel itself realizes how much aid to the PA serves its own interests, leading Israel and its US lobby to press for its continuance, that the Likudnik Speaker of the House of Representatives, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, has not already cut it.

Far from placing blame on Israel, America’s Protestant leadership recognizes that such bias toward Israel only serves to perpetuate Israel’s own insecurity. And herein lies the nub of the anti-Semitism matter. By treating Israel, and the Jewish community, as somehow exceptional, these groups only increase hostility to both Israel, and the Jewish people as a whole.

The subject of anti-Semitism has gone off the rails in both directions. The absence of state persecution of Jews, that was the norm for most of Jewish history, combines with Israel’s occupation, and those true bigots who use the Palestinian cause as a mask for their anti-Semitism, to create indifference to the anti-Jewish racism that still exists, as well as the potential that it could become a major force for hate again. But the cynical use of anti-Semitism by Israel, and by its so-called “supporters” in the Diaspora, serves to perpetuate anti-Semitism by promoting the notion that Jews and the Jewish state deserve to be treated differently. This combines with the activities of the various lobbies, which all too often seem to mirror the worst anti-Jewish stereotypes, to foment anti-Semitism under the guise of fighting it.

The outrage that poured out at Greta Berlin was probably an overreaction to a mistake. The anger at the Free Gaza Movement, however, was well-placed, not only because it discredited both radical and moderate pro-Palestinian groups, but because the tepid response to the particular bigotry of anti-Semitism is a moral affront, and was treated as such by many anti-Zionists, as well as being pilloried by the “pro-Israel” crowd. Yet the far greater threat, not only to Israeli Jews, but to Jews all over the world, is that the exceptionalism promoted by American organizations like the ADL is ignored, despite the greater threat it poses. It’s time we stopped letting them get away with it.

Photographs courtesy of Dr John2005 and Robin Iverson Rönnlund. Published under a Creative Commons license.


  1. Kenneth Stern: “He disagreed, saying that to deny Jews, among all peoples, the right to national existence is anti-Semitic.”

    Zionism EQUALS right of Jewish people to national existence? That’s all? Well, in that case, it does not EQUAL a right to possession of any of Palestine. Or, if to some, then not to all. This definition fails because it does not say what “national existence” means, entails, etc.

    By this definition, Zionism is a sneak attack, a foot in the door, which — by seeming to be based on a rather limited and thereby unexceptionable proposition — leaps to a demand, falsely suggested to be unexceptionable, to not just the tap and the kitchen sink, but the whole kitchen and indeed the whole house.

    Question for Kenneth Stern: do Iranians also have a right to a national existence? If so, do they have the same right that Israel claims to possess nuclear weapons, to make wars-of-choice, etc? If not, why not?

    And what of the Egyptian people? Libyan people? Palestinian people?

  2. Perhaps , Mitchell, you might better be able to conceive why Ken had trouble imagining a binational state if you instead imagine merging B’Tselem and AIPAC. Both groups care about peace. Neither group wants anyone to suffer. What could possibly go wrong?

  3. Nathan, you illustrate the point beautifully. My description was “…Stern’s inability to think in terms other than those established by political Zionism is one of the main reasons that Israel has not been able to achieve peace and security.” That leaves a whole spectrum of options beyond a binational state. Yet you reduce it to a binary choice. And your description of AIPAC can only show that you’ve never dealt with them or seriously examined their actions and policies. In any case, the description I made was very careful to point out that it is an inability to think in anything but one track, which leaves a whole lot of one-state, two-state, binational, federal and other options open.

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