Is Criticism Of Israel Anti-Semitic?

06/21/2010 04:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Michele Chabin RNS

By Michele Chabin
Religion News Service

JERUSALEM (RNS) Veteran newswoman Helen Thomas's suggestion that Israelis should "get the hell out of Palestine" and "go home" to Poland, Germany and the U.S., was widely seen as anti-Israel.

But was it anti-Jewish?

As Israel faces unprecedented censure from the world community--including economic, academic and cultural boycotts--the Thomas incident raised the question of when, if ever, anti-Israelism equals anti-Semitism.

It's a question that's simmered long before a Long Island rabbi caught Thomas' outburst on videotape. In 2005, former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky (now head of the Jewish Agency for Israel) said Israel was a proxy for lingering anti-Semitic hatred toward Jews.

While "classical anti-Semitism" was aimed at the Jewish faith or the Jewish people, "the new anti-Semitism is much more subtle," Sharansky wrote in The Forward newspaper, "directed as it is against the Jewish state."

Sharansky proposed a "3-D test"--demonization, double-standards and de-legitimization--that has become an unofficial yardstick to measure whether criticisms directed against Israel are, in fact, really directed at Jews.

-- When critics compare Israelis to Nazis--the embodiment of evil--and Palestinian refugees to survivors of Jewish concentration camps, that's demonization.

-- When Israel is singled out for criticism while other governments are not, that's a double standard.

-- And while it's no longer condoned in polite company to deny the legitimacy of the Jewish faith, when Israel is portrayed as an illegitimate or rogue state, that's de-legitimization.

Sharansky resurrected the 3-D test at a conference this month on anti-Semitism in the seaside city of Herzliya, sponsored by the New York-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Five years later, he said, the test still works:

If all other peoples, including Arabs and Muslims, have the right to live securely in their homelands, "then the Jewish people has that right as well," Sharansky has said.

Yet not all Jews share Sharansky's analysis, or even the idea that criticism of Israel is somehow out of bounds.

"There can be someone who thinks the existence of the State of Israel is wrong because the creation of Israel is an injustice to the Palestinians," said Adam Keller, a Jewish Israeli and spokesman of Gush Shalom, a liberal organization that is critical of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

"While I would not deny that some people are using criticism of Israel as a mask for anti-Semitism, I think there is a systematic campaign that tries to label everyone who criticizes Israel an anti-Semite. Doing so does not make me a self-hating Jew."

The comments that cost Thomas her front-row perch in the White House briefing room came in the wake of a May 31 Israeli raid on a flotilla that was trying to break Israel's three-year blockade of Gaza, which is intended to prevent weapons from reaching the militant group Hamas. Nine members of the flotilla were killed in the early morning raid, and several Israeli commandos were injured.

In the weeks since, the ADL has compiled a hefty volume of cartoons in the Arab media that they say depict Israelis--in the guise of stereotypical hook-nosed Jews in black hats--as "blood-thirsty monsters, sharks and other marine wildlife swallowing up or crushing" the flotilla.

While some cartoons used the iconic Star of David that's emblazoned on Israel's flag, others used purely religious imagery--an Israeli soldier attacking an activist with a menorah, for example--to link the state of Israel with the religion of Judaism.

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, is highly critical of these cartoons, even as he supports "legitimate criticism of Israel and its behavior."

"If it goes from Israel's policies to `this is typical Jewish behavior,' that's crossing the line," Zogby said.

Some Arab-Americans says there can be legitimate criticism of Israel without dabbling in anti-Semitism. Nabil Mohamad, vice-president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said Israel should be held "accountable" when it "routinely violates international law."

At the ADL conference in Israel, national director Abraham Foxman said "criticism of Israeli actions or policies is not by its nature anti-Semitic," yet he remains troubled by the recent rhetoric.

"If Helen Thomas had told Hispanics or blacks to go home, everyone would understand how racist this is. To say Jews should go back to Poland is like telling them to go back to Auschwitz," said Foxman, a Holocaust survivor.

Foxman emphasized that anti-Semitism, like all kinds of bigotry, is more than just words, and often not a one-time event.

"Let's put it into an historical context. African-Americans were lynched because they were first dehumanized. People called them animals, dogs. First they were enslaved and then killed."

Foxman said it's not unlike what the Nazis did to Jews--or what some critics are trying to do to Israel.

"First they softened up the environment by taking away their livelihood and property. Eventually, they killed them." By depicting Israel as a "rogue state, a state that violates human rights, and Israel as modern-day Nazis, killing them becomes OK," Foxman said.

"It's not OK."