04/10/2012 04:21 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2012

Is It Anti-Zionism or Anti-Semitism? (VIDEO)

One doesn't spend a quarter-century working in the American academy without coming across all manner of opinionated, irrational and overheated types. None more so, in my own experience, than those whose out-of-class (and sometimes, regrettably, in-class) activism consists of lambasting the State of Israel.

A few years back, I gave a lecture at Exquisite Prestigious University. My remarks on the subject of faith-based politicking in the United States were well-received. The group, consisting of about two dozen EPU professors, then repaired to a restaurant for a collegial repast.

But the commendations and exchanges of business cards abruptly came to an end as one faculty member who somehow knew about my (out-of-class) opinions, suddenly asked me, "How can a guy as smart as you support that tyrannical Zionist entity?"

Guys like me, it turns out, don't accept the premises of that question. And for the next half hour, our conversation resembled one of those brutal London high-society dinner scrums, the sort of thing described by Philip Roth depicted in "The Counterlife" and Howard Jacobson in "The Finkler Question." This type-scene features the liberal Jew versus a bevy of articulate liberal despisers of the Jewish State (a few of whom may be Jewish themselves).

Outnumbered by roughly 15 to one, I tried to explain that we were speaking about a liberal democracy -- a flawed one, like all such democracies -- but not a tyranny. As coffee was served, one scholar who had remained stonily impassive during the entire ordeal picked up his jacket, walked over to me and whispered in my ear, "Just go home. There's no dealing with these people. I've watched this for 25 years. And, no, this isn't just about the State of Israel." With that, he walked out the door, saying good-bye to no one.

His comment led me to wonder: If this isn't just about Israel, then what's it about?

On today's episode of Faith Complex, Hannah Rosenthal, the State Department's Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, offers a highly informative explanation of how to distinguish anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism. She begins by noting that critique of a policy of Israel is an entirely acceptable activity. She then points to types of criticisms which are, to quote the faculty member above, "not just about the State of Israel."

Ms. Rosenthal advances three criteria for differentiating hatred of Jews from legitimate disagreement with Israeli policies. My experience at EPU makes me think of the acuity of one of her observations: When critics singularly, obsessively, relentlessly and exclusively direct their anger to this one country, and this one country alone, perhaps we've left the domain of reasonable political engagement and veered into something much more sinister.