Antisemitism in Real Time
Antisemitism is lived in real time. It unfolds in a matrix of Judaism, Zionism, Christian Zionism, Israel, white supremacy, the Palestinian narrative and its censorship. Because of this it is extremely important to know what antisemitism is, and what it is not. We are seeing how difficult it is to define antisemitism as an objective legal construct. As such it tends toward the silencing of speech. What is needed is more dialogue about what is being lived out in real time.
President Donald Trump debated his challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden on September 29. When asked about white supremacy and the Proud Boys, a white supremacist group, the President told that group to “stand back and stand by.” They took this as an affirmation and command to stand ready to act. The next day Israel’s Jerusalem Post, a centrist, English language paper, asked “Are the Proud Boys anti-Semitic?” (sic) According to the article, the founder of the Proud Boys, Gavin McInnes, “went on an anti-Semitic (sic) rant in 2017, in which he defended Holocaust denial and repeated anti-Semitic (sic) stereotypes. The rant came in a video he originally titled ’10 things I hate about the Jews.’” 1. (See the note on spelling of antisemitism) Antisemitism, as McInnes makes clear, is hatred of and violence toward Jews because they are Jews, part of which is Holocaust denial. But it is not so simple.
White Supremacy and Antisemitism
Reaction to the debate linked antisemitism and white supremacy. White supremacy, racism, and antisemitism exist on common ground where race-based binaries are the rule – White over Black, Gentile over Jew, Israeli over Palestinian, and so on. Supremacy is about the privileged keeping out the other. It builds walls whether along the Mexican border or in Israel keeping out those who “don’t belong.” One message on the Palestinian side of the Israeli barrier says: “Walls don’t work here, and they won’t work in America.” Standing up for Black Lives Matter is like standing up for Jews in Charlottesville is like standing up for Palestinians in the occupied territories. One can imagine an anti-racist world, but it won’t happen on its own. It will take action. Every good work no matter how small is essential. It adds its own momentum or intention toward every other in creating a place of inclusion and equality.
“How to fight antisemitism”
On November 11, 2019 Senator Bernie Sanders published an article in Jewish Currents entitled: “How to Fight Antisemitism.” 2. He spoke of himself as a “proud Jewish American.” Antisemitism, he said, is “a conspiracy theory that a secretly powerful minority exercises control over society.” Hence the white nationalist slogan against Jews in Charlottesville, “You will not replace us;” and the shooter at the Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018 blaming Jews for a supposed non-white invasion of immigrants from Latin America that would “replace” the white race. The day after this killing of eleven synagogue worshipers Christian-Jewish Allies for a Just Peace for Israel/Palestine met in Philadelphia. Among the gathered Jews and Christians that day were broken hearts, shared empathy, and the strength that comes from closeness. Susan Landau with Noushin Framke in a paper “On Antisemitism” 3. “conclude that the best way to stand against antisemitism is to stand in solidarity with all struggles for justice against all racism, bigotry, oppression and injustice.”
Indeed Sanders in his paper added that “while antisemitism is a threat to Jews everywhere, it is also a threat to democratic governance itself.” Antisemites “hate the idea of multiracial democracy… of political equality.” He states unequivocally, “We should be very clear that it is not anti-Semitic (sic) to criticize the policies of the Israeli government.”
Antisemitism is attributing to Jews the fantastical power to replace a majority segment of the population. Ironically it is also the inverse. It attributes to Jews such inferiority that justifies their domination. “To consider Jews as better than or worse than other people is antisemitic,” say Landau and Framke.
Antisemitism and criticism of Israel
On the same day that Sanders published his article, I was in the West Bank village of Taybeh. The television ran news reports on the anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s death. The next morning, Mondoweiss reported that during a commemorative march in the Al-Arroub refugee camp Israeli forces killed a Palestinian man.4. The soldiers fired live ammunition, tear gas, and stun grenades into the camp that is one of the most crowded areas in the world. A tear gas canister exploded next to the house of Omar al-Badawi, causing a small fire. When al-Badawi went out with a bottle of water to douse it, a soldier fired hitting him in the abdomen and killing him. It is not inherently antisemitic to criticize Israeli policy that de facto permits the shooting of unarmed Palestinians.
It is not antisemitic to criticize Israel’s wall that has been ruled illegal by the International Court for annexing 10% of occupied land. Israel’s 2018 Jewish Nation State Law passed in 2018 declared that Israel is the national home of Jews only, establishing racial discrimination against its Palestinian citizens. It is not in itself antisemitic to challenge Israel’s racism, and lack of equal rights for all its residents.
Antisemitism and Zionism
It is not inherently antisemitic to criticize Zionism, or even to be anti-Zionist. Zionism is a political ideology that aligns itself “with the goals of the modern state of Israel, some through cultural, economic and political means, some through military and other violent strategies.” (https://www.palestineportal.org/learn-teach/israelpalestine-the-basics/glossary/) Not all Jews support the policies of the State of Israel. Not all Jews are Zionists. Not all Jews outside of Israel believe they are in exile. Political scientist Dov Waxman in Trouble in the Tribe writes: “the vast majority of American Jews reject the basic elements of classical Zionism – that Diaspora Jews live in exile, that Jewish life in Israel is superior to life in the Diaspora, and that Diaspora Jewish life is doomed to eventually disappear. American Jews do not think they live in exile and they do not regard Israel as their homeland.”5. Clearly, anti-Zionist critique of discriminatory practices in Israel and valuing of life in “diaspora” is not antisemitic.
Antisemitism and Christian Zionism
Christian Zionists believe that the covenant with Abraham is still in effect. They point to Genesis 12: 1-3 where God sends Abram to a land revealed to him. Christian Zionism is a public theology that supports Israel in all its actions. To do so is an act of blessing. In verse 3 of chapter 12, God says: I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’” (NRSV) Christian Zionism fuses religion with politics, rather than places them in dialogue or in prophetic challenge. The removal of Israeli settlers for them is not blessed by God. Any criticism of the State of Israel for them is not only antisemitic but also against God’s will.
For Christian Zionists the promise of the land is permanent and unconditional. They will not accept any peace that would weaken Israel’s hold on the land. The settler colonists of Israel came to stay. Settler colonialism asserts state sovereignty over occupied lands and typically seeks to cleanse as far as possible the indigenous population. Settler colonists foster the falsehood that the land was without people before their arrival while also ironically setting up defenses (think “wall”) against the people whose land had been colonized. It is not anti-Semitic to be critical of Christian Zionism. In fact I believe that it is the responsibility of mainstream Christians to stand against Christian Zionism that misuses scripture to fan the flames of separation, inequality, and injustice.
The Challenge of Codifying Antisemitism
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism was originally composed to help police in their identification of hate crimes. It was meant as a guide. Its current political usage has caused confusion and silenced Israel-critical speech. The IHRA holds that: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” The content of the definition can be interpreted as overly broad. But of the eleven examples that follow (not meant to be part of the definition) some imply that criticism of Israel is antisemitic. Even the Palestinian narrative itself can be interpreted as antisemitic. Rebecca Ruth Gould in an article 6. worries that the use of this definition for antisemitism erases Palestinians. She writes: “In the US, Donald Trump’s executive order directing government agencies to consider the IHRA definition, signed on December 2019, immediately resulted in three complaints filed with the Department of Education targeting Palestine advocacy on university campuses.”
Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions
An example of Palestine advocacy that is being silenced is the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. “By then end of November 2018, twenty-six states had taken official action to discourage, punish, or prevent participation in boycotts targeting Israel.” 7. The BDS movement was begun in 2005 by Palestinian activists to place non-violent, international and economic pressure on Israel to end the occupation, grant equal rights to all residents of Israel, and to assure a right of return for Palestinian refugees. Today the movement is made up of unions, academic associations, churches, and grassroots organizations across the world. Ian Lustick, professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania in his book Paradigm Lost explains that BDS focuses “on realizing Palestinian rights to equality and nondiscrimination under international law and the laws of the state that governs them.” 8. Lest there be any misunderstanding, he adds: “There is today one and only one state ruling the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, and its name is Israel.” 9.
Antisemitism is not a definition that is imposed on a situation from outside that can be used to carry out a political agenda such as shutting down a boycott, a people’s story, or a demand for equal rights. Rather it is lived in real time. We see it in the intersectional territory of white supremacy where hatred and violence are carried out upon Jews because they are Jews, where race-based binaries exist: Black over White, Gentile over Jew. Antisemitic beliefs encompass the irony that Jews have fantastic, hidden power to control society and that Jewish inferiority begs their control and domination.
Antisemitism is not criticizing Israeli government policy. It is not denouncing military shooting of unarmed Palestinians or the detaining of their children. It is not inherently antisemitic to challenge Israel’s racism. It is not antisemitic to criticize Zionism, or Christian Zionism.
What is necessary is for all people of goodwill to stand in solidarity, to draw strength from one another, in order to oppose hatred, oppression, and injustice. Every action, even if all we can do is something small, makes a difference. It adds heft to the larger world effort to create places of inclusion and equality.
- Sales, Ben/JTA; Are the Proud Boys anti-Semitic?; The Jerusalem Post; September 30, 2020 15:47; https://www.jpost.com/american-politics/trump-told-far-right-group-proud-boys-to-stand-back-stand-by-at-debate-643930
A note on the spelling of antisemitism. Although The Jerusalem Post uses the spelling anti-Semitism, this article will follow the policy of Jewish Voice for Peace who choose not to use the European-created racial category “Semite.” Nell Irvin Painter observes that today “biologists and geneticists (not to mention literary critics) no longer believe in the physical existence of races – though they recognize the continuing power of racism…” (and one might add antisemitism) (Painter, Nell Irvin; The History of White People; New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010; p. 12). The statement of Jewish Voice for Peace is as follows: “We have chosen to use the spelling ‘antisemitism,’ following the advice of scholars in Jewish Studies who have made a compelling case for this spelling. The category ‘Semite’ was developed as part of European pseudo-scientific theories of race in the 19th century. We want to be clear that the spelling of ‘antisemitism’ should not be used to further the separation of ‘Arabs’ and ‘Jews.’” (Framke, Noushin and Landau, Susan; “On Antisemitism;” The Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); September 2, 2020; http://new.israelpalestinemissionnetwork.org/80-home/407-on-antisemitism). Further, Jewish Voice for Peace explains, “the use of the hyphen and upper case, as in ‘anti-Semitism,’ legitimates the pseudo-scientific category of Semitism, which sorts humans into different races, justifies racial hierarchies, and argues for discrimination, supremacist policies, and worse.” (Framke, Noushin and Landau, Susan, editors; Why Palestine Matters: The Struggle to End Colonialism; Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 2018; p.10n.)
- Sanders, Bernie; “How to Fight Antisemitism;” Jewish Currents; November 11, 2019; https://jewishcurrents.org/how-to-fight-antisemitism/
- Framke, Noushin and Landau, Susan; “On Antisemitism;” The Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); September 2, 2020; http://new.israelpalestinemissionnetwork.org/80-home/407-on-antisemitism/
- Patel, Yumna; “Israeli forces kill another young Palestinian man ‘for no reason’ in Hebron refugee camp; Mondoweiss; November 11, 2019. https://mondoweiss.net/2019/11/israeli-forces-kill-another-young-palestinian-man-for-no-reason-in-hebron-refugee-camp/
- found in: Brownfeld, Allan C.; “Anti-Zionism Is Not Anti-Semitism, And Never Was;” Americans for Middle East Understanding; 2017 – Volume 50. Ameu.org/current-issue/2017-volume-50/anti-zionism-is-not-anti-semitism,-and-never-was.aspx/
- Gould, Rebecca Ruth; “The IHRA Definition of Antisemitism: Defining Antisemitism by Erasing Palestinians;” The Political Quarterly; John Wiley & Sons Ltd.; 2020.
- Lustick, Ian S.; Paradigm Lost: From Two-State Solution to One-State Reality; Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019; p. 69.
- Ibid., p. 125
- Ibid., p. 8