Is it anti-Semitic to criticize Israel?

by | Dec 5, 2014 | Other News

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a unique ability to inspire uniquely powerful emotions within members of the Jewish community. A collective national narrative of expulsion, persecution and extermination gives us good reason in our kishkas to advocate for the Jewish state and protect the right of Israel to exist in security. I doubt many Jews believe that anti-Semitism no longer exists in our world. It undoubtedly does, be it in political cartoons, hate-speech or physical attacks. For this reason, when certain individuals speak about the Israeli government in a less-than-flattering manner, some Israel advocates are quick to label this speech as anti-Semitism.

The United Jewish Federation of Tidewater is a partner of the Israel Action Network, a strategic initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America in partnership with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs aimed at countering assaults on Israel’s legitimacy. We work with the field of Israel advocates, professional and lay, to train them on the most effective methods to organize community-based solutions to challenges posed to Israel by those who seek to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state.

Over the course of my travels to Jewish communities around the United States, I’m often asked: “Is it anti-Semitic to criticize Israel?” I answer, “No.”

Criticism of government policies is an integral part of any democracy. It functions as a method of holding governments accountable for their actions. In fact, Israelis criticize their government’s policies all the time. It’s practically their national sport, whether they take issue with the prolonged immigration process, the high cost of living or handling of the conflict with the Palestinians. If it were anti-Semitic to criticize Israel, almost every Israeli would be labeled a Jew-hater. The American Jewish community must understand that this legitimate type of criticism which seeks to improve Israeli society is legitimate and welcome.

What is illegitimate is the increasing call to demonize Israel and isolate her amongst the community of nations in an attempt to ultimately destroy her. A small, yet vocal group of activists known as the BDS Movement are attempting to do so through a global campaign to encourage boycotts of Israeli products, divestment from Israeli companies or companies doing business in Israel and punitive economic sanctions.

The leaders of this movement subscribe to a one-state solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. In this solution, the borders between Israel, the West Bank and Gaza will dissolve and millions of Palestinian refugees will flood Israel, making Jews a minority in their own state. Of course, this would effectively eliminate the Jewish state just 70 years after the Holocaust. Regardless of one’s opinions on Israeli policies toward Palestinians, the BDS Movement’s failure to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, even as part of a two-state solution, is not only anti-Zionism, but also a form of anti-Semitism.

Criticism of Israel crosses over the line into delegitimization in many cases. Those who question the validity of Israel’s founding, demonize Israel and equate its policies with that of Apartheid South Africa or Nazi Germany, or hold Israel to unreasonable double standards are often engaged in delegitimizing the Jewish state. If you are unsure if an individual or an organization is questioning Israel’s legitimacy, ask yourself: Does the organization or person voicing the criticism or pursuing the policy, share a commitment to a two-state solution and support Israel’s right to exist as a democratic Jewish state living beside a democratic state of Palestine?

While supporting Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state is incredibly important to our community, we must learn to be smarter and more effective in terms of our advocacy. Sounding the “Anti-Semitism” alarm whenever someone says something remotely critical of Israel can make the Jewish community sound like the boy who cried wolf.

The Israel Action Network’s approach seeks to combat the delegitimization of Israel in an effective manner. Where Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is challenged— on college campuses, academic associations, church movements, pension funds, corporations, entertainment and other arenas—we will continue to mobilize our network of Jewish federations to create tailor-made strategies that directly address the specific threat with surgical precision. With this approach, we will keep the BDS Movement confined to the extreme left margin of the political spectrum and maintain bipartisan American support for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

by Noam Gilboord

—Noam Gilboord is the director of Community Strategy for the Israel Action Network.