No, criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism

In fact, it could be the best thing a Jew can do these days.

The Jerusalem Post has published an op-ed titled, “Yes, all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic!” As any philosophy student can recognize, it’s one of those arguments that makes the entire debate meaningless – if something is everything then it’s also nothing – but the piece is worth reading (and responding to) nonetheless. The author captures – unintentionally – the zeitgeist in Israeli politics, and also in large parts of the Jewish world. Both have ceased to differentiate between diplomacy, politics, and anti-Semitism as a special form of racism. In this exercise, evidence is meaningless. The author, Benjamin Kerstein, writes:

All criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic because of the specific historical circumstances under which we currently live. That is to say, the historical circumstances under which Israel and the Jews exist in the world today render any non-anti-Semitic criticism of Israel impossible. And, ironically, these are circumstances that Israel’s opponents have themselves created.

This perfect circle melts collective and personal identity, political institutions and individuals, into one being, in the tradition of – oh well – some of history’s worst anti-Semites.

The first – but not only – sign of racism (including anti-Semitism) is that it doesn’t allow its victim a space to change: Jews/blacks/Muslims are inherently A, and therefore they deserve B, goes the racist argument (it could even be a positive one – Jews are “good with money” is a racist declaration, because it presumes something that is inherent to all Jews). A critical argument, on the other hand, targets behavior and choices: An institution/group/person/state does A, and therefore deserves B. Criticism of political choices is not racism. It is simply politics. Recognizing the state that a certain group of Jews has formed – not even a majority – as representing every Jew on earth (and perhaps every Jew in history) is actually closer to old anti-Semite thinking.

It gets worse. The author of the JPost piece, and many like him, doesn’t bother to explain – and it’s no accident – what is exactly “criticism of Israel.” Is it criticism of the government? Of the government’s political behavior? Of the army? Of the state as a structure? Is arguing for an ethnicity-blind state (“a state for all its citizens”) anti-Semitism, as it seeks to change Israel, and in the process, criticize it? Is arguing for the one-state solution a form of anti-Semitism? Is arguing against the occupation anti-Semitism, as it is an Israeli project, carried out by almost all Israelis?

Dwelling on these questions would necessarily label many Israelis, including Members of Knesset and prominent institutions, along with half the world, inherently anti-Semitic.

Naturally, some readers would accept this, and answer that yes! Those groups and people, even if they are Jewish or Israeli, are in fact anti-Semitic. I urge them to reconsider. The effect of such a claim would not be the delegitimization of anti-Semitism, but quite the opposite: Many real anti-Semites would be seen as partners in a large and rational community that deserves to be heard. If everyone is equal to the Nazis, then maybe Nazism wasn’t that bad after all.

Moreover: The terms Zionism, Israeli and Judaism were never meant to overlap. A person can identify with two out of three of those descriptions, or even just one out of three. The current ideological shift in Israel has a lot to do with the integration of different aspects of identity into one. The state (Israel) equals the Jewish people equals the ideology (Zionism), and everyone not abiding with this model is necessarily a traitor – or an anti-Semite.

I am not a big fan of Israeli romanticism – the longing for the lost democratic and liberal past, which I do not believe ever really existed – but I would say this: Israeli politics in the past had the ability to be relaxed enough, focused enough on consensus-building, for it to hold together a structure with many internal contradictions: Judaism and democracy, socialism and free market, Zionists and anti-Zionists. The new Israeli right would like the center of the political system and the public sphere, the former place of fragile consensus, to be ideologically and ethnically pure, and labeling any challenge as an existential danger is an important part of this process. The idea of across-the-board purity was popular in Europe in the late 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century. I’ll stop here.

In the face of such a threat, old truths must be repeated: Criticism of the Israeli government is important, and it’s important most of all for Israelis, because power needs always to be criticized. The right to challenge the political structure – even to change the country (Americans would have called it amending the Constitution) – should be the right of every living human being, including Israelis.

Israel is currently engaged in the longest-lasting military occupation on earth, a racist colonial project, which involves violence and human rights abuses on a structural, large-scale basis. Perhaps it’s not the worst regime on earth and it’s certainly not the worst in history, but it’s bad enough to deserve all the attention it gets, and more. Fighting it is not anti-Semitism. It’s called having a conscience.