The open letter released today by over 30 global Jewish organizations is a strong statement of opposition to a deliberate campaign that conflates anti-Semitism and support of Palestinian human rights. The letter reproaches those who blend "anti-Jewish racism with opposition to Israel's policies and systems of occupation and apartheid" as "cynical and false."
To some this debate may seem like an esoteric exercise. After all, anti-Semitism hasn't been eradicated; Jewish organizations like B'nai Brith Canada release frequent tallies and stories of anti-Semitic incidents. There are reports that appear regularly in social media feeds and the mainstream media that recount hate crimes such as defaced tombstones, spray-painted swastikas, or physical assaults. Conversely, others claim that these stories elevate relatively minor incidents to the status of hate crimes, and that many are not crimes at all. Some, like the Director of the Concordia University Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies, cite empirical findings which show that anti-Semitic incidents in Canada have "greatly declined in recent decades."
Additionally, there is an authentic fear of the growth of white supremacist, Islamophobic, and anti-Semitic organizations in Europe, the U.S. and Canada, generating an urgent need to respond to these repulsive forms of racism. In the U.S., the presidency of Donald Trump has also added fuel to an emboldened alt-right movement that burst into mainstream consciousness in the form of the infamous "Jews will not replace us" chant during the 2017 rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia.
But this isn't what the political trick of conflating anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel is about.
Proponents of Israeli policies believe that the definition of anti-Semitism must be changed to include criticism of Israel. These advocates aren't interested in distinguishing between legitimate criticism of Israel's state policies and actual anti-Semitism; they're simply exploiting a genuine fear of anti-Semitism in order to promote their political position: support Israel at all costs.
But criticism of Israel, its policies, and the political ideology of Zionism that underpins it are not necessarily anti-Semitic, because Zionism is not Judaism, and saying so is simply an exercise of free speech. Judaism remains an enduring religion, with thousands of years of continuity, while modern Zionism was conceived of only 122 years ago, with the 1896 publication of Theodor Herzl's pamphlet The Jewish State. Historically speaking, Jews have not only rejected all previous versions of Zionism as a fundamental violation of biblical and Talmudic pronouncements, but for millennia denounced Zionism as essentially heretical; an abrogation of God's will. In fact, some contemporary Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews continue in this belief today.
Many Jews -- both Zionist and non-Zionist; both inside and outside Israel -- are truly appalled at Israel's racist and apartheid policies, and they want the political freedom to say so -- a freedom denied by these attempts to manipulate the definition of anti-Semitism.
One example of this deliberate confusion is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, which disingenuously connects critiques of Israel to anti-Semitism by including "the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity." But describing Israel as a "Jewish collectivity" ignores the fact that one-fifth of Israel's citizens are Palestinian. Plus, not even all Jews support the State of Israel, its illegal occupation of Palestinian land, or its apartheid policies. The assertion of Jewish unity around the State of Israel is essentially false.
Nevertheless, the push to redefine criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic has continued unabated. About 25 state legislatures in the U.S. have adopted the severely flawed IHRA definition, and have passed legislation that freezes free speech on university campuses, and prohibits government contracts with those who criticize Israel -- a prohibition that no other nation enjoys. These states require what amounts to a "loyalty oath" requiring state employees and contractors to pledge that they won't criticize the actions of the Israeli state -- no matter how heinous those actions are. The U.S. Congress is in the process of passing a bill that would effectively make this a nationwide policy.
Closer to home is the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism (CPCCA), which issued a report in 2011 that called for the adoption of the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia's definition of anti-Semitism, which includes "target[ing] the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity (CPCCA, 2011: 4)." Despite evidence to the contrary, the CPCCA claimed that anti-Semitism was rising on Canadian university campuses. They called for efforts to combat Israeli Apartheid Week events, effectively stifling political speech that justifiably critiques Israel's policies.
What are those policies?
Since its establishment in 1948, the avowedly Zionist State of Israel has repeatedly ignored United Nations resolutions that condemn its treatment of Palestinians, who have endured expulsion, occupation, ethnic cleansing, unlawful imprisonment, apartheid, targeted killings, deliberate starvation, restriction of movement -- and many more violations of basic human rights that most of us would find both immoral and monstrous if any other nation were to carry these out.
Given these circumstances, why are legitimate criticisms of Israel's policies of institutional racism and the advocacy of Palestinian rights deemed anti-Semitic? The answer is clear: these legislative undertakings represent an enormous effort aimed at preventing a perfectly justifiable critique of Israel's state policies, including their systematic and criminal mistreatment of Palestinians. These are attempts to blunt cautiously successful campaigns like Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), which non-violently advocates on behalf of Palestinian human rights. These are simply unscrupulous attempts to bludgeon and stifle a growing humanitarian movement for Palestinian equality.
In employing the cynical technique of seamlessly conflating anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, pro-Israel advocates threaten to fuel anti-Jewish prejudice. Onlookers who watch as the Israeli state uncritically quashes basic freedoms might come to the erroneous conclusion that Israel's unfettered power is Jewish power, further cementing an anti-Semitic myth and fuelling anti-Jewish hate. We need to remind these onlookers that fighting both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia is more important than ever, particularly in light of the rise of alt-right movements across the globe.
Like the fable of "the boy who cried wolf," campaigns that broaden the definition of anti-Semitism to include Israel's critics are dangerous in their trivialization of genuine hostility and prejudice against Jews, and their negation of political solidarity with Palestinians who are fighting for equality, freedom, and justice.
This is why today's open letter from 30 Jewish organizations is so important: it simultaneously calls on governments and universities to reject the criminalization of political speech and reaffirms the ethical struggle against all race- and ethnically-based forms of hated.
Reuben Roth, PhD is the son of Polish Holocaust survivors. His elementary schooling was divided between Rabbinical College (Lubavitch Yeshiva) and the Jewish Peretz School in Montreal. He is an Associate Professor in the Labour Studies and Sociology programs at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. His areas of research include the sociology of education and work, working-class identity and class consciousness, and Jewish national, ethnic and linguistic identity. Dr. Roth is a former Research Associate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto (OISE/UT).
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