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Is It Antisemitic to Criticize Israel?

Aw hell. If you’re worried that your blood hasn’t boiled enough today, go over to the New York Times and check out their second most-e-mailed article. Or don’t, even. Just the title is enough to make everyone go nuts, regardless … Read More

By / January 31, 2007

Aw hell. If you’re worried that your blood hasn’t boiled enough today, go over to the New York Times and check out their second most-e-mailed article. Or don’t, even. Just the title is enough to make everyone go nuts, regardless of your political leanings. Ready? Letter-writing fingers poised? Some of you might want to type and copy the phrase “freedom of speech” for easy pasting in a minute; some should perhaps do the same with “but what about the Holocaust?” All set? OK, here goes: Essay Linking Liberal Jews and Anti-Semitism Sparks a Furor. The essay, written by Indian University professor Alvin H. Rosenfeld and published on the website of the American Jewish Committee, argues that Jews who question Israel (its policies or its existence, please note) are contributing to a rising tide of antisemitism. You’ve probably heard this before, but perhaps not in such depth: Rosenfeld’s essay is 30 pages long and calls out a wide range of left-leaning writers and academics. The response, naturally, has been split. The Times quotes a response by Shulamit Reinharz, sociologist (and First Lady of Brandeis), in which she wrote:

“Most would say that they are simply anti-Zionists, not anti-Semites. But I disagree, because in a world where there is only one Jewish state, to oppose it vehemently is to endanger Jews.”

Whereas Tony Judt, the leftist NYU historian, thinks the real danger comes from conflating anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel:

“The link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is newly created,” he said, adding that he fears “the two will have become so conflated in the minds of the world” that references to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust will come to be seen as “just a political defense of Israeli policy.”

In this case, I think he’s right. When you reduce Jewishness to a political opinion (“all Jews must support Israel”) or reduce politics to religious or ethnic hatred (“all critics of Israel must hate Jews”), you’re using exactly the kind of reductive logic that fuels antisemitism (“all Jews are evil.”) Aren’t we better than that?

Well, maybe we're not. Even so, surely critics of Israel have the right to articulate their dissent, just as the AJC and other groups have the right to argue about why the critics are wrong. That's why I find this whole "Please stop talking about this stuff" approach so disappointing. If you want to support Israel, don't write 30 pages accusing other Jews of spreading antisemitism; write 30 pages about why Israel deserves our support.

As usual, Tony Kushner puts it best when he says that “it’s morally incumbent upon us to articulate questions and reservations.” I’d add that it’s morally incumbent upon those who disagree with Kushner to tell him why they think he’s wrong—which is very different from simply asking him to shut up.

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