Anti-Semitism: What it is, what it isn't and why it matters

Anti-Semitism: What it is, what it isn't and why it matters
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It would be wrong to claim that all opposition to Israel is anti-Semitic, but it would be dangerous to believe that none of it is. Even the fiercest criticism of Israeli policies, including the oppressive occupation of Palestine, should never be confused with anti-Semitism, so long as it is objective, specific and based in fact. In contrast, actual anti-Semitism can be identified when actions are taken against, or demands are made upon, Jewish individuals or organizations that are never imposed upon others.

It is likewise anti-Semitic when baseless accusations are leveled against imaginary “Zionists” that just happen to dovetail with ancient anti-Jewish stereotypes. Here are some examples.

After Senate Republicans filibustered the Freedom to Vote Act last month, the Declaration for American Democracy Coalition organized a voting rights rally, to be held in Washington, D.C. The hundreds of sponsoring organizations included the Sierra Club, the Franciscan Action Network, the National Organization for Women and many others. The broad progressive solidarity was shattered, however, when the D.C. chapter of the environmentalist Sunrise Movement announced that it refused to participate alongside three Jewish groups, due to their support for “Zionism and the State of Israel.”

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The Jewish organizations targeted by Sunrise DC were the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. All three focus on progressive issues in the U.S., while also supporting security for Israel and an independent Palestinian state.

That was not good enough for Sunrise DC, which urged their removal from the Coalition. Any association with the Jewish organizations would be “incompatible with statehood and political sovereignty.”

Although couched in anti-Israel terms, Sunrise DC sought to exclude only specifically Jewish groups from liberal coalitions. After a few days of waffling, the national office of the Sunrise Movement recognized the chapter’s “statements and actions” as “antisemitic and unacceptable.”

As explained by law professor David Schraub, many non-sectarian organizations in the Declaration for American Democracy Coalition, such as the American Federation of Teachers and the Center for American Progress, hold positions on Israel/Palestine that are indistinguishable from the Jewish groups that were unacceptable to Sunrise DC. It was the singling out of mainstream Jewish organizations – and by extension most American Jews, who also support a two-state solution in the Middle East – that made the position anti-Semitic, rather than a political principle.

To its credit, Sunrise DC eventually recognized the impact of boycotting only Jewish organizations. After taking time to “learn, reflect, and think carefully,” the chapter apologized “unequivocally” for a declaration that “fueled antisemitism.”

Not everyone is contrite, especially when it comes to blaming Israel for all manner of evil deeds. Ibraheem Samirah, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, tweeted his support of the initial Sunrise DC statement, calling it “enviro-justice.”

Samirah’s advocacy of Palestinian rights, which nobody should call anti-Semitic, has been intertwined with the bizarre accusation that Israel is “enabling oil wars burning our planet,” including the “Iran-Iraq [that] killed MILLIONS of Iraqis and Iranians.” In one tweet he managed to sink from an undeniable truth into an anti-Semitic fantasy, rightfully protesting Israel’s violation of Palestinians’ land and water rights, but then charging that the “Mossad creates fossil fuel wars [and] the WMD lie Colin PowellColin PowellDefense & National Security — Biden marks Veterans Day Biden marks Veterans Day at Arlington National Cemetery Overnight Defense & National Security — Washington gathers for Colin Powell's funeral MORE spewed to the world to justify the Iraq war.”

Samirah’s febrile delusions should be recognized as a “blood libel” on a grand scale, accusing Israel of responsibility for wars instigated by others. His tweets are no different from Mel Gibson’s drunken rant that “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” Samirah doubtless wishes no physical harm to individual American Jews, but that is a low bar. The story of behind-the-scenes Jewish manipulation of governments has been a staple of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories for centuries.

The same is true of the often heard claim that Israel has trained American police and was therefore complicit in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and more.

Some American police officers – out of nearly 700,000 nationally – have indeed attended seminars and exchanges with their Israeli counterparts, as they have with other countries, but not for training in lethal methods. In fact, one Georgia police chief recently explained that a program in Israel showed him how his officers can avoid using deadly force.

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The sad fact is that American police officers do not need additional training in violence against minorities. Too many of them are quite capable of brutality entirely on their own. The phony claim of Israel’s responsibility is another example of classical anti-Semitism – spreading plagues, poisoning wells, controlling the media – updated in a contemporary context.

The Palestinian people have suffered greatly under Israeli occupation, and their advocates in the U.S. can easily find legitimate material to support their cause. It is disheartening, though perhaps inevitable, that so many have stooped to the disreputable tactics of boycotting Jews or leveling pernicious charges of malign behavior. That is anti-Semitism, plain and simple.

Steven Lubet is Williams Memorial Professor at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and the author of “The Trials of Rasmea Odeh: How a Palestinian Guerrilla Gained and Lost U.S. Citizenship.”