Thoughtful Revolution



How to Criticize Israel Without Being Anti-Semitic (A Basic Primer)

First of all: I know I changed the Thoughtful Revolution look. Again. This will be the last time, I swear — but I didn’t want people to mix me up with Quixotess’s far superior site.

Anyway. As an active member of an active Jewish community, I hear a lot of discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and about its representation by media outlets and arbiters of public opinion. Accusations of anti-Semitism are routinely slung, sometimes justifiably, sometimes not. Almost everyone in our synagogue seems to accept paraphrased variations on a basic mantra: “legitimate criticism of Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitic.” Such a statement is a cipher, vague enough that everyone who hears it can graft on a convenient meaning. What constitutes legitimate criticism, and who gets to decide? And if legitimate criticism is “not necessarily” anti-Semitic, some of it is implicitly anti-Semitic, and… therefore illegitimate? As much as these may sound like meaningless semantics, in a debate that hinges so often and so heavily on word choice — or, more broadly, “fact choice” — they are questions worth asking. I will try to answer them.

Let it be said that my definitions are subjective. My family members will certainly say that they encompass too little, while many of my friends may label them too broad. I am setting out the basic protocol for discussing the conflict in front of me, and while I happen to think that my rules are fairly good ones, not everyone will agree with me — so if this post causes a mashed-potato-slinging catastrophe at your next family gathering, don’t blame me.

1. Standards.
It’s the most elementary idea in the book: judge a nation on its own merits. That doesn’t mean that historical context or internal discrimination or myriad other variables can be taken out of the picture; it means that those variables should be weighed as they would be weighed for any other country. Basically, allowing the fact that the dominant religion in question is Judaism should not affect the standards by which Israel is evaluated. This doesn’t only go for conventional anti-Semitism per se, the kind that might judge Israel negatively because of a negative opinion of Jews. No, this is applicable to any school of thought that applies blanket statements about Jews to a judgment about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whether or not it is a favorable judgment.
Acceptable: Applying impartial standards to Israel and finding it wanting.
Unacceptable:: Applying different criteria, either laxer or more stringent, to Israel based on an opinion of Judaism. Saying that “Israel is honorable because the Jews are honorable” is as unacceptable as “Israel is repugnant because the Jews are repugnant.” Likewise, it is unacceptable to criticize Israel because we Jews ought to be “a beacon unto nations,” or morally superior in any way; this is a trap that is unfortunately popular in the progressive Jewish community. “Positive” stereotypes are as problematic as explicitly nasty ones (though that’s another post).

2. Hyperbole.
It’s a question of common sense: don’t blow things out of proportion. Especially when those things happen to fall under the category of “age-old anti-Semitic trope.”
Acceptable: “AIPAC has an undue influence on American reactions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Unacceptable:“AIPAC controls U.S. foreign policy/the government/the media.”

3. Inappropriate conflation.
I have said it before and I will say it again: Judaism ≠ Israel.  Jews ≠ Israel.  Individual Jewish friends or acquaintances ≠ Israel.  To accuse “the Jews” of screwing shit up in the Middle East, or to say that Judaism is racist because some policies of the Israeli government have been, is to reduce a vastly diverse and multifaceted religion (and one that predates the State of Israel by millennia) to the actions of one infitesimal sub-sub-sector of its population. And that is neither fair nor logical.
Acceptable: “Israel oppresses Palestinians.”
Unacceptable: “The Jews oppress Palestinians.”

4. Pseudo-psychology.
Along the lines of the whole blanket-generalization issue. I have enough psychological qualms of my own; I don’t need an entire new pack of “syndromes” attributed to me because of my membership in a certain religious group. And when someone accuses Israel of Stockholm syndrome or other oppression-related disorders — because they’re Jewish, and all Jews suffer from Stockholm syndrome, and all Jews would reflect that vaguely defined Stockholm syndrome in a position of power — the effect is frustrating on multiple levels. It posits that the oppressive policies enacted by the Israeli government stem directly from their Jewishness (as opposed to privilege, or power, or other factors that have been reflected identically in a whole hell of a lot of non-Jewish countries), which I think has a somewhat self-explanatory place on the anti-Semitism meter. It refuses to take into account the existence of Jews outside of the context of Israel, Jews who to my knowledge have not uniformly displayed signs of Shoah-related “disorders.” It’s condescending, and ableist, and an intellectually masturbatory derailing of knowledgeable discussion. And it, at the most basic level, disqualifies Jews from holding any leadership positions: because whether as government officials or CEOs or drama teachers or high school newspaper editors, we just wouldn’t be able to stop ourselves from harming our underlings, because history has irrevocably screwed us up, and that’s that.
Acceptable: “It’s wrong for the IDF to commit acts of torture.”
Unacceptable: “The IDF soldiers learned it from their grandparents.”

5. A few other assorted thoughts.
Okay, so, first of all: The Holocaust is not an appropriate metaphor. Ever. Not when critics of Israel use it, and not when Abe Foxman uses it. It was genocide, not a ready-made rhetorical device, and I am personally offended when it becomes a new, shiny feature of political speech. That’s as trivializing as it gets.

Also. What do you mean when you call the state of Israel illegitimate, or use words like “destroyed” or “dissolved?” If you want a more liberal, secular, democratic, accepting Israel, one that is “the Jewish state” rather than “a Jewish state,” and one that does not use politically decreed Jewishness as a reason to suppress non-Jewish populations, I’ll buy that absolutely. But if by “destroyed” or “dissolved” you mean actually rendered nonexistent, your point seems moot at best and poisonous at worst. Look, the state of Israel exists, and will likely continue to exist in our lifetimes. And if you don’t like that, feel free to consider its “destruction;” think about it in terms of violence, if you must. But also consider your feelings about Canada, and the U.S., and Australia, and myriad other countries built on the displacement of indigenous people. And if you can only muster up destruction-worthy feelings about Israel, shame on you. It’s wonderful to work for an end to the occupation and discrimination espoused by Israeli policies; it’s wonderful to encourage education campaigns and anti-racist work and initiatives to improve Israel as we know it. But advocating for the destruction of Israel, as opposed to integration and change (and a right of return for all Palestinians, and a public excoriation of Avigdor Lieberman, and so on), is not only futile and counterproductive but raises some serious questions about your motivations.

For insightful posts on the subject from someone far older and wiser than myself, check out this site: http://modernmitzvot.wordpress.com/. The author is a wonderful writer and a joy to read, even as she grapples with issues as diverse from Judaism to capitalism to the “War on Christmas.” If you hadn’t guessed by now, I’d sort of like to be her when I grow up.

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