Some messages stay with you. “You are Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf in Philip Roth's ‘Plot Against America,’” a stranger direct-messaged me on Twitter after I outlined my criticism of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land on NPR on Monday. The semi-pretentious burn compared me to a fictional Jewish rabbi who supports the Nazis’ (also fictional) takeover of the American presidency. According to this Twitter critic, my support for Palestinian rights was “feeding antisemitism.”
Criticizing Israeli policy is not new for me — and neither is the backlash that inevitably follows. But it never gets easier.
Criticizing Israeli policy is not new for me — and neither is the backlash that inevitably follows. But it never gets easier. As someone who was born and raised in Israel, I don’t take accusations that I’m “feeding antisemitism” lightly. But I do refuse to believe that my safety, and the safety of my family, is dependent on oppressing anyone else.
In recent weeks, there has been a rise in antisemitic incidents in the United States and in Europe. Synagogues were vandalized with swastikas in England and with rocks in Germany, and Orthodox men were allegedly harassed in New York City by a group shouting “kill all the Jews” — one of at least two attacks in the city recently. These are just a few of the despicable incidents that have led to condemnation from President Joe Biden, Human Rights Watch and others.
The troubling rise in hate is both the continuation of a trend and a break from it. Antisemitic incidents in the U.S. reached record levels in 2019, according to the Anti-Defamation League, but an alarming uptick in incidents has been recorded in the aftermath of renewed violence in Gaza.
At the same time, some, including MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan, have observed a shift in the Israeli-Palestinian discourse in America. Democratic supporters of Israel are seemingly less afraid to condemn Israel’s killing of civilians in Gaza — including dozens of Palestinian children.
Historically, criticism of the Israeli government has been linked to antisemitism. But it’s not nearly that simple. By conflating Judaism and Israel, the Israeli government created a paradox in which Israel’s actions are beyond critique. The irony is that Zionism and antisemitism are each other's best recruiting tools.
Israel is the self-proclaimed “nation-state of the Jewish people.” That has been added to the country’s basic law (the Israeli equivalent of a constitution). The Israeli Declaration of Independence also promises that the new nation “would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew.” That promise has been codified in the Law of Return that allows any Jewish person in the world to claim an Israeli citizenship.
Conflating Israel with Judaism — and Israelis with Jews — is unfair and leads to tropes about dual national loyalties.
But conflating Israel with Judaism — and Israelis with Jews — is unfair and leads to tropes about dual national loyalties. It also conflates a diverse religion with the politics and policies of a single country.
But Israel engages in this conflation all the time.
The official mission statement of the Permanent Mission of Israel to the United Nations says it “represents the State of Israel, its citizens and the Jewish people on the global stage.” In 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined world leaders in a rally in Paris after the horrific attacks on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket claimed by the Islamic State group. Afterward, Netanyahu proclaimed, “I went to Paris not just as the prime minister of Israel but as a representative of the entire Jewish people.”
It is this conflation between Israel and Judaism, one that is baked into the foundation of Israel and perpetuated by its leaders, that leads to a problematic tautology: Israel’s leaders represent all Jewish people, and thus by definition any criticism of Israel must be criticism of all Jewish people — and hence antisemitic.
This tautology allows accusations of antisemitism to be weaponized, particularly against people who speak up about Palestinian rights — sometimes in ridiculous ways.
Just look at Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who has been beating the antisemitism drum for weeks. Yes, the same Greene who once blamed wildfires on Jewish space lasers and now compares mask mandates to Nazi gas chambers.
The fact that Greene, despite her own record, felt comfortable weaponizing antisemitism as an alleged defense of Israel while spewing antisemitic remarks shows how cynical the discourse about this heinous form of racism has become.
The same dynamic plays out in foreign policy, as Netanyahu finds allies in antisemitic leaders in Poland and Hungry. As long as they don’t criticize Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, it’s all kosher.
Obviously, antisemitism exists in the Israeli-Palestinian discourse. These rhetorical hitchhikers aren’t very hard to spot. Sharing Hitler quotes on social media, something the Anti-Defamation League has reported an increase of, or a Pakistani diplomat saying “they control media” on CNN is not very subtle.
These antisemitic attacks — physical or rhetorical — in a dark irony, help Israel justify its actions. A month after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, a Jewish guard was shot outside of a synagogue in Denmark. It was the perfect excuse for Zionists to again make the case that Jews need a nation-state; in the tragedy’s aftermath, Netanyahu called on Europe’s Jews to migrate to Israel. Inversely, videos of soldiers with Jewish symbols on their uniforms brutally arresting Palestinian kids make good fodder for radicalizing people against Jews.
In the past few days, as more and more incidents were reported, I was heartened by the many Palestinians who took to social media to condemn antisemitism. One tweeted, “Our struggle is for justice, liberty, and life and it can’t be tainted by hatred.”
Antisemitism predates the state of Israel by about two millennia, and ending the occupation won’t make it disappear. But if describing the oppressive actions of the Jewish state is “feeding antisemitism,” then demanding the end of these acts could reduce the heat.
That should also give comfort to diaspora Jews, who might have family in Israel.
Far from offensive, criticizing the Israeli government should be viewed as an act of love that could help make everyone more safe and more free. The freedom and safety of Jewish Israelis and the freedom and safety of Christian and Muslim Palestinians are not mutually exclusive — in fact, they are secured through co-existence.