May 26, 2022
In a May 18 release, headlined “Some Nakba Day Events Descend into Support for Violence, Antisemitism,” the ADL provided a textbook example of the pernicious strategy to distort the meaning of antisemitism in order to silence those who dare to criticize Israel. For Palestinians, Nakba Day marks the tragedy of their expulsion from their homeland in 1948 by the government of the newly formed state of Israel. Here’s how ADL’s observers interpreted the words of those standing to speak about the pain of that moment and of the pain of this still festering sore. From the ADL’s perspective these were not words of people demanding justice and restitution, but words of threat to all Jews. “While most rhetoric did not veer into antisemitism or support for violence, a significant segment did… In several rallies, inflammatory remarks were made against “Zionism” and “Zionists,” including a speaker in Chicago who announced an initiative aimed at “sanctioning the Zionism movement” and to “de-platform and defund Zionist institutions.” At a rally in the Bay Area, a speaker led a chant of “no Zionism in our town!” Such anti-Zionist rhetoric, which seeks to vilify and ostracize “Zionists,” constitutes a wholesale attack on American Jews, a majority of whom view a connection with Israel, and support for its right to exist, as part of their Jewish religious, cultural and/or ethnic identities. (Emphasis added)”
When Israel declared its independence, it transformed the American Jewish community. That moment created a very new reality for a people that had lived as both welcome and unwelcome minorities in countries across the globe. With the pain of the Holocaust still fresh, Israeli independence provided an infusion of power and confidence to a community that felt weak and threatened. American Jews, as comfortable as they were in this country, saw Israel as the buttress against the next tyrant who would rise up to destroy the Jewish people.
Year by year, Israel became a central pillar of American Jewish identity. Judaism as a religion and Jews as a people increasingly leaned on Israel as a source of strength and meaning. While the American Jewish religious community had many shades of practice, often strongly disagreeing with each other, there was almost total agreement that Israel was a vital component of our communal identity.
As American Jews were increasingly integrated into the broader American society, and assimilation became an existential worry, Israel was given even more prominence and importance. By strengthening a connection to Israel, many American Jews believed they could offset the feared loss of identity that living in our multi-cultural democratic nation posed. Birthright Israel, a heavily supported program that “seeks to ensure the future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities…” by sending teens and young adults to Israel, embodies a broad set of Jewish communal efforts to strengthen American Jewish life by making Israel its central focus.
Missing in this effort, by design, was the historic reality of this disputed land. As the Israeli Government refused to grapple with the meaning of its existence and its occupation of lands claimed by other peoples, so did the American Jewish Community. The American Jewish narrative was cleansed of the moral dilemmas that were being lived out in Israel/Palestine on a daily basis. The Israel that was made central to American Jewish identity started with a people, as told in the bible, which had been exiled from the land God had given them. The land had remained desolate for those many centuries and become an arid, uninhabited wasteland. Miraculously, in the shadow of the Holocaust still dark, in 1948, their homeland was restored and Jewish pioneers were making the desert bloom again.
Erased from this narrative were the Palestinian people and their history on this same land. Lost was their expulsion and, for those that remained, their second-class status. And that erasure made it easy for an American Jewish community to revel in their new glory and ignore the difficult situation that Israelis lived with on a daily basis. By wiping Palestinians from this narrative, the violence that flared all too frequently could be blamed on Jew-hating Arabs who were out to destroy Israel, the sanctuary for all Jews. Palestinians were others; and as others, all actions to keep them in line, no matter how harsh, were excused as necessary acts of self-defense.
This sanitizing became more and more difficult as the years have gone on. More than 70 years of Israeli sovereignty have made it harder and harder to ignore the brutal conditions that Israel felt were required to retain a status quo that kept millions of Palestinians as non-citizens living as occupied people. The reality was too harsh to keep hidden. The voice of the Palestinian community was able to break into our consciousness and questions began to emerge in the Jewish Community about Israel’s righteousness.
As more and more American Jews looked at the reality of Israel, they struggled to reconcile what they had been taught with this reality. And they began to speak out. So too did other parts of the Progressive American political scene. And as the fantasy of Israel was exposed, its favored position in the American political scene was threatened. It became harder and harder to see Israel as a beacon of democracy and liberalism besieged by a horde of angry “others.” The Israel that had been central to American Judaism was increasingly seen as fiction.
While this was going on within the American Jewish Community, the American Palestinian Community became more vocal and more politically effective. They were more confident and, with greater confidence, voiced a narrative that challenged the very existence of Israel.
And this moment of uncertainty made many, particularly younger Jews, uncomfortable. When challenged on campuses and in other public spaces, they found themselves questioning what they had been taught. They found themselves facing audiences that told them that their pro-Israel positioning was illiberal. They found themselves struggling to defend an Israeli government and its policies. And they found themselves as Jews being asked to defend policies against critics who believed the blended Israel-Jewish narrative that Israel and the American Jewish community had made its own.
Feeling threatened by the Israel right or wrong approach, the ADL and other pro-Israel forces were politically brilliant. They saw the discomfort of Jews in the face of these reality-based challenges and needed to find a way to reverse the flow of public support. They saw that the emotion of their Jewish community seeing the warts of modern Israel was like the emotion of white America facing the truth of the 1619 Project or the Black Lives Matter movement. And they felt this emotion was there to be capitalized upon.
Rather than question their own positions, rather than grasp that the occupation was corroding Jewish and Israeli life and needed to be challenged, they chose to use the discomfort of this truth as a weapon. Even if this Jewish-Israel connection had been fostered within the American Jewish Community by the American Jewish Community, it was theirs to weaponize by calling those who identified the reality of occupation and who challenged the morality of the Israeli government as anti-Semites. Like those who now are fueled by a claim that it is white America that is being attacked and discriminated against.
After years of blending Jewishness and support of Israel into one identity within the Jewish community it was it was very clever way, even if it is very cynical, to attack those who criticize Israel with the ultimate sin of antisemitism because they see the connection between Judaism and Israel. After years of bringing American Judaism and support of Israel together, those who challenge any part of this mash-up are labeled as antisemites, and their challenge of Israeli policy and action is ignored. This smearing of Israeli critics, Jews and non-Jews alike has become the favored way to paint over apartheid policies.
Here’s how the ADL’s Midwest Office recently demonstrated the catch-22 they are trying to create: because is likely that most Jewish students, like American Jews, broadly identify as Zionists or feel a connection with the state of Israel as the Jewish homeland…” those who protest against Israel and challenge the existence of an Israel as a Jewish state are guilty of antisemitism. As an example, they cited this protest by a Palestinian Student Group at the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus. “Outside the campus Hillel building, posting a video showing approximately a dozen students holding signs in opposition to Birthright, a free trip to Israel for young Jewish individuals. An accompanying Instagram post by the non-Jewish group attempted to disparage Birthright and its participants: ‘Birthright is propaganda that manipulates Jewish heritage and identity into support for the Israeli apartheid state.’”
This tactic is all about American politics, about the desire of Israel’s defenders to shore up American political and financial support, not about combatting antisemitism. In his response to a resolution proposed by Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib “Recognizing the Nakba and Palestinian Refugees’ Rights”, Congressman Lee Zeldin made this very clear ““This resolution is just the latest in a long line of antisemitic, anti-Israel statements, policies and actions by the most radical voices in the Democratic Party. Whether it’s supporting the antisemitic Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, falsely accusing Israel of war crimes, or suggesting that support for Israel by members of Congress is ‘all about the Benjamins,’ this group on the far-left never misses an opportunity to dangerously promote antisemitic and anti-Israel sentiments and agendas.”
It seems that defending Israel has become more important than defending Jews; that defending Israel has become more important than fighting antisemitism. This is a very risky gambit, risky because it minimizes the meaning of antisemitism. It reduces it to just a political strategy to win a political battle. In a blog post from earlier this week, Peter Beinart described a speech given by Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid that declared “’ antisemitism isn’t the first name of hate, it’s the family name.’ In other words, antisemitism is the name for bigotry against Jews. But bigotry against Jews isn’t worse than bigotry against other people. All bigotry is equally bad, and thus, Lapid suggested, Jews should start calling all bigotry—or at least all bigotry that spawns widespread violence—antisemitism. ‘The antisemites,’ he declared, ‘were also slave traders who threw people bound together in chains into the sea. The antisemites were the Hutu in Rwanda who massacred Tutsis.” An antisemite is anyone who “hates so much that they want to kill and eliminate and persecute and expel people just because they are different.’”
If what Lapid says rings true, and it does to me, then this well-funded effort to conflate antisemitism with pro-Palestinian advocacy, even when it challenges the very existence of Israel as a Jewish nation, must be stopped by every person of goodwill.
Update: After I posted this I came across this article in Haaretz which could serve as the proof text. Here’s just a snippet: “In a video posted to Twitter and TikTok, Tishby noted that 2,658 journalists were killed worldwide while working between 1990 and 2020. That those upset about Abu Akleh’s killing – which she firmly denied was “an execution or a targeted assassination” – can “only name the one” killed during an Israeli raid in the occupied territories is reflective of “subconscious antisemitism, anti-Jewish racism.”