Uncategorized · November 29, 2023 1

Is This What Fighting Antisemitism Should Look Like?

Marty Levine

November 29, 2023

My struggle with the rampant conflation of protesting Israel’s actions, policies, and even its very existence as a Jewish state with antisemitism continues. Equally does my struggle to understand why standing up for the rights of the Palestinian people so easily becomes labeled an act of antisemitism.

I once saw modern Israel as the one place on earth that was fully Jewish, where, in the words of Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua, I could become a “whole Jew.” It gave me a sense of being home when I visited. But over the years, I began to see that much was not right. Year by year, trip by trip, terrorist act by terrorist act, and war by war, my vision changed. I less and less felt at home; I less and less felt that Israel was the model for my Judaism.

I once thought that we should be fighting for the proverbial “two-state” solution. I once thought that the problem was that Palestinians just need to get their act together and stop making things difficult.

What made my perspective change was the reality of the Israeli government, a reality that made my rosy view just a pipedream.  The values I believed were the essential core of my Judaism were not being lived in Israel. Might makes right had replaced Hillel’s teachings,  “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”

I had believed that it was possible for a Palestinian state to be created alongside a Jewish Israel. But I then realized that the conditions that I saw were largely created by Israeli actions, and made that Palestinian state very unlikely, if not impossible. The vision of Israel was reformed to be a Jewish state on all of the land, from the river to the sea.  The government, left, center or right was driving a steady erasure of the land that might have been a Palestinian state;  formal and informal efforts resulted in the seizing of more and more territory, and Israeli hegemony over all of the land became an enduring forever reality.

I saw that the fallout of decades of being occupiers had eaten into the very soul of Israel and eaten away whatever part of it had once seen a two-state outcome as necessary and a goal to be achieved. I saw that Palestinians were more and more marginalized and brutalized by an Israel that now felt foreign to my soul.

So, when I joined others of like mind to protest, to support non-violent actions like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions  (BDS) effort, actions that raised up the voice of the Palestinians people, and when I said what Israel was doing no longer was not a reflection of my Judaism had I then become an antisemite?

Yes, for many of my fellow Jews, Israel is a central part of their understanding of what it means to be a Jew. And, yes, when people challenge the idea that Judaism requires a nation-state that is governed by and for Jews, one that gives primacy to Jews and provides them a sanctuary should it ever be needed, many of my sister and brother Jews link arms and stand together.  And so be it if that state allows, if they so choose others to reside in “their” country as second-class citizens (at best).  When I point this out, I am knocking down that core belief.

I understand that this is upsetting and it can feel threatening. 

But is it really antisemitic?

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, a few years before his death in 2020,  created three short animated videos to explain how my political beliefs and actions are, indeed, antisemitic.

“What then is the connection between Jews as a people, Judaism as a religion, and Israel as a state? The connection between the Jewish people and Israel goes back long before the birth of either Christianity or Islam…more than 3,000 years ago.

“Jews are the only people who ever created a nation-state there. At all other times in the past 3,000 years it was merely an administrative district in an empire whose centre was elsewhere: the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Alexandrian, Roman and Byzantine empires, the Crusaders of the Holy Roman Empire, the various Muslim empires such as the Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatimids, Mamluks and Ottomans, and finally the British. Jews are the only people who have maintained a continuous presence in the land. They are its indigenous, original inhabitants….

“Only Israel had previously existed as a nation state.”

So as Jews we have a claim to this land and any other group (i.e. Palestinians) are just latecomers and interlopers. And that is why opposition is antisemitic.

“There are 56 Islamic nations, and 159 in which Christians form the majority. There is and only ever has been one Jewish state, tiny and vulnerable though it is and always was. That is why Anti-Zionism, denying Jews the right to their one and only collective home by misrepresenting Judaism, is the new antisemitism, every bit as virulent and dangerous as the old.”

And with an “Amen!”, the century of bloody conflict is resolved.

Anyone who challenges how Israel and its supporters construct reality is challenging Judaism and Jews as a collective and is antisemitic. In making these one and the same they make simple a situation that is complex. They avoid having to confront a difficult history that challenges basic assumptions of who is good and who is evil. It avoids having to question one’s own understanding of what has been done in your name. It avoids having to find a difficult path forward that can meet the interests of two peoples over the same very small part of this world.

Shouting “antisemite” allows you to stop the difficult discussion from starting. It invalidates those who are challenging you; it erases them.  I don’t have to hear the hurt and pain of those who are not part of your community because their voices are not valid.

Only those who accept your logic are able to participate in the discussion for the future. For a Jew like me, this is isolating and leaves me outside of much of the formal world of American Jewish life.

For a Palestinian, this is much worse. It requires them to get down on their knees and accept that it is up to Israel and the Jewish People to tell them what is acceptable for a Palestinian to believe and how they are able to act in the public square. It is up to those who are in charge to tell them how they can protest if they are unhappy. It is up to Israel to define the nature of the changes they can even ask for.

October 7th provided just an opportunity to escalate this effort to invalidate and erase any voice that challenges Israel.  The horrendous actions by Hamas on that day and the ongoing pain of the hostages provided new fuel to quash challenging voices.

Voices that dared to say that as horrendous as October 7th was and as evil as Hamas might be, that events of that day must be placed in the larger context of Israel/Palestine were to be tarred as antisemites. 

When the Israeli government chose to respond to the wound that it suffered with seemingly indiscriminate bombing across Gaza and showed little concern for the 2+ million Gazans, the horror of October 7 was soon challenged by the horror of the weeks that followed. Israel needed to be protected from the consequences of its own actions.

So, across the Jewish Community, organizational voice after organizational voice rose up to challenge anyone speaking up for a ceasefire, anyone who wished to see this moment as a continuation of the destruction of the hopes of the Palestinian people.  Rather than engage, just shut off the conversation by yelling “antisemitism.”

Just days ago the ADL posted an update entitled “ADL Center on Extremism notes nearly 400-percent increase in preliminary antisemitic incidents reported year-over-year.” Its key point was made in a statement attributed to their CEO, Jonathon Greenblatt,  “When conflict erupts in Israel, antisemitic incidents soon follow in the U.S. and globally. From white supremacists in California displaying antisemitic banners on highway overpasses to radical anti-Zionists harassing Jewish people because of their real or perceived support for the Jewish state, we are witnessing a disturbing rise in antisemitic activity here while the war rages overseas.”

On the website of Chicasgo’s Jewish United Fund “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is a call for the genocide of Jews. It is a call to establish a Palestinian state that replaces the State of Israel—and to eradicate the Jews living there today….Jews aren’t colonizers—they are Israel’s indigenous people and have lived in Israel for 4,000 years. Archeological digs in Israel have unearthed ancient scrolls written Hebrew—the same language Israeli Jews speak today—describing the same Jewish rituals observed today.”

The AJC parrots the same “truth”. “Notably, anti-Zionism — the belief that the Jewish people do not have the right to a national home in their ancestral homeland (e.g. that the State of Israel should not exist) — is itself widely believed by Jews and non-Jewish allies to be a form of antisemitism.”

The impact of this ongoing effort to totally invalidate anyone who challenges Israel goes well beyond the personal; whether my feelings are hurt or not just doesn’t matter very much.

Even when motivated by a desire to protect Israel as a Jewish state, to protect the lives, homes, and futures of Jews living in Israel and around, actions that demonize and invalidate those who disagree with you by calling them antisemites will not work, Doing so will boomerang. The violence of October 7th and the hate of October 7th was steeped in the cauldron that is Israel/Palestine. Hate and violence breed more hate and violence. Just swatting down those who challenge the status quo, does not remove the cause for the challenge. Ruling out nonviolent protest just makes acts of violence more likely in the future. The peaceful future we all say we want will not come from more and more bloodshed.

These acts, even when motivated by a desire to protect Jews and the Jewish people from harm, will not work. They blur the meaning of antisemitism. They take our attention away from those who really wish us harm because of who we are. They even provide cover for people like Elon Musk, or Reverand Hagee, to mask the hate they have spread by joining us in attacking those who challenge Israel. Nothing good will come from this in the long term.

Shouting antisemitism is becoming, unfortunately, the Jewish communal equivalent of cries of “all lives matter” and “white power” in response to those who ask us to look at the reality of our national history. It does not erase the reality we have ignored; it does not erase the pain we are refusing to acknowledge; it does not absolve us of our own responsibility. It just keeps us from having to confront facts we do not like; facts that make us uncomfortable and perhaps afraid. And it keeps us from building a future in which all people are able to see a bright future.

“The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.” – John F. Kennedy