Uncategorized · December 22, 2023 2

On Israel, Judaism, Jews and Antisemitism

Marty Levine

December 22, 2023

In May 2021 I was concerned about how the power structure of the established Jewish Community was buttressing support for Israeli polices and actions by accusing anyone who disagreed with them as being antisemitic.  

“Cries of “anti-Semitism” are used as a get-out-of-jail card when Israel’s destruction in Gaza is protested or when the decades long siege of Gaza is questioned. …They wish to turn those who challenge Israeli policy and stand for the rights of the Palestinian people into anti-Semites who must be silenced and punished.

Since then, this effort has gotten even stronger and sadly, appears to be working.

And now, with Gaza in ruins, with thousands dead and wounded and with protests on streets and campuses across the nation, I am realizing that those yelling the loudest are building on years and years, along with hundreds of millions of dollars, buttressing the belief that Israel and Judaism are one and the same.

Challenging Israel for its policies and actions has become indistinguishable from challenging Jews for being Jewish. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in bolstering this claim and its underlying principle that as a Jew I have a right to this land as my exclusive homeland; that I have a right to defend it in all ways possible; and that anyone who challenges this is not only wrong, but is an antisemite.

Do you think that I am overstating this point? Do you think that I am ignoring what is the reported spike in antisemitic activity in our nation and around the world?

College Campuses and Jewish students have been front and center in the reporting of growing antisemitism. This was highlighted by the recent Congressional hearing focused on three elite universities portrayed as prime examples of how colleges and universities have become hotbeds of virulent antisemitism. In November, the ADL, one of the major Jewish organizations that have been front and center in tarring Palestinians and their supporters with the brush of antisemitism, published Campus Antisemitism: A Study of Campus Climate Before and After the Hamas Terrorist Attacks. ADL’s lead conclusion was “73% of Jewish college students surveyed have experienced or witnessed some form of antisemitism since the beginning of the 2023-2024 school year alone. By comparison, 43.9% of non-Jewish students reported the same during that period. Prior to this school year, 70% of Jewish college students experienced at least some form of antisemitism throughout their entire college experience.”

Late last week the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University published “In the Shadow of War: Hotspots of Antisemitism on US College Campuses.”  The authors of this work tell us it “describes Jewish students’ perceptions of antisemitism on 51 US college campuses in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war.”  Their findings were a bit more nuanced, as they worked to distinguish levels of reported antisemitism among the campuses they surveyed.

  • “Antisemitic hostility varies dramatically from one campus to the next. At some schools, the vast majority of Jewish students we surveyed reported that there is a hostile climate toward Jews and Israel on their campus, while at other schools, substantially fewer Jewish students feel this way.”
  • At the schools with the highest perceived levels of antisemitic hostility, Jewish students were more likely to report experiencing insult or harassment in person and on social media, seeing antisemitic images, slogans, or graffiti, and being blamed for the actions of the Israeli government because they were Jewish. However, the variation between schools with respect to these experiences was significantly smaller compared to the variation in overall perceptions of hostility.

Both studies measure what the students perceive and feel; they capture little about what they actually experienced when they categorized an event as antisemetic.  And that is where the years of work by ADL and others to make pro-Palestinian statements, like “river to the sea” and “intifada” be perceived as antisemitic have paid off. This is especially true if your goal is to protect Israel from criticism and protest. They have sensitized their audience to this conflation so often and so loudly that it is just assumed to be antisemitic no matter the context.

This sensitization builds upon another well-taught “truism” within the Jewish Community. That truism is: Israel is the Jewish homeland and no other people have any claim to it. Within the American Jewish Community this was a central part of a decades-long effort to respond to the perceived loosening of connection of more and more Jews to traditional modalities of Jewish life. As synagogue membership and religious practice declined, as intermarriage rates grew, the leadership of American Jewish institutions sought to combat what they saw as a withering away of Jewish life. Israel was the antidote. Huge amounts of money, often from the same donors who are now supporting the weaponization of antisemitism, were spent to position Israel as the way to rebuild American Jewish life.

The Israel that was presented was a fantasy. It was the home to a modern techno-state, wealthy and powerful. It was an Israel without glaring issues of festering poverty and racism. It was an Israel whose Palestinian citizens were ignored. It was an Israel beset by the evil Palestinians living as noncitizens in the “territories.” These were Palestinians who had no history, certainly no claim to the land, and no place in the future. It was an Israel whose government-sponsored bias was ignored in order to tell the story of a model democracy.

Having effectively created a false, but satisfying image of modern Israel and of the Palestinian people, it is not surprising that faced with voices presenting an alternate view of history and of the present reality, that Jewish men, women, and college students feel uncomfortable, even threatened. It is not surprising that it is difficult to reconcile what has been taught and supported with well-crafted propaganda with Palestinians and their supporters demanding drastic change in the name of basic human rights.

What has been ignored in all of this effort to build support for Israel is the tying of Judaism to Israel and the policies of the government. Not only is Israel the historic homeland of the Jewish People, but it is our exclusive homeland. That has been and is the policy of State of Israel. And so, it is not surprising that protestors demanding in the name of the Palestinian people that they should be able to return to their homeland, make Jews feel threatened.

When the nature of the Jewish state is attacked and is accused of being racist and colonial, I feel uncomfortable.  But I recognize that is the same feeling that I have felt in these years of confronting the nature of race in the US. I too was raised in a Jewish world absent Palestinians; I too was raised in a Jewish world where Israel was a model state.

But because I feel uncomfortable, even threatened, does that make the protestors, the Palestinian activists, antisemitic? I think not.

In the effort to strengthen the flame of support for Israel, there is a huge effort to throw the gasoline of antisemitism on the fire. Brandeis’ questionnaire does not ask students to describe the moments when they experienced antisemitism so that we can understand the difference from challenging or even rejecting Israel as a nation of Jewish primacy and attacking Jews and Judaism.  They are not interested, it seems, in teasing out the complicated emotions around confronting the imperfect reality of modern Israel, a reality that challenges many well-buttressed beliefs. Intentionally or not the researchers are providing antisemitism fuel by focusing on feelings and not actions.

What was concerning two years ago has indeed gotten worse.  Organizations like the ADL, Jewish Federations, AIPAC, AJC, and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations have doubled down on their efforts to defend a less and less defensible Israel,  weaponizing anti-Semitism and making it harder to combat anti-Semites. In making a challenge of Israel an attack on Jews they are making it harder to place the battle against anti-Semitism where it should be, alongside the effort to raise up others who have been marginalized. Letting Israel escape responsibility for its behaviors and the racism of its occupation does not benefit the Jewish people. Any historic claim to a homeland cannot ignore those who also have a similar claim, nor can it try to prevail through brutality and force. Yelling “anti-Semite” may make it easier to ignore the harsh reality, but it does not stop anti-Semitism. It breeds it.”

Defending indefensible actions by Israel will not make Israel safer. Labeling those who disagree with them as antisemites will only make the Jewish community less safe.

When will they ever learn?