For many Jews on the left, particularly the moderate or liberal left, there is a preoccupation—some might even say an obsession—with finding the so-called “line” between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, between legitimate, even if harsh, criticism of Israel and an attack on the Jewish people as a whole.
Given Jewish history and the rise in antisemitism during and since the Trump years, one can understand the vigilance. Several antisemitic incidents during Israel’s latest criminal onslaught on the Gaza Strip cast a spotlight on the question again.
Yet the question itself is contentious at best. Anti-Zionism, criticism of Israel, and even harsh condemnation of the state, including bombastic, inaccurate, or exaggerated statements are all part of political debate. Attacking Zionism, no matter how harshly, is no different, in and of itself, than attacking any other ideology. This holds even more true for nationalist ideologies, which are generally exclusively self-interested, and often tied to political claims that others might bitterly oppose, despite the claimants’ historical grievances.
The 3D test
It should not need to be stated—but, sadly, it does—that Israel may be the only self-proclaimed Jewish state, but this does not mean it should receive less, or more, criticism than other states. Its actions, its treatment of people it affects, citizens or otherwise, and its role in global affairs are as open to criticism—again, including harsh, bitter, even angry criticism—as any other country. No more, no less.
That includes questioning whether the structure of the state precludes the possibility of respect for universal rights and, if it does, demanding a change in that structure. That is as true for Israel as it was for apartheid South Africa, or as it is today for various dictatorships, autocracies, and theocracies around the globe. It also holds true for critical inquiry into the creation of Israel, the same as the United States, Australia, Canada, and other places currently grappling with the questions of their founding on genocide, dispossession, and ethnic cleansing.
On the other hand, attacking Jews as Jews or generalizing attributes to the Jewish people as a whole is one particularly virulent and dangerous form of antisemitism.
Those definitions are not very similar, and the distinction between anti-Zionism and antisemitism is neither fuzzy nor difficult to pinpoint. One is the bigoted caricaturizing and generalizing of Jews as Jews. The other is opposition to a political ideology and the expression of that ideology in the only Zionist state in the world.
True, there are times that antisemitic expressions substitute the word “Zionist” for “Jew.” But this is not difficult to detect, or to discern from genuine anti-Zionism or mere criticism of Israel. One need only be intellectually honest and examine the statement in question on its merits, rather than on whether or not it seems “fair” to Israel, or whether it crosses lines that one might prefer not be crossed. Sadly, this seems to be more than we can expect from far too many people on all sides of this question.
Many continue to apply the invalid “Three D’s” test for distinguishing between antisemitism and what the gatekeepers consider “legitimate criticism” of Israel, a term which, itself, is so arbitrary and subjective as to be utterly useless.
The “Three D’s” or 3D Test stands for delegitimization of Israel, demonization of Israel, and applying double standards to Israel. It is said that if criticism violates any of those three principles, it has crossed the line into antisemitism.
It shouldn’t take much to see the absurdity of that standard. Simply look and see if any of them are unique to the Jewish state, and when one does that it becomes obvious that any country that ever faces any sort of controversy over its policies, actions, and structure deals with all three “D’s.” That means, with few exceptions, every country in the world.
Just look at current events. We can see China regularly demonized by people all over the world. Russia is demonized, Cuba, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Nicaragua as well, on a regular basis in the United States. Indeed, the U.S. itself is demonized by many all over the world as well as right here in the proverbial belly of the beast. In many places (and for a time earlier in this century, in the US as well) France has been regularly demonized, as has the United Kingdom. We can comfortably say that demonization is far from unique to Israel.
Delegitimization of Israel is usually defined as calling it a settler-colonial state or an apartheid system. But both of these are technical terms that one can debate if one wishes, but whose definitions clearly apply to Israel. Sometimes the delegitimization argument centers on the birth of Israel, the naqba, as Palestinians call it. But there is no question that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were made refugees in that birth, and that they were barred from returning by Israeli law. These are plain facts. One can debate the underlying causes but pointing out indisputable facts is hardly delegitimization.
Moreover, even if one defends the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948, debating this issue is no different from debating the destruction and dispossession of indigenous people in the entire Wester Hemisphere, and other places where invaders displaced existing populations. So it’s not unique to the Jewish state, and therefore cannot logically be antisemitic.
The double standard point is a completely subjective one. There are examples of Israel being treated differently than other countries. One such example is the fact that Israel alone, in a world full of massive and horrifying human rights violations, is a permanent agenda item for the UN Human Rights Council. Yet it also acts against the Palestinians with impunity because of the unique protection it gets from the world’s military and economic superpower. The Palestinian cause, in many ways, gets more attention than other liberation struggles around the world, the result of massive organizing over more than seven decades. Yet Israel also can maintain its occupation virtually cost-free as almost all of the support for the occupied population comes from donor countries in the Arab world, Europe, and the United States.
I’d argue that there is a double standard, and Israel greatly benefits from it. But that’s a separate debate, one which you can explore in this piece by Peter Beinart. The key point here is that it is not a useful measure of antisemitism in the debate over Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights.
The Post-Cold War “Special Relationship”
Even raising the question of a “line” between the two grants that the tactic of willfully confusing anti-Zionism and antisemitism is a valid one. It is not. Conflating antisemitism and criticism of Israel or anti-Zionism is an illegitimate act, but also one that is not present in the majority of cases where it is alleged.
For years in the United States, criticism of Israel was largely either mild or confined to the fringes of discourse. That changed when the Cold War ended. With that event, much of the commonly accepted rationale for the US’ indifference, or even hostility, to Palestinian rights evaporated. In 2021, as antisemitism is also rising, there is even more reason to grapple with the attempt to confuse anti-Zionism, and even less stringent criticism of Israel, with antisemitism.
In place of a Cold War rationale, the bloody “Global War On Terror” became the geo-strategic rationale for lock-step support of Israel. But this was a far less convincing argument than the fearsome Soviet Union had been. As a result, the “special relationship” between the US and Israel and the characterization of that relationship as being based on “common values” gained prominence. This argument was bolstered by the willful blurring of the line between antisemitism and anti-Zionism or any criticism of Israel on human rights or policy grounds. After all, if Israel was seen as falling short in its respect for democracy and human rights, that “special US-Israel relationship” would wither and fade, the US’ own shortcomings in such matters notwithstanding.
The clearest expression of this blurring effort was “the New Antisemitism.” The concept originated in the 1960s, but it was sharpened into a political force over the years, particularly in the 1990s and early 2000s by some of its most hardcore ideologues, such as Natan Sharansky, Phyllis Chessler, Alan Dershowitz, Abraham Foxman, and others.
The effect of decades of efforts to blur these lines has not been merely to blur the line between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, but to blur the lines between legitimate critique of Israel and anti-Zionism as well as between what might be exaggerated or over-the top criticism of Israel on one hand, and expressions of hostility toward the Jewish people on the other.
This last needs to be examined much more thoroughly than it has been. If someone accuses Israel of something it did not do, magnifies a crime, or ignorantly distorts an event, that often leads to an accusation of antisemitism. But sometimes people are simply wrong or misguided. It happens all the time on every issue, and has many causes, not the least of which is that the overwhelming majority of people are not experts on any given subject, let alone every one they might hold an opinion about. Being wrong or misinformed about Israel is no more antisemitic than being wrong or misinformed about the United States is anti-American.
A Failed Attempt to Draw a Line
Three years ago, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the executive director of the rabbinical human rights organization, T’ruah, tried to offer guidelines for separating antisemitism from legitimate criticism of Israel. Her effort fell short because the lines she drew were often the same lines as those who use accusations of antisemitism to stifle criticism of Israel. Although she tried to find a balance between legitimate criticism of Israel—including, it must be stressed, criticism that she did not necessarily agree with—she still fell back on something like the “3D Test” standards. The main difference was that Rabbi Jacobs used those standards in good faith, while defenders of Israel’s apartheid policies do not.
I don’t know Rabbi Jacobs well, but I have been acquainted with her for several years and I have absolutely no doubt her effort was a sincere one, meant to bring people together. But in the end, like its bad faith counterparts, she too labeled some of what should be legitimate criticism of Israel, however harsh, antisemitic.
According to Rabbi Jacobs, “anti-Semitism is alive and well, and increasingly it masquerades as criticism of Israel.” Yet there’s no evidence that there is an increase in the attempt to use criticism of Israel to mask antisemitism. On the contrary, in recent years, especially since the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, antisemites have become increasingly bold and have felt less need to mask their bigotry. Phrases like the “Zionist-occupied government,” an obvious example of trying to cloak antisemitism in anti-Zionist language, have been around for many decades, a staple of neo-Nazi and white supremacist movements which has too often crept into the margins—but always the margins—of Palestine solidarity movements. There is no evidence that such practices have increased.
One example of the faulty reasoning at play here was Rabbi Jacobs’ examples of “seeing Jews as insidious influencers behind the scenes of world events.” Rabbi Jacobs quoted Dr. Steven Salaita, who wrote, “Palestinian human-rights activism, which often challenges Zionism, is firmly located in spaces of the political left, particularly among minority communities. Support for Israel, in contrast, exists in sites of authority, often an omnipresent but invisible accoutrement to swivel chairs, mineral water, and mahogany tables.”
Salaita, a Palestinian-American professor whose career was destroyed by pro-Israel backlash to some of his tweets while Israel was devastating Gaza in 2014, has a well-earned reputation for very plain talk. He’s paid a heavy price for that but has continued to voice direct and strong criticism of Zionism from an anti-colonialist point of view.
But where exactly is the falsehood, or even exaggeration, in what Salaita said in the quote above? From the days of Chaim Weizmann right up to the present, the Zionist movement, and later, the political apparatus supporting the state of Israel around the world, has been quite open about its top-down strategy for political gains. It has always appealed to the powerful, from the Ottoman sultan to British Prime Ministers, from U.S. presidents to major business leaders, this has always been the key target of Zionist and Israeli political and diplomatic efforts. There has also long been a concerted effort to sway the general public, and it has been quite successful in its own right, but that always came second and still does for supporters of Israel.
Salaita, in this instance was drawing a distinction between that strategy and that of the Palestinians, who have, certainly in the last 35 years, relied much more on grassroots and popular movements for their cause. Obviously, he is trying to frame the competition between supporters of Israel and supporters of the Palestinians as one of a popular cause against powerful and well-funded forces.
One can see why that rankles liberal sensibilities, but in what way is it false? It may be imprecise, as all analogies are, but it is certainly grounded in a very real dynamic and a legitimate view of the differing strategies and, crucially, political postures of the pro-Israel and Palestine solidarity movements. And, if it is not false, then how can it possibly be antisemitic to point it out?
Myth and Reality
When politicians, particularly in Washington, feel the pressure of the pro-Israel lobby, they are responding to a perception, one that is not necessarily borne out in reality. They believe that the Jewish community—which is very politically active and disproportionately responsible for political fundraising—bases their political and financial support on policy toward Israel.
It’s worth unpacking this question. When we discuss Jews and money, the potential for antisemitism is tremendous and obvious. No antisemitic trope is more prevalent and pernicious than that of the wealthy, greedy Jews using our money to exercise control, to press those in power to do as we bid.
As loathsome as those canards are, we can’t allow them to dictate reality, whether by allowing them to flourish or by denying them so flatly that we don’t contend with the truth of Jewish life in the United States. The obvious outgrowth of that point is that we cannot allow ourselves to stereotype Jews and money, but neither can we deny the truth that campaign donations from both individual Jews and the community collectively is wildly disproportionate to our numbers in the populace.
In order to combat antisemitic stereotypes of Jews and money, we must address them by grounding ourselves in facts. In the United States, Jews are considerably more affluent than any other religious group. According to a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center, 44% of Jewish families in the US have an income of $100,000 or more, far more than the national average (19%) and significantly more than the religious group with the second highest percentage (Hindus, at 36% of families, if you were wondering). We cannot combat antisemitism by denying those numbers, and there are a number of reasons why our community has fared so well in the US (and other places) that have nothing to do with some inherent characteristic that is assigned to us by white supremacists.
As of 2020, Jews make up a mere 2.2% of the American population, according to the American Jewish Yearbook. Yet, according to scholar Gil Troy, in 2016, Jewish donors contributed “a whopping 50% of funds received by the Democratic Party and 25% to the Republican Party.” That’s why politicians from both parties are so concerned about Jewish opinion. They also assume that Jews are primarily concerned about Israel, an assumption that is wrong and is, itself, antisemitic.
Indeed, poll after poll shows that this assumption is false. While major political donors such as Miriam Adelson (the widow of Sheldon Adelson) and Haim Saban are clear about their stake in Israel policy, most Jewish Americans have other concerns that take precedence.
Of course, high-powered Christian zealots, have a strong stake in anti-Palestinian policies, but they are strictly confined to the Republican party. But when the tech industry or the weapons industry lobby for their interests, these include Israeli goals, whether they are stated or not, because of the many US-Israeli partnerships and, of course, the fact that most of the military aid money given to Israel must be spent with American corporations.
The evidence is overwhelming that US Jews, as a group, are not the reason for Washington’s destructive, myopic support for Israel’s occupation, apartheid policies, and decades of dispossession and denial of Palestinian rights.
One can argue, as I often have, that geo-strategic interests, not lobbying, are the biggest factors in US policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. But there is simply no basis for arguing that Salaita’s statement was in any way antisemitic. Whether it’s in the boardrooms of weapons manufacturers, the fancy offices of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations or AIPAC, or the halls of governmental power, Salaita was simply stating the fact that these centers of power are where Israel’s support is primarily mobilized.
This does not preclude the fact that there remains significant popular support for Israel. But it is certainly true that the major pro-Israel strategy is focused on elites, while pro-Palestinian popular strategy is focused on the grassroots. Unfortunately, similar errors of judgment permeated Rabbi Jacobs’ article. As a result, despite what I have no doubt were sincerely good intentions, her article only made the problem worse, legitimizing the labeling of harsh criticism of Israel and Zionism as antisemitism.
Sometimes bad things happen to Jews; it’s not always antisemitism
One of the most important points about the idea of disguising antisemitism as anti-Zionism is that, when it does happen, it’s actually not very hard to spot. On June 28, former Democratic Representative and Green Party leader Cynthia McKinney tweeted an image of a jigsaw puzzle that had an image of the burning Twin Towers with a piece being inserted to complete the phrase “Zionists did it.” The antisemitism is obvious and clumsy, echoing a common trope used by leading antisemites, such as Louis Farrakhan that Jews, Israeli and otherwise, were behind the September 11 terrorist attacks twenty years ago. No one but the most willfully blind could miss the antisemitism in McKinney’s tweet.
Indeed, that’s virtually always the case when the word “Zionism” is used to disguise actual antisemitism. But the search for “hidden antisemitism” goes on and is even gaining momentum. A recent incident in Philadelphia, a minor one, provides a useful illustration of the situation, and the misapprehensions people bring to this discussion.
A food truck owner was barred from a Philadelphia food festival after Palestine solidarity activists demanded its removal because it was serving “Israeli cuisine.” Israel, being a country whose citizens, Jewish, Palestinian, and others, bring a variety of foods from across the world to the country doesn’t really have what one call a native cuisine, and much of the food it does call Israeli actually originates in Palestine, as well as other Arab countries. That is mixed with some Ashkenazi foods and foods from other places Jews have settled in Israel from.
As a result, the concept of “Israeli food” is very much contested space in this conflict, and is seen by Palestinians, with justification, as an example of the colonizers appropriating the culture of the colonized. Many Jews see the hybrid nature of their cuisine in Israel as the very epitome of the Jewish people, who came back together to form a modern nation-state after centuries of being scattered around the globe and brought the influence of those many cultures to create a diverse Jewish-Israeli population and culture.
Both Rabbi Jacobs and my friend Peter Beinart saw the exclusion of the food truck as an example of antisemitism, although it was obviously rooted in opposition to Israel’s policies, and all the more so since the incident occurred in the aftermath of Israel’s latest devastating operation in Gaza in May. I disagreed, although the disagreement was far more friendly than the way it was depicted in the Haaretz article on the matter.
Rabbi Jacobs said that “there’s a difference between boycotting a country & boycotting individuals based on national origin.” Peter agreed, adding “Whatever your politics on Israel-Palestine, discriminating against a food truck owner because he’s an American of Israeli descent is anti-Semitism, pure and simple.”
I responded to them, saying “It’s true that banning the truck goes too far, but it was not banned because the owner is Jewish. It was banned because of the controversy over Israel, particularly, in this case, the expropriation of Arab cuisine. This idea that in this one political context every overreaction is antisemitism is reductive and dangerous. This had nothing to do with anyone’s Jewish identity. It was still the wrong thing to do. It was absolutely NOT antisemitism.”
The issue at hand was not the nationality or identity of the truck owner. There is no basis to believe that, had the very same Israeli person been selling funnel cakes, specialty hot dogs, or a variety of croissants there would have been a problem just because he was Israeli, much less Jewish.
As I said initially, the decision was still wrong. This person was not trying to make a political statement, whatever his personal politics may be. He was trying to do business by selling the cuisine of his homeland, which, whatever the circumstances of its creation and whatever its politics, is Israel. It’s no different from an American going and selling hot dogs and apple pie at a food festival. It is a person selling the food of their culture, not an excuse of that culture having been built on genocide, slavery, and ethnic cleansing.
As such, he should have been allowed to sell his wares. The exclusion was wrong, but it was not antisemitism. Let’s say instead of an Israeli food truck, the truck and its owner were Moroccan. Let’s also say that there was a widespread movement (as there should be) of Americans promoting a boycott of Morocco over its brutal and illegal occupation of Western Sahara, an occupation that is, in fact, very much supported by the United States, especially now.
Let’s further say the same decision was made in that case. Would that be anti-Moroccan? Of course not, especially if the person was simply selling food, not making any statement in support of the occupation of Western Sahara. It’s really not difficult to measure these things if we want to be mindful about them.
But for progressive, liberal, and left-wing Jews, there is a temptation to prove our bona fides. We look for antisemitism and any time a Jew is wronged, we are tempted to ascribe antisemitism to it. But here was a case where a real issue, Gaza, caused an overreaction and the people making the decision made a bad one. It was a case of activists being swept up in the moment and a business being intimidated by their passion. It was unfortunate, but it happens, and it was not antisemitism.
Antisemitism plays a significant role in the politics around Israel, but unfortunately, the biggest one is as a tool of propaganda. There are times that Israel is unfairly criticized. It happens to any country, regardless of their human rights records and histories. Not every criticism is warranted, and sometimes they are based on misinformation. But just because Israel is the target does not necessarily, or even usually, imply antisemitism.
One can question whether a Jewish state can possibly be democratic, and whether it can possibly ever treat the people it dispossessed with justice. One can question whether Israel’s pursuit of a Jewish majority by artificial means, including driving hundreds of thousands of people form their homes and holding millions without civil and human rights for seven decades and counting can possibly be acceptable. One can ask all of these questions and more, and none of it is in the least antisemitic.
Antisemitism is something I have experienced, including being assaulted for being Jewish. I yield to no one in my condemnation of antisemitism or in my dedication to its eradication. I may not intellectually think of it as worse than violent racism, misogyny, LGBTQIA-phobia, Islamophobia, or any other bigotry. But I certainly do take it more personally.
But I also refuse to allow myself to be manipulated by my personal, visceral opposition to antisemitism. We need to stop worrying about where the imaginary “line” is and start remembering that fighting against antisemitism is part of a global fight for justice, and that fight includes, at its very heart, the fight for Palestinian rights.
I refuse to allow antisemitism to mitigate the fight for Palestinian rights, and I equally refuse to allow the fight for Palestinian rights to mitigate the fight against antisemitism. Keep that in mind, be honest and fair about what you see, and you won’t need a formula to know antisemitism when you see it and how to discern between it and even the harshest criticism of Israel.