a guide to criticizing Israel
IHRA DEFINITION & 3 DS
If you can understand that “criticism” of a state such as Iran can veer into Islamophobia, then you can certainly understand that “criticism” of Israel, the only Jewish state in the world, can easily veer into antisemitism.
Fortunately for you, the international Jewish community has overwhelmingly adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Working Definition of Antisemitism, which provides a framework for what can and cannot be considered legitimate criticism of Israel. Remember that it’s important to listen to the communal voice of marginalized groups; fringe members of any group always exist, but their voices don’t represent the community as a whole. Over 800 entities, including organizations and numerous countries, have officially adopted the IHRA definition.
IHRA states the following are antisemitic: “Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust; Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations; Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor; Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation; Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis; Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis; Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel.”
However, IHRA also states: “[C]riticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
To reiterate: “[C]riticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
Another method of gauging whether criticism is antisemitic or not is known as the “Three Ds of Antisemitism,” as outlined by Soviet Jewish refugee and political prisoner, human rights activist, and former Israeli politician Nathan Sharansky: delegitimization, demonization, and double standards cannot be regarded as legitimate criticism.
NOT ANTISEMITIC: CRITIQUING POLICIES & POLITICIANS, ADDRESSING SOCIETAL ISSUES
As a member state of the United Nations, Israel is no different than any other country. No country is above critique or accountability. Israel, like all countries, should abide by international law. Israel is also a democracy, and open criticism and debate are critical to the health and prosperity of any democratic nation.
Critiquing Israeli policies is not inherently antisemitic. In fact, it’s necessary! However, it’s important to know that such criticism has to be rooted in facts, not in antisemitic tropes or conspiracies. Given that Israel is (empirically) subject to a disproportionate amount of propaganda, it’s important to do your research. For example, you are well within your right to critique the highly controversial Israeli policy of terrorist house demolitions, provided that you have a well-rounded understanding of the policy and its history. However, “critiquing” Israel for policies that are mere fantasy — e.g. the accusation that Israel harvests children’s organs, for example — is not legitimate criticism because it has no basis in reality; instead, it’s rooted in the ancient antisemitic trope of blood libel.
Israeli politicians, like all politicians elsewhere in the world, are also not above criticism. If you dislike, say, Itamar Ben-Gvir and his views and policies, you should criticize him. Politicians are public figures entrusted with tremendous power, and they should be held accountable when necessary. That said, ascribing antisemitic tropes to Jewish politicians — for instance, antisemitic caricatures — is antisemitic, period. That’s not criticism; it’s the targeted dehumanization characteristic of antisemitism.
If you see a problem in Israeli society — say, systemic racism — you also are well within your right to criticize it, provided that: (1) you do not conflate every single Israeli with said problem (e.g. stating that every single Israeli is inherently racist by merit of being Israeli), which is just thinly-veiled xenophobia, and (2) that you do not disproportionately demonize Israel (e.g. claiming that Israel is the most racist country in the world, for example, which is a claim not based in any factual information).
ANTISEMITIC: ADVOCATING FOR THE DESTRUCTION OF THE JEWISH STATE, REVISING JEWISH HISTORY, DENYING JEWS THE LEGAL RIGHT TO SELF-DETERMINATION
(1) Half of the world’s Jews live in Israel. The overwhelming majority (or their parents or grandparents) arrived to Israel as refugees. Whatever you think about Israel, the fact of the matter is that today it exists. Its destruction would, at the very least, put half of the world’s Jews in grave danger, especially given that both Palestinian governments explicitly state that no Jews will be permitted to reside in a future Palestinian state.
(2) If your criticism of Israel relies on the revision or denial of Jewish history, your “criticism” is antisemitic. Jewish history is among the most meticulously recorded in the world. Antisemitism spreads in a variety of ways. One of its most insidious manifestations is through the rewriting, revising, and denial of well-established Jewish history. There is something so inherently bigoted about denying a relentlessly persecuted people their own history.
(3) Self-determination is a basic tenet of international law. That means that Jews, too, are entitled to self-determination. Self-determination is the concept that peoples with a certain degree of national consciousness have the right to choose their sovereignty without outside interference. Jews have had a “national consciousness” for 3000 years. We were persecuted, oppressed, and denied or relegated to second-class citizenship just about everywhere we went for 2000 years. Just as everyone else has a right to self-determine, so do we. Denying us and only us that right is antisemitic.
Some people claim that they oppose all states, which is a valid position. But if so, why is it that you only hyperfixate on the Jewish state? Out of the 195 countries in the world, why must the Jewish state be the first to go?
ANTISEMITIC: PROJECTING ANTISEMITIC TROPES & CONSPIRACIES ONTO THE JEWISH STATE
“Antisemitism is rising from its ashes, or rather from Our ashes, and it’s called anti-Zionism. It has applied to individuals, now it applies to a nation.”
Herbert Pagani, “Plea for My Land,” 1975
The projection of antisemitic tropes and conspiracies onto the Jewish state — or a hypothetical Jewish state — long predates the establishment of the State of Israel. It’s also not legitimate criticism by any stretch, but rather, antisemitism by a different name. It’s important to note that antisemitism has long hid behind euphemisms, and this (so-called “criticism of Israel”) is just one of many.
In the 1870s, antisemites, particularly in Germany, decried the growing political Zionist movement as an element of the supposed Jewish plot for world domination. For example, Wilhelm Marr, the notorious German antisemite who coined the word “antisemitism,” wrote that the First Zionist Congress in 1897 was “a foul Jewish swindle.”
With the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, the Germans associated Zionism with “other alleged vices of the Jews.” Hitler himself despised Zionism, unsurprisingly viewing it as a continuation of a broader Jewish conspiracy of world domination. The German philosopher Eugen Dühring claimed that Zionism was a global threat in 1930, stating: “[A hypothetical Jewish state would necessitate] something like a second Roman clearing action...where the matter would be brought to an end in an entirely different and far more comprehensive sense.”
It was the Soviet Union, however, that legitimized the projection of antisemitism onto Israel on a global scale. Because, following the Holocaust, antisemitism became heavily associated with Nazism, the Soviets began persecuting Jews under the guise of anti-Zionism instead.
Interestingly, however, the Soviets were never covert about the fact that their “anti-Zionism” was actually just antisemitism. In the 1960s, Soviet propaganda (such as newspapers) made blatantly antisemitic claims, including: “The character of the Jewish religion serves the political aims of the Zionists,” “Zionism is inextricable from Judaism, rooted in the idea of the exclusiveness of the Jewish People,” comparisons of Judaism to the Italian mafia, and claims that Israel was merely a means to an end of Jewish imperialism and world domination.
ANTISEMITIC: DOUBLE STANDARDS
A double standard is a rule or principle which is unfairly applied in different ways to different groups of people. Israel, like Jews, is constantly subjected to a barrage of double standards. For example: I often see people disparagingly accuse Israel of being an “ethnostate,” but supporting the fact that there are 22 countries plus the Palestinian Territories that openly describe themselves exclusively as “Arab” nations. Another double standard is the accusation that Israel is a theocracy — a system of government in which religious figures rule in the name of God or gods — when it’s factually not, yet the 50 officially Muslim countries and 15 officially Christian countries are not targeted with the same accusation.
Similarly I’ve seen Israel be accused of “apartheid” because its national symbols are Jewish symbols. Never mind that the Jewish People have had a national consciousness and have lived continuously in the Land of Israel for the past 3000 years, when there are 31 countries with explicitly Christian and nine countries with explicitly Muslim symbols on their flags.
Other double standards include, for example, generally opposing something but supporting it when it targets Israel. For instance, if you oppose harming civilians in a war zone but support the harming of Israeli civilians, that’s a double standard. If you are opposed to the use of child soldiers, which is considered a war crime, but hail Palestinian children who murder Israelis as martyrs, that’s a double standard.
Oftentimes when we point out double standards, we are accused of whataboutism. Whataboutism and double standards are two different things. Whataboutism is the tactic of responding to a difficult accusation with a different, unrelated accusation. For example, if someone brings up Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but you respond with, “Well what about Israel’s occupation of Palestine?” then that would be an example of whataboutism.
ANTISEMITIC: SCAPEGOATING, ASCRIBING SINISTER MOTIVES
Positioning Israel — a nation the size of New Jersey with about 0.1% of the world population — as the ultimate evil in the world is nothing more than a projection of an ancient antisemitic trope onto the Jewish state.
Israel is at fault for many things. But Israel is not at fault for everything. In fact, statistically speaking, in terms of the world at large, Israel is at fault for a very minimal amount of things.
Yet Israel is scapegoated for just about everything. When there is an earthquake in Syria and Turkey, surely Israel must be behind it. When there is police brutality in America, then it’s also Israel’s fault. This obsessive vilification and need to link every single tragedy, injustice, and calamity to Israel, no matter how flimsy the link, is rooted in the same antisemitism that for 2000 years vilified and linked every single tragedy, injustice, and calamity to the Jewish People.
Israel, like all countries, does both positive and negative things. When Israel does objectively positive things, it is vilified anyway. People insist that there must be some sinister motive behind it. If Israel sends aid, it must be trying to distract from something else. If Israeli soldiers don’t sexually assault Palestinian women, it must be because they are too racist to assault them. If Israel takes positive steps to advance LGBTQ rights or clean energy or anything else, it must be doing so to detract from its human rights abuses. It’s a catch-22: when Israel does bad things it’s bad, but when it does good things, it’s actually bad, too.
This vilification has very little to do with what Israel actually does or doesn’t do and has a lot more to do with the projection of an ancient antisemitic conspiracy — that everything Jews do must have a sinister motive behind it — onto the Jewish nation.
ANTISEMITIC: HOLOCAUST INVERSION
Holocaust inversion is the act of depicting Jews and/or Israelis as Nazis, crypto-Nazis, or “worse than Nazis.” Holocaust inversion is a rhetorical tool used to portray Jews as morally equivalent — or worse — than Nazis. It’s often employed in discussions about Israel-Palestine and is frequently used by anti-Zionists. Holocaust inversion is a form of Holocaust revisionism, and, as such, is inherently a form of Holocaust denial.
Holocaust denial takes many forms. Its most common iteration comes through the distortion of established facts about the Holocaust. Holocaust inversion is revisionist because (1) Jews inherently cannot be Nazis or morally equivalent to Nazis, because Nazis considered all Jews, regardless of their political views, to be the inferior race; (2) Holocaust inversion inherently minimizes the Holocaust; (3) the vast majority of Holocaust survivors have been supportive of Jewish self-determination (i.e. Zionism), and equating Holocaust survivors with their oppressors is repugnant and antisemitic; (4) the Nazis were ardently anti-Zionist; (5) the Nazis persecuted all Jews, regardless of their political views; and (6) the Arab leadership in Palestine actively collaborated with the Nazi regime during the Holocaust, which fundamentally shaped the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict as it exists today.
Holocaust inversion actually predates the establishment of the State of Israel, the 1947-1949 Palestine Civil War and Israeli War of Independence, and the Nakba. It has its roots in the British Foreign Office during the period of the British Mandate of Palestine. In March of 1945 — about two months before the Nazis even surrendered — the High Commissioner of Palestine, Lord Gort, told the Colonial Secretary in London that “the establishment of any Jewish State in Palestine…will almost inevitably mean the rebirth of National Socialism [i.e. Nazism] in some guise.”
Sir John Bagot Glubb, who later became the British Commander of the Jordanian Arab Legion during the 1948 war, wrote in a 1946 memorandum to the British government that the “new Jews” (i.e. Jewish refugees) had copied Nazi techniques and adopted Hitler’s master race theory. Unsurprisingly, Glubb was a virulent antisemite who considered Jews “unlikeable, aggressive, stiff-necked, vengeful, and imbued with the idea of [being] a superior race.”
THE OBSESSION WITH THE “RIGHT TO CRITICIZE ISRAEL”
I have to admit that I never even thought of this point until a non-Jewish friend who formerly identified as anti-Zionist brought it up with me. I have never in my life heard anyone — and certainly not anyone on the left side of the political spectrum — demand their right to criticize any nation other than the State of Israel. That’s not to say that Israel shouldn’t be criticized; it certainly should, and no country is exempt from critique. But the rabid obsession with this “right” is something I’ve seen applied only to the Jewish state.
Here’s the thing: your “right” to criticize Israel, especially outside of Israel and the Palestinian Territories, is not being stifled in any manner. Israel is criticized every day, disproportionately so. This is claim is not based on a feeling but rather on empirical evidence. Israel is criticized relentlessly in the United Nations, for example: as of 2013, the State of Israel, the only Jewish majority state, where nearly 50% of the world’s Jews live, was condemned in 45 resolutions, accounting for 45% of ALL UN resolutions. In 2020, alone, Israel was condemned in 17 resolutions, compared to 6 resolutions for the rest of the world combined. Israel is about the size of New Jersey and constitutes about 0.1% of the word population; it’s ludicrous that such a small country with such a small population could account for nearly 50% of the world’s injustices. Critics of the State of Israel on the international stage are doing just fine.
This right to criticize Israel is not stifled in the United States either. Popular American politicians, such as Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocazio-Cortez Tweet about Israel disproportionately, even when their own districts are in disarray. In 2022, 48% of Omar’s Tweets, 88% of Tlaib’s Tweets, and 38% of AOC’s Tweets were so-called “criticism of Israel” (thanks @politicaljew for counting the stats!). Again, the critics are doing just fine.
Freedom of speech — including freedom to criticize — does not mean freedom of consequences. Just as you have a right to criticize Israel, we have a right to call you out when your “criticism” veers into antisemitism, especially when your so-called “criticism” perpetuates tropes and conspiracies that tangibly endanger Jewish lives.
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