A great scholar of anti-Semitism once told me that there was one country that frustrated him when it came to its understanding of the extent and depth of Jew-hatred: Israel.
While this might sound like the kernel of a classic Jewish joke, my interlocutor was actually being deadly serious. And his point was well-observed: Having grown up in a Jewish state, Israelis were familiar with anti-Semitism only through history lessons and from the vile propaganda broadcast in their direction from the Arab and Muslim worlds. But very few Israelis had the experience of being assaulted for wearing a kipah or arriving at a Jewish school to find swastikas daubed on the walls, or being insulted as a Yid in the street. Even as Israelis understood that anti-Semitism elsewhere was a real phenomenon, in terms of daily routine in Israel, it was one that existed in imagination and interpretation, rather than lived experience.
Still, most Israelis these days grasp and respect that anti-Semitism is once again a towering challenge facing Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Most, but not all. Particularly on the Israeli left, there is a cavalier, impatient attitude towards anti-Semitism, which is perceived as an irritating distraction from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories—the issue that really matters.
A recent op-ed published in the daily Haaretz by the Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar perfectly captured this attitude. Its title was hopelessly puerile and offensive—“If Speaking Out Against Injustice is Antisemitic, Then I’m an Antisemite”—but insofar as it pulled no punches in depicting anti-Semitism as a ruse to shut down advocacy for Palestinian rights, it was a pithy summary of the article that followed.
According to Eldar, “no accusation has a more powerful effect than the accusation of anti-Semitism,” and Israeli politicians have milked this fact for all it is worth. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “invariably transformed any document that dared to be critical of the occupation into a new edition of the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’ ” wrote Eldar, adding that this was a tactic now embraced by Netanyahu’s rival, current Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.
For Eldar, all that’s at stake is the continuing Israeli presence in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem. To label as “anti-Semitic” the latest Amnesty International report charging that Israel has faithfully replicated the apartheid system of racial segregation that prevailed in South Africa for most of the previous century was, said Eldar, to miss the point entirely.
“If describing the situation in the territories since 1967 is anti-Semitism, then I am an anti-Semite,” he wrote. “If saying that Israel is increasingly suffering from the symptoms of apartheid is anti-Semitism, then I am an anti-Semite.”
In a bitter swipe at his fellow Israelis, Eldar continued: “And don’t tell me that many people here really care about the human-rights situation in the territories. How many readers know that Halav Ha’aretz goat-milk yogurt is made at a settlers’ dairy on the lands of Susiya, a stronghold of the criminal zealots of the illegal outposts (Pardon me, I mean the ‘heroes of the young settlement project’)? Boycotting Osem pasta because of price hikes is much more important.”
At the end of his piece, Eldar grudgingly conceded that anti-Semitism was “very much alive and well,” but he was interested only in its impact on Palestinian aspirations. “How long will anti-Semitism … be able to go on concealing the shame of apartheid?” he asked.
But Eldar signally failed to disclose that the accusation of “apartheid” in the Israeli case is not some novel concept, but a discredited trope conceived in the propaganda departments of the old, unlamented USSR. Labeling Israel as an “apartheid state” (along with accusing it of “Nazi-like crimes”) was a clever way of dressing up the Soviet Union’s domestic persecution of Jews—stigmatizing the community as “Zionists” and “rootless cosmopolitans”—as a progressive foreign policy shoring up Arab resistance against U.S. and Israeli designs in the region.
Eldar also failed to consider the political implications of the apartheid analogy. South Africa became a multi-racial democracy in 1994 when its disenfranchised black majority finally won the right to vote. It didn’t cease to exist as a sovereign state, but its inner workings were transformed as soon as the institutionalized dominance of the white minority—only about 10 percent of the total population—was dismantled.
Some Israeli and Jewish leftists believe that this is also the solution for Israel’s version of “apartheid,” which conveniently overlooks the fact that Jews form a clear demographic majority in Israel, that Arab citizens of Israel enjoy full equality, and that Palestinians (unlike black South Africans) embraced terrorism as their principle method for confronting Israel.
Embedded within the accusation that Israel is an apartheid state is a call for its elimination. Amnesty International is arguing that a Jewish state can only exist as an apartheid state since it is necessarily a colonial project executed at the expense of the Palestinians. From this analysis flows the conclusion that since Israel can’t be peacefully reformed into a democratic state, its sovereignty as a Jewish state must be destroyed.
That, of course, was the core message of the violently anti-Semitic demonstrations that took place in the United States and internationally during the 11-day conflict last May between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. For Diaspora Jewish communities, the charge of apartheid and its corollary—slogans like “Free Palestine” and “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free”—is unambiguously anti-Semitic in both intent and effect.
Intent, because arguing for the removal of just Israel from the map of the world is to express an anti-Semitic idea. Effect, because when these noxious ideas circulate at demonstrations and on social media, it is ordinary Jews who suffer from violence, abuse and vandalism. During the conflict last May—when Hamas and terror factions launched more than 4,000 rockets at Israeli civilian populations and Israel struck back—hate crimes against Jews underwent an astronomic increase: 589 attacks in France, 661 in the United Kingdom and 305 in the United States in one month alone.
However, for Eldar and his co-thinkers on the Israeli left, the cause of these attacks lies ultimately with the Israeli government’s policies in the Palestinian territories. In other words, if Diaspora Jews are suffering, the Jewish state is to blame.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.
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