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The Danger of Conflating Criticism of Israel with Anti-Semitism

#NotAllJews: Troubling discourse emerges when all Jewish people are considered the targets of censuring Israel.
July 4, 2014, 7:19pm
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Charges of anti-Semitism have flown freely in recent days in response to anger at Israel's severe crackdown on the West Bank.

In the all-too-common moments of elevated violence between Israel and Palestine, a familiar paranoia emerges — especially in the US media echo chamber — around censuring the state of Israel. And, to be sure, anti-Semitic sentiment continues to gain a simmering purchase on discourse that criticizes Israel. It is there, just waiting for a chance to slip and drop down. Those with valid criticisms of the Israeli state would be foolish to ignore the possible mission creep of anti-Semitism.


But there is another ferocious discourse that bubbles up when violence intensifies in Israel and Palestine. Namely, the vicious act of equating criticism of Israel — either as state, tout court, or in its current rightwing iteration — with anti-Semitism. Fear of anti-Semitism is real and valid, yet the assumption of it creates a dangerously silencing discourse around the question of Israel and Palestine.

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The most basic, most significant point to be made here can be summed up by #NotAllJews. University of California, Berkeley philosopher Judith Butler put it more adeptly, though. Self-identifying as Jewish, Butler stresses that there is a dangerous game afoot when all Jews are considered the targets of criticism of either Israeli action or even anti-Zionism. She wrote:

… [T]he Jewish people extend beyond the state of Israel and the ideology of political Zionism. The two cannot be equated. Honestly, what can really be said about “the Jewish people” as a whole? Is it not a lamentable stereotype to make large generalizations about all Jews, and to presume they all share the same political commitments? They — or, rather, we — occupy a vast spectrum of political views, some of which are unconditionally supportive of the state of Israel, some of which are conditionally supportive, some are skeptical, some are exceedingly critical, and an increasing number, if we are to believe the polls in this country, are indifferent.


Butler's point about "lamentable stereotype[s]" and "large generalizations" is worth particular note here. After all, if our concern is discrimination (anti-Semitism), let’s consider the sort of structure on which racism or discrimination rests. Is it not, essentially, the ability to generalize broadly about a whole group of people? The ability to lump groups together without nuance is the foundation on which "othering" stands. Thus, the charge of "anti-Semite!," when thrown around without care, performs a proto-discrimination all of its own.

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The second but related point to make is that if every criticism of Israel is taken to be a veiled criticism of all Jewish people, then it arguably becomes harder to route out and fight real anti-Semitic hatred where it lies. Real discrimination against Jewish people is able to hide so well within this discourse while the label anti-Semite is so broadly applied. We should be able to parse out criticism of Israel's actions, even Israel's raison d'etat, from a hatred of people by virtue of their Jewish identities (multi-faceted as these are).

It's worth consideration that there is regularly a richer debate over Israeli policy and military action within that nation's contested borders than within the US echo chamber. But in fear of prompting or enabling anti-Semitism once again to shape the annals of history, we evoke the very sort of generalizations on which "othering" and hatred lie.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard

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