IS IT ANTI-SEMITIC to be critical of Israeli policies against the Palestinians, or of one-sided U.S. support for Israel, or of the Israel lobby? Does combating anti-Semitism necessitate embracing Zionism and defending it from any criticism? These questions are at the heart of a debate that has grown in intensity in the U.S. since Congresswoman Ilhan Omar criticized the influence of “a powerful lobby” regarding U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, asking why it was “okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” This debate has come at a fraught moment marked by a resurgence of anti-Semitism, rising anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian sentiment, spreading white supremacy, and a complete derogation of U.S. commitment to a fair resolution of the conflict, but also by growing support for Palestinian rights in American political and intellectual life.
Manifestations of these circumstances include the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where neo-Nazi marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us;” the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre by a white supremacist; the rising number of states curtailing freedom of speech to shield Israel from the growing movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions; and the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and relocate the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, among other policy departures that have severely infringed on Palestinian rights.
Not surprisingly, Representative Omar’s remarks elicited a plethora of reactions from across the political spectrum, ranging from threats and slander to support and praise.
The negative responses led to a proposal that the House of Representatives rebuke Representative Omar through a resolution condemning anti-Semitism. However, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party challenged their leadership, warning against narrowly focusing on anti-Semitism at a time of rising bigotry, when many minority groups suffer from discrimination. Thus, the language of the resolution in question (H.R.183) was finally updated to condemn anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim discrimination and bigotry against minorities.
While the more neutral tone of the resolution is welcome, a crucial element of the debate warrants further inquiry: the conflation of criticism of Israel or Zionism with anti-Semitism.
Declaring that criticism of Israel and of Zionism is anti-Semitic has long been a means for Israel’s proponents to silence advocates for Palestinian human rights. Defamatory websites such as Campus Watch and Canary Mission employ this strategy in their campaigns to smear activists, academics and other public figures who support Palestinian rights as anti-Semites.
During the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of State issued a definition of anti-Semitism which had as many mentions of Israel as of Jewish people and was contested during congressional hearings on the subject. Later in 2017, the Department of State adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism, which includes seven examples of anti-Semitism to which three more were added that effectively curtail criticism of Israel. In Congress, the Senate passed the Combatting BDS Act of 2019, while an Anti-Semitism Awareness Act has been introduced that seeks to adopt a definition of anti-Semitism for enforcement of federal anti-discrimination laws in education programs. While the final text of the act has not been released yet, the ACLU has criticized earlier versions of this act for “chilling free speech of students on college campuses by incorrectly equating criticism the Israeli government with anti-Semitism.”
At this critical juncture, the Institute for Palestine Studies USA believes it is important to examine this trend. We are pleased to present this monograph, which contains two articles from the Journal of Palestine Studies. The articles tackle criticism of Israeli policies and of Zionism, and the conflation of the two with anti-Semitism.
The first article, “An Immoral Dilemma: The Trap of Zionist Propaganda,” by Moshé Machover, an Israeli resident in Britain who was briefly expelled from the Labour Party for alleged anti-Semitism, explores the history of Zionism since the late 19th century. Machover argues that the Zionist settler colonial project is itself inherently anti-Semitic because it claims, without justification, to act on behalf of world Jewry. This is a claim that the examples of anti-Semitism from the IHRA’s working definition would, unintentionally, define as anti-Semitic, illustrating the “logical tangle” of the conflation of criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism.
In the second article, “Shifting Sands: Zionism and American Jewry,” Barry Trachtenberg and Kyle Stanton argue that Zionism in the U.S. has gone through three different stages during which Jewish support for Israel has increased. In the first stage, most American Jews were not supportive of Zionism, while a shift to greater acceptance of Zionism occurred during the second stage, where accusations of anti-Semitism became a tool to silence those who opposed Zionism and Israeli policies. In the third stage, the authors argue that major Jewish organizations and public figures have been willing to set aside combatting white supremacy and bigotry if it means shielding Israel and Zionism from criticism.
As the 2020 presidential election looms, the debate around these burning topics is bound to continue. The articles in this monograph, which will be the first of at least two on the subject, provide much-needed context for a clear understanding of the issues involved.
 This is the relevant section of Rep. Omar’s remarks: “What I’m fearful of — because Rashida [Tlaib] and I are Muslim — that a lot of our Jewish colleagues, a lot of our constituents, a lot of our allies, go to thinking that everything we say about Israel to be anti-Semitic because we are Muslim. And so, to me, it’s something that becomes designed to end the debate because you get in this space of — yes, I know what intolerance looks like and I’m sensitive when someone says, “The words you used, Ilhan, are resemblance [sic] of intolerance.” And I am cautious of that and I feel pained by that. But it’s almost as if, every single time we say something regardless of what it is we say that is supposed to be about foreign policy or engagement or advocacy about ending oppression or the freeing of every human life and wanting dignity, we get to be labeled something, and that ends the discussion. Because we end up defending that and nobody ever gets to have the broader debate of what is happening with Palestine. So, for me, I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country. And I want to ask, why is it okay for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of fossil fuel industries, or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobby?”