Friday, March 15, 2019

Is It Anti-Semitic to Criticize Israel?

Anti-Semitism has a long and sordid existence in world history. As is the case with all discriminatory language and actions, anti-Semitism cannot be condoned no matter when or by whom it is expressed. But neither can charges of anti-Semitism be used as a means to stifle legitimate criticism of the nation of Israel.

The Recent Ruckus
As has been widely covered in the news media over the past few weeks, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has been accused of making anti-Semitic remarks that have upset many Congresspeople, among others, including some Democrats.
Some, though, understand Rep. Omar's voicing criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and as not being anti-Semitic at all.
According to Merriam-Webster, “anti-Semitic” means “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.” There was nothing in Rep. Omar’s statements about the Jews. She spoke only with reference to the nation of Israel and its supporters.
(Of course, it clouds the picture that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has recently publicly stated that Israel “is the national state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people”—in spite of the fact that about 20% of the population are Arabs.)
Pro-Palestinian Pronouncements
President Jimmy Carter had considerable experience on matters directly connected to the Middle East. He made a vital contribution to implementing the 1978 Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt—which resulted in Menachem Begin of Israel and Anwar Sadat of Egypt being awarded the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize.
More than 25 years later, Carter wrote a highly controversial book: Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (2006). Carter and his pro-Palestine stance were castigated not only by many Jewish people but also by some Democrats (such as Nancy Pelosi) who were/are not Jews—and by many conservative Christians.
June and I read Carter’s book in 2007 and were convinced that his criticism of Israel was correct—but certainly not anti-Semitic.
A much-maligned Jewish group goes by the name Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). The JVP, founded in 1996, has, along with some other Jewish groups and many individual Jews, publicly voiced strong support for Rep. Omar.
JVP’s mission statement (see here) clearly states that JVP members “are inspired by Jewish tradition to work together for peace, social justice, equality, human rights, respect for international law, and a U.S. foreign policy based on these ideals.” 
What about BDS?
As perhaps most of you know, a movement known as BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) is a strong opponent of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people. I first heard about BDS  in 2015 when I was in Israel.
I ended my 6/30/15 blog article, “The Plight of the Palestinians,” with a positive introduction of BDS. I was disappointed, but not particularly surprised, when I was reprimanded by a local Jewish rabbi whom I considered my friend.
Rep. Omar (b. 1981) has said that her grandfather taught her about the history of racial oppression in South Africa. Consequently, she has compared Israel to an “apartheid regime”—which is what Carter did, in effect, in his 2006 book.
In a 2017 speech, Rep. Omar said she remembered her grandfather talking about apartheid in South Africa and how some people “decided that they were going to engage in boycotts of that government.”
And, as we know, by 1994 apartheid had ended in South Africa.
It seems to me that the BDS movement was organized for the same sort of purpose as the anti-apartheid activities in opposition to South Africa’s policies.
So, I am not critical of Israel and in favor of the BDS movement because I have negative, prejudicial attitudes toward Jewish people. My criticism of Israel is because of that nation’s ongoing and patently unjust treatment of Palestinians.

[Addendum: On March 17, 2019, an op-ed piece by Rep. Omar was posted on The Washington Post’s website; her clarifying earlier statements as well as emphasizing the imperative for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine are most commendable.]


  1. The first comment received this morning was from local Thinking Friend David Nelson:

    "Thanks for sharing! Excellent summary of important themes that are misunderstood by so many, often intentionally."

  2. I also appreciate the following comments from Greg Brown, another local Thinking Friend.

    "As usual, you give a fair and balanced overview of this topic. And it is clear to me that you put a substantial amount of effort and research in to each of your short essays.

    "But one cannot understand this issue without looking at AIPAC, the powerful and discrete lobby for Israel. It is clearly one of the top four or five lobbyists in DC, well known for its strong arm tactics. I have no doubt that you know AIPAC and its centrality to this issue but I doubt that many Americans do.

    "We should be smart enough to separate criticism of Israel from anti-Semitism, but many, including AIPAC deliberately attempt to conflate that two. We also need to be clear that American interests are not always identical with Israeli interests, another attempted conflation."

    1. Thanks for your significant comments, Greg. Yes, I wanted to write some about the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), but didn't have the space to do that within my self-imposed 600-word limit.

      I am quite negative about lobbying groups in general, and AIPAC, as you mentioned, is one of the strongest in the U.S. They and the Christian Right work in tandem to condemn any criticism of Israel, including much criticism that is quite legitimate and important.

  3. As I remember anthropology, the Arab people are also Semitic.

    1. A quick search on Google yielded this:

      "The response that 'Arabs are Semites too' is a fallacy . . . as anyone who can use a dictionary can tell. Oxford, Merriam-Webster, and Cambridge all give slight variations of the same definition, which is that 'antisemitism' means hatred of Jewish people. Therefore whether Arabs are Semites or not is totally irrelevant to the issue."

  4. Bruce Morgan, another respected local Thinking Friend, sent these comments:

    "Leroy: I share your view. I've been familiar with Jimmy Carter's views on this issue and the book he wrote addressing it; and I am very sympathetic with the view that critique of Israel's political policies is not to be confused with anti-semitism, in the same way that a critique of a predominantly Muslim country is not an anti-Muslim attitude. Politicians have to be ever so careful, however, to take stances on this matter, because most people cannot make these fine distinctions."

  5. Thanks for your comments, Bruce. I think you are correct in writing that "most people cannot make these fine distinctions"--and I think one of the reasons why is because the pro-Israel lobby and right-wing Christians don't want people to understand those fine distinctions.

  6. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky shares these comments about his experience in Israel:

    "I share your perspective, Leroy. My family and I lived in Israel in the spring of 1976 and witnessed first hand mistreatment of Palestinians. When we rode Palestinian buses from Tantur to Jerusalem, Israelis often stopped the bus and demanded that every Palestinian get off and line up beside the bus. They then grilled them and patted them down. They left us in our seats.

    "We have to distinguish Israel as a nation from the Jewish people, who exist all over the world. Criticism of the United States for the way we have treated African Americans is, in my mind, comparable to criticism of Israel for mistreatment of Palestinians."

    1. Dr. Hinson, I had a similar experience in 2015. I took a Palestinian bus from Bethlehem back to Jerusalem, and the bus was stopped at checkpoints twice, if I remember correctly, and each time two Israeli soldiers with long-guns hanging around their necks searched the bus as all of us passengers, almost all Palestinians, had to get off and show our papers (my passport in my case) to get back on the bus.

  7. And then there are these comments from local (but originally from England) Thinking Friend Andrew Bolton:

    "We are having a discussion about Israel/Palestine at our forthcoming [Community of Christ] World Conference April 6-13 in Independence (2,800 delegates approximately from about 40 countries). We will have a panel including an Israeli, a Palestinian, two women, locally involved in Shalom / Salaam, and a representative from Churches for Middle East Peace. I have been the chair of the Israel/Palestine sub-team of the Peace and Justice Team for Community of Christ for the last 3 years.

    In 2014 Jewell and I went on a study tour of Israel/Palestine organized by Churches for Middle East Peace. It was dual narrative, with a (liberal) Israeli guide and a (liberal) Palestinian guide giving the perspectives of Israelis and Palestinians to the conflict. We met people working for peace and to rectify injustices both Israeli NGOs and Palestinians. Met President Abbas as well as US state officials from the USA Embassy. The most moving, profound moment was hearing an Israeli and Palestinian from Parents Circle share their stories. Parents Circle is a support group of parents, Israeli and Palestinian, who have lost a child from the violence in Israel/Palestine.

    "Anti-Semitism, never! Criticism of Israel always, like any state, be it the USA, UK, or South Africa in the apartheid era. I resent attempts to shut down discussion about the Israel/Palestine situation. Nobody can silence me about criticizing the UK or the USA. Nobody does. Therefore, I should also be able to share frankly about Israel/Palestine.

    "Early this year I became a member of Jewish Voice for Peace. I like their emails.

    "Thanks for engaging with this difficult and challenging topic."

    1. Thanks so much, Andrew for your comments -- about your past experiences and about what is coming up in your church community next month. I especially like what you wrote in your third paragraph.

  8. Here are thoughtful comments from Thinking Friend Greg Hadley, an ex-pat living in Japan and teaching in a university there.

    "One has to be very clear about what they mean when they say ‘anti-Semitic.’ If one believes that the Jewish people — which also is difficult to define — the question of ‘who is a Jew’ is a major issue of debate within the communities — but…if one believe the Jewish people to be uniquely inferior, evil, worthy of receiving any and all forms of abuse, and in need of extermination, then yes, this would be what I would see as ‘anti-Semitic.’ This is the sort of thinking that motivated the murder of Jews during the crusades of Christendom, and of course the inquisition, pogroms, and attempts to exterminate the people by the Nazis.

    "But criticizing the policies of the government of Israel is not anti-Semitism. It is free speech and, when inspired, prophetic. Labeling people who are not Jewish, and who have thoughtful reasons for being against Israeli government policies as anti-Semitic skirts the line of inverted bigotry — only Jews have a right to criticize. No one else. I would imagine that if a non-Jewish person arose and spoke against the Israeli government in the words of one of the prophets of old — a Hosea, Amos, or Isaiah — they would be labeled as anti-Semitic.

    "These labels are crude ad hominem attacks. More important is for us to study the criticisms to learn if they have any validity."

  9. Last night I received rather length comments from Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona, and here is the bulk of what he wrote:

    "Let me share a couple of things as background to my response. I read a book titled, 'When Your Neighbor is the Savior,' written by an Arab Christian, Botrus Mansour, who lives in Nazareth and is a lawyer and Superintendent of the Nazareth Baptist School. Let me back up a little more.

    "My brother, Dwight, was a missionary in Israel for thirty-four years and an early, if not the first, Superintendent of the Nazareth Baptist School in the 1950's. One of the teachers that Dwight employed in the school in those early years was Botrus's mother.

    "Now back to the present. The book is sad in describing the experiences which Arabs, particularly Arab Christians, have living in the Jewish state. My brother's next to oldest son, Bill, grew up in Israel and graduated from the Nazareth Baptist School. Nephew Bill speaks Arabic fluently as any Arab born in the Middle East. He was the Air Force Attaché in Israel because of his bi-lingual ability and grasp of Middle Eastern culture. He retired from the military and taught for several years in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Baylor, which his father established. Bill still teaches Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies at Baylor and goes to Florida several times a year to acquaint soldiers going to the Middle East with their culture. He also goes to Israel once or twice a year for the U.S. State Department.

    "Having said all of that, I feel somewhat comfortable in addressing (second hand) the Jewish-Palestinian struggle which is more complex than you can imagine. I had many discussions with my brother when they were home on furlough from Israel. I talk regularly with my nephew, Bill, Dwight's son. Bill knows Botrus and his family very well. I asked Bill about the BDS and he was very familiar with it. Strangely, Brotus does not mention that group in his book. Bill confirms the plight of Arab Christians as described in Brotus's book. Arab and Jewish Christians get together from time to time, but the relationships are very strained. Bill says they will agree on certain sensitive issues only to revert back to their old points of view when they go back to their churches.

    "My brother used to say that there would never be reconciliation between the Jews and Arabs. Bill told me he questioned that earlier in his life, but he just told me over the phone tonight, that the Jewish and Arab Christians more and more are believing that, 'that there will never be peace until Messiah comes again.'"