How to criticise Israeli policies

July 26, 2014
Sarah Benton

1) report from BBCtrending; 2) the original This is not Jewish blog (you may or may not agree with all the writer’s criteria; 3) the peculiarly German fear of seeming, or being, antisemitic.

Professor Wolfgang Benz, director of the Centre for Research on Antisemitism of the Technische Universität Berlin since 1990, here holding his book re-assessing how many Jews were murdered in the genocide (he has recently been working on the extent and nature of Islamophobia). He does not find any evidence of rising antisemitism in Europe, only increased panic. See 3rd article.

#BBCtrending: Criticising Israel, avoiding anti-Semitism

By BBC Trending
What’s popular and why

A screengrab of the blog “How to criticise Israel without being anti-Semitic”

“How to criticise Israel without being anti-Semitic” – that’s the title of a blog post that’s being widely shared as the death toll in Gaza rises.

The blog begins like this: “If you’ve spent any time discussing or reading about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I guarantee you’ve heard some variation of this statement: OMG, Jews think any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic!”

It includes 19 “tips” for anyone who wants to criticise Israel – mainly advice on what to avoid. For example: “Don’t say ‘the Jews’ when you mean Israel,” or “Don’t say: ‘I can’t be anti-Semitic, I have Jewish friends!'” It warns against stereotypes, and “expansive language” – such as referring to Israelis as “bloodthirsty”. The post also includes detailed discussion of the meaning of the word “Zionist” and much more.

It’s been shared particularly widely in the past day or so, with many referring to Gaza and Israel. It’s had more than 8,000 “notes” on Tumblr, and has been shared tens of thousands of times on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and elsewhere. But – though there’s no date stamp on the blog – it’s clear (from the date of some of the shares) that it was written well over a year ago. In short – as is quite common on social media – it’s looped round and made a comeback.

The top countries sharing the blog on Twitter appear to be the US, the UK and Sweden. “100% required reading,” was one comment. “So important right now,” was another. Interestingly, it’s not made much of an impact on social media in Israel. One of the few commenting there wrote: “If you’re gonna be a liberal douche bag, here’s ‘How to criticize Israel Without Being Anti-Semitic.”

There is no name on the Tumblr, and the author has – as yet – not responded to our request for an interview. From other posts on the blog, it’s clear the blogger is an American convert to Judaism.

The blog also includes a counterpoint post, “How to Support Israel Without Being Racist”, with a similar list of points to avoid. “Don’t call Palestinians ‘animals’ or ‘savages’,” and “Don’t say ‘Arab’ when you mean Palestinian,” for example. It concludes: “If you expect Palestinians and their allies not to be anti-Semitic, you’d better extend the same courtesy and not be racist.”

You can follow BBC Trending on Twitter @BBCtrending

How to Criticize Israel Without Being Anti-Semitic

This is not Jewish blog

If you’ve spent any time discussing or reading about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I guarantee you’ve heard some variation of this statement:

OMG, Jews think any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic!

In the interests of this post, I’m going to assume that the people who express such sentiments are acting in good faith and really don’t mean to cause pain to or problems for Diaspora Jewry. For those good-faith people, I present some guidelines for staying on the good side of that admittedly murky line, along with the reasoning why the actions I list are problematic. (And bad-faith people, you can no longer plead ignorance if you engage in any of these no-nos. Consider yourselves warned.) In no particular order:

Don’t use the terms “bloodthirsty,” “lust for Palestinian blood,” or similar. Historically, Jews have been massacred in the belief that we use the blood of non-Jews (particularly of children) in our religious rituals. This belief still persists in large portions of the Arab world (largely because white Europeans deliberately spread the belief among Arabs) and even in parts of the Western world. Murderous, inhumane, cruel, vicious—fine. But blood…just don’t go there. Depicting Israel/Israelis/Israeli leaders eating children is also a no-no, for the same reason.

Don’t use crucifixion imagery. Another huge, driving motivation behind anti-Semitism historically has been the belief that the Jews, rather than the Romans, crucified Jesus. As in #1, this belief still persists. There are plenty of other ways to depict suffering that don’t call back to ancient libels.

Don’t demand that Jews publicly repudiate the actions of settlers and extremists. People who make this demand are assuming that Jews are terrible people or undeserving of being heard out unless they “prove” themselves acceptable by non-Jews’ standards. (It’s not okay to demand Palestinians publicly repudiate the actions of Hamas in order to be accepted/trusted, either.)

Don’t say “the Jews” when you mean Israel. I think this should be pretty clear. The people in power in Israel are Jews, but not all Jews are Israelis (let alone Israeli leaders).

Don’t say “Zionists” when you mean Israel. Zionism is no more a dirty word than feminism. It is simply the belief that the Jews should have a country in part of their ancestral homeland where they can take refuge from the anti-Semitism and persecution they face everywhere else. It does not mean a belief that Jews have a right to grab land from others, a belief that Jews are superior to non-Jews, or any other such tripe, any more than feminism means hating men. Unless you believe that Israel should entirely cease to exist, you are yourself Zionist. Furthermore, using “Zionists” in place of “Israelis” is inaccurate and harmful. The word “Zionists” includes Diasporan Jews as well (most of whom support a two-state solution and pretty much none of whom has any influence on Israel’s policies) and is used to justify anti-Semitic attacks outside Israel (i.e., they brought it on themselves by being Zionists). And many of the Jews IN Israel who are most violent against Palestinians are actually anti-Zionist—they believe that the modern state of Israel is an offense against God because it isn’t governed by halakha (traditional Jewish religious law). Be careful with the labels you use.

Don’t call Jews you agree with “the good Jews.” Imposing your values on another group is not okay. Tokenizing is not okay. Appointing yourself the judge of what other groups can or should believe is not okay.

Don’t use your Jewish friends or Jews who agree with you as shields. (AKA, “I can’t be anti-Semitic, I have Jewish friends!” or “Well, Jew X agrees with me, so you’re wrong.”) Again, this behavior is tokenizing and essentially amounts to you as a non-Jew appointing yourself arbiter over what Jews can/should feel or believe. You don’t get to do that.

Don’t claim that Jews are ethnically European. Jews come in many colors—white is only one. Besides, the fact that many of us have some genetic mixing with the peoples who tried to force us to assimilate (be they German, Indian, Ethiopian, Italian…) doesn’t change the fact that all our common ancestral roots go back to Israel.

Don’t claim that Jews “aren’t the TRUE/REAL Jews.” Enough said.

Don’t claim that Jews have no real historical connection to Israel/the Temple Mount. Archaeology and the historical record both establish that this is false.

Don’t accuse Diasporan Jews of dual loyalties or treason. This is another charge that historically has been used to justify persecution and murder of Jews. Having a connection to our ancestral homeland is natural. Having a connection to our co-religionists who live there is natural. It is no more treasonous for a Jew to consider the well-being of Israel when casting a vote than for a Muslim to consider the well-being of Islamic countries when voting. (Tangent: fuck drone strikes. End tangent.)

Don’t claim that the Jews control the media/banks/country that isn’t Israel. Yet another historical anti-Semitic claim is that Jews as a group intend to control the world and try to achieve this aim through shadowy, sinister channels. There are many prominent Jews in the media and in the banking industry, yes, but they aren’t engaged in any kind of organized conspiracy to take over those industries, they simply work in those industries. The phrase “the Jews control” should never be heard in a debate/discussion of Israel.

Don’t depict the Magen David (Star of David) as an equivalent to the Nazi swastika. The Magen David represents all Jews—not just Israelis, not just people who are violent against Palestinians, ALL JEWS. When you do this, you are painting all Jews as violent, genocidal racists. DON’T.

Don’t use the Holocaust/Nazism/Hitler as a rhetorical prop. The Jews who were murdered didn’t set foot in what was then Palestine, let alone take part in Israeli politics or policies. It is wrong and appropriative to try to use their deaths to score political points. Genocide, racism, occupation, murder, extermination—go ahead and use those terms, but leave the Holocaust out of it.

In visual depictions (i.e., political cartoons and such), don’t depict Israel/Israelis as Jewish stereotypes. Don’t show them in Chassidic, black-hat garb. Don’t show them with exaggerated noses or frizzled red hair or payus (earlocks). Don’t show them with horns or depict them as the Devil. Don’t show them cackling over/hoarding money. Don’t show them drinking blood or eating children (see #1). Don’t show them raping non-Jewish women. The Nazis didn’t invent the tropes they used in their propaganda—all of these have been anti-Semitic tropes going back centuries. (The red hair trope, for instance, goes back to early depictions of Judas Iscariot as a redhead, and the horns trope stems from the belief that Jews are the Devil’s children, sent to destroy the world as best we can for our “father.”)

Don’t use the phrase “the chosen people” to deride or as proof of Jewish racism. When Jews say we are the chosen people, we don’t mean that we are biologically superior to others or that God loves us more than other groups. Judaism in fact teaches that everyone is capable of being a righteous, Godly person, that Jews have obligations to be ethical and decent to “the stranger in our midst,” and that non-Jews don’t get sent to some kind of damnation for believing in another faith. When we say we’re the chosen people, we mean that, according to our faith, God gave us extra responsibilities and codes of behavior that other groups aren’t burdened with, in the form of the Torah. That’s all it means.

Don’t claim that anti-Semitism is eradicated or negligible. It isn’t. In fact, according to international watchdog groups, it’s sharply on the rise. (Which sadly isn’t surprising—anti-Semitism historically surges during economic downturns, thanks to the belief that Jews control the banks.) This sort of statement is extremely dismissive and accuses us of lying about our own experiences.

Don’t say that since Palestinians are Semites, Jews/Israelis are anti-Semitic, too. You do not get to redefine the oppressions of others, nor do you get to police how they refer to that oppression. This also often ties into #8. Don’t do it. Anti-Semitism has exclusively meant anti-Jewish bigotry for a good century plus now. Coin your own word for anti-Palestinian oppression, or just call it what it is: racism mixed with Islamophobia.

Don’t blow off Jews telling you that what you’re saying is anti-Semitic with some variant of the statement at the top of this post. Not all anti-Israel speech is anti-Semitic (a lot of it is valid, much-deserved criticism), but some certainly is. Actually give the accusation your consideration and hear the accuser out. If they fail to convince you, that’s fine. But at least hear them out (without talking over them) before you decide that.

I’m sure this isn’t a comprehensive list, but it covers all the hard-and-fast rules I can think of. (I welcome input for improving it.)

But wait! Why should I care about any of this? I’m standing up for people who are suffering!

You should care because nonsense like the above makes Jews sympathetic to the Palestinian plight wary and afraid of joining your cause. You should care because, unfortunately, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has correlated to an uptick in anti-Semitic attacks around the world, attacks on Jews who have no say in Israeli politics, and this kind of behavior merely aggravates that, whether you intend it to or not.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a real minefield in that it’s a clash between oppressed people of color and an ethnoreligious group that is dominant in Israel but marginalized and brutalized elsewhere (often nowadays on the exact grounds that they share ethnoreligious ties with the people of Israel), so it’s damned hard to toe the line of being socially aware and sensitive to both groups. I get that. But I think it is possible to toe that line, and I hope this post helps with that. (And if a Palestinian makes a similar list of problematic arguments they hear targeted at them, I’d be happy to reblog it, too.)

So, TL;DR version:

Do go ahead and criticize Israel.

Don’t use anti-Semitic stereotypes or tropes.

Don’t use overly expansive language that covers Jews as a whole and not just Israel.

Don’t use lies to boost your claims.

Do engage Jews in conversation on the issues of Israel and of anti-Semitism, rather than simply shutting them down for disagreeing.

Do try to be sensitive to the fact that, fair or not, many people take verbal or violent revenge for the actions of Israelis on Diasporan Jews, and Diasporan Jews are understandably frightened and upset by this.

May there be peace in our days.

Dieter Graumann, Chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany says “I would have never imagined in my life that we would ever hear ever hear such hatred against Jews in Germany again”. 

Criticism of Israel or anti-Semitism?

It’s certainly not a new debate, but the controversial topic has picked up steam again – especially in Germany: Where does political criticism of Israel end, and where does anti-Semitism begin?

By Volker Wagener, DW
July 24, 2014

Dieter Graumann, Chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, called on the German public to end the constant discussions about anti-Semitism once and for all. That was back in 2012 when Germany was intensely debating an alleged intensification of anti-Semitic actions and perceptions.

Now, the debate is back in full swing among politicians, journalists and representatives of the churches. “I would have never imagined in my life that we would ever hear such hatred against Jews in Germany again,” Graumann said.

In a time span of just a few hours, some 60 comments were posted to the Facebook site of the Central Council of Jews in Germany – one in four with a clear anti-Semitic message, according to the Central Council. Police investigations have been launched in some cases.

Anti-Semitism debate as German psychodrama

At the core of anti-Semitism debates in recent years in Germany: how is anti-Semitism defined? Does criticism of Israel’s Palestine policy, regardless of which government is in charge at any given moment, qualify for anti-Semitism?

German journalist Jakob Augstein, accused of antisemitism for criticising Israeli government policies towards Palestinians

Two years ago, Jewish NGO Simon Wiesenthal Center published a controversial ‘black list’ of the world’s ten worst anti-Semites. Number nine on that list: Jakob Augstein, a German journalist and son of founder and publisher of German magazine Der Spiegel, Rudolf Augstein. In opinion pieces for ‘Spiegel Online’, Augstein Junior would regularly carry out a critical appraisal of the Palestine policies by the Israeli government. Israel was a democracy that was acting like an occupying force in Gaza, oppressing the Palestinians, Augstein wrote. The result: Augstein was accused of anti-Semitism.

Augstein fired back in ‘Der Spiegel’: He was aware, he wrote, that as a German he couldn’t write about Israel in the same way as somebody from Switzerland or Spain could. As a German journalist, he was experiencing a conflict of roles, he continued. The German in him, he said, was urging him to treat Israel carefully, while the journalist in him wanted to be honest. He went on to demand the right to say so when Israel was in the wrong. Everything else, said Augstein, was neurotic journalism.

Highly sensitive topic

Criticism of Israel is a highly sensitive topic in Germany. People who criticize the state of Israel are accused of being anti-Semitic faster than in other European countries – even if there are definitions of where criticism of policies ends and anti-Semitism begins. The European Union has the following criteria: demonizing Israel and questioning the state’s legitimacy spells anti-Semitism. Equating Israel’s policy with German Nazi methods and holding the Jewish community as a whole responsible for what Israel does is considered anti-Semitic behavior as well. Graumann expands this definition to include Jewish world conspiracy, as well as holding ‘all Jews’ responsible for all evil in peoples’ co-existence.

Historian of antisemitism in Germany Wolfgang Benz says antisemitism has not changed but mood towards Israeli policies has. Photo by imago/STAR-MEDIA
Leipziger Buchmesse

But historian Wolfgang Benz argues against the current panickiness about a potential new rise of anti-Semitism in Germany. He was the director of the anti-Semitism research center with Technische Universität (TU) Berlin until 2011. According to Benz, the latest developments are no indication that anti-Semitism in Germany has taken on a new dimension. He has been researching the phenomenon for 30 years. Anti-Semitism has been on the same level all this time, he said.

However, the mood towards the state of Israel has changed, he said. Israeli policies were no longer supported, said Benz, but that was not the same as anti-Semitism, he added. According to a survey conducted by German public broadcaster ZDF, 18 percent of German citizens blame Israel for the current conflict in the Middle East. Only nine percent said Palestinians were mainly responsible.

Automatic closing of ranks between politicians and journalists

Nowhere in Europe does real or perceived anti-Semitism trigger reactions that are as intense and massive as in Germany. There tends to be an automatic closing of ranks between politicians and journalists who often take to attacking the drivers behind acts of anti-Semitism long before the accusations are confirmed – out of a historically grown sense of shame.

Benz says anti-Semitism in Germany is not on the rise
Rolf Verleger, a former member of the Central Council of Jews, has his very own explanation. He holds politicians and the media at least partly responsible for anti-Semitic slogans heard in German streets. If politicians and journalists keep saying that whatever Israel is doing is right; and if even members of the Jewish community in Germany say that whoever is against Israel is against Jews – that naturally provokes anti-Semitic slogans, he said. Verleger added it was important not to go along with every stupid move by the Israeli government.

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