Singling out Israel

Page last updated 5 August 2018


The idea that Israel is singled out for unfair criticism, demonised and delegitimised, has long been forcibly expressed and debated.

For several years, the Israel lobby in Europe, the United States and the British Commonwealth has been using accusations of antisemitism as a means of suppressing serious criticism of Israeli policies. Its strategy is to claim that strong and repeated criticism unjustly singles out Israel as the Jewish state and is therefore antisemitic. The major tactic in this strategy is now to demand that a particular definition of antisemitism be adopted by governments, local authorities, universities and other public bodies. That is the so-called International Holocaust Memorial Alliance “working definition of antisemitism”. The IHRA document is worded in such a way that it creates a presumption that serious criticism of Israel is by nature suspect, thereby inhibiting peoples’ willingness to debate the issue fully.

Yes, antisemitism does exist, it concerns us, and it should be called out whenever it is found. There are also some people who combine antisemitism with a justified anger at Israel, and their antisemitism should also be called out. However, the great bulk of criticism of Israeli policies is exactly that, not disguised antisemitism. In distinguishing between the two, the simple rule should be that criticism of Israel is genuine if expressed as criticism of Israel or Israeli policies or actions, not of Jews or Jewish policies or actions. 

This page contains a variety of material on the issue of criticism of Israel and accusations of antisemitism. There are short quotations, several articles and a whole section (11) which discusses the IHRA document issue.


Some quotes

I am a tribalist at heart. I really care about my tribe, or, I should say, the various tribes of which I am a member. I care about them in ways that I don’t care about other tribes… So, when critics say to me, “Why are you always harping on Israel when there is genocide in Dafur, or vast suppression of human rights in China?” my answer is that I simply care more about Israel because I am part of the tribe…
But what about criticism from folks who are outside the tribe entirely… isn’t that a sign that they are unreasonably fixated on Jews? Not necessarily. Even though such people are not part of my Israeli Jewish tribe, they may be part of another relevant tribe (say, the Palestinian tribe, or the Friends of Palestine tribe, or even the People-who-Expect-the Countries-That-Present-Themselves-as Civilized-Should-Act-in-a-Civilized-Fashion tribe).

Jerry Haber, The Magnes Zionist, 3 Sep 2007

But who’s actually doing the singling out? Israel’s advocates argue that its security situation and its role as a Jewish state are unique, and imply that it is therefore permitted to do things that are clearly prohibited to other states (land seizures, house demolitions, assassinations, mass detentions). Those who demand that Israel conform to international law and standards of human decency are challenging this kind of singling out, calling for an end to Israel’s special exemption.

Mike Marqusee, Guardan, 17 May 2006

When I hear people argue that Israel is unfairly singled out, I wish I could persuade myself that what they mean is: “If only people cared as much for the people of Tibet/Darfur/Zimbabwe as they do for the Palestinians”. But since those who make this point never seem to be partisans of the Free Tibet Campaign, I suspect that what they often mean is: “If only people cared as little for the Palestinians as they do for the people of Tibet/Darfur/Zimbabwe”.

David Clarke, Engage, 15 March 2006

There is no doubt that Israeli aggression during the current intifada has increased instability all around the world. There is good reason to focus specifically on the Middle East and the Israel-Palestine conflict as a fulcrum for much of what is happening in the world. And the suffering of the Palestinians is severe. But let us not forget that the Israeli occupation happens in the context of a political world rife with suffering, with violence and with war. Let us not, in our eagerness to express the gravity of the situation in Israel-Palestine, place that conflict outside of its perspective.

Mitchell Plitnick, Jewish Voice for Peace, JfJfP 15 Jan 2004

Lancet - singling out








Thanks to Brian Robinson.
Click on image for full size.


Op Eds

1. Singling Out Israel for Moral Opprobrium
Jerry Haber, The Magnes Zionist, 3 Sep 2007

A wonderful, short polemic on the right to single out Israel and some valid reasons for doing so.


2. Who’s singling out Israel?
Mike Marqusee, Guardan, 17 May 2006

A critique of the various ways people are accused of singling out Israel. It is, rather, singled out for support by the US and the UK in particular.


3. Singling out Israel?
Mitchell Plitnick, Jewish Voice for Peace, JfJfP 15 Jan 2004

An account of the fascination with Israel in today’s world and the strong emotions and concerns its actions generate; and a call not to forget the other injustices in the world today.


4. Anti-Semitism and the Israel-Palestine conflict – assessing the claim of double standards
Stephen Shalom, Yale University talk, JfJfP 28 Nov 2010

Does what it says in the title. Looks at eight arguments made by those who claim that critics of Israel, motivated by antisemitism, apply double standards – not criticising others for what they accuse Israel of doing – and provides solid arguments to refute these claims.


5. Singling out Israel
Richard Kuper, Tom Hurndall Memorial Talk, JfJfP Nov 2006

Focuses on six good reasons for singling out Israel: Israel singles itself out and presents itself as special; Israel is special; the US clearly finds Israel special; Israel presents itself as special in relation to the Jews of the world; it claims to be in the forefront of the world war on terror; and, finally, there is the occupation, for so long, in defiance of international law…

There was an interesting, and quite civil exchange of views on an earlier version of this argument on Normblog, JfJfP Jan 2006.


6. Accusations of anti-semitic chic are poisonous intellectual thuggery
David Clark, Guardian, 6 Mar 2006

Attempts to brand the left as anti-Jewish because of its support of Palestinian rights only make it harder to tackle genuine racism. “Real anti-semitism is a serious and growing problem, and there is a need for political consensus about how to tackle it. But debate is poisoned and consensus becomes difficult when allegations of anti-semitism are bandied about for reasons that have nothing to do with fighting racism.”

Clark was a former Labour government advisor. The article brought David Hirsh’s wrath down on Clarke’s head on the Engage website here – and Clarke responded here


7. What Is Special about Israel?
Ran Greenstein, Jadaliyya, 03 Jun 2015

Israel’s supporters often acknowledge particular problems with Israeli policy but “usually explain these away as the unfortunate results of ever-present difficult security situation which calls for undemocratic measures, albeit of a limited and temporary nature. These measures, the argument goes, are not unique to Israel. In a similar form they can be found in many places throughout the world, today or historically.”

With detailed, incisive historical and sociological insight Greenstein shows quite how exceptional Israel really is.


8. Why this obsession with Israel and the Palestinians?
Robert Fowke, Comment is Free, Guardian, 22 Jun 2010

“I think of myself as an average sort of Englishman… I do not expect Israelis to behave like Burmese generals; I expect them to behave like Englishmen, like my friends… Another reason for my disproportionate interest in this conflict is that I feel I have been lied to, and I feel that people are still trying to lie to me and I don’t like it”


 9. Why not boycott Iran?
Haggai Matar,+972, 15 Jun 2015

“Why don’t they boycott Iran/Syria/Hamas/ISIS?” Matar points out that many countries are heavily sanctioned by the West. Sanctions are in fact common – but Israel is exempt. human rights abusers worse than Israel. Why should that let Israel off the hook?  The Palestinians are asking for solidarity in their struggle – people around the world will choose whether or not to support them.


10.  70th anniversary of the Nakba: Slouching towards  Salem :reflections on Zionism and the “New anti-semitism”

Martin Kemp,  in The Psychoanalytic Activist,  April 13, 2018

“My first public intervention regarding Israel/Palestine appeared in the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis in 2005. I wrote a letter challenging the IJPA’s dismissal of the academic boycott of Israel on the familiar grounds that politics should not be allowed to intrude into the realm of scientific endeavour[i]. The sacking of two Israeli academics from the editorial boards of international journals had been the precipitating cause of the ‘special editorial’[ii]. Its wording, published simultaneously in ten psychoanalytic journals, for me exemplified a determination not to engage with a tragic and enduring crisis for which the West had a particular responsibility. Rather than effectively reinforcing the status quo by denouncing the boycott, I urged that the profession ought to engage with the arguments for and against taking action[iii].”

“Close friends warned me to expect a robust response. My major fear was that my argument would be demolished. The loss of my political virginity, when it came, was not nearly as painful as I had anticipated. In a pompous and aggressive dismissal, the US psychoanalyst, Warren Poland, decried my ‘passionate prejudice’, ‘intemperate partisanship’ and ‘incendiary provocations’, and implied my letter had been composed by someone unfit for clinical practice. Little attention was paid to what I’d actually written.[iv]”


11. The IHRA document – criticism of Israel issue

This section provides analyses and debates of the issue.

a. Dissecting the Antisemitism-IHRA document-Labour Party Code conundrum

Three articles in Open Democracy analyse the the weaknesses of the IHRA document and the motives for the attacks on the Labour Party Code.

Anthony Lerman, Why turning to Jewish exceptionalism to fight antisemitism is a failing project

When the Labour Party released the text of the National Executive Committee’s new code of conduct on antisemitism on 5 July, did general secretary Jennie Formby expect the barrage of outrage, vilification and accusations of bad faith and betrayal that greeted it? The new code seeks to implement the June 2016 Chakrabarti Report’s recommendations, fulfil commitments made by Jeremy Corbyn to speed up disciplinary procedures after meeting representatives of Jewish establishment organizations back in April this year, to deal more robustly and efficiently with alleged expressions of antisemitism by party members and ‘to produce a practical code of conduct that a political party can apply in disciplinary cases’.” (more…)

Brian Klug, The Code of Conduct for Antisemitism; a tale of two texts 

“How to deal with antisemitism while at the same time protecting free speech in the political debate over Israel and Palestine? This conundrum lies at the heart of the argument (to use a polite word) in the public square over a new Code of Conduct for Antisemitism proposed by the Equalities Committee, a sub-committee of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Labour Party. The proposal is due to be formally endorsed by the NEC on 17 July. I shall refer to it as ‘the NEC Code.”  (more…)

Moran Mandelbaum, Do we need a (legal) definition of anti-Semitism ? 

“On 26 May 2016 the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) adopted a controversial and problematic working definition on anti-Semitism. On 12 December 2016 it was reported that the IHRA working definition would be adopted by the UK government, so as to ‘ensure that culprits will not be able to get away with being antisemitic because the term is ill-defined, or because different organisations or bodies have different interpretations of it’. On 19 December 2016, the chief historian of Yad Vashem, Professor Dina Poratendorsed the IHRA definition and its adoption by the UK government quoting David Hirsh’s statement, a sociologist of contemporary antisemitism at Goldsmiths, that ‘The new definition of antisemitism is only a threat to antisemites.”  (more…)


b. How should antisemitism be defined?

A panel of Jewish writers (two lawyers, a rabbi, a humanities academic and a sociologist) consider the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which has generated so much recent debate The Guardian, 30 July 2018

Stephen Sedley: Freedom of expression is at the heart of this debate

Antisemitism is hostility towards Jews as Jews. This straightforward meaning is at the disposal of any institution or organisation that needs it. It places no prior restrictions on the form antisemitism may take.

What then is the point of the demand that the Labour party should adopt the verbose and imprecise definition promulgated in the name of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA, an intergovernmental body of 31 states) as a “non-legally binding working definition”? It reads: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed towards Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, towards Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

This text reproduces a 2005 draft by an EU body, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, though it was never adopted by it, and was resurrected by the IHRA in May 2016 with the now contentious list of purported examples.

Laura Janner-Klausner: Deviating from the IHRA definition requires serious consideration

The IHRA definition of antisemitism has serious credentials. It is the chosen definition of 44 countries, including ours. Every mainstream representative body in the Jewish community has supported it. Beyond popularity, it was also defined by those who we really ought to trust on this matter – the IHRA, which learned from the consequences of antisemitism. To deviate from a definition with such weight requires serious consideration and an equally serious counter proposition.

If the Labour party wanted to prioritise antisemitism by choosing a bespoke definition then it could have listened to the full diversity of the Jewish community. We did speak out – loudly. Jews and allies stridently called on the Labour NEC to consult widely. This did not happen. Instead, the chosen definition and consultation process were totally inadequate.

Geoffrey Bindman: The IHRA definition is poorly drafted and has led to the suppression of legitimate debate

In May 2016 the IHRA adopted a 38-word “non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism”. Appended to it is a list of illustrative examples of antisemitic behaviour “to guide the IHRA in its work”.

Unfortunately, the definition and the examples are poorly drafted, misleading, and in practice have led to the suppression of legitimate debate and freedom of expression. Nevertheless, clumsily worded as it is, the definition does describe the essence of antisemitism: irrational hostility towards Jews.

The 11 examples are another matter. Seven of them refer to the state of Israel. This is where the problem arises. Some of them at least are not necessarily antisemitic. Whether they are or not depends on the context and on additional evidence of antisemitic intent.

Jacqueline Rose: Hannah Arendt should be our guide

No definition is, or should be, sacred. Still less the examples attached to it. In the case of the IHRA definition of antisemitism, the examples were presented as “illustrations”. Yet it is the exclusion of these examples from Labour’s code that has unleashed anger against the party. Take the idea that it is antisemitic to deny “the Jewish people their right to self-determination, for example by claiming that the state of Israel is a racist endeavour”, one of these examples. It requires, at the very least, the most careful scrutiny.

The Israeli Knesset recently passed a law making self-determination the sole prerogative of the Jewish people in Israel, and downgrading Arabic from its status as official language, thereby making a fifth of its population second-class citizens. Daniel Barenboim has always fervently supported the right of Jews to self-determination. But how, he asked in this newspaper, can there be “independence for one at the expense of the other”? This “racist” law made him ashamed to be an Israeli, he wrote. What it does not make him, surely, is antisemitic.

Keith Kahn-Harris: This age is too febrile for the nuances we need

A few years ago, I noticed a bizarre comment thread on a Jewish news site over the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia definition of antisemitism (the forerunner of the IHRA’s definition). It concerned the (by now infamous) examples of things that “could” be antisemitic, particularly that of “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination”. One of the commenters suggested that “the could is unconditional. It is used in the same way as for example a mother saying to a child ‘You could go and wash your hands’, meaning ‘Go and wash your hands’.’’

That comment was made by a Zionist, someone who supported the definition. But the comment could just as easily been made by an outraged anti-Zionist. Who was correct? Really it would depend on the application of the definition as much as the definition itself.

It’s certainly true that the IHRA definition does tightly constrain anti-Israel and anti-Zionist speech, but it doesn’t make it impossible. For instance, while it clearly treats denying the Jewish people’s right to self-determination as antisemitic, upholding this right in theory but asserting the impossibility of actualising it in current circumstances should not fall foul of the definition.

(read all…)


12. CAGE issues legal challenge against ban on pupils discussing Israel’s ‘right to exist’. 3 September, 2021

CAGE has this week issued judicial review proceedings in the High Court challenging the Education Secretary’s letter of 28 May prohibiting schools from engaging with organisations that reject Israel’s right to exist. [1] [2]. The legal challenge has been supported by expert opinions provided by eminent international law jurist Professor John Dugard and Professor Avi Shlaim, emeritus fellow at Oxford University. [3] A number of Palestinian civil society organisations including the Palestinian Return Centre, the Palestinian Forum in Britain, the British Palestinian Policy Council and Al Haq, have also provided evidence in support of the judicial review.

CAGE believes that no such right exists in international law that prohibits people and groups from questioning a state’s legitimacy. Furthermore, the notion of Israel’s “right to exist” is a partisan political view that the Education Secretary is prohibited from promoting in any way under the 1996 Education Act.

Contents of this section


a) Setting the scene: the hasbara (propaganda) war
b) Is criticism of Israel antisemitic?

Singling out Israel
Is Israel an apartheid society?
BDS and antisemitism

c) Can you have a Jewish and democratic state?
d) What is Zionism today?

e) The nature of the nakba
f) One state or two?
g) Is Hamas to blame? / Is Gaza still occupied?
h) Right of return and law of return
i) The role of the JNF


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