Is criticism of Israel antisemitic?

Page last updated 25 Oct 2015


“Beware of antisemitism, and all other forms of racism, but beware also of being cowed into silence by those who seek to stifle criticism of the oppressive politics of Israel by labeling you antisemitic.”

Archbishop Tutu to the Deutscher Evangelicher Kirche, 30 Apr 2015

Criticism of Israel can be antisemitic. It generally isn’t.

No more damage has been done to the struggle against antisemitism – a noxious, vicious form of racism – than by the hasbara (propaganda) industry with its suggestion that much/most/all criticism of Israel is antisemitic, or is likely, to foster antisemitism.

The critique takes many forms, including an attempt to write criticism of Israel into the very definition of antisemitism (e.g. in the so-called “working definition of antisemitism” of  2005, the story of which is a discrete chapter in the history of hasbara).

What we try to do in this section is to focus more on the arguments which suggest there is a “new antisemitism” abroad, with Israel as its target. This was clearly expressed by Natan Sharansky when he wrote in 2004 in his 3D Test of Anti-Semitism: Demonization, Double Standards, Delegitimization: “Whereas classical anti-Semitism is aimed at the Jewish people or the Jewish religion, ‘new anti-Semitism’ is aimed at the Jewish state”.

The idea is that Israel is singled out for unfair criticism, demonised and delegitimised, held up to standards from which others are exempt. This argument has a superficial plausibility as language around the conflict is often intemperate (on both sides it must be said, with supporters of Israel often quick to draw the accusation of antisemitism out of its holster). It attempts to normalise the assumption that criticism of Israel is likely to be antisemitic, “in effect if not in intent”. The result of this is to put the onus on critics of Israel to prove that they are not being antisemitic.  It has been used, particularly on US campuses, with considerable effect, to suppress debate about the Israel-Palestine conflict but its effects are also felt in Britain and elsewhere.

Criticism – harsh, hostile and sometimes making vastly exaggerated claims and unfounded allegations – abounds in political life. We might wish it didn’t, but at what point does or should it become illegitimate, be ruled out of court – or even made illegal? That’s what often is at stake in debates on this issue.

The notion of a “new antisemitism”  is central to the discussion about defining and understanding antisemitism today. We have located this discussion firmly in the section on Jewish identity since this notion makes support for Israel a central component of what it is to be Jewish today.

Central to the attack over recent decades has been the notion that Israel is unfairly picked on. General arguments about this are dealt with in a singling-out-Israel section. In more recent years the claim has become that Israel is now being demonised by being called an apartheid state. And the argument, heard more and more strongly as the BDS campaign chalks up its modest successes, is that this is the form that antisemitism is taking today.

Material on these themes can be found in these sections

Antisemitism in general
Singling out Israel
Is Israel an apartheid state?
BDS and antisemitism?


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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