Chicagoland Pro-Israel Political Update

Calling balls and strikes for the pro-Israel community since 2006

July 11, 2021

If you remember nothing else, remember this:

  • Israel's policies do not excuse antisemitism, but criticizing Israel's policies, real or imagined, is not necessarily antisemitic.
  • We should unite in fighting the biggest threats and not pretend for the sake of political correctness that both parties are the same. No one denies that there is antisemitism on the left, but we should not pretend we face the same magnitude of threat from both sides.
  • Because both parties are not the same, calling on "both sides" to fight antisemitism gives the GOP an undeserved political victory.
  • The Nexus and JDA definitions of antisemitism are more helpful than the vague and inadequate IHRA definition of antisemitism.
  • Read to the end for upcoming events and fun stuff.

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In advance of today's rally against antisemitism in Washington, DC, let's make sure we know what we are talking about when we talk about antisemitism.

Antisemitism is hatred of Jews because they are Jews. Stabbing a rabbi because he is Jewish is antisemitic. Attacking diners at kosher restaurants and vandalizing Jewish religious and communal institutions because they are Jewish is antisemitic. Disagreement with policies of the government of Israel is no excuse for antisemitism, regardless of whether Israel's policies are good policies or bad policies, or even whether they are apartheid or genocidal policies.

Fighting antisemitism is different from standing up for Israel. If we conflate the two, we will weaken our ability to fight real antisemitism while weakening our ability to advocate for Israel. People have a right to criticize Israel, even strongly or unfairly. Those people don't have a right to attack Jews or discriminate against Jews because they are upset with Israel. We don't fight Islamophobia by shutting down criticism of Muslim groups with which we disagree, nor should we fight antisemitism by shutting down criticism of Israel with which we disagree. We must fight against antisemitism and we must fight for Israel, but we must realize that as much as we might feel they are two sides of the same coin, that's not necessarily the case.

The recent rise in antisemitism coincides with more strident criticism of Israel's policies. Both make us uncomfortable because many of us see our Jewish identities intertwined with the State of Israel. Yet we have to distinguish antisemitism from criticism of Israel, even unfair or offensive criticism of Israel. Israel's policies do not excuse antisemitism, but criticism of Israel's policies, real or imagined, is not necessarily antisemitic.

We can handle criticism of the United States because we know that the United States, despite its cruelty toward indigenous peoples and enslavement of people from Africa, cannot be undone. We fear that Israel can be undone, and while all of us reject unfair criticism of Israel, some us fear legitimate criticism of Israel even more.

Like every country, Israel's founding is complicated, and those who point out the parts we are not proud of are not necessarily antisemitic. When we encounter criticism of Israel that we disagree with, such as the allegation that Israel is a "settler colonial state," we should address the allegation on the merits rather than cry "antisemitism." And if we can't defend Israel on the merits, we either need to get a better education or we need to learn to love the real Israel, not the fairy tale Israel some of us teach our children about (and that too many Jewish adults still believe in).

Trump's January 6 insurrection was rife with antisemitism, with "at least half a dozen neo-Nazi or white supremacist groups involved in the insurrection." No instances of left-wing antisemitism have risen to that level, nor have any instances of left-wing antisemitism been incited by the leader of the Democratic Party.

Right-wing extremism remains the leading cause of violence in the United States. The difference between left-wing and right-wing antisemitism is that only antisemitism from the right has an ally in the leadership of one of our major political parties, and that alone makes it a more serious threat.

Shouldn't we condemn all forms of antisemitism from all sources? Of course we should. But anyone who has ever made (or busted) a budget knows that resources are limited. We should unite in fighting the biggest threats and not pretend for the sake of political correctness that both sides are the same. No one denies that there is antisemitism on the left, but the loudest voices (Trump) and the most likely sources of violence (right-wing extremism) should be the focus of our entire community, right and left, Republican and Democratic. That doesn't mean we ignore left-wing antisemitism. It means that those of us who are serious about fighting antisemitism recognize that only the Republican Party does not call out antisemitism from its leadership.

The latest mantra is that each side must call out its own. How convenient. The theory is that when the right calls out the left, and when the left calls out the right, the calls fall on deaf ears because the calls are dismissed as political. But when the left calls out the left and the right calls out the right, the calls will be seen as sincere.

After all, when Republican leadership repeatedly called out Donald Trump for his numerous antisemitic remarks...haha. They never did. Not once. Not even one Republican member of Congress. Not even this week, after reports that Trump said Hitler "did a lot of good things." And he is the leader of the Republican Party. If Democrats had not called out Trump for antisemitism, no one would have. If Republicans will not call out antisemitism in the Republican Party, it is even more important that Democrats do so. Better yet, we all should. No figure in the Democratic Party has even a scintilla of the power and influence that Donald Trump has, and Trump remains the leader of the GOP.

Because both sides are not the same, calling on "both sides" to fight antisemitism, as if the Democrats have the same problem as Republicans, gives the GOP an unearned political victory. Both sides should call out antisemitism on their own side, but when the GOP refuses to call out its leadership, it's even more important that the rest of us do.

Some recent antisemitic violence seems to have been motivated by events that occurred during the Gaza war. To be clear, that's no excuse. But it was not as if Democratic leaders were calling marchers chanting "Jews will not replace us" "very fine people," or refusing to condemn white supremacy during presidential debates. Criticism of Israel from some Democrats--even justified--may make us feel as bad (albeit for different reasons) as antisemitism from Republicans, but we cannot equate the two. The response to criticism of Israel we think is unjustified is to argue against it. The response to antisemitism is zero tolerance, regardless of whether it comes from the right or the left.

What exactly is antisemitism? Hatred of Jews because they are Jews is a good start, but it gets trickier with antisemitism in the context of criticism of Israel. The two best definitions of antisemitism--complete with examples--are the Nexus document, which is designed to understand antisemitism at its nexus with Israel and Zionism, and the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA).

Nexus defines antisemitism as "anti-Jewish beliefs, attitudes, actions or systemic conditions. It includes negative beliefs and feelings about Jews, hostile behavior directed against Jews (because they are Jews), and conditions that discriminate against Jews and significantly impede their ability to participate as equals in political, religious, cultural, economic, or social life." JDA defines antisemitism as "discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish)."

A third definition, the IHRA definition, is almost meaningless unless interpreted with the aid of Nexus or JDA. The IHRA defines antisemitism as "a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities." The IHRA definition is followed by some examples that conflate, rather than differentiate, antisemitism from criticism of Israel.

Nexus is clear that "it is antisemitic to attack and/or physically harm a Jew because of her/his relationship to Israel." JDA is clear that it is antisemitic to hold "Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s conduct or treating Jews, simply because they are Jewish, as agents of Israel" or to require "people, because they are Jewish, publicly to condemn Israel or Zionism (for example, at a political meeting)."

Neve Gordon and Mark Levine point out that under the IHRA definition, Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, and Yeshayahu Leibowitz could be considered antisemitic. Nevertheless, for the reasons they outline, this definition appeals to Jewish institutions with certain agendas. Victims of antisemitism object to the IHRA definition because it is vague and inadequate.

The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, the Progressive Israel Network, Americans for Peace Now, and Ken Stern--the lead drafter of the definition--oppose government use of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. American Jewish Congress, ADL, Central Conference of American Rabbis, HIAS, National Council of Jewish Women, Rabbinical Assembly, Union for Reform Judaism, and World Jewish Congress have warned that using the IHRA definition to trigger federal or state anti-discrimination laws “could be abused to punish Constitutionally protected, if objectionable, speech.”

If the controversy about these three definitions teach us anything, it is that their differences outline where reasonable, well-intentioned people can disagree on whether certain expressions are antisemitic. However, all three, collectively, present a good introduction to the issues we should think about when we think about antisemitism. If you are concerned about antisemitism, you should read all three definitions, and think twice before you deem criticism and critics of Israel--especially criticism and critics you disagree with--antisemitic.

Tweet of the Week. Paul Rudnick.

Twitter Thread of the Week. George Conway.

Video Clip of the Week. Best Beatles cover ever.

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