Opinion

Anti-Semitism versus legitimate criticism of the state of Israel

In this Feb. 5, 2019, photo, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., left, joined at right by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., listens to President Trump's State of the Union speech at the Capitol in Washington. A tweet by Omar sparked a bipartisan backlash, with some accusing her of being anti-Semitic. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(RNS) — The question of what constitutes legitimate critique of Israel as opposed to anti-Semitism is front and center in the conversation about Israel in the U.S. following the outcry regarding Rep. Ilhan Omar’s tweets about the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the impending anti-Semitism resolution in the House.

In light of debates on Capitol Hill about what defines anti-Semitism and recent increased incidents of hatred toward Jews, it is particularly paramount to weed out and eradicate anti-Semitism, while also distinguishing it from legitimate criticism of Israel.

How does one criticize Israel’s policies without being anti-Semitic?

We need to listen to what the Jewish community says about anti-Semitism. While there are differences of opinion and multiple perspectives, particularly across conservative and liberal divides, commonalities also exist.

Beliefs that are detrimental and could lead to physical harm against Jews constitute anti-Semitism. Not every problematic belief manifests anti-Semitism. One can be inaccurate and wrong, and not be anti-Semitic. Nonetheless, we must be informed and attentive to when anti-Semitic sentiment, rhetoric or actions exist.

In our criticism of Israeli policies, may we not compromise in also calling out violations of human rights and acts of violence by other individuals, groups and nation-states. Activists and advocates must not muddy the waters between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Israeli policies.

People walk past a banner showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a protest against the Israel Jewish nation bill in Tel Aviv, Israel, on July 30, 2018. Opponents and rights groups have criticized the legislation, warning that it will sideline minorities such as the country’s Arabs. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

At the same time, calling Israel to higher ideals because of its self-identification as a “vibrant democracy” and calling for the fair treatment of the approximately 20 percent of its citizens who are Palestinian does not constitute anti-Semitism.

Addressing the impact of Israeli policies on Palestinians living in the occupied Palestinian territories is not inherently anti-Semitic. We must acknowledge that Jews, just as Palestinians, have a right to self-determination just as every other people group. We must acknowledge the historic ties of the Jewish people to Jerusalem and the land of Israel and historic Palestine. This does not negate the legitimate ties of Palestinian Arabs who have also been present in the land for thousands of years. Christians might need to be reminded that Arabs also lived in Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost (Acts 2:11).

We must also acknowledge the reality that anti-Semitism in the United States and around the world has increased in recent years, and continues to do so. With the rise of neo-Nazis, white nationalists and other hate groups, significant threats to the Jewish community exist. Christians and those of other belief systems must stand firmly in our solidarity with the Jewish community in response to anti-Semitism and its devastating effects. The October 2018 killings at the Tree of Life synagogue manifest this reality in its worst form.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers watches the installation of a menorah outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh before holding a celebration on the first night of Hanukkah, on Dec. 2, 2018. A gunman shot and killed 11 people while they worshipped at the temple on Oct. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

We must acknowledge how the fear of the resurgence of ancient Christian tropes of anti-Semitism threatens the Jewish people today. Yet this fear cannot disqualify Christians from critiquing unjust Israeli policies.

The line between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism has been a particular concern for the Christ at the Checkpoint conference, where I was a speaker last fall.

Started in Bethlehem in 2010, CATC convenes disciples of Jesus around a commitment of “courageous love for Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews” alike.

The conference addresses “the injustices that have taken place in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, particularly the Palestinian lands under occupation.” For example, some of the injustices of the occupation include the confiscation of land in the West Bank and the negative effects of the growing settlement enterprise.

I wholeheartedly affirm the commitment of CATC to address these injustices and believe the conference and its leaders, primarily Palestinian Christians, have legitimate grievances and a right for their experiences to be heard. They, better than anyone, can help American Christians understand daily life while living under occupation.

A nun walks through the Hebron Road Checkpoint in Bethlehem, West Bank, on June 5, 2018. RNS photo by Dan Rabb

Critics of the conference have claimed it is anti-Semitic. But the term “Christ at the Checkpoint” never meant to resurface the anti-Semitic trope that “the Jews were the killers of Jesus.” Rather, the title literally meant how would Jesus respond to the realities at checkpoints throughout the West Bank if he visited with people at checkpoints today? What would he say to Palestinian children, mothers, fathers and others who have to suffer the daily humiliation, limitations on their right to movement and the other restrictions experienced as a result of checkpoints and other Israeli policies of the occupation? This is a legitimate question.

While we seek and advocate for justice for Palestinians, we must also acknowledge the rootedness of anti-Semitism in Christian history, and its remnants in some of today’s Christian rhetoric.

In our pursuit of justice for Palestinians, we must be diligent to not return to our previous egregious ways. We must be vigilant and courageous in calling to account and responding to the human rights abuses we witness in the occupied Palestinian territories. We continue to walk a narrow path as we pursue these two realities.

(The Rev. Mae Elise Cannon is executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace and the editor of “A Land Full of God: Christian Perspectives on the Holy Land.” She is also co-author of “Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith,” which focuses on Christians and anti-Semitism. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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Mae Elise Cannon

36 Comments

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  • “calling Israel to higher ideals because of its self-identification as a ‘vibrant democracy'”

    Is it really an advantage for Israel to self-identify as a vibrant democracy? Why should Israel be called to higher ideals? Is Israel more happy than other nations, who are called to lower ideals?

    Is liberalism a precious commodity that only some nations—perhaps nations invested in Protestant-secular values—are eligible for?

  • This self-determination is a bit confusing. How big must a demographic group be in order to self-determine? And what sort of social science curricula, op-ed articles, court judgments, movie scripts, TV scripts, stand-up jokes, are required to create an atmosphere that the concerned demographic group needs to self-determine?

  • Netanyahu aligns his party with overseas far right groups with antisemitic views. Does that make Netanyahu an antisemite?

  • He is hardly “align(ing) his party with overseas far right groups with antisemitic views”.

    https://www{dot}economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2018/07/16/why-binyamin-netanyahu-is-fudging-east-european-history

  • “Not only does Israel collaborate willingly with this Trojan horse, which aims at destroying the fabric of the liberal values of the West, but it also sees itself as an integral part of this anti-liberal bloc led by nativist xenophobes who traffic in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski.” from this article entitled “Why Benjamin Netanyahu Loves the European Far-Right”: https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/02/24/why-benjamin-netanyahu-loves-the-european-far-right-orban-kaczynski-pis-fidesz-visegrad-likud-antisemitism-hungary-poland-illiberalism/

  • Omar said nothing wrong. I am convinced that she only faces criticism because she is a Muslim Woman, and because there is warrant to what she said.

  • Guilt by association.

    A good number of the commenters here and a large part of the American public are part of an “anti-liberal bloc”.

    Does that make them anti-semites?

    Zeev Sternhell is hardly a fair balanced neutral commentator.

  • The article doesn’t cite a single word Omar says. Its an opinion piece that just rants and accuses here of anti-antisemitism.

    Have you actually looked at the tweets that started this all?

  • Whenever Israel is criticized, legitimately or otherwise, the Holocaust/anti-Semitic card is automatically played. This is both intellectually and morally dishonest at its core. It should also be noted the most rabid Israel supporters are the right wing extremist anti-Christian calvinists. It is way overdue for the political, religious, etc conversations be able to differentiate between these two subjects and HONEST debate and criticism of Israel’s policies take place, especially when it comes to the bigoted behavior of the state of Israel toward the Palestinians. What is is going to take for the fanatical supporters to realize their undying support of Israel is woefully misplaced? Will Israel need to start building crematoriums for the Palestinians currently held in ghettos? It appears that will be the necessary step for the far right wing zealots who support the current US regime.

  • Are Israeli Jews who oppose Netanyahu and his Likud party being anti-Semitic? I share their views but am not Jewish. What does that make me?

  • Of course it’s dishonest. But it will continue to happen because the people who do it don’t care about honesty, they care about ‘winning.’

  • Well she is definitely being misunderstood when she gets thumbs up from David Duke and the Nation of Islam.

  • You can make an educated guess about a leader by the leaders he or she likes to keep company with. Whichever way you look at it, it shows very poor judgment.

  • If we dismiss any valid critique they try to attach themselves to, then any criticism of Israel would be antisemitic.

  • We must also acknowledge the reality that anti-Semitism in the United States and around the world has increased in recent years, and continues to do so.
    Why? that is always the question.

  • According to Cambridge (University Press) Dictionary, “anti-Semitism [means] the strong dislike or cruel and unfair treatment of Jewish people”. Merriam-Webster’s definition is even clearer than that: “anti-Semitism [means] hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group”. “Not inherently anti-Semitic” as defined, therefore – and I wholeheartedly agree with the author, Mae Elise Cannon, here – is “critiquing unjust Israeli policies” for:

    (1) Their “violations of human rights and acts of violence”;

    (2) Their “impact … on Palestinians living in the occupied Palestinian territories”;

    (3) “The confiscation of land in the West Bank and the negative effects of the growing settlement enterprise”;

    (4) “The realities at checkpoints throughout the West Bank”; and

    (5) All other “human rights abuses … in the occupied Palestinian territories.”

  • Or in your case an uneducated guess.

    https://www{dot}haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-bibi-and-europe-s-right-wing-quite-a-success-story-1.6760160

  • https://disqus.com/home/discussion/religionnews/what_my_father_would_have_said_about_ilhan_omar/#comment-4371392771

    The first uproar was a tweet, the second a comment referencing the criticism of the tweet.

    You seem to be laboring under a few misimpressions.

    In fact you’re exactly what she and Nancy are counting on:

    https://www{DOT}realclearpolitics.com/video/2019/03/07/pelosi_ilhan_omar_did_not_understand_the_full_weight_of_the_words_she_used.html

  • So exactly what is Netanyahu’s son Yair Netanyahu responsible for in Israel?

    And I note the son took it down.

    You know someone doesn’t have an argument when they start reaching like that for gossamers and frippery.

  • Well, you’ve got the party line memorized pat.

    Too bad the facts don’t back you up.

  • It would be bizarre for the Netanyahus as nationalists to be racist against their own race, but what it shows is that they are willing to overlook the racism of others against their own race in a dangerous pursuit of extremist allies. This while hypocritically condemning any criticism of their policies as antisemitic.

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  • What it shows is that some folks will go to odd lengths and slim evidence to claim they ” are willing to overlook the racism of others against their own race in a dangerous pursuit of extremist allies”.

  • i’m glad to see some Christians who acknowledge the suffering of Palestinians and are trying to alleviate it. Most Christians, especially Evangelicals, don’t care about their suffering. They think whatever Israel does to them is justified, including “collective punishment” (withholding of food, water, electricity, and medical care).

  • Even when legitimate criticism of the state of Israel is well documented and well founded knee jerk reactionaries will play the Holocaust card de-legitimizing said criticism. We MUST separate Jews and Judaism (religion) from Israel (the state) as many times Israel does not follow the principles of Judaism or democracy. There are many examples, but I’ll focus on two. If a Palestinian teenager throws a rock at an Israeli tank the family’s house will be bulldozed without the benefit of any sort of trial thus ignoring the rule of law, a bedrock principle of any democracy. The attack by Israeli war planes on the USS Liberty was clearly an act of war as it took place in international waters and the Liberty was completely defenseless. The Liberty was damaged to a point of being beyond economical repair and was scrapped by the US Navy. While an investigation was conducted by the Navy there was no Congressional investigation. Consequently the findings are still classified and unavailable to the general public, a move clearly made to keep the facts from the public.

  • Rep Omar unlike many politicians is merely speaking Truth to Power. The Establishment would prefer otherwise. The squawking all around is just to confound the issue/s !

  • Yes it is shameful that the NOI and David Duke understand the Bible better then so called Christians concerning the Talmudic State calling itself Israel.

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