Is there a difference between accusation against Israel and criticism of Israeli policy?

Criticism is generally levied against a policy that all agree is true, but opinions differ whether the policy is proper or needs correction.

 KNESSET MEMBERS are among those marching in Tel Aviv against ‘55 years of occupation and oppression’ of Palestinians, marking the anniversary of the Six Day War, in June. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
KNESSET MEMBERS are among those marching in Tel Aviv against ‘55 years of occupation and oppression’ of Palestinians, marking the anniversary of the Six Day War, in June.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

‘The Americans we constantly see criticize Israel, whether in Washington, on college campuses or on social media are nothing short of antisemites!” These exact words and their sentiments have been said repeatedly as the rise and rancor of criticism of Israel in America is becoming louder and more frequent.

The pushback against the criticism, characterizing it as antisemitism is directly commensurate with the rise of anti-Zionist and anti-Israel voices throughout America. Many in the pro-Israel community don’t seem willing to allow criticism of Israel to go unanswered and are willing to go beyond refuting the accusations and call it antisemitism.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) defined antisemitism as, “Antisemitism is 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 provided a few examples, “Manifestations might include the targeting of the State of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.” If accusations against Israel include lies or if they are applied in a double standard, where only Israel is singled out, the IHRA defines that criticism as having crossed a line into antisemitism.

What about criticism of Israel that isn’t levied against Israel in an unfair way? What if the criticism isn’t being said by Americans who seem to despise Israel, but by Americans who deeply care about Israel and consider themselves Zionists? What if the criticism is levied by Israelis? How should critiques of Israel be viewed if they’re delivered in a speech at the Knesset by a member of the Knesset who’s a former war hero? Could criticism levied by Zionists, Israelis, Knesset members or war heroes be considered problematic or even antisemitic?

 Whether in support or increasingly through criticism, Israel is what connects most American Jews to their Judaism.  (credit: REUTERS) Whether in support or increasingly through criticism, Israel is what connects most American Jews to their Judaism. (credit: REUTERS)

Is there a meaningful difference between an accusation against Israel and criticism of Israeli policy? An accusation is a charge that isn’t definitively true; it might be true, or it might not be true, but the accuser is of the opinion that it is entirely accurate. Criticism is generally levied against a policy that all agree is true, but opinions differ whether the policy is proper or needs correction. Many in the pro-Israel community would accept legitimate and fair criticism but not tolerate unfounded accusations against Israel.

“Antisemitism is 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.”

IHRA

Is the criticism unfair?

Some people in the pro-Israel community view all criticism, even if warranted, that stems from people living outside of Israel as unfair and shouldn’t be said. They argue that without being in Israelis’ shoes and standing in their place, a non-Israeli can’t possibly fathom the experiences that fed the calculations that led to the Israeli policy under question. The criticism might be reasonable but the people delivering it don’t have the right since they can’t possibly understand all that went into the making of the policy.

THERE ARE others, both within and outside of the pro-Israel community, that counter the argument that all criticism by non-Israelis is out of bounds by arguing that if the criticism is reasonable and accurate, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be said. They add that if a Zionist is offering the criticism, it is being said in a constructive manner, and should be heeded. To this group, there is no such thing as fair criticism that is out of bounds.

The IHRA added to their examples of criticism of Israel the following caveat, “However, criticism of Israel like that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” The IHRA would never reject fair and warranted criticism of Israel, (as long as it wasn’t delivered within a double standard) no matter who was delivering it.

As in most cases of both accusations and criticism, the defining line of what makes the criticism fair or antisemitic is dependent on who is saying it, why they’re saying it, what they’re saying and how they’re saying it. As mentioned earlier, some would also add where the person saying it is residing matters as well.

The IHRA definition attempts to restrict the metrics of appropriate vs. inappropriate criticism to what is being said, the who, why, what and where it is being said are irrelevant to characterizing the criticism as antisemitic. There are Zionists who agree and disagree with the IHRA restrictions.

Zionists shouldn’t be concerned or overly defensive when reading criticism of Israel. Although there is a tendency to perceive all criticism as a threat or a call to delegitimize Israel, Zionists should reject criticism that crosses a line as antisemitic but embrace criticism that is legitimate.

Instead of shifting into defense mode and twisting themselves into pretzels to demonstrate the criticism might not be accurate, Zionists should admit Israel can make mistakes and work on improving them. Not only is defensive rejection of criticism rarely convincing, but it also doesn’t allow for constructive advice to be heard and genuine growth to develop.

Criticism of government policy is not only the role of a nation’s citizens, but it is their responsibility. Every citizen of a democracy, and Israel is a democracy, has a right to freely criticize the government without fear of persecution. A nation can’t improve without an involved and critical citizenry that vocalizes their criticism to their leadership. A nation’s leaders tend to live in an echo zone assuming their policies are correct; an informed and critical citizenry allows their leaders to hear opinions from outside their echo chamber.

A prime misconception about Zionism is that its primary objective was to create a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. This misconception leads people to think that once the State of Israel was founded, Zionism no longer has a purpose. These people claim we’re living in a post-Zionist time.

This understanding of Zionism is incorrect. Zionism isn’t about creating a state, Zionism is about developing the Jewish people to be much better. To develop a state that is constantly growing, Israel requires criticism. When done correctly, criticism is the best form of Zionism.

Criticism of Israel’s policies and government that is unwarranted or crosses a line into antisemitism is obviously out of bounds and unacceptable. Criticism by Israelis, meant to improve Israel and relayed constructively is not only acceptable, but is the key ingredient to successful Zionism.

The writer is a senior educator at numerous educational institutions. He is the author of three books and teaches Torah, Zionism and Israel studies around the world.