When does criticism of Israel become antisemitic?

For the most part, the countries that acquiesced to the Nazis eagerly surrendered their Jewish citizens.

PEOPLE HOLDING Palestinian-rights placards taunt marchers in the Celebrate Israel Parade along New York’s Fifth Avenue earlier this month. (photo credit: STEPHANIE KEITH/REUTERS)
PEOPLE HOLDING Palestinian-rights placards taunt marchers in the Celebrate Israel Parade along New York’s Fifth Avenue earlier this month.
It is possible to criticize Israel without being antisemitic.
Certainly, some ardent supporters of Israel would disagree – they would be wrong. The Israeli government, particularly at the behest of its right wing, continues to antagonize the Arab world through means like the West Bank settlement constructions and poor treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Consequently, Israel also provides fodder for its opponents.
The argument that this behavior is unnecessarily incendiary, that Israel’s modus operandi – taking more land to increase security – achieves the opposite outcome by putting the country in an even more precarious position, is not antisemitic.
All of this said, the equation of Israel to a European colonial power is ill-informed, reductive and potentially antisemitic. Nonetheless, this has become unfortunately fashionable, particularly in leftist circles. I have heard the words “Jewish racial supremacy” used unironically to describe the basis of Israel’s existence.
Let’s not kid ourselves. The proximate reason for Israel’s establishment in 1948 was the Holocaust. Sympathy for the staggering loss to the Jewish community (and perhaps guilt) galvanized the United Nations to endorse a Jewish state. But once again, let’s not kid ourselves – the Holocaust was not the first time Europeans ruthlessly persecuted and murdered Jews.
Antisemitism may have been born in Egypt, but it blossomed in Europe. For over a millennium, the Catholic Church blamed the Jews for the murder of Jesus.
This and consequential myths about the Jews formed the basis of religious antisemitism – hatred of Jews based on their religious views rather than perceived racial inferiority (racial antisemitism, as we now know, would rear its ugly head later). Europe’s Jews were accused of ridiculous offenses, ranging from blood libel to causing the Black Plague; they were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition. Religious antisemitism fueled the flames of the pogroms that began in the 14th century, and would eventually consume hundreds of thousands of Jews in Eastern Europe.
The Enlightenment, despite its rejection of religion and the resulting ebb of religious antisemitism, helped plant the seeds of eugenics, social Darwinism and racial antisemitism. These are fundamentally racist ideals – the perfectibility of the human population, the biological struggle between different races and the inferiority of the Jews, respectively. And they were requisite to the systematic murder of six million Jews known as the Holocaust.
As they plowed through Eastern Europe murdering thousands of Jews en masse, the Einsatzgruppen certainly didn’t consider their victims “racially superior.”
The officials at Auschwitz-Birkenau didn’t cram close to a million Jews into gas chambers to suffocate on Zyklon-B because of “Jewish racial superiority.” No, to the Nazis, the Jews were scum to be brutally scrubbed away to protect the hallowed Aryan race.
Europe loathed its Jews for centuries. For the most part, the countries that acquiesced to the Nazis eagerly surrendered their Jewish citizens. A particularly striking case is Vichy France. Even the birthplace of the Enlightenment, of “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” needed little prodding to betray its Jewish sons and daughters.
Palestine, and, later, Israel, was a sanctuary for refugees of increasingly antisemitic Europe. The First Aliya, or wave of Jewish immigration, at the end of the 19th century, was predominantly Eastern European. These Jews largely intended to escape rabidly antisemitic czarist Russia. The surge in German immigration to Palestine in 1933, 1934 and 1935 is particularly telling.
These Jews sought refuge from the Nazi regime, the early stages of which included Hitler’s ascendance and the Nuremberg Laws.
These Holocaust escapees (and, later, Holocaust survivors), were a substantial part of Israel’s population.
These refugees illuminate a fundamental truth: Israel is inextricably linked with the Jews. A conversation about Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is also one about a sanctuary for thousands of Jews persecuted by European regimes. Likening Israel to a European colonial power is not only logically flawed, but also downright offensive to those Jewish refugees spurned by these very European colonial powers.
Israel exists as a Jewish state because, despite centuries of assimilation, the world – particularly Europe – failed the Jews. To those who passionately and categorically condemn Israel, I urge you not to ignore history for the sake of argument. It’s tempting to impose a neat victim-perpetrator binary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It’s easy to deem Israel no different from the racist European colonial powers that dominated the world for over four centuries – the same racist European colonial powers that attempted to systematically eliminate the Jews, many of whom found refuge in Israel.
It is easy. But it’s also wrong.
The author is a Jewish American and a military intelligence officer in the US Army.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Army or Department of Defense.