Defining The Line Between Anti-Semitism And Criticism of Israel

Jul 06, 2015 Published under Israel, Religion

According to the U.S. State Department’s definition, to delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel all are modern manifestations of the most ancient hatred. These criteria are based on a working definition of Israel-related anti-Semitism that was adopted by the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia in 2005, and subsequently dropped.

The California Board of Regents, which governs the University of California system, is being pressed to adopt this definition by a coalition led by AMCHA (Hebrew for “Your People”), an activist group known for an aggressive approach to addressing problems affecting Jewish students.  The initiative is being undertaken in response to a significant growth of anti-Israel activities on California campuses.

The State Department language is useful. But does it provide the necessary clarity to distinguish between genuine anti-Semitism and criticism of Israeli policy? I believe not. Delegitimization and demonization are too vague. A better definition is required. And we certainly cannot use Justice Potter Stewart’s famous dictum, used in an obscenity case, that we will know it when we see it.

Pope Francis and President Obama recently provided us with a sharper definition when they asserted that the denial of the Jewish people’s right of national self-determination in their historic homeland is a form of anti-Semitism.  It is easy if one makes his or her denial of Jewish self-determination explicit.  But it can be implicit too, such as supporting the unqualified right of Palestinian refugees and their millions of descendents to return to homes inside Israel rather than being settled in a future Palestinian state.  This position is likely to deny Jews a majority in their homeland and, de facto, would bring an end to their national self-determination.

Such an open-ended position on refugees was first taken by the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) Movement founded in 2005 by Omar Barghouti, who publicly has declared his opposition to Israel’s identity as a Jewish state.  It remains one of the BDS Movement’s core principles. Contrast this with the Saudi-led 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. It calls for a “just solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees,” and recognizes that any solution must be based on agreement between the parties.

Denying Jewish self-determination also can take the form of efforts to make Israel a pariah state among the family of nations.  This might include labeling Israel an apartheid state, making comparisons between Israeli soldiers and Nazis, accusing Israel of genocide or ethnic cleansing, or utilizing classic anti-Semitic tropes like the blood libel in connection with Israel.   These accusations are not intended to fix Israeli policies, but rather to bring an end to the Zionist enterprise altogether.

Labeling something as anti-Semitism should be done with caution. In a recent article in The Forward, AMCHA’s co-founder and director Tammi Rossman-Benjamin cited some activities she believes meet the State Department criteria, and, therefore, should be condemned by university officials as anti-Semitic. Among these are the boycotting of products manufactured in West Bank settlements, the erection of a wall on campus to simulate Israel’s separation barrier, and the distribution to students of notices like the ones delivered to Palestinians whose homes are slated to be demolished. Breaking the Silence programs, in which former Israeli soldiers are brought to campus to describe violations of human rights by the IDF, also are deemed to be anti-Semitic by Rossman-Benjamin.

In my judgment, the AMCHA leader pushes the envelope too far.  Yes, these activities make Jewish students feel uncomfortable.  They are strident, often distort reality and lack context.  But they most probably fall outside a consensus definition of anti-Semitism. If we label too much as anti-Semitism, it undermines our case when the real thing appears. A better response is to expand the offering of positive programs for Jewish and other students that promote a more accurate and balanced understanding of Israel and the Middle East.

AMCHA is right to be concerned about the situation on campuses. This concern is felt throughout the community. However, there is no reason for panic. The reality is that most campuses across the country are politically quiet, with students attending classes, socializing, and thinking about their futures. But on some — anti-Semitism or no anti-anti-Semitism — hostile environments for Jewish students have been created.  This especially is the case on campuses with active chapters of the virulently anti-Israel group Students for Justice in Palestine.

Intimidation, violence, or threats of violence against students must never be tolerated.  In fact, if university officials do not respond promptly with corrective measures, lawsuits or threats of lawsuits under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, might be considered. This legislation was intended to offer students with certain identifiable shared group characteristics, including Jewish students, protection from a hostile environment.  But lawsuits should be used only as a last resort.

Sadly, anti-Semitism is a growing problem not only on campuses but also in our communities, and it requires strong and effective counter measures. But we ought not weaken or confuse those efforts by painting them with too broad a brush.

Martin J. Raffel is past senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and adviser to the Israel Policy Forum.

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