How to criticise Israel without being antisemitic

December 11, 2012 at 4:39 pm (anti-semitism, conspiracy theories, history, israel, Jim D, Middle East, palestine, reblogged, zionism)

Brilliant article, recommended by Your Man from Brockley:

If you’ve spent any time discussing or reading about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I guarantee you’ve heard some variation of this statement:

OMG, Jews think any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic! 

In the interests of this post, I’m going to assume that the people who express such sentiments are acting in good faith and really don’t mean to cause pain to or problems for Diaspora Jewry.  For those good-faith people, I present some guidelines for staying on the good side of that admittedly murky line, along with the reasoning why the actions I list are problematic.  (And bad-faith people, you can no longer plead ignorance if you engage in any of these no-nos.  Consider yourselves warned.)  In no particular order:

  1. Don’t use the terms “bloodthirsty,” “lust for Palestinian blood,” or similar.  Historically, Jews have been massacred in the belief that we use the blood of non-Jews (particularly of children) in our religious rituals.  This belief still persists in large portions of the Arab world and even in parts of the Western world.  Murderous, inhumane, cruel, vicious—fine.  But blood…just don’t go there.  (Depicting Israel/Israelis/Israeli leaders eating children is also a no-no, for the same reason.)
  2. Don’t use crucifixion imagery. Another huge, driving motivation behind anti-Semitism historically has been the belief that the Jews, rather than the Romans, crucified Jesus.  As in #1, this belief still persists.  There are plenty of other ways to depict suffering that don’t call back to ancient libels.
  3. Don’t demand that Jews publicly repudiate the actions of settlers and extremists.  People who make this demand are assuming that Jews are terrible people or undeserving of being heard out unless they “prove” themselves acceptable by non-Jews’ standards.  (It’s not okay to demand Palestinians publicly repudiate the actions of Hamas in order to be accepted/trusted, either.)
  4. Don’t say “the Jews” when you mean Israel.  I think this should be pretty clear.  The people in power in Israel are Jews, but not all Jews are Israelis (let alone Israeli leaders).
  5. Don’t say “Zionists” when you mean Israel. Zionism is no more a dirty word than feminism.  It is simply the belief that the Jews should have a country in part of their ancestral homeland where they can take refuge from the anti-Semitism and persecution they face everywhere else.  It does not mean a belief that Jews have a right to grab land from others, a belief that Jews are superior to non-Jews, or any other such tripe, any more than feminism means hating men.  Unless you believe that Israel should entirely cease to exist, you are yourself Zionist.  Furthermore, using “Zionists” in place of “Israelis” is inaccurate and harmful.  The word “Zionists” includes Diasporan Jews as well (most of whom support a two-state solution and pretty much none of whom have any influence on Israel’s policies) and is used to justify anti-Semitic attacks outside Israel (i.e., they brought it on themselves by being Zionists).  And many of the Jews IN Israel who are most violent against Palestinians are actually anti-Zionist—they believe that the modern state of Israel is an offense against God because it isn’t governed by halakha (traditional Jewish religious law).  Be careful with the labels you use.
  6. Don’t call Jews you agree with “the good Jews.”  Imposing your values on another group is not okay.  Tokenizing is not okay.  Appointing yourself the judge of what other groups can or should believe is not okay.
  7. Don’t use your Jewish friends or Jews who agree with you as shields.  (AKA, “I can’t be anti-Semitic, I have Jewish friends!” or “Well, Jew X agrees with me, so you’re wrong.”)  Again, this behavior is tokenizing and essentially amounts to you as a non-Jew appointing yourself arbiter over what Jews can/should feel or believe.  You don’t get to do that.
  8. Don’t claim that Jews are ethnically European.  Jews come in many colors—white is only one.  Besides, the fact that many of us have some genetic mixing with the peoples who tried to force us to assimilate (be they German, Indian, Ethiopian, Italian…) doesn’t change the fact that all our common ancestral roots go back to Israel.
  9. Don’t claim that Jews “aren’t the TRUE/REAL Jews.” Enough said.
  10. Don’t claim that Jews have no real historical connection to Israel/the Temple Mount. Archaeology and the historical record both establish that this is false.
  11. Don’t accuse Diasporan Jews of dual loyalties or treason. This is another charge that historically has been used to justify persecution and murder of Jews.  Having a connection to our ancestral homeland is natural.  Having a connection to our co-religionists who live there is natural.  It is no more treasonous for a Jew to consider the well-being of Israel when casting a vote than for a Muslim to consider the well-being of Islamic countries when voting.  (Tangent: fuck drone strikes.  End tangent.)
  12. Don’t claim that the Jews control the media/banks/country that isn’t Israel.  Yet another historical anti-Semitic claim is that Jews as a group intend to control the world and try to achieve this aim through shadowy, sinister channels.  There are many prominent Jews in the media and in the banking industry, yes, but they aren’t engaged in any kind of organized conspiracy to take over those industries, they simply work in those industries.  The phrase “the Jews control” should never be heard in a debate/discussion of Israel.
  13. Don’t depict the Magen David (Star of David) as an equivalent to the Nazi swastika.  The Magen David represents all Jews—not just Israelis, not just people who are violent against Palestinians, ALL JEWS.  When you do this, you are painting all Jews as violent, genocidal racists.  DON’T.
  14. Don’t use the Holocaust/Nazism/Hitler as a rhetorical prop.  The Jews who were murdered didn’t set foot in what was then Palestine, let alone take part in Israeli politics or policies.  It is wrong and appropriative to try to use their deaths to score political points.  Genocide, racism, occupation, murder, extermination—go ahead and use those terms, but leave the Holocaust out of it.
  15. In visual depictions (i.e., political cartoons and such), don’t depict Israel/Israelis as Jewish stereotypes.  Don’t show them in Chassidic, black-hat garb.  Don’t show them with exaggerated noses or frizzled red hair or payus (earlocks).  Don’t show them with horns or depict them as the Devil.  Don’t show them cackling over/hoarding money.  Don’t show them drinking blood or eating children (see #1).  Don’t show them raping non-Jewish women.  The Nazis didn’t invent the tropes they used in their propaganda—all of these have been anti-Semitic tropes going back centuries.  (The red hair trope, for instance, goes back to early depictions of Judas Iscariot as a redhead, and the horns trope stems from the belief that Jews are the Devil’s children, sent to destroy the world as best we can for our “father.”)
  16. Don’t use the phrase “the chosen people” to deride or as proof of Jewish racism. When Jews say we are the chosen people, we don’t mean that we are biologically superior to others or that God loves us more than other groups.  Judaism in fact teaches that everyone is capable of being a righteous, Godly person, that Jews have obligations to be ethical and decent to “the stranger in our midst,” and that non-Jews don’t get sent to some kind of damnation for believing in another faith.  When we say we’re the chosen people, we mean that, according to our faith, God gave us extra responsibilities and codes of behavior that other groups aren’t burdened with, in the form of the Torah.  That’s all it means.
  17. Don’t claim that anti-Semitism is eradicated or negligible.  It isn’t.  In fact, according to international watchdog groups, it’s sharply on the rise.  (Which sadly isn’t surprising—anti-Semitism historically surges during economic downturns, thanks to the belief that Jews control the banks.)  This sort of statement is extremely dismissive and accuses us of lying about our own experiences.
  18. Don’t say that since Palestinians are Semites, Jews/Israelis are anti-Semitic, too.  You do not get to redefine the oppressions of others, nor do you get to police how they refer to that oppression.  This also often ties into #8.  Don’t do it.  Anti-Semitism has exclusively meant anti-Jewish bigotry for a good century plus now.  Coin your own word for anti-Palestinian oppression, or just call it what it is: racism mixed with Islamophobia.
  19. Don’t blow off Jews telling you that what you’re saying is anti-Semitic with some variant of the statement at the top of this post.  Not all anti-Israel speech is anti-Semitic (a lot of it is valid, much-deserved criticism), but some certainly is.  Actually give the accusation your consideration and hear the accuser out.  If they fail to convince you, that’s fine.  But at least hear them out (without talking over them) before you decide that.

I’m sure this isn’t a comprehensive list, but it covers all the hard-and-fast rules I can think of.  (I welcome input for improving it.)

But wait!  Why should I care about any of this?  I’m standing up for people who are suffering!

You should care because nonsense like the above makes Jews sympathetic to the Palestinian plight wary and afraid of joining your cause.  You should care because, unfortunately, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has correlated to an uptick in anti-Semitic attacks around the world, attacks on Jews who have no say in Israeli politics, and this kind of behavior merely aggravates that, whether you intend it to or not.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a real minefield in that it’s a clash between oppressed people of color and an ethnoreligious group that is dominant in Israel but marginalized and brutalized elsewhere (often nowadays on the exact grounds that they share ethnoreligious ties with the people of Israel), so it’s damned hard to toe the line of being socially aware and sensitive to both groups.  I get that.  But I think it is possible to toe that line, and I hope this post helps with that.  (And if a Palestinian makes a similar list of problematic arguments they hear targeted at them, I’d be happy to reblog it, too.)

So, TL;DR version:

  1. Do go ahead and criticize Israel.
  2. Don’t use anti-Semitic stereotypes or tropes.
  3. Don’t use overly expansive language that covers Jews as a whole and not just Israel.
  4. Don’t use lies to boost your claims.
  5. Do engage Jews in conversation on the issues of Israel and of anti-Semitism, rather than simply shutting them down for disagreeing.
  6. Do try to be sensitive to the fact that, fair or not, many people take verbal or violent revenge for the actions of Israelis on Diasporan Jews, and Diasporan Jews are understandably frightened and upset by this.

May there be peace in our days.


  1. SteveH said,

    This beats Jonathan Freeland’s record for most straw men in a single article. What is it about you Israeli apologists?

  2. Pinkie said,

    Patronising and less than honest. Yes, loads of straw men. I’m tired of this.

    I suggest it is worth reading:

    • Jim Denham said,

      “Jews Sans Frontiers” is a classic example of “left” antisemitism. The person (Mark Elf aka “levi99”) who runs that site is a piece of foul antisemitic shite, even if he happens to be Jewish.

      Not quite in the Atzmon league, perhaps, but not far off: the Greenstein league, let us say.

      Disgusting, anyway.

  3. nothingiseverlost said,

    For what it’s worth, I recently wrote something on a similar topic: I would also say that the link in Pinkie’s comment above mine is definitely worth reading, if only for the unintentionally hilarious comment from Luiz Aldamiz, who, in response to the perfectly reasonable statement that you don’t get to define the oppression of others, asks “What if I feel Palestinian even if just by extension?” You could probably write an entire article about that bizarre bit of projection.

    • Pinkie said,

      Yes the below the line comment from Luiz Aldamiz is fairly weird, as is yours.

      And so it goes.

  4. Jim Denham said,

    SteveH and Pinkie: perhaps you’d care to list and identify what you call “straw men”, explaining why they are, indeed, illusiory, false or in some other way improper points for the author to be raising?

    • Pinkie said,

      Funnily enough, no I don’t care to do so. Others have said things better than I can, I have given one link which does so.

      • nothingiseverlost said,

        But that link isn’t a very good rebuttal, though. The crux of the argument seems to be “The rest of the points are pretty damn bogus too since they may or may not apply to a small minority of Israel’s detractors but not to the majority.” In other words, no attempt to actually deny that people say these things, or that they’re wrong to say these things, just an assertion that because there are also people who don’t say these things, it’s illegitimate to talk about them.
        This point is obviously bollocks in itself, it’s just entertaining how much it’s undermined by the commenter immediately below who declares that “15/16 points are exactly what you ought to do to criticize Israel” – in other words, people do say these things, and they’re right to do so. These two arguments are incompatible, and the very fact that there are people making argument #2 (“we’re right to say these things”) directly contradicts argument #1 (“no-one says these things”).
        Ultimately, I think the problem is this: the author of that post you link to, and presumably agree with, characterises the list as “someone who doesn’t like people criticising Israel advising people who do like criticising Israel on how to criticize Israel”. I don’t think that’s what it is. Given that the author of that list says “Genocide, racism, occupation, murder, extermination—go ahead and use those terms… Not all anti-Israel speech is anti-Semitic (a lot of it is valid, much-deserved criticism)… Do go ahead and criticize Israel”, I don’t think they have any inherent objection to people criticising Israel; I think they just want to hear better criticism, which is an objective I share. There’s actually a very direct analogy to be drawn here: the right-wing Tory politician Nadine Dorries is undoubtedly a disgusting person, but some of the abuse she gets is misogynistic, which has led some left feminists to discuss ways to criticise Dorries without being sexist – see, for instance: The point I’m trying to get at here is that when people advise you on how to criticise Israel without being anti-Semitic, they’re not trying to stop you from criticising Israel, any more than people advising you on how to criticise female Tories without being sexist are trying to stop you from criticising Tories. I don’t think that this should be such a controversial point.

  5. what a twit said,

    “Jews think any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic!”
    “Don’t say “the Jews” when you mean Israel.”

  6. Mike Killingworth said,

    [4] Jim, if you’re saying that your critics ought to keep shtum (there’s another stereotype for your list 🙂 ) unless they have the time and energy to write an academic essay, I fear you’ll just have to go on waiting.

  7. Sarah AB said,

    I’m not quite sure what some of the commenters here feel they cannot say, but would want to say, if they attend to the guidance offered in the OP. Above is a typical piece from Steve Hynd – I see no problem there. He is criticising Israel. He is not (I think!) being antisemitic.

    Or there’s this.

    Of course my sense of both posts is skewed a bit by my wider sense of both writers.

    • Pinkie said,

      I’m not quite sure what some of the commenters here feel they cannot say, but would want to say, if they attend to the guidance offered in the OP.

      I’m not sure what that means and I’m not sure why I should sign-up to a particular view of anti-Jewish racism as per the OP.

      The implication in the OP is, I think, that many of the plainly anti-Semitic ‘tropes’ they cite are current in the Palestine solidarity movement.

      I’m fairly sure I can write a comment critical of the current Israeli state without sliding unwittingly into anti-Semitism, thanks.

  8. leonjwilliams said,

    That’s all really common sense stuff, there’s a lot of information around the net and books on arguing your point effectively.

  9. Jim Denham said,

    Pinkie: “I’m fairly sure I can write a comment critical of the current Israeli state without sliding unwittingly into anti-Semitism, thanks”:

    I’m sure you can, Pinkie.

    But the point (that you have not addressed) is that each and every one of those 19 points are in common usage, including within “left” circles and the PSC.

    This is something that requires a cleansing operation by the left.

  10. Malte Brigge said,

    Here are some pointers for those that enjoy writing blogs and informing others of their opinions and thoughts:
    Excuses implicate the guilt they are supposed to exonerate.
    Never talk down when you can talk up.
    Try and put some finessed literary references into your writing rather than simply ‘telling’ people how they should conduct themselves.
    Do not allow you moral exhibitionism to interfere with a logical and clearly irrefutable point.
    Do not try and pass off mistakes and gaffes with pathetic attempts at humour.
    Do not use worthless generalisations about what you ‘like’ and do not ‘like’ when attempting to conduct analysis proper. When you write of the significance or viability of some ‘thing’ you are at least trying to understand it, when you write of what you would ‘like’ or would not ‘like’ you are writing about yourself.
    Do not write ‘quote’ where you intend ‘quotation’.
    Please try and maintain the distinction between an ethical and a factual proposition.
    Music and poetry are not ‘good’ or bad’ according to the political dispositions of their originators, aesthetics is not reducible to politics and never should be.
    Be careful when using the colon it has authoritarian connotations, Fontenelle says as much and he is never wrong.

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