Between legitimate critiques and anti-Semitism


The last few months has been an especially painful time to be Jewish in the United States. Hate crimes against Jews are on the rise; in New York City, for instance, a majority of the city’s hate crimes have been anti-Semitic. And Congress has failed to lead on combating anti-Semitism. In the wake of a series of anti-Semitic comments made by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, Congress failed to denounce her remarks, instead passing a resolution condemning bigotry in general.

We recognize that there are widespread misconceptions about what constitutes anti-Semitism and when hateful rhetoric about Israel and its supporters crosses the line from legitimate criticisms of Israel into anti-Semitism. We understand that this line is not intuitive and that there must be ample space for criticism of Israel.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), a coalition of thirty-one countries committed to a coordinated effort against anti-Semitism, uses a series of examples to illustrate what constitutes anti-Semitic rhetoric. Two of them are directly applicable to Congresswoman Omar’s comments.

Anti-Semitism includes “making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions,” and “accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.”

These are forms of anti-Semitism with deep roots in Jewish history. For centuries, there have been conspiracy theories about Jewish domination and accusations of Jewish disloyalty, which have been used to justify discrimination and violence. Representative Omar has repeatedly invoked anti-Semitic themes, suggesting that the Jewish State has “hypnotized” the world, that it’s Jewish money that drives Congressional support for Israel, and that Jewish-Americans who feel affinity for Israel are disloyal. These are textbook examples of anti-Semitism.

It is not a coincidence that former Klu Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke praised Ilhan Omar for her defiance to the “Z.O.G.,” which stands for the Zionist Occupation Government that he believes runs the U.S. Likewise, writers for the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer have praised Omar in the “Jewish Problem” section of their website.

Similar to other types of bigotry, Omar’s claims are not grounded in reality. The Jewish State is the world’s scapegoat, the target of more condemnatory U.N. resolutions than any other nation in the world, despite being the Middle East’s only liberal democracy. If Israel is trying to hypnotize the world, it is failing miserably. AIPAC, America’s largest pro-Israel group, comes in 147th in lobbying expenditures according to a Tablet Magazine study. Last year, Gallup pegged support for Israel at 64 percent amongst Americans, a much better explanation of congressional support for Israel than money. The poll also indicates that Jews — a paltry two percent of America’s population — are not alone in feeling affinity for the Middle East’s only liberal democracy and a vital American ally.

Omar’s anti-Semitic rhetoric is especially unfortunate because of how important it is for Jewish and Muslim communities to stand together against hate, and work together to bring peace to the Middle East. Omar herself has been the victim of despicable Islamophobia, most notably when she was depicted as being responsible for 9/11 at the West Virginia State Capitol. The recent white supremacist terror attack on mosques in New Zealand and the attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue underscore the need for solidarity between our communities. This solidarity can also lead to progress towards Middle East peace, as we work together to promote reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. 

We want to be very clear. We are not trying to silence debate about the Israeli-American alliance or the Israeli government. Indeed, we welcome debate and engagement with the country that is so dear to our community. At times, we ourselves are very critical of the current Israeli government. No country is perfect or immune from criticism, including Israel, though we firmly believe that much criticism of Israel is unwarranted, especially in view of Israel’s status as the Middle East’s only democracy.

But the fact that not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic does not mean that none of it is. One of the most disingenuous lines we often hear is that condemnation of anti-Semitic rhetoric directed at Israel or Israel-supporting Jews is an attempt to stifle criticism of Israel. In reality, it is anti-Semites who are trying to silence criticism of their anti-Semitism by falsely claiming that they are just criticizing Israel.

To distinguish between bigoted and legitimate criticism of the Jewish state, the IHRA adopted what is known as the “Three D’s” framework, which identifies criticism of Israel that “delegitimizes,” “demonizes,” or applies “double standards” as anti-Semitic.

Delegitimization means denying the Jewish right of self-determination in their historic homeland, Israel. For instance, remarks that refuse to acknowledge any Jewish connection to the Land of Israel or call Israel the “Zionist settler-colonial entity” rather than acknowledge Israel’s existence as a rightful state invoke this “D.” To uniquely deny the Jewish people the right of self-determination in their historic home is an act of hate and denial, not a legitimate policy critique.

Demonization means the portrayal of Israeli Jews as evil, often using historically-rooted anti-Semitic tropes. For instance, the blood libel accused demonic Jews of using the blood of Christian children in their Passover matzah. This trope was used to justify anti-Jewish riots and massacres. The anti-Israel movement often uses tropes about Jewish bloodthirstiness to demonize the Israeli Defense Force’s efforts to protect their country.

Double standards refers to the singling out of Israel for international opprobrium and sanction. For instance, the BDS movement targets Israel for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions, based on flimsy or even false claims about Israel’s human rights record, while ignoring the blatant human rights abuses of countries around the world, especially in the Middle East.

Some in the Jewish community consider almost all criticisms of Israel to be grounded in anti-Semitism, and others assert that practically no criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. Both are extreme views unrepresentative of the mainstream. What is mainstream and has been accepted by the vast majority of Jews and Jewish organizations — across the political spectrum — is the “Three D” approach to delineating the line between legitimate critiques of Israel and anti-Semitism.

We welcome debate about strengths and shortcomings of Israeli policy, Israeli civil society, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and U.S.-Israeli relations. But we must remain vigilant to ensure that these conversations do not devolve into bigotry. We will wholeheartedly condemn such bigotry against our own and any other community. We hope you will too.

Jason Fruchter is a native of Lawrence and a resident of Far Rockaway. Julian Kritz is a resident of Raleigh, North Carolina. A version of this op-ed was originally published in the Virginia Law Weekly.