Top Five Ways to Be Critical of Israel without Sounding like an Anti-Semite

1. Don’t equate Zionism with racism. Zionism is a national aspiration to cultivate and encourage Jewish life, literature, culture, and politics. It is designed to encourage group interests in the same way that any political, religious, or cultural group cares about its preservation. It is an ideology of inclusion, not exclusion. The racism charge is a hammer used to harm people. True enough, that the politics of Israel are complex and Israel national identity can disadvantage other groups (see #2 below). But this is not racism in any accepted sense of the term; it’s not an intentional ideologically based system of discrimination. Israel protects and perpetuates its own self-interest like any other nation state – and I repeat that this sometimes disadvantages other groups – but it’s nothing different than the United States does when it asserts itself in the affairs of other countries. The UN resolution #3379 to this effect in 1975 was an example of how easy it is to organize enough of Israel’s critics to pass UN resolutions. The resolution was revoked in 1991 and is typically recognized as an embarrassing moment in the history of the United Nations.

2. All criticism of Israel requires some nuance, complexity, and context. This may sound obvious but there is the sting of anti-Semitism when some issue is presented without context. For example, Israel is unfairly criticized for responding to violence against the state such that Israel appears to be perpetrating violence against a weaker population when in fact it is “protecting” itself and responding to violence. Recognizing some complexity and nuance is always important in any political conflict but anti-Semitism rears its head when Israel is criticized without seeming understanding of the issues. Israel does not engage in profligate violence and terrorism simply to achieve a political goal. Again, the charge of “terrorism” is a rhetorical tactic that does not characterize policy. Israel regularly complains about visual images of Israeli tanks or soldiers that make them appear aggressive when in fact they are responding to antecedent aggression. It does not mean that Israel’s policies are always correct and not subject to criticism, but such a discussion must take place in the context of facts and political reality.

3. Don’t refer to “the Zionists” as a collective noun. The public relations arm of Israel’s enemies have been successful at distorting the word Zionist to imply plots, conspiracies, racism, and insidious designs to oppress the Palestinians and engage in secret manipulations of segments of society. Referring to “Zionists” when you really mean Israel is an inappropriate lumping together of issues that justify anti-Semitism and suggests secretive and manipulative Jews pulling the puppet strings. Zionism does not mean that Jews and Israelis believe they have rights to “take what they want” in the interest of historical justice. On the contrary, original Zionist aspirations would be to cultivate Jewish life within a proper social and political context. That is, Zionists sought “a place among the nations” for Israel.

4. Don’t equate Israel with Nazi Germany or South Africa. The purpose of the Nazi Germany comparison is simple: it is a vicious and stinging comparison designed for nothing more than inflicting pain. It is a rhetorical strategy that capitalizes on the ironic charge that one group has become what its enemy was before. As with the comparison to apartheid in South Africa, the close and clear application of political theory and history (see #2 above) demonstrates how unjustified such a comparison is. All comparisons to Jewish historic enemies (Christians, Nazis,) and nefarious practices (blood rituals, money manipulation, Christ killers) will mark you as ignorant, anti-Semitic, and someone not to be taken seriously.

5. Learn important terminological distinctions and historical trends. Don’t blend the word “Jewish” with “Israeli”, at least not completely. It is true that the two complement one another, and the Zionism incorporates the symbols of Judaism, but realize that one can be Israeli without being Jewish (yet an issue still debatable by some) and, of course, Jewish without being Israeli. Judaism refers to a religious cosmology and Israel is a nation-state political entity. Make sure you know the difference between “Palestinians” and “Israeli Arabs” or if you prefer “Palestinian Arabs” and be able to describe the distinctions and political markings of each. Know something about the ethnic and historical identities groups in Israel; that is, the distinction between the Ashkenazi and Mizrahi traditions as well as other cultural groups. Be able to describe Israel’s democracy which is a viable democracy but not a liberal democracy quite like the United States.

There is clearly more to these issues than described above but it remains the case that anti-Semitism and ignorance walk hand-in-hand. The individual who cannot make the distinctions above, or who purposely draws on them in order to injure a rhetorical opponent, will be categorized immediately as repellent and easily rejected. None of this will further the interests of problem solving.

Posted on January 22, 2013, in Israel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Don,
    I can hear Chuck Hagel slapping his forehead and saying “D’OH!” upon reading your admonition to “(l)earn important terminological distinctions and historical trends. Don’t blend the word “Jewish” with “Israeli.”
    I must also observe that yours is the most rational, dispassionate definition of Zionism that this lapsed Christian has ever read.
    Sholom,
    -PLB

    • Paul: as usual you are kind in your interpretations of what I’m saying but I guess I never thought of it as a rational and dispassionate definition of Zionism. Zionism itself has a pretty straightforward primary goal – but it has drifted over the years into some unpleasant meanings. As communication people we understand such things, but that is what the debate is about – a battle over meaning.

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