Israel’s Abuse and Misuse of the Word “Anti-Semitism”

27 June 2019
By: Ofer Waldman

Words with dual meanings cause confusion. Now there is another word to that can be counted among the confusing: “anti-Semitism”.

Anti-Semitism is, according to the dictionary, “prejudice or hostility towards Jews.” This definition was extended to include excessive or unwarranted criticism of the State of Israel, including denying its right to exist, or evaluating its behavior according to different criteria than those applied to the rest of the world.

Recently, a second — specifically Israeli — definition of anti-Semitism has been added to the one above, one that is entirely unconnected to the original meaning the term. In order to divert the discussion away from the injustices of the occupation, the Israeli government now defines any person or organization who criticizes this policy as an anti-Semite. It does directly or indirectly.

The problem is that sometimes this accusation refuses to stick – how can one accuse Jewish opponents of the occupation of being anti-Semites? And what about all the lovers of Israel who look at the developments in our country with growing concern?

The current Israeli government has to invent new ways of squaring this circle: If people who criticize Israel’s policies cannot be directly defined as anti-Semitic, they are now tagged as “supporters of BDS”. Even if they do not themselves support the movement to boycott Israel, and even though BDS is quite marginal in most Western countries (here in in Germany it is all but irrelevant), BDS is invoked as a looming anti-Semitic monster, a bogey man lurking in the dark.

And who decides who supports BDS? The Israeli government, of course, as it sees fit.

The problem begins when this tactic is implemented outside Israel’s borders. In Germany, the Bundestag, the German parliament, recently denounced the BDS movement as anti-Semitic. This resolution, was based on the good intentions of its supporters, who genuinely support Israel. But in effect the Bundestag has given the Israeli government a blank check to frame its critics as anti-Semites. That’s dangerous.

Germany’s struggle against anti-Semitism is real and important. But now it is stained with the political opportunism of Netanyahu and his emissaries.

The resolution has the greatest impact on Palestinian activists, who are now afflicted by a perpetual suspicion of anti-Semitism, a suspicion fueled by spokespeople of the populist right in Europe with whom Benjamin Netanyahu is not afraid to join hands, as seen in Hungary or elsewhere.

To be clear, the New Israel Fund does not support BDS. We believe that the way to ensure a future of equality and peaceful coexistence is by strengthening Israeli civil society, not boycotting it. But the truth is that the Government of Israel is not interested in fighting the boycott movement, but in using it to silence its internal and external critics. It uses the BDS movement to pit Jewish organizations against each other, as real anti-Semites rub their hands with glee. Earlier this month, Professor Peter Schaefer, one of the greatest scholars of ancient Judaism, found himself pushed out of the position of head of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. This was the result of the combined pressure of the Israeli Embassy and the heads of the Jewish establishment in Germany, after the Museum shared via Twitter an open letter signed by 240 Jewish scholars protesting the German parliament’s equation of BDS with anti-Semitism.

The toxic atmosphere has not just stopped with Professor Schaefer. The New Israel Fund in Germany was also recently asked to remove its sponsorship from the Jewish Film Festival in Berlin because of the problematic climate of critical debate about Israel.

These are troubling trends at a time when Jewish communities around the world are facing increasing anti-Semitic threats and attacks around the world. Something like ninety percent of these, at least in Germany, originate in the extreme right. Instead of helping communities organize to fight the actual threat of anti-Semitism, however, the government of Israel and its allies monopolize and misuse the term anti-Semitism in order to silence their own political opponents, as demonstrated in the fight against the BDS bogeyman.

In Germany and everywhere in the world, the New Israel Fund will continue to raise its voice against this criminal folly. And, at the same time, we will continue to support our partners in Israel working to build more just and equal democratic society.