Yesterday an Israeli flag with the words “Stop the illegal occupation” and “Stop killing Palestinians” appeared at the office of the Jewish student group, Hillel, on my campus. Was it hate speech or legitimate political expression? One Hillel official recognized it as “politically motivated.” Another, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called it anti-Semitism.
Yes, Dr. King once said that anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism -- which proves only that even the greatest among us are occasionally misinformed. In the early decades of the twentieth century, many great rabbis vehemently attacked the very idea of creating a Jewish state. They may have been wrong, but they surely were not anti-Semitic.
Today, thousands of loyal Israeli Jews attack their government’s policies toward the Palestinians just as vehemently. Some call those policies immoral. They fear that the moral standards of Judaism will suffer. Others simply argue that Israeli guns and tanks perpetuate a spiral of violence, which endangers every Israeli. These opinions are surely debatable. Just as surely, they are not evidence of anti-Semitism, nor even anti-Zionism. On the contrary, they evidence a deep concern for the welfare of Israel, Judaism, and the Jews.
Those who cry “anti-Semitism” at every critic of Israel may be doing the Jews the most harm. One local student called criticisms of Israeli policy “borderline anti-Semitism” and then complained that “Israel is being attacked for unclear reasons.”
Of course the reasons for the criticisms are unclear to those who call the critics anti-Semitic. If a critique is motivated by anti-Semitism, it can and should be ignored. If every critique is automatically written off as evidence of anti-Semitism, all the critics’ words and motives will be ignored. Once the motives are banished from view, the criticisms seem baffling and unfair. The only possible explanation will be -- you guessed it -- anti-Semitism. That’s the vicious circle in which too many people are trapped.
If Israel wants to be secure, it must first acknowledge that the stones and bombs of the Palestinians are not just another round in an endless cycle of anti-Semitic attacks. From the Crusades to the Nazi Holocaust, Jews were indeed oppressed by violence they had done nothing to provoke. They were a powerless, victimized minority.
It may be hard for some Jews, steeped in this history, to see what the rest of the world sees so clearly: Jews in Israel have now become a powerful majority. In too many cases they are not victims but victimizers. When hundreds are killed and thousands wounded, including so many children and elderly; when countless homes are destroyed, with no permission granted to rebuild them; when hospitals are shelled and ambulances prevented from reaching the wounded; can every one of these acts be justified as legitimate pursuit of “suspected terrorists”?
More and more people around the world simply can no longer believe it. Most of the critics are not anti-Zionist. They have no quarrel with the Jewish state, as long as it obeys international law (which makes the occupation illegal) and recognizes that the Palestinians have the same right to political independence as the Jews themselves. Most of the critics realize, though, that Palestinians can not have that independence until Israel removes all its soldiers and settlers from the Occupied Territories. This is not anti-Semitism, nor anti-Zionism. It is common sense.
Yet many who care for Israel cannot see this obvious truth. They begin with the assumption that Palestinian violence, like all anti-Semitic violence, is unprovoked. So the repressive Israeli policies throughout 35 years of occupation become irrelevant, indeed invisible. Israel is absolved of all responsibility; no changes in Israeli policy can make any difference. This means that there is no reason to consider what kinds of compromises Israel might want to make in the interest of peace. It is this kind of thinking, more than anything else, that has left Israel stuck in a policy dead end.
Soon enough, though, increasing numbers of Israelis will see that it is a dead end. More and more Israelis will refuse to support their government's hard-line policies. More and more soldiers will refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories. Eventually, Israel and its supporters will have to do an agonizing self-appraisal, to see what policies they will have to change in the interests of peace and security. Wouldn’t it make sense to do that now, and prevent all the suffering that the coming weeks and months seem to hold, rather than continue to be blinded by the self-defeating cry of “anti-Semitism”?
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.