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Opposing Israeli Policy Doesn’t Excuse Anti-Semitism

Where do we draw the line?

Amid the conflict between Israel and Palestine, there’s been a rise in Pro-Palestinian movements around the world. Many people, especially on the political left, have raised issues with Israel’s occupation of Palestine, which has caused numerous human rights violations. Those are valid and true things to bring attention to, and the Israeli government should be held accountable for injustices. The criticism of Israel isn’t inherently Anti-Semitic, or prejudiced against Jews. But when the conversation moves from criticizing Israel’s actions to delegitimizing Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, which is dangerously close to saying that Jews don’t have a right to exist as a unified group, it creates an environment where Anti-Semitism can go unchecked. Nowhere is this more clear than with Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) and other pro-Palestine organizations who stray from activism into anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism is one of the oldest forms of prejudice in the world and is still a very prominent threat. In 2019 in the United States, Jews were the victims of 60% of all religious-based hate crimes, despite only making up 1.8% of the population. All around the world, Jewish cemeteries, synagogues, and other buildings are vandalized with swastikas and other hate symbols. Anti-Semitism is prevalent worldwide, and many Jews want a country where they can be safe from these kinds of attacks. Zionism is the movement of self-determination for the Jewish people and the right for Jews to have their own land in the Middle East. Generally, those who are Anti-Zionist are prejudiced against that right for a united Jewish state to exist. Criticisms of Israel are completely valid; many Jews themselves disagree with the actions of the state. But some Pro-Palestine movements are controversial for their invocation, intentional or not, of anti-Semitism that stems from, and sometimes drives anti-Zionism.

At its core, the Israel/Palestine conflict is about land and occupation. Israel was formed by the international community as a Jewish state in 1948. Many Jews migrated to Israel from Europe in the wake of the Holocaust, and many more have fled Anti-Semitism around the world. The land on which the international community created Israel was previously Palestine, controlled by five Arab countries. The birth of Israel displaced the Palestinians from their homes and was a violent occupation. Almost immediately after Israel was declared an independent nation, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon invaded the new country in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. As a temporary armistice agreement, the West Bank of Israel became part of Jordan, and the Gaza Strip became Egyptian territory. In 1967, after decades of tension, the Six-Day-War ended with Israel gaining back the territories it had lost, as well as the Golan Heights, previously controlled by Syria. The purpose of that war was to eradicate Israel. In 1973, Syria and Egypt launched airstrikes against Israel on Yom Kippur, which is the holiest holiday on the Jewish calendar. The fighting lasted for two weeks and ended in a resolution within the United Nations, which called for an immediate cease-fire. In 1978 Egypt and Israel made peace in the Camp David accord. Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994. Even though those two countries have made peace, others still remain committed to destroying Israel.
War and fights over land continued throughout Israel’s history. In 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister of Israel. His actions against the Palestinians spurred BDS and other pro-Palestine organizations to action. Under Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel invaded the Gaza strip, an area heavily populated by Palestinians, which resulted in an estimated 1,314 Palestinian deaths. The Israeli government has also launched bombing and airstrike campaigns in the Gaza Strip, including one in 2014 that killed about 2,251 Palestinians. In the West Bank, another primarily-Palestinian area, Palestinians are essentially second-class citizens. The West Bank isn’t annexed, but it is occupied by Israel. If the territory were to be annexed, Palestinians in the West Bank would be living under apartheid. This is an ongoing war between Israel and Palestine. Hamas is the ruling government for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. It is categorized as a terrorist organization by the US and European Union. The Arabs who remain in Israel face racism and are subject to discriminatory laws that set them apart. The actions of the Israeli government have sparked a new influx of Pro-Palestine movements around the world.

BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) is a pro-Palestine group whose objective is to encourage boycotts, divestments, and sanctions against Israel. The idea is that, by putting economic and political pressure on Israel, the country will be forced to make legislative changes to its treatment of Palestinians. The group, backed by US Representatives Ilhan Omar (MN) and Rashida Tlaib (MI), has been accused of trying to upend Israel’s status as a Jewish state, and the most radical members want to disband Israel entirely and give all the land back to Palestine. The movement itself seems to be unsure of what they’re trying to accomplish, with end goals varying among members. Israel’s existing law grants automatic citizenship to all Jews. A BDS spokesperson has called those policies racist and when asked if Jews could have their own state, said, “not in Palestine.” The group claims to condemn anti-Semitism but has still been called out by The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which has categorized BDS as an anti-Semitic group. The “three-D test” is used to separate criticism of Israel from anti-Semitism. “Does the criticism delegitimize Israel, apply a double standard, or demonize it?” BDS does all three, critics say. The Israeli government has done bad things that even make Zionists shudder, and they should be held accountable for it, but that doesn’t excuse BDS and other pro-Palestine organizations from anti-Semitism.

BDS and organizations like it are especially dangerous to Jewish college students. As it became more prevalent on college campuses, anti-Semitic hate crimes at the hands of BDS members rose with it. Swastikas and “Free Palestine” have been spray-painted on campuses all over the country, especially on historically Jewish sororities and fraternities. While it’s more likely that the swastikas were painted by white supremacists, “Free Palestine” is almost certainly painted by BDS members. By specifically targeting Jewish establishments, BDS is conflating Jews with the actions of Israel, as if individual Jews are responsible for the actions of an entire country. Students who are part of BDS have verbally harassed Jewish and Zionist students. At a protest in CUNY- Hunter College in New York City, demonstrators chanted “Zionists out of CUNY”. At UCLA, BDS activists blocked a Jewish student’s nomination to a position on the student council judicial board. During the vetting process, she was asked “Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?” and other questions that invoked anti-Semitic tropes about divided loyalties, according to the New York Times. She was asked if her involvement in a historically Jewish sorority and Hillel, the largest international Jewish student’s organization, would impact her ability to make fair decisions. Barry Koshman, a researcher at Trinity university, said “if they had used this with any other group — sexual, racial, any kind of identity group — they would have realized it was illegal.” BDS’s reach is international. A BDS aligned organization at South Africa’s Durban University of Technology called for the university to expel all its Jewish students.

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is an organization that has about 200 chapters at universities across the country. Their members have verbally harassed and demonized Jewish students. In 2018, at Stony Brook University, SJP members advocated for students who were members of Hillel to be expelled, comparing Zionists to white supremacists, KKK members, and Nazis. Instead of working to make a compromise, the New York City chapter of SJP refuses to work with Zionists. On their website, they say “We reject any and all collaboration, dialogue, and coalition work with Zionist organizations […] and encourage our comrades in other organizations to do the same”. In 2019 the SJP chapter at Benedictine University in Illinois tweeted out a video of a student calling on a Holocaust survivor who was going to speak on campus to denounce the “Zionist Israeli state”. In 2018, an SJP member at Stanford threatened to “physically fight Zionists on campus,” in a Facebook post. He changed it four hours later to say “intellectually fight Zionists on campus,” after receiving backlash. Not all Jews are Zionists, but by demonizing, attacking, and refusing to work with Zionists, and by profiling all Jews as Zionists, it shows that SJP doesn’t want to make a solid compromise and work towards a solution. Jewish students feel alienated on campus. In a 2015 study conducted by Brandeis University, 32% of Jewish undergrads said they had been verbally harassed on campus because they were Jewish, and about 25% said they had been blamed by their peers for Israel’s actions.

Criticism of Israel is not inherently Anti-Semitic. Israel’s numerous human rights violations against the Palestinians are deplorable, and the Israeli government should be held accountable. But, anti-Semitism is still one of the oldest and most widespread forms of prejudice, and the Jewish people as a whole can not be held accountable for the actions of one country. Criticism of Israel crosses the line into anti-Semitism when it feeds into age-old stereotypes, such as the dual loyalty trope that suggests all Jews are loyal to Israel first, suggests the notion that all Jews are responsible for the actions of Israel, and denies Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. All throughout history, Jews have been displaced, moved around, and persecuted. Israel is the first and only established Jewish state in the world. Without an established homeland, Jews have nowhere to flee to from violence and will be even more vulnerable.

With Anti-Semitism on the rise worldwide, both the Jewish people and the Palestinians have a right to have a homeland and to safely exist. The “two-state solution” would split Israel into two countries; one for the Palestinians and one for the Israelis. This solution makes the most sense, as it would give both sides a country to run the way they want to. Neither side gets what they want as a joined state. The main issue once again lies in land disputes. Both sides want to claim Jerusalem as their capital, which contains holy sites for Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Some pro-Palestinians don’t see the two-state solution as a possibility. Many think that after so much fighting between the governments, it simply isn’t feasible. Others believe in a solely Palestinian state. A popular rallying cry, which has even been retweeted by Representative Tlaib, is “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” referring to where Israel lies geographically, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The other option is a “one-state solution”, which would either go to the Palestinians, ending the state’s status as a Jewish state and probably causing the death of many Jews through a lengthy war, or would go to the Israelis, which would essentially exile the Palestinians or strip them of citizenship. Many Zionists agree that the one-state solution would result in more human rights violations, and is a wholly unacceptable solution.

As a progressive Jew, it’s disheartening to see high-profile liberal politicians ignore anti-Semitism and even enable it. Anti-Semitism is often dismissed as a thing of the past, or even “punching up,” in accordance with the extremely harmful stereotype that Jews have a master plan to control the world, and already control the media and the banks. Just like any other form of discrimination, attacks on the Jewish people, verbal and physical, should be acknowledged and taken seriously.

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