February 24 / 25, 2007
Criticizing Israel is Not an Act of Bigotry
By JASON KUNIN
A grassroots revolt is underway in Jewish communities throughout the world, a revolt that has panicked the elite organizations that have long functioned as official mouthpieces for the community. The latest sign of this panic is the recent publication by the American Jewish Committee of an essay by Alvin H. Rosenfeld, entitled Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism, which accuses progressive Jews of abetting a resurgent wave of anti-Semitism by publicly criticizing Israel.
This is the latest attempt to conflate anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism in order to silence or marginalize criticism of Israel. This approach is widely used in Canada. Upon becoming CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Bernie Farber declared that one of his goals was to "educate Canadians about the links between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism."
It is misleading for groups like the Canadian Jewish Congress to pretend that the Jewish community is united in support of Israel. A growing number of Jews around the world are joining the chorus of concern about the deteriorating condition of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories as well as the inferior social and economic status of Israel's own Palestinian population.
In a world where uncritical support for Israel is becoming less and less tenable due to the expanding human rights disaster in the West Bank and Gaza, leaders of Jewish communities outside Israel have circled their wagons, heightened their pro-Israel rhetoric, and demonized Israel's critics. These leaders imply that increased concerns about Israel do not result from that state's actions, but from an increase in anti-Semitism.
Despite this effort to absolve Israel of responsibility for its treatment of Palestinians, Jewish opposition is growing and becoming more organized. On Feb. 5, a group in Britain calling itself Jewish Independent Voices published an open letter in The Guardian newspaper in which they distanced themselves from "Those who claim to speak on behalf of Jews in Britain and other countries (and who) consistently put support for the policies of an occupying power above the human rights of the occupied people." Among the signatories of the letter were Nobel-prize winning playwright Harold Pinter, filmmaker Mike Leigh, writer John Berger, and many others.
This development follows the emergence of similar groups in Sweden (Jews for Israeli-Palestinian Peace), France (Union Juive Francaise pour la paix, Rencontre Progressiste Juive), Italy (Ebrei contro l'occupazione), Germany (Jüdische Stimme für gerechten Frieden in Nahost), Belgium (Union des Progressistes Juifs de Belgique), the United States (Jewish Voice for Peace, Brit Tzedek, Tikkun, the Bronfman-Soros initiative), South Africa, and others, including the umbrella organization European Jews for a Just Peace and the numerous groups within Israel itself. In Canada, the Alliance of Concerned Jewish Canadians (ACJC) has been founded as an umbrella organization bringing together Jewish individuals and groups from across the country who oppose Israel's continued domination of the West Bank and Gaza.
Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic, nor does it "bleed into anti-Semitism," a formulation that says essentially the same thing. Some genuine anti-Semites do use Israel as a cover for maligning the Jewish people as a whole, but it is fallacious to argue that anyone who criticizes Israel is anti-Semitic because anti-Semites attack Israel. There are some anti-Semites who support Israel because they are Christian fundamentalists who see the return of Jews to Jerusalem as a precondition for the return of Christ and the conversion of Jews to Christianity, or because they are xenophobes who want to get rid of Jews in their midst. Anti-Semites take positions in support of and in opposition to Israel.
It is wrong to criticize all Jews for Israel's wrongdoings, yet Israel's leadership and its supporters in the Diaspora consistently encourage this view by insisting that Israel acts on behalf of the entire Jewish people.
This shifts blame for Israel's crimes onto the shoulders of all Jews. But Jewish critics of Israel demonstrate through their words and deeds that the Jewish community is not monolithic in its support of Israel.
Defenders of Israel often argue that Israel is forced to do what it does -- to destroy people's homes, to keep them under the boot of occupation, to seal them into walled ghettos, to brutalize them daily with military incursions and random checkpoints -- to protect its citizens from Palestinian violence. Palestinian violence, however, is rooted in the theft of their land, the diversion of their water, the violence of the occupation, and the indignity of having one's own very existence posed as a "demographic threat."
To justify Israel's continued occupation and theft of Palestinian land, the state and its defenders attempt to deny Palestinian suffering, arguing instead that Palestinian resentment is rooted not in Israeli violence, but rather in Islam, or the "Arab mentality," or a mystical anti-Semitism inherent in Arab or Muslim culture. Consequently, pro-Israel advocacy depends upon on the active dissemination of Islamophobia. Not surprisingly, engendering hatred in this manner inflames anti-Jewish sentiment among Arabs and Muslims. None of this is a recipe for making Jews safe.
Jewish people can help avert the catastrophic effects of Israeli behaviour, but only by taking a stand in opposition to it.
Jason Kunin of Toronto is a member of the administration council of the Alliance of Concerned Jewish Canadians.
This article, which originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, was written with help from other council members, including Cy Gonick and Dr. Mark Etkin, both of Winnipeg, Andy Lehrer of Toronto, Sid Shniad of Vancouver and Abraham Weizfeld of Montreal.