Walking on Eggshells: Talking about Israel and Palestine

I.          After January’s Martin Luther King Day celebration at Detroit’s Central Methodist Church, a couple of friends, my wife, and I joined the march going further into downtown in order to show our support for continuing action against racial inequality and especially for Black Lives Matters’ mobilization against police violence against African Americans. Within a few minutes we four, politically “progressive” Jews, found ourselves in the midst of a loud and energetic chant: “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free.”  I suppose some of those chanting, certainly the leaders, knew that their words were calling for the destruction of the state of Israel. But perhaps some weren’t even aware of that, and wouldn’t have understood why the four of us dropped out.

Later that day I happened to go the J Street website for some advice on how to think about the differences and possible links between anti-\Zionism and antisemitism and I was instantly confronted by the words on their banner: “The Political Home for Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace Americans.” Know it or not, those chanting earlier were certainly “anti-Israel,” but it was J Street’s language that stopped me in my tracks. “Pro-Israel” was no doubt a way of rebutting those who had called J Street “Anti-Israel” for opposing some current Israeli government policies, notably the West Bank settlements and the occupation (a word that J Street seems shy about using). But what If I go further and question J Street’s commitment to a 2-state solution, like the increasing number of experts, Americans and others, who have been writing that the 2-state solution is now dead or irrelevant. Are they also “anti-Israel”?  And what about J Street’s use of “Pro-peace?” Can the demonstrators I walked away from be considered “anti-Peace”? After all, their main preoccupation is not achieving a peace treaty between the Palestinian Authority and Israel but rather ending the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza? Are they “anti-peace” by nonviolently seeking to free Palestinians from control by the Israel Defense Force? Palestinian violence, including terrorism directed against civilians, has a long and complex history, and has indeed diminished considerably over the course of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. My point is not, as I have written, that there are very definite preconditions for mounting a non-violent struggle for liberation, as was the U.S. Civil Rights movement, and that these preconditions have been lacking among Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.1 I have in mind a more basic fact of American history, namely that virtually noone among us rejects the morality or the strategy of violently attacking British soldiers in order to liberate the colonies between 1775 and 1781. This after all is how the American people became Americans by defeating their occupier. But today, it seems, government violence, or threat of violence, is usually treated as invisible, unless it explodes into view, as in Gaza recently. Why are all others, especially a population living under a fifty-one year foreign occupation, somehow morally required to engage in nonviolent resistance against being ruled by force and violence?


II.        How loaded is every term of every discussion about Israel and Palestine today: “violence,” “pro-peace,” “pro-Israel.” “two-state solution,”—we can add “antisemitism,” “Zionism,” “apartheid,” “democratic,” “pro-Palestinian,” “genocide”—these are not simply descriptive terms and no longer help discussion. Instead they act as traps to obfuscate or shut down discussion. They rule out certain people and positions in advance and rule in others. They prescribe certain ways of thinking and proscribe others. But that is precisely what is intended. Among Jews, and among the left and those sympathetic to Palestinians, even the most sober analysis can get hamstrung by what is in fact the brilliantly successful effort of partisans of both sides to shape conversation about the Israel/Palestine conflict. Each side has created taboos and watchwords that manage to impose a strait-jacket of political correctness on all who would speak to them and about them. Like it or not, one becomes consigned to one of two opposing camps: those who are “pro-Israel” and those who are “pro-Palestinian.” To the latter the other side are often simply termed (with a sneer) “Zionists”; to the former the other side are (also with a sneer) “anti-Israel,” or “antisemites.”

To enter into discussion of the Israel/Palestine conflict is to encounter thought and language police at every turn, indeed in the words themselves. We learn what can and can’t be said, how to think about the conflict without offending one side or the other, how to avoid disqualifying ourselves from being listened to, to avoid accusations: do you seek to delegitimize or indeed to demonize Israel? Or are you ignoring apartheid? Do you justify terrorism? Are you guilty of antisemitism or of justifying settler-colonialism? And then each side has its talismans that demand verbal genuflection: the two-state solution, the secular democratic state, Palestinian liberation, the Jewish state, democracy.


III.       We can see how thought is regulated by looking at two key terms that are central to the mutually stifling political correctnesses: “apartheid” and “antisemitism.”  Each term is so widely used by one side that its applicability to the other side seems beyond dispute, even if fiercely opposed by the other. Each term is vetted by experts. There is, as one would expect, a vast literature expounding on the appropriateness of each and an equally vast literature denouncing its use. Google shows 62,700 hits for “apartheid and Israel” in quotes 114,000 for “antisemitism and anti-Zionism,” also in quotes.  And yet “apartheid” and “antisemitism” are rarely examined closely and dispassionately when they are applied, but are usually used sweepingly and loosely.

“Apartheid” is in fact the key term of the suppressed 2017 United Nations report commissioned by its Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia and written by Richard Falk and Virginia Tilley. Its title: “Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid.”  The several applications of “apartheid,” spelled out in considerable detail by Falk and Tilley, can be roughly summarized as follows: 1) Within Israel, despite equal political rights, Palestinians do not have constitutional equality with Jews inasmuch as Israel is a Jewish state. In many respects there is segregation of Jews from Palestinians, who live within a second-class citizenship. 2) The Occupied Territories are organized into separate Israeli and Palestinian towns, villages, roads, and public facilities of all sorts. Indeed, the settlement project has placed 500,000 Israeli Jews in strategically selected places to break up the possibility of any kind of Palestinian contiguity, there has been Israeli state expropriation of Palestinian lands and control over water resources. Above all, the occupation entails denial of self-determination to Palestinians: they live under Israeli military rule including checkpoints, arbitrary searches, and control over public assemblies. 3) In Gaza residents live under complete Israeli/Egyptian blockade and separated from the Occupied Territories. Normal life is all but impossible under these conditions. 4) The several hundred thousand refugees mostly in UNWRA “temporary” camps which have become permanent for many of them, are not allowed to become citizens elsewhere nor to be admitted back into Israel.

Different situations, some of them truly horrible, different kinds of pain, different degrees and kinds of Israeli responsibility, all of which demand careful analysis. But does “apartheid” fit  all of it? Inasmuch as Zionism’s goals included acquiring land for Jewish settlement and building enterprises staffed by Jewish labor, Zionism bears only partial resemblance to the project of white South Africans. True, in both, natives were imposed upon by transplanted foreigners, and then displaced by their settlement and transformation project that laid claim to much of the land. But Zionism bears no resemblance to the whites’ project of consigning formerly free black South Africans to a lower caste of servants and exploitable laborers. Moreover, the situation of Gaza and the refugee camps—hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing or being expelled from their homes and villages and then settling in temporary shelters that became permanent—was not part of an overarching plan but took place during and after the physical conflict.

Still, the West Bank—Judea and Samaria—has become a deliberate project of separating Israeli Jews from Palestinians, the latter under IDF military occupation, the former building settlements on conquered territory they now call their own. The use of “apartheid” usually implies a deliberate intentionality, a design, rather than the actual helter-skelter process of settlement, conflict, war, refugee evacuation, further war, victory, and then “temporary” occupation. In the West Bank this has become a full-fledged program of separation between the conqueror and the conquered. But since Palestinians have turned out to live in a fourfold fragmentation it has become inviting to see this result as a resulting from a deliberate, conscious practice, much as evolutionary processes are attributed by some religious believers to an intelligent designer, or as conspiracy theorists see anything they oppose as having been intended by human agents. Because Zionism has been catastrophic for the Palestinians, many of them and those who sympathize with them are tempted to see every piece of the outcome as resulting from a malevolent plan.2

Zionism was indeed a project and in retrospect (and, to farsighted individuals, from the beginning) conflict with the Palestinians was inevitable. It is a denial of responsibility to pretend that Zionist and then Israeli actions towards the Palestinians were simply responses to the situation Jews found themselves in. The greatest refusal of responsibility is probably Golda Meier’s infamous statement: “We cannot forgive [Arabs] for forcing us to kill their children.” What then to say about the “separation wall” built to keep the two peoples apart? It is ostensibly for the security of the one, but then also clearly for their benefit, deviating from the Green Line and adding thousands of acres, including prime agricultural land, to the Israeli “side.” People who call it the “apartheid wall” do not have in mind the specifics of the South African system whites, especially Afrikaners, imposed on non-whites between 1946 and 1994, but are rather saying the worst thing they can think of to describe Israel and what it has done and continues to do to Palestinians. In fact, as many observers have pointed out, most notably Noam Chomsky, the situation for Palestinians is in many ways worse than for non-whites in apartheid South Africa, who at least were used as servants and needed for their labor.  But the purpose of such terminology, with all due respect to Richard Falk, is less to describe than to indict. I agree with Michael Lerner when he says, “Rather than using inflammatory words like “apartheid” and “genocide” . . . . we will be far more effective if we simply describe the conditions under which Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are living. Those facts are powerful enough to help people see why the Occupation needs to end.”3

IV. “Antisemitism”


            There has been considerable serious writing about how “antisemitism” applies to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both among Israel advocates and among critics of Israel. Writing in 2013 British leftist Norman Geras spoke of the “new climate of antisemitism” which, like many others, he located on the left. Asserting that “[t]his can be shown with near mathematical precision,” he proceeded to point to the many ways verbal and physical hostility to Jews is commonly described as “understandable” and thus excused by rage against Israel; or is dismissed as unconscious and thus unintended; or is indulged, ignored, and otherwise tolerated, including in the left’s flagship newspaper, The Guardian.4

For Geras, however, Israel was more the alibi than the cause or target of the “new antisemitism.” In a detailed 2015 survey of the “new antisemitism” in Europe Kenneth Waltzer sees some of its source in its traditional home on the right, particularly at a time of growing economic stress. “However, the main sources of the new anti-Semitism in most European states are the hard anti-colonial left, which attacks America and Israel as the cornerstones of Western imperialism, and alienated segments of the growing Muslim population, especially marginal youths.”5  And then he suggests a number of measures that might be taken to soften the alienation of Muslims in the West and better integrate them into their societies, improve economic conditions, and strengthen governments’ commitment to the rights and security of all members of their societies.  He also stresses that reducing the “new antisemitism” depends on progress being made towards a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Over the past generation much commentary argues that the “new antisemitism” is directed specifically at Israel. It is described as follows by Irwin Cotler, Canadian professor of law (and former minister of justice in the 2003-2006 Liberal government): “. . . [C]lassical anti-Semitism is the discrimination against, denial of, or assault upon the rights of Jews to live as equal members of whatever society they inhabit. The new anti-Semitism involves the discrimination against, denial of, or assault upon the right of the Jewish people to live as an equal member of the family of nations, with Israel as the targeted ‘collective Jew among the nations’.”6 The Anti-Defamation League, whose core mission has been fighting antisemitism, has likewise broadened its understanding of the phenomenon to declare: “Words or actions related to Israel are anti-Semitic when they blame all Jews for the actions of the state, single out Israel in denying the country’s right to exist as a Jewish state and an equal member of the global community, use anti-Jewish stereotypes or conspiracy theories (such as accusations of Jewish world domination), or traditional anti-Semitic imagery or comparisons to Nazis.” Another well-known description, by Natan Sharansky, cites the “3 Ds”—demonization, delegitimization, and double standards—as distinguishing antisemitism from legitimate criticism of Israel.

But when does the line between legitimate and antisemitic criticism get crossed and who decides? In this role the Trump administration has appointed the founder of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, Kenneth L. Marcus, as Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education. Marcus’s academic studies subtlety conflate much criticism of Israel with antisemitism, and his work at the Brandeis Center promotes this conflation (“anti-Israelism” is one of its main concerns, and its detailed definition of antisemitism includes accusing Israel of apartheid). His role in the Trump administration will apparently include adjudicating and setting policy in Title VI (discrimination) complaints on campuses, no doubt against pro-Palestinian student organizations critical of Israel.7

Other monitors and accusers are everywhere and we must walk on eggshells to avoid being reproached by them. Criticism of Israel by those who claim to be “pro-Israel” such as J Street easily gets labeled as “anti-Israel.”  “Anti-Israel” becomes no different than “pro-Palestinian.” Each of these terms is surrounded by a valence, indeed an electric charge. And they all sit on a slippery slope leading to “antisemitism,” which is the ultimate conversation-stopper.  This was always applied to hatred of the Jews—but now it aims at opposition to Israel, or strong criticism of its actions. Indeed, sometimes it is any criticism of Israel. In these ways, Paul Alexander, of Evangelicals for Social Action, argues, each of the D’s can and have been applied by supporters of Israel to the Palestinians or their supporters.8

This explains why Jewish Voice for Peace in 2015 published a 73-page book titled Stifling Dissent: How Israel’s Defenders use False Charges of Antisemitism to Limit the Debate Over Israel on Campus. Certainly this title is proclaiming that something illegitimate is going on, but in fact most of the book is neither about stifling dissent—rather about organized Jewish community and Israel-aligned organizations organizing against criticisms of Israel—nor about them using the conversation-stopping accusations of antisemitism.  Of course the accusations have kept on growing, and on the internet they’re now everywhere. Understandably, then, JVP more recently published a collection of essays, On Antisemitism, in which false accusations of antisemitism play a more central role. A key chapter, “Antisemitism Redefined,” by Antony Lerman, former editor of Patterns of Prejudice, traces the articulation of the “new antisemitism” as a strategy for defending Israel against growing criticism. It was elaborated by a number of Jewish organizations and, as Lerman describes it, in the United Kingdom was in fact encouraged and led by representatives of the Israeli Mossad. “Antisemitism,” he says, “was thus recast as principally anti-Israel rhetoric emanating largely from Muslim sources.”9  He goes on to say that the “wholesale redefinition of antisemitism that turns Israel into ‘the Jew among the nations’ makes it impossible to maintain any distinction between legitimate criticism and the negative stereotyping of Jews . . . “10


V.        I will not try to adjudicate the opposing uses of the “new antisemitism,” whether to delegitimize Israel or to delegitimize critics of Israel, except to point out the obvious fact that both are certainly taking place. In talking about “walking on eggshells,” however, it is probably more pertinent to look at what those who are policing antisemitism—including the Brandeis Center and the State Department—say. They are in fact using the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s “Working Definition of Antisemitism” which, among many historically familiar attacks on Jews, includes Holocaust denial and comparing Israel to Nazi Germany.  It “might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity” or “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”11 Certainly to deny Jews this right while asserting that the Palestinians have such a right, would be antisemitic. But is this what is happening on the left and among Palestinians and pro-Palestinians? Rather, criticisms of the Occupation and the settlements is spreading. And with it the unfinished business of the creation of Israel and its War of Independence is at long last being widely noticed: the hundreds of thousands of refugees, and the fact that the Jewish state has a huge minority of second-class citizens (more than the United States at the time of the Civil Rights Movement).

As Uri Avnery pointed out in Tikkun, BDS, presented as a campaign against the Occupation, is no less directed against Israel as such by demanding full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and promotion of the right of return of Palestinian refugees. BDS is not demanding a Palestinian state alongside Israel but rather challenging Israel’s fundamental character as a “democratic and Jewish” state.12  In campaigning for a boycott, BDS proponents may not mention the issues of second-class citizenship and the refugees, but these are after all central to BDS. When one of its founders, Marwan Barghouti, speaks of boycotting the settlements, he has this in mind as only a “stage on the way”—in other words, “as a major step toward fully isolating the regime of oppression,”13 What is the “regime of oppression” if not Israel itself, which by its very nature is the enemy to be overcome. This conviction can lead to walking on eggshells among BDS supporters, avoiding speaking about Israel positively or otherwise sounding like a “Zionist.”

Granted BDS is a peaceful movement—one of its hallmarks—but Israel and its American Jewish supporters are also right to see it and its supporters—even if they are only “on the way” there—as seeking to end the Jewish state. But the important question is: is this antisemitism, whether “new” or not? Setting aside for a moment the fury raised by BDS, what does it mean to be a Jewish state? As France is a French state? As Slovakia is a Slovak state? The question is not about national symbols and history, or about a national culture to which all citizens would presumably have equal access, but in the case of Israel about specific rights and privileges reserved for some of the citizens and not shared by others. Doesn’t Israel in fact restrict some of its citizens from having political power, or some of its citizens from collective ownership of the land, or from freedom of movement to any location, or from equal access to all educational facilities? The problem, it is argued, is that to keep Israel a Jewish state means restricting some of the rights of some of its citizens—its non-Jewish citizens.

Alden Pink, an editor and reporter at The Forward, argues that being a Zionist today means accepting several key assumptions, one of which is “that the right to self-determination, and the resulting freedom from Gentile majoritarianism, is especially important for the Jewish people. . . “14 But if creating a democratic and Jewish state means rejecting “Gentile majoritarianism” how then can it be called democratic? On the one hand, democracy would then mean giving the right to vote to every citizen, but on the other, the Jewish state is allowed to privilege its Jewish citizens and deny meaningful political power to its non-Jewish ones. What makes this—how can we avoid calling it undemocratic?—practice possible is ensuring a Jewish majority, rejecting “Gentile majoritarianism.” Aren’t Jews, although claiming the right to have a state “like any other,” by seeking to keep it a Jewish state, perforce insisting on the right to have a state unlike any other?

Questioning this may lead one to oppose the existence of Israel in its present form. But this discussion is taboo according to the Brandeis Center and the “Working Definition” of the IHRA, posted on the State Department website. But why? But even if we have to approach these issues thoughtfully, doing so is hardly antisemitic. To call it that is a diversion, a false accusation, a red herring. As is the intended conversation-stopper: “This is antisemitism.” But as the growth of BDS shows the conversation will not be stopped. And why not?—if the integrity of Spain can be questioned, as well as the unity of the United Kingdom, and if Kurdish self-determination is to be taken seriously (most seriously, apparently, by Israel)? Except in Turkey, one can still ask these questions out loud.

Questioning the nature of the Jewish state of Israel should not be taboo. But neither should Israel itself be taboo, as is intended by boycotting not just products from the settlements but all goods made in Israel. This kind of a step was never contemplated against the United States during the worst years of the Vietnam war, nor was boycotting the Southern states proposed during the Civil Rights movement. As Avnery points out, what is taking place is a “mutual hate campaign.” Each side not is not only in conflict with the other, but their supporters and surrogates wholly deny each other, in a process of mutual demonization that gives the lie to any proclaimed wish for peace. Denying each other’s reality is the opposite of the only possible direction, a resolution in which two peoples might live alongside each other.

Refusing to allow speakers from Israel to be heard illustrates the demonization on one side, as does the campaign for legislation prohibiting advocacy of the boycott on the other. Is neither side to be allowed to speak, to advocate for themselves? This sounds more like the frenzied assertions of true believers clamoring to show how much they support the actual participants than genuine efforts to bring the sides together. Continuing to walk on eggshells only defers to the mutual hate campaign. Hurling anathemas, pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian cheering sections continue to demonize each other, acting, as Avnery says, only to ‘sharpen the mutual hatreds, widen the abyss between the two peoples, tearing them even further apart.”


Ronald Aronson  is a contributing editor of Tikkun and Professor Emeritus of the History of Ideas at Wayne State University. In addition to his writings on Sartre, Camus, and Marxism his books include The Dialectics of Disaster: A Preface to Hope, Living without God, and, most recently, We: Reviving Social Hope. (review by Tikkun)




1. Ronald Aronson, “Selma and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” Humanistic Judaism, 2015


2. We can speak of a fallacy of retrospective intentionality, of asserting that when something turns out a certain way it is because its founding minds and activists planned it to turn out that way.

3. Michael Lerner, “Still Immoral, Still Stupid Let’s End 50 Years of Israel’s Occupation of the West Bank – One Person/One Vote,” Tikkun, May 16, 2017

<https://www.tikkun.org/newsite/still-immoral-still-stupid-lets-end-50-years-of-israels-occupation-of-the-west-bank-one-personone-vote>. See also <https://www.tikkun.org/newsite/un-committee-calls-israel-an-apartheid-state-discuss>.

4. Norman Geras, “Alibi Antisemitism,” Fathom, Spring 2013 <http://fathomjournal.org/alibi-antisemitism/>.

5. Kenneth Waltzer, “Reflections on Contemporary Antisemitism in Europe,” Fathom, Summer 2015  <http://fathomjournal.org/reflections-on-contemporary-anti-semitism-in-europe/>.

6. Irwin Cotler, “Defining the New Antisemitism,” National Post <http://nationalpost.com/full-comment/irwin-cotler-defining-the-new-anti-semitism/>.

8. Paul Alexander, Three Ds for Israel & Palestine, Sojourners, October 12, 2012


9. Antony Lerman, “Antisemitism Redefined: Israel’s Imagined national Narrative of Endless External Threat,” Jewish Voice for Peace, On Antisemitism (Chicago, 2017), 14.

11. International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, June 27, 2016, “Working Defiition of Antisemitism,” <https://holocaustremembrance.com/media-room/stories/working-definition-antisemitism>; also at U. S. Department of State, May 16, 2016, “Defining Antisemitism,” <https://www.state.gov/s/rga/resources/267538.htm>

12. Uri Avnery, “BDS, Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions,” Tikkun, March 12, 2016 <https://www.tikkun.org/newsite/bds-boycotts-divestment-sanctions-by-uri-avnery>.



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