Challenging Antisemitism: Why Criticism of Israel Shouldn’t be Singled Out & Our Interconnected Struggles for Justice

Donna Nevel

I remember attending a pro-Israel hasbara (propaganda) workshop over forty-five years ago that strongly encouraged, as a response to critics of Israel, accusations of antisemitism. Don’t focus on the argument, we were told, but, rather, discredit the person making the argument by accusing them of antisemitism. Accusations of antisemitism directed at Palestinians and supporters of Palestinian rights are not new and have been a strategy of Israeli government and pro-Israel hasbara for decades. 

One of the most visible iterations of this phenomenon currently is the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. Promoted by Israel’s right-wing government and its supporters, and adopted by the U.S. and other western governments, the IHRA definition goes full speed in conflating criticism of Israel and support for Palestinian justice with antisemitism. Just this past week, while Israelis elected overt fascists to the Knesset (Parliament), with the help of the Prime Minister, Israel and its defenders continued to hold up the IHRA definition to smear Palestinians as anti-Semitic for describing Israel as racist.

Recent statements such as the Nexus Document and the just released Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA) offer a push-back to the IHRA definition, challenging its authority and strong-hold on (at least some of) what it calls antisemitic, particularly in relation to Israel. The JDA, in particular, refutes many of the most pernicious examples of supposed antisemitism within the IHRA definition that Israel and its advocates employ to target Israel’s critics. Yet, even in these new documents, criticism of some of Israel’s policies and practices continues to be singled out as examples of antisemitism.

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We must not reinforce the notion that there is anything about criticism of Israel that requires “special” attention. There is not. This false framing most of all impacts Palestinians and their call for justice. When criticism is made of Israel, the relevant question is whether the statement is true or not. Israel’s history is rooted in the expulsion and dispossession of the indigenous Palestinian population from its land and homes. That process of land theft and violations of Palestinians’ most basic civil and human rights have continued until this day. To understand that reality is to appreciate why Israel–a nation-state–deserves criticism and why accusations of antisemitism are an attempt to discredit those who make visible that history and demand justice. To feed into the frankly anti-Palestinian notion that criticism of Israel warrants particular skepticism is exactly what the IHRA proponents want us to do. 

We don’t need more definitions (of antisemitism) to protect Jews or to fight antisemitism, especially ones that continue to include Israel as a particular focus. Instead, we should continue to put front and center the calls from community after community that are doing the work to challenge injustice: Our work against anti-Black racism, white supremacy,  Islamophobia, anti-Asian racism, antisemitism, transphobia, and all forms of injustice are deeply connected to one another. That is easy to say, but we must practice this in our lives, which means, at the very least, not minimizing other struggles for justice, and, at our best, thinking tangibly about how connecting our struggles can be a lived reality. 

The upsurge of antisemitism comes, for the most part, from the upsurge in white nationalist violence that impacts so many of our communities. Any special consideration of antisemitism can too easily serve to minimize and de-center, for example, the pervasive anti-Asian, anti-Black and anti-Muslim violence and discrimination in all spheres of society. That there is disproportionate attention paid to antisemitism does not correspond to the realities of the ongoing violence, both interpersonal and state-sanctioned, that different communities are experiencing. One shouldn’t have to be afraid to make such a statement; it does not disparage the fight against antisemitism even slightly. In fact, locating the challenge against antisemitism as an integral part of other struggles for justice, rather than exceptionalizing it, can only strengthen all our movements against racism and white supremacy.

From political protest to community education and all in between, our collective commitment to justice is about building a society dedicated to everyone’s dignity and well-being. That is what will ensure safety for all of us.


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