Is criticism of Israel anti-Semitic?

A woman protests against “Israeli apartheid” in Washington D.C. Labelling Israel as an apartheid state has anti-Semitic overtones, Andrew Griffith says.         [File photo]

Andrew Griffith


Over the past few years, the Jewish community and many governments have paid attention to a resurgence of anti-Semitism. The Canadian government, most recently in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Knesset speech, framed anti-Semitism in broad terms, including virtually any criticism of Israel.

But is such a broad definition helpful to understanding what is anti-Semitism and what is not? More importantly, does it help engage other communities, or does it risk undermining support for anti-Semitism measures?

Anti-Semitism is one form of hate and intolerance and shares many of the characteristics of other forms of prejudice and non-acceptance. In many cases, people who demonstrate hatred or intolerance to Jews also do so with other groups.

However, anti-Semitism is unique in a number of ways. Viewing Jews as a “collective” that controls society, is unique to anti-Semitism. Characterizing Jewish advocacy groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) or the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) as “controlling” also has anti-Semitic overtones, but criticism of their particular positions is not.

Holocaust denial and distortion are intrinsically anti-Semitic, just as denial of other genocides and atrocities expresses hate and intolerance.

Accusing Canadian Jews of dual loyalties can be anti-Semitic. Dual attachments are common to most ethnic communities, and it is no different for Canadian Jews and Israel.

The link between anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment is more complex. Not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic in nature, whether with respect to Israel itself (e.g., resettling of Bedouin from the Negev, the proposed Israeli law banning the use of “Nazi”) or in the occupied territories (e.g., settlements, use of collective punishment). The lively debate within Israel illustrates this.

How do we judge whether criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic or not?

Questioning the legitimacy of Israel itself has, at the very least, anti-Semitic overtones if it’s not explicitly anti-Semitic, given the reasons for Israel’s establishment, that the vast majority of its population is Jewish and the implications of acting upon such questioning.

Labelling Israel as an apartheid state and the boycott, divestment and sanction campaign (BDS) have anti-Semitic overtones when applied to Israel itself. While Israel has its internal integration challenges, it in no way resembles South African apartheid. There are no racial mixing laws, and Israeli Arabs have voting rights and are represented, albeit imperfectly, in a wide range of Israeli institutions.

However, the BDS campaign as applied to the occupied territories is not necessarily anti-Semitic, as the campaign can be viewed as legitimate pressure on Israeli policies and activities. Singling out companies like SodaStream or institutions like Ariel University is not anti-Semitic; boycotts on Israeli companies and universities within Israel are a different matter. However, much of the messaging of Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) and BDS campaigns neither distinguishes between Israel itself and the occupied territories, nor is careful about language with anti-Semitic overtones.

Similarly, singling out Israel for criticism is not necessarily anti-Semitic. Israel is rightly held to a higher standard given the reasons for its founding, its democratic character and its membership in the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) and the UN Western group. Language is important here. In the UN context, this can cross into anti-Semitism, given the disproportionate focus on Israel compared to other countries with worse human rights records.

How should we deal with anti-Semitism?

First, we must recognize that increased anti-Semitism is a legitimate domestic and international concern, and not dismiss raising the issue as a way to blunt criticism of Israel. However, we also need to engage a broader range of Jewish groups than CIJA and B’nai Brith (e.g., organizations such as JSpace, the New Israel Fund and the Jewish Refugee Action Network) to ensure a more nuanced understanding of what is and what is not anti-Semitic. The credibility of the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition on Combating Antisemitism suffered from its lack of inclusiveness.

Secondly, we must strengthen messaging on the commonalities between anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred and intolerance. Some of the pioneering work by Jewish communities is being lost in the focus on anti-Semitism. More express links among all forms of hatred, racism and discrimination can help combat anti-Semitism through engagement of a broader range of communities. The activities of the Holocaust centres in Canada in educating our increasingly diverse population are good examples. Perceived exclusive government focus on anti-Semitism may undermine understanding and support among other communities.

Thirdly, more clarity between criticism of Israel proper and Israeli policies in the occupied territories may be helpful in separating out what can be perceived as anti-Semitic and what should not. A large part of criticism of Israel is based upon its actions and politics in the occupied territories. While it is naive to think that such a distinction would by itself reduce anti-Semitism, clarity in language and objective would be helpful. It would force critics of Israeli policies to declare themselves. IAW and BDS have often been fuzzy in this regard. The same applies to defenders of Israeli policies. Just as many critics of Israel give the impression that Israel can do no right, many supporters give the impression that Israel can do no wrong.

The politics of the Middle East will always colour discussion about what is anti-Semitism, as will the continued need to recognize the concerns of the Jewish community. However, a broader discussion of anti-Semitism in relation to other forms of racism and discrimination, recognizing both the unique experience of the Jewish community and the shared experience with other communities, is needed.

Andrew Griffith is the former director general for citizenship and multiculturalism at Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC). He has worked at Canadian Heritage, Service Canada, Industry Canada, the Privy Council Office and Foreign Affairs Canada.