The perfect crime: Phoebe Maltz Bovy on the elusive ‘purely’ antisemitic act

The literary magazine n+1 published an open letter from “Jewish writers, artists, and activists who wish to disavow the widespread narrative that any criticism of Israel is inherently antisemitic.” (What can I say? We’re an open-letter-loving people.) Its signatories include some writers I like and some I don’t. It includes the creators of 2010s comedy Broad City, various names that seem familiar as part of literary circles, and a bunch of people I’ve never heard of but who are doubtless esteemed in their arenas.

The first question I had about this letter was whether there is, in fact, a “widespread narrative that any criticism of Israel is inherently antisemitic.” My mind immediately turned to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own approval ratings in Israel. Criticism of a head of state is certainly criticism of a country’s government. Is there a widespread attempt to label Israeli Jews as antisemites?

Criticism of Israel means, in such contexts, criticism of Zionism. But what (she types, as if this is to be resolved in one column) is Zionism? Zionism is the belief that a modern Jewish nation-state should be established in Palestine. Here’s the thing: this happened, in 1948.

What the term means in a world where Israel does exist, and has for the better part of a century, I’m not sure. Is a Zionist someone with neutral-to-enthusiastic feelings about the 1948 establishment of Israel, who is able to say “Israel” without wincing? Does it mean thinking the 1967 borders aren’t enough and that actually Israel should annex Finland? Who can say?

Along the same lines, is an anti-Zionist someone who criticizes Israeli policies on a regular basis (a definition according to which most Israelis and most Diaspora Jews plugged in enough to know what Israel’s policies even are would probably count as such), or someone who thinks the entire state needs to be dismantled, in order to become a Muslim right-wing theocracy or New England liberal arts college or, truly, who knows.

Anti-Zionism isn’t antisemitism, goes the mantra. The problem is, antisemites themselves aren’t in on this distinction. Somewhere along the way—in France, maybe?—they realized that they could tack on an ‘it’s because Palestine’ to any anti-Jewish act, however unrelated to the Middle East. It gave plausible deniability, and made it seem as if being mad at local Jews for existing was a humanitarian geopolitical gesture.

And every Jewish target turns out to be an Israeli one, if you look real hard.

Protesting a Marks & Spencer in Glasgow is apparently not an anti-Jewish gesture, related to Marks having been Jewish, but something something BDS and the store imports things from Israel. It’s basically the Israeli consulate. It would be negligent if anti-Israel rallies ignored this… British department store chain.

A Jewish restaurant in Toronto is actually owned by an unrepentant Israeli, therefore—apparently—fair game. To target it is to target Zionism, not Jews, not people who might be drawn to one of the yeah not infinite Jewish restaurants in downtown Toronto. Anti-Zionism isn’t antisemitism, remember.

Second Avenue Deli, a New York delicatessen that is about as Diaspora as it gets, a fixture (in its earlier location) of my childhood, found itself adorned with a swastika “after,” per the New York Post, “the eatery posted pro-Israel content on their social media.” It’s apparently very important to spray a Nazi symbol on a matzo ball soup establishment because this is what will help Gazans, through some mechanism that surely makes sense in someone’s mind. Or not, and Gazans are merely a convenient pretext, and maybe (this would not shock me) the swastika-sprayer is no fan of Muslims, either.

The comedian Amy Schumer posts a bunch of pro-Israel stuff, which means it’s really pushing back against the Israeli military for an established journalist to post a call for anecdotes about the Jewish actress having been a bad (low-tipping, presumably) restaurant customer. (“If you or someone you know has ever waited on Amy Schumer please contact me securely…”)

It’s almost as if a people who lost nearly all their previous homelands before and shortly after 1948 wound up having ties to the place where most of us wound up. Funny that.

Not all criticism of Israel is antisemitism, but all antisemitism these days calls itself criticism of Israel. Or nearly all. It seemed as though someone had located the one true act of antisemitism, untainted by Zionist connections. Yes, “Free Palestine” is a Mideast-themed slogan—the scrawler presumably imagined they were doing an anti-Zionism—but to graffiti it onto a Yiddish cultural centre in New York has got to be an antisemitic act, right?

So you might think, and so Jewish anti-Zionists seemed to by and large think. (Confusion, perhaps, over Yiddish being written in Hebrew script. Everyone who thinks Zionist institutions like… Toronto bagel shops (?) are legitimate targets could unite and say that here, the once, someone did an antisemitism.

But lo, even there, a claim could be made (or rather, was made) that Actually, a spot in the Bronx for people to study Yiddish is extremely about Israeli military might and is definitely the force—more than Israel, more than (remember them?) Hamas—keeping Palestinians down.

The thing is, there is no pure antisemitism. The plausible deniability is always present. It is impossible to just target Jews. It is full-on conceptually impossible. Someone can target a Jew for being a Jew—like it’s someone on the street with a star of David necklace—and then be like, have you seen the stats on Jews’ support for Israel? I’m merely pushing back against Israel’s war crimes you guys! And what’s one assaulted Diaspora Jew versus however many dead Palestinians, hmm, did you think of that? Where are your priorities? People who think like this are in abundance in threads replying to this incident. The verdict is in, and many (how many?) really do see antisemitism as feature-not-bug where social justice is concerned.

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The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on the website formerly known as Twitter. She also holds forth on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.