The Uses and Abuses of Antisemitism

Campaigns to silence criticism of Israel don’t protect Jews — they endanger them.

A Jewish Voice for Peace action in New York, NY in 2014. Jewish Voice for Peace

Interview by
Jason Farbman

A national conversation on what antisemitism is — and what it isn’t — is long overdue.

Recent reshuffling among the Trump administration may have Steve Bannon on the outs, but we are only weeks removed from a white supremacist as “the shadow president.”

Unsurprisingly, reports of antisemitic attacks have risen sharply since Trump’s election. New legislation at the state and national levels are supposedly aimed at fighting antisemitism, but actually only target critics of Israel. Zionist organizations have begun to discuss the “new antisemitism,” which conflates antisemitism with criticism of Israel.

It’s perfect timing then, for the release of On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice, a collection of essays from the activist organization Jewish Voice for Peace that explores the ways that antisemitism is harmful and real, while also challenging the false charges of antisemitism used to suppress Palestine solidarity activism and free speech.

Jacobin’s Jason Farbman spoke with JVP’s Rebecca Vilkomerson and Rabbi Brant Rosen about antisemitism, false accusations of antisemitism, and antidemocratic attempts to suppress criticism of Israel.

Jason Farbman

It seems On Antisemitism is intended to be used as a tool — there are study questions, suggested readings. What is your hope for this book?

Rebecca Vilkomerson

The more the conversation about Israel changes, the more it stays the same — there are some fundamental questions that come up over and over again that we need to untangle in order to have a breakthrough. Antisemitism is one of those questions.

It’s fundamental to JVP’s mission: fighting against bigotry in all its forms, including antisemitism. We want to open up a conversation, one in which the ways that antisemitism affects both Jewish lives and other communities gets proper weight, but also that will help people to distinguish between actual antisemitism and legitimate critique of Israel.

My own Jewish education was very much Holocaust-Israel, Holocaust-Israel. Jewishness as an identity was drilled into us as a legacy of oppression and discrimination, with statehood as the answer. With the establishment of Israel seen as the endpoint of that legacy, it created a reality where criticism of the state was assumed to be a criticism of Jewish people. You need to have tools with how to grapple with that, and unlearn that stuff, and have a much richer conversation.

What Antisemitism Is

We understand antisemitism as discrimination against, violence toward, or stereotypes of Jews for being Jewish . . .

— from “JVP’s Understanding of Antisemitism in the United States,” in On Antisemitism.
Jason Farbman

The charge of antisemitism can be uniquely powerful, relative to other words like “racist” or “sexist” or “homophobe.” There’s particularity about what that charge can do to a person when made publicly. Why is that?

Rebecca Vilkomerson

In an ideal world, acts of Islamophobia or a charge of racism would be just as terrifying as  acts of antisemitism. But the term has become so broad, and so associated with Israel instead of with actual acts of prejudice against Jewish people, that it’s also ripe for abuse.

Since Trump’s election, expressions of antisemitism and antisemitic actions have actually come closer to the US power structure in a way that I certainly haven’t experienced in my lifetime. In an atmosphere like this one, we do want to hold on to the idea that antisemitism is not acceptable.

But there is now a dishonesty around the word “antisemitism” that has made it very hard to have honest conversations about Israel or Palestinian rights. It’s made it easy to throw around accusations that are extremely damaging.

As Jews, JVP can play a very particular role in breaking down what is real antisemitism and what is a political accusation against the state of Israel. People need permission to be able to articulate those critiques, and to know that it’s about speaking up for human rights — not about being against the Jewish people.

Jason Farbman

Rabbi Rosen, your chapter takes up the rising number of antisemitic attacks across Europe. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu rarely fails to use these attacks as opportunities to urge Jews emigrate to the safety of Israel. He’s essentially suggesting the only solution to antisemitism is ethnic separatism.

There’s a memorable anecdote related in the book, of a Netanyahu visit to France following the Jewish market attack January 2015. After he delivered his message in a Paris synagogue, the congregation rose to their feet and burst into the French national anthem. Not knowing what to do, he just stood there.

Rabbi Brant Rosen

The Israeli government has been quick to pounce on every antisemitic attack in Europe to promote Jewish immigration to Israel, but we’ve heard nothing but crickets in response to the uptick of antisemitic hate acts in the United States since Trump’s election. The reason is obvious: Israel is eager to promote the narrative that “radical Islam” is the most serious antisemitic threat in the world. They’ve been far less eager to protest the rise of the radical right in Europe, and now in the United States, because Israel’s own political culture is increasingly dominated by the far right.

It’s fascinating to see how the newly emboldened alt-right in the United States has publicly embraced Israeli nationalism as an example of ethnic separatism that they would like to emulate. Alt-right leader Richard Spencer speaks admiringly of Israel as a home for Jews, and promotes white separation here along the same lines. (Of course, this “kindler, gentler” form of white supremacy is only a fig leaf for a more insidious vision of a “Judenrein” United States.)

Jason Farbman

For the section of the European far right looking to go mainstream, the targeting of Jews has almost disappeared. A generation ago, National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen was not shy about anti-Jewish rhetoric. His daughter, Marine Le Pen, has totally eliminated that rhetoric in her bid for president and replaced it with attacks on Arabs and Muslims. With an influx of Arab and Muslim immigrants since 2015, and in the absence of any principled opposition from the French left, this shift has had some resonance.

Rabbi Rosen, you write, “as the refugees started coming in by the tens of thousands per day starting about a year ago, Europe became a safer place to be Jewish.” The same tools and tropes have been turned from Jewish scapegoating towards Arabs and Muslims. But despite this, there is clearly fertile ground to pit Jews against Arabs and Muslims and vice versa. How is this playing out?

Rabbi Brant Rosen

The European right would love nothing better than to set European Jews and Muslims against one another. Not coincidentally, Israel is using the same playbook: they are finding common cause with European rightists by fomenting Islamophobia and painting Muslims as the common enemy of the West.

Those who are truly concerned with Jewish safety and security have to reject this narrative unabashedly. Our safety and security will not come by throwing in with the oppressors; it can only come through solidarity with the oppressed.

What Antisemitism Isn’t

Definitions of antisemitism that treat criticism of Israel or of Zionism as inherently antisemitic are inaccurate and harmful.

— From “JVP’s Statement on Inaccurate and Misleading Definitions of Antisemitism,” in On Antisemitism.
Jason Farbman

The “new antisemitism” is a term Zionists are using more frequently, as an update of “antisemitism” to include criticism of Israel. How do they draw that direct line from antisemitism to criticism of Israel?

Rebecca Vilkomerson

There was a very deliberate schema set out by certain Jewish organizations to define Israel as “the Jew of the world.” The idea is that Israel is a person, and in the same way that Jews are discriminated against by non-Jews, Israel as the Jewish state is discriminated against by non-Jewish countries around the world. Therefore, every criticism of Israel is a reflection of antisemitism.

This is dangerous, but also effective, because it de-legitimizes any criticism of Israel. Countries like France or the United States or Ghana can be criticized based on their political actions, both to their own citizenry and around the world. That’s a completely legitimate thing for people to talk about. Rather than Israel being a country like any other, the “new antisemitism” redefines what kind of criticisms are valid by putting this personhood on Israel.

It also does the reverse: it implicates all Jews into the Israeli project.

The Israeli government has made explicit claims that it is the nation of all the Jews, not a nation of its citizens. If you’re a Jew, you’re born with potential Israeli nationality. That’s why any Jew from around the world can come in and automatically become a citizen of the state of Israel, even as Palestinian citizens of Israel have less rights and state resources than Jewish Israelis. So all Jews around the world are de facto made a part of this Israeli project.

Of course, equating “Israel” with “Jews” erases the 25 percent of Israeli citizens who are not Jewish and ignores the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza entirely, where only Jewish Israelis have the rights of citizens.

It’s been also very successful within the Jewish community in getting people to see Israel as the expression of their Jewishness. They see Israel as their Jewishness, so an attack on Israel is made to feel like an attack on them. So something like the Gaza war happens, and Jewish communities have huge rallies in defense of Israel.

The phrase “anti-Israel” has become anathema. You can’t say that you’re anti-Israel, and being called anti-Israel is seen as the equivalent of being called antisemitic.  But being anti-Israel is totally legitimate. If you’re a Palestinian who’s lost their home, lost their livelihood, is facing daily oppression, or you’re a refugee and you can’t go back, of course you’re anti-Israel. Israel is the country that has done these things to you!

The “anti-Israel is antisemitic” component discounts these facts and makes the conversation into a psychological thing, an irrational hatred of Jews, instead of one that is structural and fact-based. For those of us who are Jewish, we have a responsibility to say, you can hate the state of Israel, and that doesn’t mean you’re antisemitic.

Jason Farbman

Omar Barghouti argues in his chapter that the claim “criticism of Israel is antisemitic” is itself antisemitic.

Rebecca Vilkomerson

It flattens the Jewish experience. It discounts the historically constant Jewish strains of anti-Zionism — or non-Zionism, or post-Zionism, whatever you want to call it — that have always existed since Zionism was created. It ignores the vastly different experiences depending if you are an Ashkenazi (from Europe) Jew or a Mizrachi/Sephardi Jew, or Ethiopian Jew. When you’re talking about any sort of bigotry, part of the definition is the idea that you can make one overarching generalization about that people.

Jason Farbman

In Judith Butler’s introduction, she writes, “Distinguishing among the very different historical trajectories of Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi Jews breaks up a monolithic understanding of what it is to be a Jew, and so deprives antisemitism of its noxious habit of vulgar generalization.” She’s saying that actually to draw out Judaism, in all its diversity, is to combat antisemitism. Isn’t it then true that by collapsing all Jews into one thing, support for Israel, Zionists create more fertile ground for antisemitism?

Rebecca Vilkomerson

Yeah. There’s also a deep sadness to it. A lot of rhetoric that comes out of Israel is that the only way that you can be Jewish — in a real way — is to be Israeli. The result is a loss of a very diverse and beautiful set of Jewish cultures. There’s something deeply sad about that.

Israel, the US, and Attacks on Democracy

Jason Farbman

Over the past couple of years, Israel passed a number of laws attempting to ban some form of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement in Israel. First, small-business owners could sue Israeli BDS activists for damages if their business had been impacted. Now, known BDS activists from anywhere in the world are banned from Israel.

Rebecca Vilkomerson

The ban on BDS activists going in, for me personally, is a particularly sad moment. I have in-laws that are about to turn eighty there, I have family there and friends there.

Jason Farbman

Are you not able to travel to Israel?

Rebecca Vilkomerson

I assume not. We’ll see how the law gets implemented.

Jason Farbman

You’re a fairly prominent activist.

Rebecca Vilkomerson

The bill makes overt a policy that was already happening beneath the surface. Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, people who look Muslim according to the customs agents at the Israeli border, people of color — it’s basically a racial-profiling system, of which Israelis seem very proud. They’re trying to sell it, actually, in these police exchanges that they do with the United States — selling this racial-profiling system for how they let people in and out.

This bill brings all that to the surface, by Israel saying that whole categories of people are being targeted for their political beliefs, so people like me are being added in to the people who have already been targeted historically. As the BDS movement becomes stronger and stronger, the Israeli state is going to try to clamp down harder and harder. It’s evidence of how scared they are of BDS, and what an impact it’s having on them. There’s no way to legislate away BDS. Not letting me into Israel is not going to keep me from supporting BDS. I think It’s actually going to make more liberal Zionists say, “Well, if they’re not going to let me in, then I may as well support the full call for BDS.” And it may make a lot more people who may not know much about Israel or Palestinians at all question how much of a democracy Israel really is.

With this increasing repression, the Israeli state is overreaching in a way that is helpful for understanding the degree to which the Israeli government is engaged in extreme forms of antidemocratic governance.

Jason Farbman

US law has begun to use definitions of antisemitism that include criticism of Israel, making it some form of hate speech to criticize Israel.

Rebecca Vilkomerson

Some of the bigger Jewish organizations, that have a lot of resources, have specifically used recent acts of antisemitism as a way to suppress conversation on this issue. Most recently was the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act — a federal bill intended to codify criticism of Israel as antisemitic, which was fast-tracked through the Senate. The depth of the hypocrisy behind that bill was so clear when it was brought out right as Steve Bannon became a key adviser to Trump, and all of a sudden we were seeing a rise of antisemitic incidents and no response from the Trump administration.

The bill was a joint effort of American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, and is based on years of work in advancing a definition of antisemitism that is extremely dangerous. It could potentially make dissent about Israel illegal.

The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act did not go forward in the House (so far, at least) thanks to good organizing that JVP was a part of.

Jason Farbman

As you mentioned, following Trump’s election, there was a sharp rise in reports of antisemitic attacks. Given how little it takes for Trump to go on the attack against something — SNL parodies of his administration, for example — you’d think he would have more to say about antisemitic attacks.

He’s called them reprehensible, but more often suggested that these attacks were “false flags” committed by political enemies to smear him. When actual antisemitism happens, it gets downplayed or ignored.

Meanwhile, anti-BDS legislation is moving forward in a variety of ways, at national and state legislatures. Is the “new antisemitism” pushing actual antisemitism off the table, and keeping only criticism of Israel?

Rebecca Vilkomerson

Since Trump’s election, support for Israel is overtly being offered as a defense against antisemitism. Public figures are essentially saying, “I can’t be antisemitic, I support Israel.” Then right-wing Jewish organizations, which spend a lot of time accusing BDS activists of being antisemitic, don’t make a peep when those kinds of excuses for these acts are thrown out there. Actual acts against Jews in the United States become de-prioritized; the only measure of antisemitism is how much you support the state of Israel.

Jason Farbman

And the United States has been importing this strategy over the last five years. “The world’s greatest democracy” is now curtailing free speech and attacking speech as hate speech, in order to defend their relationship with “the only democracy in the Middle East,” which is busy rolling out all sorts of antidemocratic measures.

Rebecca Vilkomerson

The United States already gives Israel more foreign aid than any country in the entire world. We already use all of our diplomatic, economic, military force to allow Israel to keep doing what it’s doing. Of course, the United States is not new to repression of its own people and its own forms of the security state. But the way that they are allying with one another is actually clarifying.

We have all these people who are newly activated and so upset about Trump. This is the moment when those people need to be brought into these fights.

We have an opportunity to say to them, “If you’re against the Muslim ban here in the United States, you should be concerned about the fact that Israel has had a de facto Muslim ban and a Christian ban for many decades. If you want to be consistent about your politics, you’re going to have to speak out about both of these things, and start to reconcile the fact that you have one set of criteria for the United States and another for Israel.”

There’s a lot of room right now to have those conversations with people, especially because it’s this elevated, activating moment where people have their minds open to really be able to talk about those parallels and what it means. If you as a political person identify with the values of equality, and freedom, and free access to countries, and refugee rights, and immigrant rights, you need to take a critical look at Israel.

Jason Farbman

JVP is really growing — you now have over twelve thousand dues-paying members. Why are so many people finding and joining JVP?

Rebecca Vilkomerson

Peter Beinart wrote a piece recently that I found extremely strange. I often appreciate his writing and how he’s openly wrestling with lots of issues. But in this article, in reaction to Israel’s ban on BDS activists, he wrote that he just wants his kids to love Israel. When they’re older they can wrestle with it, but for now he just wants them to have the space of love for it. So he tries to protect them from the realities of Israel.

To me, that’s the exact recipe for what we see with people coming into JVP who have been fed this Disney-fied picture of Israel. They feel completely betrayed when they find out it’s not the land of milk and honey that was empty and made for them, and start to understand the realities and look at the global context. The realities of life in Israel can’t be brushed aside. People are smarter than that.

Especially in this politically charged moment, people are looking for a place where they can be their authentic whole selves — where they can be Jewish and also fight strongly against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. People come to JVP because they find that here, and also they find a place where we are doing it powerfully and in deep partnership with Palestinian allies and other communities.