Calling Israel Critics Antisemites Won’t Solve Antisemitism

When pro-Israel voices carelessly accuse their opponents of antisemitism, they reduce a serious and specific charge to just another political slur. The longer this goes on, the harder it is to identify and respond to real and gravely serious antisemitism.

Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow protesters demonstrate in support of a cease-fire in Gaza in the Cannon House Office Building on October 18, 2023, in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Antisemitism is a very real problem, and it’s getting worse.

Antisemitic incidents have seen an uptick the past eight months, only six years after the appalling Tree of Life Synagogue shooting by an antisemite that left eleven dead. Scandals involving celebrities like Kanye West and Kyrie Irving show how shockingly little removed casual antisemitism is from the mainstream.

The worlds of politics and antisemitism are crossing over. The current GOP candidate for governor of North Carolina has a history of Holocaust denial and offensive comments about Jews. A host of Republican figures, including former presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy and current GOP nominee Donald Trump and his son, raced to publicly come to the defense of one of the former president’s supporters who had a history of despicably racist statements. Two years ago, Trump had a friendly dinner with another antisemite, Nick Fuentes, an outright white supremacist who wants “a total Aryan victory” and thinks Adolf Hitler was “really fucking cool.”

Fuentes is one of several antisemites who have popped up on shows hosted by popular conservative media figures — figures who have at times praised and agreed with them. Some have made statements themselves that verge on openly antisemitic, including Elon Musk, who endorsed an antisemitic conspiracy theory, and Charlie Kirk, who charged that “some of the largest financiers of left-wing anti-white causes have been Jewish Americans.”

Antisemitism is real. It is a growing problem, and it has to be combated. But this task is being severely undermined by the fact that pro-Israel voices — whether liberal, centrist, or conservative — have taken to irresponsibly flinging the accusation of antisemitism at anyone they disagree with on US-Israel policy, reducing a serious and specific charge that should spark public attention and action to just another political slur. The longer this goes on, the less likely it is that the public as a whole will treat future accusations seriously or muster the necessary outrage.

And that’s especially the case when, with increasing frequency, the people being spuriously called antisemites for disagreeing with them are Jewish themselves.

Alan Dershowitz recently claimed that “the worst department in terms of antisemitism and anti-Israel department [sic] are Jewish studies departments.” After learning about his impending arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that “the new antisemitism” has “moved from the campuses of the West to the court in The Hague,” a charge echoed by politicians like Sen. Tom Cotton. One of the members of the panel that unanimously recommended the warrants? An Israeli Holocaust survivor who once served as Israel’s ambassador to Canada.

Absurd as it may be, this kind of thing has been a fixture throughout the war in Gaza. In March, accepting the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, British film director Jonathan Glazer told the Oscars audience that he and his filmmaking partners “stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation, which has led to conflict for so many innocent people.” The speech was immediately denounced by the war’s supporters as antisemitic and a “modern blood libel that fuels growing anti-Jewish hatred around the world,” including, most ludicrously, by non-Jews like Meghan McCain.

We saw the same type of thing this past January, when Harvard tapped Derek Penslar, a giant among scholars of Jewish history and director of the university’s Center for Jewish Studies, to helm its task force on antisemitism. Harvard “continues on the path of darkness,” intoned billionaire Bill Ackman. “Harvard’s Derek Penslar Helps Make the World Safer for Antisemitism,” blared Tablet magazine. “Derek Penslar is known for his despicable antisemitic views and statements,” said possible Trump running mate Rep. Elise Stefanik.

What are those views? He “publicly minimized Harvard’s anti-Semitism problem, rejected the definition used by the US government in recent years of anti-Semitism as too broad, invoked the need for the concept of settler colonialism in analyzing Israel, referred to Israel as an apartheid state and more,” tweeted former treasury secretary Larry Summers, warning that these views seem “highly problematic” for the cochair of a task force against antisemitism. In other words, the pro-Israel side disagrees with Penslar, and that outweighs his Jewishness and decades of work on Jewish history.

This trend isn’t unique to the United States. In another case of a non-Jew accusing a Jew of antisemitism over a political disagreement on Israel, the mayor of Berlin responded to a speech by Israeli journalist Yuval Abraham by calling it “intolerable” and adding that “antisemitism has no place in Berlin.” What did Abraham say? Standing on the stage of the Berlinale film festival with his Palestinian codirector, he told the crowd that “in two days, we will go back to a land where we are not equal,” where, despite living thirty minutes from each other, one lives under civilian law with voting rights and freedom of movement, and the other lives under military rule with none of the same liberties.

Abraham was inundated with death threats, and his family had to flee a right-wing mob that turned up at their house as a result. “As my Grandmother was born in a concentration camp in Libya and most of my Grandfather’s family was murdered by Germans in the Holocaust, I find it particularly outraging that German politicians in 2024 have the audacity to weaponize this term against me in a way that endangered my family,” he later wrote.

Abraham is just one name on a growing, disgraceful list in Germany. According to human rights activist and researcher Emily Dische-Becker, one-third of those “cancelled” in the country over alleged antisemitism have been Jewish themselves, even as Jews comprise only 1 percent of Germany’s population. That list includes people like Udi Raz, an Israeli scholar who was arrested, fired, and branded an antisemite for organizing against the Gaza war, and Iris Hefets, arrested and charged with “hateful, antisemitic calls” for standing alone in Berlin holding up a sign that read, “As a Jew and Israeli, stop the genocide in Gaza.”

As nonsensical as it is, it’s not surprising that Jews would be ensnared in these accusations. Jewish Americans have led protests against the Gaza war from the start and have often been the loudest critics of Israel at the exact time that pro-Israel voices have broadened their definition of antisemitism to the point of meaninglessness. Antisemitism, they say, now encompasses everything from the slogan “from the river to the sea,” to charges of “apartheid” and “genocide,” to just saying “free Palestine” or calling for a cease-fire — even simply criticizing Israel and its colonial history.

Most reasonable people see through this, but that is exactly where the danger lies. Getting people to take seriously the legitimate accusations against vicious, actual antisemites like Nick Fuentes, Viktor Orbán, Mark Robinson, or whoever else comes on the scene will be a lot harder if people start to regard charges of antisemitism as just another bit of political name-calling, instead of an actual description of their beliefs and actions.

Supporters of Netanyahu’s disastrous war, then, are not only helping do profound damage to Israel. They’re also helping undermine the fight against antisemitism more broadly.