How to criticize Israel without being antisemitic

The Israeli government’s continual references to historic anti-Jewish hatred makes it harder to condemn the deaths of thousands of civilians and children in Gaza in response to the Hamas October 7 attack

Guerra Israel Gaza
More than 100,000 people demonstrated against antisemitism on November 26 in London, United Kingdom.Steve Taylor (SOPA IMAGES / GETTY IMAGES )

It is November 23 and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has just met with Benjamin Netanyahu. In a solemn tone, the Israeli prime minister begins his speech. Referring to Hamas, he says that the enemy is “genocidal… They’re fighting to eliminate the Jewish state in whatever boundary. Their charter says if you find a bush and a Jew is hiding behind it, kill the Jew. Kill all the Jews.” At one point he brought up the Holocaust: “Hitler, the original Nazis, they invade Europe, they do these horrors on a mass scale […] the Holocaust. These killers [Hamas] would do exactly what Hitler did if they could get away with it.”

Listening to Netanyahu’s speech, it becomes easier to understand his Foreign Ministry declaring the following day that the Spanish prime minister “supports terrorists.” In other words, that Sánchez supports Hamas, whose members “would do exactly what Hitler did.” And that Sánchez sympathizes with those who plan to “kill all Jews.” In other words, he is accused of antisemitism. Or at least of supporting antisemites.

The accusation came in response to the Spanish prime minister’s condemnation of the October 7 attacks and acknowledgment of Israel’s right to defend itself, but only so far as it complies with international law. Sánchez stated unequivocally that the thousands of civilian deaths from the military response in Gaza are “intolerable” and “unacceptable,” reiterating the view of the U.N. and other organizations on the ground.

With the Israel-Gaza conflict, antisemitism — and its use as a political tool — has returned with a vengeance. Hate crimes involving violence against Jews and attacks on synagogues and Jewish institutions have multiplied in Europe, where 80 years ago Jews were exterminated in their millions. Fear of the phenomenon has led to the banning of anti-Jewish demonstrations in France and Germany. Meanwhile, according to former director of the Holocaust and Genocide Studies Center at Minnesota University and CSIC researcher, Alejandro Baer, the Israeli Prime Minister uses antisemitism as a weapon to discredit political opponents. “This means that the term has lost its impact and, when there is explicit or indirect antisemitism, as we are seeing in the pro-Palestinian demonstrations, it is not recognized as such,” he says.

Where is the boundary between antisemitism and legitimate discourse? How can we protest against Israel’s actions in Gaza without descending into hatred on the one hand and self-censorship on the other?

To draw the line between antisemitism and legitimate discourse, the context needs to be examined. “October 7 was traumatic for Jews,” explains David Feldman, director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at London University. “Many feel fear when they see demonstrations of solidarity with Palestinians. They ask themselves, ‘Do these people condemn October 7?’ Hamas attacks and the protests against [Israel’s] military response have raised their anxiety. But some have also joined those protests.”

According to Baer, “October 7 is a turning point. There have never been so many civilian victims resulting from either attacks or the wars that Israel has waged. It is the biggest massacre since the Holocaust. The sensitivity of Jews is not only because of their ties to Israel, but also because they are being subjected to attacks from those who see Hamas’ action as an act of resistance.”

Criticizing Israel is not necessarily antisemitic. In recent years, there have been two agreements to explain what amounts to antisemitism and what does not. The 31 countries that make up the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), including Spain and Israel, adopted a definition in 2016: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred of Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed at Jewish and non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

Attacks against Israel “conceived as a Jewish collectivity” may be antisemitic, according to IHRA, but not if it is criticism similar to that which could be levelled at any other country. However, “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” is antisemitic, as is asking Israel to behave in a way not demanded of any other democratic nation.

Feldman points out there has been an ongoing debate over the last 20 years about whether to distinguish between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, Zionism being the political movement that has sought the establishment and consolidation of a Jewish state since the late 19th century. “One effect of the Hamas attack and those demonstrations that highlight only Palestinian suffering is that many Jewish leaders and institutions understand anti-Zionism and staunch criticism of Israel as antisemitism,” he says.

“From many quarters we hear that anti-Zionism should not be confused with antisemitism, and in theory this distinction can be made,” says Baer. “But in practice, anti-Zionism and antisemitism overlap. Because being against the existence and security of millions of Jews in Israel is an expression of antisemitism.”

To clarify the difference between antisemitism and anti-Zionism and overcome the confusion of the IHRA definition, Feldman and 300 specialists in antisemitism, Judaism and the Middle East from around the world promoted the Jerusalem Declaration in 2019.

According to the Jerusalem Declaration, “evidence-based criticism” is legitimate. It is not antisemitic to oppose “its policies and practices […] such as the conduct of Israel in the West Bank and Gaza.” Nor is it antisemitic “to point out systematic racial discrimination.” And “even if contentious, it is not antisemitic, in and of itself, to compare Israel with other historical cases, including settler colonialism or apartheid.”

Similar to Pedro Sánchez, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres roused Israeli ire when he condemned the Hamas October 7 attack during a meeting of the Security Council on October 24, but added that it “did not happen in a vacuum.” The Netanyahu government immediately demanded his resignation.

With the Jerusalem Declaration in hand, Feldman denies that the Secretary General’s attitude was antisemitic as it was based on evidence. “Guterres acknowledged that Hamas’ actions were appalling, but he also said that even those actions have causes: in this case 56 years of occupation, displacement and dwindling political hopes.”

Alejandro Baer, however, disagrees: “When emotions are running high, and given the cruelty of the Hamas massacre, one must be very careful not to confer any legitimacy on the perpetrator. It is certainly necessary to recognize causes and effects, but by mentioning the occupation, Guterres entered a very slippery slope that was open to all sorts of misinterpretations.”

Feldman acknowledges that while some anti-Zionism takes an antisemitic form, there is also “a long history of Israel and its supporters portraying anti-Zionism and other criticisms of Israel as antisemitic” in order to delegitimize them.

What about freedom of expression and the freedom to protest? Where is the limit? The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, has condemned the rise in antisemitic and Islamophobic acts, but has also called for no restrictions on debate or political commentary on the conflict or acts of solidarity with either Israel or Palestine.

Feldman points out that in the U.K. antisemitic acts have soared since October 7. “Governments are faced with the task of acting against hate speech and preserving freedom of speech,” he says. “But in some cases, legitimate political expression has been repressed. In November, police in Berlin banned more than half of the 41 demonstrations in solidarity with Gaza.”

Back to November 23. After the meeting with Sánchez, Netanyahu continued to talk about World War II. “And the Allies invade. They invade Normandy. The German army is in the cities. You’ve seen the footage. The Allies say, ‘No, we can’t do anything. We can’t fire,’ because they’re amid civilians? Of course not. They try to do exactly what we are doing: try to minimize the cost. And then they go through the cities of France and they go through the cities of Germany. And unfortunately, many, many, many civilian casualties occur.”

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