Is condemnation of Israel in the current Middle East conflict often tainted with anti-Semitism? The discussion of this sensitive issue has generally focused on anti-Israeli sentiment in Europe. Recently, it was brought close to home by Harvard University President Lawrence Summers, whose Sept. 17 speech expressing concern over the resurgence of anti-Semitism drew national attention, both positive and negative.
Among the domestic manifestations of this worrisome trend, Summers cited anti-Israeli rhetoric at anti-globalization rallies and the campaign, at Harvard and more than 50 other college campuses, urging universities to divest from corporations that do business with Israel.
While Summers was careful to note that "there is much to be debated about the Middle East and much in Israel's foreign and defense policy that can be and should be vigorously challenged," some have accused him of seeking to stifle legitimate debate on these issues by equating criticism of Israel with bigotry. Pro-divestment activist Maryam Gharavi, a senior at UC Berkeley, has lamented that it's "intellectually dishonest" and "dangerous" to label "a campaign for Palestinian rights" as anti-Semitic. Certainly, one can criticize Israeli policies without being anti-Semitic, just as one can criticize U.S. policies without being anti-American, or the Catholic Church's position on abortion without being anti-Catholic. But where does one draw the line between criticism and racism?
Several points are worth pondering. One is the sheer hatefulness of much anti-Israel rhetoric -- which, in much of the Arab and Palestinian press, has morphed into overt anti-Semitism indistinguishable from Nazi propaganda: references to Jews as animals or vermin, recycling of grotesque myths about Jewish conspiracies and use of gentile blood in Jewish rituals, crude ethnic caricatures of the hook-nosed Jew. Anti-Israel commentary in Europe not only winks at this virulent anti-Semitism (and refuses to consider it as the context for Israel's actions) but sometimes stoops to hateful language of its own. British poet and Oxford professor Tom Paulin has said that American-born Jewish settlers on the West Bank "should be shot dead." Sometimes, this rhetoric unabashedly substitutes the term "Jews" for "Israelis" or "Zionists."
Even on college campuses in the United States, the anti-Jewish "blood libel" has resurfaced in posters of cans labeled "Palestinian children's meat, slaughtered according to Jewish rites under American license."
Far more common is the ploy of equating the Israelis with the Nazis: posters depicting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with a swastika armband, comments about "the Zionist SS," comparisons of Israel's treatment of Palestinians to the Holocaust. One can disagree with Sharon's policies, but comparing the head of the Jewish state to Hitler, who sought to exterminate the Jews, is beyond obscenity. Israel-bashers lambaste a "Holocaust industry" that exploits the Nazi murder of the Jews to justify Israeli imperialism -- a tactic New York Observer columnist Ron Rosenbaum calls a "polite form of Holocaust denial."
Anti-Israel attitudes overlap with anti-Semitism in yet another way: Jews who live in Europe or America are commonly seen as a knee-jerk -- and, in the case of America, inordinately powerful -- pro-Israeli lobby.
Responding to Summers' remarks, UC Berkeley education professor John Hurst, who supports divestment from corporations that do business in Israel, has told the Contra Costa Times that the campaign is not anti-Semitic because attacking Israel is not the same as attacking Judaism. But it's naive at best to reduce anti-Semitism to anti-Judaism. Hitler viewed Jews as a race, not members of a religion. Anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, where Jews were almost universally nonobservant and culturally assimilated, also focused on Jewishness as ethnicity.
Whether anti-Semitism plays a central role in hostility toward Israel (especially in Europe) is a complicated question. Sympathy for the Palestinian struggle -- even when it takes the form of violence targeting civilians -- stems largely from the knee-jerk instinct to romanticize the "wretched of the earth," the "oppressed" of the Third World. Perhaps, too, as Rosenbaum argues, demonizing Israel is partly a way to assuage Europe's collective guilt over letting the Holocaust happen. And some may use Israel-bashing as a respectable smoke screen for socially unacceptable anti-Semitic bias.
But ultimately, motives matter less than consequences. "Traditional" anti-Semitism, too, often involved motives other than simple hostility toward Jews as Jews -- including anti-capitalism, since the Jews were seen as the epitome of the money-grubbing bourgeoisie. For whatever reason, extremist anti-Israeli rhetoric today has become, all too often, a vehicle for the kind of Jew-bashing that one might have hoped was extinct in the civilized world. For drawing attention to this issue, Summers deserves praise.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at The Boston Globe.