A controversial anti-Israel conference held recently at University College Cork in Ireland, raised once again an old debate over when criticism of Israel is legitimate, and when it is a thin cover for deeply rooted anti-Semitism.
This debate is important because to effectively combat anti-Semitism and protect Europe's Jewish communities, it is necessary to distinguish between criticism of Israel, anti-Zionism, and simply Jew hatred. Complicating this is that alarmists in the Jewish community and the Israeli government often reflexively conflate any criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, and see enemies where they don’t exist, much like the boy who cried wolf.
There are some tests that can be applied to determine if lines have been crossed. The first is whether a particular criticism of Israel can be fixed by Israeli policy measures or if it goes to Israel’s very existence. Israeli human rights giant Natan Sharansky, suggests invoking the “3-Ds,” – does the criticism Delegitimize, Demonize, or set a Double Standard for Israel?
This, however, is not always simple. For one thing, prominent among anti-Israel activists and thinkers are a number of Jews and Israelis. Some are highly critical of Israel while others are opposed to its existence as a Jewish state, and featured among the conference’s speakers. Like Israel’s enemies, they refer to Zionism as colonialist and racist enterprise, and that Israel should be a bi-national, non-Jewish state. Some take it further and argue that Jews are not a “people,” but adherents of a religion, and therefore do not deserve a nation-state.
Among the cacophony of absurd claims, one hears that today's Jews are interlopers, not actually the descendants of the biblical Jews of ancient Israel, and thus have no business in the Middle East. Blind to the history of the world, they assert that no state is justified if it displaces another people or commits human rights abuses. Some even wear the cloak of “Jewish values” to delegitimize Israel. In this case, it is difficult to accuse these of anti-Semitism, but that doesn’t make them any less complicit in bolstering those who are anti-Semitic, by refusing to condemn their most vile accusations or teaming up with them over common causes. At the very least, the Jewish presence among these organizations helps fend off accusations of anti-Semitism. Their critiques, even when true, are often one sided, out of context, magnified, and scrutinized by extreme double standards, which unfairly delegitimize Israel.
The conference, entitled "International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Exceptionalism and Responsibility", hosted around 40 speakers and 140 participants, and made no effort to disguise its anti-Zionist agenda. It discussed not just the "Occupied Territories" but also the nature of Israel itself, and the inherent discrepancy between a "Jewish and Democratic" state, including and especially the Jewish right of return. The keynote speaker was Prof. Richard Falk, a known anti-Israel activist, who justified the use of the term apartheid in the Israeli context. As one conference participant wrote, "the conference achieved two towering precedents. One, Israel's exceptionalism – and, yes, its very legitimacy – are no longer above discussion. And two, "the occupation", as the … mantra of the "conflict" is finally retired from the job it was never fit to hold" as it grants legitimacy to "pre-1967" Israel which most conference participants deny outright.
While unapologetically anti-Zionist, the conference organizers were clear that "anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers and the like were not welcome". Meaning that at least in theory, criticism of and even hatred of Israel should be limited to Israel proper and not beyond.
The bigger problem however, is when criticism and anti-Zionism spill over into pure anti-Semitism, and where Jews around the world are scapegoated for Israel's faults – real or perceived. Surely, if one believes that Israel is as heinous a violator of human rights as described by these anti-Zionists, then by correlation any Jew who does not actively oppose it is similarly complicit.
A recent and somewhat overlooked German court ruling from January illustrates this point best. The court ruled that a July 2014 arson attack on a German synagogue, committed by three men of Palestinian descent, was not anti-Semitic but rather an expression of protest against Israel as it fought the Hamas terrorist organization in Gaza. The men were sentenced for arson but not for a hate crime.
While the individual synagogue might have been lucky to have come out mostly unharmed, the court decision set a dangerous precedent for Europe’s Jewish communities.
Even if we assume these individuals had a legitimate protest against Israel, and even if they had decided to express this in a civil manner, that they targeted a local synagogue filled with German citizens on a separate continent (and not, say, the Israeli embassy) is extremely troubling as it assumes that all Jews are in some way responsible or connected to Israel’s policies or actions. This would be akin to attacking a mosque over Turkish actions in Syria or a fish and chips shop due to Britain's war on Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. It was therefore imperative the court recognize this and denounce the attack as an unacceptable crossing of the line into pure anti-Semitism.
Many governments have already recognized the clear connection between anti-Israel and anti-Semitism in their efforts to protect their Jewish communities. Legitimate criticism of Israel is clearly not anti-Semitic, and even not all anti-Zionism is either. But when Jews in Germany are blamed and attacked for Israel’s actions, there is no question that the borders separating these were crossed, threatening to put Jewish communities around Europe in danger in the future.
Dan Feferman is a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, where he researches the Delegitmization of Israel. He is a major (res.) in the Israel Defense Forces having served as a foreign policy and national security adviser.