How hatred of Israel feeds historic antisemitism
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
The usual refrain when discussing how hatred of Israel is often linked to antisemitism is that criticism of Israel is not antisemitism. That’s true, criticism of Israel and its policies is not antisemitism. But most of the hatred directed at Israel is not “criticism,” it is actually hatred of Jews wrapped up in a complex obsession with the one state in the world that has a Jewish majority.
I was struck recently by an example of this. A writer who used to be read in western media and has a long track-record of obsessing over every Israeli action and bashing the country, decided to tweet about an Israeli investigation into a police killing. Israeli police, like police all over the world, sometimes abuse citizens. In a case that was investigated by Israel into the country’s own police, it was determined a policeman had made an error in shooting a man. One’s reaction could be that this shows Israel does not just have impunity for state actions. But the commentator attacked Israel instead, mocking “Jewish democracy.”
One can identify how anti-Israel views are often anti-semitic by following how often those who claim to merely “critique” Israel also have an obsession with Jews and making everything Israel does badly into a “Jewish” issue. No one does the same thing with police violence in France. No one makes comments about “Catholic democracy.” The constant human rights abuses of countries such as Malaysia or Pakistan are not blamed on Islam. Only with Israel is there a constant reference to Jews.
Another example can be found in a Guardian investigation that found that “UK left activists attended events with far-right anti-Semites.” What was the issue that united the far-left and far-right in the UK? Holocaust denial and Israel. They had adopted a pro-Palestinian stance but used it to advance views that were not only obsessively hateful towards Israel, but often involved Holocaust denial and conspiracy theories about “Rothschilds.”
It is always the same pattern. They claim to dislike Israel. They claim to be pro-Palestinian. But if you watch long enough they don’t only tweet about Israel or Palestinians, they start tweeting about the Holocaust, about the Talmud, Rothschilds, and Jews. They do this for no other country. There are no examples online of people who are obsessively anti-Turkish, or obsessively anti-China and who are also involved in hatred of Turks and Chinese people, Muslims and Buddhists, all over the world. There are people who are critical of China’s trade policies. Those people don’t deny that Opium War took place. It’s like there are people who are critical of Russian foreign policy, but they don’t Facebook groups that mock Russian suffering in the Second World War or deny that Russians died in Stalin’s Gulags.
There is only one ideology that often overlaps between hate for Israel and antisemitism. You can understand this ideology by seeing its obsessive quality. There is no excuse for people in the West, thousands of miles from Israel, for staying up all day and night tweeting anti-Israel comments. There is no reason that people relaxing in the UK scour the internet for old videos of kids being barrel bombed in Syria, and pretend the video happened at the hands of the IDF.
It’s worth asking more about why people born in privileged environments in the US, UK, Germany, France or Portugal, for instance, suddenly adopt hatred of Israel as a cause. It’s not that they are pro-Palestinian. If you read their tweets and comments, they aren’t really interested in Palestinians, except when Palestinians are victims of Israel abuses. Their “Palestinian” stance exists only as a foil for discussions about Israel. And their discussions about Israel exist only as a foil for what becomes an obsession with “the Jews.”
What do they say about Israel everyday? They claim it is an “illegitimate” state. Why is Israel, alone among the world’s countries, seen as illegitimate. Is it because it is a nation-state? Well there are many other nation states and no one suggests dismantling Bulgaria or Turkey or the Czech Republic or Japan. So it’s not because it is a nation-state. Is it because it is a state with a religion that appears in its anthem and flag? Well no one is getting rid of the crosses on the flags of a dozen European and other states. It seems religion is ok as long as it is countries like Pakistan that have religion which plays a major role in public life. After all, Pakistan executes people for blasphemy, not Israel.
Is hatred of Israel, this unique obsession, really due to the abuses of Palestinians? It can’t be that Israel’s abuses single it out for such hatred because there are many countries conducting human rights abuses. Turkey’s invasion and occupation of Afrin in northern Syria is an abuse. So the unique obsession with Israel is not about the nature of the state or its actions. That means the unique obsession with Israel is about one thing: Hatred of Jews.
This hatred of Jews is not just traditional European anti-semitism of things like blood libels. It’s more complex because many of the participants clothe themselves in “left wing” politics. It is complex because some of the most extreme anti-Israel haters are Jewish. On the surface none of these people “hate Jews.” In fact they will often say they like Jews, they just like Jews in the diaspora, not in Israel. Their hatred of Israel is about denying Jews the kinds of choices that other countries or groups have in terms of managing a state.
It is important to recognize that much of obsession with Israel is a kind of pathology. Once people begin to hate Israel they tend towards anti-semitism and things like Holocaust denial. It’s usually a one-way street. This is why we speak about “anti-Israel” and “pro-Palestinian” activists. There are more “anti-Israel” activists than pro-Palestinian ones. Pro-Palestinian activists ostensibly are like the people that talk about “free Tibet.” They think Palestinians were shafted and deserve a state. That’s legitimate point. But usually when people in the West with names like Allison, Elaine, Peter, Jenny and the like suddenly wake up and start obsessing over Israel it isn’t because they think Palestinians deserve a state. They aren’t passionate about any other stateless people. It’s not like Jenny or Allison really cared about Kosovars and now care about Palestinians because they are western and want to virtue signal support for some cool foreign cause.
They dislike Israel. And why is that? Why would someone get up in the morning and suddenly zoom in on one little country in the Middle East. If it was random then they would be as likely to be angry about Kazakhstan or the Congo. They’d be as likely to care about Northern Cyprus and Kashmir. It’s not random because they are conditioned to care about Israel and to hate Jews. And they are conditioned then to join Facebook groups where people claim the Holocaust didn’t happen and then talk about the “Rothschilds” and “Israel created ISIS” and then to label everyone they dislike politically as a “Zionist.”
At the source of their hatred is an obsession with “the Jews,” which is an obsession that has lurked in the minds of many western thinkers for generations. One doesn’t suddenly disabuse a civilization that spent 1,800 years talking about “the Jews” of not talking about them. Europeans especially have only stopped being obsessively and openly anti-semitic over the last hundred years. In the case of Israel you have a choice by Jews to create a state and it is no surprise that the criticism of Jews once found in writings by Karl Marx (who was Jewish but fashioned his views in a European context), is now foisted onto the state of Israel.
One can’t separate out the bizarre irony that from a western perspective Jews often seem to be foil or the antithesis of whatever is in vogue in the West. So when it is religion and being Christian is important, then Jews are disliked for not being Christian; when it is nationalism that is important, then Jews are disliked for being another “nation” (i.e ant-semitism); and then when nationalism and racism and religion are bad because everyone has become secular and multi-cultural, then Israel is “bad” because it is too nationalist. They have a way of recreating values every fifty years and then asserting that Jews are not in line with those values. That is where hatred of Israel and historic anti-Jewish views meet. They meet in the “coincidence” of singling out Israel and the coincidence is not a coincidence, is it that Jews and whatever Jews are doing is always the “other.” If Jews are capitalist, then communism is good, if Jews are communist, like Trotsky, then capitalism is good and the Jews are “Bolsheviks” and when being progressive is good then Jews are “Zionists.” They are always the “other.” Israel is the “other” state, the one state singled out by UNESCO and the Human Rights Council and the UN. Israel is to the world of states what Jews were to the majority when they lived a minority in various countries. So oddly Israel becomes “the Jew” in discussions about states. Israel is not seen as similar to Turkey, Georgia, Tunisia or Malaysia. No one makes that, very logical, comparison. It is sui generis. It is Israel and everyone else.
This, in the eyes of the anti-Israel and obsessive commentators, is how to see Israel. And only antisemitism can explain that. Because if tomorrow Israelis will all convert to any other religion, then Israel will seen like Myanmar or Pakistan or Senegal or Finland….just some other country with a group of people in it.