Jews and Israel

Over the weekend, I saw a number of Israel-apologist on Facebook circulating the following story, whose logic is so powerful it could’ve come directly from the Colbert Report. According to

South African MP Rev. Dr. Kenneth Meshoe wrote in the San Francisco Examiner, “As a black South African who lived under apartheid, this system was implemented in South Africa to subjugate people of color and deny them a variety of their rights. In my view, Israel cannot be compared to apartheid in South Africa. Those who make the accusation expose their ignorance of what apartheid really is.” Meshoe made this statement upon visiting San Francisco, where he was shocked to learn of posters posted within the city comparing Israel to the apartheid regime in South Africa.

The article makes it sound as though your average Joe Southafrican wandered out of his hotel on a vacation to San Francisco and stumbled upon a group of rowdy Palestine solidarity activists and just couldn’t contain his outrage.

Who Is Rev. Dr. Kenneth Meshoe?

In fact, the good Rev. Dr. Meshoe is the founder of the Africa Christian Democratic Party, a conservative Christian Zionist party which currently holds three seats out of 400 in the South African National Assembly. His party is strongly pro-life to the point where they oppose the distribution of condoms and voted against the South African Constitution because it enshrined both abortion rights and contained anti-sexual orientation discrimination provisions. In short, Rev. Dr. Meshoe does not represent the mainstream South Africa political opinion.

Nor was this Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s first foray into Zionist speechmaking. In fact, Rev. Dr. Meshoe is one of South Africa’s leading Zionist activists and a frequent speaker in support of Israel in both his native country and in the United States. He is also one of the founders of “Africans for Israel,” an organization whose stated goal is to “stop attempts to crush Israel.”

Like Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s views on social issues, his views on Palestine and Israel are outside of the South African mainstream. Which is why South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party has been at the forefront of efforts to label goods made in Israeli settlement-colonies beyond the Green Line.

Of course, the mere fact that Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s views are not popular within his country should not invalidate his opinions. But is does raise some serious questions about UnitedWithIsrael’s representation of his op-ed.

Hasbara Through Tokinism

Why is there an attempt to portray Rev. Dr. Menshow as though he were speaking from the mainstream? Why are Israel apologists circulating this article with such glee? And why has this particular article gone viral? (At the time of this writing 3,695 Facebook users have shared the story, according to the counter UnitedWithIsrael’s the website).

The answer, of course, is obvious. They choose to highlight Rev. Dr. Meshoe only because he is a black South African. This is tokenism of the worst sort.

Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s actual arguments are not important to UnitedWithIsrael. Which is why they only highlight his personal background. When they do approach his own arguments about Israel, the blog rephrases Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s arguments in its own voice, rather than follow through the logic he lays out in his op-ed. Whereas the original op-ed proceeds to focus on areas of life within Israel’s 1948 borders where Jews and non-Jews share physical proximity, UnitedWithIsrael felt that the focus should have been on (misrepresented) legal protections. And so, they ignore the original explanation offered by the author in favor of their own interpretations of what he should have said. Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s opinions – his actual analysis – is not important to them.

In effect, UnitedWithIsrael is placing a black South African front and center not because they think he actually has something relevant to say, but only because his racial and national background make him a convenient face for advancing their own narrow opinions. Hence the reason Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s written argument is minimized in favor of their own. This also explains why none of the people I saw share this article on Facebook  discuss, quote, or even reference Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s substantive arguments. I would guess that the vast majority of the other 3,500 some-odd Facebook shares similarly don’t care about the content of Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s op-ed.

Frankly, the Rev. Dr. deserves better. He deserved to be read and thought about critically, not just paraded around due to the color of his skin and his passport. And so, I now will do something that UnitedWithIsrael apparently has no interest in doing: engage with Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s argument.

Rev. Dr. Meshoe: In His Own Words

The core of Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s argument against comparing Israel’s policies to those of apartheid South Africa boil down to a series of claims about what life in Palestine and Israel is like for non-Jews who live under Israeli sovereignty:

As a black South African under apartheid, I, among other things, could not vote, nor could I freely travel the landscape of South Africa. No person of color could hold high government office. The races were strictly segregated at sports arenas, public restrooms, schools and on public transportation. People of color had inferior hospitals, medical care and education. If a white doctor was willing to take a black patient, he had to examine him or her in a back room or some other hidden place. In my numerous visits to Israel, I did not see any of the above. My understanding of the Israeli legal system is that equal rights are enshrined in law.

These claims (like many other smaller claims made in the article) range from contestable to flat out wrong. The 4.5 million Palestinians living under Israeli Occupation in Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip cannot vote for their rulers (at least not beyond their municipal government). Nor can they freely travel the landscape of Palestine-Israel. Even Leftist parties refuse to sit in government with the so-called “Arab Parties” in the Kenesset, effectively barring Palestinian Citizens of Israel from holding high government office. Sports arenas feature some of the most vile and violent racism anywhere in Israel, and that is some high competition. Israel features segregated busses on both sides of the Green Line, not to mention on roads within the West Bank. And health services in the West Bank are disastrous, in large part thanks to the Israeli Occupation, while in Gaza repeated Israeli attacks on basic infrastructure have meant that doctors must regularly work without electricity and clean water, let alone basic medical supplies. Finally, as Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel repeatedly points out, even among the subset of Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship, the law does not enshrine equal rights for all of its citizens, but rather encodes legal discrimination in all areas of life. And , of course, Palestinians living under Occupation live under a separate system of martial law.

Rev. Dr. Meshoe may not have seen any of this discrimination on his trip through the Holy Land, but it exists. If these are the criteria that he lays out by which to judge Israel, then I think it is pretty clear that Israel meets Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s definition of an apartheid state.

But, of course, the Israel-apologists who have promoted this article could care less about Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s criteria nor the content of his arguments. All they care about is his race and nationality. As such, their own advocacy betrays a deep and worrisome racism that should worry even supporters of the State of Israel. But somehow, I doubt it will.


A few days back, my high school alma mater sent out an email, bragging about it’s great educational accomplishments:

Our school promotes a love of Israel in my children – Results: 71% of SSLI parents strongly agreed, giving us the second highest score in the country, and a full 21% higher than our peer schools.

Assuming that “our peer institutions” refers to Jewish Day Schools in the United States (not sure if this would include Modern Orthodox Yeshivas, but I’d guess that it does), this means that fully 50% of young Jews who graduate these schools do not express a “love for Israel,” at least not in the eyes of the parents who sent them there. Thirteen years of an education whose ever-increasing focus is to instill a single political message in their students and, yet, only half express the desired emotional bond? Not too shabby.

Is it possible that young Jews are increasingly skeptical of this narrative, which conflicts with our social values and religious beliefs? Well, I don’t have access to the survey results, so I just don’t know.  But one can certainly hope! And some days, that is enough.

Hat tip to @Shawnabraham for calling my attention to this. 

The Occasional Movie Monday presents critical analyses of recent films from Dr. L. PresumablyDrL is a New York-based educator who works to promote the critical use of documentary film in secondary classrooms. 

A decade ago, when I was teaching a class on Zionism and Israel at a Jewish high school in the United States, I showed my class a film (Jerusalem 1948: Yoom Ilak, Yoom Aleik) detailing the events of 1948 from the perspective of Palestinian Jerusalemites. My goal was not to promote that (or, for that matter, any other) perspective, but simply to expose these students – most of whom had never before heard the term Nakba – to the fact that there exists a counter-narrative to the one with which they were already quite familiar.

This, it turns out, is not so easily done.  At one point in the film, an elderly Palestinian woman, wearing a headscarf and missing several teeth, began to tell her story.  As she spoke, several students began to giggle. Others joined in, and the response grew into a chorus of derisive laughter loud enough that the woman’s testimony could scarcely be heard.  For many of my students, it seemed, it was simply impossible to see beyond the woman’s physical appearance and all the preconceptions it connoted.  She was, to them, the consummate “Other,” and they could neither see nor hear beyond her “otherness.”

I recalled this incident as I watched the remarkable Oscar-nominated documentary 5 Broken Cameras.  On the surface the film is the story of the story of the ongoing non-violent protests against Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank village of Bi’ilin. Much of the footage was shot by Emad Burnat, who unwittingly becomes “the Bi’ilin cameraman” and chronicles five years of protests against the route of the barrier as it encroaches on agricultural land surrounding the village in order to separate it from the ever-expanding settlement of Modi’in Illit. Burnat’s five cameras see the bulldozers uprooting olive trees, the soldiers wielding their guns, the checkpoints, the confrontations, the tear gas, the bullets, the injuries, the deaths.

But the power of the film lies in the fact that Emad’s cameras see much, much more.  In the end, it is not the political that makes the film so exceptional, but the personal. Emad’s cameras slash through the seemingly endless layers of impenetrable and hyperbolic rhetoric that have engulfed the Israeli-Palestinian divide from the beginning and capture, as few documents have, the essential humanity of those entrapped within it. Emad’s cameras see the playful eyes of his youngest son, Gibreel (upon whose birth Emad decided to acquire his first camera). They see Gibreel squinting through the soap in his eyes as he takes a shower, staring nervously in the mirror as he gets a haircut, kicking up his feet while lying in bed watching cartoons. They see Emad’s wife Soraya hanging the laundry out to dry. They see Emad’s friend Phil – “El-Phil,” the “elephant” – cavorting with acrobats to the delight of the village children. They see the whimsically painted face of his son Yasin, sheepishly smiling as he and his backpack lean against a wall in a school courtyard.

The interweaving of these scenes of daily life with the chronicle of the protests reportedly came under the guidance of the film’s Israeli co-director, Guy Davidi (at least if one is to believe what one reads on Wikipedia). Davidi surely knew that for the film to connect with western (and presumably Israeli) audiences, viewers needed to be taken beyond the protests themselves, where Palestinians who confront Israeli soldiers could – like the woman in the film I had shown my class – be all too easily dismissed.  By taking viewers inside Bi’ilin and documenting the life that brews beyond the glare of the protests, 5 Broken Cameras paints a portrait of lives and individuals that one simply does not have the option of dismissing.  That it somehow manages to do so in a way that is neither heavy-handed nor overly simplistic makes it all the more extraordinary a document.

Because the sad reality is that in the end Emad’s cameras are unable simply to tell a story of prosaic ordinariness. The occupation intrudes at every turn. The political and the personal cannot be separated, not in Bi’ilin. When Soraya hangs her laundry, we hear bullets in the background; she matter-of-factly instructs her husband: “Don’t let the kids out. The soldiers are in the village.” Gibreel and his brother sit inside a parked car and watch as their uncle is carried off to jail. They pass through a checkpoint guarded by armed soldiers.  When four-year-old Gibreel witnesses violent death, we see him ask the innocent questions only a child can ask, and his father’s grim recognition of the moment his son seems to have lost his childhood forever.

Any good work of art functions at multiple levels. 5 Broken Cameras is a document of the Bi’ilin protests, to be sure, but it is much more than that. It is also a lyrical meditation on cameras and film and how one sees the world through them. (“I feel like the camera protects me,” Emad says at one point, “but it’s an illusion.”)

But from my perspective in the United States, it is most compelling as a work that makes the invisible visible. Like thousands of other American tourists, I have passed along the Trans-Israel Highway as it passes along the massive concrete separation barrier at Qalqilya. But I had no means of seeing beyond the barrier, of getting even the smallest glimpse of daily life in Qalqilya or anywhere else on the West Bank. Fortunately, the distributors of 5 Broken Cameras have made access to it relatively easy (it is available for streaming on Netflix and available as an instant video on at modest cost). It has aired on Israeli television, and Davidi has spearheaded an educational campaign to bring the film into secondary classrooms within Israel.  A short video of this project underscores the promise of works such as 5 Broken Cameras to humanize what is all too often seen in broad and abstract political terms.

 (A longer version of this video can be found here.)

A decade ago, one of my students began an essay about the separation barrier with the following lines: “The most easily distinguishing feature identifying an Israeli or a Palestinian is not found in garb, or accent, or driving ability (universally horrible throughout) but rather in how they characterize the other side. Israelis and Palestinians often see the other as a homogeneous group with a collective will that is alien to their own. The word ‘they’ is used a lot. They harbor terrorists, they teach hatred, they are ruining our lives, they do not care about us.” The student went on to lament the inability of each side to listen to and respect each other’s narratives. I hope he and his classmates have seen 5 Broken Cameras and have in the decade since I knew them developed the ability to see and hear “them,” to recognize there really is no “them,” but a collection of individuals with names and stories that have every right to be heard.

April 7-8 this year marked Yom HaShoah, the day of remembrance for the six million Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust. (International Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we commemorate the 11-17 million victims of the Holocaust falls annually on 27 January). And while the timing of the commemorative day is all sorts of problematic, we here at Jeremiah’s Laments do join in the commemoration and see the importance of a day to specifically remember the Jewish victims of genocide and insist on the importance of standing up to anti-Semitism and racism wherever they may occur.

As such, I am dedicating today’s post to calling out the particularly worrisome and growing trend of basing modern Zionism on anti-Semitic premises. Allow me to illustrate with three different examples from three very different sorts of Zionists.

The first example comes from this past Yom HaShoah day, where, as has been the trend in recent years, Israeli leaders tied the Holocaust to justifying the existence of Israel as an exclusively Jewish State. Leading the March of Living in Auschwitz this year, Israeli army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz declared that “Israel ensures that a horror such as this will not recur.” While the exact reasoning behind this rather odd declaration is never made explicit, he does go on to argue that “the IDF is the defensive shield of the national home – a safe haven for the Jewish people” (though not, according to a new report, for Holocaust survivors). For Benny Gantz, the Israeli army is there not so much to protect all Israeli citizens, 25% of whom are not Jewish, but rather to protect all Jews, regardless of whether they live in Israel or not.

There are numerous of problems with this sort of abuse of Holocaust memory, and I am certain that as time goes on we will get to pick apart the linking of the Holocaust and Zionism from a wide variety of angles. But, as the main purpose of this blog is to interrogate and critique the Jewish people’s relationship to the modern state of Israel, I want to concentrate on this last part of Lt. Gen. Gantz’s reasoning: namely, that Jews everywhere fall under the aegis of the Israeli army.

Notably, one does not need to abide by the particular secular-miltant Zionist ideology expounded here by Gantz in order to believe in this particular relationship between Israel and non-Israeli Jews. Ultra-right wing religious MP Moshe Feiglin, from the ruling Likud party, for instance, explicitly criticized Gantz’s linking of the Holocaust to a justification of Israel as an exclusively Jewish State, saying: “Israel has wrongly used the Holocaust as a tool to justify our existence and sovereignty here.” Nonetheless, he declares:

“The reason for the state of Israel, for our existence, is not security, but our national goal. But the Holocaust teaches us that we should always be strong, not only physically but also morally.

“Without understanding the deep justification for our existence here in the land of Israel, no army will help us. This is a very important point.”

For Feiglin, as for Gantz, Israel is justified because of some deep sense of nationhood that all Jews share and whose expression is an inherent connection with the land of Israel. The Holocaust teaches Feiglin that Jews must be militant, but the connection between Jews and Israel is, in his mind, innate.

Lest we think that this position is limited to right-wing Zionists, over on The Daily Beast’s Open Zion blog, last week, Gil Troy tacks a remarkably similar line of though as he tries to reconcile Israel’s Jewish character with democratic principles. He fails on any number of accounts, not least of which is his perplexing belief that Israel’s Jewish character is limited to the symbols and public holidays of the state, rather than to a host of discriminatory laws, policies, and social norms. But more relevant to us is his particular linking of the Jewish people tout court with the State of Israel:

My understanding of the Jewish state as a democracy starts with the Zionist understanding—which reaches back to Genesis but is confirmed by history—that the Jews are a people; Judaism is not just a religion. Once we accept the notion of Jewish nationhood, with a story, a sense of shared fate, a common language, a unifying culture, a millennial-old homeland—with religious elements, of course—we can understand how a Jewish state can be a democracy and not a theocracy.

So, whether from a secular military perspective, a religious nationalist standpoint, or a liberal Zionist understanding and whether because of the Holocaust, the religion, or two millenia of history, these three very different strands of Zionism all posit an innate, abiding, and universal connection between Jews and Israel. Notably, the notion that Judaism is inherently connected to Zionism has also the basis of a series of legal efforts by Zionists around the world attempting to oppose BDS campaigns. 

Importantly, all three points of view take this as a necessary connection. Whereas an Italian-American may or may not have sympathies, economic interests, or political affiliations with the Old Country depending on their personal and familial particularities, Gantz, Feiglin, and Troy all posit that the connection between Jews and Israel is a necessary function of their Jewish identity (regardless of whether that identity is primarily religious, ethnic, or historical). According to them, every single Jew, whether they know it or not, has a historical/ religious/ cultural/ security / existential connection to the State of Israel.

When these authors propose a necessary connection between Judaism and Zionism, they are not only trying to tell anti-Zionists Jews like me that we are not truly Jewish (The ADL does that just fine here). They are also promoting a particularly anti-Semitic idea of Jews’ relation to questions of national belonging. No longer are Jews rational political actors who can choose whether or not they think supporting or opposing Israel is in the best interests of their communities and the nations in which they reside. Rather, they are necessarily bound to support Israel regardless of whether it is good for them, their communities, and the nations in which they reside.

This proposition is anti-Semitic.

You don’t have to take my word for it, either. In an op-ed, Anti-Defamation League Director Abraham Foxman argued that “Dual loyalty, [is] a charge that has surfaced time and again throughout history to label Jews as “outsiders” more loyal to their own kind than to their country, has largely dissipated on the American scene.” As such, the ADL continues to (rightly, in our opinion) monitor accusations that Jews hold dual-loyalties around the world (such as here, here, or here).

And yet, this anti-Semitic proposition is precisely what Gantz, Feiglin, and Troy propose. If Jews have an inherent connection to Israel, then Jews must ipso facto be loyal to the State of Israel. And if they are ipso facto loyal to the State of Israel, then when the interests of their own countries clash with those of Israel – be it in a soccer match, economic policy, or international politics – then, according to the logic proposed by these authors, Jews’ loyalty is likewise split. That these authors value this dual loyalty thesis positively, rather than negatively in the way anti-Jewish racists do, does not change the fact that both these Zionists and the anti-Semite believe that Jews outside of Israel necessarily maintain dual loyalties.

This Yom HaShoah, let us renew our opposition to anti-Semitism, intentional and not, in all of its forms. As such, and as someone who vigorously opposes anti-Semitism and all other forms of racism, I can see no choice but to strongly oppose this increasingly popular defense of Zionism.

On Wednesday, 3 April 2013, the Student Senate at the University fo California-Riverside voted to rescind it’s earlier decision to endorse the movement to Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Israel. As Electronic Intifada reports:

As we reported on Tuesday, it was recently revealed that Israel advocates and Zionist student groups had begun calling and emailing the student senators, claiming that the divestment resolution was “divisive” and that it “misrepresented” the student body. The student government then agreed to vote to rescind the divestment resolution. Last night, the move to rescind the resolution won out in a 12-2 vote, with a further 2 abstaining, according to UC Riverside’s Students for Justice in Palestine.

The argument that Palestine solidarity work in general, and BDS in particular, is divisive of community life has been used with increasing success by Zionist groups (see here, here, here, or here for a few examples). Those of the front lines are working hard to combat this line of attack and doing a good job at it as well.

My interest, though, is in how this opens up new opportunities for Jewish Palestine solidarity activists on and off campus. Groups like Hillel centers on campus serve two missions simultaneously: to serve the Jewish community and to support Israel. These two missions, however, are not mutually compatible. And, in fact, by choosing to endorse a specific political agenda, it is the Jewish institutions on campus that are being truly divisive.

(Previously, we have covered how a similar dual-mission at the ADL prevents it from fulfilling its mission of combatting anti-Semitism. You can go there for more detail on how a commitment to Zionism prevents these groups from serving the Jewish community).

Jewish Palestine solidarity activists need to force the issue. We need to bang down the doors of Hillel on Campus (and its corresponding non-campus institutions) with a simple message: butt-out.

Jewish institutions on campus must serve the entire Jewish community: Zionist, anti-Zionist, and those who just don’t care. If Jews wish to organize in support of Israel, then they can form a political club, just like Jews who wish to support Palestine can join Jewish Voices for Peace. But our religious institutions need to stop being divisive of the Jewish community and become a place that can welcome people of all political beliefs.

At first, the request will surely be met with rejection. After all, the Hillel at SUNY-Binghamton kicked out a board member simply for screening the documentary Five Broken Cameras. But this is where Jewish solidarity groups have a real advantage. We can make a shande.

Imagine a group of anti-Zionist Jews praying on the lawn in front of the Hillel on a Saturday, demanding inclusion. What would they do? Arrest Jews for praying? Imagine the scandal of Hillel calling the cops because it would not let a group of Jews pray on a Saturday without first signing a political pledge.

At the very least it would force the issue. Will they be divisive and kick out a group of Jews who just want to be included? Or will they be inclusive and drop their narrow political interests in favor of serving the entire Jewish community? Precisely because their arguments have increasingly turned on the need to stay neutral in political debates so as not to divide the community, highlighting their own narrowness and divisiveness is central. And that opens up a nice opportunity for Jewish solidarity activists to force them to live up to their own words.

On 25 March, President Obama released the standard pre-holiday message to Jewish Americans as preparing to celebrate Passover that night. These sorts of messages are released for just about every major religion’s holidays, and as such are generally a bland sort of affair, wishing people a meaningful celebration and good tidings. This time, not so much:

Last week, I visited the state of Israel for the third time, my first as President. I reaffirmed our countries’ unbreakable bonds with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Peres. I had the chance to speak directly with young Israelis about the future they wanted for their country, their region, and the world. And I saw once again how the dream of true freedom found its full expression in those words of hope from Hatikvah, lihyot ‘am chofshi be’artzeinu, “To be a free people in our land.”

Let’s get the more general issue out of the way first: By tying the celebration of Passover to suport for the State of Israel, the President has effectively excluded me and a great many other Jews in America and around the world who do not support the State of Israel, and in fact see the holiday as a reminder of all of the reasons we cannot. But this is standard-level offensiveness for U.S. politics; certainly not fodder for a blog post.

No, what bothers me in particular about the President’s message is the quotation from HaTikva, Israel’s national anthem. According to President Obama, the Zionist dream of an exclusively Jewish state is “the fullest expression” of “the dream of true freedom.”

Unintentionally, the President here obliquely references one of the darkest legacies of European anti-Semitism: the Jewish Question. Stated in its broadest terms, the Jewish Question (sometimes called the Jewish Problem) asked whether Jews could ever truly be part of the nation. Jews in Europe were inherently the subject of suspicion, either because they could not be assimilated into a nation that defined itself as Christian (Great Britain,  Germany) or because their status as an “alien nation” meant they could never be more than a community apart from the nation (France). Regardless of the reason given – and there were many – European anti-Semitism held that Jews were incapable of being full citizens of the nation-state, at least as long as they remained Jewish.

It was in this context that political Zionism took hold. In 1896, Theodor Herzl explains

The Jewish question still exists. It would be foolish to deny it. […] The Jewish question exists wherever Jews live in perceptible numbers. Where it does not exist, it is carried by Jews in the course of their migrations. We naturally move to those places where we are not persecuted, and there our presence produces persecution. This is the case in every country, and will remain so, even in those highly civilized–for instance, France–until the Jewish question finds a solution on a political basis. The unfortunate Jews are now carrying the seeds of Anti-Semitism into England; they have already introduced it into America.

[…] I think the Jewish question is no more a social than a religious one, notwithstanding that it sometimes takes these and other forms. It is a national question, which can only be solved by making it a political world-question to be discussed and settled by the civilized nations of the world in council.

We are a people–one people.

For Herzl, the Jewish Question is interminable. Even when things seem like they are going well, Jews inevitably carry with the them the seeds of anti-Semitism that will inevitably sprout, even in the seemingly tolerant United States. It’s an argument you still hear today when people talk of Israel as their “insurance policy,” just in case their own country’s politics begin resembling 1930s Germany. And it is the argument that inspired Naftali Herz Imber to write the line quoted by the President in his Passover message.

So when the President quotes that line from Hatikva he is, I’m sure unintentionally, telling Jews that they cannot truly be free in America. They cannot really be American. They can only realize their true collective project by emigrating. A any good community organizer ought to know, it is the unintentional messages that often do the most harm. That is not the sort of message that a President ought to be giving to any of his citizens.

Last week, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released a report on the activities of Palestinian solidarity activists across college campuses, marking Israeli Apartheid Week. The ADL’s mission is to monitor, report on, and combat anti-Semitism. See if you can spot anything in their write-up that furthers this worthy goal:

Anti-Israel activists took a multi-faceted approach to attack­ing Israel in the pub­lic sphere this week. In the span of 7 days, divest­ment res­o­lu­tions were con­sid­ered at three col­lege cam­puses, ten anti-Israel bill­boards were put up in Atlanta, over 30 col­lege cam­puses hosted Israeli Apartheid Week pro­grams and two day­long BDS con­fer­ences were scheduled.

These ini­tia­tives are for­mally or infor­mally part of a global effort to advance the Boy­cott, Divest­ment and Sanc­tions (BDS) move­ment against Israel. They demon­strate the anti-Israel movement’s com­mit­ment to employ­ing mul­ti­ple tac­tics and cam­paigns to attract sup­port for its positions.

These paragraphs remind me of one of my favorite public speakers:

Like Ron Swanson, the ADL delivers a speech of facts. Like Mr. Swanson, the listing of these facts is intended to convey a distaste for the subject of the speech. But, is the ADL – an organization whose sole mission is to combat anti-Semitism – implying that the organization of Palestinian solidarity events on campuses across the nation is itself evidence of anti-Semitism?

This incident raises a much broader issue: why does the ADL talk about Israel in the first place? To be sure, racists and anti-Semites have occasionally donned the garb of Palestinian solidarity in a thinly  veiled attempt to advance their own agendas of hatred. And although, broadly speaking, the Palestinian solidarity activists have been quite good about calling out, shaming, and distancing themselves from anti-Semites (exemplar1, exemplar2), an organization like the ADL which is dedicated to combatting anti-Semitism should and must monitor and report on these incidents as well.

But the ADL’s statement above does not claim that the Palestinian solidarity actions featured, promoted, or were even attended by anti-Semites, nor is there any reasons to suspect that they were. Nor does it claim that such events could foment anti-Semitism (perhaps because doing so would suggest the need to question the larger relationship between the organizations that purport to represent American Jewry and the State of Israel, but more on that in future posts).

In order to understand why the ADL would release such a statement – and, more broadly, why the ADL would care about Israel in the first place – I looked up to their mission statement and self-description on their website:

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) fights anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry in the U.S. and abroad through information, education, legislation, and advocacy. ADL serves as a resource for government, media, law enforcement, educators and the public.

No help there. The very worthy goals listed in the ADL’s mission statement, on the surface, have no obvious connection with the State of Israel.

The ADL goes on to list out the main areas of interest, through which it fulfills this mission. For clarity’s sake, I’ve included shortened explanations of each area, culled from the ADL’s website:

  • Anti-Semitism, Racism and Bigotry: “In the forefront of the fight against anti-Semitism, challenges world leaders to take action against anti-Jewish bigotry and violence, and exposes and condemns attacks on Jews.”
  • Extremism:  “Monitors, analyzes and exposes an entire range of extremists from the obscure to the more prominent.” 
  • Identifying and Combatting Hate: Supporting and promoting hate crimes legislation and aiding law enforcement efforts to combat it.
  • Education: Anti-hate, anti-bias, and Holocaust education programs.
  • Religious Freedom: Self-evident.
  • Interfaith Affairs: Promoted Inter-faith dialogue with a special focus on helping other religions understand issues relating to the Jewish community.
  • Israel: “Supports the Jewish state by advocating for Israel, and explaining political and security issues and the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian/Israel-Arab conflict with U.S. policymakers, the media and the public through programs, publications and contact with officials”
  • International Affairs: “Monitors and combats global anti-Semitism and extremism and promotes the security and well-being of Jewish communities around the world.”

Let’s look at this list again and then let’s play one of my favorite childhood games, shall we?

Did you guess which thing is not like the others? Each and every area of interest listed by the ADL is about monitoring anti-Jewish racism, combatting it, and educating others on it. Some areas take up this issue more directly while others, like advocating for religious freedom or hate crimes legislation, are natural outgrowths of their singular mission to combat anti-Semitism.

And then there is Israel. Israel is not like the others. Israel just doesn’t belong.

How does supporting the State of Israel relate to the ADL’s state mission of combatting anti-Semitism? The ADL itself has noted that: “the sovereign State of Israel and its government can be legitimately criticized just like any other country or government in the world.” If this is so, then the ADL’s mission to “support the Jewish state by advocating for Israel” is, by its own admission, distinct from its primary mission of combatting anti-Semitism.

Why does this matter? Because the mission of supporting Israel makes the mission of combatting anti-Semitism all the more difficult. When the ADL devotes its time to supporting a state and defending its policies, they imply – regardless of whether it is their intention or not – that the actions of the organization further the group’s stated mission of combatting anti-Semitism. (In much the same way that Coca-Cola might distinguish between selling soft drinks and sponsoring sporting events, but all of their actions are designed to further their mission of selling drinks.) Thus, even as they release statements to the effect that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, their actions imply the reverse.

This conflation is especially dangerous because the ADL does so much valuable work. And yet, when you search for the ADL online or when you see it in the news, it is most likely because they are defending Israel. This damages the ADL’s reputation and, in turn, reduces the impact and efficacy of all of its statements.

The effects of this damage could seen immediately after the release of the report on Israeli Apartheid Week. The Twitterati were quick to react to the article by congratulating themselves along the lines of: “When you’re pissing off the ADL, you must be doing something right.” Rather than being a respected organization which is part of the broader anti-racist movement, the ADL is increasingly known first and foremost as a supporter of Israel’s racist policies.

Even if you disagree with me that Israel’s policies are racist, this state of affairs should worry you. The ADL should be an organization that Zionists and anti-Zionists alike hold in the highest esteem. Instead, it has made itself into a parochial and political organization that people like me – that is, those of us who believe that combatting anti-Semitism is a vital but also do not support the State of Israel – cannot wholeheartedly support.

Even more worrisome is that when the ADL implies that monitoring Palestinian solidarity work has something to do with combatting anti-Semitism, it reduces the value, impact, and efficacy of the charge of anti-Semitism itself. We have already seen more than a few anti-Semites try to take advantage of this. Noting the frequent conflation of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism promoted by groups like the ADL, these hate mongers brush off accusations of anti-Jewish racism. And while the leaders of the Palestinian solidarity movement have done a remarkable job at calling out anti-Semites within their ranks, the rank-and-file audiences of the actual anti-Semites pays less and less attention to the condemnations of the ADL. For them, the ADL has cried wolf one too many times.

The irony here is that the ADL should really know better. The ADL has been a true leader when it comes to criticizing the overuse of the Holocaust as a metaphor for other disliked policies (exemplar). As the organization correctly points out, such overuse of the term “trivializes” it, making the true horror of the Holocaust difficult to comprehend. Worse yet, such trivialization also opens the door to Holocaust deniers who use the banalization of the Holocaust to advance their own racist and anti-Semitic ends.

The same, however, is true about the term anti-Semitism. The word is impactful if and only if it is used accurately  When monitoring and combating criticism of Israel become the mission of an organization that seeks to combat anti-Semitism, they inevitably trivialize anti-Semitism, turning it into a banal and ineffective charge. In so doing, they also risk opening a door for the most vile racists.

Jews and non-Jews alike need an organization whose mission is to combat anti-Semitism. And we need that organization to be effective. The ADL’s support for Israel is bad for Jews, it is bad for anyone who opposes racists, and it is bad for the world.

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