Getting Real About Antisemitism

-Kathy Shapiro, Vermonters for Justice in Palestine

An atmosphere of hate and discrimination against oppressed minorities flourishes under the current administration.  We’ve seen a 17% rise of hate crimes in 2017 according to the FBI, 59% of which were race-based, and 20.7% religion based (58.1% of these anti-Jewish).  Perhaps it’s because I am Jewish, but it seems to me that the subject of antisemitism dwarfs discussions about discrimination based on race, despite the numbers.  Or maybe it’s because I support justice for Palestinians, which has become almost synonymous with a new definition of antisemitism.

I would like here to briefly explore antisemitism, what it is and is not, and how  casting solidarity for Palestine as antisemitism dangerously minimizes the rising tide of white nationalist antisemitism, the kind that killed 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue on October 27th of last year.

From the 19th century until today the standard dictionary definition of antisemitism was “opposition to, hatred of, or agitation against, Jews.”  (Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second edition) No mention of Israel; antisemitism predates even the concept of a political Israel by centuries. But a new definition has evolved that focuses not on the Jewish people or religion, but on the Israeli State — and not hatred of the Israeli State but mere criticism of it.

This  “new antisemitism” did not bubble up on its own but from a purposefully argued position paper written by Natan Sharansky, Israel’s Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs in 2004, who founded the Global Forum Against Anti-Semitism;  it elaborates the concept of “the 3 D’s” that significantly expands the notion of antisemitism to include:

  • Demonization of Israel: “harsh” criticism of Israel.

While harsh is not really defined, it includes bringing up harsh realities e.g. the imprisonment and deaths of Palestinian children; calling Israel to task for failure to implement U.N. Resolutions; pointing out settler violence.

  • Double standards: unfairly singling out Israel for crimes also committed by other states such as bombing innocent civilians, restricting the rights of some populations over others, criticizing Israel’s right to defend itself.

This argument pretends that a specific injustice by a specific perpetrator should not be addressed unless all such injustices are also addressed, leading to an absurd inability to call any government to account.  Also neglected is the fact that Israel receives more aid from U.S. taxpayers than any other country; our government is the primary international enabler of Israeli human rights abuses. For this reason, U.S. citizens should be paying more attention to war crimes committed by Israel than, say, Myanmar.

  • Delegitimization: – disputing Israel’s “fundamental right to exist.”

No state has a “fundamental right” to exist. States exist by virtue of their attributes, e.g. a government recognized by other states, a monetary system, defined borders (which Israel has never defined), and so on. The State of Israel does exist, period, as does the United States of America. The fact that both of these states were built on land stolen from Indigenous people whose descendants remain oppressed in their own land does not contradict their existence, although it says much about the moral ground on which they stand, for which they both deserve criticism. What the “delegitimization” charge evades is the notion of Israel as a “Jewish state” – i.e. a nation which privileges one ethno-religious group over others, including and especially its Indigenous population.

Under organized pressure from a number of Jewish agencies in the U.S., the new 3 D’s definition of antisemitism was enshrined into U.S. law in The Global Anti-Semitism Review Act passed by Congress in 2005 and finally adopted by the U.S. Department of State.

It states “Anti-Semitism has at times taken the form of vilification of Zionism, the Jewish national movement, and incitement against Israel.” (italics mine). The use of the words ‘vilification’ and ‘incitement’ ascribe extreme and violent intent on the part of those who express anti-Zionist views or who criticize Israel, when this is expressly not the intention of those working for justice and equal rights for Palestinians, particularly in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.  Accusations against BDS and vilification of its supporters – take the recent smearing of the first black, Muslim, female Congressional representative from Minnesota, Ilhan Omar – have become the well-publicized norm.

Under the new antisemitism, anyone supporting BDS is antisemitic, even while its detractors are largely aware that BDS is an expressly nonviolent strategy to pressure the State of Israel into compliance with international law, not to incite violence or vilify Israelis because they are Jewish. Therefore Rep. Ilhan Omar’s remarks about AIPAC’s funding of political campaigns and her support of BDS make her de facto antisemitic.  The new antisemitism also ignores the fact that there are Jewish citizens of Israel who actively support the BDS strategy – see e.g. Boycott from Within as well as ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects — the Satmars, Neturei Karta –  that are committed anti-Zionists.

But one of the most insidious tactics of the new antisemitism is the targeting of college students. An AIPAC official stated in 2010, “We’re going to make certain that pro-Israel students take over the student government. That’s how AIPAC operates in our nation’s capitol…and how AIPAC must operate on our nation’s campuses.”1

To this end, UVM’s Hillel has accepted a large grant from the Maccabee Task Force which works with organizations such as The Horowitz Freedom Center, an extremist right wing think tank that calls Students for Justice in Palestine part of the “campus Jew-hating left,” and Canary Mission, which works to silence pro-Palestinian students through surveillance and blacklisting. Efforts like these stifle academic freedom and open dialogue among students when exploration and debate of all points of view should be encouraged, not restricted.

The conflict of the new antisemitism with our first amendment rights to free speech is now being argued in the courts, as laws against participation in BDS have been passed in 27 states and the U.S. Senate (S.1).  While it is wrong to restrict, penalize or criminalize  the free speech of those working for equal rights and self-determination for Palestinians as antisemitism, it is dangerous to ignore the white nationalist forces emboldened to act on their very real hatred of Jews for no other reason than they are Jews—and this is the real antisemitism.



S.2292 – Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004

2017 Hate Crime Statistics

Defining Anti-Semitism from the U.S Department of State

ADL’s anti-Semitism statistics called into question

Against White Supremacist Funding

1 The International Campaign to Criminalize Criticism of Israel, by Alison Weir,  If Americans Knew.