When is criticism of Israel anti-Semitic?

Muslim, Jewish leaders show support for Ilhan Omar comments
WATCH ABOVE: Muslim, Jewish leaders show support for Ilhan Omar comments.

Democrat Rep. Ilhan Omar has been at the centre of a political firestorm for weeks now as a result of comments she made about the United States’ seemingly unconditional support of Israel.

In February, Omar apologized for a 2012 tweet in which she wrote, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”

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She said she didn’t realize “hypnosis” imagery is considered an anti-Semitic trope. But then, the weekend of Feb. 8, Omar tweeted suggestions that members of Congress were being paid by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to support Israel.

It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” she wrote.

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Two weeks ago, she kicked up fresh concerns of anti-Semitism while speaking at a forum in Washington.

“I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” she said, adding, “I want to ask, ‘Why is it OK for me to talk about the influence of the (National Rifle Association), or fossil fuel industries or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobbying group that is influencing policy?’”

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Many critiqued Omar, saying the remarks invoke old tropes on Jewish people’s loyalties to Israel above their own nation, as well as ones about Jewish people controlling the government. While Omar has apologized for the stereotypes, she maintains she is appropriately questioning those with influence in Washington — including AIPAC.

“I am told everyday that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel,” she tweeted. “I find that to be problematic and I am not alone.”

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Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have seized on the controversy to paint the Democrats as the “anti-Israel” and “anti-Jewish” party. Yet, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish are not inherently the same. So why are critiques of Israel often conflated with anti-Semitism?

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That depends who you ask.

Some argue that even if people are attempting to raise a political issue — as Omar claims she was — there is a broader negative impact when they do so using anti-Semitic rhetoric, some say it’s because critiques of Israel can be used as a façade for anti-Semitism, and others see an increase in allegations of anti-Semitism as a way to beat back legitimate criticism of the state.

What is being criticized

The State of Israel was founded in 1948, in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust; the culmination, per the Israeli government, of a “two-thousand year old dream of renewing Jewish sovereignty.” But while the United Nations agreed to divvy up Palestine into a Jewish area and an Arab area, the Arab population resisted and five countries fought a war with Israel that Israel won. As a result of Israel’s victory, many Palestinians fled or were forced out of their homes. Those Palestinians and their descendants are still seeking to return to their land.

The ongoing conflict has flared up violently over the years, frequently drawing criticism from human rights organizations around the world, with numerous international meetings and summits attempting to resolve the issue.

But what started as an Arab-Israeli conflict decades ago has since narrowed to an Israeli-Palestinian conflict with violence on both sides. Thousands have died. On Thursday, air raid sirens in Tel Aviv blared as the Israeli military said it appeared that two rockets were launched from Gaza. Israeli retaliation was swift, with IDF forces attacking what it called 100 terror targets in Gaza.

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Since 2007, many Palestinians have been caught in the middle of a blockade that Israel says is warranted to keep Hamas, a militant group that seized control of Gaza in 2007 and wants to destroy Israel, from growing its arsenal.

Human rights organization say the blockade has effectively caged Palestinians within Gaza, limiting not just their freedom of movement but the ability to import and export goods to sustain and grow their economy. But Gaza is also subject to an internecine power struggle. The Palestinian Authority, which sees itself as the only legitimate government of the Palestinian people yet only controls much of the West Bank, punishes Gaza by cutting off its electricity and cutting funding for government salaried employees. This has resulted in unpredictable access to power and non-potable water.

For nearly a year now, protestors in Gaza have been trying to break open the highly-secured border fence with Israel in the hope of regaining the homes and land lost in the war after Israel’s creation. Earlier this month, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called Israel’s response to those demonstrations “deadly” and “disproportionate… leading to a very high toll of killings and injuries.” Israel has now launched criminal investigations into a number of incidents where security forces allegedly killed demonstrators.

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Larry Haiven is retired Halifax professor on the steering committee for Independent Jewish Voices Canada, a national organization that opposes the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Haiven draws a line between a rise in allegations of anti-Semitism and the success of non-violent resistance to the Israeli government. He points specifically to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which — per its site — seeks to end Israel’s “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands,” including the West Bank, Gaza and the Syrian Golan Heights.

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“It is one of the only ways of defending the indefensible,” Haiven wrote in a 2016 report.

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“Those who allege that human rights groups are anti-Semitic try to conflate all Jews with Israel,” Haiven told Global News.

It’s a strategy about exploiting guilt, he explains, where “all of a sudden putting Jews in an uncomfortable situation [of having to explain the Israeli government’s actions] becomes equated to anti-Semitism.”
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When critiquing Israel is anti-Semitic

While Haiven draws a connection between the rise in anti-Semitism allegations and the success of the BDS movement, B’nai Brith Canada is one of many groups that views the movement as anti-Semitic. On its website, B’nai Brith links the movement to the increase in anti-Semitism in Canada.

That being said, Brian Herman, director of government relations for B’nai Brith Canada, says criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic — just as critiquing the Canadian government is not anti-Canadian. Jewish people, like Canadians, are not a monolith.

“It is, in our view, anti-Semitic if you’re expressing your views in a form of hatred against Israel as the only Jewish state and therefore hatred of all Jews,” he says.

“What we’re concerned about is the views of those who are against the actions of the Israeli government but using [those actions] to accuse all Jews of being responsible for things they do not like or as a means to feed anti-Israeli hatred.”

Herman takes his cues from the working definition of anti-Semitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance as a guide. It says that “anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews” and goes on to list some of the ways in which anti-Semitism exists in the modern world: accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for wrongdoing committed by a single person or group; using the myth of “a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, [and] government”; and accusing Jewish people of being more loyal to Israel than the nation they live in.
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While Democrat Rep. Ilhan Omar didn’t accuse Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, she did say, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” That language evoked the dual loyalty stereotype, according to AIPAC.

“These are the sorts of things that are anti-Semitic in nature,” Herman says. They’re “often used to hide criticism of Israel as being an insidious belief that Jews are at the root of all these problems.”

There is no acceptable way for Omar or others to raise concerns about AIPAC’s allegiance to a foreign country, says Ottawa-based Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

“It’s based on a false premise,” he says. “It’s confusing the words allegiance with the word alliance. American Jews or those who are affiliated with AIPAC are those who want to promote a strong bilateral relationship between the United States and Israel and they don’t have to apologize for having those aspirations because they’re not predicated on saying that considerations for Israel should trump the interest of the United States.”

Anti-Semitic rhetoric and who gets called out

It’s possible to make political statements against Israel without being anti-Semitic, says Ori Yehudai, a professor of Jewish and Israeli history at the University of Toronto.

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However, he says, “People are justified in expressing concerns about anti-Semitism when such criticism [of Israel] involves treatment of Jews as symbols for the use of money in order to influence politics or notions such as double loyalty.”

Critiques against policy, political parties and the government are legitimate, Koffler Fogel says, but they are not when they “start to stray into raising questions about the legitimacy of Zionism and the national aspirations of the Jewish people to be repatriated to their homeland.”

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What’s needed, Yehudai says, is a much more nuanced approach: an acknowledgement that allegations of anti-Semitism are sometimes used to silence Israel’s critics while at the same time recognizing that anti-Semitism is real.

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“We have to make a distinction here between the language and the rhetoric and the actual positions that are being expressed,” he says.

“One can criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic.”

One can also express support for Israel while using anti-Semitic language. President Trump seems poised to try to capitalize on what he’s calling the “anti-Jewish” and “anti-Israel” Democratic Party, yet his own record is rife with Jewish tropes.

Halie Soifer, the executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, told The Associated Press, “He himself has emboldened anti-Semites in our country… He has no credibility with Jewish voters.”

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The comment touches on an important aspect of the furor surrounding Omar’s comments, says Dalia Mogahed, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in the United States.

“The thing I find troubling about the entire thing is how much anti-Semitism white men get away with while not generating the type or the level of outrage that [Omar’s] comments have generated,” Mogahed says.

President Trump, in particular, has a history of stereotyping Jewish people. During the presidential campaign in 2015, he was accused of stereotyping when telling members of the Republican Jewish Coalition that they were a roomful of “negotiators.”

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He also said: “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money. You want to control your politicians, that’s fine.”

It’s a real problem, Mogahed says.

“While many white Republicans are very, very pro-Israel, they also make some pretty thinly-veiled anti-Semitic remarks.”

While a dialogue is needed for those who were “sincerely hurt” by Omar’s comments, Mogahed says others need to push back against the “very cynical way” in which other people are using Omar’s remarks.

“We have to stand up to them very strongly and declare that anti-Semitism is a serious problem and should not be exploited to silence critique.”

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Omar’s comments do invite criticism, Yehudai says, but he says her critics — on both the right and left — are likely emboldened by the fact she is young and a Muslim woman expressing strong views on a controversial issue.

“It’s possible to criticize Israel, but those who criticize Israel should also be sincere and open enough to reject criticism of Israel when it involves anti-Semitic language,” he says.

— with files from The Associated Press

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