When is criticism of Israel antisemitic?

In 2010, as part of a group of Australian Jews, Peter Singer publicly renounced his right of return [photo credit: Getty Images]

Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the protests on US campuses against his country’s attacks on Gaza, saying that they were “reminiscent of what happened in German universities in the 1930s.” He was, apparently, comparing the protesters to the Nazi student groups that beat up Jewish students and faculty. 

That comparison dilutes the horror of Nazism by overlooking both the extent of the violence that Nazi students inflicted on anyone who was Jewish and their avowedly racist goal of purging the universities of all Jewish students and professors. They achieved that goal after the Nazis came to power, and we can now see that it was a step toward their ultimate objective: a world without Jews. 

“Netanyahu stands in a long line of defenders of Israel who seek to brand critics as antisemites”

I know what Nazi antisemitism in the 1930s was like. My parents, Viennese Jews, became refugees. My grandparents did not leave in time, and three of them were murdered in the Holocaust. When I was a child, my father would rise early on Sunday mornings and take out photos of his extended family, weeping over the loss, not only of his parents, but of aunts, uncles, and cousins. 

My family’s history led me, when I was an undergraduate, to study the rise of fascism and antisemitism in Europe in the 1930s. I read some of the primary sources, like the virulently antisemitic newspaper Der Stürmer (The Stormtrooper), and although I eventually took up philosophy rather than history, the visceral hatred of Jews that came through these writings made a lasting impression on me. 

Undoubtedly, some antisemites have used today’s student protests as cover for stirring up hatred of anyone Jewish, irrespective of their views on what is happening in Gaza. But to characterise the protests in general as comparable to Nazi antisemitism is grotesque. 

Netanyahu stands in a long line of defenders of Israel who seek to brand critics as antisemites. Now the US House of Representatives has – perhaps unwittingly – lent its support to blurring the crucial distinction between antisemitism and opposition to Israel. By a 320-91 vote, the House approved a resolution that combines a condemnation of antisemitism with the stipulation that the US Department of Education should use the definition of antisemitism developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. 

The way the IHRA initially defines antisemitism is simple and unobjectionable: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” The problem is that this definition is followed by examples of antisemitism, one of which is: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.” 

In 1896, when Theodor Herzl published “The Jewish State,” a pamphlet that is widely regarded as the founding text of Zionism, there were very few Jews living in what is now Israel. Jews everywhere felt a historical connection to the Israel of the Hebrew bible, and each year, at Passover, they would say, “Next year in Jerusalem.” But that was a ritual, not the expression of a desire to move there. For my parents, in the years before the Nazis came to power, the idea of leaving buzzing, sophisticated, multicultural Vienna for Palestine was laughable. 

The early Zionist movement popularised the slogan: “A land without a people for a people without a land.” It was true that Jews at that time were a minority everywhere, so there was no land, or country, that was predominantly Jewish. But it was also obviously false that Palestine was without people. 

If we assert that Jews, or Roma, or any other people who are everywhere a minority have a right to self-determination, we should surely acknowledge that any such right must be constrained by the rights of others to determine the kind of state that will govern the land in which they live. For those groups that are everywhere a minority, that may mean that there is no country in which they can exercise a national or collective right to self-determination. 

What about the claim that the state of Israel is a racist endeavour? Israel’s Law of Return gives me the right to become a citizen of Israel, even though I am an atheist, have never observed Jewish religious laws, learned Hebrew, or had a bar mitzvah. But the fact that my maternal grandmother was Jewish is enough for me to have the right to “return” to Israel. That does seem uncomfortably close to a racist criterion for deciding who has the right to become a citizen of Israel. 

In 2010, as part of a group of Australian Jews, I publicly renounced my right of return. We did so because we do not believe that we should have that right when Palestinians who can document that their ancestors had homes in what is now Israel, and at least some of whose ancestors were driven out by hostile Jewish military or paramilitary action, do not. 

Despite my objections to the IHRA definition, I acknowledge that it does, to its credit, include the important statement that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” That’s sufficient to show that Netanyahu is wrong to describe what is happening on US campuses as antisemitism. 

Strong criticism would be levelled against any country that subjected a civilian population to the widespread bombardment that Israel has launched against Gaza, even if the country were responding to horrific attacks like those committed by Hamas on October 7 2023. That is why today’s protests, taken as a whole, cannot be labelled antisemitic.

Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, is Founder of the organisation The Life You Can Save and a founding co-editor of the Journal of Controversial Ideas. He is the author of Practical Ethics, The Life You Can Save, and Animal Liberation Now, and a co-author (with Shih Chao-Hwei) of The Buddhist and the Ethicist (Shambhala Publications, 2023).

Follow him on X: @PeterSinger

This article originally appeared on Project Syndicate.

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@newarab.com

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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