Does criticism of Israel equal anti-Semitism?

Nov. 2018 BDS Phil (Joe Petite)
Palestine solidarity activists picket the Philadelphia Orchestra, protesting its June 2018 tour to Israel. (Photo by Joe Piette)


The aftermath of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting has focused renewed attention on anti-Semitism. Claims that a shadowy group of sinister figures are behind world events—which appear in conspiracy theories about financier George Soros, the 9/11 tragedy, and elsewhere—have dangerous implications.

These conspiracy theories have deep roots on the far right, where concocted stories involving the Rothschild banking family and Soros (both Jewish) are commonplace. Marxists reject prejudice against Jewish people and oppose any attempt to target Jewish communities.

Recently, allegations from Trump and other GOP politicians that Soros, a major Democratic Party donor, is a sinister force behind the migrant caravan going through Mexico has brought anti-Semitism close to the mainstream.  In his speeches, Trump has also spoken of the threat posed by “globalists,” a common code word on the far right for Jews. Trump has even attacked the ultra-conservative Koch brothers as “globalists.”

Rather than tackling the real sources of bigotry against Jews, the capitalist media have repeated claims that anti-Semitism is a problem on “both the right and left.” Democratic politicians like Senator and presidential hopeful Corey Booker have declared the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement to be “anti-Jewish.” On campuses, there are moves to marginalize pro-Palestinian activism with attacks on the free speech of BDS activists and Students for Justice in Palestine.

On Oct. 29, The New York Times wrote, “Activists on the left—sometimes including young Jews—call for boycotts and divestments from companies doing business in Israel, or the occupied territories. Mainstream Jewish groups are now branding such campaigns as anti-Semitism. Where to draw the line between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism is a growing source of friction in many colleges and state capitals.”

The Washington Post went further in an Op Ed article that claimed that left-wing anti-Semitism is the major problem: “It [anti-Semitism] lived on in the [Soviet] communist attacks on the conspiracy of Zionists with ‘American monopoly capitalists,’ during the anti-cosmopolitan purges of the early 1950s; in the New Left’s denunciation of a supposedly powerful Israel working as a tool of American imperialism in the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967; in the Palestine Liberation Organization’s lies that Israel was an apartheid state that practiced deliberate mass murder.”

Problematic notions have even crept into the fringes of the left and antiwar movements. In the antiwar movement, 9-11 “truth” claims can take on an anti-Jewish coloration when they assert that Israel was behind the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers. In the Green Party, 9-11 truthers and anti-vaccination “activists” play a destructive role. Recently, the Green Party in Ohio had to disavow its Congressional candidate, Jim Condit Jr., after his anti-Jewish statements came to light. In a recent radio ad, Condit excoriated “billionaire communist Jews.”

Former Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney, for years a stalwart of Palestine solidarity activism, has more recently appeared at conferences organized by white nationalists and was called out by activists for posting a blatantly anti-Semitic meme on Facebook.

Marxists are clear that such hatred is not welcome on the left, echoing the words of German socialist August Bebel, “Anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools.” But at the same time, we reject the notion that criticism of the Israeli apartheid state, or the colonial-settler ideology of Zionism, makes supporters of Palestinian rights and self-determination anti-Jewish. In fact, it’s true that many of the activists in the pro-Palestine movement are anti-Zionist Jews.

When anti-Semitism rears its head in the movement, socialists do not shrink from fighting against those backward ideas. We do this in the same way that we stand up to racism and sexism in the unions. A responsibility of revolutionary leadership is to take a strong stand against reactionary ideas wherever they present themselves. This means standing against manifestations of anti-Semitism in the movement.

The BDS tactic has made it possible for activists to expose the connections between apartheid Israel and government entities, educational institutions, and corporations. By threatening the base of financial support for the occupation, including settlement building, the BDS movement has undermined support for Israeli policy in U.S. society and internationally.

It is this threat to the legitimacy of the Israeli state that drives the attempts to discredit the BDS movement. Zionist organizations and bourgeois politicians who try to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism actually reinforce the growth of anti-Jewish thinking by blurring the lines between the legitimate criticism of Israeli policy and actual hate speech.

Ironically, some far-right politicians have embraced Israel. This includes white nationalist Richard Spencer, who has stated that Israel is the model for the “white ethno-state” he wants to build here in the U.S.  Also, the recently elected president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who is known for his racist, sexist and homophobic speech, expressed his intent to move the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem and was considering shutting down the Palestinian embassy in Brasilia. Bolsonaro’s sons, members of his far-right party, have been photographed wearing Israeli Defense Force and Mossad t-shirts to demonstrate their support of Israel.

In a period when the Palestine Solidarity movement is under attack on campuses and in communities, it is imperative that we defend the right of activists to organize and speak. At the same time, we mobilize in solidarity with those communities targeted by the far right and their hateful speech and actions. Revolutionaries always stand with the oppressed.

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