Criticism of Israel’s war and occupation is not anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism is a plague. And one that is, as I have realised in the aftermath of Hamas’s horrific terror attack in Israel on October 7, far more endemic than I was willing to accept before, despite having been questioning and confronting this hate all my life as the child of an American Jewish and Catholic German couple.

Anti-Semitism, its prevalent nature, and the shame and guilt for the Holocaust that sit at the heart of Germany’s memory culture have indelibly shaped my life.

My late grandmother never acknowledged being aware of Germany’s crimes towards Europe’s Jews. I did not believe her, but it did not matter. Whenever we came to visit, she always insisted that my siblings and I tour the Jewish cemetery, Europe’s oldest, in the city of Worms, where she spent her final years.

My parents separated when I was young, but my mother often told us the story of how my elder brother and I were baptised in the same Catholic Church where my father had gone to school because my atheist father wanted to please his devout mother. It was only as an adult that I learned from my father that it was in fact my Jewish mother who insisted on it. Less than 50 years prior European Jews spent fortunes acquiring fake baptismal certificates in an attempt to escape the Nazis. My mother, like countless others, clearly knew the revival of this ancient hatred always loomed as a threat.

Today, however, it appears the world has turned upside down. The fight against the scourge of anti-Semitism is under threat from those who refuse to criticise Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip because they conflate such action with anti-Semitism.

Nowhere is this more clear than the reactions to a now infamous March 3 tweet by Congressman Mike Collins. On that day, an openly anti-Semitic far-right account posted a tweet implying the author of a Washington Post article that included a tongue-in-cheek reference to the US being built on “stolen land” is Jewish. Collins responded by tweeting “Never was a second thought”. To this day, Collins refuses to apologise – he even accused his many critics of “gripping at straws”.

The saga made Collins the second member of Georgia’s nine-strong Republican congressional delegation to have engaged in blatant anti-Semitism and to refuse to apologise for it.

Another member of the delegation, Marjorie Taylor Greene, had risen to infamy for a Facebook post she made in 2018, before she was elected, where she implied “Jewish space lasers” (though she never used that precise term) were behind the 2018 wildfires in California.

Republican Party leaders have refused to criticise Collins, and long ago moved from shunning Greene to accepting her as one of the party’s leading lights. Even Elise Stefanik, the third most senior House Republican, has refused to rebuke either Collins or Greene, though it was her questioning of the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) and Harvard over their response to protests critical of Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip that ultimately led to their resignations.

Stefanik’s silence may have something to do with the fact that she herself has dabbled in the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, as has Greene – though the latter’s flavour included the inanely insane, and deeply anti-Semitic, claim that “Zionist supremacists” were behind an imagined plot to flood the West with migrants. And yet today Greene casts herself as “pro-Israel”.

Far too many who should know better have gone along with these arguments. The will-they-or-won’t-they around the fates of UPenn and Harvard’s presidents received far more media attention than Collins’s comments or Greene’s volte-faces have. One of the latter’s board members, hedge fund investor Bill Ackman, publicly recast himself in the effort to take down Harvard’s president, and warned that his alma mater was becoming anti-Semitic. He has remained shtum with regards to Collins and Greene’s anti-Semitism, however.

This is not just an issue in political life but across society. Yes, Kanye West lost his billion-dollar Adidas contract in October 2022 after engaging in a flurry of anti-Semitic statements, but it has since been revealed the firm was aware of equally troubling, if less public, comments for nearly a decade prior. And he remains a best-selling world-touring headliner.

Elon Musk also only briefly had to deal with the fallout from publicly endorsing a claim that “Jewish communities” were pushing “dialectical hatred against whites” last November. Musk’s response that his tweet was “foolish” stopped some way short of an apology, and yet 12 days later he was feted on a visit to Israel by none other than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

These days, many of those who say they are fighting anti-Semitism seem only interested in fighting against anti-Zionism and silencing all criticism of Israel.

For many of Israel’s most ardent supporters, there is no space in the debate for those who criticise Israel’s actions, even those who root their criticism in their own Jewish identity. Nowhere is this more clear than in Germany, where German Jews, many of them Israelis, make up a disproportionate percentage of those detained for protesting against Tel Aviv’s warpath.

Yes, some have allowed Israel’s wanton response to October 7 and its decades-long occupation of the West Bank to cloud their judgement and crossed the line into anti-Semitism in their criticism of Zionism. And numerous genuine anti-Semites have jumped on the bandwagon of defending Palestine to further their own agenda.

But all criticism of Israel, and especially criticism of the way Israel conducts its war against Hamas in Gaza, is not anti-Semitism and treating it as such harms the urgent, crucial fight against the growing threat posed by this ancient scourge.

Israel’s bombing campaign and the ethnic cleansing of Gaza could ultimately result in the death of all of Hamas’s military leaders. Hamas may cease to exist as an organisation. But none of this will solve the problem. Hamas was formed in the 1980s and ruled Gaza only since 2007. Violence between Israelis and Palestinians long predates the group’s formation.

Terror attacks that kill many civilians, attacks that traumatise entire societies naturally beget a desire for revenge – as a New Yorker who came of age in the aftermath of 9/11, it is a feeling I know all too well. And yet, I am also well aware of the destructive, devastating consequences of that desire for revenge. Saddam Hussein was a tyrant who had inflicted immense suffering on his people and the people across the region, but he was not involved in any way in the attacks on the United States on 9/11. Still, George W Bush used the American people’s trauma and desire for revenge in the aftermath of those attacks to march the country into invading Iraq. That invasion, and consequent occupation, cost hundreds of thousands of innocent lives, devastated the region for generations, and birthed ISIL (ISIS).

Violence begets violence.

“Never again” must mean never again by anyone, against anyone. If this call is not applied to Palestinians, there can never realistically be any hope that others will apply it to Jews – especially in an era in which so much anti-Semitism goes ignored because it does not fit into the pro-Israel/pro-Palestine dichotomy. Hatred must be fought everywhere and in all its guises, including among those whose fight against anti-Semitism is dependent upon how it relates to Israel.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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