ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Antisemitism and Criticizing Israel

Editors’ note: To underline ONE’s 50th anniversary in 2024, each issue of the magazine will feature a reprint of a ONE “classic” — an article that continues to capture the attention and interest of readers worldwide years after its publication. 

In this March edition, we feature a piece by Rabbi Michael Lerner, first published in January 2006. Rabbi Lerner of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in Berkeley is also founding editor of Tikkun magazine. Eighteen years ago, his reflection on what constitutes fair and unfair criticism of Israeli governing policies was in response to Israel’s forced evacuation of Jewish settlers from Gaza in 2005. While the circumstances have changed, his piece offers points and perspectives for consideration in the current context of the war between Israel and Hamas.

There is nothing inherently antisemitic about criticizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people, but there are ways of making those criticisms antisemitic.

Jews did not return to Palestine to be oppressors or representatives of colonialism and cultural imperialism. It is true that some 19th- and early 20th-century Zionist leaders sought to portray their movement as a way to serve the interests of countries in Europe, the birthplace of Zionism. Moreover, many Jews who came brought with them a Western arrogance that made it possible for them to see Palestine as “a land without a people for a people without a land” and virtually ignore the Arabs of Palestine and their cultural and historical rights.

The Jewish people who shaped Israel (which declared its independence in 1948) in its early years were jumping from the burning buildings of Europe. And when they landed on the backs of the indigenous Arabs, Palestinians, they were so transfixed with their own pain that they could not be bothered to notice they were displacing and hurting others in the process of creating their own state. Subsequently, many of these Jews would deny their role in creating Palestinian refugees, who would dream of their own “return” just as we Jews did for some 1,800 years.

This Jewish insensitivity to the pain of others was also abetted by the actions of Arab leaders prior to and after the creation of Israel. As Jewish and Arab nationalism collided, atrocities were committed on both sides. Many Jews cannot forget the attacks on Jewish communities beginning in 1880 and culminating in the massacre of dozens of religious Jews in Hebron in 1929. (It is worth remembering that Jews and Arabs had been living peacefully in Hebron for hundreds of years.) And even as the Holocaust unfolded, Arab leaders, backed by the British authorities who then administered Palestine, denied Jewish pleas for entry.

Eventually, after three wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors, most Palestinians had acknowledged the reality of Israel and the need to accommodate it in order to make possible their own self-determination.

“There is nothing inherently antisemitic about criticizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people, but there are ways of making those criticisms antisemitic.”

But it was too late. By then, most Jews and Israelis clung to the notion — a powerful misperception of reality — that their state could be wiped out at any moment unless they exercised the utmost vigilance. Drenched in the memories of the Holocaust, in their seemingly eternal status as victim, Jews were unable to recognize that they had become the most powerful state in the region. They have used this sense of imminent doom to justify their occupation of the West Bank and Gaza for over 30 years. (Gaza was handed over to the Palestinian Authority in August 2005.)

People march carrying a banner that reads "Ceasefire."
Demonstrators outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, 18 October, call for a cease-fire in the war between Israel and Hamas. (OSV News photo/Leah Millis, Reuters)

Israel, Occupation and Judaism

Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories can only be maintained by what has become an international scandal: the violation of basic human rights of the occupied; the documented and widespread use of torture; the systematic destruction of Palestinian homes; the seizure of Palestinian lands for West Bank settlements created to undermine the possibility of a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank; and the transformation of Israeli politics into a system where verbal violence begot real violence, most notably in the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

To enable this occupation, Israeli society has degraded itself. Such distortions are on display in the perverse racism exhibited toward Arabs. Thus, all Palestinians are blamed for the terrorist actions of a small minority. Also, Israeli citizens of Palestinian descent have been treated as second-class citizens. To take just one example, less public money is allocated to Arab East Jerusalem or to Israeli Arabs than to the rest of Jerusalem.

Anti-Arab sentiment also spills over into divisions among Jews. There has been a refusal to redress the social inequalities between Ashkenazic (Western and Eastern European) Jews and Sephardic (Iberian) Jews and Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) Jews. Furthermore, both Israel’s Labor and Likud parties are willing to make electoral deals with ultra-Orthodox parties intent on using state power to foist religious control over Israelis’ personal lives and to grab a disproportionate share of state revenues.

But perhaps the greatest victim of all these distortions has been Judaism itself.

Historically, one strand of Judaism has affirmed the possibility of healing the world and transcending its violence and cruelty. Another has seen the “other” — be it the Greeks, Romans, Christians or Arabs — as inherently evil, beyond redemption and deserving of violence. I call the latter strand “Settler Judaism.” It reflects the ideology of settling the land as exemplified both in the Book of Joshua (and in some quotes in the Torah) and in the reckless acts of many Israelis.

However, this settler ideology has played a necessary part in keeping the Jewish community psychologically healthy throughout the long period in our history when Jews were oppressed and brutalized by imperial occupiers and our “hosts” in Europe. For many years, Christians systematically demeaned Jews in their Good Friday services as “killers of God” and portrayed them in their iconography as beasts with tails and horns. Periodically, Jews were rounded up and deported (from England, France, Spain and Portugal) or murdered (during the Crusades, the Black Plague, the Inquisition and many other periods). In the face of such persecution, Jews needed a way to sustain their own sense of self-worth. Thus, they saw themselves as chosen by God, suffering to keep God’s word alive. One day, Jews maintained, God would rectify the situation, defeat all their enemies and lead them back to their homeland.

Just as African Americans once needed to proclaim, “Black is beautiful,” and feminists embraced the rallying cry of “sisterhood,” so too did Jews need a vision of strength.

But today, when Jews rule over an occupied people and live in the West in affluence among our non-Jewish neighbors, the supremacist ideas of Settler Judaism can only appeal to those trapped in the notion that we are eternally vulnerable.

For a new generation of Jews, raised in circumstances of power and success, a Judaism based on fear and cruelty, a Judaism used to justify Jewish power and occupation, is a Judaism that has very little spiritual appeal. Ironically, the need to be a handmaiden to Israel distorts Judaism and creates a crisis of continuity, as younger Jews seek spiritual insight outside their inherited tradition.

The other strand of Judaism, “Renewal Judaism,” takes its inspiration from the prophets and has reasserted itself in every major age of Jewish life. It insists that the God of the Torah is a force of healing and transformation and that our task is not to sanctify existing power relations but to challenge them in the name of world peace and justice.

Perhaps the greatest danger Israel poses to the Jewish people is the extent to which it has helped Jews become cynical about their central task: to proclaim to the world the “possibility of possibility” and to affirm the God of the universe as the force that makes it possible to stop inflicting on others the violence and cruelty that were done to them. In other words, to make possible the transcendence of “reality” as it is so that a new world can be shaped. If Israel is ever to be healed, it will only be when it is able to reject this slavish subordination to political realism and once again embrace the transformative spiritual message of renewal. 

Criticizing Israel 

Criticism of Israeli policy toward Palestinians is fundamentally legitimate. There is nothing antisemitic about noting that the recent withdrawal from Gaza was done in the most destructive way possible because its goal was not to jump-start but to stop a peace process: Sacrificing 9,000 settlers to create a horrific scene in Gaza showed the world how painful it was to uproot settlers. How could Israel uproot 300,000 settlers in the West Bank?

But there was no need to uproot settlers. In a genuine peace accord, settlers would have been allowed to stay in the West Bank and Gaza if they agreed to live as Palestinian citizens governed by Palestinian law. Those who wished to move back to Israel would have done so by choice, not as part of a forced evacuation.

Exposing manipulations to retain control over Palestinians, critiquing the policies of occupation and those who abet them, insisting that Western countries pressure Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank — there is nothing antisemitic about that. In fact, doing so is a favor to the Jewish people and should be warmly welcomed by those of us in the Jewish world who see the best interests of the Jewish people as intrinsically tied to an openhearted reconciliation with the Palestinian people.

Still, there are elements of antisemitism that I have encountered in the way criticisms are made, and friends of the Jewish people ought to avoid them.

Here are some examples. Singling out Israel as the focus of criticism: The truth is that Israel’s disrespect for Palestinian human rights is not the worst example of human rights violations in the world. Israel pales behind the policies of some nations in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. When progressives in Western countries with heavily Christian populations single out Israel for special emphasis without extending these same criticisms of even worse human rights violators, they give a prima facie appearance of being antisemitic.

“Critics of Israel should also acknowledge … the long history of abuse Jews have suffered. It is only by acknowledging one another’s pain that we may begin to relieve it.”

Similarly, disinvestment campaigns that focus on Israel (increasingly popular on the campuses of the nation’s elite universities) that do not call for similar steps against other human rights violators could be interpreted as antisemitic.

Using a double standard: Jews in the Israeli peace movement call for an end to the occupation, meaning a return to the pre-1967 borders of Israel. But there are people in the West and in the Arab world who, when they speak of “occupation,” mean the very existence of Israel. They call for Israel’s existence to be ended. Yet no other country’s right to exist is called into question based on the policies that underlie its creation. Those who question Israel’s legitimacy must also question the legitimacy of the United States, for example, whose creation came on the heels of the killing of most of the Native American population and the enslavement of African Americans. But those who question Israel’s legitimacy rarely hold other countries to the same standards.

I believe that the primary anger against Jews in the world today derives from legitimate anger directed against Israeli policy toward Palestinians and is no longer derived primarily from the long historical legacy of Christian teachings against the Jews. Nevertheless, the anger toward a specific state is all too often expressed against all Jews, though many Jews both in Israel and elsewhere oppose Israeli policies. I believe that Jews remain vulnerable to this kind of racism and that we may again be subject to waves of antisemitism. Throughout history, elites have used Jews to deflect anger that otherwise might be directed at them.

But I also believe that the Jewish people have a major responsibility to dissociate themselves publicly and unequivocally from the policies of Palestinian occupation. We must reject the teachings of Settler Judaism and use whatever political influence we can muster to create a viable Palestinian state living in peace with Israel.

The consistent distortions about Palestinians and the systematic denial of Israel’s human rights violations create a deep divide among Jews. Those Jews who are weaned on Jewish papers and magazines and the pulpit orations of many synagogues may not be aware of their distorted view of reality. To break through this wall of misinformation and denial is very difficult, particularly given the tendency of Jewish leaders to label as “antisemitic” anyone who seeks to challenge their perspective.

While such views should be challenged, I also believe the best way to do so is with compassion.

Critics of Israel should also acknowledge the Jewish narrative about our own history and the long history of abuse Jews have suffered. It is only by acknowledging one another’s pain that we may begin to relieve it.

Read this article in our digital print format here.

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