Who's Anti-Semitic?

By Richard Cohen

The Washington Post
April 30, 2002

If I weren't a Jew, I might be called an anti-Semite. I have occasionally been critical of Israel. I have occasionally taken the Palestinians' side. I have always maintained that the occupation of the West Bank is wrong and while I am, to my marrow, a supporter of Israel, I insist that the Palestinian cause -- although sullied by terrorism -- is a worthy one.

In Israel itself, these positions would hardly be considered remarkable. People with similar views serve in parliament. They write columns for the newspapers. And while they are sometimes vehemently criticized -- such is the rambunctious nature of Israel's democratic din -- they are not called either anti-Semites or self- hating Jews.  I cannot say the same about America.  Here, criticism of Israel, particularly anti-Zionism, is equated with anti-Semitism.  The Anti-Defamation League, one of the most important American Jewish organizations, comes right out and says so.  "Anti- Zionism is showing its true colors as deep-rooted anti- Semitism," the organization says in a full-page ad that I have seen in the New Republic as well as other magazines.  "No longer are the Arab nations camouflaging their hatred of Jews in the guise of attacking Israel."

I feel compelled to pause here and assert my credentials. Few people have written more often about Arab anti-Semitism than I.  I have come at this subject time and time again, so often that I have feared becoming a bore.  Arab anti-Semitism not only exists, it is often either state-sponsored or state-condoned, and it is only getting worse.  It makes the Arabs look like fools.  How can anyone take seriously a person who believes that Jews engage in ritual murder?

But that hardly means that anti-Zionism -- hating, opposing, fighting Israel -- is the same as anti- Semitism, hating Jews anywhere on account of supposedly inherent characteristics.  If I were a Palestinian living in a refugee camp, I might very well hate Israel for my plight -- never mind its actual cause -- and I even might not like Jews in general.

After all, Israel proclaims itself the Jewish state.  It officially celebrates Jewish holidays, including the Sabbath on Saturday.  It allows the orthodox rabbinate to control secular matters, such as marriage, and, of course, it offers citizenship to any person who can reasonably claim to be Jewish.  This so-called right of return permits such a person to "return" to a place where he or she has never been. Palestinians must find this simply astonishing.

To equate anti-Zionists or critics of Israel in general with anti-Semites is to liken them to the Nazis or the rampaging mobs of the pogroms.  It says that their hatred is unreasonable, unfathomable, based on some crackpot racial theory or some misguided religious zealotry.  It dismisses all criticism, no matter how legitimate, as rooted in prejudice and therefore without any validity.

No doubt there has been an upsurge of anti-Semitic incidents in Europe. But there has also been an upsurge of legitimate criticism of Israel that is not in the least anti-Semitic. When Israel recently jailed and then deported four pro-Palestinian Swedes, two of whom are physicians, under the misguided policy of seeing all the Palestinians' sympathizers as enemies of the state, it was an action that ought to be condemned -- and the Swedes who have done so ought not be considered anti-Semites.

When the same thing happens to a Japanese physician, that too ought to be condemned -- and it was, as it happens, in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.  A column by Gideon Levy made the point that Israel cannot reject and rebut all criticism by reciting the mantra: "The whole world is against us."

The same holds for American Jews. To turn a deaf ear to the demands of Palestinians, to dehumanize them all as bigots, only exacerbates the hatred on both sides. The Palestinians do have a case. Their methods are sometimes -- maybe often -- execrable, but that does not change the fact that they are a people without a state.  As long as that persists so too will their struggle.

The only way out of the current mess is for each side to listen to what the other is saying. To protest living conditions on the West Bank is not anti- Semitism. To condemn the increasing encroachment of Jewish settlements is not anti-Semitism. To protest the cuffing that the Israelis sometimes give the international press is not anti-Semitism either.

To suggest, finally, that Ariel Sharon is a rejectionist who provocatively egged on the Palestinians is not anti-Semitism. It is a criticism no more steeped in bigotry than the assertion that Yasser Arafat is a liar who cannot be trusted. That does not make me anti-Arab -- just a realist who is sick and tired of lazy labels.