Antisemitism is a great blight upon massive swaths of the world. It takes many forms, of course, and does not always resemble the violence and pogroms of so many centuries, The Dreyfus Affair in France, or the Nazi regime and the Holocaust all across Europe. It can be aggressive or passive in action and tone; it can be verbose and it can be subtle. It can come from individuals or groups that ostensibly ally themselves with Jewish people, Jewish culture, and even Israel, and from those who outwardly show disdain for them all—simply for being Jewish.
Unsurprisingly, many criticisms of and statements about Israel are antisemitic, or motivated by antisemitism. The trouble is that Israel is not merely a symbol of the Jewish people; it is an actually existing nation-state, and it helps no one to pretend that every critique of the things that that nation-state does carries water for antisemites.
Recently, Professor James Cavallaro—”a preeminent rights defender”—had his nomination to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights withdrawn by the US State Department over criticisms and tweets that he had previously made concerning Israeli policy towards Palestinians, as well as about the new Democratic House Majority Leader Hakeem Jeffries—in which he tweeted that Jefferies had been “Bought. Purchased, Controlled.” by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—also known as AIPAC—and other, pro-Israel lobbying entities.
The State Department clarified that it did not hold or share the Professor’s opinion concerning Israel as an apartheid state, and said that his statements were inappropriate and not reflective of U.S. foreign policy towards Israel.
Israel, for its part, consistently denies the human rights charges and labels brought against them by anyone—stating, in fact, that many of the claims are driven by antisemitism and are thus, fabrications by bad faith actors and institutions across the globe.
Cavallaro’s words in America have been condemned in a similar vein as some of the comments made by Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar (D) in 2019, in which she suggested that Republicans’ support of Israel was largely a monetary—and not altruistic—relationship. It has been noted by many that the most damning trope used by each was regarding the purchasing of favor that was intimated to be insincere—deemed to be mirroring the classic antisemitic concept and wrongheaded conspiracy theory that Jewish people infiltrate and curry favor through the use of some mythical, inexhaustible wealth.
It cannot be denied that the long history of these grotesque and utterly reprehensible tropes continue to this very day; history tells us so much about this and many, interrelated topics. But Israel is not a Jewish person, and not every Jewish person lives or even claims citizenship there. Israel is a single, speciifc nation-state. It is a nation-state that has, for many decades, been occupying another state or nation—Palestine—and has behaved in ways described by the United Nations, non-governmental entities, and other independent international think tanks and watch groups as patently illegal under international law.
Their treatment of Palestinians is simply a form of apartheid. For many decades, Israel’s domestic policy and attitude towards Palestinians has oscillated from fascistic and militaristic, to imperialistic and terroristic; from running families off of their land with trucks and megaphones to blowing up houses and towns, building settlements on top of the rubble, to creating checkpoints where Palestinians must show identification to freely move about the land their ancestors lived freely upon.
Israel too—like every other reasonably powerful nation on the face of the planet—spends money lobbying for their interests to be considered alongside those other important nations. Israel’s lobbying efforts have been well documented of course, as has the money that they have, indeed, given to PACs, politicians and political parties. This is public record—not some behind-the-scenes, boorish accusation.
They are hardly alone in this. The likes of Saudi Arabia and China both use their lobbying interests to diminish the perception of the treatment of their own people across their respective nations; U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea spend tons too. Meanwhile, the Russians actually have been attempting to buy favor in the United States on the sly—as well as in many of the nations of Europe, including Ukraine—for years, even as they look to conquer their neighbor to the west.
While the tactless nature of some of the language and the proximity to traditional and wretched tropes—which are both always seized upon so quickly—is absolutely unfortunate and artless, that does not change the fact of Israel’s lobbying efforts, nor the goal of those efforts. Money paid by nations in international lobbying campaigns, after all, has its purposes—and altruism is not chief among them.
But that money is donated to politicians and parties in America is no real secret. Thus, being given money is, in itself, nothing too strange or uncommon. Why then the outcry at being denounced as purchased, when it is so well understood that politicians are purchased by companies and industries and interests and all that all the time?
It is because, in this particular case, the perceived need to lobby intimates that Majority Leader Jefferies and other hard-line Israel supporters might not otherwise support Israel’s positions and actions without the financial incentive so routinely provided them. In other words, having to lobby American politicans for support intimates that the nation paying might not be functioning in a manner in which would naturally garner support without the money; it is not the practical judgement that stings most viciously, but the perceived moral judgement that those paying for support must bear by the silent recognition that no one—not even the accused nation—actually believes the lies they so regularly utter and side with.
Despite the commonplace reality of paying for influence in politics, Israel alone is immune to criticism for playing this game, hiding crass political manuevering behind the hundreds of years of suffering and humiliation Jewish people have faced. Any other nation could expect to receive reasonable criticism for doing what Israel has done. The imperative to resist antisemitism in all forms does not give a powerful military state the right to dispense with all scrutiny.
Articulating the notions of the apartheid society, or that lobbyists have previously purchased politicians, are matters of fact—and would continue to be were Israel not a Jewish state.
In the United States, politicians and political parties are also bought and purchased all the time to varying degrees from non-Jewish, non-governmental entities as well—The NRA, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Tobacco, Hobby Lobby, Farmers, Labor, etc.—and that is also vehemently complained about by various groups and peoples.
In these instances, the complaints are taken as they are and at face value. It is observed that a lobbying group supports a certain candidate, that that candidate then supports the legislative agenda of those supporting parties, and that that exchange inherently creates obvious potential conflicts of interest. Advocates for the politician or party might defend their integrity, but they don’t pretend the criticism stems from bigotry against the interest group.
And this, after all, all derives from a very simple connection of the mind. If group x pays candidate y, then how can the people know for sure whether the candidate is keeping the best interests of their constituents rather than of the interests who pay them? Again, there is nothing inherently antisemitic about any of this logic when applied to any other interest-power relationship dynamic; all interested parties—religious, secular, national, material, private, etc.—try to use either their money or their influence to garner favor towards their own religious, secular, national, material or private objectives.
Why then, should Israel be any different? That Israel dominates Palestine and Palestinians as much of the greater world watches on in abject horror and disgust, and that they lobby for the support that the United States provides them with, are factually accurate, documented and well understood statements. They continue to receive the criticism that they do from human rights groups, professors and journalists not because they are largely Jewish, but because they are committing fundamental crimes against humanity.
That they are Jewish actually has no relevant bearing on the issue at all. What has recently unfurled in the Palestinian town of Huwara is another case in point. After a Palestinian gunman shot two brothers to death, a mob of Israelis rampaged through the village, leaving hundreds injured and a soul perished in their wake; yet not all are mad about it. In Jewish history, this would be known as a pogrom—and indeed, by the broad, non-specific definition of the word, this too qualifies as a pogrom, like Kristallnacht, as it has been compared to; even a top Israeli general agrees.
Yet the outcry over this has been stifled by another, obfuscatory discussion: is it antisemitic to call a mob made of angry Israeli individuals a pogrom? This ludicrous argument in support of this notion is in the same vein as some of those that we’ve touched upon thus far; can Israel and Israeli policy be compared to any of those horrors that have historically been afflicted upon Jewish people by others? Whether apartheid, violence, or fascism—can Israel reflect that which it has long sought to historically overcome?
Israel is not alone in having an image of itself and its place in history that is difficult to align with the ugly realities of actually existing nation-states. The United States too has a national mythology rooted in high minded ideals. Yet like Israel, the history and the mythology so often do not reflect the other; the ideal so rarely ever reflects reality. The United States may be “the land of the free,” but that land was built upon—for literal decades before and after its birth—racial slavery, segregation, nativism, xenophobia, sufferage like Hellenistic Greece, and native genocide. It lives with the spectres and scars of these legacies still today, as well as the considerable blowback still effecting the country from it all. Simply invoking shared national ideals does not render it immune to criticism; indeed, if anything, it demands a higher standard.
A nation—any nation—cannot escape the external perception of others, simply by pretending the past and present are not as they have been and are; only by confronting the present and the past, can the future be anything but what it has been. Ultimately, accountability is as important a quality for societies and nation-states to display as it is for individuals. Yet the question begs to be asked once more; whether apartheid, violence, or fascism—can Israel reflect those banes which it has long fought to sustain itself against?
For those who turn a blind eye to the abuses that go on in Israel, the answer remains a clear and decisive no; Israel, no matter how similarly it acts to other, highly criticized nations, cannot be accused of anything in good faith. All accusations of an unpleasing nature are, on this view, bad faith suggestions born from hate and jealousy—not from any compassion towards greater humanity.
To exempt Israel from the intellectual examinations of this nation and the world by claiming that any good-faith criticism of their government, their lobbying efforts, and their treatment of Palestinians is akin to the many centuries of bad-faith ravings by reactionary bigots does no honor to the countless millions of victims of real antisemitism throughout the centuries.
What can be said about Israel, other than cheap praise? If—during the discussion concerning Israel—one cannot speak of the money that Israel spends to influence American politicians or lobbying firms, cannot speak about the way Israel treats the Palestinians and has taken Palestine from them over decades, cannot speak about the far-right fascists that currently hold positions of power in the government—and have done so across Israel’s history—cannot speak about the historical and present circumstances and violence that furnishes more horrifying circumstances and violence still today, and cannot speak about the apartheid in which a people are held subjugated in, then what left is there even to say? If it is all antisemitism—every word of it—then what truly can even be said about Israel?
Featured Image is Israel’s “Security Fence,” by Justin McIntosh