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Can we separate anti-Semitism from legitimate criticism?

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The Elders’ Senior Middle East analyst, Nigel Pearce, suggests that criticism of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians is not necessarily anti-Semitism.

In an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 in 2013, US comedian and film director Woody Allen said: “I do feel there are many people that disguise their negative feelings toward Jews, disguise it as anti-Israel criticism, political criticism, when in fact what they really mean is that they don’t like Jews.”

His words are undoubtedly true, and reflect the burden of hostility that Jewish people have had to bear for centuries. But they do not address why the disguise is effective. Israel is as capable as any other nation of pursuing policies that are open to legitimate criticism by others. It is the height of intellectual laziness – disappointing in such an intellectually gifted people – to sweep such criticism under the convenient carpet of anti-Semitism.

Today, perhaps more than ever before, Israel’s legitimacy hinges on how it interacts with the Palestinians.

By way of analogy, if I criticise a policy of the Russians, with whom the British and other Western countries have not always seen eye to eye, I am nevertheless unlikely to be automatically accused of anti-East-Slavicism. If, on the other hand, I were to express my disapproval in a flood of social media diatribes against the Russians and Russophiles, advocate the expulsion of the large Russian community from the UK, and set fire to their Orthodox Cathedral in London – that would be anti-East-Slavic.

The legitimacy issue

The recent rise of anti-Semitism derives in part from the growing distance in time from the holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel. Thus, objection to Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, and towards Israel’s own Palestinian citizens, has given a perfect outlet for isolated pockets of hatred that previously lay smouldering like a heath fire under a topsoil of disapproval of anti-Semitism. But that does not hide the reality that Israeli policy today has a direct bearing on the perceived legitimacy of the Israeli state; and the perceived legitimacy of the Israeli state directly affects the level of anti-Semitism.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin – not an advocate of the two-state outcome, but a supporter of the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel – recognises this reality. In a recent speech criticising the Nationality Bill, which seeks to enshrine in Israeli law the Jewishness of the state at the expense of democratic principles, he asked: ‘Does this Bill not in fact play into the hands of those who seek to slander us?’

Regaining ‘high regard’

Some Israelis bitterly criticise international policies and measures that distinguish between Israel within pre-1967 borders on the one hand, and the settlements and land absorbed by the route of the Separation Wall on the other. In doing so, they ironically fail to recognise that the distinction maintains the legitimacy of Israel, as recognised by international law, rather than undermining it. The more Israeli encroachment on Palestinian land becomes a fait accompli, the more Israel loses its legitimacy.

Two Palestinian men talk through a gap in the separation wall in Abu Dis, West Bank, an eastern suburb of Jerusalem. Photo: Chryssa Panossiadou/Panos

However, more important than the strictly legal aspect is the moral one. Today, perhaps more than ever before, Israel’s legitimacy hinges on how it interacts with the Palestinians. If Israeli policy were based on enlightened self-interest rather than narrow nationalist-religious fervour, a resolution of the conflict between the two parties could emerge that was widely viewed as not only within the law, but manifestly just. If Israeli behaviour towards the Palestinians ceased to be discriminatory, much of the criticism would quickly fade, and anti-Semitism would be exposed once more as the unacceptable prejudice of a diminishing minority.

In a recent article in the New York Times, Vincent Fean quoted former British Prime Minister John Major’s comment on Israel: ‘To whom high regard is paid, of him much is expected.’ It is in Israel’s power to change its attitude and the direction of its policy towards the Palestinians and Bedouin, and thus merit, or regain, this ‘high regard’.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation.

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