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Preoccupation with Israel

Key Facts

  • The imposition of a special set of standards of treatment upon only Israel, in a world where far worse abuses of human rights (real or alleged) are simply ignored, must count as antisemitic.
  • While Western attention remains fixed on Israel and Palestine, the West has paid scant attention to recent barbarities of truly horrific proportions: in the Congo nearly 4,000,000 people have died in inter-communal hostilities in the past five years alone; in the Sudan 2,000,000 have been killed in the past decade, and 700,000 face ethnic cleansing today.
  • What defines expressions of anti-Zionism as antisemitic is the obsession with Israel, especially the singling out of Israel from among all nation-states for special treatment and thereby the application of a double standard.
  • Genuinely informed advocates distinguish accurately between valid and invalid criticism of Israel and, only in the most blatant cases of anti-Israel invective, do they accuse anyone of antisemitism.
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When there are far worse goings-on on the planet, many of which receive almost no attention at all, why are Israel and Zionism at the centre of worldwide attention?

Since the Israel-Palestinian conflict looms so large in the public consciousness, with Israelis typically cast as callous oppressors, many people, without a second thought, apply a double standard to Israel. Few stop to consider why they do not become as exercised over China’s occupation of Tibet or Russia’s occupation of Chechnya where more than 100,000 have died in combat (including Russia’s especially brutal bombardment of Grozny). Why is there so little attention paid to the “occupation” by Syria, Iraq and Turkey of Kurdistan, or to Syria’s occupation of Lebanon? Indeed, the West has paid scant attention to recent barbarities of truly horrific proportions:  in the Congo nearly 4,000,000 people have died in inter-communal hostilities in the past five years alone; in the Sudan 2,000,000 have been killed in the past decade and 700,000 face ethnic cleansing even today.  And yet, to an almost incomprehensible degree, Western attention remains transfixed on Israel and Palestine.

Excuses used to explain why Israel attracts so much attention do not convincingly account for the disparity.  The singling out of Israel for special treatment among all the world’s major trouble spots, with an application of standards unknown elsewhere, indicates an obsession, and, like all obsessions, is – by definition – irrational. The penchant for focusing on Israel with so much disproportionate attention, both critical and favourable, is, when all other factors – structural, historical, political, strategic, etc. – are taken into account, a clear case of an obsessional prejudice. Elizabeth Young-Bruehl describes it as “the need to confront Jewish [in this case “Israeli”]) power and influence.”

In her seminal book, The Anatomy of Prejudice, Young-Bruehl, a professor, psychotherapist and the biographer of Hannah Arendt, writes that antisemitism is characterized specifically as an obsessional complex and, indeed, calls it “the paradigmatic obsession prejudice.” Young-Bruehl distinguishes between “social” antisemitism, the personal discrimination against Jews during different historical periods, and the far more pernicious antisemitism that sees Jews as a separate, foreign, conspiratorially-tinged group.  It is this latter form that has given rise to such  charges as “dual loyalty;” or to claims that the United States’ pro-Israel lobby “controls Congress;” or that “neo-cons” (code-name for Jewish neo-conservatives) “control” Washington; that wars have been waged “for the benefit of Jews;” or that Israeli soldiers guilty of minor infractions are “acting like Nazis.”

Young-Bruehl notes that, historically, as social antisemitism has declined and Jews have gained social equality in a more tolerant, multicultural environment where personal discrimination is not only politically incorrect but also illegal, political antisemitism has often increased.  The two are in fact inversely related.  Young-Bruehl points out that it is when Jews have felt most socially secure that they were “blinded . . . to the more ominous antisemitism.”  Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, she argues that “the Jews . . . are safer when they are just being snubbed and socially insulted than when people think they are a political force.”

Of course, nothing irritates journalists as much as raising the spectre of antisemitism as the source of an excessive focus by media on Israel.  It is a sure conversation-stopper.  It is no coincidence that, in what has become for many Jews the locus classicus on the topic of Israel and the media, “Judging Israel” published in Time magazine on February 25, 1990, Charles Krauthammer leveled the charge of antisemitism against the media for their excessive mistreatment of Israel:

“Jews are news.  It is an axiom of journalism.  An indispensable axiom, too, because it is otherwise impossible to explain why the deeds and misdeeds of a dot-on-the-map Israel gets an absurdly disproportionate amount of news coverage around the world…

The conscious deployment of a double standard directed at the Jewish state and at no other state in the world, the willingness systematically to condemn the Jewish state for things others are not condemned for – this is not a higher standard.  It is a discriminatory standard.  And discrimination against Jews has a name too.  The word for it is anti-Semitism…

Had an analysis like Young-Bruehl’s been applied then to Krauthammer’s term “anti-Semitism” perhaps journalists would have understood that they were not being charged with classic personal Jew-hatred, but with something that runs deeper, more pervasively through the history and culture of Jewish-Gentile relations, and which operates at a mostly unconscious level.

What defines expressions of anti-Zionism as antisemitic is the obsession with Israel, especially the singling out of Israel from among all nation-states for special treatment and thereby the application of a double standard, one most often accompanied by extreme rhetoric and outright vituperation.

While proponents of extreme arguments such as “Israel is acting like Nazis” would vehemently deny that they are antisemitic, Amnon Rubinstein, an Israeli law professor and former Meretz MK, pointed to a case in Europe where the link between anti-Israeli and antisemitic propaganda received blatant expression (“The Cheshire smile of anti-Semitism,” Ha’aretz, March 11, 2003).  The director of Spain’s Art Malaga gallery “had refused to stage an exhibit by Haifa artist Patricia Sassoon, stating that the gallery “absolutely refuse[d] to work with any person related with Israel, as we are in total disaccord with its segregationist policy and we certainly hold an anti-Semitic attitude to any person related to that country.”  Rubinstein noted that while this is far from the first instance of a (European) boycott against Israelis, “this is the first case in which the term ‘anti-Semitism’ was openly and unashamedly employed.”

Rubinstein goes on to raise another thorny related matter: the singling out of Israel for special treatment.  “Why,” he asks, “is it that similar boycotts are not imposed for other disputed regions?  Why weren’t Serbian artists boycotted when the Serbians were committing war crimes against Muslims?  Why are Chinese artists not boycotted as a reaction to the occupation of Tibet?”  For that matter, why are Russian academics and artists not boycotted for the repression of Chechnya and the persecution of Muslims there?  Why only in Israel’s case is there a widely-accepted boycott?

Even if the director of the Spanish gallery had not admitted to being antisemitic, the decision to indulge in the boycott would, by its selective treatment alone, have done so: the imposition of a special set of standards of treatment upon only Israel, in a world where far worse abuses of human rights (real or alleged) are simply ignored, must count as antisemitic.  As Alan Dershowitz has written in his book, The Case for Israel:

So long as criticism [of Israel] is comparative, contextual, and fair, it should be encouraged, not disparaged.  But when the Jewish nation is the only one criticized for faults that are far worse among other nations, such criticism crosses the line from fair to foul, from acceptable to anti-Semitic.

In the Guardian, November 29, 2003, Emanuele Ottolenghi wrote:

Israel’s advocates do not want to gag critics by brandishing the bogeyman of antisemitism:  rather, they are concerned about the form the criticism takes.

Ottolenghi’s statement would be surprising to inveterate critics of Israel, like Linda McQuaig, who complain that:

Those who criticize the Israel government over its illegal [sic] 35-year occupation of Palestinian land are tarred with the brush of anti-Semitism . . . The suggestion that criticizing Israel is inherently anti-Semitic is, of course, being made with increasing frequency these days to silence critics of Israel, whose ranks include Jews inside and outside Israel and even Holocaust survivors.

(“Fanning the flames of anti-Semitism,” Toronto Star, March 7, 2004).

What’s important about McQuaig’s complaint is not that she made it but that she did not mention a single person who unfairly levels the charge of antisemitism against Israel’s (fair-minded) critics.

McQuaig’s complaint may thus be seen as the obverse side of the “don’t-chill-the-conversation-on-Israel” coin:  her own specious attempt to silence her critics in advance by asserting – without evidence – that “they” are accusing her (and others) of antisemitism.

Genuinely informed advocates for Israel do not level such charges.  They do distinguish accurately between valid and invalid criticism of Israel and, only in the most blatantly extreme cases of anti-Israel invective, do they accuse anyone of antisemitism.

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