Criticizing Israel’s Apartheid Policies Isn’t Antisemitic — And Hasn’t Led to a Surge in Antisemitic Incidents

By Huzaifa Shahbaz

As protesters, elected officials, journalists, and human rights activists across America vocally criticized Israel’s escalating human rights abuses on the Palestinian people last month, Israel advocacy groups in the United States were faced with a persistent challenge: if you cannot defend inhumane Israeli policies on their merits, how do you silence Israel’s critics and change the conversation?

Enter the Anti-Defamation League, which publicly claimed that criticism of the Israeli government by supporters of Palestinian human rights had led to a sudden and sharp uptick in antisemitic incidents across America.

That claim drew media attention away from the suffering of the Palestinian people, cast a negative light on diverse and peaceful pro-Palestine protests, sparked a nationwide warning about antisemitism from the Department of Homeland Security, and even led actor-activist Mark Ruffalo to blame his own criticism of the Israeli government for contributing to anti-Semitism.

Here’s the problem. Criticism of the Israeli government isn’t antisemitic, and criticism of the Israeli government did not spark a surge in antisemitic incidents.

Last week, Jewish Currents published a detailed piece analyzing the Anti-Defamation League’s press release showing an “uptick” in purported antisemitic incidents. When you look at the fine print, it becomes clear that some of the ADL’s data was, at best, mischaracterized, and at worst, simply incorrect.

For example, in its tracker of incidents, the ADL counted protest picket signs critical of Zionism as separate incidents of antisemitism, even if those signs were held by Jewish activists.

Putting aside the fact that such signs don’t fit the traditional definition of antisemitism, citing the existence of every sign as a separate “incident” gives the false impression of a sudden and widespread surge in actual incidents of harassment or attacks.

The ADL also cited at least one incident in which a pro-Israel extremist allegedly charged into a crowd of pro-Palestine protesters with a flagpole as an example of antisemitism. The ADL only noted the fight that broke out, implying that Palestinian demonstrators had suddenly and randomly attacked a Jewish person.

In addition, other anti-Palestinian leaders have also claimed that using words like “apartheid” to describe Israeli government policy contributes to anti-Semitism.

According to The Washington Post, American Jewish Congress executive director Joel Rubin “said the current level of vitriol in the United States against Jews is higher than he’s ever seen it” and “pointed to an increased use of the term ‘apartheid’ by progressive politicians” as an example.

Former ADL director Abraham Foxman accused The New York Times of a blood libel against the entire Jewish community simply because it printed the faces of the 67 Palestinian children killed by precision-guided Israeli missiles and the two Israeli children killed by Hamas rockets in the recent fighting.

These baseless claims are no surprise. Anti-Palestinian groups have a long history of weaponizing charges of antisemitism — especially against Muslim, Palestinian and Black activists — to defend the Israeli government from legitimate criticism.

Before breaking this down further, let’s be clear: anti-Semitism is a very real issue in this country and around the world, especially considering the rise of far-right political parties and white supremacist groups. It’s also absolutely unacceptable for anyone to blame, harass or otherwise target Jewish people because of the actions of the Israeli government. Doing so is the very definition of anti-Semitism.

However, falsely characterizing legitimate criticism of Israel as antisemitism undermines the fight against the very real antisemitism that the Jewish community experiences.

Furthermore, to conflate the religion of Judaism with the government of Israel (and its foundational political ideology, Zionism), is insulting and ahistorical. In fact, American Jewish activists are some of the most vocal critics of Israel’s apartheid policies.

Jewish writers and activists have led the charge in pointing out the ADL’s attempt to silence and smear Palestinian human rights activists as antisemitic is baseless. I concur with them. Here are a few reasons why.

Point #1

Some of Israel’s most prominent politicians have acknowledged its apartheid reality. Take, for instance, former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who said the following:

“Israel… better rid itself of the territories and their Arab population as soon as possible. If it did not, Israel would soon become an apartheid state.”

Or take, for example, former Israeli Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair, who in an op-ed for Haaretz newspaper in 2002 said:“We established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories”

Still not convinced? Look at what former Prime Minister Ehud Barak had to say at the Herzliya security conference in 2010:

“If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”

Point #2

Human rights groups have told us so. Israel is a horrific human rights abuser. Human Rights Watch, one of America’s largest human rights organization, released a report last month declaring Israel an apartheid state that commits war crimes.

Even Israel’s most prominent human rights group, B’Tselem, says that the state pursues a nondemocratic “apartheid regime” and Jewish supremacy” in both Israel and the Palestinian territories. The worst part — the United States has issued more than 40 vetoes against UN resolutions on Israel giving it the green light to continue its brutal occupation and siege on Gaza.

Point #3

Academic scholars of Jewish studies and other departments have denounced Israel for its apartheid reality.

In this letter, more than 170 Jewish studies and Israel studies scholars wrote in part:

“We also acknowledge that the Zionist movement, a diverse set of linked ethnonationalist ideologies, also was and is still shaped by settler-colonial paradigms…These paradigms, as implemented by the Zionist movement and the state of Israel in twentieth-century Palestine, have contributed to unjust, enduring, and unsustainable systems of Jewish supremacy, ethnonationalist segregation, discrimination and violence against Palestinians…”

Hundreds of scholars around the world have also signed on to an open letter and call to action to affirm the Palestinian struggle and address Israel’s ongoing apartheid policies. They stated in part:

“Israel has expanded and entrenched its settler sovereignty through warfare, expulsion, tenuous residency rights, and discriminatory planning policies. The ostensible peace process has perpetuated its land grabs and violent displacement under the fictions of temporality. Together these policies constitute apartheid, bolstered by a brute force that enshrines territorial theft…”

In sum, it’s dangerous to suggest that criticizing Israel equates to antisemitism. There shouldn’t be any contradiction between opposing Israeli policy and condemning antisemitism.

On another note, the disingenuous attempt to link diverse and peaceful pro-Palestine demonstrations with a surge in antisemitism distracts from the very real Islamophobia we have been witnessing in the past few weeks. In May alone, CAIR documented four anti-mosque incidents, including an attempted stabbing and vandalizing of a mosque with “death to Palestine” spray-painted on its walls.

We also saw three verbal and physical assault cases, including a Fresno man who was arrested for pepper-spraying Pro-Palestinian protestors and two Muslim women who were attacked and spat on for wearing hijab. These are not isolated incidents. This is what everyday Muslims around the United States are dealing with while simultaneously being falsely smeared as antisemitic for defending Palestinian human rights.

All Americans should feel exceptionally free to speak the truth about Israeli government policy just as we do with any other foreign regime without fear of being smeared as bigots, punished by anti-boycott laws or otherwise targeted.

After all, are we truly living in a representative democracy if we are deprived of our right to criticize the Israeli government? How can we allow a foreign government to dictate our right to free speech?

Here’s the good news: the tide has turned, the truth is spreading and things are beginning to change. The Israeli government and its war crime apologists are losing the war of public opinion. Now we must keep up the momentum by continuously standing with our brothers and sisters in Palestine.

Call your congressional members. Demand that your House representative and senators end the $4 billion military aid subsidized by your tax dollars. Support Palestine advocacy groups and Palestinian businesses. Support efforts to use political and economic pressure to end the occupation.

Most importantly, always remember one thing: Palestine is not the exception.

Huzaifa Shahbaz is the Research & Advocacy Coordinator of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights organization.