When is criticism of Israel legitimate and when is it antisemitism?

“Israelphobia” is the term that Dan Diker and his fellow writers use to describe the overlap between political criticism and antisemitism.

When is criticism of Israel legitimate, and when is it antisemitic? In "Israelphobia and the West: The Hijacking of Civil Discourse on Israel and How to Rescue It", Dan Diker and the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) seek to answer this question.

“Israelphobia” is the term that Diker and his fellow writers use to describe the overlap between political criticism and antisemitism. Unlike normal criticism, Israelphobia is hatred against Israel for what it is, not what it does, and uses political terminology to “cloak” what in other situations would be perceived as bigotry.

Israelphobia is a book of 19 essays published by the JCPA and edited by Diker, a JCPA fellow and director of the Project on BDS and Political Warfare. Headed by former ambassador Dore Gold, JCPA is a research institute with a focus on public diplomacy and foreign policy, which has allowed it to tap a pool of influential essayists for the collection. The essayists are diverse in expertise, with diplomats, journalists and academics, as well as background, with Israeli-Arab, Ethiopian-Israeli, black South African and Christians offering unique viewpoints to the discussion.

The essays were organized and curated in 2019, a pre-pandemic period which saw a significant rise in antisemitism. In New York, Jews were being attacked in the streets. There was a major shooting at the Poway synagogue in April. On campus, Jewish students were harassed and ostracized by their peers unless they denounced Israel, as described by Daniel Gordis.

The impression given by essays like Malcolm Hoenlein’s is that a gap has been created by increasing deference to political convenience. Journalists and politicians are neglecting to report and address antisemitism by political allies. Israelphobia favors US Rep. Ilhan Omar as an example: Her comments have yet to have been properly admonished by Democratic leadership. For the same reason, street attacks by some groups weren’t reported on in 2019. It was politically inconvenient to prevailing narratives of the “Postmodernism” that Prof. Shmuel Trigano describes with contempt. As Gordis notes, Jews aren’t rated high in the Progressive stack. These political indulgences shift the Overton Window, which gives a spectrum on acceptable discourse to the mainstream, to allow rhetoric that has similar political trappings.

Natan Sharansky presents an example of cloaked antisemitism, how if one says “Zionist” rather than “Jew,” when using antisemitic tropes, it’s more palatable. He compares this to Stalinist rhetoric, which would often use the same Zionist/Jew rhetorical sleight of hand.

Much of Israelphobia is dedicated to critical analysis of the political buzzwords slung against Israel. The apartheid allegation alone is addressed several times, with dedicated essays by Luba Mayekiso and Olga Meshoe Washington. The extreme language and allegations implicit in calling Israel an apartheid state or a colonial power is divorced from the concerns and needs of Israeli-Arabs and Palestinians living in the Levant, as Khaled Abu Toameh explains in his essay. The essays argue repeatedly that the buzzwords are used to convey hatred, with hope that their emotional weight will bully others into anti-Israel positions.

So how does one distinguish between those legitimately criticizing Israel from those abusing buzzwords and “correct” political narratives? Despite being the central question of the book, many of the essays talk about the origins and manifestations of the phenomenon, the problems it causes, or other tangential issues rather than addressing the question. Asa Kasher’s essay puts forward the most thorough and analytical argument, which ultimately comes down to illegitimate criticism of Israel being a double standard or attacking Israel for being Israel. Alan Dershowitz echoes the points of nature and double standards, though doesn’t go into as much detail as Kasher.

Double standards are included in the famous 3D’s test created by Sharansky. The test is the basis for much of the reasoning throughout the book, with Sharansky arguing for the test’s continued validity for detecting illegitimate criticism. Many of the essayists, such as Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, believe that adoption and proliferation of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition for antisemitism would counter Israelphobia.

Since 2019, the political landscape and discourse has shifted drastically. However Israelphobia remains relevant and predictive of the changes, despite being stuck with examples and situations that seem overused by now. Israelphobia predicted the popularization of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, which continues to be adopted by states and institutions. Gold’s essay on African diplomatic relations is still relevant, explaining the importance of diplomacy today in Sudan and the African Union. The essays by Joshua Washington and Messeret Woldemichael Kasabian challenge the flaws of Black Lives Matter’s antagonism against Israel prior to the movement’s renewed popularization.

Despite geopolitical and social changes, Israelphobia remains a must-read for politicians, activists and students seeking to understand modern anti-Israel discourse.