When criticism of Israel becomes anti-Semitism

Thursday, September 10, 2020 - 12:09am

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As reported by The Michigan Daily in January of this year, Witness for Peace, an anti-Israel hate group, has spent the past 16 years of Saturday mornings protesting outside Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor. A congregant of the synagogue motioned to sue the group at the end of 2019. On Aug. 19, 2020,  the ruling was justified by the First Amendment and the lawsuit was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts.

As a young Jewish adult, I am often confronted with the question of whether anti-Israel beliefs equate to anti-Semitism. Many of my Jewish peers accuse people who are simply critical of the Israeli government’s actions as being anti-Semitic, though in my mind, these aren’t equivalent. On the other hand, I have had non-Jewish peers assume my identity automatically constitutes support of the Israeli government’s actions, a conflation which I perceive as anti-Semitic. It is possible to defend the existence of a Jewish state while criticizing its politics and to advocate for Jewish people while advocating against the Israeli government. Judaism exists independently of the state of Israel, so legitimate disapproval of the Israeli government should not include ridicule of the Jewish people.

However, legitimate disapproval of Israel’s government does not describe what is expressed in the protests outside Beth Israel Congregation. According to the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that aims to “stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all,” criticism of Israel becomes anti-Semitic when the actions of Israel are attributed to the Jewish people, when “Israel is denied the right to exist as a Jewish state and equal member of the global community” or when known anti-Semitic “symbols, images or theories are used” to defend anti-Israel ideologies. 

Signs displayed by WFP protestors meet all three criteria, making their anti-Israel protests undoubtedly anti-Semitic. Their slogans included “Resist Jewish Power” and “Jewish Power Corrupts,” implying that the corruption within the Israeli government is a direct result of the Jewish faith of government officials, even though Israel is not governed by Jewish law. Furthermore, these phrases allude to the widespread conspiracies that claim Jewish people have “all the power,” which are anti-Semitic by nature. Another sign held during WFP protests demands that people “boycott Israel.” In promoting the shunning of Israel as a whole, WFP denies its equivalence to other members of the global community. Although it is possible to denounce Israel without being anti-Semitic, WFP does not use such tactics in their protests.

The WFP conducts protests at the same time each week, specifically during Jewish holidays, which adds to its blatantly anti-Semitic message. Since 2003, members of the group have stood outside Beth Israel Congregation, holding signs with anti-Semitic language, on Saturday mornings, when many Jews come for Shabbat services. Chabad, among the largest Jewish religious organizations globally, describes Shabbat as “the centerpiece of Jewish life.” It is widely known as a day of rest. It is said in the Torah, the holy scripture in Judaism, that G-d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, blessing the day and declaring it holy. This seventh day is what we now know as Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. The WFP intentionally protests outside the synagogue during congregants’ celebration of Shabbat, ultimately tarnishing the holiness of the day and denying congregants the opportunity to observe the day of rest. The fulfillment of traditions in the Jewish faith has no correlation to the questionable actions of the Israeli government, so the WFP’s interruption of one to protest the other is sacrilegious and unjustifiable.

There is no issue to be had with a protest of the Israeli government’s actions; many can agree that the state’s politics are deeply flawed. However, the defamation of the Jewish people as evidence against Israel is not an ethical way to approach such concerns. I can confirm that we, as a Jewish people, have not been asked by Israeli government officials for our input regarding their actions, so the protest of the Jewish people as a means to protest the state of Israel is futile. Instead of perpetuating debunked conspiracies about Jewish people while disrupting their religious practice, the WFP should lobby Michigan’s representatives in the United States Congress and encourage them to decrease American funding to Israel. Not only would these efforts be better received by the public, but they would also be more effective in bringing about the tangible change they wish to see.

The lawsuit against the WFP was dismissed, as the U.S. Constitution upholds freedom of speech in the First Amendment. However, it is important to remember that the legality of an action does not speak to its integrity or morality. It is okay to protest a government — it is not okay to protest an identity.

Ilana Mermelstein can be reached at imerm@umich.edu.