I grew up in a community that staunchly supports Israel. It’s the kind of place where you would regularly see billboards like this one:
In the U.S., there are three main pro-Israeli lobbies. One is a mixture of interests that sees Israel as a key ally in a region that is volatile and that contains many American interests (like oil – lots of it). Another consists of Jews and Jewish organizations that support Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people. The last describes most of the Israel supporters in my hometown: Christian Zionists. Christian Zionists are Christians who see the return of all Jews to the Holy Land as key to the prophecy of the Second Coming of Christ and the Rapture. Growing up around a lot of Christian Zionists, I couldn’t help but support Israel for similar reasons, but as I got older, I came to realize that Christian Zionism is super freaky and actually pretty anti-Semitic.
You see, Christian Zionists believe that once all the Jews return to the Holy Land (read Israel), the Second Coming will begin, and in that process, all of the Jews (who many Christian Zionists believe were responsible for the death of Christ the first time around) will be struck down by God for their refusal to accept Christ as Lord and Savior.
So . . . Basically the Christian Zionists want to kill all of the people they claim to support . . . THIS IS THE RIDICULOUSNESS I WAS RAISED TO BELIEVE!!
In college, I was introduced to the other side of the narrative, a side where Israel is not some benevolent home of the Jews (“A land without a people for a people without a land“) but is actually a political pawn of the United States that uses its funding from the U.S. (to the tune of $3 billion per year) to oppress the Palestinians in an Apartheid-like system of suppression. I learned of the narrative, counter to the dominant one in media and in the Churches and schools I had attended, where Palestinian loss of life and land is wildly disproportionate to that of Israel.
Then in June of 2009, I visited Israel and Palestine. In Israel, I saw a bustling, Western country with seemingly-endless resources. In Palestine, I saw poverty, desperation, and violent oppression.
These experiences helped me to understand the tremendous power imbalance in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with one side backed and funded by the most powerful country in the world and the other being forcefully thrown from their land with little recourse.
As a result, I’ve long been active in the movement to secure a free and independent Palestine, partnering with Palestinians, Jews, and other concerned citizens in the U.S. and around the world. In this activism, I found a troubling trend. One of the first times I experienced it was while marching in a pro-Palestinian march in Chicago. People were lining the street where we were marching, screaming at us and holding up photos of the atrocities of the Holocaust. They were screaming, “BIGOT! ANTI-SEMITE! IF YOU HAD YOUR WAY, ALL JEWS WOULD BE WIPED OFF THE MAP!!!”
Those of us who were working for a free and independent Palestine are regularly accused of anti-Semitism. I have heard it from Zionist Jews, but I have also regularly heard it from Christians who support Israel (which is ironic, considering that Christian Zionists are calling for every Jew to eventually be killed and caste in to hell).
In the face of such criticisms, I immediately became pretty defensive. After all, there are ways that many in Zionist movement conflate critiques of Israel with anti-Semitism to try to shield Israel from criticism, and this should be called out when it happens. Let’s be clear: Criticism of Israel DOES NOT EQUAL anti-Semitism.
But how often is criticism of Israel couched in true anti-Semitism? Even the Anti-Defamation League recognizes a need to differentiate and to confront the anti-Semitism that is, at times, a part of the criticism of the state of Israel.
Sometimes it can be hard to identify anti-Semitism in the United States. After all, at least by the measures of income and education, Jews in the United States are doing well. Though we never have had a Jewish president (a tough sell in an increasingly-Christian nation), three of the 9 Supreme Court Justices are Jews, and the percent of Jewish representation in Congress is three times the percentage of the Jewish electorate!
Looking at these measures of success makes it easy to ignore the ways that Jews are marginalized and are targets of oppression throughout most of the world. In the United States, for instance, 72% of victims of religious hate crimes in 2009 were Jews even though Jews only make up 2% of the population. Worldwide, violent manifestations of anti-Semitism have steadily risen since 1989. Further, while many Jews in the United States pass as White, once their Jewish identity is revealed, they experience microaggressions (such as being told they are responsible for Jesus’ death or that their people control Wall Street and Hollywood) on the regular.
In the movement to liberate Palestine, anti-Semitism can be overt and covert. For instance, there are countless bold anti-Semitic images and descriptions used to criticize Israel.
In more subtle ways, though, the brutality of the Israeli state is often conflated with Jews or the Jewish religion as a whole. I cannot tell you how often I have heard language like, “The Jews killed 8 Palestinians in Gaza yesterday.” or “The Jews seem to have forgotten the violence and oppression of the Holocaust as they perpetuate the same against the Palestinians!”
What statements like this presume is that Jews are some kind of monolith who all believe the same thing and are involved in some kind of international conspiracy (a typical anti-Semitic trope). What about the diversity of Jewish voices that oppose the actions of Israel like Jewish Voice for Peace and the myriad of anti-Zionist Jews?
Just as we should not stereotype any marginalized group as believing or acting as a monolith (i.e., all Muslims are violent, all Black people love fried chicken, Women are just less sexual than men, etc), we should not fall into the anti-Semitic pattern of doing the same with Jews as they relate to Israel.
Further, to appeal the Jewish history of trauma as a way to critique the actions of an independent world government is wildly problematic. First, it assumes that the interests of the state of Israel are necessarily and inextricably tied to the history of Jewish oppression (which in some ways they are but in some ways they are not – and it should be noted that some in the Jewish government are quick to link their current “need” for a disproportionately-strong military to the history of violence against Jews). Additionally, for every Jew, whether they support Israel or not, such language has the power to bring up powerfully traumatizing imagery or memories, all to the end of making a political point. Is that fair? Is that not simply hurtful?
My point here is that there is nothing wrong with criticizing the state of Israel. Israel should be criticized for its violent repression of the Palestinian people. However, whenever I look to criticize Israel, I need to be aware of the anti-Semitism that was ingrained in me growing up around Christian Zionists. I need to be aware of the anti-Semitism inherent in dominant, Christian U.S. culture that labels the Jewish identity and religion as undeniably other.
And this awareness needs to inform my criticism so that I am clear not to perpetuate prejudice, bigotry, and hate toward one group of people in my efforts to help another realize justice. And I need to have the courage to call out anti-Semitism in the movement to liberate Palestine whenever I see it.