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Who Gets To Define Anti-Semitism?

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a meeting on a local college campus for Students for Justice in Palestine. As it came out that I was both a Zionist but also sympathetic to the Palestinian plight, I received dozens of questions from students asking how I could hold these two “incompatible” ideas.

I spent the meeting attempting to differentiate between the worst behavior of specific Zionists and the Zionist movement in general, along with trying to explain to the group why much of their anti-Israel activity is interpreted as anti-Semitic.

One of the attendees, an older student, said that he didn’t particularly hate Israel. Rather, he was ideologically opposed to all nation-states due to the inevitable evil caused by the enterprise.

“So why did you join SJP specifically?” I asked him, in front of the room of 25 or so people.

“Well,” he said, “this was just the easiest choice. There is just no other group on campus that strongly advocates against any other nation-state, so when I started school, I joined SJP.”

And then, it clicked.

Before I even had the chance to respond, I watched as his demeanor literally changed from that of a person who thought that he was doing a public and social service by spending his time demonizing Israel into someone who now understood why outright criticism of Israel could be perceived as anti-Semitic.

It’s a complicated question. A number of comments from freshman Congresswoman Ilhan Omar have sparked a widespread debate over what constitutes anti-Semitism. A proliferation of articles, throughout both the Jewish and wider American media , have all attempted to define exactly what constitutes Jew hatred and whether or not it has anything to do with the modern Jewish state of Israel.

These days it seems that everyone, Jewish or not, is suddenly an expert on historical anti-Semitism and its exact parameters.

In fact, what this debate has revealed is that just as important as the question of what constitutes anti-Semitism is the question of who gets to define it. Should it be decided by what the majority of Jews believe? Or by some sort of external measure?

The question gets to the heart of how change happens. Nearly all progress within Jewish society (and really society in general) came from a few radicals with the courage to stand up to mainstream society, shifting the status-quo towards a more progressive vision. This was as true of the biblical prophets who were constantly maligned by the priests, aristocracy, and Israelite masses of their day as it was true of “heretical” Jewish thinkers like Maimonides, Spinoza, Mendelssohn, and Herzl who were each charged with being anti-Jewish in some way or other by their peers. Today, all are viewed as visionaries.

Necessary revolutions often come from the courageous few willing to speak truth to power. For this reason, we cannot allow a simple majority of a community to have the final word as to the definition of racism against them. This would mean that even if the majority of the Jewish community decided that any criticism of Israel was anti-Semitic, we would be forced to allow that definition to stick — a scenario that would certainly stifle necessary debate. People need to be able to criticize settlements, the disparities between East and West Jerusalem, creeping theocratic policies, and the subtle racism in many parts of Israeli society without being called anti-Semites — even if the majority of Jews would one day decide it to be so.

And yet, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that much criticism of Israel, even if levied by well meaning people, finds its origins in anti-Semitism. The “greatest hits” of 20th century European anti-Semitism such as claims of Jewish dual loyalty, Jews controlling the media and banks, and even the global Zionist plot to cause unnecessary wars with the end goal of taking over the world, are quite ubiquitous in the anti-Zionist camp, as Jeremy Corbyn’s hordes of supporters have done a good job of demonstrating. And one need not look to England. Both Hamas’s charter and Mahmoud Abbas’s dissertation revolve around the idea that the Holocaust was actually caused by the Zionists, a classic anti-Semitic cliché.

We obviously need some sort of definition of anti-Semitism that is expansive enough to include jabs at Israel that are based on these canards, but is objective enough to avoid collapsing in on subjective Jewish opinion that might exclude legitimate criticism of Israel.

There are cases where anti-Semitism is clear. There are others where there is a fuzzy gray area, such as certain criticisms of Israel. Both the definition of anti-Semitism, and who gets to define it, will be debated for the foreseeable future.

And this is a good thing. For arguing over an objective definition of anti-Semitism rather than simply defining it according to majority vote shows that this is truly a debate over truth. And while this discussion is hard and emotionally draining, we will all be better off for having it.

Moshe Daniel Levine is the Senior Jewish Educator at OC Hillel and a Jewish blogger.

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