Antisemitism and “antisemitism,” an update

I’ve posted a couple of times about the current push to treat criticism of Israel as a form of antisemitism. Both in Europe and in North America, we’re being told that anti-Israel talk is actually coded racism, a way to express hatred for Jews without sounding like a bigoted jerk. If you’ve seen those earlier posts, you know where I stand on this one. I see the whole campaign as an exercise in cynical manipulation, designed to silence criticism of Israeli policies– and sometimes to settle local scores along the way, as in Britain, where antisemitism accusations have been used to attack the current Labour Party leadership.

Does it really need explaining that it’s dangerous to abuse language this way? It’s a danger that should worry you even if you endorse Israeli policies. There’s real antisemitism out there in the world, but using the label as a political weapon just hollows out the accusation. We’ve had enough big concepts trashed through cynical misuse. Do we really want to add antisemitism to the list?

In fact I sometimes think it’s all so obvious, it’s not worth complaining again– and then some new event shows that actually yes, it needs to be pointed out just how creepy the “no criticism of Israel” movement is becoming.

Addition # 1 in the fake-antisemitism dossier comes from my own state of New York. A few days ago, our governor Andrew Cuomo put out an executive order forbidding state agencies from boycotting Israeli products and services. As Glenn Greenwald points out in another of his terrific posts on the issue, Cuomo’s action rates especially high on the sleeze-meter. A couple of months ago, he actually ordered state agencies to boycott North Carolina, for violating the rights of trans people– so he’s not actually against using state boycotts as a way to change policies he dislikes. And then, the New York State Legislature had been unwilling to pass proposed legislation on the boycott issue– by going ahead via executive order, Cuomo’s managed to be undemocratic as well as hypocritical.

The other new item comes from Israel itself, where the extreme right-winger Avigdor Lieberman has just returned to high government office.  Not just any office, either– he’s now minister of defense, which means he makes a ton of decisions critical to Palestinian lives. So it’s worth paying attention to Lieberman’s comments about Palestinians, Muslims, and Arabs over the years: such as that most of Israel’s Palestinian citizens would “have to find a new Arab entity” in which to live beyond Israel’s borders. “They have no place here. They can take their bundles and get lost;” and urging death penalties for members of the Israeli parliament “who meet with members of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.”  (I take these examples from the larger list put together by the University of Michigan scholar Juan Cole.)

Some Israeli politicians have reacted strongly to the Lieberman appointment– former prime minister Ehud Barak recently warned that Israel is showing “signs of fascism“– but apparently that’s a minority position. The polls say Lieberman is a popular guy, with about 60 percent of the population viewing him as a legit national leader.

So the question to ask Andrew Cuomo and others pushing no-boycott laws is: if this isn’t enough to legitimate critical treatment of Israel, what would it take?

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