Home > Ira Sharkansky, Iran, Lebanon, Syria > How should we distinguish between anti-Semites and vehement opponents of Israel?

How should we distinguish between anti-Semites and vehement opponents of Israel?

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–Does it do more harm than good to describe Israel’s intense antagonists as anti-Semites?

No doubt it assures that any discussion will be heated. However, if it was appropriate to use the term, it was, most likely, already at a fever pitch. 

Is it a distortion of reality to accuse opponents of anti-Semitism?

No more than a substantial segment of current opponents distort reality by focusing on Israel as deserving censure, boycotts, or other punishment without considering Israel’s activities in comparison to those of other countries set upon by intense enemies.

To repeat what I have written previously: anti-Semitism differs from a reasonable posture against Israeli actions to the extent that individuals accuse Israel of violating standards of activity far more onerous than they use to judge other countries, including their own.
The A word does not cool things, but neither may it increase the heat above where it already is. It may serve to link current accusations with earlier stereotypes well defined as beyond the pale, and lead some people to stop going after Jews out of fear of being labeled with one of history’s most objectionable labels.
My discussion of this issue has angered one person who is–or used to be–a friend. He wrote that I should butt out of the controversy about the proposed boycott of Israeli products by the Olympia Food Coop. According to him, I do not understand Olympia, and I may inflame efforts to deal with the issue by temperate people like him who live in the community. He urges me to, “open your eyes and look in the mirror. Israel is its own worst enemy which comes from blaming everybody else and taking no responsibility for its own actions.”
Butt out I will not do. It is my business every bit as much as it is that of the good people of Olympia. Israel is the country where I live. I am among the targets of Olympian madness. It is me and my colleagues whose work has not been considered by professional journals for reasons that appear fabricated, and built upon the same logic as that of the Food Coop. It is me and my family who may be subject to delay or even prohibition when we seek entry into a country aroused against Israel. On several occasions we have decided not to speak in Hebrew in a foreign city, in order to avoid what might happen.

Another correspondent wrote that “accusations of anti-Semitism inflame passions and prompt defensiveness rather than highlighting the error of boycott and divestment” This came from someone who also lives in the area of the Food Coop. The note when on to say  that “this campaign is a much more serious threat than Israelis (or certainly the Israeli government) realize, and should be considered and addressed with the attention and resources typically devoted to conventional military threats (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah) and terrorism threats (Hamas and others).”

When I responded that the issue might not warrant Israel’s air force staging a bombing raid over Olympia, the follow up was 
Not bombing – different types of resources, but a similar level of attention and consideration, talent, money, high-level visibility, etc….  Some of this is already underway; I understand that the Foreign Ministry has an “inquiry commission” (probably by another name) looking at the media and public-diplomacy aspects of the Gaza flotilla fiasco.

This is one way of calling for better Israeli explanations of what it does, and better campaigns to defend itself against outrageous accusations.

That would be nice. Maybe ideal. However, the proposal has been around for a long time. It surfaces whenever there is a perceived loss to those who accuse Israel of abominations.
I doubt that it is doable.
Governments know how to build cities and other physical structures, and armies know how to destroy them. The delivery of health, education, and other services responds to money and administrative detail. Changing attitudes in a democratic setting with freedom of expression is another matter. Intensity resists persuasion. A popular fashion that demonizes some distant people may be even more resistant. This may be especially the case when the campaign is widespread, financed by wealthy countries, and when the target of the hostility is a people who have served time and again as a scapegoat.
We have traveled back to anti-Semitism.
It is not a charge that should be used casually. Remember that I viewed Barack Obama’s Cairo speech as balanced, and I have ridiculed those who consider him anti-Semitic, or a Muslim and born somewhere that would disqualify him from being the President of the United States. I also ridiculed his demand that Jews not build in neighborhoods of Jerusalem. I seek to avoid madness while I identify other faults are ill-advised.
The campaign against the Olympia Food Coop will remain with local people, most likely focusing on changing the views of individuals who are not firmly committed to the boycott. I will not try to dictate the vocabulary of those working in my interests. But neither will I desist from concluding that fomenters of the boycott, and others like them fit a pattern best described by the “A” word. 

Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University
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