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Bogus Charges

By Henri Picciotto

From Jewish Voice for Peace's book, Reframing Anti-Semitism (2003)

book cover

Inevitably, in the discussions of Iraq, the question of Israel-Palestine comes up. This is not surprising -- the issues are related, and deserve vigorous discussion, both separately and together. During the buildup to the war, such discussion happened, but unfortunately, at the slightest hint of criticism of Israeli policies, some people responded with charges of anti-Semitism.

Sometimes, there was merit to these charges. The claim that "the Jews" are the cause of war on Iraq is a rehashing of a classical anti-Semitic shibboleth about Jews running everything. The claim that it is somehow wrong to involve leaders of the Jewish community in the anti-war coalition is a sign that some activists were falling for a classical divide-and-conquer form of anti-Semitism. Such claims should be opposed in a principled and uncompromising way. Full and visible Jewish participation in this movement is the best way to do that.

However, charges of anti-Semitism are sometimes simply bogus.

Bogus charge: "It is anti-Semitic to 'bash' Israel at a demonstration about Iraq." This ignores the fact there is a profound link between the US support for the Israeli government and the US war on Iraq. Both have to do with how our government sees its geopolitical interests in the Middle East; both reveal the US government's disregard for the lives of Arabs; and the fog of war distracted the US public from escalated attacks on the Palestinians. It is entirely legitimate for anyone to draw these connections.

Bogus charge: "It is anti-Semitic to criticize Israel without criticizing other countries that commit atrocities." Not necessarily so! There are many reasons for people to focus on Israeli wrongdoings. Palestinians, for example, have a reason or two to bring this up. Jews also feel a particular association to this conflict. Besides, all Americans have a right to question how our foreign aid dollars are spent. U.S. military aid to Israel is by far the largest to any country. In the billions of dollars a year, it makes us accomplices to the illegal, immoral, and ultimately self-destructive occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.

Bogus charge: "It is anti-Semitic to say that the US government is attacking Iraq in part because of its strategic alliance with Israel." This statement should be discussed based on the evidence. It cannot be rejected out of hand on ideological grounds. True, any claim that Israel runs the US government is ridiculous, but it is no secret that many of the neoconservative hawks in Bush's circle are vigorous supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Sharon and his right-wing policies.

Bogus charge: "The antiwar movement must be anti-Semitic, because some Jews feel uncomfortable at peace marches." While there are some objectionable signs and speakers at demonstrations, there are other reasons that may account for some of this discomfort. Many Jews are not accustomed to hearing Israel criticized. Many Jews are not used to contact with Arabs. Some are uncomfortable at the sight of Palestinian flags or demonstrators wearing kaffiyehs (the Palestinian checkered headdress). That particular discomfort is not evidence of anti-Semitism at the march -- quite the contrary, it may be symptomatic of an inability among some to acknowledge the humanity of Palestinians and their right to a national identity.

Bogus charge: "It is anti-Semitic to call for 'the liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea', or to wear a t-shirt that says 'I hate '48'." Anti-Zionist views are not necessarily anti-Semitic, and they cannot and should not be kept out of the antiwar movement. Likewise, pro-Zionist views are not necessarily racist, and they cannot and should not be kept out of the antiwar movement. As JVP, we have agreed that while we as an organization will not endorse pro- or anti-Zionist views, we do not rule out working with pro- or anti-Zionist individuals and groups. In fact, it is highly unlikely that we or anyone can succeed in building a movement against the occupation without working with both pro- and anti-Zionist individuals and groups.

Still, we should strongly challenge signs and speeches that equate Zionism and Nazism, Sharon and Hitler, and the star of David with the swastika. The comparison is inaccurate and offensive. But when the Israeli military kills children, demolishes houses, uproots olive trees, steals water, bombs apartment buildings, commits assassinations, imposes round-the-clock curfews, harasses and humiliates an entire people, it is inevitable someone will speak out against it, and sometimes not in the way that we would.

For decades, some leaders of the Jewish community have made the preposterous claim that there is complete unity of belief and interest between all Jews and the Israeli government, no matter what its policies. They must believe their own propaganda, because they see no difference between criticism of the Israeli government and anti-Semitism, and they do everything they can to silence critical voices. If the brand of anti-Semitism is not sufficiently intimidating, the silencing has been enforced by organized phone and letter-writing campaigns, boycotts, threats of, and actual withdrawal of funding support from "offending" institutions and individuals.

This must change. Because of our government's deep and one-sided involvement in the region, the Israel-Palestine conflict will not be resolved without extensive dialogue here in the U.S. This dialogue must of necessity involve Jews and Arabs, Zionists and anti-Zionists, people who love Israel and people who love Palestine. We must listen to all those voices and oppose the relentless and anti-democratic attempts to silence some of them.

The author, a mathematics teacher, is a Jew from Lebanon and long-time Berkeley resident. He is a member of the Coordinating Committee of Jewish Voice for Peace, a diverse and democratic community of activists inspired by Jewish tradition to work together for peace, social justice, and human rights.
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