Israel's Overplayed 'Anti-Semitism' Card

KAISERSLAUTERN, GERMANY - MARCH 03:  Fans of Kaiserslautern hold up an Israelian flag to protest against antisemitism prior t
KAISERSLAUTERN, GERMANY - MARCH 03: Fans of Kaiserslautern hold up an Israelian flag to protest against antisemitism prior to the Bundesliga match between 1. FC Kaiserslautern and VfL Wolfsburg at Fritz-Walter-Stadion on March 3, 2012 in Kaiserslautern, Germany. (Photo by Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Legitimate [adj.] -- in accordance with established rules, principles or standards.

In our interconnected, postmodern world, "anti-Semitic" has become synonymous with "morally indefensible," unworthy of rebuttal, able to swiftly kill careers and conversations. As with nuclear weapons, though, this power should be exercised sparingly and responsibly.

Barely a day goes by without someone being branded "anti-Semitic" or "borderline" anti-Semitic for criticizing or condemning Israel or its supporters -- as Chuck Hagel learned when he was nominated for Secretary of Defense. And yet, we're told, there's always room for "legitimate criticism of Israel." So what is the difference -- what should be the difference -- between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism? If Israel is rightly and proudly proclaimed as "the Jewish State," must this mean that anti-Israel remarks are automatically anti-Jewish (i.e., anti-Semitic)?

The absence of clear or consistent "rules of the road" is a persistent barrier to open dialogue and conversation. It limits the meaning and effectiveness of efforts to counter the persistent manifestations of genuine anti-Semitism. Sometimes inadvertently, and out of ignorance, interlocutors use terminology that deeply offends Jews, so there's also a need to translate bad wording into constructive language that Jews can hear and absorb.

The Israel criticisms and "anti-Semitism" counter-attacks vary depending on whether they involve career politicians and cynical propagandists, or seekers and bridge-builders with real grievances and prejudices.

On the political level, especially on Capitol Hill and college campuses, crying "anti-Semitism" can gain instant, if short-lived, tactical advantage by marginalizing Israel's critics and stifling unpleasant debates. Sadly, some of the people who'd be interested in real answers get turned away and turned off.

At the United Nations, diplomats routinely engage in hardball rhetoric and parliamentary tricks to gain advantage and penalize adversaries. It's the big league, it's not meant to be fair. As a small but staunch U.S. ally, Israel is an easy target, and would gain neither respect nor lasting advantage by throwing down the "anti-Semitism" card every time it got bumped or singled out. States do have their own interests -- there is a difference between wanting to isolate Israel for political gain and humanitarian redress, and wielding anti-Israel policies and statements as a diplomatic form of anti-Semitism.

Formulaic Third World political attacks on Israel emanate as much from the Cold War-era battle lines between East and West -- and lingering de-colonization resentment by the "global South" -- as from religiously inspired anti-Semitism. Even when Israel's enemies are truly motivated by anti-Semitism, intellectual honesty and self-respect demand this be demonstrated and not merely assumed. Aside from looking bad to others, doing otherwise cultivates a culture of uncharacteristic detachment, self-delusion and paranoia that filters down and reinforces popular prejudices on both sides.

On the human level, where people ideally strive to know each other and find a way forward, openness needs to be reciprocated and not punished with charges of "anti-Semitism." If there can be no legitimate disagreement, even acrimony, there can be no dialogue and potential for mutual acceptance and genuine respect. Criticism can be unfair, disingenuous, inaccurate and even offensive, without being anti-Semitic. We must also beware of watering down dialogue to the point of hollow politeness, lacking substance or purpose.

Short of portraying Israelis as hook-nosed Nazis devouring babies, with blood dripping from their fangs, what crosses the line and what does not? In the hopes of opening this taboo topic, and emphasizing that I don't necessarily agree with each "legitimate criticism," I offer some examples in form and content:

Anti-Semitic: The Palestinians are victims of a Holocaust.
Legitimate: As a people subjected to centuries of persecution, Jews should be more sensitive to the plight of others.

Anti-Semitic: The Holocaust is an exaggeration, if not a myth, created to justify Jewish control of the Middle East and global institutions.
Legitimate: Israel uses its post-Holocaust victim status to distract from its present-day humanitarian obligations.

Anti-Semitic: Israel is the Apartheid state.
Legitimate: Israel's Separation Wall and other practices are reminiscent of Apartheid-era South Africa.

Anti-Semitic: Zionism is Racism.
Legitimate: Granting automatic citizenship to Jewish immigrants while denying Palestinians the right to return to their birthplace is hypocritical.

Anti-Semitic: You wouldn't say that if you were true to your Torah.
Legitimate: I truly have trouble understanding how Israel's behavior comports with the powerful ethical teachings of the Jewish tradition.

Anti-Semitic: The Jewish State is a cancer that must be wiped off the map.
Legitimate: Israel tries to dominate the Middle East, just like its American patron.

Anti-Semitic: The Jew-controlled media won't give Muslims a chance.
Legitimate: The media are biased against Muslims and Palestinians.

Anti-Semitic: I don't have a problem with Jews, only with Zionists.
Legitimate: There are better ways of securing Jewish physical and cultural survival than having a Jewish state.

Anti-Semitic: All Israeli Jews are legitimate targets.
Legitimate: Israel doesn't seem to care if Palestinian civilians get hurt.

Anti-Semitic: Israel and the Jews were behind 9/11.
Legitimate: Israeli and U.S. policies made attacks like 9/11 inevitable.

Anti-Semitic: Israel's attack on the Gaza Flotilla in 2010 was a typical Zionist war crime.
Legitimate: Israel was at fault in the fatal Flotilla raid, and its blockade of Gaza is unjust.

Over the past several decades, I have heard each of these arguments leveled against Israel, and often directed at me. Many of them struck me as repugnant canards, and that includes some that I've categorized as "legitimate." If we want to have an open discussion, if we want to address Israel's critics head-on -- if we want to earn or share the moral high ground rather than living off the dividends of Crusades, Holocaust and Arab hostility -- then we need to allow the airing of criticism even we consider it unfounded, uninformed and ill-intentioned.

Anti-Semitism is a real phenomenon, and we shouldn't shrink from calling it by its name, when warranted. But we ought not reduce it to a one-size-fits-all fig leaf, and better stick to answering Israel's critics on the merits.