How Right-Wing Objections to a Panel on Anti-Semitism Demonstrated Its Necessity

Jewish Voice for Peace and other activist groups argued that it's dangerous to equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

Speakers at a panel co-sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace in New York on November 28, 2017. Jules Cowan / Jewish Voice for Peace

Shortly after President Donald Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,  Sebastian Gorka, Fox News national security strategist and former White House adviser, responded to critics of Trump’s move with a tweet that said “the left’s anti-Semitism veiled as anti-Israeli ‘policies’ is the real threat to peace.”

Yet while Gorka has referred to Israel as the “greatest nation made by the Lord,” an investigation by The Forward found that he had connections to far-right groups in Hungary, making political allies from a nationalist Hungarian party that published articles about “the roots of Jewish terrorism” on its official website, and writing for a paper known for anti-Semitic views. He also donned a medal of Nazi collaborator Adm. Miklós Horthy.

Gorka’s tweet is an example of how the far right uses the label of anti-Semitism to shut down criticism of Israel, all while hiding its own ties to actual anti-Semitic groups. And it is precisely these concerns that grassroots group Jewish Voice for Peace tried to raise at a panel in New York last week on the dangers of conflating anti-Semitism with critiques of Israel.

The panel had already drawn the ire of right-wing critics. The New York Post published an op-ed calling it an “Israel bash fest.” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, tweeted that having Linda Sarsour, a well-known Arab-American activist, and Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, lead a panel on anti-Semitism was “like Oscar Mayer leading a panel on vegetarianism.” Attempts were made to cancel the event, according to JVP, and when it eventually rolled around, approximately 30 protesters gathered outside, carrying posters that accused JVP of spewing “anti-Semitic, anti-Israel hatred.” The panel was twice interrupted, first by a group of attendees shouting unintelligible comments and then again by an individual loudly criticizing the panelists during the Q&A session.

In fact, the protests only reinforced the panel’s central concern: the rising tide of actual anti-Semitism and the redefining of any criticism of the state of Israel as anti-Jewish.

“Anti-Semitism in the United States is frighteningly and ever more visibly real,” Vilkomerson told the crowd at the event, which was co-hosted by JVP, Haymarket Books, Jacobin Magazine, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and the New School. But at the same time, Vilkomerson argued, “It’s profoundly dangerous, unethical, and inaccurate to characterize people in groups like JVP that support the full civil and human rights of Palestinians as not only anti-Semitic, but equivalent to Nazis. It minimizes the true fight against anti-Semitism we all desperately need to be waging, and it’s a blatant attempt to shut down a much-needed conversation about Israel and its treatment of Palestinians.”

“It’s a blatant attempt to shut down a much-needed conversation about Israel and its treatment of Palestinians.”

In its definition of anti-Semitism, the U.S. State Department includes the demonization of Israel and the application of “double standards” to the country in homing in on its human rights violations. But Vilkomerson made a distinction between loving Israel and loving Jews, saying that the two do not correlate. Trump, for example, asserts his love and support for Israel, but he waited days to condemn neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past summer. Former White House strategist Steve Bannon also declares his staunch support for Israel, referring to it as “one of the greatest nations on earth” but simultaneously heads Breitbart News, a site that he has described as the platform for the “alt-right” and which is known to draw in anti-Semitic and racist commentary.

Though anti-Semitism continues in the U.S. — this past year alone has seen swastikas drawn on Jewish temples, neo-Nazis marching past synagogues chanting “Sieg Heil,” and Jewish cemeteries vandalized — it differs from opposition to Israel. Whereas criticism of the state of Israel by groups like JVP is rooted in the state’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and its dehumanization of Palestinians and Arabs, anti-Semitism is an attack on Jews simply for being Jewish.

Vilkomerson acknowledged the difficulty that Jews may experience when talking about the seriousness of anti-Semitism and making clear distinctions between anti-Semitism and criticisms of Israel.

“It requires honesty and self-reflection to hold both of those truths,” she said.

Lina Morales, a panelist and member of JVP’s Jews of Color and Mizrahi/Sephardi Caucus, acknowledged the existence of anti-Semitism in Arab and Muslim-majority countries, but said that she believes that the creation of the state of Israel has absolved the West of accountability for the Holocaust and shifted the conversation away from the West’s own glaring anti-Semitism.

The Zionist deal was created to serve Western interests with “a partner of imperialism in the Middle East,” Morales said, not to protect Jews and guarantee their safety and protection. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently aligned with Western and Saudi politicians, such as Trump and King Salman, regardless of whether they harbored or were tolerant of anti-Semitic views. Instead of pushing for constructive work to dismantle anti-Semitism, Netanyahu has made calls for mass migration of Jews from Europe to Israel. He has also leveraged Jewish tragedies, such as the killing of four Jews in France, to hail Israel as the “moral beacon for the world” and the “true home” and “one and only state” for Jews. In sweeping generalizations, he claims that all Jews believe “deep in their hearts that they have only one country, the state of Israel.”

Netanyahu’s blanket statements are belied by JVP and many other Jewish organizations that believe that Jewishness and Zionism are not necessarily intertwined.

“Being anti-Zionist or not Zionist does not make you anti-Semitic,” Vilkomerson said. “The assumption that it does ignores history, including a long Jewish history of opposition to Zionism. In no way does it negate the seriousness of anti-Semitism to equally seriously address the dispossession of Palestinians by Israel.”

Top photo: Speakers at a panel co-sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace in New York on November 28, 2017.

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