Neither Anti-Semitism, nor Anti-Palestinian Bigotry Belong in the Church – Or Society
By Jesse Wheeler
In Western discourses surrounding Palestine and Israel, it has become increasingly common to equate criticism of the Israeli state with antisemitism. As measures are taken to enshrine such associations in policy, dissenting voices are often rebuked as antisemitic. For instance, the British Labor Party has been rocked by such accusations in recent years under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. In response, and against Corbyn’s attempt to provide clarifying statements, Labor’s newly adopted definition of antisemitism now explicitly equates criticism of Israel with antisemitism. In France, Emmanuel Macron’s government has been making moves to criminalize “anti-Zionism” as a form of antisemitism, while organizations in Germany have had their assets frozen.
“In the US,” writes journalist Jonathan Cook, “some 26 states have enacted laws to punish or sanction individuals and organizations that support a boycott [of Israel]. Similar legislation is pending in a further 13 states.” This has already resulted in people having been terminated from their jobs and was the catalyst for the US Senate passing the “Combating BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] Act” by a 77-23 margin in support of such laws. This was the environment in which freshman congresswoman Ilhan Omar spoke out against what she perceives as undue influence in congress by AIPAC [The American Israel Public Affairs Committee], and for which she was roundly condemned by Democratic Party leadership for trading in “antisemitic tropes and prejudicial accusations.” Just this week, Omar has been condemned again for additional comments challenging what she sees as one-sided support for Israel in Congress. As of this writing Omar is facing possible censure from her colleagues in congress.
It must be affirmed in no uncertain terms that antisemitism is real. It is dangerous. And, it has been an ongoing stain within the Western cultural inheritance for millennia. It is on the rise. And, it must be condemned wherever it is found. Discussions surrounding Israel and Palestine have unfortunately often been tainted by antisemitic rhetoric. It must also be affirmed, however, that anti-Palestinian bigotry is itself an almost unacknowledged force of its own. It exists within the halls of power and it too must be brought to light and condemned, especially as it is the Palestinians who are daily suffering under military occupation, in the squalor of refugee camps (in Lebanon more so than anywhere else), or in the limbo of exile.
What I see underlying this discourse is a conflict of definitions. For this reason, it is of critical importance to clarify definitions in discussions about Israel/Palestine. Otherwise, that which one intends to say will not be read as such by another. Key to this discussion is the definition of antisemitism as it relates to anti-Zionism. While Western leaders are increasingly defining criticism of Israeli policy as antisemitic, other groups have denounced in Zionism what they see as an inherently racist and supremacist ideology. Cook, in differentiating between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, writes,
Antisemitism refers to the hatred of Jews. It is bigotry, plain and simple.
Anti-Zionism, on the other hand, is opposition to the political ideology of Zionism, a movement that has insisted in all its political guises on prioritising the rights of Jews to a homeland over those, the Palestinians, who were already living there.
Anti-Zionism is not racism against Jews; it is opposition to racism by Zionist Jews.
Of course, an anti-Zionist may also be antisemitic, but it is more likely that an anti-Zionist holds his or her position for entirely rational and ethical reasons.
In fact, post-Zionist Jewish activists are oftentimes those most vocal in their opposition to Israeli treatment of Palestinians, as seen in the examples of Mondoweiss, Jewish Voice for Peace, If Not Now, Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem, the writings of Mark Ellis, Rabbi Brant Rosen, and others.
Yet, whose definition counts?
Jewish pain is real, and it must be acknowledged and accounted for. Palestinians, of course, deny historical responsibility for such pain, seeing it as a European sin for which they have been forced to burden the consequences as a colonized people. They are often desperate for their story to be told and their own ongoing suffering acknowledged. For to relay the history of manifest destiny without including the Native American perspective, the “white man’s burden” without the perspective of the non-white man (or woman), or the mission civilisatrice without the perspective of those having had “civilization” forced upon them, one cannot, paraphrasing writer and analyst Robert Cohen, speak of Zionism without considering the Palestinian perspective. That is unless you have a priori assumed the illegitimacy of the Palestinian perspective as one worthy of consideration. “If we want to be serious, rather than tribal, about a fair definition of Zionism,” writes Cohen, “we need to ask the Palestinian people what they think and believe and feel about it. And if they tell us ‘Zionism is a racist endeavor’ we’d better pay attention.”
Theological Reflections and Missiological Implications
To reiterate: Anti-Semitism is real, dangerous and on the rise. And, it must be condemned wherever it is found. At the same time, anti-Palestinian bigotry is itself powerful force that too must be condemned in no uncertain terms.
What must be acknowledged is that the same people who for the same reasons would and should decry anti-Semitism wherever it is found, are the same people who would and should decry anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab or anti-Muslim bigotry, as an affront to our common humanity as image bearers of the divine, as an affront to our common viceregency, an affront to our common commitment to universal human rights, and/or an affront to intersectional solidarity with all facing oppression – however one prefers to frame the discourse.
To assert the rights of one group, whilst simultaneously denying those of another is an affront to the monotheist vision, the existence of a single, universally sovereign God. There exists either liberty and justice for all, or liberty and justice for none. In the immortal words of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
Injustice everywhere is a threat to injustice anywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
My rights do not negate the rights of another, nor can I pursue my rights at the expense of another. For my liberation is inextricably bound with that of the other, to paraphrase aboriginal activist Lilla Watson.
What, then, can the Church do about this? The first step, and I speak here as a Western Christian living in the East, is repentance and confession, the second, restitution. We are complicit. Our hands are bloody. Our prejudices, buttressed often by our theologies, have resulted both directly and indirectly, actively and passively, in the deaths of millions through our pogroms and our colonial conquests alike. Jew and Palestinian alike.
We must return to our better selves, to the teachings of our king for whom both empathy and justice walk hand in hand. The pain of the other must become our own, as we give of ourselves in working towards a world without walls where all might one day experience the divine peace of God’s Kingdom.
 A term I first heard as an undergraduate student of MENA History at UC Berkeley in the Winter/Spring of 2003.