Why I Changed My Mind about Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israelism

I once thought it possible to address the world’s turn against Israel without bringing in anti-Semitism. No longer.

Anti-Israel protesters in Washington D.C. on August 2, 2014. Basri Sahin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
Anti-Israel protesters in Washington D.C. on August 2, 2014. Basri Sahin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
Dec. 9 2015
About the author

Joshua Muravchik is the author most recently of Heaven on Earth: The Rise, Fall, and Afterlife of Socialism (Encounter).

The seven weeks of war between Israel and Hamas in the summer of 2014 occasioned the greatest outpouring of raw anti-Semitism since the demise of Nazism. Ironically, relatively little of this, or at least less than usual, occurred in the Arab world: Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, and Baghdad were quieter than during any earlier wars between Israel and its neighbors. But across Europe and here and there in Latin America, Africa, and even in the U.S. and Canada, incident followed upon incident of vicious Jew-baiting and occasional violence.

By odd coincidence, my 2014 book, Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel, had been released on the very day that Israeli forces moved into Gaza in response to a wave of Hamas rockets. In it, I wrote much about anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism but little about anti-Semitism, a point on which I was repeatedly challenged when I spoke before Jewish audiences. Given that the world’s current hostility to Israel is manifestly unreasonable, many assume that its source must lie in the world’s most ancient hatred. So why did I neglect it?

The main reason is that I was aiming to explain change. No nation other than Israel has ever experienced such a dramatic reversal in the way it is perceived and treated by the rest of the world. On the eve of the Six-Day War, polls showed French and British publics favoring Israel over the Arabs by near-unanimous ratios (28 to 1). In recent years, in contrast, those same publics have registered intense hostility to Israel. But surely the world was not devoid of anti-Semitism in 1967. If “Israel” is a stand-in for the real target—Jews—would that not have been manifest back in 1967 as well?

Rather than anti-Semitism, therefore, my book focused on the concrete historical and political forces that might help to account for the turn against Israel. First, the occupation: the 1967 war left Israel in control of territories inhabited by a few million Palestinian Arabs and, by demolishing pan-Arabism, paved the way for the crystallization of Palestinian nationalism. This transformed the image of the conflict from one pitting the vast Arab world against tiny Israel to one pitting an apparently mighty Israel against the pitiable Palestinians. Second, world politics: the Arabs, having failed dismally to translate their numerical advantage into military achievements, learned belatedly to use it diplomatically, turning the UN into the world’s bully pulpit for the vilification of Israel and the engine-room of anti-Israel activism. Third, the global campaign for “social justice,” which cast the Jews as white colonialist Westerners and the Arabs or Palestinians as “people of color.”

There was also a secondary reason why I did not focus on anti-Semitism: except where animus toward Jews is expressed openly, it is difficult to know another person’s motives. Therefore, in my book I concentrated on what could actually be demonstrated: namely, that most of the charges against Israel are false, tendentious, disproportionate, and often made in bad faith. On the whole, demonstrating this seemed to me more effective than engaging in a sterile debate over motives. Besides, with or without anti-Semitism, hatred of Israel is in itself the most deadly thing facing the Jewish people since Hitler, and even those who would shrink from committing violence against Israel with their own hands work vigorously to harm it or, in the case of the BDS campaign, aim to undermine and destroy it.


And yet: if, in 2013-14, I still thought it possible to deal with anti-Israelism without tackling the issue of anti-Semitism, I no longer think so. The naked anti-Jewish vitriol laced through reactions to the war in Gaza, and only intensifying since then, makes it clear that whether or not anti-Semitism is the unspoken source of hostility to Israel, the converse is certainly true: hatred of Israel has grown so febrile as to have unleashed an unvarnished hatred of Jews. Ultimately, whichever comes first, the boundary between anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism grows fainter by the day.

There is a paradox here: coarse or violent expressions of animosity to Jews don’t necessarily mean that anti-Semitism itself is growing more common. In fact, recent society-wide polls suggest that it is becoming less common in the United States and even in Europe. At the same time, however, the frequency of hate crimes against Jews, notably in Europe, has climbed sharply. And here we can zero in with some precision. Some of the abuse and violence is attributable to skinheads or neo-Nazis. But the lion’s share is the work of Muslim immigrants or their offspring.

The source is not hard to find: in much of the Islamic world, and in virtually the entire Arab world, the distinction between Israel and Jews is rarely recognized. Thus, the Hamas charter states that “Israel, Judaism, and Jews [emphasis added] challenge Islam and the Muslim people,” adding a purported quotation from Muhammad: “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews, [and] the stones and trees will say O Muslims, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.” The Palestinian Authority (PA), somewhat less sanguinary, similarly conflates Jews and Israel, as when a PA ambassador tells an international conference that the “Elders of Zion” have a master plan for “dominating life in the entire planet.”

As these examples suggest, antipathy to Israel melds readily with traditional religious prejudice tracing back to the Quran and the life of the prophet. Against this background, the success of Israel in its struggle with the Arabs is especially galling, and in the popular imagination has endowed Jews with something like demonic powers. In turn, that demonization has often had deadly consequences, as witness the many incidents of violent aggression purportedly related to Israel but aimed at non-Israeli Jews by Muslims in Europe.

In France alone, the tale begins with a 1980 synagogue bombing in Paris that killed four and injured 40 and stretches to this past January’s jihadist attack on the kosher supermarket. Add to these the less noticed fact that in the assault days earlier on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, all the women present were spared except one whom the killers evidently knew to be Jewish, and the more recent disclosures about the intentions of the November 13 Islamic State plotters to move on from their initial targets to specifically Jewish ones. And add to these the attacks in Vienna (1982) and Rome (1984) and on the Chabad house in Mumbai (2004); the bombing, masterminded by Iran, on the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 84 and wounded hundreds (1994); and many more.

One result of this prolonged violence has been the worldwide flight of Jews from countries that hitherto sheltered them. It all started in the Middle East, where the birth of the Jewish state in 1948 opened a new chapter in persecution as Jews were driven from Arab countries and, after the Islamic revolution in 1979, fled Iran. The rise of Turkey’s Islamist movement over the past decade, on top of mass murders at Turkish synagogues in 1986 and 2003, have prompted a flight of Jews from that country, accelerating recently in the face of open abuse in the media and boycotts of Jewish businesses.

Non-Muslim countries whose governments are allied with anti-Israel forces—Venezuela, whose dictator, Hugo Chavez, embraced Iran, or South Africa where the dominant African National Congress has long maintained close ties to the PLO—have also witnessed waves of abuse and violence aimed at indigenous Jews and a consequent radical reduction of their Jewish populations.

As the number of places on earth where Jews can reside in peace and security has shrunk, the question has arisen as to whether Europe will continue to be among the few remaining. Events before and since June 2014 have convinced some serious observers that the answer is no. Jews have been departing Europe, and especially France, in numbers not seen since the 1930s. “We are seeing the beginning of the end of Jewish history in [Western] Europe,” said Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency. Unless officials in these countries are prepared to act with unwonted rigor to suppress the predations of radical Islamists, a sizable exodus is well-nigh inevitable.


What all this suggests is that the mixture of Israel-hatred and anti-Semitism, while most widespread among Muslims, is hardly unique to them. Although Westerners who want to remain respectable invariably insist that their anti-Israel sentiments don’t make them anti-Semites, the evidence often implies or demonstrates otherwise.

Take, for example, the American political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who in an essay on the malign influence of the “Israel lobby”—elaborated in their 2007 book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy—pointedly declared themselves to be “philo-Semites.” Only a couple of years later, however, Mearsheimer was proposing to divide Jews into two categories: “righteous Jews,” meaning those who hate Israel or at least blame it for the conflict with the Arabs, and all the rest, whom he labeled “Afrikaners.” The distinction sheds no light on Jews but a great deal on how Mearsheimer feels toward them.

When charged with anti-Semitism, Mearsheimer and those who think like him—they include the blogger Andrew Sullivan, who has spent the better part of a decade pouring vitriol on Israel and its supporters—typically respond by accusing their critics of “playing the anti-Semitism card” in an attempt to silence them. In Mearsheimer’s words: “anyone who criticizes Israeli actions or says that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over U.S. Middle East policy stands a good chance of getting labeled an anti-Semite.” In Sullivan’s words: “criticizing AIPAC is something forbidden for non-Jews—for fear of being labeled an anti-Semite.”

The claim is absurd. Consider that virtually every editorial of the New York Times dealing with the Middle East is critical of Israel at least in part; that the same goes for the paper’s foreign-affairs columnist Thomas Friedman; that this is no less true of most of the major print and electronic media, including the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the National Interest, and other intellectual and foreign-policy magazines; that Jewish outlets like Tablet and the Forward also routinely include sharp critical comments even in articles that defend Israel; and that the Middle East Studies Association, the dominant professional organization of academics in the field, is fiercely and all but uniformly hostile to Israel.

In brief, to attack Israel never in itself evokes a charge of anti-Semitism from serious quarters, and even to attack it fiercely and obsessively seems not to remove a person from polite society. Better to turn the charge around: anyone protesting that to criticize Israel is to be risk being unfairly labeled an anti-Semite is likely an anti-Semite seeking to preempt criticism.

Historically, anti-Semitism has most often been associated with the right, but today rabid and obsessive hatred of Israel that reaches and sometimes crosses the borders of anti-Semitism is mostly to be found on the left. This is most evident, again, in the BDS campaign, notable for its flagrant double standards. Although supporters usually claim that BDS’s purpose is to protect Palestinian human rights, the movement has never addressed the universal mistreatment (or slaughter) of Palestinians in Arab countries, most recently Syria. Israel’s own record on human rights is better by light years than that of all the states surrounding it combined, but neither BDS itself nor any of the churches, unions, academic associations, or student governments that have voted to boycott or sanction Israel has ever subjected any other state to its strictures. This is what prompted Lawrence Summers, the former president of Harvard University, to say with perfect accuracy that BDS is “anti-Semitic in effect if not in intent.”

In addition to the steady increase in BDS activity, recent years have seen a sharp rise in Israel-bashing and anti-Semitism on college and university campuses where leftist opinion tends to dominate—including the harassment or assault on Jewish students by “anti-Israel” demonstrators. In a 2014 national survey, 54 percent of Jewish college students said they had personally experienced or witnessed an anti-Semitic incident.

That figure is startlingly high; unfortunately, since no prior studies exist for the sake of comparison, the data are hard to interpret. Perhaps anti-Semitism is spiking on campuses, perhaps not. But one can confidently say this: the prevailing atmosphere of acute academic sensitivity to any sort of slight or perceived insult to other identity groups is markedly less evident when it comes to open anti-Semitism.

Thus, when a campaign at UCLA demanded that candidates for student government sign pledges not to take part in trips to Israel sponsored by pro-Israel organizations, the university chancellor, after duly registering his personal distaste for the requirement, nevertheless insisted that the campaign’s position “fall[s] squarely within the realm of free speech, and free speech is sacrosanct to any university campus.” If an equivalent demand had been made of blacks or Latinos or feminists or gays, no administration would have leapt so quickly to invoke the sanctity of free speech.

Of course, the universities themselves only magnify currents in the political culture at large, as emblemized by the U.S. president. Although Barack Obama has injected himself into controversies with a racial aspect, like the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and the massacre of black worshippers by a white supremacist in South Carolina, he seems little moved by anti-Semitism. After French Muslim jihadists massacred patrons at the kosher supermarket in Paris, singling out four Jews for death, the president displayed remarkable indifference, not only declining to attend the subsequent solidarity march in Paris or send a representative in his stead but, in an interview, dismissing the killer as a “zealot . . . randomly shoot[ing] a bunch of folks in a deli.”


The rubber of Obama’s insouciance meets the road of Jewish endangerment at the point of Iran’s quest for a nuclear bomb. Trying to blunt the opposition to his cherished nuclear deal by supporters of Israel, Obama stoked the very anxieties he ostensibly intended to allay. About the virulent anti-Semitism of Iran’s rulers, he said:

The fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival. It doesn’t preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn’t preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power.

As it happens, Iran had long been at one with other dictatorial regimes whose decisions were driven by ideologies defying rational considerations, sometimes to catastrophic effect—as in Communist China’s “Great Leap Forward,” which generated a famine claiming an estimated 20 to 50 million lives. No argument could be less reassuring to Jews in particular than the premise that economic self-interest will always trump anti-Semitism. Jews have been driven from many places, invariably to the economic detriment of those societies. And this pattern was repeated and topped off in the Holocaust, the larger part of which was carried out after the tide of battle had already begun to turn against Hitler and all possible resources were needed for the German war effort. Nevertheless, contrary to Obama’s theory that policies based on hatred are pursued only “when the costs are low,” Hitler was willing to divert men and materiel and sacrifice his country, his regime, and his own life to the single-minded pursuit of his hatred.

Today, a regime that never tires of announcing its genocidal intentions toward Jews stands on the threshold of possessing a nuclear bomb, thus fulfilling its aim of becoming the hegemon of the Muslim Middle East and giving it the power to perpetrate a second Holocaust. Despite Obama’s jejune theories, Iran will not abandon this quest in order to raise its GDP.

In the face of mounting peril, it makes little difference to the Jews which comes first, hatred of Jews or hatred of Israel. The peril does not arise because the hatred is spreading; the peril arises because the hatred is becoming more lethal as radical Islam becomes ever more extreme. Iran once shocked the world with its wanton recourse to terror, its abuse of diplomatic immunity, and its festivals of hate. Then al-Qaeda, which seemed so much more outré, eclipsed Iran for shock value, and now Islamic State has outdone al-Qaeda. The Jews are far from the only targets, but they are an especially vulnerable one, and as the attacks grow more frequent and more violent in various parts of the Diaspora, life for Jews becomes increasingly difficult or impossible.

And this, in addition to the heightening violence of radical Islam, points to the second source of the peril confronting today’s Jews. That source is the lethargy, cowardice, and indifference of Western leaders, policy elites, churchmen, artists and intellectuals—and university administrators and faculty. Thus have the Jews once again been left on their own to contend with a threat to their very existence even though, once again, what threatens them will also come—as, in New York and Washington and Paris and London and Madrid and elsewhere it has already come—to threaten and to murder others.

The present essay has been adapted from Mr. Muravchik’s new introduction to the paperback edition of Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned against Israel, to be released next week by Encounter Books.

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