When is it Antisemitism?

By David Cohen

A significant amount of our time these days revolves around the question – Is it antisemitism?

And while I am fairly certain you will not find a precise answer in the words and paragraphs to follow, I think there may be some valuable questions to consider when having this conversation.

I will also try to examine this from multiple perspectives so I would ask for your patience as you read these lines and I would ask you also to buckle up – because I may challenge some of our existing assumptions.

And in asking for your patience – I will also thank the many readers – who often come up to me personally, send an email, or pass along their thoughts through channels – for all the feedback I have been getting (both positive and negative).  It tells me that people are reading.  And if everyone agreed with me – I probably wouldn’t be writing with enough edge to stimulate thought.   

So, let’s dig in.

As I have written in these pages – I can only tell my own Jewish story, informed by the varying perspectives I know exist in the Jewish and non-Jewish community, and then try to create a narrative that helps us move forward as a community.  I must honor those in our community who see the world as a very scary place right now and those who see our community as instilling fear in others.  When I write in agreement with national Jewish Federation positions, I do so because I believe it.  And if I challenge our positions, I do it with love and the acknowledgment that on whole, I am in alignment with so many other positions.  I also realize fully that right now in our Jewish world, disagreements often cause rifts among families, boards, and communal organizations.

It is of course the issue of Israel that most complicates our understanding of antisemitism these days.  Our more classic tropes and stereotypes are usually not at issue.  But when issues of power and demonization come into play with Israel – it gets more complicated.

In these pages I have written that what is happening in Gaza is not genocide and should not be described that way.  And some in the community clearly do not agree with me.  What would I say to them?  I would ask them not to use that word.  I have written that I believe the use of that word needs to be held to a higher standard and it speaks to an intent that I know is not there on the part of most Israelis and the state’s leaders.  I believe it is demonizing Israel and the people who support her - and her desire to live in a world free of Hamas. 

I also know for a fact that at the recent international court hearing, comments from Israeli leaders have been false accounts – taken from erroneous social media accounts.  I repeat, I know this for a fact.  That being said, do all people who use the term genocide have the same understanding that I do?  Should they?  Does it matter that some Israeli leaders and writers do actually make statements to this effect?  These are all excellent questions and I know that they are ones that are being asked by people who are less connected to Jewish communal agencies and those less connected to Israel.

So, what is to be done?  Do we simply label these people antisemites and demand they change course?  I am not so sure.  We recently held the presidents of UPenn and Harvard accountable for not being able to respond to a different question – would calling for genocide against Jews be welcome on your campus?  The answer is simple.  That is a horrible thing to say and should not be welcome in any communal code of conduct.  The question of whether genocide is happening in Gaza is different.  I know where I stand on this and how I would counsel anyone.  But would I condemn anyone for saying it?  At a rally on the Capitol steps - yes.  On a sign outside a business - yes.  In a conversation with me or as a question posed by a student - no.  We have consistently drawn these lines that do distinguish between individual speech and the public promotion of Jews or Israelis as a demonic people.   The more we can engage with those who might listen to us about how the Holocaust informs how we think about this and how that trauma – thrown back in our faces – is an additional insult – the better.  But to think that we are going to change the minds of activists or protesters is a bit misguided.  The minds we need to change are much younger and the playing field for that work is not the public square.  It is the harder, more intimate conversations with teachers, students, leaders, and people in the pews of churches and mosques who need to know more about us.  And you would be surprised how many people I have reached out to in this manner or even as a private message on social media who really didn’t know a different way to think about this term.

Which leads us into another great example – the ever popular phrase, “From the River to the Sea.”  This one ties in very nicely to the genocide charge because it is all about who is saying it, how they are using it, what they know about its meaning - and do they even care?  On first glance, the literal meaning has always been that there once was a Palestinian state where Israel now exists and that it should be returned to its independent status for Palestinians.  There has for years been a misunderstanding among many activists that Israel conquered a Palestinian country for Israel to come into existence.  Of course, we know that did not happen and we know to describe what was there prior to Israel’s independence is likely too complicated for any social media post to explain.  So put plainly - for some, the phrase is simply an aspirational call for a better future.  To many in the Israeli and Jewish community, however, it is about replacing Israel with a different state.  There are even others who hear this as a call for a completely unified Jewish and Arab state where both groups rule in harmony. 

While I am not Solomon and I will not be able to offer a final ruling on this – here is what I can say.  The Palestinians that I work with – and there are many – do not want either a shared state or a Palestinian state from the River to the Sea.  They acknowledge Israel isn’t going anywhere – and that if Israel’s enemies can relinquish their animosity – life inside Israel’s green line is the best life an Arab could have in the Middle East.  They also acknowledge that there is a certain need and desire to have an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank.  They also acknowledge that discussing Gaza in this same conversation is almost impossible given the existence of Hamas.  I often ask if my Palestinian colleagues who are much more tied into the needs and desires of real Palestinians can say these things – where is the disconnect between them and American anti-Israel activists? 

But even if there is a disconnect, should we berate activists for using the phrase?  And here, I think my answer is the same.  At a rally or on a store front – it is menacing and by its literal meaning would make any Jewish person feel that people in Harrisburg do not feel the only Jewish state in the world should exist.  But, if someone were to simply use this term in conversation or in a personal social media post, again, I would want to speak with them and talk this through.

And to come back to the question – when is it antisemitism? – I think there are clear libels that express a hatred for Jews and Israel.  At the same time, the only thing worse than saying that nothing is antisemitism – is saying that everything is.  We need to have both internal and external conversations about how some of this newer terminology thrown at Israel and the Jewish community makes us feel and distorts who we are and what we believe.  At the same time, we have to acknowledge where we can change minds, where we need to fight back, and when we need to start a conversation about what we believe antisemitism is – and what it is not.