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Is Criticism Of Israel Anti-Semitic ?


Is Criticism of Israel Antisemitic?

by John Kleinheksel


Remember when KWM hosted Robert Cohen, our Jewish colleague from the U.K?

It was several years ago when he presented at Third Reformed Church in Holland and at a church in Kalamazoo. He loves his fellow Jews, Judaism but disapproves of Zionism, if you recall. He wants to bring Palestinians into the conversation about what makes up the State of Israel.

Here is a report of a conversation I’ve had with him recently about an open letter he wrote to the Vice Chancellor at Lancaster University where he is now an M.A. student later in life.

In the letter, he cautions the University about adopting the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of Antisemitism. Here is the definition and examples.

Mr. Cohen affirms the need to “take into account the overall context” of references to the Israeli State. But he objects to the definition for giving “no guidance on how to evaluate any context or how to decide if a viewpoint . . . . is reasonable, proportionate or defensible.”

He takes one of the eleven illustrations to task: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination (because it is a racist endeavor).” He asks, “Would it be wrong for a native American to describe the creation of America as a racist endeavor?”. . . .Understanding of Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel cannot be the exclusive right of the Jewish people. . . .You need to include Palestinian testimony [as well].” Here is his complete letter.

When I asked him to give us his more nuanced view of “antisemitism,” here is how he responded:

I think where all this gets so difficult, and the reason why it [criticism of Israel] can slip into antisemitism, is that Israel has become the global embodiment of Jews and Jewishness. It becomes very easy for age old anti-Jewish myths about Jewish global influence and power to shift to criticism of the State of Israel.

My take on this is that Israel is no different [than] other nation states and will look to further its political and economic interests in any way it can. That will include trying to influence important global corporations or supporting domestic lobby groups in other countries. Russia will do this, America, China and the UK will do this. This is all normal state actor behaviour.

But when you accuse Israel of doing these things, the discourse brings with it all of the long standing anti-Jewish tropes. So, you have to take great care in how you describe these things, and even if you do take care, pro-Israel advocates will be happy to accuse you of antisemitism.

The bottom line is that the creation of the State of Israel changed EVERYTHING for Jews and Judaism and indeed the understanding of antisemitism. Everyone, including Jews, is struggling to process this change and work through the implications.  Some genuine antisemites and some advocates for Israel are, however, perfectly happy to perpetuate the ambiguity and confusion that now exists (from correspondence with the author).

Notice important aspects of his response:

  • The State of Israel embodies Jewry (as a nation-state and Judaism as their religion). Thus, it is an easy target for those who supposedly want to deny Jews the right of self-determination. Genuine antisemitism is a reality in today’s world and must be combated.


  • The State of Israel is no different than other nation-states in wanting to advance their economic and political interests. (But, it is not above “the law”, as defined through international consensus. Each nation wants to be a law unto itself. Let’s admit it!)


  • Advocates for the State of Israel recall long-standing anti-Jewish “tropes” (Jews wanting global influence and power). When someone criticizes the State of Israel, it is best to say, “I do not disparage the right of the Jewish people to form a State. The question is, What kind of a State is it and what kind of State does it aspire to be? Like the United States, no country is above criticism.”

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At Kairos West Michigan, we work to unify and mobilize West Michigan Christians to take a stand for peace in Israel/Palestine. We believe that the time is right and that God is preparing the way for peace and justice in Israel and Palestine.

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143 W 34th St, Holland, MI 49423

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