A Dangerous Conflation – An open letter from Jewish writers

A group of Jewish writers drafted this letter after seeing an old argument gain new power: the claim that critiquing Israel is antisemitic. Editors at a corporate-owned magazine were prepared to publish the letter, but their lawyers advised against it. The writers share this letter in solidarity with those who continue to speak out in support of Palestinian freedom.

10 November 2023// NPLUSONEMAG

WE ARE JEWISH WRITERS, artists, and activists who wish to disavow the widespread narrative that any criticism of Israel is inherently antisemitic. Israel and its defenders have long used this rhetorical tactic to shield Israel from accountability, dignify the US’s multibillion-dollar investment in Israel’s military, obscure the deadly reality of occupation, and deny Palestinian sovereignty. Now, this insidious gagging of free speech is being used to justify Israel’s ongoing military bombardment of Gaza and to silence criticism from the international community. 

We condemn the recent attacks on Israeli and Palestinian civilians and mourn such harrowing loss of life. In our grief, we are horrified to see the fight against antisemitism weaponized as a pretext for war crimes with stated genocidal intent.

Antisemitism is an excruciatingly painful part of our community’s past and present. Our families have escaped wars, harassment, pogroms, and concentration camps. We have studied the long histories of persecution and violence against Jews, and we take seriously the ongoing antisemitism that jeopardizes the safety of Jews around the world. This October just marked the five-year anniversary of the worst antisemitic attack ever committed in the United States: the eleven worshipers at Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha in Pittsburgh, who were murdered by a gunman who espoused conspiracy theories that blamed Jews for the arrival of Central American migrants, and in so doing, dehumanized both groups. We reject antisemitism in all its forms, including when it masquerades as criticism of Zionism or Israel’s policies. We also recognize that, as journalist Peter Beinart wrote in 2019, “Anti-Zionism is not inherently antisemitic—and claiming it is uses Jewish suffering to erase Palestinian experience.” 

We find this rhetorical tactic antithetical to Jewish values, which teach us to repair the world, question authority, and champion the oppressed over the oppressor. It is precisely because of the painful history of antisemitism and lessons of Jewish texts that we advocate for the dignity and sovereignty of the Palestinian people. We refuse the false choice between Jewish safety and Palestinian freedom; between Jewish identity and ending the oppression of Palestinians. In fact, we believe the rights of Jews and Palestinians go hand-in-hand. The safety of each people depends on the other’s. We are certainly not the first to say so, and we admire those who have modeled this line of thinking in the wake of so much violence. 

We understand how antisemitism and criticism of Israel or Zionism have been conflated. For years, dozens of countries have upheld the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism. Most of its eleven examples of antisemitism regard comments on the state of Israel, with some open to interpretation enough that they limit the scope of acceptable critique. What’s more, the Anti-Defamation League classifies Anti-Zionism as antisemitism, despite the misgivings of many of its own experts. These definitions have scaffolded the Israeli government’s deepening relationships with far-right, antisemitic political forces, from Hungary to Poland to the United States and beyond—endangering Jews in diaspora. To counter these sweeping definitions, a group of scholars of antisemitism published the Jerusalem Declaration in 2020, offering more specific guidelines for identifying antisemitism and distinguishing it from criticism and debate around Israel and Zionism. 

Accusations of antisemitism at the slightest objection to Israeli policy have long allowed Israel to uphold a regime that human rights groupsscholarslegal analysts, and Palestinian and Israeli organizations have called apartheid. These accusations continue to cast a chilling effect across our politics. This has meant political suppression in Gaza and the West Bank, where the Israeli government conflates the very existence of Palestinian people with Jew hatred the world over. In propaganda aimed internally at its own citizens and externally toward the West, the Israeli government asserts that Palestinian grievance is not about land, mobility, rights, or freedom, but instead, antisemitism. In the last weeks, Israeli leaders have continued to instrumentalize the history of Jewish trauma to dehumanize Palestinians. Meanwhile, Israelis are arrested or suspended from their jobs for social media posts defending Gaza. Israeli journalists fear consequences for criticizing their government.

Characterizing all critiques of Israel as antisemitic also conflates Israel and all Jewish people in the popular imagination. In the last two weeks, we’ve seen Democrats and Republicans alike gate-keep Jewish identity on the basis of support for Israel. A vague letter signed by dozens of public figures and published on October 23 parroted President Biden’s positioning of himself as an advocate for Jewish people based on his support for Israel. When the 92NY postponed an event with author Viet Thanh Nguyen, who had recently signed a letter calling for an end to Israel’s attacks on Gaza, its statement began by forefronting its identity as “a Jewish institution.” As others have observed, tools to historicize the October 7 attacks are seen as a repudiation of Jewish suffering rather than necessary to understand and end such violence. 

The idea that all criticism of Israel is antisemitic extends a view of Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims as inherently suspect; agents of antisemitism until they explicitly say otherwise. Since October 7, Palestinian journalists have faced unprecedented suppression. A Palestinian citizen of Israel was fired from his job at an Israeli hospital for a Facebook post from 2022 that quoted the first pillar of Islam. European leaders have banned pro-Palestine protests and criminalized displays of the Palestinian flag. In London, a hospital recently took down artwork by children from Gaza after a pro-Israel group claimed it made Jewish patients feel “vulnerable, harassed and victimized.” Somehow, even artwork by Palestinian children was accompanied by a hallucination of violence. 

US leaders have welcomed this chance to further conflate Jewish safety with unquestioning, unwavering military funding for Israel with no intention of making peace. On October 13, the US State Department circulated an internal memo urging officials not to use the language of “de-escalation/ceasefire,” “end to violence/bloodshed,” or “restoring calm.” On October 25, Biden doubted the Palestinian death toll and called it the “price” of Israel’s war. Such cruel logic will continue to foster both antisemitism and Islamophobia. The Department of Homeland Security is preparing for an expected rise in hate crimes against both Jews and Muslims—it has already begun

For each of us, Jewish identity is not a weapon to wield in a fight for statist power but a fount of generational wisdom that says justice, justice, you shall pursueTzedek, tzedek, tirdof. We object to the exploitation of our pain and the silencing of our allies. 

We call for a ceasefire in Gaza, a solution for the safe return of the hostages in Gaza and Palestinian prisoners in Israel, and an end to Israel’s ongoing occupation. We also call on governments and civil society in the United States and across the West to stand up against the repression of support for Palestine. 

And we refuse to allow such urgent, necessary demands to be suppressed in our names. When we say never again, we mean it.

See here the list of signatories