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Criticizing a country’s policies is not bigotry

A recent hearing about hostility toward Asian-Americans highlighted a double-standard on criticizing Israeli policies.

A recent House subcommittee hearing focusing on hostility toward Asian-Americans took on added relevance because of the mass shooting in Georgia in which most of the victims were Asian-American women. But one of the committee members, Republican Chip Roy of Texas, used much of his time to criticize policies and practices of China. Roy justified his focus on that topic by saying, “I’m not going to be ashamed of saying I oppose … the Chinese Communist Party. And when we say things like that, and we’re talking about that, we shouldn’t be worried about having a committee of members of Congress policing our rhetoric because some evil-doers go engage in some evil activity as occurred in Atlanta, Georgia.”

Understandably, some other participants in the hearing were mainly worried about how careless rhetoric such as Donald Trump’s labeling of COVID-19 as “kung flu” had stoked hostility toward Chinese-Americans. Exaggerated alarms about other issues involving China may be having a similar effect. And in the “they all look alike” sentiment that characterizes much ethnic prejudice, other Asian-Americans also have become targets of the hostility.

Nonetheless, Congressman Roy’s fundamental point is valid. Chinese-Americans bear no responsibility for the policies and practices of China. Any right-thinking person realizes that fact and therefore should welcome unfettered discussion and criticism of those policies and practices without fear of being perceived as a bigot.

China offers much to criticize. Besides Beijing’s initial mishandling of COVID-19, this includes, among other things: the incarceration of, and denial of rights to, Uighurs; the crushing of hopes for political self-determination for Hong Kongers; and the making of territorial claims without basis in international law and the throwing of military weight around in the region in support of such claims. Honest and accurate — not careless or exaggerated — discussion of such matters is essential in guiding and informing effective U.S. policy toward China, regardless of whether one agrees with the specific policy prescriptions of Roy or anyone else.

Principled treatment of Israel

Now apply the same principles to a criticism-stifling campaign that has been stronger than anything applied to discussion of China and that exceeds the impact of other “cancel culture” efforts: the attempts to silence criticism of Israel by tarring such criticism with the label of anti-Semitism. This labeling has long been a tactic of the right-wing government of Israel and its most fervent followers in the United States. The glaring fault of this labeling is that anti-Semitism is not in fact a form of foreign policy criticism; it instead is prejudice against, or hatred of, Jews.

As with the China case, American Jews are not responsible for the policies and practices of the State of Israel. In fact, the prevailing sentiments among American Jews have increasingly diverged from those of the Israeli Jews who elect that state’s government. American Jews are actually less inclined to condone the Israeli government’s actions than are members of certain other religious groups in the United States. Right-thinking Americans who understand these realities ought to feel free to discuss frankly what the Israeli government does without any implications about attitudes toward their Jewish compatriots.

A search for anti-Semites would be most fruitful not in foreign policy think tanks or university faculty lounges but rather in the places that prejudiced people in general inhabit. Most anti-Semites are equal opportunity bigots; they dislike not only Jews but also other groups unlike themselves. Those who, in Charlottesville in 2017, chanted “Jews will not replace us” were waving Confederate flags and expressing their prejudice at least as much against African-Americans, among others. The gunman who killed eleven people at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 was especially exercised over the charitable work that some members who worshipped there had been doing with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in assisting Central Americans and other newly arrived (mostly non-Jewish) immigrants. And although probably few such bigots realize that Arabs as well as Jews are Semites, the broader meaning of anti-Semitism probably would be seen to apply to them if they were asked about, say, travel bans aimed mostly at Arab countries.

The distinction between states and demographic groups ought to be just as clear when religion rather than ethnicity is used as a defining characteristic. Criticism of the policies and practices of the Islamic Republic of Iran does not make the critic anti-Islamic. The same is true of criticism of Saudi Arabia, which identifies itself at least as closely as any other state does with a single religion by considering the Koran to be its constitution and by outlawing the open practice of any religion other than Islam.

As with China, there is much to criticize in the policies and practices of Israel. This includes, among other things: the incarceration of, and denial of rights to, thousands of Palestinian Arabs; the crushing of hopes for political self-determination for Palestinians; the continued occupation, without basis in international law, of territory where homes of the Palestinian inhabitants are continually being demolished and ones for Jewish settlers being built; and the throwing of military weight around in the region, not only in applying lethal force against demonstrators but also in bigger offensive operations on the land, at sea, and in the air.

Honest and accurate — not careless or exaggerated — discussion of such matters is essential in guiding and informing effective U.S. policy toward Israel, regardless of whether one agrees with any one discussant’s specific policy prescriptions.

Moreover, if bigotry is the chief concern, honest discussion also is required of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cozying up to other hardline nationalists such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, despite the anti-Semitic tones Orban has struck in cementing his increasingly authoritarian rule. So too is discussion of how Netanyahu has been pushing to include in a new ruling coalition the extremist and virulently anti-Arab Jewish Power party, which is the political heir of Meir Kahane’s Kach, a group still on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations. Such moves by Israel’s leadership both reflect and exacerbate an increasingly severe anti-Arab racism in Israeli society.

Faulty definitions

The conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism has been encouraged by a “working definition of anti-Semitism” formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The Trump administration formally embraced this formulation in 2019. Unfortunately, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has recently stated that the Biden administration “enthusiastically embraces” it as well. There is nothing wrong with the core of the alliance’s definition, which squarely defines anti-Semitism as “hatred toward Jews.” The problem arises in some of the “contemporary examples” the alliance offers as elaboration.

One example is: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” What comes before the “e.g.” is a different topic from what comes after it. The entire line amounts to saying that anyone who has an apple can’t possibly have an orange too. A country that embodies somebody’s self-determination is no more immune to racism than is any other polity, either democratic or authoritarian.

In the United States over the past year, for example, there has been much criticism of American racism, even of the “systemic” variety, but the critics are not saying that the United States should not exist as an embodiment of self-determination of the American people. The alliance’s “example” encourages the stifling of any mention of racism in Israel’s practices and policies, not just in its “existence.”

Another of the alliance’s elaborative examples is: “Applying double standards by requiring of it [i.e., Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” One problem with this is that except for a few comprehensive scorecards such as those of Freedom House or Amnesty International, criticism of another country’s policies is almost always selective. The mere absence of similar criticism of a second, third, or nth country could be taken as a “double standard” being applied to the first country.

Congressman Roy could be accused in this way of applying a double standard to China if he did not, in the same political career or even in the same speech, voice comparable criticism about other countries.

For Americans, any disproportionate scrutiny of Israeli behavior is both understandable and appropriate given the extraordinary nature of the U.S. relationship with Israel. If American observers criticize human rights violations by Israel more often than, say, human rights violations by Tanzania, that is partly because Tanzania does not receive $3.8 billion annually in U.S. aid and political cover in the form of U.S. vetoes in the United Nations Security Council.

Moreover, Israel has intentionally created a situation in the occupied territories that is sui generis, not subject to evaluation that can be wholly applied elsewhere, and that enables Israel to apply its own form of double standard. No other state has kept its boundaries undefined in the way Israel has. This enables Israel to treat territory as its own for some purposes (such as building settlements and applying Israeli law) and not its own for other purposes (such as disavowing any responsibility for vaccinating Palestinian Arab residents for COVID-19).

Fighting bigotry

Most criticism, from voices in the United States and elsewhere, of Israeli policy has been voiced on behalf of the political and human rights of subjugated Palestinians. To brand the criticism as anti-Semitism means that those arguing in favor of political and human rights for all — regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion — supposedly are bigots. The error in such branding should be obvious.

As Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, and other incidents demonstrate, anti-Semitism is still all too prevalent, including in the United States. Those concerned about the problem should keep two final thoughts in mind. One is that any playing of the anti-Semitism card for other purposes, including the silencing of criticism of a foreign state, cheapens the currency of the fight against anti-Semitism. It reduces the focus and credibility of the fight, and thus also reduces the effectiveness of the fight and support for it.

The other thought is that, notwithstanding how right-thinking people appreciate the distinction that Congressman Roy made, not all people are right-thinking. It is not only careless and exaggerated criticism of China but also what are legitimately viewed as China’s transgressions that probably have helped to fuel bigotry toward Asian-Americans, as has certainly been the case during the COVID-19 pandemic. The more that what are legitimately considered transgressions of Israel are allowed to continue, the more they risk having similar effects on attitudes toward Jews, who are done no favor when such transgressions are condoned.

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