The Israeli government is not Judaism. Israeli government policy is not scripture. No member of the Likud Party is an earthly representative of God, Abraham, or Moses. It follows that no disapproval of the Israeli government, no disagreement with Israeli government policy, and no criticism of any member of Israel’s ruling party, is inherently either identifiable as or suggestive of antisemitism. 

To those individuals, Jewish by heritage or merely Zionists of financial or political convenience, who casually seek to smear all criticism of, or even questions about, the actions of the Israeli government as instances of antisemitism (even when these alleged offenses are committed by Jews, as in ex-conservative broadcaster Mark Levin’s recent attack against CNN’s Jake Tapper as “a self-hating Jew”), I offer the following, quoted from the explanation of the term “antisemitism” at the website of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance:

Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic. [Emphasis added.]

“Criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country” would not include cheering on, making apologies for, or concocting moral equivalency arguments to defend terrorist organizations which commit atrocities against Israel’s civilian population. But it certainly would include questioning the choices, actions, and motives of the Israeli government and its representatives in their methods of responding to such a terrorist attack, both in military approach and in politico-religious rhetoric.

The attempt to condemn all criticism of the Israeli government’s actions and words — or even to question the appropriateness of sending financial or military aid to that country — as instances of antisemitism, is no different in principle from the attempt to smear everyone who prefers liberal political institutions and economic freedom as a “Eurocentrist” or a white supremacist. It is a Big Lie technique designed to shut down all opposition to one’s own side of an argument by declaring that the alternative view could only be rooted in perspectives that are by definition immoral and irrational.

Disagreeing with Judaism itself, by the way, is also not antisemitic, in the sense in which that term is employed by those obsessed with such terms. For this would imply that merely espousing a different religious view which conflicts with that of Judaism, or, for that matter, holding non-religious beliefs which lead one to reject tenets of the Jewish religion, makes one an antisemite. In practice, this loaded term has come to be almost interchangeable with “Jew-hater”; but it would be fundamentally absurd, not to mention morally corrupt, to declare or imply that anyone who rejects the dogma of the Jewish faith is a “hater” of any Jewish individuals, let alone of the Jewish people as such. And yet something like this absurd reduction is implied in so much of the way the word antisemitism is used today — a reduction according to whose logic the only people who would not qualify as antisemites would be practicing and faithful Jews. This would make a significant proportion of the population of Israel antisemitic, since that highly progressive and secularized society is certainly home to at least a couple of million Jews who are not living in any substantial accordance with the tenets of the Jewish religion, much as the world’s traditionally Christian countries are home today to hundreds of millions of citizens who are, shall we say, Christian in baptism only.

The effort — explicit or implicit, intentional or merely confused — to brand all criticism of doctrinal Judaism or of certain self-proclaimed representatives of that faith with the label “antisemitism” is no different, in principle, from the effort to smear all warnings or concerns about certain tendencies of the Islamic faith or its practical leadership as “Islamophobic.” If the most profound principles of life and belief, which religions obviously provide, cannot be questioned or rejected without such questioning or rejection being reduced to the quasi-legal and pseudo-moral category of “hate speech,” then we have allowed a hypocritical (because unilateral) relativism to become the golden rule of all social intercourse, overriding and indeed delegitimizing all attempts to discern truth and falsehood, right and wrong.

All religious faiths are attempts to define and declare fundamental truths about reality in general, and human existence in particular, and to be faithful is to commit oneself fully to one such view. To dispute a certain faith or to espouse an alternative to that faith is to reject, in whole or in part, the view of reality and human existence asserted by that faith. This position — the non-believer’s or alternative believer’s position — is by its nature “anti,” in the sense of rejecting ideas that are essential to some group’s set of fundamental beliefs. But while such an “anti” position necessarily entails disagreeing with certain tenets and/or practices in a way which might cause one to judge (or even prejudge) members of the disputed faith negatively with regard to aspects of life related to the tenets and/or practices in question, this “anti” position does not necessarily entail despising any individual human being who espouses those tenets or engages in those practices, since of course being wrong about many things — as the non-Jew necessarily assumes the Jew to be, or the non-Christian the Christian, or the religious believer the atheist — is not only a universal human predicament, but indeed inseparable from the human condition. This assumption that those with whom we disagree about important questions are wrong, which we all make of one another about myriad matters, all modern declarations of relativism aside, is, as our fashionable relativists and nihilists love to point out, the source of much war and injustice. It is also, however, the source of history’s great conversation, of the evolution of ideas, and of the spiritual frictions and frissons which initiate expansive self-development and the revelation of new horizons, on both the individual and civilizational levels. 

Disagreement with or distaste for ideas, practices, or even whole traditions, is not reducible to the sin of hatred. On the contrary, it is a permanent constituent of the lifeblood of human growth, and often, paradoxically, of eventual discoveries of unexpected kinship or mutual fascination.

An antisemite, to define the term in a semi-reasonable way, is a person who harbors a generalized disapproval and dislike of Jewish people as such. Even here, however, we have a significant definitional problem. For there is a substantial difference between a broad disapproval of a religious or ethnic group based on irrational fears or crackpot theories on the one hand, and disapproval based on certain moral or intellectual judgments pertaining to the actual beliefs or attitudes of said group, on the other. The former case is nothing but an ignorant and visceral revulsion at and flight from “the Other,” whereas the latter entails an actual judgment reached by comparing one’s awareness of the group’s principles or history to a (correct or incorrect) standard of truth and righteousness. In both cases, we are likely to find over-generalizations or simplifications, but these will derive from different psychological sources. Generalization and simplification are not in themselves evil, but are rather, in many cases, natural and necessary stages in the growth of experience and understanding. Much depends on how the generalizations are arrived at, and whether they are self-perpetuating (as in the grosser type of conspiracy-theory-laden bias) or susceptible to refinement based on subsequent experience, as in, say, the case of the Montagues and Capulets.

To take an obvious example relevant to the matter at hand, the early modern European Christian identification of Jews as a race of moneylenders, with all the implications of that judgment, was certainly an over-generalization or simplification, but it also answered to observable and historically verifiable facts, as many stereotypes do. Thus, while it constituted incomplete understanding, it did not essentially indicate an irrational-fear-based denial of the basic humanity of the group involved, but instead revealed a bias against certain morally dubious practices or dogmatically objectionable principles seen as being peculiarly typical of that group, and hence entailed a reticence regarding the group as a whole, more as a matter of intellectual and religious shorthand than as the “genocidal” attitude implied by the modern use (or overuse) of the expression “antisemitism.” For anti-Judaism as a genocidal attitude, rather than as intellectual and religious shorthand, we must turn to Germany, which — as an old Jewish friend and “amateur” historian liked to argue — was never truly a European nation, but rather the perennially hostile nemesis of Europe. Or for a more contemporary contrast, compare the nuanced attitudes — stereotyped but simultaneously humanizing — toward Jews indicated in The Merchant of Venice, for example, to the bloodthirsty lunacy of the views declared and disseminated by Hamas and other radical Islamic organizations today. (Progressive philistines and illiterates, a disproportionate number of whom are, of course, educators, are forever trying to ban The Merchant of Venice as the very prototype of “European antisemitism,” whereas my old M.A. supervisor Sam Ajzenstat, who was also a leading member of his synagogue and one of the few men I have ever met in academe whom I would unqualifiedly classify as “cultured,” delivered a lecture about the dramatic and philosophic virtues of Shakespeare’s moneylender play at Canada’s Stratford Festival.)

As for my view, noted above, that German antisemitism should not be conflated with the more “doctrinal” and less brutal forms found in modern Europe (as evidenced in The Merchant of Venice) in part because Germany is not part of Europe proper, except in the least important sense, geographically, this view finds support in no less an authority on German society than Nietzsche. Though he is often cited (especially by the philistine and illiterate academic types mentioned above) as himself a terrible antisemite — because he criticized Jewish morality and the Jewish intellectuals’ role in fostering a more “democratic” and less will-directed politics — he was in fact quite the opposite, if antisemitism entails a hatred of “the Jewish people” or an inclination to reject Jewish individuals in one’s midst. There is plenty of evidence that he harbored no such hatred or fear. On the contrary, he was particularly prone to despise, and powerfully vocal and personal in despising, the antisemitic fervor so uniquely common to his fatherland. See my essay on this aspect of Nietzsche’s thought, “Nietzsche On Jews and Germans.”

Today, we are seeing a strange but not particularly surprising outburst of some of the extremes of anti-Jewish sentiment — antisemitism in the narrow and morally condemnable sense, i.e., the sense grounded in irrational fear and crackpot conspiracies. Two observations about this ugly trend.

First, the false identification, propagated by those sympathetic to Israel’s cause, of Israel as a political entity with the Jewish people as an ethno-religious collective, has actually helped to foster anti-Jewish sentiment among those who are only too happy to accept the false identification, where it is only Israeli government policy that is truly at issue.

Second, it is apparent that this current wave of antisemitic absurdity, so much of it centred on or issuing from North American university campuses, in no way contradicts my comments about the two distinct senses of “anti-Jewish” sentiment, or especially of the anti-European sensibility of the factions which have historically espoused the more violent and irrational form. Germany was allied with the Arab Muslim world before and during World War II, and the alliance was quite natural, not only due to their mutual hatred of Jews, but also to their shared will to embrace medievalist and quasi-mystical symbolism and rhetoric, aka anti-modern irrationalism of the sort that rejects cosmopolitanism and the primacy of the individual soul. Furthermore, German philosophers and intellectuals have dominated the Western (and Eastern) academic world for over a century. Many of the most influential Germans within Western universities, most famously the Frankfurt School, were themselves Jews, of course; but their Germanness (like that of their most common philosophical godfather, Karl Marx) was nourished through cultural and philosophical roots deeper than their religious heritage, as may be seen in their inveterate collectivism, anti-rationalism, and penchant for social revolution achieved through mass psychological manipulation and anti-liberal indoctrination, i.e., the establishment of societies comprised primarily of compliant collectives incapable of judging humans at any level more complex than “We the victimized pure” and “They the impure corruptors,” much the same characteristic that Nietzsche saw and abhorred in nineteenth century German antisemitism.

Flowing from these seminal influences, there is the current and ever-growing academic underclass of useful idiot professors in the humanities and social sciences, typically hired for reasons of doctrinaire leftist politics rather than on the basis of sober reasoning and social probity in teaching or research. These are the scholar-in-name-only types who have infested the contemporary university throughout North America, and then the world, with the utterly anti-academic spirit of “contemporary relevance,” who live for the power-play moments of activist vanguard muckraking, and who can be counted on to rally their students (an increasing number of whom are Islamists already ill-suited to open-minded intellectual investigation and dialogue, even before being egged on or flattered by their neo-Marxist “educators”) to the predictably anti-West, anti-logos, anti-freedom perspective at any available opportunity, and to do so with the most breathless and self-serving fervor — that is, with the most illiberal and immoderate anger, genuine or performative, controlling whatever is left of their souls.

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